A Photograph Exposed: Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa

(“A Photograph Exposed” is a series of posts looking more closely at the background of some of my photographs.)

Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa - Black and white photograph of two "moving rocks" on the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. Morning light with unusual clouds, and the Grandstand in the distance.

Black and white photograph of two “moving rocks” on the Racetrack Playa at Death Valley National Park. Morning light with unusual clouds, and the Grandstand in the distance.

Two Rocks, Morning, Racetrack Playa. Death Valley National Park, California. April 3, 2006. © Copyright 2006. G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Moving rocks, lenticular clouds — morning on the Racetrack Playa.

This photograph from Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa is one of the first I made when I began photographing this landscape seriously, and it may still be my favorite photograph from the park — yet it also carries a flaw that I’ll mention below.

My first visit to Death Valley National Park had been perhaps seven years earlier at the very end of the previous millennium, when I was one of several adults accompanying a group of middle school and high school students on a visit that was to include a short backpack trip in the Cottonwood Canyon area. The story of that trip deserves its own article. That article would describe snow, near-hypothermia, winds that blew down tents, a retreat from the pack trip, an attempt to hike down the upper portion of Death Valley, water shortages, a dust storm, a dangerous situation with a bus, and more.

I’ll never forget my first view of this great valley. We had arrived in the park after dark, stopping between Towne Pass and Stovepipe Wells at a small campground a few thousand feet above the valley floor, where we set up in the darkness and went to sleep. Having never seen the Valley before, the next morning I unzipped my tent and stepped outside to see the stupendous “oh wow!” landscape of the valley and the mountains on the far side in the beautiful morning light. I was hooked, and I’ve been going back annually for more than fifteen years.


In those years I was on a bit of a hiatus from photography. I had shifted my focus more towards being in the landscape and away from making photographs of it, and I only carried a small film camera loaded with slide film, mostly to document my experiences. I’m sure I have the slides somewhere, but I’m equally sure they are nothing spectacular. But this was also just before the first viable digital cameras came on the market, and a few years later I had acquired one, and this began to rekindle my interest in serious photography. I was not ready to commit to the new digital systems, but I was in the mood to give them a try. Testing the waters of the conversion from film to digital, I went through a series of small digital cameras before deciding to try one of the early small DSLRs with an inexpensive zoom lens.

On this visit to the Racetrack I was perhaps still perhaps more focused on visiting such places and wandering about in them than in photographing them, but this trip probably marked my reconversion to a passionate photographer.

This was before the more recent radical increase in the number of people photographing such places. Other people were around that afternoon when I arrived at the end of the long, bumpy drive, and I joined them photographing on the playa. But as they  headed back to “civilization” late in the day I stayed behind, setting up camp a few miles down the road and then returning to the playa to shoot at night under moonlight. I recall returning to my camp in the dark and experiencing some of the deepest quiet I can recall. No one else was there, and I was completely and happily alone.

The next morning I was up early and back on the playa well before sunrise. The conditions did not look promising, but I’m not one to give up too quickly, especially after investing two days and 55 miles of driving on awful roads to be there, so I stuck around. The sky was overcast and the wind was blowing wildly as I wandered far out on the playa trying to figure out what and how to photograph in these conditions.

As so often happens if you are “out there” enough, the unpromising conditions began to shift in ways that were more or less miraculous. The thick overcast that was hugging the tall mountains to my east began to thin and break up, and as it did so a line of spectacular lenticular clouds was revealed above the mountains to the north beyond the far end of the playa, and the mountains were dramatically lit from the side by the early sunlight. The wind, which was still a photographic challenge, blew the tattered clouds away from me, creating alternating bands of shadow and sunlight that  raced across the playa, producing one of the most dynamic landscapes that I had seen.

At first the light was only at the far end of the playa, and I was still in the shadow of those tall mountains. But it didn’t take a lot of thinking to see that the light would soon reach my position as the sun rose. I recall quickly running about to find some foreground arrangement of sliding rocks that could create a composition in conjunction with the larger landscape. I soon found these two rocks, with the track of the nearer one curving off toward the Grandstand and the distant mountains. I set up quickly and within moments the first light arrived and I made a few exposures.

I recall emerging a short time later from that highly focused altered “flow” state that we sometimes enter when we are engrossed in photographing a subject — a state in which we lose our conscious awareness of time and of anything besides the subject of the photograph. I remember looking up and realizing that I was almost the only person on the playa in these stunning conditions — one other photographer was visible some distance off — and that the moment had now passed.

I think I have two regrets about this photograph, one technical and the other a not-unusual response to such an experience. The technical disappointment, though a somewhat minor one in the grand scheme, is that I was photographing with what was more or less “test gear” — the somewhat low-end equipment that I had picked up to explore DSLR photography. As a result, this photograph will always be seen as a relatively small print. No 30″ x 40″ prints are likely from this one! The other regret is an ironic one. After the powerful magic of such a morning on the playa, I eventually realized that I’m unlikely to encounter anything quite like that again in this particular spot, a realization that has come back to me on each subsequent visit to the place. But I’ll accept that in exchange for one morning like this one!


G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email


All media © Copyright G Dan Mitchell or others where indicated. Any use requires advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Death Valley, Evening

Death Valley, Evening

Evening light on the playa of Death Valley, with lower slopes of the Panamint Mountains rising beyond

Death Valley, Evening. Death Valley National Park, California. March 30, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Evening light on the playa of Death Valley, with lower slopes of the Panamint Mountains rising beyond

Since I’ve been traveling to and around Death Valley National Park for more than 15 years now, I’ve seen a lot of the park — but I most certainly have not see all of it, nor have I completely learned how to see everything in it. This is a huge place, varying greatly by location, terrain, season, weather and more. Frankly, the experience of coming to know such a place over time is one of the things I value most about such locations. While I love to “discover” a place that is completely new to me (and Death Valley was that place in the late 1990s for me), the longer process of learning the place and its rhythms more deeply is also, I think, more rewarding. It is wonderful to see a desert gully in evening light for the first time, but it may be even more beautiful to come back to it and recognize an old and familiar friend.

Along these lines, a few years ago, as I continued to push out my own boundaries of experience and knowledge in Death Valley, I began to think more about how to make photographs of things that I might have not thought worthy of a photograph before. I realized that many of these things that don’t scream “photograph me!” are otherwise a core part of the experience of this place: a vast and quiet “empty” landscape, midday sun, haze obscuring great distances, the edge between the last vegetation and a barren playa, a beam of light slanting across an alluvial fan. And if they are central to the sense of the place, it seems that there must be a way to photograph them. And that is a new challenge for me in my Death Valley photography.


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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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Panamint Range, Reflection

Panamint Range, Reflection

The east face of the Panamint Range is reflected in the surface of a desert pool

Panamint Range, Reflection. Death Valley National Park, California. April 31, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

The east face of the Panamint Range is reflected in the surface of a desert pool

This is a photograph of one of those surprising features of Death Valley — water in the middle of a place that is astonishingly arid. This location is one of the lowest, hottest, and driest places in the Valley, and beyond this pool is a terrain that is particularly inhospitable, the famous salt flats. It is not pleasant to venture out there on a hot and sunny day, when not only is the heat oppressive but the light is so intense on the white playa surface that it is almost impossible to look.

I went here quite early one morning, in time for the sunrise light across the Valley on the mountains of the Panamint Range. In many ways this was not a hugely promising morning. I would have preferred some interesting clouds, though the thing high clouds are not completely uninteresting. It might have been nice to have white salt flats, but the playa had apparently gone so long without rain and had experience enough wind that the sometimes-white salt was quite gray. This little pool, at the edge of the Valley and the base of the tall and rugged hills, mirrored the early morning sky and a bit of the dawn color on the mountains.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Dunes and Mountains

Dunes and Mountains

Low dunes and the base of Tucki Mountain in evening light

Dunes and Mountains. Death Valley National Park, California. March 31, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Low dunes and the base of Tucki Mountain in evening light

This is a different interpretation of a photograph that I have previously posted. Here I have simply tried a different crop, one that eliminates some areas of from the top and bottom of the earlier photograph in order to focus more on the horizontal sweep of the shallow dunes and the more distant wash sloping up to the base of gigantic Tucki Mountain, here in nearly the last light of the evening.

I think that when we are in this place, one of the most iconic in Death Valley National Park, our attention is more likely to be drawn to the tallest dunes, which are located more or less behind me at this camera position. But there is much else to see here, ranging from the intimate landscape of ripple sand and small plants to the rugged slopes of Tucki Mountain just to the south, and including the many long views across the huge spaces of the valley. Here I had been mostly photographing an expanse of dunes leading off toward the northeast, when I turned around to see this view of the edge of the sand, with low dunes curving toward the sparse plant life at their edge.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.

Contemplating the Dunes

Walkers contemplate evening light on sand dunes

Walkers contemplate evening light on sand dunes

Contemplating the Dunes. Death Valley National Park, California. April 2, 2015. © Copyright 2015 G Dan Mitchell – all rights reserved.

Walkers contemplate evening light on sand dunes

The wind had been strong enough the night before that as I lay in my fairly hardcore mountain tent (fully staked out!) I could hear nearby campers pounding in their stakes, rescuing gear than had gone flying, or giving up and sleeping in their cars. The wind continued on into the morning, and as I drove away to a place that I thought might be more sheltered I passed through big blowing clouds of dust and sand. As I returned in the middle of the afternoon there was still a lot of dust in the air and the wind was still blowing, thought its force was diminishing. I went to my camp for a quick visit and the winds continued to die down. By the point when it was time for me to head out for evening photography things had calmed down considerably and I decided to visit dunes.

The large nearby dune fields were in almost pristine condition on this evening, since the wind had kept a lot of people off the dunes and obliterated many of the tracks that folks had left earlier. I selected a part of the dunes where I saw no other people and headed out. The sand was largely undisturbed and I was able to photograph the patterns created by the wind with few signs of human visits. As I worked I looked off into the distance toward the highest dunes where a few people were not returning and walking toward the highest hills. From my position the foreground was a landscape of layered and angled slopes of sand, and in the distance a few people seemed to pause and enjoy the quiet evening among the dunes.


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.
Blog | About | Flickr | Twitter | FacebookGoogle+ | 500px.com | LinkedIn | Email

Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright G Dan Mitchell (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without advance permission from G Dan Mitchell.