Death Valley Comes to Life

I’ve got this thing about shooting wildflowers.  I think it’s something about filling the viewfinder with the vivid colors and symmetry that can be a little elusive, all while outside in the fresh air that makes it a pleasing, heartfelt pursuit.

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It’s kind of the same thing I used to like about shooting interiors: the furniture doesn’t give me any crap.  Just me and the chairs and the light and the lens.  Kind of the same thing with the wildflowers. They’re just there, in the wild, take it or leave it.

About 10 days ago I ran across an article about a ‘Superbloom’ of wildflowers in Death Valley.  The article had this picture of a sea of yellow flowers running for acres and acres to the base of the mountains.  It was irresistible.  It would also make a pretty good post.  I packed up the camera gear (see Photo Factor below) and drove over to Ridgecrest, California for the night so I could get an early start the next morning and head into Death Valley National Park.  I thought about camping, but figured that was a little too much to pull together on short notice, which was a good choice.  I did however, find the campground I’ll go to the next time we head over that way, Red Rock Canyon State Park. I’ll have a posting on that delightful find next time I write.

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I got on the road before first light and headed through Serles Valley which is a pretty classic ‘wide open highway’ drive through a desert valley.  Classic enough to pass a film crew out shooting a car commercial at daybreak complete with a camera car and the CHP getting ready to block the road.

There is lodge at Stovepipe Wells which we need to try, but it’s also got a decent little grocery and souvenir store, with gas pumps;  Don’t be stupid.  Make sure you’ve got plenty of gas, even if it’s a $1.50 more per gallon than back in Vegas.  And get plenty to drink as well.

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On a tip I headed over to Titus Canyon, which is a pretty spectacular gorge that you can drive through from the other side of the range I was looking at; it’s a one-way road headed my way.  It’s a busy place.  I got there about 9:30 AM and found just about the last parking place in the formal parking lot.

 

Almost immediately a group of 6 guys on motorcycles came out of the canyon, all covered in dust and riding those off road BMWs with the metal saddlebags.  Not the usual crotch-rocket dirt bikes you hear the neighborhood kids shredding lawns with.  These were quiet bikes being ridden responsibly by grownups who gave great consideration to the other users hiking in the canyon. I see those BMW bikes often, but usually on the freeway, not really seeing the point of riding an off-road bike on the 101 in Santa Clara. Now I get it, and that little road trip is a new entry into the bucket list.

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I chose to hike along the nearby Fall Canyon Trail, which is a loosely marked path through a steep gorge that cuts into the mountain walls.  While I still hadn’t found the fields of yellow flowers pictured in the NY Times article, I started seeing a variety of color close to the ground and figured I better start shooting something or I might come up empty handed.

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By early afternoon, I was glad I had a decent hat on and I had some nice shots, but not what I was looking for.  Back in the parking lot another hiker asked ‘if I got any good shots..’ and I said I did OK, but I was looking for the fields of flowers I saw in the article.  He said, ‘Oh, you need to head over to the Badwater Road area for that. The flowers over there are crazy.’

Damn.  Badwater Road was about an hour away and it was already about 2:30 PM.  I took off.

He was right:

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Acres and acres of daisy-like yellow flowers called Desert Gold.  I started shooting my fill, and although my clear blue morning had turned overcast, I managed to get a decent Superbloom fix.  Had I done my homework a little better, I would have caught the display in the morning light, but I’ll take what I have nonetheless.

 

And while the acres and acres of nature’s yellow glory is indeed something to behold, I get a particular joy out of pausing along the trail just about anywhere and discovering the delicate smattering of life just at your feet. Look closely. Tiny petals of color, almost microscopic in form, have somehow managed to return to the light, after hiding in the rocky soil from the blistering Mojave sun for the better part of the year.

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I came to Death Valley for a specific limited-run natural event. But the whole park, at anytime, is a natural event.  Macro and micro.  Macro mountains that soar to 12,000 feet above where you stand in the salt flats at 200 feet below sea level.  Temperatures that can kill the unprepared both in the daytime and the night. Rocks and rock formations that expose a cross-section of geologic time like the rings on a tree and have the added benefit of helping put a little perspective on those annoying issues and to-do lists you have rolling around in your head.

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And the micro. The flowers of red, yellow and purple that are a living testament to the persistence of nature, proving themselves each season with a display of elegant beauty that is simply irresistible to see in my viewfinder.

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Kid Factor: (+) An interesting place for the older kids. Start by visiting the Park Service website and plan your trip keeping the heat and time of day in mind.  (-) Take the warnings about the heat and water very seriously.

Fitness Factor:  The sun is exceptionally bright here, and you’ll feel it on your exposed head even in early March like I did (broke out the hat at 9:30 AM).  Know your limits and listen to your body: If you’re thirsty you’re already dehydrated.  Drink up the fluids. If you’re thirsty and running out of something to drink, you probably should have turned back an hour ago.

Photo Factor:  With regards to shooting wildflowers, a tripod with a macro lens is pretty fundamental.  A set of close-up lenses that mount on the front of your conventional lenses is an less expensive alternative.  I also brought something to diffuse the harsh light, although just having someone stand there and put the flowers in the shade moderates the brights and shadows to a produce a more pleasing image.  You also might want to bring something to block the wind while you make an exposure.  Know something about depth of field.

You should try and time your shooting broad landscapes for the early morning and very late afternoon when the sun casts more dramatic light across the rock faces, and use the midday light for the small, close-up stuff.

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