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!

Stumbling Upon a Great View in San Diego, CA

It’s been a while since my last blog article because I’ve been very busy setting up my fine art photography business in Las Vegas. I’m really looking forward to getting my business going. In the meantime, here’s the story of how I ended up making this photograph of San Diego.

San Diego Dawn
San Diego Dawn

I recently visited San Diego, which I think is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It has a lot to offer photographically, from the ocean and beaches, to the city itself, the surrounding mountains, and much more.

During this visit to San Diego, I had planned out several locations for sunset, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go for sunrise the next morning. I was down on the beach that morning and wanted to find a different type of location for the next sunrise. I was driving back to my hotel, when somehow I got onto Route 52 going in the wrong direction. I was headed into La Jolla instead of out towards I-805. I went down into La Jolla and was going to make a U-turn to head back out, but I could not make a U-turn at the light where I was. So I made the left turn intending to turn around as soon as I could.

The road I was on was climbing up a mountain. I decided I might as well go up and see what’s up there. You never know when a high vantage point might offer a great view. I kept going up the mountain, farther and farther up, and finally I saw a sign that said that Mount Soledad Park was ahead. I thought to myself, that sounds promising! So I kept going, and finally turned into the park. I parked in the lot and then walked the rest of the way up the hill, and wow--what a view! Mount Soledad offers nearly a 360 degree view of San Diego. You can see the downtown, the bay, the ocean, distant mountains, and the entire surrounding area.

I had no idea the park was there. I probably saw it on a map at some point, but never really considered going there because I didn’t realize it had these views. So I just kind of stumbled upon it! I knew instantly that this was where I was going to be for the sunrise the next morning.

I’m sure there are many places like Mount Soledad in San Diego that offer a great opportunity for some beautiful photography. I plan to return to San Diego many times to create more great photographs of the city and its environment and surroundings.

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!

Creating Art: The Grand Canyon Desert View Watchtower

On my last trip to Grand Canyon National Park, I visited Desert View in the eastern part of the park on the south rim. At Desert View you will find the Watchtower, which is a stone tower that appears to be much older than it is. It looks like it could be from Medieval times, or at least from a couple of centuries ago, but in reality it was built in 1932.

The Watchtower at Desert View,  Grand Canyon
The Watchtower at Desert View, Grand Canyon

I visited Desert View with the intention of shooting the sunset. Unfortunately, it was perfectly clear, so I wasn’t going to be able to make the kind of sunset photograph I like most. I tried to make the best of it, though. I made the image below that evening. Once I had this image, I did not wait for the sun to drop below the horizon. I was ready to move on.

Sunset from Desert View at the Grand Canyon
Sunset from Desert View at the Grand Canyon

I turned my attention to the Watchtower. The tower is an interesting structure, and I think it offers many opportunities for photography. I am planning a sunset shot that includes both the canyon and the tower, but that will require a more dramatic sky. This night I had only clear skies, so I decided to do something a little different.

I shot the tower with the idea that I might be able to give it a more dramatic look later on in my post-processing. I did a few things to this image to give it this look. First, I selected a picture of gray, stormy clouds from my catalog that I had taken in the past. I blended that image into the tower photo. I then removed almost all the color from the photograph. Next, I used a split toning technique, which involves adding a warm color like yellow or orange to the highlights (the brightest parts of the image), and a cool color like green, blue, or purple to the shadows (the darker parts of the image). That’s a common photographic technique that can create an interesting look in an image. Finally, I made some exposure and contrast adjustments to finish off the photograph.

I like the result. It’s funny because this is not what it was like that night at all. To me this image is dark, gloomy, a little mysterious, and maybe even foreboding. In reality, it was a beautiful, warm, clear evening. My effort was an artistic endeavor in which I reshaped reality to conform to something I imagined, to create something completely different.

It’s amazing what you can do with a little post-processing! In fact, I could have shot the canyon/tower image I mentioned above and then later substituted an appropriate sky from my catalog to create the final image I have in mind. I don’t like doing that, however. In landscape photography I almost never do it. It’s one of the challenges and rewards of landscape photography. You have to be patient, and sometimes it takes multiple trips to get the image you want, but the end result is worth it.

I am not opposed to making dramatic changes to a photograph for artistic purposes, however, and that’s what I did here. It’s a lot of fun to do! When I make the canyon/tower sunset image, though, it will be much closer to reality than this image is.

A Blind Sunrise at Grand Canyon National Park

Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon
Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon

On a recent trip to Grand Canyon National Park I shot what I’m calling a blind sunrise, and it was an interesting experience. I wasn’t actually “blind,” but what I mean is that I had not visited the location during the day and had no idea what the landscape was going to be like from that location and therefore no plan for what compositions I would be shooting. Also, since it was a sunrise, I arrived while it was still completely dark, so I had to wait until the start of the sunrise before I could even begin planning. Here’s the full story.

The Grand Canyon is huge. I don’t know what else to say. I arrived in the afternoon and took the shuttle bus out to the first viewpoint on Hermit Road. I walked most of the rim trail toward Hermits Rest, which is the last, western-most viewpoint on the shuttle bus line. There are several viewpoints along that part of the rim trail, and I spent time at each one. It was essentially a scouting expedition. I was looking for the location where I wanted to be for the sunset that night.

Normally I like to scout both sunrise and sunset locations, and frequently I decide to photograph both the sunrise and sunset from the same location. The Grand Canyon is so large, however, that it’s difficult to evaluate all the potential locations in one afternoon. At a place like Bryce Canyon, it’s much easier to do that. When I was at Bryce Canyon, I knew that afternoon the three locations where I wanted to position myself for sunrise and/or sunset. I’m not saying those are the only good locations or that I visited every possible viewpoint in the park, but I had a pretty good idea of what I was interested in shooting over the next couple of days based on the kind of images I had in mind. At Grand Canyon, I couldn’t possibly make that kind of plan in one afternoon.

I could have returned to the same location at sunrise that I had visited at sunset, but I wanted to experience some of the other viewpoints during my trip. Looking at the map, I found three locations on one of the other shuttle bus routes that I had not yet visited which looked like they might provide a good angle for sunrise. I selected one and decided I would go in blind.

The next morning, I took the first shuttle bus to the viewpoint. I stepped out of the bus and walked into the night. It was completely dark. I found the rim trail and headed down to the actual viewpoint. There was no light at all, except for the stars. I knew the Grand Canyon was right in front of me, but it was complete blackness except for the stars. They were extremely bright, and when I looked up I could immediately see the Milky Way. It was plain as day. I sat and waited for some light.

Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon
Sunrise from the south rim of the Grand Canyon

As the twilight began to develop, I started to see some vague shapes forming in the canyon. As the light increased, more of the landscape of the canyon was revealed. I was now able to plan what compositions I wanted to make once the sun started to rise. As the increasing light slowly illuminated the canyon, it was like a surprise being uncovered before my eyes, and the anticipation made it a fun experience.

In the end, the sunrise was not that great because it was completely clear that morning. But it was still worth it, and I made both of the photographs above. After I finished I went to one of the other potential sunrise locations I had considered. Based on the kind of composition I ended up making, I might have preferred that location. That’s why I like to scout the area first. If I have a certain kind of image in mind, then I can find the best location from which to make that image. I did enjoy this “blind” sunrise experience, however!

Pittsburgh, My Hometown

In August, I visited my family in Pittsburgh, PA. I think Pittsburgh is one of the most photogenic cities I have seen. It has a wide variety of architectural styles, from gothic to modern, and the numerous and diverse neighborhoods offer many opportunities for unique photography. The photograph below represents one of the most famous views of the city. Let me take you on a brief tour of my hometown.

Pittsburgh, PA from Mount Washington at sunset
Pittsburgh, PA from Mount Washington at sunset

This photograph was taken from one of the observation points on Mount Washington near the Duquesne Incline (the red car and inclined track). There are two inclines in Pittsburgh. The one visible here is the Duquesne Incline. A little under a mile to the east (to the right here) is the Monongahela Incline. The inclines connect Mount Washington with Carson Street below. One of the main attractions off of Carson Street is Station Square. You can’t see it in the photograph, but Station Square is now a retail center of stores and restaurants. In the past, the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie (P&LE) Railroad Station was located there. The historic and beautiful station is now the Grand Concourse restaurant, which is one of the best restaurants in the city. The Grand Concourse is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pittsburgh is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. The Allegheny River is flowing from the top center of this image. The Monongahela River flows from the right. The Allegheny and Monongahela merge together to form the Ohio River, which is flowing out to the left of the image. Eventually, the Ohio River joins the Mississippi River. You can see Point State Park Fountain in the middle of the photograph where the three rivers meet.

On the North Side, which is toward the top left of the photograph, above the Allegheny and Ohio, you can see Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just to the right of Heinz Field is where Three Rivers Stadium used to stand. That land is now mostly a parking lot. To the left of Heinz Field part of the Carnegie Science Center is visible. One of the exhibits at the science center is the submarine USS Requin. A small part of the sub can be seen here in the Ohio River in front of the science center.

Moving up the river on the North Side, you can see PNC Park with blue lights on its stadium lighting poles, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Very close to PNC Park but not visible here is the Andy Warhol Museum. The pop artist Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, and the museum features some of his best works of art. Although he died in New York, Andy Warhol is buried in a cemetery in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is known as a city of bridges. With three rivers and numerous creeks of different sizes that feed into them, that was inevitable. Several of Pittsburgh’s bridges are seen here on the Allegheny River. That’s the Fort Pitt Bridge crossing the Monongahela River below the city on the righthand side of the photograph. This bridge leads directly from Pittsburgh into Mount Washington. I do mean “into”--the Fort Pitt Tunnel passes through Mount Washington to provide access to Green Tree, Carnegie, and other communities via the parkway, which ultimately takes you out to the airport. When you come into the city via the parkway and the Fort Pitt Tunnel, upon exiting the tunnel you are welcomed by an incredible sight as the city suddenly appears. It’s an impressive sight that many enjoy experiencing.

The tallest building in Pittsburgh is the US Steel Tower. This building was originally called the US Steel Building. The name was later changed to USX Tower, and its official name is now US Steel Tower. It’s mostly obscured by PPG Place here, but you can see the top of it and part of the left side of it. It’s a three-sided building, and there used to be a restaurant on the top floor called The Top of the Triangle.

I hope you enjoyed my little tour. Pittsburgh is a great city, and I love it. It was fun making this photograph and sharing a few of the city’s highlights with you.

Struggling to Photograph Mojave National Preserve, Part 2: Success!

Last time I visited Mojave National Preserve I was hoping to visit the Kelso Dunes. Unfortunately, I encountered numerous problems as described in part 1 of this story. I didn’t get to visit the dunes, although I did make a nice photograph of a field of Joshua Trees. I have since returned to the preserve, and this time I had more success.

Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset
Kelso Dunes at Mojave National Preserve at Sunset

I double-checked my camera and tripod--they were ready to go. I made sure my flashlight was packed. I rechecked the weather one more time. Everything was in order, so I hit the road. This time I exited the interstate at Nipton Road and then turned onto Ivanpah Road to enter the preserve from the north. Like last time, after exiting the interstate I was pretty much isolated. That’s definitely one of the features of the preserve. If you want to get away from everything, this is a good place to do it. Actually, it was a much busier day. I saw more than 10 times the number of cars I saw last time. Of course, since I only saw one or two last time, that’s not saying much!

The Kelso Dunes are some of the tallest sand dunes in the country and took about 25,000 years to form as they are now. The tallest dune is over 600 feet high. That’s somewhere between 50 and 60 stories tall, and hiking up into the dunes was not a simple walk. It’s like walking on a beach that’s all uphill. For every two to three steps you take you advance about one and a half steps as you slog through the sand. Very quickly, my boots started filling up with sand, which made things even more difficult. The last part was the hardest part, where it’s a steep uphill climb onto the main dune.

Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve
Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

I turned onto the main dune and looked down at the sand. Along the way, the sand has ripples from the wind as seen in this picture. Once I was on the main dune, it was different. The eastern side of the dune, which was facing into the wind, had what looked like the same ripples, but actually the surface of the sand was flat. The rippled pattern was a design caused by variations in the darker and lighter sand. All of the sand I saw on the way up was the lighter kind, and I’m not really sure where this darker sand comes from.

Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Alternating light and dark sand pattern on Kelso Dunes
Closeup of sand pattern
Closeup of sand pattern

It’s a beautiful pattern, and I kind of felt bad disturbing it by walking on it. But it’s amazing how quickly the wind shifts the sand around and reforms the patterns. I was up on the dune for an hour and a half or so, and by the time I was leaving, most traces of my presence were already gone. I’m sure that within a couple of hours there would be no evidence I had walked there at all.

Going back down was much easier than going up! And this time around I had my flashlight with me. I stopped a couple times on the way down to do some experimental moonlight photography. The trail was dark, so I was glad to have that light. When I arrived at the car, the first thing I did was took off my hiking boots and emptied a huge pile of sand onto the ground! What a relief that was. By now all that sand is back on the dunes where it belongs.

I am very glad I returned to visit the Kelso Dunes. It’s really an amazing place. I was also pleased with the photographs I came back with. That was pretty much what I was envisioning and hoping for.

Struggling to Photograph Mojave National Preserve, Part 1

When I was preparing to leave home to go to the Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve, something told me I should bring my book. I did, and that was just about the only thing that went right that day. Well, it wasn’t a complete failure--I did end up with the image below, but I didn’t get to visit the dunes at all in what was close to being a comedy of errors.

Joshua Trees in Mojave National Preserve
Joshua Trees in Mojave National Preserve

Mojave National Preserve is about two hours south of Las Vegas. Many people drive by it on I-15 on their way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but few stop to explore there. It is really an interesting place. It’s isolated, and it feels that way. It’s quiet--very quiet. It’s a little spooky. Once I exited the interstate and started driving on Kelbaker Road into the preserve, I was alone. On the way to Kelso Depot, which is a train station where there is a visitor’s center and which is located nearly 30 miles into the preserve, I passed only one car headed in the opposite direction. I pulled over and got out of the car at one point. There was absolute silence. The only thing I heard was the occasional noise made by various insects nearby.

I arrived at the depot just as they were closing. When I say “they,” I mean the single park ranger who works there. So I got back on the road and continued to my destination, the Kelso Dunes. These dunes are some of the highest and largest sand dunes in the country. The highest dune is around 600 feet. They are clean sand, too. They’re not littered with brush or other small plants. It really feels like you’re in the middle of the Sahara.

Unfortunately, things did not go so well. I was leaving home later than I had planned, so I thought I probably would not have time for one of the hikes I wanted to do, but at the same time I would probably have some time on my hands before sunset when I was planning to shoot the dunes, so I brought my book with me. It’s a good thing. I had checked the weather report the day before, and it said it would be partly cloudy during the day and mostly clear in the evening. The forecast was correct, except that it left out the possibility of scattered thunderstorms, or maybe I just missed that part. A storm cell was forming right over the dunes as I was driving toward the area!

Thunderstorm over Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve
Thunderstorm over Kelso Dunes in Mojave National Preserve

When I arrived at the trailhead, there were dark clouds, thunder, some lightening, and the beginnings of some showers. I wasn’t about to go out and climb to the top of a 600 foot high sand dune with no trees or any other cover and carrying a metal tripod, making myself the absolute tallest thing in the area when a thunderstorm is in progress! So I sat in the car, waited, and read my book. I hoped the storm would pass quickly and leave me time to do the hike and find a good spot for photography before sunset. It didn’t. Eventually I had to give it up. It got too late for me to be able to get to a good position in time even if things did clear up. Strike one.

Interestingly and somewhat maddeningly, the rest of the sky was pretty clear. It was just like the forecast had said. The storm was only over the dunes, right where I wanted to be. I decided to try to salvage the trip by finding some other things to photograph. Kelso Depot itself is an interesting building, so I headed back in that direction. When I got there, I didn’t even bother to stop. The light was terrible. The sun was completely blocked by the storm, so instead of the nice golden light that would have been falling on the depot at this time, it was completely in dull shadows. I kept going.

On my way out of the preserve, I passed through the Joshua Tree forest. I found a field of some trees that would make a nice subject, so I pulled over and took some test shots. It was starting to get a little too dark, and I needed my tripod. I got the tripod out and set it up. When I went to put the camera on the tripod, I couldn’t believe it. The mounting plate that connects the camera to the tripod was missing! Normally I leave that attached to the camera at all times, but I remembered that I had switched it to my secondary camera a few days earlier and never moved it back. Strike two!

I did the best I could under the circumstances. I ended up with the image at the beginning of the article, which I do like. I may have taken a different photograph if I had had more time, but the light was changing very rapidly, I was fumbling around with the tripod with its missing mounting plate, and I was about to lose an opportunity for any picture at all. There were also a lot of holes in the ground, and I was expecting a snake or some other unwelcome animal to make an appearance at any time. So I quickly decided on this composition.

OK, so it wasn’t all that bad. It could have been worse. I could have gotten a flat tire or run out of gas in the middle of this deserted place. And I did get a lot of reading done! After I got home, I realized that I had forgotten my flashlight too. I usually don’t need it, but I always like to bring it in case I do stay out a little later (or arrive before there’s any light at all). That’s strike three!

But in photography, you’re never out. I’ll just go back again, and eventually I’ll get to shoot those dunes.

To be continued….

Shooting at the Stratosphere in Las Vegas

I have been living in Las Vegas for over two years, and until a couple weeks ago, I had never gone to the top of the Stratosphere, which by some accounts has the best view of the city. It was worth it, but not just for the view. The view was good, but it was also fun to see exactly what goes on up there.

View of Las Vegas from the Stratosphere
View of Las Vegas from the Stratosphere

There’s the restaurant and bar, and it really seems like having dinner or drinks would be a nice way to enjoy the view. But then there are the other activities--the rides, and the jumping. It’s really amazing watching people experience these amusement park rides over 1100 feet above ground. Then I found the jumpers. These are the people who have decided that the elevator ride to the top was too boring, and they would like to find a more interesting way back down. I have to admit, the elevator was pretty boring. There are no windows or anything, and you have no sense of how high you are climbing or how fast you are getting there. The next thing you know the doors open and you’re there. So I can understand how someone might want to find a more exciting way to get back down.

Well, I imagine strapping yourself into a harness and dropping 1100 feet on a rope towards a bull’s eye painted on the ground below is certainly a more exhilarating way to get down. I witnessed several people make this descent. They just drop and get smaller and smaller, very quickly, until they reach the bottom. They’re attached to a rope and everything is set up for safety, but the bull’s eye at the bottom is a nice touch!

Anyway, I was there mainly to check everything out but also to do some photography. Tripods are not allowed, and so I was not overly optimistic about the prospects. I arrived shortly before sunset and would have liked to take longer exposures, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that without the tripod. My plan was to take as many shots as possible and see if I could make anything out of them. As it turned out, a tripod wouldn’t really have helped because of the way the observation decks are set up.

The Stratosphere has both an indoor and outdoor observation deck at the top. When I arrived, I first went up to the outdoor observation deck. I knew immediately that I would not be able to photograph from there. There are protective bars and no way to shoot through them--they are too far away. So I went down to the indoor observation deck one level below, and that’s where I took the photograph here.

It’s a little difficult because the windows are angled out away from you, and there are also reflections to deal with. I got as close to the glass as I could and set up my camera to take as long an exposure as possible for hand-held operation. I went down to 1/20 of a second for some of my shots. That’s normally too slow for hand-held operation to avoid camera shake blur, but I was able to use the window to help stabilize me. You can’t lean on those windows--there are signs telling you not to do that, and frankly, unless you have a desire to head toward the bull’s eye without the benefit of the harness and rope, it’s probably a good idea to heed that warning! Even so, I was able to rest the camera lens lightly against the window to gain some stability. One other trick I used was that I shot in high speed continuous mode, meaning that as I held down the shutter release, the camera shot off multiple exposures in succession until I released the button. Shooting that way increases the chance that one of the images will be in focus.

The tripod would not have helped because I wouldn’t have been able to get the lens flush with the window, and that would likely have resulted in reflections and a fuzzier image. So I worked with what I had and hoped for the best. I ended up with the image here. I think it’s a decent result considering the shooting conditions. The main road to the right of center is Las Vegas Blvd., and you can see it leading up to the heart of the Strip. The other clearly visible road to the left of center is Paradise Road, which leads directly toward McCarran Airport. The airport is that grey area below the mountains near the horizon.

The trip was worth it, and I would recommend visiting the Stratosphere if you come to Las Vegas. There’s only one way up, but at least a couple of different ways back down. I took the elevator.