How “Crack Addict” Came Together
I recently spent a couple days in Death Valley National Park in California. I visited back in 2014, and was blown away by the vastness of the park. I remembered driving for miles and when I looked around it appeared as though I hadn’t even moved. I also remembered walking around Badwater Basin for over twelve hours over the course of two days and not finding anything I wanted to shoot. It seemed as though the salt polygons had all vanished or otherwise eluded me! Fast forward to January 2017, and I was much more prepared. I only had two days on this trip as well, so I spent several hours researching ahead of time. I wanted to find one thing this time around: mud tiles! After scouring satellite imagery, consulting with other photographers and plenty of walking around, I found what I was looking for. It was like a dried mud paradise. Big cracks, little cracks, and everything in between. After marking several spots via GPS, I planned out my shoot for the following morning. This is my first post in a “new release” series in which I will delve into my planning, composition, shooting and processing for each shot. Keep reading for more!
Anyone that has been to Death Valley knows that it is easy to walk around for hours and not find any compelling foregrounds. That is exactly what I did the first time I visited in 2014. With that in mind, I wanted to do as much planning ahead of time as possible. I have been wanting to capture mud tiles for as long as I can remember, so that was goal number one. Google Earth and USGS Earth Explorer are my favorite tools for satellite imagery. I zoomed into Badwater Basin and began to scour the areas that looked like washes. These areas have a high chance of mud tiles, but often times after seeing them in person they are nothing more than loose dirt. I narrowed down the list to about 3 places I wanted to review. I then used Google Street View to determine what I could see from ground level. The three areas looked promising, and so I marked them on a saved Google Map for future reference. After this, I used Gaia GPS to download the maps of noted areas so I could use them in the field. Finally, I contacted some photographer friends for additional input, which is always a great way to confirm things.
Composition & Shooting
Upon arrival at the location seen in “Crack Addict,” I walked around for about two hours. Each time I found a compelling composition, I took a photo with my iPhone to mark the track / gps waypoint with Gaia. I can then review these shots to pick out my favorites, and also find my way back to the exact spot in the dark. I did this the day before the planned shoot. The next morning, I arrived an hour before sunrise. I walked out to my choose spot, following my gps. I knew I wanted a very close and wide view of the circular mud tiles, so I set my tripod up as low as possible, which is about 3″ off the ground. I used my Nikon 16-35mm f4 lens set to 16mm. I wanted to show the circular crack prominently in the image, so I kept it close to the bottom edge of the frame, but left plenty of space for some additional leading lines. I manually adjusted exposure so I captured detail in all the darkest areas. I then shot four frames at different focus points to I could ensure sharpness from front to back. This setup was great, except it cut off too much of the awesome clouds in the sky. With that in mind, I panned up to frame the entire cloud formation, and took a separate exposure. I knew I could stitch these together in Photoshop later.
This shot was fairly straightforward to process, yet it took a lot of finesse to balance out. I had four frames for the foreground and one for the sky. I made my Adobe Lightroom RAW adjustments on one of the foreground shots, and then applied that to the other three foreground shots. I made sure to match total exposures to ensure seamless tones when blended. I adjusted the sky frame and then opened all 5 layers in Photoshop in one file. With the sky frame hidden, I manually aligned and masked in the foreground shots. I start with the closest focus point image, then mask in the next layer, and so on. I then made the sky layer visible and masked it in as well. After all these base adjustments, the true fun part began. I use an assortment of processing techniques, but most generally I use luminosity masks with curves or levels adjustments, dodging and burning layers, NIK Color Efex and Viveza. Most adjustments I make are very small and gradual, which I find results in a much more realistic look in the end. This file had 27 layers when complete. Finally, I sharpen for web display using Tony Kyuper’s action panel.
I had a great time making this image from start to finish, and I hope you enjoy it! Thanks for stopping by and I hope you get a chance to see mud tiles like this in person someday!