Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California
Time / Date:
3:49 AM / December 27, 2013
Camera Body: Canon 6D
Lens: Carl Zeiss 15mm Distagon T* f/2.8 ZE
Shutter Speed: 30sec
Focal Length: 15mm
I went on a trip to Death Valley for Christmas with a few friends, and also because I’ve never been despite living in California for the past 10 years. We knew we wanted to visit a few specific places, but didn’t have a set schedule so that we could go with the flow and capture what came to us.
The general location, Mesquite Flat Dunes, was scoped out the day before. We tried to get some pictures there during sunset, but we arrived to late to really get to the right places or get ready for the right shots in time. With the moon still about 65% visible, we decided to do a night shoot after the moon rose at around 3 AM to get ample light so we could capture both stars and the landscape without having to resort to any trickery and maybe get a few shots during sunrise too.
There’s something incredibly surreal about seeing such an alien landscape like the desert. The textures you can find. The foot prints walking off into nothing. The beautiful, graceful curves. Many know these scenes all too well, though, so we set out to bring something different our pictures – star light.
I was packing a decent amount that night. I typically carry a Canon 16-35mm, 50mm f/1.2, and a 70-200mm. For my Death Valley trip, I bought a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 and rented a Carl Zeiss 15mm f/2.8. Because I’ve had such issue in the past with shooting my 70-200mm and keeping it stable, I brought my Really Right Stuff TV-33 tripod to be able to keep the tripod as still as possible for long exposures and just reduce camera shake in general. We also had a host of other lighting gear with us like big powerful flashlights, some steel wool, and other light toys to experiment with.
Making the Shot:
This is perhaps my favorite part – This shot actually was a test shot. Yep, that’s right. First thing when we arrived at the sand dunes was we wanted to head towards the biggest, tallest due, to get a view of the landscape. The problem was, we couldn’t find it in the dark. We had the bright idea to use the moonlight and a long exposure as night vision goggles, and we began taking shots of the landscape around us to see off in the distance. Now, despite this being a test shot, I did make an effort to somewhat interestingly frame the moon in the top/right of the frame. The beautiful orange flow of Las Vegas in the background was a complete surprise – we didn’t even know what it was until we looked on a map later and confirmed it. It wasn’t visible at all with the naked eye. Beyond that, I put the camera in AV mode, set the aperture to wide open, and started with an ISO I know to work well for night time / starry scenes – somewhere between ISO 1000 and ISO 2000. 30 seconds later, I was stunned with what I saw.
Editing & Processing:
I did all the editing for this shot in Lightroom. When shooting stars, there’s almost always some cleanup you can do on them due to the high ISO noise. I used the adjustment brush tool and painted over the entire sky – usually with a flow of around 25-30% and a bit of feather so I can gracefully transition the specific adjustments to just the stars, and fade away the adjustments as I get close to the skyline and foreground. I tend to not use the auto-mask tool because it can give “hard edges” to your edits, that can make elements in the scene look unnaturally lit. On the sky I increased the contrast to about 60, I dropped the highlights by about 20, and dropped the shadows all the way to -100. To bring out the crispness you want with stars, I increased the clarity by about 15 and to bring out the color in the stars I upped the saturation by about 20. To reign in that bright, lens flaring moon, I did some minor edits just around the moon to reduce highlights, shadows and exposure. On the foreground of the shot, I increased the clarity by about 50 to bring out all that great texture in the sand. On the entire image, I upped the contrast, clarity, and shadows to give my shots their typical ‘edgy’ crisp look.
I wish I had followed my heart and re-taken the foreground of this shot with a much longer 8min exposure at around f/8. At the time, I didn’t want to separate from my friends or make them wait for me to finish a sharper long exposure. But, it would have been sweet. I’m still incredibly happy with the image, sharpness or not.
You never know when your test shots could turn out being something truly unexpected and amazing! Unless a shot came out completely unusable like an accidental dark frame, or blurry accidental shot, wait until you get back to see how it looks on a big screen. You could be surprised.
My biggest inspiration is the incredible work of photographers much more talented than me on 500px. I look at many of the amazing places they go and things they capture and see if I can bring something new to it, and come even close to replicating some of their talented techniques and edits. I have to say I’m dying to visit Norway and Iceland after seeing some of the remarkable shots by Stian Klo.
About the Photographer
I’ve spent 15 years of my life writing software. My latest work was co-founding a startup called Square, and building their first iPhone app. I’ve always had an artistic side, so in early 2013 I bought my first DSLR and began getting sucked into the world of photography. It is now an incredible passion and hobby.
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