Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts

David Clapp shares his tales from his latest photography trip which took him to Death Valley.

| Landscape and Travel
Words and images by David Clapp -

In November 2011, I undertook a fabulous adventure to explore and photograph the California deserts. It's been a long time ambition of mine to photograph the deserts and one that has taken a while to organise with my good friends Mac and Bryan. Finding a time when all of us were free was the hardest part, taking over a year, but L.A bound, I could sense the trip would be filled with excitement.

Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts: Lone Pine
Lone Pine, a wonderful dawn - EOS 5D MkII, 70-300f4L IS @ 100mm f/11 for 2secs.

We landed

First stop was Lone Pine (above), renowned for its gunslining and tobacco chewing more than its landscape photography.

Lone Pine has been the prime location of many a Hollywood western and cafés and restaurants are filled with memorabilia. My first thoughts were how this landscape came to be, with its huge blobby rocks and extruded granite shapes but as with much of the USA, it becomes very apparent how utterly massive it is.

Lone Pine Dawn Shoot

This dawn shoot was complex. The previous afternoon's discovery had yielded no particular viewpoints, it was all about using your wits. All three of us split up and headed in different directions and as this wonderful colour developed to the north, I was running around trying everything possible to make the compositions balance.

Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts: Wonderful Shapes
Wonderful shapes - taken with a 24mm TSE MkII f/11 for 1sec.

I owe the above shot to Bryan. He had found it the day before and I managed to shoot this 20minutes before sunrise. It was very apparent to me that the best light would occur before the sun reached the horizon as clear desert skies would reduce shooting times considerably.

Mesquite Dunes

Then it was off to a place I have wanted to photograph for many years - the Mesquite Dunes. This complex of smaller dunes is near a small town called Stovepipe Wells. It's a small town in the middle of nowhere. Expect burning heat, dust storms and gigantic skies. All the images in my head were simple colours, blue and yellow. As the sun sank towards the mountains the lighting became sublime as the shadows defined the dunes into simple tonal curves.

Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts: Dawn Dunes
Spectacular Dawn - EOS 5D MkII, 24mm TSE MkII, f/11. Two images exposure blended.

The following morning I woke early to expect another clear dawn, preparing for soft shades and tones stepping aside to hard light. Nothing prepared us for such an incredible start to the day. Mac spilt from us and headed off alone, while Bryan and I traversed the dunes together.

Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts: Mesquite Dunes
Simple Shapes and Textures - wonderful warm side light, EOS 5D MkII, 24mm TSE MkII, f/16, 1/15th sec.

Nothing was as powerful as this moment. As the sun fired beams in every direction, the dark thunderclouds were situated perfectly above the twin peaks. I waited a few minutes for the sun to light the dunes to give it that necessary dimension, taking portrait and landscape shots before carefully advancing along the ridge.

Shooting in desert environments is very tricky. It is so important to think about your compositions with every step, as the image can be ruined by your footprints.

Part two of the account of my journey will be live on ePHOTOzine soon.

Words and images by David Clapp -

Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts: Taking Photos In The Californian Deserts:
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