Sandstone Gone Wild, Valley of Fire State Park

Valley of Fire State Park, is a little known gem of amazing sandstone, only 50 miles from Las Vegas and bordering Lake Meade burning under the burning sun of the Mojave Desert. I was turned onto this park five years ago, while traveling back and forth between Zion National Park and Las Vegas. It served a convenient location to catch a quick sunrise or sunset shoot before having to catch a flight, but it wasn’t until last week that I invested a reasonable chunk of time really exploring the landscape and working the light.  To be honest, I was a little worried that I would come away with any dramatic images at all. You see, every time in the past I have visited, I have been plagued with the normal weather in the region: crystal clear blue skies. While I was planning my trip over the summer, I researched weather data looking for a window of unstable patterns in hopes of being on location when the clouds come in. From what I could find, late February and early March would be the time to be there. My bet paid off handsomely and was greeted with clouds on almost all of my outings in the park. This allowed me to catch some amazing light and weather at both sunrise and sunset as well as working mid-day magic compositions for B&W interpretations as well.

Fire Wave is quickly becoming an icon of the American West. I found out about this spot four years ago from several German websites. At the time, directions were limited to a general location ( nowadays there is a sign off the road and a well worn path leading out in the direction of sandstone where the Fire Wave sits). Four years ago I spent the an entire day roaming across the sandstone until I found it. I was immediately struck with its unique beauty! It wasn’t until this trip that the clouds came in and I finally got the light I have been trying to catch for so long. Fact is, this location is widely known as a sunset spot, and in fact I have never seen another photographer down here at sunrise. The shot above was captured at sunrise and as you can see sunset is not the only time of the day that will do this location justice. In the winter, the sun rises far enough in the southern sky to allow clouds to catch light. It’s an extreme back light situation so be prepared to bracket and blend your exposures. ND Grad’s don’t work so well here as the cliffs in the background are composed of almost black volcanic rock that tends to go to extremely dark when the grad is positioned to hold back the exposure on the sky.

Valley of Fire beckons the photographer to find his own view, create his own icons if you will. The beauty of the park is the ability to simply get out and wander around the sandstone. With very few trails or marked locations, the park is perfect for self discovery. The amazing sandstone swirl captured above was shot out on the sandstone while walking around in the predawn light. Once found, I set up and waited for early morning light to illuminate the stone bringing out the texture and color in the rock.

Another area of amazing sandstone lies at the end of the scenic drive in an area known as the White Domes. There is a half mile trail that loops around a prominent sandstone mountain, traveling through a short, but colorful little slot canyon. On the backside of the trail, are some of the best rock walls in the park for capturing abstract images. Really the entire park is amazing for abstractions, but I like this location best. I first shot this wall in June of 2007 on a 100 degree morning. On this trip, however, I was able to spend all afternoon working the bounce light and fine tuning compositions of the wall in comfortable temps of about 65 degrees.

I always make a point to get out in the middle of the day. You won’t find many photographers working the landscape during the mid-day, but they should. If the clouds are right and sun is filtered, you can really find some amazing photo ops. Take this image for instance. It was made at 10am. The warm light of sunrise had long since faded, but the clouds were filtering the light across the sandstone providing the soft quality needed to allow the color & texture in the rock to shine. The same clouds responsible for filtering the light allowed me to shoot ultra-wide, creating a sweeping composition of stone and sky.

An hour later, the same clouds were still hanging around and the landscape was bathed in strong light. This presented the perfect conditions for a little mid-day mono magic. Of course the image was shot as a RAW, and later converted to B&W using NIK’s incredibly powerful Silver Efex Pro 2. When shooting B&W, it is imperative to focus exclusively on shape, form and texture. With no color to drive the impact in the image, you must craft a strong graphic composition.

When the sky is clear, get down into a slot or work early and late afternoon bounce light. This can extend your time in the field by hours. “Pink Slot” is close to the road, but remains a little visited area of the park. I have spent a good deal of time down here over the years and never once run into another photographer or hiker. I’m not saying it isn’t visited or shot, just not very often. It is a short and shallow slot but what it lacks in size it makes up for in color and texture. The best light happens in the morning when the upper left hand walls (out of frame) catch light. The glow can be phenomenal! This image was shot with my workhorse lens, my Nikon 14-24mm, at 14mm. The  ability of the this lens to distort and exaggerate allowed me to create a compelling image of the slot. I made sure to get in as close as possible to the most striking sandstone in the canyon.

At the entrance to the “Pink Slot” is some of the most colorful and striated sandstone in the park. Once again, mornings are best to capture the rich bounce light. For this image, I compressed the perspective by zooming in to 24mm, effectively stacking the sandstone textures.

Even in such a harsh environment, plant and animal life abounds, albeit very scarce. This Yucca was shot looking strait down into its fronds. I focused on the white strands and shot at F5.6, a very shallow aperture, in order to capture an almost abstract impression of the plant.

And last but not least, what would a trip to the desert be without a little night photography. However, being so close to Vegas and directly under the flight path makes this a bit of a problem. I suggest doing your night photography early in the wee morning hours when flight traffic as at a minimum. This image is of Arch Rock which and shot at 4:30am after the moon had set. I used the lights of my rental to illuminate the rock for 2 minutes during the 15 minute exposure. What I liked best about this image was the inclusion of stars and the clouds being softly illuminated by civil twilight to the east.

With some of the best sandstone in the southwest, and all of it easily reachable, this location will soon be on the top ten list of all shooters visiting the region. I’m just glad I was able to get out here and build a portfolio before the location becomes truly iconic, which it will, I guarantee! That’s it for now.  I will post a few more images over the next week or two, so stay tuned!