Early in the learning journey of your typical landscape photographer, the habit is to snap away at the scene in front of the camera lens and move on to find other targets of opportunity. Some experience later, and the photographer is likely to set up their camera on a tripod after carefully considering a scene for its compositional potential. They will keep their focus on what is happening in front of their lens, however, until one day, either on the advice of another photographer, or because they just happen to glance over their shoulder out of some sixth sense, they learn the valuable lesson that will stick with them for the rest of their lives: Always Look Behind You.
On a cold, windy, miserable February morning, I was making my way from Las Vegas, Nevada to Bishop, California to spend a few days photographing the Eastern Sierra Mountains with the occasional trip into Death Valley as conditions warranted.
Sharing the car with me was another photographer who had never been to Death Valley before and who had it set in his heart to get a picture that morning of Badwater Basin from Dante’s View as we would be traveling by the turnoff to that area that morning. (Dante’s View overlooks Death Valley from the Amargosa mountains to the east and is situated roughly a mile above sea level.)
I questioned whether that morning would be a good time for that particular shot as it was very hazy with strong winds blowing. But my companion was determined, so up the mountain we drove.
Let me tell you, it was COLD up there! The temperature was barely in the 30’s and the winds were blowing very, very hard, making for an absolutely brutal wind chill. My companion, however, was undeterred and bundled himself in as many layers as he had with him in the car and trudged against the wind through the parking lot to the overlook.
I, meanwhile, was perfectly content to simply sit in the car with the engine running because I knew the hazy conditions were going to make for very flat light in the valley and was really not the sort of light you wanted for that shot. So, I kept the engine running and the heater blowing and was happy to let my friend freeze while I stayed nice and toasty.
That is, until I happened to glance in the rear-view mirror and saw what all that wind had done in the east, behind the car and in the opposite direction my friend was shooting. Then I was out of the car so fast I didn’t have time to put my coat on. I grabbed my camera with a 200mm lens and ran across the parking lot in the opposite direction from where my friend was shooting.
You see, all that wind was kicking up all kinds of dust and sand from the dry regions of the Amargosa Mountains and all that stuff in the air caused the morning light to turn blue and that, coupled with the phenomenon of “atmospheric extinction” (where the further something is from you, the lighter in and less-saturated its colors will be) rendered the various ridges that make up the Amargosa Mountain range into a palette of blue shades. Even the sky itself was a light shade of blue.
I captured a total of 7 images before my hands and face went numb from the wind chill and I had to run back into the car and thaw out. My friend came back to the car not long after, happy with what he had captured. I pointed behind us and he jumped back out of the car to take some more pictures. And that’s how he learned: Always Look Behind You.