Death Valley Journal, Part 1

Our Pauls Photo DV adventure was slated to begin at lunch on Thursday, so I arrived a day early. I usually start one of these commercial photo tour by arriving a day or two ahead. I use these things as a quick overview to a park, landscape location scouting being a side benie of the detailed site exploration you get on these photo tours. Then, after it’s over, I explore some of those sites more deeply or reach out to spots that never got covered.

With Death Valley, I decided to take one extra day before and one after, giving me an extra evening and morning shoot to check out the location on my own. So on Wed. at 9AM I found myself heading north on the 110 … to Barstow, Baker and beyond….

Heading Out

From LA, Death Valley is kinda on the way to Vegas. You jump on Interstate 15 up around San Berdo, continue on it past Barstow (stopping at the Starbucks that’s just of the road), drive on till Baker. Then off the freeway heading north/west for another couple hours (without forgetting to stop at the Greek in Baker for a filo-and-honey pastry).

On that Wed., I had lunch at the Mad Greek and got my honey and pistachio to go. The Greek place is just on the other side of the highway exit and underpass — right across from the World’s Tallest Thermometer.

Baker is not a stop I ever make on the Vegas trip, the Mad Greek being the only lure. The place exists because the Death Valley Road starts there. But Baker has a bit of a Route 66 feel to it, like a 50s desert town encased in amber. The facade of the Greek restaurant takes that 50s desert attitude and pumps in a dollop of bad Hellenistic statuary — so it’s great fun and the food’s better than most of these road stops. The Greek founders seem long gone (anyone know) but the Latino staff carries on the ancient tradition with style. In fact, they do the food fairly well, considering the eclectic menu. So it’s a fun stop, better than what you usually get restaurants in the desert.

Going north you get a long and straight shot north on Rt. 127, an hour’s drive if you’re a lead-foot. Once you get to Amargosa (and the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel), you have a slower hour on Rt. 190, the park road, that takes you to Furnace Creek.


Furnace Creek is a town I guess. It has a post office, two large national park resorts (both being majorly renovated), the NP Visitors Center, a seriously overpriced gas station, a jeep rental and about 20 actual residents.

I looked the town over and stopped in at the Visitors Center to study the possibilities for an early Thurs. shoot spot. The rangers started things off with the National Park fees. I’d mislaid my Lifetime Pass and they don’t have a database of pass members (time to join the 20th Century maybe) so I got to purchase a new park pass. I wandered back up Rt 190 to shoot Zabriskie Point in the late afternoon light.


That night I got to experience the cuisine available at The Ranch for the first time. It turned out that the usual restaurant choices were in renovation process so Xantera go their sandwiches and burgers made at an unnamed location, rendering my chicken piece cold and tasteless. Luckily Xantera continued to charge NP restaurant prices for their work. I began to wish my motel room had a microwave.

As Mark Comon, long-time leader of the Pauls Photo Death Valley trips points out, you don’t go to DV for the culinary experience.


The Promise of Death Valley

So why do landscape photographers go to DV? Why is there the particular fondness?

Locations. Certainly the locations are a lot of it. Badwater, Zabriskie, Scottys Castle, Mesquite Wells Sand Dunes, Dantes View, Rhyolite (just off the park), and a bunch of road pull-off shots. It has some great locations.

Mystique. Hottest spot on the continent, mining, Wild West, desert live at it’s most forbidding.

Landscape. Landscape, geology, is the foundation of what we do. And without the annoying vegetation, DV manages to show geology in its barest, most stripped down form.

Color. There’s something abut the colors of the place, the pastel colors you get at Zabriskie, the softest creams in the sand at Mesquite. A far different palette than you find up at Zion or Arches. And that allows your work to get at the subtleties.

Death Valley is unique.

Next, finding the point of Zabriskie

Death Valley Overview

I recently did a photo tour to Death Valley put on by Pauls Photo in Torrance. Some random notes:

Death Valley is the largest National Park outside Alaska at 3.4 million acres. That makes it larger than several states and one and a half times larger than Yellowstone.

Central Death Valley

Where to Photograph. With this much land area, the park is full of locations that are popular with photographers, Dantes View, Zabriskie Point, Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, Badwater, Darwin Falls, Golden Canyon, Scotty’s Castle (currently closed for renovation). There are also lots of neat photo spots that are just pull-offs from the road. The Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Drive, Harmony Borax Works are of less interest for enthusiasts (OK, the park lists them as “must see”) but they’re all close to the center park area if you have time.

Dante's View

Dantes View offers a great view of the Valley but is currently closed. 

There’s also good photo locations just outside the park boundaries. Just east of the park, the Rhyolite Ghost Town has some cool sights. Going northwest, you can stop at the Alabama Hills area (by Lone Pine) and Mt Whitney.

Rhyolite Ghost Town

Rhyolite Ghost Town

When to Go. There’s a reason no one in their right mind goes to Death Valley in summer, heat. The temperature’s been clocked at 134 degrees. That’s not healthy for humans or for cars. Quoting the park web site, “Outside activity is not recommended at that time of year.” Aside from being able to fry an egg on the hood of your car, what’s the point? Getting your picture taken with a big thermometer at the Visitors Center?

Photographers should plan to visit in winter or early spring. During winter the nights and early morning can be cold. On our late January trip, the temps were almost freezing on a couple of mornings. And at 4,000+ ft and high winds, Dantes View was painfully cold. So bring your long johns and a warm windproof jacket. But things do get warm in midday so layer.

Where We Stayed. Like all National Parks, Death Valley accommodations and restaurant choices are limited by design. That keeps the locations pristine (and the prices high). The facilities within the park have little motel fridges but no microwave. You can find accommodations at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Springs — or you can stay outside the park at Beatty, Pahrump, Lone Pine, etc., and drive a very long way.

Furnace Creek is the obvious place to stay at if your a photographer. It’s the closest location for Dantes View, Badwater, Zabriskie Point, and the other stuff in the central valley. Stovepipe Wells is right next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

But this year, The Inn at Furnace Creek is closed for remodeling. The Ranch is also at Furnace and is open but it’s also undergoing major remodeling and as a result the restaurant situation in that area is dismal. They didn’t have a fully operational kitchen so the food they did have was mostly salads, burgers and chicken sandwiches — that had been cooked earlier and were served cold. Pizza was the only meal that was edible.

That situation didn’t stop XANTERRA, the parent company, from charging fancy restaurant prices though, ($15 for a chicken sandwich that Macdonalds does better for $4). Things were so bad we drove the half hour to Stovepipe Wells each night to get a decent (but overpriced) meal. So call ahead if you’re planning on staying at Furnace Creek and think about bringing your own food.

That’s it for now.

When the world goes to sleep…

Another cool shot from Dan Jurak, a master of understatement.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

snow, winter, sleep, ethereal, moody, explorealberta, landscape, Alberta, prairie, cold, foggy, misty, farm, rural, hay bales,

I have been having fun posting photos on Instagram and Vero lately. There is a  whole different group of people than I am familiar with.

Is it the algorithms of Instagram that keep showing me brain smashing, bang me in the face with overblown colours or is that what is current? Seeing photos on there is like steadily increasing the amount of sugar or salt in your diet until you realize that you can’t taste the sweetness or saltiness anymore.

In going through hundreds of old images that I have taken and forgotten about over the years I found this little gem that seemed so opposite of how I see Instagram.

It is about quiet and serenity. It seems so different than what I have been seeing for the past few days that I have posted it simply because it is opposite.

If you want to be successful creatively you…

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Real or surreal, the choice is yours

I like how Dan approaches post production, I have the same sense, that the tech tools we have should be used to deepen the impact of the art work. I see my initial image as what it is, RAW material … that can be shaped in subtle ways in post. Like Dan, I’m not going for a final result that looks out there. The final image must always have an intimate connection to your experience of that place and time. But by doing a thoughtful enhancement of the elements, I give myself a larger orchestra to compose for, i.e., I’j just finishing the composition, evoking the underlying elements of the piece through crop, structure, light and dark, tone, light.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

prairie, landscape, winter, Dan Jurak, Alberta, snow, cold, sunset, poplar tree, barbed wire fence,I have spent a great portion of my life in the great outdoors. From my earliest childhood memories visiting Jasper National Park when the Icefields Parkway was a two late gravel road to having a convoy of European supercars pass me on the same highway a few years ago when I was spending a few fine autumn days in the park. BTW, it was really cool to see Ferraris, Lamborghinis, etc. zipping down the same highway that I almost know like the back of my hand.

In all of those years of camping and visiting how many spectacular sunrises or sunsets have I seen? Generously I would say one out of ten is a memorable one.

Simply put, most sunrises and sunsets are not memorable but yet I see photographers with always spectacular colours and tones in their photos.

Do they live on a different planet than I or are…

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Mullaghmore at Dusk – Ireland

Bruno’s seascape is a nicely composed long exposure shot. Taken at Mullaghmore, Sligo, Ireland.

The Photographer's Guide to Landscape Photography

Mullaghmore at dusk

Dear fellow photographers, finally we were blessed with a gorgeous sunny day here in the north west of Ireland. After weeks of rain and wind, it’s really something, and even less excuses not to take your camera out.

This week image is one of the simplest composition I can think of. There is barely a subject! This can be quite a challenge most of the times, and could put us off from even trying and get an image. Nevertheless It’s always worthy to look for the elements of a possible good composition around us. An interesting sky at dusk and few rocks swept by the waves are just the perfect training ground for any photographer with an interest in seascape.

My tip: when you lack a clear subject, pay even more attention to the basic rules of composition. The rule of thirds for example. Make a decision…

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More LA Harbor Night Studies

I’m trying to put together a gallery show and part of the show would include some long exposure night images of the LA/Long Beach Harbor unloading docks. I’ve decided on most of my faves but there were a few of the old images that are’t as powerful. So last night I was back out in the Nimitz Way section of the Long Beach docks with trusty tripod and my 5DSR.

The harbor area is  a great location for doing long exposure work. The water does nice things, the place is busy night and day — and even on Friday night, LA rush hour there was no one out there to hassle me. That’s amazing for a place that’s only a 10 minute drive.

Plus the artificial light is visually intense. A friend told me that the harbor is one of the most noticeable places on earth on images taken from space. That level of light spill is obviously a huge ecological issue. But it also makes for powerful images.

Given the lighting impact, I didn’t need to do much post work. There is no issue with a “natural” looking image when the lighting is so extreme and you’re doing long exposures. The main trick here aside from composition, is to have a good tripod and the right exposure.

So, three new images.

Hyundai Night

109mm, 15 sec, F11, ISO 100

Maersk Line in Orange and Gray

70mm, 20 sec, F11, ISO 100


147mm at 10 sec, F5, ISO 100



The mountains are great… but the prairies will always be my first love

Dan Jurak’s blog is an ongoing pleasure to read. The really good posts, and there are plenty, have him distilling his personal response to photography in a way that’s heartfelt and yet spare. And his images are equally spare and un-cliched.

They’re mostly images from his local area, the Alberta plains. These are the northern plains, not quite Iowa flat, but not marquee locations like Banff (a regular focus of his travel work). And these Alberta landscapes have immense diversity in their quiet way … plus, Dan is good at seeing that rough, northern beauty and composing the land’s shape with a spare hand.

I guess that’s why this image struck me. What a lovely image. And with his comments on shooting locally vs at the well-known travel destinations.

Having just moved down to San Pedro, I’ve been some new local exploration here. I have an ongoing night series I’m working on of LA Harbor and am spending time in and out of the tidal pools along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, doing long exposures in late afternoons.

This quote from Dan about doing local work is just where my head is right now:
“… At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on that particular day.”
“One of the secrets of doing landscape photography really well is to get out often, as often as you can. … Being able to recognize when the light and the weather is requisite.”

And that’s the great thing I’m noticing as well, that when you living a place, you notice when the weather is about to serve up something nice or when tides are low or just an unusual quality in the light. And that motivates you to get out there.

In practical terms, that means I can go to my current fav locations — or find a new spot, when the weather display and light will give me the most value. And that means my portfolio of good work can continue to expand. No outside photog has the level of opportunity that a local has.

Dan Jurak's Alberta Landscape Photo Blog

landscape, foggy, winter, snow, Alberta, rural, pasture, frozen, Dan Jurak,

A few days ago was my first trip to the mountains in a few months. It was like coming home visiting the rockies. It always takes my breath away. Everything is grand. Everything is spectacular.

But the best thing about going away I have always found is returning home. There is no more comforting feeling that putting my head on my pillow, having our 95 pound Weimaraner laying on my feet so that I am pinned under the blanket and listening to my wife toss and turn all night. I mean it.

I have been toying with the idea of one day moving to Canmore to be closer to the mountains and wonder how different would the photos I take be?

At home we have the luxury of going out when conditions look great or staying home when they don’t. Away from home you take what you nature presents on…

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