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Capturing Context and Subtleties Together

Get Zeiss Otus 28mm f/1.4 and Nikon D810 DSLR B&H Photo.

(Early March) A group of photographers woke me up around 5:00 AM with headlights and dust clouds from vehicles, and at first I was grumpy about it (it had been a long night). But my eyes grudgingly accepted my contact lenses, so I grabbed my gear, and hiked up a bit in the opposite direction.

So often, landscape and location shots leave the viewer uninformed with little context or sense of place: there isn’t much to go on as to what goes on 'there'. The transgression is compounded by using a recognizable or iconic location, which is “cheating” in a sense—relying on the viewer’s a priori knowledge, rather than communicating maximally. More than one image makes it easier, but convention is a serious challenge, and it’s a trap for the photographer. I am frequently guilty of this myself, and so are first class publications like National Geographic, which necessarily omit a lot; I often find myself frustrated with the photo and a personal coverage and it’s why I take some of the images I do, which would never make a cover shot. Specific close-range details of a place interest me more than most overall views, whereas iconic views are relatively boring, no matter how gorgeous the lighting.

I have a lot of images of Death Valley, but this one below turns out to be one of my favorites, for reasons that derive from the above with specifics following below. It was and is a good lesson to incorporate; I grudgingly made the shot, at first not wanting the cars or people, then realizing that both were a key part of the image and that the sum total was an unusual opportunity.

Comments below on why I think this image is highly successful.

Photographers at Dawn, 20 Mule Team Canyon, Death Valley
f6.3 @ 10.0 sec, ISO 64; 2016-03-10 06:44:52
NIKON D810 + Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 ZF.2

[low-res image for bot]

The core reason I like this shot is that it pulls together just about everything about Death Valley in one neat shot. There is a lot here that may not be obvious at first, yet many visits inform me as to relevance:

  • The “backstage” parked cars neatly tucked into a 'corner' that will be omitted in every image made by their owners and yet are ever-present anywhere near a popular location.
  • The sense of scale provided by the cars, and, particularly the people.
  • Motion blur of the photographers on the hillside, emphasizing the dim light of pre-dawn.
  • The distant headlights of an early morning traveler heading south from Stovepipe Wells.
  • The carsonite roadside markers that will be omitted from the photographs made by this group, yet are ever-present in the park. Who shows carsonites in a photograph? I like that they are there in this image.
  • The sinuous road, which can be seen at near, mid and far distances down 20MTC.
  • The footworn paths up the near and far hills impacted by human footprints in many places, both obviously and subtly (more visible at full size). Juxtaposed with the fractal-like rock and mud detail everywhere, repeating and turning on itself. Short term and long term impacts.
  • Juxtaposition: the aging blue van echoing the bluish dawn lighting with its flaking paint echoing erosion, its occupant being a relatively hard-core outdoorsy overnight camping visitor, along with the shiny and clean modern vehicles that will soon return to the hotel/motel, scampering out for this early morning image before everyone returns for breakfast indoors. Intimate and casual visitors, a park invariant.
  • The multiple-country origin of the vehicles, as with many visitors, especially Europeans.
  • Dawn in 20 Mule Team Canyon and with a view towards Zabriskie Point makes it even more appropriate: these are two very popular locations to visit and dawn is the time—a photograph of the photographic 'draw' these places exert on visitors.

By enumerating the above points, I clarified to myself my own experiences there, realizing how much is really captured in the image that reflects repeated experience—the hardest thing to photograph by being too familiar with it. I presume that no one but me would choose this image for hanging on the wall as a large print, and yet it is far more interesting to me than an image without these elements, particularly the human ones.

Did I realize all this prior to making the shot? Only in a vague intuitive way, but it’s why I made it. It turned out to be the best of that morning (debatable perhaps) and serves as a good reminder to stray out of my pre-conceived notions of what to photograph at dawn.

This and other images made a short time later.

Colorful Eroded hills, Pre-Dawn, 20 Mule Team Canyon
f8 @ 4.0 sec, ISO 64; 2016-03-10 06:49:33
NIKON D810 + Zeiss Otus 1.4/28 ZF.2

[low-res image for bot]

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