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2011 Favorites

It is always very difficult to select a set of my annual “favorite” photographs. I inevitably find that I have left out photographs that others like a great deal, and I know that I include some that I like but which may not appeal as much to others. And I always want to include more! :-)

With that in mind, here is a group of slightly more than twenty favorite photographs that I made in 2011. Criteria for inclusion, loosely and subjectively applied, included: a desire to include a wide range of my work, what others told me they liked, photographs that have positive personal associations for me, and element of randomness.

There is a story behind every photograph that I make. (As anyone who has talked to me about one of my photographs probably knows – I can go on… and on… and on… about any of them!) If you want to know more about any of the photographs, you can click on them to go to the original posts here at the blog. And I’d love to hear your reactions to the set, along with any questions you have – there is a place for comments at the bottom of the page.

I hope you enjoy my 2011 Favorites!


(There is also a gallery version of 2011 Favorites – which may be better for low bandwidth connections.)

Yellow Buildings, Shadows, Moving Clouds - Night photograph of two large yellow buildings, shadows, and streaks for clouds moving across the sky above the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, California.
Yellow Buildings, Shadows, Moving Clouds - Night photograph of two large yellow buildings, shadows, and streaks for clouds moving across the sky above the Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, California.

Continue reading 2011 Favorites

Photographing the Moving Rocks at Racetrack Playa

(Note: Originally posted in January, 2008.)

Earlier this week I posted an older photo from Racetrack Playa at Flickr and got a lot of comments and a few questions. In response, I said that I would post something here about this location – so here goes…

The Racetrack Playa is in Death Valley National Park in south-eastern California. The Playa is the site Death Valley NP’s famous moving rocks (a.k.a. “sliding rocks”) phenomenon. Rocks, some of which are television-sized, have left tracks behind them as they have traveled across the surface of the playa. (See a post from earlier today for one photograph – there are more in the Death Valley section of my Gallery.)

No one has actually seen the rocks move, but there has been a lot of speculation about the process by which the rocks manage to travel across the playa. I’m no expert on this, but here’s some of what I’ve heard. First of all, while you are free to have a different opinion, I’m not convinced that aliens did it. (Though it would be a heck of a good joke on us.;-)

One theory involved a combination of wind and water. While you might wonder how water could play a role in a dry place like Death Valley, it most certainly can. In fact a playa is a feature formed when water washes sediment down from surrounding hills into a lower basin. The water spreads onto the playa and drops its load of sediment. When the water dries it leaves behind an extraordinarily flat surface. The thought was that rocks sitting on a very slippery surface of the playa might be moved by strong winds. Observations tended to make this scenario unlikely. For example, it was calculated that the winds necessary to move the largest rocks would have to be several hundred miles per hour. It gets windy there, but not that windy.

A refinement of the theory adds ice to the mix. Imagine a thin layer of water on the playa with the slippery surface underneath. Now freeze a thin layer of ice on the top of the underlying water in this shallow “lake.” (And, yes, it very definitely gets cold enough there to freeze water.) Now the winds would not have to work directly on the rocks themselves, but could instead act on the whole frozen surface, much as they act on the arctic ice pack. As the ice moved, the rocks embedded in the ice would be dragged along. This seems to make sense given the observation that groups of rocks often follow parallel paths across the playa surface.

The rocks seem to come from a low rocky hill at the south end of the playa. While they can be found in many other areas of the playa, the greatest concentration is near this formation.

Access to the Racetrack Playa is typically by way of an awful 27 mile gravel road that starts near Ubehebe Crater. (I’m no expert on desert travel or on these roads, so consult the Park Service for current and more reliable information if you go.) The road has been badly washboarded every time I’ve been on it – some people are so distressed by the conditions on the road that they turn around after a few miles of driving. For most drivers this makes for very slow going and it can take up to about two hours to get out to the playa. I met one driver of a very large truck who was convinced that “once you get above 30 mph the road smooths out.” I don’t recommend that approach. Slow and careful is probably a lot safer, especially for those without extensive experience driving roads like these. I know that I sit back and take it slow.

The last time I checked the Park Service recommended a “high clearance vehicle” for this road, and I concur. I have seen some vehicles without such clearance and it seemed to be pretty rough going, not to mention that you increase the risk that the undercarriage will be damaged by rocks. (If it has rained or snowed, all bets are off. Best to stay away. You certainly aren’t going to walk on the playa when it is wet anyway, are you!?)

Soon after you pass Teakettle Junction you will catch your first view of the playa ahead and/or to the left. You still have a ways to drive before you arrive at the playa and drive along the right side. You’ll want to keep going if you plan to see the best rocks, though it is worth stopping at the Grandstand, a large rock formation in the playa not far from where it starts. I’ve had good luck photographing this feature during the late afternoon.

Continue on to pull-outs near the far end of the playa for closest access to the rocky hill and the largest number of moving rocks. You’ll need to leave your car and walk a good distance out onto the playa. (Don’t even think about walking on the playa unless it is completely dry. Foolish and inconsiderate visitors have done so, and their footprints mar the scene for years afterwards.) Before long you’ll start to see the rocks. One plan is to head for the low hill where the rocks originate and then explore outwards from there.

There is a small “camping area” a short distance beyond the end of the playa. It is very primitive, consisting of little more than a couple of wide spots in the road and one dilapidated outhouse. There is no water whatsoever. I have camped there and it is very quiet and peaceful. I’ve also see people sleep in their cars back at the turnouts right at the playa.

My ideal trip works something like this: Go during the cool season. Almost no one would want to try to visit this place in the summer. Most visit in late fall, winter, or very early spring. My visits have all been during the first week of April. Drive out to the playa in the afternoon, arriving a few hours before sunset. If you have time, stop to photograph the Grandstand in the afternoon light. Then head on down to the south end of the playa and figure out where you’ll sleep that night.

By the time the light starts to become interesting you’ll want to be out on the playa, perhaps with a few shots already scoped out. Shoot like crazy for the next few hours as the sun drops and finally sets, continuing on after sunset as long as the light is interesting. Head back to your car and grab some dinner. (The last time I visited I met some fellow photographers and we had a great time sharing food and drink.) If there is a full moon (or maybe even if there isn’t) head back out to do some night photography. This is a wonderful place to photograph star trails, and there are a ton of interesting opportunities on full moon nights once the moon finally makes it over the ridge located to the east. Finally, completely exhausted, head back to your camp for the night.

Rise early the next morning – well before sunrise. You want to already be out on the playa before the interesting light starts. The morning lighting is interesting and somewhat challenging. All I’ll say is that there are mountains to the east that block the first light, yet the very earliest light will illuminate some interesting subjects.

Soon, most of the playa is in full sun. I generally shoot a bit more, but by this time I’m running out of gas – and getting hungry for some real food. I head back to the car, say goodbye to the playa and start the long drive back to the paved road that begins near Ubehebe Crater. (Don’t pass up on photographic opportunities as you drive this road though.)

Finally, a few random thoughts – some in response to questions I’ve received.

  • Someone asked how often the rocks move? I’m not sure but not often – the interval must be measured in years.
  • Someone else asked how they keep visitors from “tracking it up” when it is wet? Good question, and an important one to mention. There are footprints on the playa left by inconsiderate visitors who wandered about when the playa was muddy. Their footprints remain for years. If you visit when the surface is wet please do not leave tracks on the playa, even if that means coming back a different time. Fortunately, the road is so long and so bad and there are no services out there – all of which drastically limit the number of visitors. I’ve seen perhaps as many as 20 people out there at once, but on one other visit there were only two of us.
  • Another photographer asked about the effect of the eastern ridge on sunrise photography. I touched on that above, but there is indeed a very tall ridge to the east that keeps the area with the concentration of rocks in the shadows until later in the morning.
  • And what about the ridge to the west at sunset? There is also a large ridge to the west of the main part of the playa, and the road past the playa runs along its lower east edge. This feature casts a shadow on the northern portion of the playa well before actual sunset. My advice it to photograph there a bit earlier – I’ve had good luck photographing “The Grandstand” in the late afternoon. The sun hits the southern portion of the playa later in the evening since the valley opens to the west from there.

Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

(This has become one of the most-read articles at this site. For some reason, the question of whether or not it makes sense to add these little filters to your lenses generates a lot of interest… and sometimes a lot of lively debate. From time to time I make small unannounced updates based on new information or questions that have come up. Note that there are links to a couple of related posts listed near the end of the article.)

Sellers sell, and many buyers buy, UV (ultraviolet) filters for their DSLR and other cameras. The advantages are said to be twofold: some reduction of haze that is invisible to the human eye but which the camera purportedly might register, and some protection for the front element of your lens.

On the other hand many photographers wouldn’t think of putting an extra layer of unnecessary glass in front of their lenses. They would rather accept the (rather small) possibility of a scratch on the front element of a lens than possibly reduce the quality of their images, and/or they prefer to protect the lens by using a lens cap and lens hood.

I’m in the latter camp. I don’t own any UV filters* and I can think of darn few situations in which I’d want to use one. (One possible exception being the use of some of Canon’s sealed lenses on which the seal is completed by adding a front filter – and here only if I were to use the lens in an extremely hostile environment, and with a fully environmentally sealed camera body such as that of the Canon 1 series.) My preference is to handle my camera and equipment relatively carefully, keep the gear protected when not actually using it, use a lens cap, and to almost always use a rigid lens hood. Continue reading Lens Protection: Ultraviolet (UV) Filter or Lens Cap and Hood?

DSLR Sensor Cleaning – My Approach

(April 2014 update: Recently I had the opportunity to try a new sensor cleaning product, the Sensor Gel Stick. Based on my initial experience this seems like a more effective and faster way to clean sensors that any of the methods mentioned below—though I must point out that my experience with the product at the time of this writing is still limited. The product (available here, at least if it isn’t out of stock) is a cube of a sticky gel material attached to the end of a plastic “wand.” The gel cube is placed in contact with the surface of sensor’s glass cover, and the dust adheres to it. Since the cube is smaller than the sensor, this process is repeated across the sensor surface. I have to reposition the gel cube about 8 times to cover the surface of a full frame sensor, a process that takes less than a minute and which can easily be done while traveling. To remove collected dust from the gel cube you press it against a supplied sheet of “sticky paper,” which has a surface that is stickier than the gel. I tried this system partially out of desperation, as my aging Canon 5DII had picked up a ridiculous number of dust specks that were resistant to other methods of cleaning. After the first cleaning there were no noticeable spots left on the sensor. I continued to use it during a four-day shoot in Death Valley, a location known for dust—and, again, the result was impressive. The product is not cheap, costing about $50 for the gel stick and the sticky papers. Frankly, I think it is overpriced—but because it works so well I was willing to pay the price. I have recently seen similar products online from other distributors at lower prices, though I cannot vouch for their quality.)

When I got my first DSLR I was very upset if I got any dust in a shot. I was also very paranoid about cleaning the sensor*, having read too many posts about how one can damage the sensor during cleaning. Now that I’ve used DSLRs quite some time I’ve gotten over it and life is much, much easier.

Here is a summary of my approach** to dealing with sensor junk…

Rule #1: Modern cameras typically include dust-reduction systems that rely on vibrating the sensor to dislodge dust particles. I set mine to operate automatically each time the camera is turned on or off. In addition to ensuring that the process runs regularly, this automatically runs it after every lens change, the time when you are most likely to pick up dust. Cameras also allow you to manually trigger a dust-reduction system cycle from the control menus, and I do this if I notice a dust spot while shooting. (If you have ever shot for a day or a few days without checking, only to realize that you had picked up a big dust bunny on day one and that it appears in all of your several hundred or more photographs, you will adopt this practice!)

Rule #2: I don’t worry too much about a small amount of dust in your captures. I rarely can get a sensor clean enough to get perfect, dust-free shots at smaller apertures, and when I do the dust will soon return. Rather than worry too much I’ve found that it is easy to quickly fix most small spots in post-processing. Using one or the other tool, I can usually deal with most dust spots in a matter of a few seconds in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or Photoshop. (My preference is to do this in ACR during the raw conversion process. This fits better with my workflow which relies on the use of smart layers in Photoshop.)

Rule #3: When the dust gets to the point that dealing with it in post is no longer efficient, I try the easiest thing first. When I notice a larger than usual speck or when the build-up gets to the point that post-processing cleanup is either taking too long or not working right, I use a blower to try to clean out the worst of the stuff. More often than not this is enough and I can go back to relying on rule #2. Point the tip of a good blower bulb into the chamber but keep the tip itself just outside. As you blow a few dozen puffs into the chamber and toward the sensor, change the angle of the bulb to ensure that you get full coverage. It is probably best to hold the camera with the open chamber facing down. (Don’t overdo it, since the blower can move some dust onto the focus screen of some cameras, leaving annoying bits of dust that do no real harm and will not affect your photographs but which are very difficult to remove.) Update: Given the ease of use of the sensor gel stick product described in my note above… while I might still try a blower, if that didn’t work I would move on to the gel stick right away. In addition, I doubt that I will have much use for the sensor brush described below, and I expect that wet cleanings will now become an extraordinarily rare event.)

Rule #4: Sometimes rules #1-#3 aren’t enough. At this point I try a static charged sensor brush, being very careful to avoid letting the brush touch anything but the sensor* glass itself. Yes, the brush can pick up other stuff in the chamber, and I have learned from experience to avoid this. However, most often the brush is all I need to use to get my sensor back to “sufficiently clean” status. With care and a bit of luck the brush method can sometimes get the sensor absolutely clean. The whole task takes me just a minute or two. I rarely have to escalate past the “blower and brush” technique – probably not more than once or twice a year – and in nearly all cases I can get the sensor glass very clean this way.

Rule #5: On rare occasions rule #4 fails, too. If the contamination is adhering too firmly to the sensor surface I resort to wet cleaning with Eclipse fluid and PecPads. I can rarely get it right in one attempt, so I plan on having to work at this a bit. Be very cautious to not use pressure or “scrub” the sensor glass. Let the fluid loosen and/or dissolve the material and gently wipe it off with the pad attached to the “spatula” tool. Read the instructions for this cleaning method very carefully before attempting it. It isn’t terribly difficult but there are a few ways you could go wrong including: pressing too hard and damaging the coating on the sensor glass, transferring lubricants to the sensor from other parts of the camera chamber, leaving streaks on the sensor. Eventually I get a reasonably clean sensor with no streaks.

Rule #6: On very rare occasions a combination of methods is required. Often the wet cleaning works well for me but leaves a few spots of dust on the sensor. For this reason I frequently follow the wet cleaning with a quick once-over with the static charged brush.

From all of this, it might sound like I’m sensor-obsessed. I’m not. Remember rule #1 is the one I follow most. I usually go many months between real sensor cleaning sessions.

Update #1: Since I the time when I originally wrote this, I acquired a Canon EOS 5D2 body which includes an automatic dust reduction system that vibrates the sensor when the camera is turned on and off, thereby dislodging dust from the sensor (AA glass) on a regular basis. After using it since late 2008, I find that the “dust shaker” system on this camera is very effective. I rarely need to do a manual sensor cleaning – although I used to do this more or less monthly with my previous Canon 5D. When a dust speck does show up occasionally, it usually disappears a few frames later after I switch the camera off/on. If this doesn’t do it, sometimes manually running a cleaning cycle in the camera will resolve the problem. I have only had to resort to a wet cleaning once since I acquired the camera.

Update #2: I often read that some people take their cameras to the shop or send them to the manufacturer for sensor cleaning. Some apparently even take their cameras in for sensor cleaning on a regular schedule, perhaps as often as every month. I’m not sure if this comes from being over-cautious about potential sensor damage, aspiring to a “perfectly clean” sensor,  not wanting to spend the time on the process, or something else. Except in extraordinary situations, I don’t think this is necessary or a good idea. In my opinion, it is not necessary to fear the sensor cleaning operation as long as you are reasonably careful. Once you do it a few times it becomes quite quick and easy. Taking your camera to the shop or sending it to the repair facility is going to cost you a significant sum, take considerable time, and probably not result in a cleaner sensor in the end.

Update #3: Regarding Update #2 above, a message from another photographer has made me soften my “don’t have the shop clean the sensor” position, at least in some cases. One photographer pointed out that he has a service plan that includes six free sensor cleanings per year. A few years ago, I would have counseled against relying on this – since early cameras without sensor cleaning systems often needed to be cleaned frequently and on short notice. However, the newer cameras rarely need a serious sensor cleaning – and in this case I can see how simply sending the darn thing in (while you keep shooting with your backup camera) could make sense for some people. (I still feel that you should be able to clean the thing in the field if necessary.)

Update #4: The availability of the gel stick tool (described near the start of this post) has changed things quite a bit. None of the older methods were as easy and effective, so back then I often tried to avoid moving to the more invasive and time-consuming sensor cleaning methods until I had no choice. Since cleaning with the gel stick is both fast and effective, I tend to move through the earlier approaches much more quickly and may even skip over them. For example, it is hard for me to imagine many situations other than oily residue on the sensor that would lead me to do a traditional wet cleaning at this point.


  • I’ll anticipate that someone might feel obligated to write, “You aren’t really cleaning the SENSOR! You are cleaning the glass cover over the sensor, you nitwit!” Yes, I know that. It is just easier to refer to the whole assembly as “the sensor.” :-)

** Disclaimer: This report describes what I do, but I am not any sort of certified expert on these things – as I wrote, this is “my approach.” I strongly urge you to seek out and learn from other official sources of information on sensor cleaning and related issues. The inside of your camera contains fragile and sensitive electronic and mechanical components and it is possible to cause damage while working there. You should read and carefully consider warnings from the manufacturer of your camera and any accessories and tools you use on it. If you are not convinced that you are competent to do this work on your camera, you can always take it to a professional. I do not claim that my methods are the best or most appropriate, nor that they meet the standards of the manufacturers of the camera equipment nor do I recommend that you use my methods in place of manufacturers’ official recommendations.

NOTE: If you join the site you can leave a comment or question on this post – and I’d love to hear from you. There is also a separate discussion forum connected with the site that supports more extensive threaded discussions.

(Most recent update: July, 2014)

Articles in the “reader questions” series:

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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