Death Valley is a common target of landscape photographers, and it’s a wonderful laboratory of earth processes, holding magnificent dunes and vast alluvial fans, along with the lowest elevation bottomlands in the US. It is as unforgiving in environment as it is in testing a newbie photographer.  I shot this at 1/8000 at f/3.5 ISO800, and I have no idea why… 
It is difficult to imagine, over a year later, not processing images, letting JPEG settings baked into whatever digital camera I was using dictate the photographic output. It has long been so cool to have immediate access to images, accepting that they looked “good enough”, that I never thought to concern myself with the fact that my composition did not match my impression of the scene or subject. I guess I did not even think to think that I could alter that – it had not even crossed my mind. I was mostly doing basic documentary photography any way, but can I not do that better?

In the early days of my landscape photography journey, everything seemed new and it was all an experiment and I was seduced by the joy of learning—I still am. I had been scheming my move into “better” photography with Daron, a friend and research colleague, who’s photos I enjoyed. Passing through his place in Las Vegas, Nevada, I showed him my new camera, along with a few photos from my recent Hope Valley excursion. He immediately explained a little bit about RAW files and post-processing in Lightroom. He was not deep into processing yet either, but he was at least one big step ahead of me.

I dove into my camera’s settings, shifted the file type to RAW, and headed home with the intent of downloading Lightroom, ordering a tripod, and continuing the journey. But first a stark, harshly lit road trip through Death Valley, Panamint Valley, and Owens Valley where—on the road to a project site I needed to visit—I jumped out of the truck to snap a few photos. I was so enthralled with taking a few RAW photos, thinking Daron had turned me on to something magically important—I simply failed to consider basic camera settings and had some atrocious results. I have no idea what I was thinking at the time. It was a bright sun-drenched day and my ISO seems to have been stuck on 800 and my aperture drifted toward wide open. This combination, therefore, required a super-fast shutter speed and produced rather poor depth-0f-field. I had absolutely no experience with post-processing so I wasn’t pushing things for some kind of effect, I just didn’t know what I was doing. The images here show some of my early processing; creatively learning Lightroom and Photoshop (the common tools of post-processing) is its own journey, and I had not started down the long road yet.

I have cropped this to salvage something from a terribly noisy and overly blue scene of the alluvial fans of eastern Panamint Valley. Our photographic journey can be a very long road.

If I’m going to photograph alluvial fans emanating dramatically from the Sierran mountain front, I may want to compose for the fan. It is completely lost here.  But at least I’d found the ISO button and dropped it down to a more suitable ISO200. 

I do like a few of the compositions I captured on the drive, but only because they emphasize the physical geography and geomorphic processes—here, the aeolian dust of Death Valley and the alluvial fans of Panamint and Owens Valleys—that I am most interested in photographing for documentary and creative purposes. There are some long roads in the images, maybe a conscious suggestion of my journey. I would like to find compositions and conditions that portray these interesting and dramatic features of the Great Basin (and elsewhere), as I continue my scientific investigation of past and present landscapes. But first, I need to take some basic steps of better photographic technique, composition, and practice. A lot of practice, with the camera and in my processing…

Let’s keep going…

DCraig Young

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D. Craig Young

Host of Trail Option, chaser of light and old dirt, bound to wander and wonder. Not exceptional at anything, but a solidly mid-pack trail runner, photographer, geographer, musician, and writer — there is a little of all that here.

Geoarchaeologist and Principal at Far Western Anthropological Research Group.

With my wife Desna, a founding partner of StoneHeart Ranch, our home on an old alluvial fan above Gardnerville, Nevada.

Thanks for joining me on the trails of the Great Basin and far beyond. These form my personal geography of art and science.

Let’s keep going…