Without Expectations, Desert Wanderings (Part 1)

Expectations are a dangerous thing. They can lead us to great disappointment often and utter satisfaction only rarely. I often hear  and read other photographers whine and wallow over the lack of great light or weather at that location they have been chasing an image or idea for years. I often wonder how many images have passed them by as they sit in wait for that one shot, that idea that never fully realizes itself. I have learned (and it is partly due to my personality in general) to rarely ever pre-visualize an image in my mind before I  set out on a trip. I prefer to visit a location(s) that inspire me and simply let mother nature dictate the images, always keeping an open mind and eye to the infinite possibilities of composition and light.


Desert Mirror, Death Valley National Park, CA

Upon arrival in Death Valley I was greeted with near perfect conditions. The evening before it had rained in the desert filling the playas with standing water. Add to that great clouds and light and you have a recipe for amazing landscape images. I choose an area that I read about in Ron & Sarah’s eBook, Desert Paradise, named Cottonball Basin just a short drive from Furnace Creek. I didn’t know exactly what to expect that evening and so I hiked off across the playa looking for whatever captured my imagination. About a mile into my walk the terrain of the playa changed dramatically giving way to salt tiles filled with water. The design of the landscape, reflections and dramatic clouds allowed me to compose ultra-wide angle compositions. I later converted the image to B&W to emphasize the graphic nature of the scene.


Geometry, Death Valley National Park, CA

Always keeping an eye for shape and design, a great composition will always beat out great light for this guy! Walking out along Salt Creek, a reliable location for reflections, I was more drawn to the geometric patterns of mud and salt then the reflecting pools of water near the playa’s edge. I could hear a group of photographers far off to the edge of the playa ( sound travels far when there is nothing to block it) regretting the fact that the sky never burned ablaze with sunset color. I could barely contain my excitement at the scene that lay before my camera. The shapes of the landscape and the ominous sky in my opinion complimented each other perfectly, and had I stayed on the edge of the playa and not explored further this shot would never had been made.

The Infinite, Death Valley National Park, CA

The Race Track, quite possibly the most iconic location and sought after in Death Valley National Park. It was difficult not to go into shooting this location without preconcieved ideas. I spent the night hoping for a clearing storm the next morning at sunrise, but awoke to thick storm clouds and high winds. It was tempting to close up the tent and snuggle back into the warmth of my sleeping bag, but I got out to work none the less. As I walked across the playa towards the sailstones on the far side of the dry lake, It struck me that the clouds were all moving towards the south. If I could find a stone and line leading in that direction I could run a very long exposure creating motion in the clouds moving away for the implied direction of the stone. I wandered around in the gloomy twilight for a while until settling on this composition. The exposure was in excess of 300 seconds and when I saw the results on the LCD I was immediately in love with the shot.

Ibex Sunset, Death Valley National Park, CA

If you visit Death Valley you’ll want to photograph the many dune fields in the park no doubt! After an earlier attempt looking for track free dunes at Mesquite Sand Dunes, I decided to head to the Ibex Dunes, a remote section of dunes in the southern reaches of the park. After a little confusion figuring out where to park and where to start walking out to the dunes, I made my way towards them and ended up only having 45 minutes before sun down to find a composition that would work. I knew the light had major potential this evening and rushed up the dunes and as far out just in time to familiarize myself with a few compositions before the show started. What I didn’t realize was how truly epic the sky’s would become that evening, and the light lasted in the sky for a very long time giving me plenty of chances to compose many images with dramatic light. This one turned out to be my favorite for a few reasons including the soft and subtle light striking the sand, the shape and placement of the clouds and the overlapping nature of the dune crests running off into the distance.

Of Rock & Sky, Valley of Fire State Park, NV

On to Valley of Fire nearly a month after visiting Death Valley. Valley of Fire has become one of my favorite desert locations to shoot over the years, and due to it’s close proximity to Las Vegas I am surprised that it doesn’t receive as much visitation as it does ( thank the gods for that). My approach to shooting Valley of Fire 9 out of 10 times is to simply park somewhere along the road and just start walking out across the rock looking for compositions and studying the light. Out in the vicinity of the Fire Wave, I made a steep climb up the sandstone just to see if I could find a unique viewpoint in the area. While I could see at least a dozen people, some photographers & some tourists, crowding around the the Fire Wave, I found an amazing area of sculpted stone looking towards what I affectionately refer to as Shiprock in the distance. The value of light, the composition and the dramatic clouds made for a perfect end to a perfect day in this park. And while others were down below crowded around the icon, I was all by my lonesome just a 1/2 a mile above.

Fire Lines, Valley of Fire State Park, NV

While running my workshop in Valley of Fire, a visit to Fire Wave at least once is an absolute must! And I don’t mind. In fact, I love this location despite it’s now iconic status. I can remember visiting the Fire Wave 5 years ago long before it was on the map and minds of so many. Nowadays there is an official trail and sign leading to it and thus visitation has sadly increased big time! I guess to many were getting lost out on the stone trying to find this spot and the park decided to put up the official trail. No worries! What gets me about Fire Wave is that so many visit the location with the idea of recreating the same shot that so many have captured before that they overlook the the beauty of compositional possibilities that this small area has to offer. On this evening instead of shooting from the tradition viewpoint, I moved into the wave and shoot to the north. The sky was just amazing and the lines sweep and lead the eye towards all the beauty the sunset had to offer.

A Sea of Stone, Valley of Fire State Park, NV

This image is from just above Fire Wave and it always amuses me how many people stand right here and never think to look over their back away from the icon to see this most amazing view. In fact on this evening while everyone was shooting back towards Fire Wave, which by the way had little interest and drama in the sky, I asked if I could please squeeze into shoot. While setting up my shot, a fellow photographer remarked that I was shooting in the wrong direction. I laughed a little and said yeah well that’s just the way my brain ticks. I think he thought I was either being a smart ass or just a little crazy (I’m sure he’s right about both of those statements), but I was blow away by the compositional flow and light that I never once had any second thoughts about shooting in any other direction that the one I was.

So that’s it for now. I’ll be back next week with a few more images from Valley of Fire as well as Bryce Canyon, White Pocket and the Grand Staircase. Best of light in the meantime and thanks for having a look.