• Canon 5DSR, Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens.
1/1600s @ f7.1, ISO 200.
    Canon 5DSR, Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens. 1/1600s @ f7.1, ISO 200.

Behind the lens: A golden glow

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Death Valley, situated in the Mojave Desert in Eastern California, possesses one of the most dramatic and extreme environments in the world. The valley descends below sea level and holds the hottest recorded temperatures on earth.

The local winds have scooped sands from the surrounding canyons and washes and sculpted them into numerous dune fields, with the most famous and accessible being the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes featured here.

I'd been dreaming for years about this region as an aerial photography destination and these dunes were one of the features I most wanted to capture. It’s a long way to go so when I was invited to be an official judge at the WPPI Awards in nearby Las Vegas, I knew I was finally in with a chance and set out planning the trip.

However, I soon realised it was going to be harder than I thought to bring the dream into reality. Most of the surrounding area is a no-fly military exclusion and weapons testing zone, as well as being notorious for horrendous flying conditions from the heat and thermal activity.

Also, most of the planes in the area are low-winged Piper Cherokees – impractical for shooting aerials. Not one to give up on a dream, after a couple of months of failed attempts, I finally found semi-retired air force engineer Captain Shel willing to take me up in his trusty ’63 Cessna Skyhawk.

At a sprightly 80 years old, with 57 years of flying experience, he knew the area like the back of his hand. Even so, the weather and winds are fickle out there and we had to wait through a couple of days of high winds and nasty thermals until we finally found a suitable flight window.

I knew a clear evening and last light were needed to create the depth and form I was looking for in the dune fields, so I planned the weather, flight path and take-off time so we could be there near sunset in the right conditions. Once we arrived it was a matter of banking the plane over and circling the feature dunes so I could get the top-down viewpoint I was after.

I chose a high shutter speed to compensate for the vibration and movement and a sharp prime lens with built in IS to allow as much light in as possible and to keep my ISO low.

85mm is my favourite focal length for exploring features in more intimate detail and a height of around 2000 feet gives some added reaction time to settle your composition. With this capture I endeavoured to incite a deep, warm, sensual quality out of one of the harshest landscapes on the planet.

Canon 5DSR, Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens.
1/1600s @ f7.1, ISO 200.
Canon 5DSR, Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens. 1/1600s @ f7.1, ISO 200.

About the author: Tasmania-based photographer Paul Hoelen has won numerous accolades and awards for his images both nationally and internationally, including NZIPP Overseas Photographer of the Year (2012 and 2014), AIPP Tasmanian Professional Photographer of the Year (2011 and 2013) and AIPP Tasmanian Landscape Photographer Photographer of the Year (2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015). He is an AIPP Master of Photography and a Fellow of the NZIPP and judges regularly at state, national and international level. See more of his work at paulhoelen.com.

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