An Elemental Landscape

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

Sunset and badlands, 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.


Wildflower Season

Goldfields and monkeyflowers, Red Rock Canyon SP, California, USA

Goldfields and monkeyflowers, Red Rock Canyon SP, California, USA

We just spent a week in Death Valley teaching a workshop, and had a great time, despite some windy conditions. On our way home last Thursday Claudia and I stopped at Red Rock Canyon State Park (just north of Mojave), and found some beautiful patches of flowers. I’ve included my favorite image of the afternoon here, with goldfields and two species of monkeyflowers underneath the rock formations the park is famous for.

This composition is built around the two yellow monkeyflowers about a third of the way up from the bottom of the frame. When I spotted these two flowers I knew they would provide a great focal point – something for the viewer’s eyes to latch onto before roaming through the colorful mass of blossoms behind them to the red rocks beyond.


A Photographer’s Playground

Sand dunes at sunrise, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dunes at sunrise, Death Valley. 1/15th sec. at f/11, 100 ISO, 127mm.

When our son Kevin was little he loved sand dunes. For him the dunes were like a giant sandbox – and what kid wouldn’t love that?

I also like to play in the dunes. I don’t usually dig in the sand (though maybe I should), but as a photographer the dunes seem like a giant visual playground. There are lines and curves and patterns and textures everywhere you look. Entering the dunes I feel like a kid walking into a candy store with a crisp twenty-dollar bill that grandma just gave me for my birthday.


The Big Snow

Late-afternoon light on Half Dome from Cook's Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Late-afternoon light on Half Dome from Cook’s Meadow, Yosemite

I haven’t had a chance to post here recently, but I wanted to write about the big snow in Yosemite nine days ago. California was hit by three storms in a row, and the last two brought snow to Yosemite Valley – a lot of snow. The final storm in the sequence moved through slowly on Sunday and Sunday night (January 22nd), but by early Monday morning it showed signs of clearing, so Claudia and I woke early and drove up to the valley. We found about 18 inches of snow in open areas, more than we’d seen in years.


Intimate Landscapes with Wide-Angle Lenses

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn forest with dogwoods and ferns, Yosemite, October 13th. I stood on a log to see over the foreground dogwoods and into the forest; the focal length was 35mm.

I’ve made many images of intimate landscapes over the years, and the vast majority of them were taken with a telephoto lens (usually my 70-200mm zoom). It makes sense to use a lens with a narrower angle of view when focusing on a small piece of the landscape and trying to eliminate clutter in complex forest scenes. Telephoto lenses are also great for compressing space and emphasizing patterns – typically key components of intimate landscapes.

But lately I’ve found myself using wide-angle lenses more and more for smaller scenes. Part of the impetus for this was just buying a new lens. This past July I purchased a new wide-angle zoom (the Sony Vario-Tessar FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS), and it’s natural to want to use and test a new piece of equipment, so I started pulling this lens out in many situations just to see what it could do. But another part of the impetus was just the desire to do something different. I’ve had plenty of practice composing intimate landscapes with telephoto lenses, and I wanted to force myself to look at these scenes in a new way.


In the Alabama Hills

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills, CA, USA

Sunrise on Mt. Whitney from the Alabama Hills, CA, USA

On our trip to the eastern Sierra last week Claudia and I made a detour down to the Alabama Hills. This area is a bit further from home than our usual eastside haunts, so we don’t go there often, and I sometimes forget how amazing it is. The jumbled rocks of the Alabama Hills are interesting and photogenic in their own right, but combined with the abrupt escarpment of the mountains to the west… well it’s just spectacular.