The Story Behind The Photo – Racetrack Playa In Death Valley

Back in January, I took a trip with some friends to photograph Death Valley. One of the key places I wanted to get to while there was the Racetrack Playa or simply, The Racetrack. It’s a valley area where the ground forms these mosaic polygonal patterns. You can read more about it here. Anyway, the Racetrack held up to the hype I’ve heard about it from other photographers and their photos, and the shot you see here is one of my favorites from the evening we were there.

(click on any photo in the post to see it larger)

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The Drive Out
The drive out to the Racetrack takes between 2.5 – 4 hours depending on where you stay in Death Valley. For us, it was close to 4 hours including stops at some places of interest along the way. The hardest part of the drive is the 28 mile rough gravel road where you can’t go that fast. You don’t “need” a 4WD vehicle but I wouldn’t be crazy about doing the drive without one. The first stop of interest along the drive out to the Racetrack is Ubehebe Crater. It’s pretty cool to look at but not very photographable. For me, it was enough to just snap a quick iPhone picture of it.

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The next stop is Teakettle Junction. It sounds like a big juncion but it’s basically just a fork in the road, a wood sign and a few tea kettles handing off the sign. Here’s what’s funny about Teakettle though. It’s got cell service! By this point you are litterally out in the middle of nowhere. Not only cell service but I had 4G internet speeds too. Now, you have to understand. By this point in our trip, we could barely get any service and internet for 2 days. So to be out in the middle of nowhere and actually have cell service was pretty ironic. We stopped there for about 20 minutes. Not for the views, but mostly to catch up on phone calls to loved ones and social media updates :)

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Arriving At The Racetrack
When you get to race track, you definitely know you’re there. In fact, you can see it from a distance. It’s this large flat area between the surrounding mountains. There’s one pull out area to park, but if you keep driving there’s another (and better one) about 1/4 mile down the road.

We were there about an hour or so before sunset so we had plenty of time to get acquainted with the area and figure out where to shoot. You’re not supposed to drive on the playa, but unfortunately it appeared that some one had. There were tire tracks everywhere near the parking lot, so you had to walk the better part of 1/2 mile to get away from them.

Finding A Rock
The draw to the Racetrack is the sailing stones. These are stones that fall on to the playa from the nearby hills. Then (apparently as it’s never been seen or filmed), it rains on the playa and makes it slippery enough for the high winds (up to 90 mph) to blow the stones along the playa. This leaves the tracks behind the stones, and when you find a cool looking/shaped track, it makes a nice foreground for the photo. Here’s one I took while the sun was going down behind the nearby mountain. At this point, I was still pretty close to the parking lot. probably only 1/4 mile away.

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It was pretty cool though, because after the sun went down where I was, the rest of the playa still had sunlight. So I picked up my tripod and did a slow jog across the playa to get a few more vantage points of the sun going behind the hills. I was able to do this 2 more times before I had nowhere else to run.

Twilight (or The Blue Hour)
Interestingly enough, the photo for this post was taken about 15-20 minutes after the sun had set. I’ve found more and more lately, that twilight (or the blue hour) photos seem to be my favorites from a photo shoot. And I have to say, on the Racetrack it was amazing. The whole area turned this blue-ish magenta color. The playa had this purple sheen across it, and it was simply beautiful to see the colors. I found a rock with a nice curved track behind it and started shooting. I was even able to still get a little bit of color in the clouds in the sky.

The Settings and Gear
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 16-35mm
Aperture: f/16
Shutter Speed: 1/2 second
Tripod: Really Right Stuff TVC-33
Ballhead: Really Right Stuff BH-55

Post-Processing
The post processing on this photo was a little more difficult. The sky was brighter so I had to darken it with the Graduated Filter in Lightroom. The ground was too dark so I had to lighten it up a little. Mainly though, I had to bring this in to Photoshop to select the rock, put it on it’s own layer, and use the Shadows/Highlights adjustment to make it brighter.

Lessons Learned
For starters, I wouldn’t consider this a lesson as much as a warning to anyone who heads out there. It’s dusty. We knew it was dusty so we kept our gear covered, but here’s a photo of my buddy Brian’s pants when we got back. And another one of the back of the jeep. There was a layer of dust on EVERYTHING!

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The shoot actually went as planned. We stayed for about 2 hours after sunset and did lightpainting and star photos. A little bit of the Milky Way was showing, but not too much. It got kinda cold but we were dressed for it. At one point the temperature reading on the car read 16 degrees. After we drove out for a while it worked it’s way over 20. My granola bars that I brought for a snack were frozen solid :) but again, it wasn’t too bad since we were dressed for it.

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If I could do it again, I’d stay overnight and be there to shoot sunrise too. There’s not really a camping area but people spend the night in their cars all the time. In fact, we met some one that night that was doing just that. Other than that, I think things went pretty well. I was happy with my final photo, and I was happy with the variety of photos I had since I moved around quite a bit and didn’t get stuck just shooting one rock for an hour.

Thanks for stopping by today. Have a good one.

  • Dennis Zito

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the update on the Racetrack adventure! What a contrast between the lead photo and the warmer photo. I’ve been reading some stuff on Blue Hour photos. Do you have and specifics you’d like to pass on about camera settings and such … pit falls? Great photos and story!

    Dennis

  • Jeff Cruz

    20 DegF ??? Wow.. that’s cold! According to the NPS the record low in March is 30 DegF.

  • Joe Becker

    Matt, thanks for the update on the Racetrack. I was there about 15 years ago and would love to get out there again sometime. Sounds like things haven’t changed much.

  • Craig Cullum

    Hi Matt, I was wondering what you used to protecting your gear from dust. Just a simple rain jacket?

  • Pingback: The Rain and Dust Cover I Use For My Nikon DSLR (Opteka Rain Covers) | Matt Kloskowski

  • Mitch Darby

    Hi Matt, Very nice article. There actually is a campground at the Racetrack. It’s a “primitive campground” – meaning there’s not much of anything there ;). It’s a mile or two south of the playa. More about backcountry camping here: http://1.usa.gov/cD6fFa and here: http://bit.ly/Y2d5sI.

    I visited the Racetrack a few years ago via Pink Jeep Tours (http://bit.ly/uXp9jM). They use a custom built truck to ferry you out there – at an average speed of 60mph over that infamous road no less! It was a very convenient way to get there without having to worry about your own vehicle (we left ours parked back at Furnace Creek). The truck was well sealed inside from the dust, but it wasn’t immune to vibration from the road – which consistently unscrewed the feet of my tripod, as well as the screws on my filter holder.

    As Pink Jeep only does day tours (as far as I know) an even better option might be to rent a jeep from Farabee’s Jeep Rentals (http://bit.ly/psGGzw) – that way you can go where you want, when you want, and stay as long as you want.

    However you get there, the Racetrack (as well as the rest of Death Valley) is a wonderful place to visit, explore, and photograph.