For anyone visiting Death Valley National Park, one of the intriguing attractions is the Racetrack Playa. This is an area in an ancient dry-lake bed where mysteriously moving rocks make tracks in the mud surface of the lakebed. Endless studies have been made, attempting to determine what force is actually moving the rocks.
However, as California nature photographers Neil and Susan Silverman recently discovered, “Getting out to the Racetrack is no easy matter — as in 27 miles of tough ‘washboard’ driving on primitive dirt road.”
On a recent scouting trip for an upcoming photo workshop, Susan and Neil decided to rent a Jeep and head out to be there for sunset and sunrise. “We have visited Death Valley many times and tried before to get to the Racetrack. But we had been put off by the thought of the probable punctured tires along the way — everyone told us to expect one or two flat tires. The tow fee out of there is over $1,000 according the the Rangers. Well, we decided to rent a jeep with good thick tires from the service station near Furnace Creek, and headed out.
“The trip out was interesting — a little rough and rugged. We only passed a couple of cars with flat tires; but one of the great stops along the way is Teakettle Junction. We found Teakettles from all over the world hung on the highway marker and most are signed with a personal message. Rangers clean these up every so often, but they do not destroy the kettles. They have been stored somewhere in the NPS site. (Wouldn’t that make a great exhibit at the Visitor Center?)
“We rented our jeep from noon to noon, so we could stay out for sunset and also be there for sunrise. The sunset was a loss, no light and as the winds picked up there was only one other occupied camp site. We camped in the jeep and hoped for good light in the morning. But sunrise the next morning was also a no-show. Basically the conditions for photography were a bust. No great light and no evidence of any rocks moving!
“We had our Singh-Ray Warming Polarizer and the 2-stop Graduated ND filter with us so we were able to bring some life into the sky. The challenge was to accent not only the sky (which was quite hazy) but to also bring out the texture of the tracks themselves. the polarizing filter helped cut the glare reflecting off the sand. Although one might not think that sand would have enough glare to be of importance, the polarizer really made a big difference. By hand holding the 2-stop soft-step Graduated ND filter in front of the 24-70 lens, we were able to deal with the sky and the mountains that were jutting into the horizon line.
“After renting the jeep, driving all the way out there and camping out in the most uncomfortable conditions (sleeping upright in a jeep); it was not easy to go home without some great photos to show for it. Yes, the experience was fun and part of the magic of the area; but we really wanted to have some fine-art-quality photos that did not need to be juiced up in a computer program. Even when the light is soft, Death Valley is beautiful; but on our particular Racetrack morning it was just flat and boring. We always try our best to capture images in camera — making only minor adjustments in Photoshop. That’s why the Singh-Ray polarizer and several ND Grads are always in our bag. When we finally get to a special ‘always wanted to go there’ location, there is no way we are not going to shoot. Often as not, our Singh-Ray Filters compensate for less than ideal shooting conditions. We will definitely try to work the Racetrack into a future Death Valley Workshop. With a good Jeep and the proper Singh-Ray Filters, everyone will come out with a good experience and some great images. Just be sure to bring along wind protection for your camera, your filters and an autographed tea kettle for good luck.”
In addition to their workshops, Susan and Neil photograph for magazines, their own gallery and stock photo clients. Their work is represented by both national and international stock agencies and has appeared in a variety of publications.