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Moonset at Dawn, Badwater, Death Valley

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 30 January 2011 in Landscape & Rural.


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Every once in a while I'll visualize a location shoot prior to arriving, running through my mind a plethora of finished visions as I like to call them. Rarely do all the pieces of the puzzle come together perfectly.

While assisting Gary Hart on his Death Valley workshop last week, Gary had informed me that the hexagonal salt flats at Badwater were under water from recent late-December rains, a condition not seen since 2005. We took the group to Dante's View (elevation 5,000 feet) for a sunset shoot the day before and I couldn't believe my eyes! Indeed the Badwater flats resembled a lakebed and visions of the snow-covered Panamints Range with a setting full moon began to race through my mind.

The next morning we awoke in the dark for the 25-minute drive to the lowest place in the western hemisphere (-282 feet below sea level) and walked the approximately quarter mile to the edge of the water. Soon, the warm light of the morning's twilight wedge began to appear. I was shooting straight ahead towards the mountains and Telescope Peak when this scene to my right started to catch my attention. The colors were beautiful and soft and fit nicely into one exposure. But I wanted them to last, to await the first kiss of light on the peaks and to allow for the setting moon to drop a bit lower into my frame. Other than a polarizer, no filters were used, the colors were as they appeared to my eye.

I bracketed a sequence of images from that magic morning but this image kept drawing me back during my edit. As for processing, it was simple, my regular global adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw and some sharpening with Nik Sharpener Pro. After sharpening, I ran the image through Topaz DeNoise 5 software - that's right, you read that right - after sharpening! As long as your noise reduction requirements are no more than moderate, this software allows you to apply the noise reduction as the last step without damaging the overall sharpness to the image - simply amazing!

For sunset, we went from the lowest location in the western hemisphere to photographing the highest in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney (14,494 feet). Sometimes Mother Nature decides to cooperate with my visions. Wish it was this easy all the time but I'm certainly not complaining.

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Richard Geven from Montferland, Netherlands

Wonderful mood you captured here looks like it's freezing cold there..

30 Jan 2011 7:48am

@Richard Geven: Actually it was very pleasant (low 50's) and as you can tell, zero wind, very still. Our daytime temps were in the low 70's! By summer, the temps will hit the 120 degree F range!

Matt Lomas Photography from Mansfield, United Kingdom

Nicely captured again Don, then again that is expected now. I have just come back from a trip to the Yorkshire Dales, spent my time capturing the waterfalls round there. Ill post some soon.

30 Jan 2011 8:53am

@Matt Lomas Photography: Let me know when you post your images Matt, my wife grew up in Yorkshire (Otley) and I have been there numerous times (but never for a serious photo trip). I do recall beautiful sweet light in the summer months that seemed to last forever. You live in a beautiful part of the world! I'll be back in the summer of 2012.

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

Thank you Don :-)

30 Jan 2011 9:27am

@KriKridesign: You are welcome Kristen - hope you are doing well :)

Mar'ya from Khar, Ukraine

marvelous:) and where is this bauty situatede?

30 Jan 2011 10:48am

@Mar'ya: This is located in Death Valley National Park in California Mar'ya, thanks for joining in on my blog.

Co33 from libourne, France

In addition to your photos, I love your comments. Almost like being there!
Thank you for sharing this beauty!

30 Jan 2011 11:59am

@Co33: I enjoy sharing the stories behind the images, I think that is fun, but some readers like the technical stuff too. Thanks for joining in, hope you come back again!

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

Death Valley is on my Bucket List, for sure Don....And this image is making me want to go there right this minute! I have hardly had time to think lately, let alone go far from home to photograph, but things should loosen up soon! And as for wishing things were "always this easy" Nah....I think you'd get bored!

30 Jan 2011 2:29pm

@Tracy: You are probably right Tracy, half the fun of photography is learning new concepts and trying out different ways to improve upon my image making - it keeps things fresh. I totally understand you have a hectic schedule with family and school obligations, but DV is awesome in the winter (and spring) because the crowds are down and there is always a potential for an interesting sky during the winter.

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

I remember 2005 , living in San Diego at the time, seeing images and ffotage of this area under was amazing. Your image here, Don is nothing short of amazing itself. In fact this is way more than amazing. This is magnificent. The leading line of the mountains doubled with their own reflection, all moving into the color of the sunrise just move the mind and soul into a wonderful place. The moon and these elements in the water - alkaline / salt , I suspect - really put together a compelling view. This is great. I have the Topaz DeNoise 5 but have not used it a whole lot yet...still trying to learn. Thanks to Jack Larson, he encouraged me to get the topaz suite a month or so back. I hope the ains help the situation as I am anticipating Scott's planned ventures to the south and my beloved Joshua Tree and maybe Anza Borrego...maybe even Mojave Preserve?? Anyway I digress...This is beautiful, Don...have a great week!

30 Jan 2011 7:54pm

@Denny Jump Photo: I have to be honest Denny, I had no idea it had rained that much when I arrived but had my first clue our first evening out on the Mesquite Dunes - the sand was very compacted and had moisture underneath the surface. Just glad I was able to witness and photography this scene.

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

I meant "rains"

30 Jan 2011 7:55pm

Maria Draper from California, United States

Don, this is so the colors and the lace-like foreground matching somehow the color variations of the mountains.
It seems you had a wonderful time in Death Valley, can't wait to see more.

30 Jan 2011 8:59pm

@Maria Draper: I have a lot to edit from both workshops Maria. It has taken me four days just to get somewhat caught up and I still have a ways to go. I hope you are doing well and thanks for your nice comments.

klauSZ from Kufstein, Austria

wow, an appealing mood and view!
it must be such an outstanding location there!
great shot!!!!

30 Jan 2011 8:59pm

@klauSZ: Death Valley is really sublime in that one must experience the Park under the correct light, which usually means dusk or dawn on clear sky days. The quality light comes and goes quickly.

Judy aka L@dybug from Brooksville, Florida, United States

FAR more water than when we were there in '99 ... the colors are so beautiful, and of course your work too. ;D

30 Jan 2011 11:19pm

@Judy aka L@dybug: Thanks you Judy - I've never seen this much water and I unfortunately was not there in 2005.

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

what a fabulous place and what a fabulous photo! just the perfect composition with excellent balance and almost a seamless transition of elements! beautiful work as always!

31 Jan 2011 3:18am

@DarkElf: Thanks, I appreciate your nice comments.

steve loos from hollister, United States

Don that water and background are beautiful; the sun on Telescope Peak is icing on the cake good decision to wait for that! Do you ever noise reduce then sharpen? I do that sometimes to keep from sharpening artifacts seems to work alright.

31 Jan 2011 4:34am

@steve loos: Prior to the Topaz DeNoise 5 software, that was the only formula I could follow Steve, noise reduction was always the first step after opening from RAW to Photoshop. Everything you did to the image after that had to be done in moderation or noise and/or artifacts would appear. DeNoise is not a cure-all but it is certainly a bold new step in reversing that process in that the software eliminates noise while not affecting sharpening, but only moderately.

Mike from California, United States

You got some great color and reflected moon in the foreground is a cool touch.

31 Jan 2011 5:40am

@Mike: I called this one the luck of the Hart though he did have the moon locations carefully mapped out. Neither of us thought we would witness this bold of color but we are not complaining!

James Guillory Photography from Garner, United States

Smith, got to love the stillness. Great reflections, and color. Beautiful image....

31 Jan 2011 2:39pm

@James Guillory Photography: What amazed both Gary and I was the fact that we were the only photographers present that morning. With all the internet forums out there, we would have thought some advanced amateur or professional would have been there to shoot the moonset but none were. That kind of makes this image unique!

JCJ from Troyes, France

beautiful tones!

31 Jan 2011 5:51pm

@JCJ: Thanks.

Vaido from Võrumaa, Estonia

Very beautiful set of tones is turned into perfect frame with this pattern in foreground and moon just in place...

1 Feb 2011 6:08am

@Vaido: For my type of photography, light and color is everything Vaido, it is what moves me to make an image. This scene had it all.

Hil from Roma, Italy

are you shure isn't a moon scape and there isn't a very small earth-set at dawn? however, excellent capture: we can immagine to walk through the water, ops, perhaps it's better to say, over the water. .:))

2 Feb 2011 6:15am

@Hil: Death Valley is rather other-worldly in appearance Hil, but as you can see, with the proper light, it is a magnificent photo op.