Clearing fog clouds above the Pacific Ocean western horizon
While I often am inclined to photograph the coast in the very early and very late hours, when the light is often at its most beautiful, I frequently see a special kind of light over the ocean in the middle of the day when I look to the west. Dissipating fog and the general moisture of the ocean, sometimes augmented by higher clouds, can give the backlight atmosphere a luminous and glowing quality — one that I often think of a light so intense that I can barely look into it. The ocean may lead off toward a horizon that simply disappears in this mist and luminosity.
This was a challenging day photographically, though the circumstances of making this photograph were quite mundane. I begin photographing at a slough many miles to the north, in the early morning when things were still foggy and gray. Eventually I moved down the coast, finding alternating fog and sunshine, but always high winds. It was a wonderful day to be out and about along this coast… but not an easy day for photography, and I had made very few photographs when I finally hit my turn-around point and stopped for coffee and a snack before stating to drive back to the north. After I parked and got my snack I came back to my car and noticed the small dissipating clouds of fog just offshore. The road was narrow, with no room for me to safely set up a tripod, so I shot handheld, thinking more about capturing scene data for a concept I wanted to work on in post than about capturing an “accurate” straight out of camera image.
Pacific ocean surf at a foggy beach near Point Sur
My part of California — generally the San Francisco Bay Area — is climatically complex, especially during the warm season. We sit between the hot interior climate of the Central Valley and points further east, and the coastal climate under the influence of the Pacific Ocean. The Bay Area is famous for its microclimate, and conditions can diverge wildly among areas that are not that far apart. A day or two ago the weather report told of temperatures well above 100 degrees along the eastern edge of the region where it spills out into the Central Valley and temperatures that never reached 60 degrees along the coast at Point Reyes — a difference of close to 50 degrees between areas separated by a few tens of miles.
The past week has been one of the periodic hot spells, so when I heard about the mid-fifty degree temperatures and fog along the coast I had to go! Today I drove down past Monterey and kept going down the Big Sur coast past Lucia. It was foggy well inland in the morning and it never did clear completely along the coast, where not only was it cold but the winds were howling and kicking up whitecaps on the ocean. I made this photograph near Point Sur, roughly along the line where the inland sun and the coastal fog were doing battle… and the fog was still winning at this point.
Today it is close to the end of June, the start of the hot season in California, and it has been nearly 100 degrees where I live and hotter than that where I made this photograph. It is, at it is every year, hard to believe that it was only months ago that I was out in this spot on a freezing January morning, with snow-covered peaks to my east and west, watching the first dawn light on these spectacular clouds and listening to the sounds of early morning flights of migratory birds across the wetlands.
For this I will get up at 3:00 am and drive three hours in the pre-dawn darkness. I had not visited this location before, and as I turned off of Interstate 5, the main artery up this valley, and headed east on a two-lane road I wasn’t sure what I would find. The sky was beginning to glow and it seemed that sunrise was coming soon — perhaps too soon for my arrival. I turned off onto a gravel road and headed into this refuge, passing the entrance and heading out onto the perimeter road just in time for this astonishing morning light show.
A curving diagonal of rock across sand dunes, Death Valley National Park
The sand dunes of Death Valley are more complex things than they might appear to be. For example, I have read that beneath their surface they actually hold quite a bit of moisture — quite a contradiction to our intuition about their dryness. (That intuition is based on fact — they can be hot and dry places, and the surface layer of the dunes is quite dry.) At the right times of day and of season they can be cool places, and they support plant and animal life.
These dunes also appear to stand on top of quite un-dune-like features. Around their edges you can find hints. You cross flat playa surface to get to them, and this surface holds abundant evidence of the work of water. In places you can even find areas that mimic perfectly the surfaces of contemporary playas, with their sedimentary formations covered with cracks. Here the edge of what must be a rather old example of this cuts diagonally across the landscape and still manages to poke its edge through the sand.
A dust storm rages above sand dunes at the end of the day, Death Valley National Park
This was a wild evening, featuring an apocalyptic combination of tremendously strong winds, huge clouds of blowing sand and dust, periodic downpours of rain, and light that changed constantly from ominous and dark to luminous clouds backlit by sun to threads of virgo, and more. I had never seen quite this combination of conditions in Death Valley at one time.
Photography was quite challenging. Because sunset was approaching (and I continued to photograph into the dusk), it was often quite dark. The screaming winds made it virtually impossible to shoot from the tripod, so I was mostly reduced to bracing my camera against the window frame of my vehicle and working with the camera handheld. In the rough conditions I was forced to work from a distance with a long lens, since photographing inside the windblown clouds of dust and sand was not a good idea. Here the clouds and the dust above the sand dunes momentarily thinned, creating a backlit glow from the low angle sun about to drop behind mountains to the west.
Evening rain clouds and dust storm above the Panamint Mountains, Death Valley National Park
This was a wild evening in Death Valley. While the clouds were generally moving toward clearing, we first saw extreme weather of several types. Down close to the ground there were big, billowing clouds of sand and dust being lofted above the Valley floor. High above that wildness huge weather front clouds built above desert mountains.
In the evening I decided to go our for one more photographic chase, even though the weather hardly seemed conducive to photography. In this case I resorted to an approach that I’ve used before in storms like this one, namely to put on the long focal length lens and shoot into the maelstrom from a distance. It this case, two storms were present at once: While high winds whipped up the sand and dust storm closer to the ground, overhead the monumental clouds of a rain storm towered over the desert mountains.
Cloud-filled sky at first light above desert mountains and canyon, Death Valley National Park
As I post this photograph on the summer solstice, this location is perhaps not a place you would want to be right now. I understand that temperatures in Death Valley National Park have been in the 120 degree range already this summer. But back on this March morning the scene was a lot different — clouds from a passing Pacific weather front obscured the dawn light, and there was a pleasantly cool wind at this location high in the Panamint range as the morning light arrived.
This view looks down through one of the many gigantic canyons of the Panamint Range, a sight that reminds us of just how important the flow of water has been in the creation of this remarkable landscape. In the middle distance the salt flats of Death Valley are visible at the base of the Black Mountains, and above that the demarcations between mountains and clouds and sky and light are hard to see, and the terrain of the rugged Death Valley landscape almost merges with the ephemeral terrain of this sky.