Evening on Death Valley sand dunes with desert mountains in the distance
It was the first evening in Death Valley this season, and we had arrived after a lazy drive in from the Ridgecrest area. Having plenty of time, we stopped at Trona Pinnacles before reaching the park and after entering we took a long side trip out on a gravel road to a couple of somewhat remote canyons. We got settled in and it was time to head out for some evening photography — and since dunes were nearby they seemed like a good first evening destination.
The sand dunes go quickly through some remarkable transitions of light and color at the end of the day. In the full sunlight the tones of the sand can seem a bit flat and washed out, but the low angle light begins to highlight the textures — large textures of the dunes themselves, plus the finer textures of small patterns of windblown sand. The the color of the light begins to warm and the contrast drops and shadows fill with a soft light. At the moment I made this photograph the sun was still above the ridge to our west, but it had passed behind high, thin clouds that momentarily muted the light even more.
First dawn light descends the eastern face of the Cottonwood Mountains and touches the desert floor
A morning like this on the desert flats, surrounded by arid and rugged mountains, waiting for the sun to rise, is very special. We arrived in the dim, pre-dawn light and set out across the flats toward the edge of dunes, passing across scrubby desert plants and over rocky and sandy ground, listening to the steady crunching of footsteps in the silent landscape. We probably should have started a bit earlier, but we lingered a bit too long over coffee, and as we approached the edge of the dunes the sun began to move down the face of the mountains to the west.
The light on the mountains was set off against a sky darkened by the clouds of a passing weather front, and thin clouds intermittently shadowed the dawn light. It worked its way down from the ridges to the base of the mountains and then it very quickly began to light the terrain around us, first with gently cloud filtered light and soon more intensely. We quickly stopped walking and looked around for any nearby subject that might serve as a canvas for this light — I found a few long plants nearby growing in sand and moved to position them in front of the mountains as the soft light touched them.
Morning light on sand dunes and rugged mountains, Death Valley National Park
On our final morning in Death Valley this past March I got up before dawn one more time, loaded some gear in the car, and drove a short distance to a place from which I had decided I wanted to access sand dunes. I had been in the same area a few days earlier, and on that visit I spotted a likely looking area not far away — and that was my target this time as I walked alone across the quiet playa in pre-dawn light.
Out here the light arrives with surprising suddenness, despite the hints that it is coming, seen in light on peaks to the west and far up the valley. Silently the first light skims across dune tops, and within seconds the soft light is replaced by brighter highlights and darker shadows. Here I looked east across low dunes toward mountains along the eastern side of the valley at the base of the Amargosa Range. The morning haze and shadows on the mountains muted the their details. I photographed here for a few more minutes before packing and walking back to my vehicle, and within an hour we were on our way out of the park.
A desert wash cuts though golden layers toward mountains and Death Valley
I made this in another area of Death Valley where, despite its popularity, I have never really quite felt comfortable making photographs. The area is along a loop road that ascends the alluvial fan along the valley edge and then passed across and along some very beautiful washes, giving access to areas of strikingly colored rock formations. The formations are intriguing, but they don’t move be photographically. At least not yet — I won’t rule out the possibility that I’ll someday find a way to “see” them.
However, at one of the most popular stops, when I look the opposite direction, I see this absolutely lovely wash curving gracefully back and forth as it descends through golden rock and toward darker hills before taking a turn and heading down the giant alluvial fan toward the great basin of Death Valley. Late in the day, just before the sun drops beyond tall mountains in the west, there is a brief window of warm, golden light, even on a day like this one with distant clouds in the sky.
Curving dune forms beneath spring clouds, Death Valley
This turned out to be a very productive morning for photography — from scenic photographs of beautiful light on the Cottonwood Mountains to abstract and expressive photographs of the dune forms. I had several conditions that appeal to me. The sun in this photograph was almost directly in front of the camera, creating a somewhat stark effect and producing myriad sparkles in the sand. There were clouds from a passing weather front, and in a typically cloud-free place like Death Valley it is wonderful to get them. Not only were there clouds that I could include in the composition, but at times other high, thin clouds softened the light.
When I made this exposure I was pretty certain that I was heading toward a monochromatic interpretation. I also had a mental image of layers stacked up vertically: the light-colored lower band of sand, the softer middle ground with the streak of light passing across the darker textured sand, and the clouds above. In the end, as I presumed from the start, black and white seemed more likely to let me take this image where I wanted it to go, emphasizing the abstract nature of the elements more than their objective nature. If it is somewhat difficult to see this as a purely “real” subject… I’m fine with that.
Evening light comes to desert sand dunes, Death Valley National Park
I made this photograph on the evening of our arrival in Death Valley this past March, when we spent the better part of a week photographing in this desert park. We took a slow drive into the park from Ridgecrest, stopping at Trona and then in the Panamint Valley before crossing Towne Pass and dropping into Death Valley itself. It was early enough that we decided to take a “little” side trip to some slightly remote canyons in the afternoon and go for a short hike. We returned to the Stovepipe Wells area and then headed out along the dunes in the evening.
The evening light, especially when softened a bit by clouds or else just after the sun sets, paints the dunes and the surrounding terrain in marvelous and subtle colors. Mountains that are blue-gray in daylight and dunes that are almost colorless take on the colors of the haze, the sky, and the evening light, with shades of pink and yellow and blue and purple and more. This little vignette adds the green of the lush plants growing atop this sand dune, though the dead plants at the right betray the harsh conditions that are found her much of the time.
Morning light illuminates dust filled air above desert mountains and valley
Please indulge me as I continue to engage in my obsession with a series of photographs of this scene made on a special morning earlier this spring, when dark clouds gave way to light across the valley from my position high on a desert mountain ridge in Death Valley National Park.
If nothing else, sharing the series of somewhat similar photographs (this one, others posted previously, and possibly one or two more still to come) might illuminate the process of refining the way of seeing a particular subject. (Of course, to do that more completely you would also have to see photographs of the same location from previous visits over a period of years.) While I was there and the light was evolving I was very aware that the I could “see” the scene in multiple ways: Did I want to focus on the sky with its spectacular clouds? Did I want to minimize their presence to allow the luminous glow of backlit haze below them to take precedence? How much presence did I want to give to the strongly contrasting shaded mountains below me. How do the color and monochromatic interpretations compare? I still do not have final answers to those questions, but this portrait orientation view gives the luminous mountains across the valley a larger place the overall image and may more clearly present series of parallel and contrary lines in the scene.