Tag Archives: California

New Photos added to my San Francisco Gallery

I’ve just added a number of new images to my San Francisco Gallery.  This includes my best images taken during my recent trip and many of them haven’t been previously published

I hope you enjoy them.

Click this link to see my updated San Francisco Gallery.2017 California 03 12 0745-Pano

 

Posted in Buildings/Ruins, California Also tagged , |

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Racetrack Playa is high on the bucket list for many landscape photographers…and with good reason.  Photos of the ‘sailing rocks’ with their long mysterious trails winding off behind them on the vast mud playa captures our imagination.  Your inner-child has to wonder how the heck those boulders move and the photographer in you recognizes the potential for dramatic photography.  Although Racetrack Playa is a photographic icon, I was surprised that there weren’t many ‘how-to’ photo tips available  on the internet.   So this article will address that shortcoming…consider it my effort at ‘paying it forward.’  So to help you make the best of your next visit, here is Racetrack Playa:  Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“The Long and Winding Road” (apologies to the Beatles)

Racetrack-damage[1]

Sad…very sad.

Before I begin, let me make a plea.  The Racetrack is fragile and easily damaged…its surface is nothing more than a thin crust of dried mud.  Fortunately a few simple precautions will allow you to avoid causing any harm:

  1. Don’t drive out onto the Playa with any vehicle (including bicycles). They are not allowed on the Playa because they can leave tracks which can remain for years.  There is no reason other than pure maliciousness to drive on the plaza.  Check out this blog to see the damage a jerk in a car can do.
  2. If the Playa is wet, do not enter it.  Not even on foot.  Your footprints will remain a permanent feature on the Playa until the next good rain…which could be years.  If it is wet during your visit, please be considerate to the visitors who will follow you over the years and don’t walk out onto the Playa.

 Racetrack Playa Description

Racetrack Playa is located in a remote high desert valley in California’s Death Valley National Park.  The Racetrack is a playa:  A huge dry flat lakebed surrounded by mountain ranges.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The surface of the Playa is a mosaic of sun-baked mud

It’s larger than you might think:  2.8 mi (4.5 km) long (north-south) by 1.3 mi (2.1 km) wide (east-west).

It’s real claim to fame of course are the ‘sailing stones’ (also called the ‘rollling stones’, ‘moving rocks’ or ‘sailing rocks.’)   The floor of the valley is littered with rocks and boulders (some of them weighing hundreds of pounds and the size of large television sets ).   The fascinating thing is that the rocks have long, winding trails behind them.  Clearly they move across the valley and how that happens has fired imaginations for generations. Theories included everything from aliens from nearby Area 51 playing hockey to stuff that was really ridiculous.  Recent research  has shown that the rocks actually move on thin sheets of ice that slide across the valley during a rare combination of weather events.  Personally, I like the alien theory better, but either way, you can’t stand on the Playa without a sense of wonder enveloping you.

Getting There

Death Valley is only a couple of hours by car from Las Vegas (or 4 hours from Los Angeles).  Getting to Death Valley isn’t a problem, but getting to the Racetrack is another story.

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0406-Pano

Ubehebe Crater. It is difficult to capture this facinating subject well…at least I haven’t been able to do so yet.

Racetrack sign

Sign at the beginning of Racetrack Road

Once you are in the park, head north on Scotty’s Castle Road to Grapevine junction where you turn west onto Ubehebe Crater Road.  Take it to the end where you will see Ubehebe Crater.   At the crater, you will find a sign for Racetrack Road.  That’s where the pavement ends and the real adventure begins.

You’ve heard the expression “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Well, they weren’t talking about the Racetrack.

Racetrack Road is 28 miles of broken rocks, huge potholes and the worst washboarding you will probably ever experience.  Racetrack Road is graded once per year but you might not even notice:  the road is still hideous.

Note:  There actually are a couple of other roads/trails to the Playa but they are much worse than Racetrack Road.   I’ve never had a reason to try them.

  • Vehicle Suggestions

    1. You will need a high/clearance vehicle.  I’m not saying a regular sedan/van can’t make it but understand that there is a good chance you will damage or destroy your undercarriage.  I’m not exaggerating.  On my last trip down Racetrack road, I saw three vehicles broken down in the first few miles.
      • There is no cell service.  If you break down you get to wait until another vehicle comes by and hope they stop.  It isn’t a well travelled road, so you could be waiting for hours.
      • If you are in a rental, nearly all their contracts forbid off-road driving.  If you got the rental insurance, you will find it doesn’t cover you either if you go off-road. You will pay for the repairs out of your pocket
      • Getting a tow-truck here is insanely expensive…like well over $1,000.  I know people who have had to spend twice that amount.
    2. A 4 wheel drive vehicle isn’t necessarily mandatory if you are careful (and lucky).  But unless you are very experienced at driving off road, it would be a good thing to have.
    3. Bring a full-size spare tire (or two).  This isn’t a gravel road.  It is sharp, broken rocks.  They slice open tires (especially sidewalls).  I’ve NEVER driven this road without seeing at least two people changing flat tires. Racetrack Road is notorious for damaging light-duty passenger car tires
    4.  Also bring a can of fix-a-flat or tire plug kit, a 12-volt air-compressor, a lugwrench, and be sure all parts of your jack are on hand.

So, you don’t want to take a chance with your rental or personal car…and you don’t have a high-clearance vehicle and live close enough to actually drive to Death Valley…what can you do?  There are only two options:

  1.  Take a Tour.  There are a few companies who will take you out to the Racetrack.  I’ve never taken a tour, so I can’t review them.  However, the tours I’ve checked on usually only spend a couple of hours actually at the Playa…and  they take you there in the middle of the day when photography is far from ideal.
  2. Rent a jeep from Farabee’s.
    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    My Farabee’s Jeep Wrangler on the road to the Racetrack

    Farabee’s rents jeeps specifically for off-road use in Death Valley.  (see this link)  Their jeeps are well-maintained and modified with beefed up suspensions and heavy duty tires, plus they give you a GPS Spot unit (this sends a signal to a satellite in case of emergency).  They aren’t cheap.  A rental will cost you about $250 for a 2 passenger jeep and another $50 for a 4 seater.  Plus, the rental isn’t for a full day.  You pick up the jeep after 8 am and you have to return it that night…or you pay for a second day.   If you want to photograph the Playa at night or at sunrise, you need to plan on a two day rental.

Driving Tips

  1. Make sure your gas tank is full before you start your drive to the Racetrack.   Gas stations are few and far between.
  2. If the road is wet, or if rain is in the forecast (rare, but it happens), then don’t go.  Even 4WD vehicles can have problems if the roads are wet and unless you are an expert off-road driver, you will likely find it beyond your capabilities.

    Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

    A selfie with my son at Teakettle Junction

  3. Drive right down the center of the road.  Don’t try to ‘smooth out’ the ride by driving with one set of tires on the edge of the road and the other on the ‘hump’ in the middle of the road.  The sharpest rocks are found on the side of the road and you will greatly increase your chances of tearing out a sidewall.
  4. The road is narrow (not wide enough for two vehicles to pass in many locations) and there are a few blind corners.  However,  you can see dust clouds from approaching vehicles well in advance.  I’d suggest you slowly pull over and stop before approaching cars reach you and let them pass safely
  5. Keep you speed down.  I’ve seen folks take the road at 40+ mph…and although the ride seems to me to be smoother at higher speeds, your chances of hitting a pothole or nice big sharp rock is greatly increased.  It usually takes me about 2 hours to drive the 28 miles….yes, I know that is less than 15 mph….take your time, it is worth it.
  6. Stop at Tea Kettle Junction.  About 22 miles down Racetrack Road, you will run into a ‘road’ junction called TeaKettle Junction.  It is traditional to stop here for a photo (it’s a nice break anyway) and if you have one with you, tie a tea kettle to the sign. At this point you have about 6 miles to go.  Soon enough you will see the Playa.

When to Go

Time of Year

Not the summer.  Death Valley got it’s name for a good reason.  Summer temperatures hit 120 F/49C…in the shade.  Heck, Farabee’s closes for the months of June, July and August because no one is crazy enough to be out in that heat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Usually the sky doesn’t add much to your images at the Racetrack, but exceptions to that rule can be wonderful!

High °F Low °F High °C Low °C
67 40 January 19 4
73 46 February 23 8
82 55 March 28 13
91 62 April 33 17
101 73 May 38 23
110 81 June 43 27
117 88 July 47 31
115 86 August 46 30
107 76 September 41 24
93 62 October 34 16
77 48 November 25 9
65 38 December 18 4
91 63 Year 33 17

My favorite time of year to visit the Playa is February or March.  The only downside to spring is that it can get really windy.  If you want clouds in the sky to spice up your shots, then your best bet is to visit in winter or in April/Sept during the cusp season for summer monsoons.

Time of day

2016 SW Death Valley 03 05 0422

This shot was taken during the middle of the day. The lack of shadows makes it look flat.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This shot was taken right after the morning sun cleared the mountains to the east. The low-angle light makes the image much more dramatic.

Although the novelty of the sailing stones makes the Playa photogenic anytime of the day, it really is at it’s best in the morning after the sun rises over the surrounding mountains or in late afternoon just before it dips below the horizon.  This is because sun is at a low angle during those times of the day and that dramatically increases the shadows in the mud mosaics Playa floor.  The shots to the left and right demonstrate that effect.

Also the color of the Playa is a non-descript, washed-out light tan.  However it can take on an attractive golden hue near sunrise/sunset.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Sun Racer”

Be aware that since the Playa is in a valley, the sun will set about a half hour before ‘official sunset’ time due to the mountains to the west.  By the same token, you won’t see the sunrise until 30+ minutes after the ‘official sunset’ as well.

You need to get to the Playa early enough to give yourself some time to scout around.  The Playa is pretty large and the sailing stones are somewhat dispersed, so you need to have time to locate some photogenic ones before the light is right.  I’d suggest planning at least two hours for scouting.

If you enjoy shooting at night, the Playa can reward you with incredible images of the Milky Way (see section below about shooting here at night).  The Playa is at an elevation of 3,700′ and is located well away from most light pollution,  Shots of the Playa lit up by moonlight are also amazing.

What to  Bring:

  1. There is no water, food, gas or phones (or cell service) on Racetrack Road or at the Playa.  In other words, you need to bring with you all the supplies you might need during your trip.  Especially the water…lots of it.
  2. There is a port-a-potty at the Playa’s campground a couple of miles south of the Playa (see map).  It may or may not have toilet paper.  Other than that, you are on your own.
  3. Obviously you are going to be in a lot of sun.  Don’t forget a hat, lightweight breathable clothing and sunscreen.
  4. It would be a good idea to bring some goggles (especially in the spring).  When the wind starts blowing, the sand can be hard on your eyes.
  5. Don’t forget a tea kettle so you can leave a memento at the Junction;)

If you are going stay over night at the Playa:

The campground I mentioned is about 15-20 minutes past the Playa and it has about a dozen sites which are first come first served.  They are nothing more than a small area cleared of stones, but they will do if you bring a tent.  If you happen to visit during the spring, be aware that the wind at night can be incredible.  During my last visit, the wind was so intense that my trusty MSR tent nearly collapsed and the noise and constant movement made sleep impossible.  Some folks just sleep in their vehicles at the parking lots by the Playa.

The Playa can get cold at night so bring some warm clothes if you are planning to shoot after sunset from November thru March.

Photo Gear:

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

The Playa is big it takes some time to walk between the rocks. Spend some time scouting and have your ‘primo’ rocks picked out before the light is at it’s best.

  1. There is a lot of dust and grit at the playa.  Bring your lens cleaner and lots of microfiber cloths so you can keep your equipment clean.  Try to minimize lens changes.
  2. Bring your wide angle lenses.  I find that most of my shots here are taken between 16-35mm on a full frame camera (30-75mm on APS-C camera).  You probably won’t have much need for telephoto lenses at the Playa.
  3. Tripod.  A lot of your shots will involve getting real close to the rocks but trying to keep the background in focus as well so a tripod will come in handy…especially if you are shooting in low light near sunrise/sunset.
  4. A remote shutter release
  5. A polarizer will help make the blue skies really pop.  They will make a nice contrast for the pale-tan playa surface
  6. If you do any time-lapse photography, this is an incredible venue for it…bring your gear.

Okay, So you have your gear and made it to the Plaza, now what?

Racetrack Road enters the valley containing the Racetrack from the Northwest. Most of the sailing stones are located in the far southeastern corner of the Playa.  There really isn’t much of interest in the rest of the Playa except for the Grandstand.  The grandstand is a 73′ tall hunk of nearly black rock that rises out of the Playa’s flat surface.  If you have a lot of spare time on your visit, walk out and check it out.  Personally, I don’t find it particularly photogenic and would rather spend my time photographing the sailing stones.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Close-up of the Grandstand

 

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

This is the view from the edge of Racetrack Road about halfway down the Playa.  You can see the Cottonwood mountain ridge on the far side and the Grandstand is visible just left of the center of the shot if you look closely.

Drive down Racetrack Road (it runs along the western edge of the Racetrack) to the last (most southern) parking area near the end of the Playa.  Park here.  The sailing stones are located directly across the Playa.   If you have a compass, set your heading at about 70 ° (this is northeast), grab your gear and get going.  As you walk east across the Playa, it will at first look empty but you will start seeing the rocks after you get about halfway across.  Distances can be deceiving here…remember, the Playa is more than a mile wide…it is going to take you a while to get across.  The good news is that the number of rocks increases the closer you get to the opposite side.  The map below will help you familiarize yourself with the area:Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

Photo Techniques & Tips:

Scouting:

  • I know I already mentioned this, but you really need to scout around during the day and have some images preplanned so that you are prepared when the light gets good at the end of the day (or right after sunrise, if you spend the night at the Playa).  The best light doesn’t last long and it takes time to walk from one rock to another plus some of the rocks are just more photogenic than others.  Scouting ahead will allow you to take full advantage of your time on the Playa.

Perspectives:

  • Try setting up your tripod a few inches off the ground near a rock and use it anchor your image in one corner while showing the vast playa and distant mountains in the background.Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro.
Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“One Rock, Two Trails”

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“From the Source”

However, one fascinating aspect of the Playa are the trails the rocks make, not just the rocks themselves.  They twist, cross each other and make all types of eye-appealing designs.  Don’t miss the chance to set your tripod to its full height and capture that perspective as well.

F/22 or Focus Stacking:

You will likely want to try to keep everything in focus throughout your image.  That can be difficult if you have a rock a foot from your lens but also have distant mountains in the background.

If you are comfortable with focus-stacking, it can be quite helpful at the Playa.

Otherwise, set your aperature to f/22, switch to Manual Focus and use your Live-View.  Adjust the focus point until you can get the image sharp from front to back.

Night photography:

The Playa at night is a nearly mystical place to be…as quiet as anyplace I’ve ever been.  The photo potential is incredible.

First of all, you need to know where the rocks are.  It can be surprisingly difficult to find the rocks on the Playa at night…even if you spent hours there the same afternoon.  Give yourself plenty of time to find them or mark their locations with a personal GPS device during the daylight.  A flashlight will obviously come in handy.

Racetrack Playa: Photo Guide and Tips from a Pro

“Midnight Run” This is a combination of two photos taken a couple of minutes apart. The rock in the foreground was illuminated for a couple of seconds with a small flashlight during a 400+ second exposure. The Milky Way shot was taken a few moments later…it is a 22 second exposure.

Personally, I like to do a bit of light painting on a rock, while taking a long exposure with a low ISO.  Then, I switch to a higher ISO (like 3500 or so) and take a 20-35 second exposure to capture the Milky Way.  After I get home, I merge the two shots together.  Click here for more details on how to take good Milky Way shots and the equipment you will need.

If anyone else is out photographing the Playa at night while you are, it might be a good idea to team up with them so you both aren’t ruining each others shots with your lightpainting.

Recap:

So, that should give you enough info to help you avoid the ‘rookie’ mistakes I made during my first trips to the Racetrack.  By the way, if you would like to read a blog with details about my last trip there, hit this link.  It isn’t a ‘how-to’ article but you might find it interesting and pick up a few more tidbits of info.

Take care and enjoy your trip to one of the coolest places on the planet.  Feel free to email questions and if you have suggestions for other tips, just let me know and I’ll revise this article.  Plus, if you want to share some of your Racetrack photos with me,  I never get tired of them!

Jeff

 

 

Posted in California, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides, Southwest U.S.A. Also tagged , , , , |