Death Valley National Park

Ripples in the Mesquite Sand Dunes

Last month I visited the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. I wrote about my Moon photography on the dunes, but I’d also like to share some of the photographs I made around sunrise and sunset.

Mesquite Dunes Before Dawn, Death Valley National Park

When photographing sand dunes, I like to emphasize the texture of the sand and the ripples of sand across the dunes created by the wind. The best time to do that is close to sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky. At those times the sunlight skims over the top of the sand and creates shadows in the ripples, which adds contrast and brings out the shape of the ripples. In the middle of the day, the ripples of sand are blasted with light from above, so you lose the contrast and texture.

Sunset on the Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The other thing I love about the sand at these times is the pattern of curving lines it creates. Here’s another photograph I made around sunset that really shows those lines.

Ripples on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The challenge of photographing the sand dunes in Death Valley, in particular the very popular and easily accessible Mesquite Dunes, is that they are covered with footprints! You have to hike out for a while to get to cleaner dunes, and even there you will find at least one or two foot paths. It is still possible to find clean areas for a composition, however. When I was at the dunes last month, what was really needed was a good wind storm to clear away the footprints and refresh the dunes. On one of my trips a few years ago, I was there during just such a windstorm, and it presented its own challenges! But the ongoing winds allowed me to make a photograph like the one below, where I captured a larger panorama of the area without having to worry about footprints all over the place.

I love visiting the sand dunes of Death Valley. In both calm and windy conditions, they offer lots of great opportunities to create beautiful photographs.

Tranquility on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

A Late Moon

I have wanted to make photographs by moonlight for a while, and one of the places I wanted to do this photography was on the sand dunes in Death Valley. I made my first attempt last week, and I’d like to share some of my results and the story of the Moon’s late arrival.

Moon rising over the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

Moonlight is just reflected sunlight, and one of the problems with these kinds of photographs is that depending on the exposure you use, the photographs tend to come out looking like they were taken during the day. But with a different choice of exposure there can be something special about photographing by moonlight. Moonlit photographs can take on a very surreal effect, or they can have a very strong mood to them.

During my moonlight photography trip to Death Valley I decided to adjust my color balance so that my photographs would all have a blue color cast to them. This was not a complete departure from reality. In the darkness of moonlight, an overall blue feeling was perfectly reasonable and realistic in most cases, and it established the correct mood of the photographs. I also chose not to expose long enough to see a lot of detail in the shadows. Had I made a longer exposure, the photographs would have looked much more like daylight images.

Technical details aside, none of the photographs I’m sharing here would have been possible without the Moon, and even though I knew when the Moon was supposed to rise, it was apparently running on its own schedule and decided to be late that night!

I hiked out on the Mesquite Sand Dunes in the late afternoon and made some photographs around sunset. Then I found where I wanted to be for the moonrise and settled in for the wait. I had looked up the moonrise time, which was 8:09 PM, so I had a few hours to wait.

Since it’s January, the sun had set early, and by 6:30 or 7:00 there was no sign of any light coming from the west. At this point, I was committed to staying until the Moon rose unless I wanted to hike back to the car in complete darkness with only a flashlight to guide me--not an appealing option. The whole reason I had come was to make the Moon photographs, so I wasn’t going anywhere, but as the time continued to pass and the temperature started to fall, I was thinking it would be nice just to leave and go home. After a short mental debate I would come back to my senses and continue to wait patiently.

At around 8:00, however, I started to worry because there was no sign of the Moon, which was supposed to be rising in nine minutes. I wasn’t truly worried because I knew the Moon was coming, but my mind started to play tricks on me. Is it really coming? Did I get the time wrong? Of course not. The moonrise time was based on a location of Furnace Creek, about 10-15 miles south of my position on the dunes. The time for me would have been essentially the same. By 8:00 there was not even a hint of twilight coming from the horizon, however. I’m not sure what I expected, but I thought there would at least be a small amount of light coming over the mountains by this time. So there I was, only nine minutes from the scheduled moonrise, out in complete darkness in the middle of the sand dunes with no sign of the Moon’s supposed arrival. Nothing.

Well, 8:09 came and went, and still nothing. What is going on here, I thought? Where is the Moon? All I could do was continue to wait. Finally, at around 8:20 or so, I started to see some light coming from the northeast horizon where I expected the Moon to rise. This photograph is from 8:27:

The Moon is just about to rise, Death Valley National Park

And at 8:30:

The Moon just beginning to rise, Death Valley National Park

The photograph at the start of the blog is from 8:33. Either the time was wrong on the calendar I was using, or the difference was caused by the difference in the apparent height of the horizon due to my location versus what it would be at Furnace Creek. In any case, the Moon had finally arrived, and now I was in business. It was really great. I had the Moon in my viewfinder zoomed in, and I watched it creep above the mountains until the whole Moon was visible. In all of my photographs, I allowed the Moon to overexpose to a white circle, but I also made this photograph correctly exposed for the Moon itself:

The Moon, Death Valley National Park

The Moon was not quite full that night, and you can see the well-defined craters on the top part of the image where the Moon starts to fall into shadow.

I moved around and made a few more photographs, like this one:

The Moon over the Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

When the Moon got too high in the sky to be in my frame, I started to head back to my car--another adventure. At least I had the light of the Moon to guide me. I knew the general direction I needed to go. If I went in that direction I would run into the road, even if I was not right at my car. Navigating the sand dunes by moonlight for 30 minutes, however, meant I’d have to be very lucky to end up right at my car. Well, that’s exactly what happened. I thought I was close to the road, but I wasn’t sure. Then a car drove by, so I knew I was very close. I saw a strange shape ahead, and it looked to me like the underpass of a bridge. I have no idea why it looked like that, but in that light that’s what I saw. I didn’t remember a bridge being anywhere near where I was. My mind started playing tricks on me again. Could I be that far off course? When I got a few steps closer, however, I recognized the shape of my car! Somehow I ended up exactly where I needed to be.

The Moon may have been late that night, but it was great fun making these photographs, and I look forward to doing more of this kind of photography in other locations.

The Moon peaks through a desert plant in the sand dunes of Death Valley National Park.

Wind Power

The desert Southwest is a windy place. In many areas around southern California and Nevada, large wind farms harness the energy of the wind. Their presence is a reminder of the constant and fierce power of the wind here. The strong winds in this part of the country also play an important role in shaping the landscape.

Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

One example of how winds shape the landscape is sand dunes. There are many sand dunes in the Southwest, and the wind is responsible for forming, shaping, and moving these dunes. One example is in Mojave National Preserve. I’ve written about the Kelso dunes in Mojave Preserve before. These dunes are tall heaps of sand gathered and shaped by the wind.

Another great place to see sand dunes is in Death Valley National Park. Death Valley has several sand dune systems, including the Mesquite sand dunes. It was a very windy evening when I hiked out among the Mesquite dunes. I had to keep moving to prevent the sand from gathering around my feet and causing me to sink more deeply into it. It also took a while for my tripod to gain stability in the shifting sands. At the peak of the dunes, I got sand-blasted as the sand whipped up over the crest.

Tranquility on Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley National Park

The landscape changes constantly as the sand dunes reshape themselves and move within the system. These changes are subtle when viewed from a distance. But when you get up close, it is clear just how much material is being moved around by the wind. Footprints in the sand alter the way the sand flows, but it does not take long for those footprints to vanish, swallowed up by the wind-powered re-shifting of the sand.

Here in Las Vegas, windstorms are one of the few weather hazards we get. This past weekend at the Boulder City Spring Art Festival, I experienced the power of the wind first-hand. My tent, along with the tents of three or four other artists, was blown over by strong wind gusts. It could have been a lot worse for me. Fortunately nobody got hurt, and the only property that was damaged was my own. I’m taking it as a learning experience, and I am making changes in my booth setup to prevent this problem from happening to me in the future. But at least I got a photograph out of it. This photograph shows the remains of my tent. Someone suggested I put a price tag on it and sell it as modern art!

That's not the kind of art I like to make, however. I much prefer making landscape photography, and I thank the wind for helping to sculpt many beautiful sand dunes for me to photograph.

Desert Heat, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley Super Bloom

During late winter and early spring each year, the wildflowers bloom in Death Valley National Park. This has been a special year, however. For the past couple months, Death Valley has experienced a “super bloom,” where the number and density of the flowers, and the size of the individual plants, are all much greater than normal. A super bloom is a rare event--the last one occurred in 2005. This year’s super bloom happened thanks to several heavy rain events late last year.

Wildflowers at Sunset, Death Valley National Park

The flowers started earlier than expected. At first they were confined to the southern parts of the park down Badwater Road. They slowly worked their way north and up to higher elevations. As the flowers appeared and thickened in one area, they diminished and died out in the areas they had been before--it was like a wave of wildflowers passing through the park. The flowers are mostly gone in the valley, but they remain in the middle and higher elevations.

Early Morning Wildflowers, Death Valley National Park

I went to Death Valley several times to take advantage of the super bloom and make photographs of the wildflowers as they passed through the area. Based on what I found each week, it was fun to estimate where I should plan to photograph the following week. A great resource that helps me ultimately decide where to go each week is the National Park Service’s wildflower update. They have lots of great information there about the varieties of flower and where best to see them.

Wildflower Portrait, Death Valley National Park

I made a few different kinds of photographs of the flowers and their environment. I focused mostly on the Desert Gold flowers. They seem to be the most numerous in the lower elevations, and their bright yellow color makes them stand out the most. At certain times and places throughout this season the Desert Gold flowers appeared to blanket large areas of the terrain of Death Valley. This visible burst of life in Death Valley presents a beautiful contrast to the sometimes inhospitable environment there. The intense heat and dryness that characterize Death Valley are not present all year round, and in their absence, life flourishes visibly and beautifully.

Super Bloom, Death Valley National Park

The Ethics of Digital Development

Did this photograph go through Photoshop? Absolutely, it did. I’m an artist, and developing my photographs in Photoshop is an important part of my artistic and creative process in the digital medium. But what are the ethical implications of modifying a photograph? The answer is that it depends on the context.

Sunset at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park

In this earlier blog article, I presented two photographs I took of a kitchen to demonstrate the value of professional real estate photography. Here are the two photographs.

Snapshot of a kitchen

Professional photograph of a kitchen

In the photograph on the right, notice that among other changes, I removed the air vent in the ceiling. I also removed the magnets on the refrigerator. If it's hard to see, click the images for a larger view. I made these changes during the development, or post-processing phase of production. Let’s discuss these kinds of changes in different contexts.

We’ll start with my area of photography, fine art landscapes. For fine art photography, I believe it is acceptable to exercise artistic license when creating a photograph. It is, after all, an artistic process we are talking about. Art does not necessarily need to represent reality exactly, even in the case of photography. Art is about communicating a message, and removing distracting elements from a photograph focuses attention on the message. In artistic photography, anything that does not add to the message or add to the aesthetic value of the photograph detracts from it. From an artistic perspective, an element that detracts from the beauty or value of a photograph should be removed.

During development and finishing, I make many changes to my photographs for artistic reasons. Sometimes the lighting is not quite right, or the photograph needs to be cropped to make it more effective. Sometimes the color is off. I make these kinds of changes freely, and I never feel bad about making them because I know what I’m doing is creating art. I’m not preparing a photograph to serve as evidence in a courtroom. Of course it’s best to get as much correct in camera as possible, but often it’s not possible to create a perfect photograph in camera because of both the technological and physical limitations of the camera. In those cases, I do whatever is necessary to shape the photograph into an image that expresses my artistic vision.

Fine art photography represents one extreme on the spectrum of acceptability for image development. At the other extreme is photojournalism. In photojournalism it is completely unethical and unacceptable to change a photograph in any material way. What constitutes a material change? Removing or adding elements is a big one. Even making significant lighting changes could be unethical. Cropping could be unethical because it can remove relevant items from the image, thereby changing or completely eliminating the context of the events depicted in the scene. Very little retouching or development is acceptable for photojournalism. A photojournalist might make some minor color and exposure adjustments, but that’s about it.

So fine art photography and photojournalism are on separate ends of the spectrum of acceptability for development. Now let’s shift over to real estate photography, which presents its own set of issues. If I make a photograph of a room and decide that the air vent in the ceiling is a distraction and should be removed, I would not make that change. If a photograph is being made to showcase a home or office in a real estate listing, it would be unethical to remove the air vent because doing so results in an image that misrepresents the product being sold. The ethics of photojournalism apply to real estate photography in this case because it is important to represent reality accurately and completely.

If the real estate photograph is being used purely for marketing purposes, however, then the situation is different again. Let’s say a company wants a photograph of its office for a brochure. They want a photograph that flatters their space. If an air vent or other element detracts from the aesthetics of the image, I would remove it. In these cases, I want the photograph to be a little nicer than reality. It’s more of an artistic representation of their space, so the ethics associated with artistic photography apply.

It still is best to try to get everything right in camera. Is there a way to exclude the air vent or other offending item from the frame by moving around, zooming in, or shifting perspective? Sometimes it’s not possible, and in those cases the post-processing edit may be needed.

On the other hand, when I removed the magnets from the refrigerator in the photograph above, I did so purely for aesthetic reasons. The difference is that I would make that change even if the photograph were made for a real estate listing of the house for sale. The magnets on the refrigerator contribute nothing to the scene. They are simply clutter that distracts the viewer’s attention. For this reason I should remove them. It is ethical to remove them during post-processing because they are not physically a part of the room. I’m simply removing personal items that would not be transferred in the sale in any case.

Now, here again it would have been better to get it right in camera--physically remove the magnets before taking the photograph. But that’s not the point here. The point I’m making is that there is no ethical dilemma in removing those magnets or making other similar changes in post-processing in cases where it was simply not possible to do it on location, or where the photographer may have overlooked something.

That’s a brief overview of some of the ethics of development during post-processing. As a creator of fine art photographs, I enjoy the freedom I have to make the changes I see fit to express my artistic vision.

Visitors on the Racetrack

During my visit to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley earlier this year, I encountered very few people. There were more people than I expected, but the number was still low. The Racetrack is located in the remote backcountry of Death Valley and requires high clearance and 4x4 vehicles to travel to it, so it’s not a very crowded place any time.

A Journey at Nightfall

The Racetrack is a large area, and when there are three or four groups of people and the group size is only one or two people, it’s pretty easy not to encounter anyone. The area is completely silent too, and even when you can see other people, you can’t really hear them. I couldn’t even hear the cars driving to and from the Racetrack along the playa, a little less than a mile away.

Large insect on the Racetrack in Death Valley

During my visit, I was not without visitors, however. I arrived at the Racetrack in the afternoon. I found a rock to photograph, and I was working with it when all of a sudden a large insect landed near me. I have never seen this kind of insect before, and I don’t know what it is. It looks like some kind of beetle. When I touched it, it kind of hunkered down and stayed that way long enough for me to take its picture. After a couple minutes another one of these insects arrived. They seemed to follow me around, and they kept going near my bag too. I don’t know if they were looking for shade, food, or what, but I couldn’t get away from them for a while! Finally I just walked over to another rock that was a short distance away, and I didn’t see these two again. I didn’t see any others of these insects either.

Lizard on the Racetrack in Death Valley

My other main visitor was a little lizard. I had been at a rock for probably an hour or so. Suddenly, this lizard came darting out from behind the rock. It had probably been there the entire time taking refuge in the shade, and I didn’t even know it. The lizard was much more skittish than the insects, so it was hard to get close enough to get its picture with the wide angle lens I had on my camera. Eventually it went scurrying off to the shade of another rock, and that’s the last I saw of it.

I didn’t expect to encounter very many annoying flying insects like gnats or mosquitoes at the Racetrack, but in the late afternoon and early evening I was visited by a small swarm of small flying insects. I don’t know what to call them, but they were kind of like a cross between a large gnat and a small moth. They landed all over my bag, and they were flying around and landing on me, too. They were only there for an hour or maybe even less, and then they were gone. They did not return even in the morning around sunrise, so they must only be active in the early evenings, I guess. Or maybe they just moved on to someone else.

Fortunately, these were the only creatures that visited me. There were no snakes or large animals. I’m sure they were out there, but they probably don’t venture out on the playa too much. The Racetrack Playa is a very wide open area where you can be completely alone. It was nice to have a few visitors to keep me company!

Photographing the Milky Way

One of the treats of visiting a dark location far from major cities is seeing the night sky. Looking up and seeing all those stars and the galactic arms and center of the Milky Way is an awe-inspiring experience. There aren’t too many places left in the world that afford a spectacular night sky view because of the continual expansion of light pollution from cities and towns. One of the better remaining places, however, is Death Valley National Park.

Lighting Up the Racetrack in Death Valley

One of my goals during my visit to the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley was to do some astrophotography and create a photograph that includes the Milky Way with the moving rocks. I specifically chose to go when there would be a new moon so that the skies would be their darkest. I also planned my trip for late spring, when the Milky Way starts to become visible at night. It’s visible throughout the summer as well, but summer is not a good time to visit Death Valley!

I was not disappointed. It was incredible! When I woke up at 2 AM and took a look outside, in my half-sleeping daze I had to convince myself that I was seeing the Milky Way and not just some low clouds obscuring the rest of the stars. When my night vision was ruined by turning on lights as I got things together and I could still see this “cloud,” I was convinced that’s all it was. I took a test shot, and there it was. That was no cloud! That was the Milky Way spreading across the entire sky. I immediately picked up my gear and headed out to the playa.

Running from the Light

I had two main challenges in creating these photographs. The first was finding the right moving rock. The stars provide a decent amount of light. You can easily walk around without fear of tripping over anything, but your vision is impaired. You can’t really see any details 10 or 15 feet out. I had a flashlight, but I didn’t want to use it, and I’m not really sure it would have helped too much. I didn’t want to use it so that I could preserve my night vision as much as possible. There were also a couple other people out on the playa stargazing and photographing, and I’m certain they would not have appreciated an intense light being shined all over the place.

So I walked. I headed in the general direction I had been at sunset the previous evening. Sometimes I would cross a rock path. I would turn and follow that trail. A couple times there was no rock or the trail kind of died away. Frequently the rock at the end was no good because of footprints around it. One time I just didn’t like the trail of the rock. And a couple times it went on and on, and I felt like I was moving too far from the area where most of the moving rocks are located. In those cases I turned around and headed back to that main area.

I wandered around still somewhat half-asleep in a zombie-like search for something. It did occur to me how strange it felt to be doing this, but I knew the rocks were there and I would be able to create a spectacular photograph if I could just find one. One time I just stopped and looked around. I knew that there were rocks around me, probably not that far away, but I couldn’t see them! Everything is a dark gray in starlight. I was trying to find a very dark gray object in that dark gray background. It wasn’t easy.

After about 45 minutes I came across one more rock. I set up a test shot to see what it looked like, and I knew I found my rock. It was perfect. I liked the rock so much that I used it at sunrise as well to create a couple additional photographs of it.

So now I had my rock. The other challenge was setting focus for the stars. You pretty much just set the lens to focus at infinity, but you can’t just do that because the infinity setting on a lens is not always accurate. Here’s a hint for anyone interested in trying this kind of photography. I set my ISO to the maximum of 25600 and took a quick test shot. I then adjusted the focus and repeated until the focus was correct. Setting the ISO very high allowed me to take a shorter exposure so I could quickly iterate through the process until the focus was right. Once I had it, I took note of where that focus is dialed in on the lens so I could more quickly reproduce it. Then I switched back to ISO 100 to minimize noise and began making my longer exposures.

All my efforts paid off. I was absolutely thrilled with these photographs I created that night, and they are among my favorites of the photographs I made at the Racetrack.

The Star Traveler

Do You Know the Way to the Racetrack?

Moving Rock on the Racetrack at Death Valley

Moving Rock on the Racetrack at Death Valley

With directions like these, you know it’s got to be a neat place: Starting from Furnace Creek in Death Valley, head toward Stovepipe Wells. Turn right to take the road to Scotty’s Castle. Turn left toward Ubehebe Crater. 

To Scotty's Castle

To Scotty's Castle

To Ubehebe Crater

To Ubehebe Crater

To The Racetrack

To The Racetrack

At Ubehebe Crater, turn right to take the road to the Racetrack. Continue for 21 miles until you reach Teakettle Junction. At Teakettle Junction, stop, take a break from the washboard road, check your phone for messages, and make any last minute calls. If you happen to be traveling with a teakettle, hang it on the sign. Then continue for another six miles to the Racetrack Playa. When you arrive, stop at the Grandstand, then continue to the south end of the playa where you will find the moving rocks.

The Grandstand at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

The Grandstand at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

I love the names of the places in Death Valley. On this drive to the Racetrack, you get to encounter several of these places. At 190 feet below sea level and with summer temperatures that routinely exceed 120 degrees, Furnace Creek is aptly named. I’ve written about Scotty’s Castle and Ubehebe Crater before too. Ubehebe Crater is the perfect name for that intriguing feature of the landscape.

Teakettle Junction is an interesting place. Look at all those teakettles people have hung there! People usually write something on their teakettle and include the date. All the dates I saw were from 2015, and the park service obviously gathers them periodically and clears them away. That does cause me to wonder what they do with all those teakettles!

Teakettle Junction

Teakettle Junction

Teakettle Junction is also interesting because it is one of the few places in Death Valley where there is cell coverage. I don’t know if it’s the elevation or the direction of the nearest tower or what, but out there at Teakettle Junction, literally miles from anything (and there usually isn’t cell coverage there either), you can make calls and check messages!

The drive out to the Racetrack is really a lot of fun. You get to go to this amazing place in the backcountry of Death Valley. You have to drive on a primitive road where high clearance and 4x4 vehicles are recommended. The 27 miles on the primitive road is a little grueling. It is completely a washboard. Some areas are not that bad, but by the time you get to Teakettle  Junction, you really do need a break from it. And then you still have six miles to go!

The drive is well worth it, however. The Racetrack is one of the most amazing places I have seen, and I would love to make that trip again some time.

Death Valley Scotty

I want to offer all my beloved readers and followers the chance of a lifetime. There’s a certain bridge in Brooklyn, which I can sell to you at a great price! If you’re interested, please contact me for the details. No, not interested? Well, today’s your lucky day, because I also happen to have some swampland in Florida which is a great buy. Any takers? No? Hmm. Well how about investing in a gold mine in California? Would you be interested in that?

Death Valley Ranch, also known as Scotty's Castle at Death Valley National Park
Death Valley Ranch, also known as Scotty's Castle at Death Valley National Park

Well, I don’t blame you! But around 100 years ago, Walter Scott, also known as Death Valley Scotty, convinced quite a few investors from the East that he was running a successful gold mining operation, and he conned them into investing thousands of dollars in his non-existent mine. When one of his investors, Albert Johnson, decided that he wanted to see the mine for himself, Scotty was in a bit of a bind.

The Courtyard at Scotty's Castle
The Courtyard at Scotty's Castle

The park rangers at Scotty’s Castle in Death Valley National Park tell the rest of the entertaining story. They describe what happened when Johnson’s party arrived in California. It was quite an adventure that Scotty had planned for them, and it all ended up backfiring for him. In the end, Johnson realized that the whole gold mining operation was a scam and that he had been conned by Walter Scott. Johnson had a great time on his western adventure, however, and he and Scotty became close friends. Johnson built Death Valley Ranch as a vacation home in the 20’s and 30’s, and Scotty lived there full time. Scotty entertained guests with his outrageous stories, and the ranch became known as Scotty’s Castle.

Spiral Staircase at Scotty's Castle
Spiral Staircase at Scotty's Castle

I took the tour of the castle on a recent trip to Death Valley. One of the highlights of the tour for me was hearing the pipe organ that is installed in the large music room. Our ranger guide played two pieces of music on the organ (it was a player system--he didn’t actually play it himself). The sound is spectacular. You can feel the bass notes reverberate through your body, and the entire organ has a clear, clean sound. It’s really magnificent.

I enjoyed my trip to Scotty’s Castle, and I would recommend taking the tour if you visit Death Valley.

Ubehebe Crater: A Challenging Photograph

The photograph you see here is the result of my effort to make a compelling photograph of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park. In addition to having a really cool name, the subject is very interesting, which inspired me to want to photograph it. But the actual process of making the image was not easy.

Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park
Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park

Ubehebe Crater is located in Death Valley National Park and formed several hundred years ago when hot magma rose to the surface and encountered a layer of water. The water quickly vaporized, and tremendous pressure built up. The result of all that steam pressure was an explosion that left behind the crater you see here. We don’t know exactly when the explosion occurred, but it’s estimated to have been around 300 years ago.

The crater is quite large; it’s around a half mile wide. I came to the crater in the afternoon and viewed it from the parking lot, which is on the north side of the crater. It’s really an amazing sight to see, and it almost feels like you’re in an alien environment. That’s actually a feeling I got in several other places in Death Valley as well. It’s an incredible place.

I walked along the rim of the crater for a while, and as I was exploring I quickly realized that photographing a crater of this size is not an easy thing to do. The problem is the light. Photography is all about light, and you need good light to create the best images. The problem is that by the time the golden hour arrives and the light is best, the interior of the crater is completely in shadow. The eastern side of the crater exposes the yellow and orange layers of rock that you can see in the photograph. I would love to capture the late afternoon and sunset light falling across those colorful rock layers, but unfortunately that is just not possible.

I traveled around to the west side of the crater and set up to capture some images. The sun was behind me and illuminating the crater and the mountains behind it in the distance. At this point in the afternoon, the east side of the crater with the orange and yellow rocks was lit up by the sunlight, and the remainder of the crater was in shadow. I created an image at this time and worked on it for quite a while at home during my post processing. In the end I discarded that version because I didn’t like the way there was such a harsh shadow line cutting across the middle of the image.

Instead, I waited until the crater was completely in shadow. The mountains in the distance were still completely illuminated. It was now 45 minutes later and about 30 minutes before the official sunset time. The light was much better, and I really like the way the distant mountains look in this final image. The shadow line is much more subtle because it kind of follows the edge of the crater so that you don’t really notice it. And there was still enough light that I was able to bring out the color in the rocks of the interior of the crater.

This photograph was a challenge to produce, both on site and in post-processing. But the result is worth it to me. I think this image captures the beauty of the crater and conveys the feeling of amazement I experienced when I saw it. I hope you enjoy it too!