In the Moment:
Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

Death Valley under the Moon and Stars

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Milky Way over sand dunes, Death Valley. This is a six-image panorama, lit with low-level continuous lighting from two LED light panels on stands, and stitched together with Lightroom’s Panorama Merge. See the main text for more details.

It’s been a busy spring, so I have a backlog of images that I haven’t been able to post yet. Among those images are most of the nighttime photos I made during our two Death Valley workshops (as well as beforehand, while scouting). We encountered a lot of wind, which made things challenging. You just don’t want to be out in the dunes when it’s windy, because you and your gear will get sand-blasted. But the wind helped wipe footprints off the sand, and somehow, during both workshops, we managed to get out into the footprint-free dunes on calm, clear, beautiful nights.

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The Primeval Coast

Sea stacks at dusk, Redwood NP, CA, USA

Sea stacks at dusk, Redwood NP. After the sun had set we saw this little strip of orange light near the horizon through a gap in the clouds. I used a 10-stop neutral-density filter to lengthen the shutter speed to 30 seconds (at f/8, 200 ISO; focal length 111mm) in order to smooth out the water.

We recently returned from our annual trip to the northwest corner of California, land of fog, ferns, giant redwoods, and wild, rugged stretches of coastline. I always love going back to this area with its damp, primeval moodiness. And once again we had a great time during our workshop, enjoying the wonderful food and atmosphere at the Requa Inn, and spending time with a fun group of participants.

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Moon Setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Moon setting over Yosemite Valley and Horsetail Fall, spring of 2017

Every year, around the third week of February, the sun sets at just the right angle for Horsetail Fall. With clear skies and enough water, the backlit waterfall glows with a brilliant orange color, lit by the setting sun.

Some years ago it occurred to me that the setting moon could create the same effect. In the spring of 2010 I had a chance to try this, and it worked beautifully. As I wrote back then, I walked up to one of my favorite Horsetail Fall viewing locations early in the morning, and saw an amazing sight: that beautiful, low-angle backlight on the waterfall, with the cliff behind it in the shade. It looked like sunset in February, only with stars in the sky above it. And the camera captured what my eyes couldn’t see – the orange glow created by the setting moon:

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The Fate of our National Monuments

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Earlier this spring, Claudia and I, along with our friend Robert, spent five days photographing flowers in Carrizo Plain National Monument. We marveled at the vast fields of flowers. As I wrote in an earlier post, we found acres and acres of tidytips, phacelia, hillside daisies, fiddlenecks, and goldfields, growing together in dense mats, uninterrupted by shrubs or even a blade of grass. We had to tiptoe carefully to avoid crushing flowers at every step.

We saw pronghorn antelope and tule elk, both reintroduced to this area. We saw three endangered San Joaquin kit foxes. It truly seemed as if we’d stepped back in time, and were seeing what California looked like 200 years ago.

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High Water in Yosemite

Half Dome and oaks in flooded Leidig Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and oaks in flooded Leidig Meadow. My chest waders came in handy on a couple of occasions. Here I waded into Leidig Meadow to capture these flooded oaks framing Half Dome. (Focal length: 21mm; five bracketed exposures blended with Lightroom’s HDR Merge.)



This past winter brought near-record amounts of snow to the higher elevations of Yosemite, and now all that snow is melting and filling the rivers, creeks, and waterfalls. About a week-and-a-half ago, warm temperatures were predicted to create minor flooding in the Yosemite Valley, so Claudia and I drove up early and found a beautiful, water-filled park. The meadows were partially flooded, and the waterfalls roaring. We hadn’t seen such high water since June of 2011, but this time the deciduous trees still had that fresh, bright-green color, and the dogwoods were still blooming.

We spent a couple of nights in the valley, staying at a friend’s house, and had a great time photographing and just enjoying the park. Here are some images showing the high water, with extended captions.

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Spring in Yosemite

Dogwood along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwood along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

I haven’t posted here in awhile because I just finished back-to-back workshops in Death Valley and Yosemite. But I wanted to give a quick update on conditions in Yosemite Valley. In short, it’s beautiful. At the start of our workshop last week most of the dogwoods were still in that greenish stage, but by the end of the week most of the blossoms had turned white, and were in great shape. It looks like an above-average year for dogwoods, as many trees have plentiful blossoms. They will continue to bloom for a couple more weeks, but they’re most photogenic early, while the blossoms are still fresh, and before the leaves get too large (which tends to hide the flowers).

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The Painted Hills

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Wildflowers in the Temblor Range, with desert candles, blazing stars, tansy phacelia, and hillside daisies, Carrizo Plain National Monument. I used a wide-angle lens (20mm) to be able to look down into the stand of flowers in the foreground and show more of the orange color (the blazing stars), while also including part of the colorful hillside in the background. 1/6 second at f/16, 800 ISO.

Many years ago – perhaps around 2005 – I saw a striking photograph of flowers in the Temblor Range, bordering the Carrizo Plain. I wanted to go there, and in April of 2006 I did, finding a route up the steep ridges of these mountains to a colorful hillside. The flowers weren’t as abundant that year as they were in the photo I saw, but it was still beautiful, and I was able to make a couple of images I liked.

In 2010, after seeing reports of a great flower bloom in the Carrizo Plain, I returned to the area and hiked up into the Temblors again. It was spectacular – the most amazing flower display I had ever seen. I could only spend one afternoon and one morning there, but it was a wonderful 24 hours. The hills were enveloped in thick fog on my one morning there, and spots of sunlight breaking through the fog created some beautiful light. I could see, however, that the flowers wouldn’t last long, and I wasn’t able to go back that spring, but ever since then I’ve wanted to return.

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The Floweriest Piece of the World

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain NM, CA, USA

Endless flowers, Carrizo Plain National Monument. This was a very contrasty scene, so I bracketed five frames, each two stops apart, and blended them with Lightroom’s HDR Merge. Normally I would try to capture a photograph like this when just the edge of the sun first peeked over the horizon, in order to avoid lens flare. I did that here, but then kept shooting, knowing that the sun needed to get above the horizon to light the foreground flowers. In this image, made about two minutes after the sun first appeared, the sun was high enough to create some beautiful backlight on the flowers, but luckily there was still no flare. 22mm, f/16, 100 ISO

“The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains.” — John Muir

“The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth, continuous bed of honey-bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to the other, a distance of more than 400 miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.” — John Muir

The once-vast flower beds of California’s Central Valley that Muir described were paved over and plowed under a long time ago. Yet there is a small corner of California that, in a good year, still resembles Muir’s descriptions: the Carrizo Plain.

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An Elemental Landscape

Sunset from Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sunset from Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

I love the sand dunes in Death Valley. As I wrote in this recent post, they’re like a giant visual playground, with lines, curves, patterns, and textures everywhere.

But there’s more to Death Valley than dunes. It’s a big place (the largest national park in the lower 48 states), and it takes time to explore this vast area, but photogenic landscapes abound.

One of the most striking features of Death Valley is the lack of vegetation. Now don’t get me wrong – Death Valley has a wonderful and diverse array of plants. Some years bring great flower displays, and you can even find limber pines and bristlecone pines at the highest elevations. But there are also vast areas of naked earth. In the badlands, or out on the salt flats, you can see large swaths of ground with scarcely a shrub or blade of grass. This is landscape photography at it’s most elemental, with only bare earth and sky as subjects. You can concentrate on the patterns, textures, forms, and colors of the rocks and minerals themselves, unobscured by vegetation.

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Zodiacal Light

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Zodiacal light over Manly Beacon and a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

On the last night of our Death Valley workshop we went down into Golden Canyon, preparing to capture a star-trail sequence above Manly Beacon. As the skies grew darker we noticed a low cloud in the main valley, behind the Beacon. It looked like fog or mist, but that didn’t make sense, since there hadn’t been any recent rain, and, well, we were in Death Valley, the driest place in North America. So we figured it had to be a dust storm.

It was gusty in Golden Canyon, but not windy enough to create a dust storm. Clearly, however, it was windier in the main valley. And the dust cloud seemed to be moving our way. We debated whether to leave or stick it out. It didn’t seem likely that the dust cloud would reach us, so we decided to wait a bit longer, and then a bit longer again.

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