Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

Recent Publication – Outdoor Photographer Cover

The annual Landscape Special issue of Outdoor Photographer is out, with a featured shot of the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley by yours truly.
The annual Landscape Special issue of Outdoor Photographer is out, with a featured shot of the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley by yours truly.

Outdoor Photographer’s annual landscape special has just come out, with a cover shot front and center by yours truly. It was great to see my shot featured on the cover of this premier national photography magazine, on what is traditionally their best selling issue of the year. To have my photo appear along side those from masters such as Frans Lanting and James Kay is an honor.

The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park
The Mesquite Dunes stretch across the valley just north of Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley National Park

I took this shot of the Mesquite Dunes just before sunset in the spring of 2012. I was drawn to this composition by the intensity of the sand patterns. Since they were the real story in this shot, I emphasized the foreground to allow the pattern to take up about 5/6 of the frame. However, I wanted to give it some context, so instead of creating a sand wave abstract, I included the horizon line with the dunes and mountains beyond.

Eye Of Stone

Petrified sandstone forms in layers of design along the walls of Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park
Petrified sandstone forms in layers of design along the walls of Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

This week’s photos are late-comers to the blog from my recent Death Valley trip. They are sandstone detail shots taken near the mouth of Mosaic Canyon, shot mid-day under a partially cloudy sky. The patterns of the canyon were really wild – these are just a sampling of the swirling colors and carved shapes.

In order to get the colors of the sandstone to really show, I needed full shade – here direct sunlight was not my friend. I would have preferred a cloudier day, but one must work with what they are given. As it was, I was forced to shoot only the side of the canyon that was in shade, and that shade was disappearing by the minute as the sun moved directly over the canyon opening. As the sun crept up the wall that I was shooting, I began to wish for a large shade (and an assistant to hold it too!)

Petrified Sandstone ripples in layers along the wall of Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park
Petrified Sandstone ripples in layers along the wall of Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley National Park

Abstracting A Season

Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.
Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.

I recently processed these photos that I took last fall near my home. I happened upon some trees in full fall color that were being reflected in beautiful light off the surface of a wetland slough. I spent some time just watching different parts of the water, and then isolating the varied reflections with a long lens.

Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.
Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.

The patterns and colors in the water were changing so quickly, that I didn’t have time to see what I liked, compose a shot, and then capture it. I mainly looked for larger areas of interesting color (which changed moment to moment) and then took a bunch of exposures within that area.

Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.
Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.

I also played with varying shutter speeds to see the effect on the pattern separation and motion blur. I took several hundred shots (one of the many benefits of digital), and then selected these shots as my favorites.

Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.
Fall colors are reflected in the surface of moving water ripples. The ripples turn simple reflections into endless patterns.

I always try to keep my eye out for patterns in nature. Sometimes a photograph is so abstract, the viewer cannot immediately identify the subject. This can be a lot of fun, and a real departure from the realism with which natural history photography is often associated.