The last time I visited the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park was in January of 2013. Despite it being utterly obvious to even write, I was a totally different photographer than I am today. I saw things differently, reacted to things differently, and composed things differently. My camera was different and my choice of lens was, too. On top of that, I had to contend with the excitement and novelty that comes with your first time actually stepping foot on the playa and seeing those legendary sailing stones just sitting there. Creativity-wise, it can be overload for photographers. I know it was for me. I grew up seeing photos of these moving boulders and read all sorts of stories purporting to explain how and why they glided so effortlessly across one of the driest areas on the planet [here is an article that explains it].
On the evening that I photographed the sunset over the playa back then, the weather conditions were great, albeit utterly freezing. We had a great sky with puffy clouds and a clear horizon that allowed for capturing a sunburst. Under the right creative conditions, I could have walked away with a few photos that I would have been really happy with. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case and I ended up feeling very disenchanted with my results. I simply wasn’t happy with the any of my compositions or editing choices. So be it. What I can promise you is that I certainly learned from that experience and knew that if/when I would return, I’d do things very differently. I’d take my time and be very deliberate.
And so two years transpired. I grew older and evolved my visual palette. I no longer had the compulsions and frenetic tendencies that I once did, rather learning to appreciate and savor the moment in front of me. So, when I found myself leading a workshop of nine students who had never stepped foot on the playa, I felt totally at ease. Rather than focus on getting all of “the shots,” I reveled in helping my students figure out their own compositional quandaries. After all, I immediately saw the same scattered excitement in them that I experienced for myself two years prior. So, why not help act as the photographic metronome for them? I certainly could have used that back then.
Alas, when golden hour approached and the mountain peaks exploded in alpenglow, it was time to execute. James and I helped those students who were in our vicinity with composing in what I could only describe as an orchestral manner. As for me, I was as ready as I’d ever been. I had waited two years for this moment. I knew exactly what I wanted to capture, how I wanted to capture it, and how I wanted to stylize it. My camera and tripod were locked in, focus set, and exposure dialed. When my students were done, I grabbed my shutter cable and fired two exposures for good measure. Nothing more and nothing less. Within seconds, the photo was wirelessly sent to my iPhone for review. Focus was sharp and the composition fully met my expectations. Redemption had been found.
Camera: Sony a7R with the Sony FE 16-35mm f/4
Filter: Formatt Hitech Firecrest 3-stop Soft Grad ND Filter
Tripod: Really Right Stuff TVC-34L/BH-55
Stylization: Lightroom 5.7