January 12, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                THE RIM OF DEATH VALLEY

This week I found out that in November Fran and I are invited to a destination wedding in I kid you not, Death Valley. Evidently this is a thing. I am skeptical, but supposedly there are some nice resorts in parts of the park that I didn't travel to with Benjamin  in 2015. So we will celebrate my niece's nuptials and use it as an excuse for a road trip. Fran has never been, so it will be an opportunity for me to show her one of the wildest places in the country. And since Benjamin and I visited in August, November will be child's play. It climbed to 120 degrees when we were there, and I abandoned the trip down to Badwater Basin way before we hit the bottom of the valley.

I took this invitation as a "sign" that it was time to revisit the archives and see what my recent software acquisitions, and my journey down the learning curve in their use, could do for some neglected images from that fist trip. I was pleasantly surprised at my success with these images, so let's take a look.

                A HEAT LADEN SNAPSHOT

Death Valley is more than sand dunes and colorful geology like Zabriskie Point. One of the big realizations of my first trip was that a lot of the impact of the place is that it is an incredible valley, surrounded by mountain ranges form the periphery of the park. The isolation one feels is not only due to the heat, but also because it is not exactly clear most of the time of the proper route to escape its clutches. In general, one always feels that you are only heading down , or at best keeping level, way below the surrounding moonscape. So please forgive the snapshot above, since I was probably only half-way through my dozen bottles of water that day. The dust and haze is only matched by the heat, and it's very easy to overexpose your shots all day, especially when you almost cease to care. There is no shade at all.


It is under conditions like these that Lightroom's new "Dehaze" filter really comes into its own. These mountains are not really that far away, in the great scheme of things. But the dust and heat in the air seem to disappear after utilizing this filter, which lowers exposure and increases contrast in its own unique way. As usual, the important thing is to use it very judiciously in order to avoid artifacts and other unrealistic results. What you see here is only 20% strength which certainly yields very dramatic results. I lowered the brightness of the dessert blue sky and cut the saturation  of the yellow valley floor; the result is as beautiful and foreboding as I remember our journey that day.


These other three images show what you can achieve through the art of "stitching" together multiple images to form a panorama that is unavailable in the field, no matter how wide angle a lens you bring along. These views are actually closer to what you see when you move your eyes to "take in the view" than a standard wide angle perspective. Only experience can lead to the confidence that your efforts will work out when you get back home at the computer. I have learned that modest expectations can lead to the best results, since most scenes cannot hold enough interest as the panorama gets wider and wider. These two first images are actually panoramas, but I have restricted the "wide angle" aspect ratio to just 2:1. I have found that this ratio leads to the best results on all but the kind of vistas that you might find at a place like Death Valley. Their is a "generous" feel of breadth without feeling that you have to scan the image itself because it's too wide. When you go view the very wide open shots of a Western at the movies, you are usually looking at a the "Cinematic" ratio of 16:9, which is a little shy of 2:1.


The original snapshot of the colorful scene above suffered from the same difficulties as the first image. I used On One's software's "Dynamic Contrast" filter to really enhance and sharpen the mid-tone contrast. The algorithm just makes things "pop" in subtly different ways than  you can get with other software tools. As usual, only experience will guide you in extreme moderation. You first lower the strength of the filter to a reasonable level; then you use advanced masking tools to restrict its effects to only the parts of the image that need them at all. In the black and white version I have lost all of the color contrast but have gained even more "crunch" in the textures. You decide what appeals to you more.

                GEOLOGY, NEAR AND FAR

Okay, in these last two images I have violated my usual rules and allowed myself a 3:1 ratio to take in the expanses available in Death Valley. In both cases I actually captured what would be a 5:1 ratio panorama. It is incredibly easy to go overboard out in the field when faced with such wide vistas. These 3:1 "crops" are plenty wide enough, and are already too wide for a realistic print on my or your wall. At only 16" tall, this image is already four feet wide and much more expensive than you or I can afford, even if we found a place to hang it.


What is interesting is that even though it is "all dessert",  Death Valley can provide so many different views even when you are driving along incredibly lonely roads on the way to the famous vistas on the postcards. I hope you have seen that the Park is an absolute delight, and that just stopping at a different side of the road can allow you to make the park your own. I am really looking forward to exploring it with Fran, at a balmy 90 degrees, thank you.