A typical session in Death Valley for landscape and travel photographer Don Gale begins way before daybreak, when the skies are still black, and the sun's midday heat has yet to warm the rippling sands. Gale emerges from his desert vehicle, straps on his fully loaded vest and backpack, and mounts a headlamp to help guide his way through the darkness.
From this starting point at the entrance to the Valley, Gale-and whoever else has signed up for a day in the desert with him-trudges a mile and a half to find the perfect photographic vantage point. "We'll walk in the pitch dark with our headlamps on until we get to a good location to wait for the sunrise," he says. "We look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs going off to the coal mines!"
The long hike and the early waking hours may seem extreme in the name of art, but the key to capturing the sweeping vistas before him in the best light is being in the right place at the right time. These early morning-and early evening-adventures have presented Gale with some of his most visually compelling landscapes.
Gale has made more than one trip to Death Valley, the foreboding-sounding national park that hosts dilapidated ghost towns with names like Chloride City and Skidoo. "I only go in the winter," says Gale. "We just drove by the entrance to Death Valley today on our way up to Mammoth, and it was probably 115 or 120 degrees out there. But when we go November through February, it's about 35 to 40 degrees in the morning, and it reaches the mid-'60s during the day."
The appeal of this arid environment for Gale can be found in the swirls and patterns that dominate the dunes-patterns that change with each gust of wind. "When you're shooting sand dunes, you're more concerned about texture," he explains. "It's one of the few times in photography, when you're out there with all these random shapes and lines and textures, when you feel you can be as creative as you want to be."
When he's out wandering the desert floor, Gale doesn't have to commit to shooting a single element or object. "It's not like when you're shooting Yosemite Falls and you can't get different angles," he says. "When you're in the sand dunes, you can switch from macro to telephoto to superwide within seconds. You can move around and shoot with front lighting, shoot with backlighting-it's simply awesome."
And while the "wind can be your friend," as Gale says (a strong gust can wipe out distracting footprints in seconds), it also is the bane of the well-protected gearbag. "The sand gets all over you, in your lenses, in your eyes and ears," he explains. Gale's solution? "I typically throw the new 2.5-gallon Ziplok bags over everything, and just take them off at the last minute."
His keen eye enables him to find the best of Mother Nature's ever-changing ornamentation, and prevents the possibility of missing a shot. "I don't like to go out with a particular object or subject as my goal," he explains. "I rather go out looking for something that just grabs me, and that's typically based on lighting. If you think you're going to be shooting wide angle on the sand dunes, and you've got your camera preloaded with a wide-angle lens, you might walk right by something that could be a killer shot with a macro or telephoto lens. I consciously try to keep an open mind."
On Top of Old Smoky
Whether his project entails documenting geyser fallout at Yellowstone or capturing the indigenous plant life at Joshua Tree National Park, Gale is on the lookout for a shot that sets itself apart from the more routine-looking panoramas.
"One of the unusual things about Joshua Tree, for instance, is that the plant itself is so localized-it only grows in certain parts of the world," he says. "So to get a picture of a Joshua tree is unique in itself. When you can get one in a picture where it's silhouetted against the rock formations out there, it's a real specific picture. When people see that image, even if they haven't been there, they know exactly where it was taken."
Heading up into the mountains also offers Gale the lofty inspiration he craves. He'll head to Lone Pine, the closest city to the trailhead for Mount Whitney, for instance, to shoot the highest peak in the continental United States.
"Many of these images at Lone Pine are shooting up at the Sierra Nevada Range and the Alabama Hills, which is a secondary chain of mountains between Owens Valley and the Sierras," he says.
"The thing that's really amazing about shooting Mount Whitney is that, because it's so high, it gets the absolute first rays of the sun in the morning, even before sunrise actually occurs."
Over in Appalachia, Gale likes to meander through the almost mystical Smoky Mountains. "The waterfalls and streams there really intrigue me," he says. "There are all these amazing cascades and lush, green growth coming right up to the side of the river with wildflowers."