Night-photography during Winter in Death Valley, CA

Location: Death Valley, CA

The animation above was shot under a recent Supermoon on Racetrack Playa inside Death Valley National Park, you can make out my shadow rotating throughout the frames as the camera pans right under the brighter-than-usual full moon's light.

Make no mistake, getting out to this spot is a mission - 26 miles of narrow jaw-chattering washboard roads, a few stray boulders, and sharp volcanic rocks will definitely give you a run for your money if you don't have the right tires on your vehicle. 

The last time I was out here was for another Supermoon in 2012.

Winter in Death Valley is great for night-photographers due to it getting dark so early and the relatively mild temperatures. It's nice during the day and it gets a bit cold at night, if you're prepared for it, it can be a lot of fun.

The national park is vast (covering over 5200 sq miles!) and offers a variety of desert landscapes. It has a bit of a micro-climate effect going on in certain parts of the park - for instance, the racetrack playa was 37 degrees at night while the area around stovepipe wells was 65 degrees. Big difference!

Let's talk locations, this image above 'Light Widow II' was shot around Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at around 280 feet below Sea Level.

When it gets windy here, you get salt in your hair, you get salt everywhere!

Badwater Basin at night lights up with stars, here I used a Vixen Polarie Star-tracker to capture the Galaxy and composite my light-painting 'Lemur Demeanor' (above). If you look at the image larger by clicking on it, you can see the meteor I caught in the middle of the Milky Way toward the top - Lucky!

Another killer spot in the park is the Mesquite Dunes, there are a few good dunes around the park but this one looks great during sunrise if you manage to wake up for it. Bring a jacket bc this place is freezing cold before the sun rises. This 'Smile' (above) sums up my feeling of being out there at that moment.

I got to add a yellow 'Triceratops on the Dunes' to my Light-Fossils series before the sun rose, casting red and blue light from the sides during the 213 second exposure made the dunes look extra wild.

Flash forward to the night and I got some 'Buzzards' to rest on a dried out Mesquite tree around a bloody carcass using my Night-Writer LED tool. 

Almost anywhere within the park is interesting if you're willing to walk out to get to it. Be advised that distance in the park is more than meets the eye - areas that look just 100 yards away can actually be a few miles or more in some cases, bring water, a hat, and maybe a compass if you decide to trek way out there!

Here a 'Green Galimimus' walks along cracked earth under the backlight of our Galaxy, drawn with Night-Writer plus some blue and green color-tips.

Here I am goofing around during the day (thanks Astrobandit for the snap) it was around 80 degrees in the picture (below). You can see what I mean about vast distances in the park.

why did the light-painter cross the road

This road was like many others in the park, when you're here it's good to know where the few gas stations are - Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek, your nearest fuel could be a hundred miles away at any given moment in your travels here.

Next location on the list is Zabriskie Point - a strange viewpoint where the land transforms into a psychedelic vision, especially at sunset!

I wrote my twin-brother Ross's name here during blue hour.

From here out I'm offering light-writing services to anyone willing to pay me $100 for a high-res digital download of a custom-made (10 characters or less) light-painting at an interesting location along my travels. Need a unique gift with a personal touch? Say it with light!

Another spot along the road yields an interesting view of a small rock formation juxtaposed with the Milky Way. Here is where I created 'Ibex' for my 'Animals' series.

The panorama above is 'Ubehebe Crater' it's a volcanic crater that's about a half mile across and 500 feet deep, this is under a supermoon and the light is coming from almost directly above. If you look closely you can make out some stars.

The last image I'll leave you with is 'Star Stinger III' in my growing 'Insects' series.

Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, California is one of the most Zen places I've visited, it feels like a blank canvas - perfect for light-painting!

For more info on Death Valley, CA check out the park's website.

Superbloom

Location: Death Valley, CA

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Death Valley recently had a rare event called a 'super bloom', it happens about once every ten years and Astro Bandit and I decided to check it out over the weekend - it was mobbed, but it was beautiful. There weren't as many flowers as I was hoping for, but there were still quite a few along the highway to badwater basin and around furnace creek. We trekked it out to a few spots you might want to visit if you do plan on checking this out while it's still happening.

Here's a quick view from inside our car on the way there. High winds had kicked up a lot of sand from the dunes off highway 190, the motorcyclists had it the worst! The winds were averaging around 35 mph with gusts up to 50 mph - terrible conditions for camping.

windy

Luckily, we checked out forecasts along the way there and it looked pretty favorable that the winds would die down by the evening, which they did for the most part. Here is Astro Bandit saying farewell to the storm.

You can see a sparse blanket of desert gold flowers along the base of the image above. Funny that it's called the 'desert gold flower', because the rainbow we saw on the way into the park definitely led us to believe we might find the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. 

We found our pot of gold :)

That night the winds kicked back up so we opted to sleep in the car rather than try to set up a tent in 25 mph winds (no thanks). Throughout the night, we listened to other campers shouting and yelling as their tents whipped and blew over from the strong wind gusts. I felt pretty good about our decision to not set up a tent.

At 3:30am, we woke up so that I could snap this image of the Milky Way over the mesquite dunes using my star-tracker tool that allows for much longer and clearer exposures of stars. The hike out there took about an hour and it was tough to navigate in near pitch black conditions. I'm glad we got to a decent spot before just the sun came up! You can see the sunrise start to fade in on the lower left of this image below:

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My camera settings for this exposure above were F2.8, ISO 1600, with a 78 second exposure time. I lit the dunes from frame left and right with a red/blue tipped Night-Writer.

While we were there, I added a rattlesnake to my Spirit Animals series just before dawn broke on the horizon. 

Good Morning Death Valley! Now it's time for some coffee.

Day 2

We did some exploring around badwater basin and found a weird hole in the ground that lead to what looks like part of an aquifer under all that salt! Crazy stuff (tap an image to see it large):

That night we went to the Artist's Palette, a colorful mountain in Death Valley formed by volcanic activity. If you visited this place in person, you'd say 'it looks photoshopped'.

Here it is at blue hour, just after sunset:

It's tough to compete against a background as colorful as this with a light-painting, but I was feeling this one because I've had this creature on my mind for a few weeks now.

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Don't let Looney Tunes and the Wile E. Coyote fool you, the greater roadrunner is also a vicious predator. Just look at the poor lizard in it's beak, or imagine it eating a rattlesnake (they do). These guys will eat almost anything smaller than them including snakes, lizards, tarantulas, black widows, scorpions and mice. It's easy to imagine them as evolutionary descendants of a dinosaur like the velociraptor.

Light-Walker

Location: Badwater Basin - Death Valley, CA / Settings: F5.6, ISO 50, 110 seconds per frame

Here we are at Badwater Basin in Death Valley, CA - night just fell, and you can see how windy it is by the amount of dust blowing in the distance behind our spectral light-skeleton above.

My goal was to make the skeleton walk - and have the light reflected on the puddles below. To do this, it requires a bit of pre-planning. I had my friend Craig shoot a few reference images at our campsite earlier that day - I glanced at these for every new frame to get the motion correct:

It's a bit jerky, but I think the overall goal was met - I was happy to get the hell out of those 40mph winds!

Here's a view of what Badwater Basin looked like just the day before - the winds blew nearly all that water away in less than 24 hours:

For a look at some more finished animation work, check out the Video section.

Sands of Time

Location: White Sands, NM / Settings: (Composite) Light art at F7.1, ISO 50, 547 seconds. Sky at F3.5, ISO 1600, 13 seconds.

White Sands New Mexico is a wonderful place to visit in person, it's not like most dunes on Earth. At around 275 square miles, White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

White sand reflects light and can be seen as slightly peach, blue, or purple depending on what time of day you visit. 

Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah is a dune of a different color. Made of wind-swept Navajo Red Sandstone, grains of iron-tinted quartz give it the reddish color. Here's the meager contents of my wallet for color comparison:

coral sand dunes

One of the most interesting features to sand dunes is the patterns they can develop during strong winds.

Here are some unadulterated dunes on my last visit to Death Valley at the Mesquite Dunes:

For more incredible landscapes, check out my Nature Collection.

Ultra-violence

Location: Badwater Basin - Death Valley, CA / Settings: F11 at ISO 100, 608 second exposure

Blue hour in Death Valley is a great time to photograph and I selected Badwater Basin for it's notoriously cracked and flat expansive surface. Because this area is basically a huge deep bowl, it gets incredibly hot in the summer and even in Winter when we were shooting it was around 90 degrees out!

This translates to: not good for camera sensors. I had a difficult time cleaning up some of the noise for this exposure that took nearly ten minutes to shoot. That said, I'm pretty stoked on this ultra-violent creation.