Sun, Sand and CF Cards: A Technophile's Journey to the Middle of Nowhere
By Ryan Notch
6 Jun 2011
I wake up in the morning and begrudgingly make my own coffee. There is no robot servant awaiting my orders, nor is there a moving walkway to expedite my walk from the bed to the bathroom. When I step out into the driveway I am disappointed to find a car with four tires and an engine that runs on fossil fuels. The flying car I have been waiting for my entire life never seemed to materialize. Heck, at this point I will take a good old-fashioned jet pack. I don't own a laser gun, my moon condo now seems a little way off and virtual reality, well... if it is anything like what they offer in the mall you can keep it.
Okay, sure... I am fully aware that my vision of the future is deeply rooted in episodes of The Jetsons, however that doesn't change the fact that I have a deep longing for the sort of jaw-dropping technology that changes your view on the world. In regards to the world of photography and the way we shoot, ladies and gentlemen, I am here to announce that the future has arrived! Now, I am not going to discuss the paradigm shift that digital photography has ushered in over the last ten or fifteen years. I am also not arguing the merits of digital versus film. God knows you can find a few thousand articles on that with a simple Google search. I come to you today to prosthelytize the art of using modern technology to make our lives as photographers easier.
I decided the best way to illustrate my point was to put this tech to the test, and a looming trip through California's deserts was just the opportunity. With my journey ahead of me, all I knew was that I wanted to photograph at the Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley, and that I had one week to do it. I began by scouting locations using Google Earth. My time was going to be limited, and since I knew the general lay of the land, the old-fashioned method of wandering around just wasn't going to cut it, especially given the scope of these parks. By satellite, features such as sand dunes and mountain ranges stick out quite prominently. With a topographical printout marked up with a black Sharpie, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to encounter and I was ready to hit the road.
First things first, I needed to gather my gear. What used to be a camera and a couple of lenses has now turned into quite the arsenal. Fortunately, I stumbled across an iPhone app a while back called Photo Assist. After logging your equipment like camera bodies, lenses, filters, strobes, etc., you can create categories such as Landscape, Editorial, or Portraiture. Once you assign a set list of gear to that category, you are presented with a checklist of equipment for each type of shoot. The days of banging your head against a rock because you forgot to bring your 16-35mm lens are behind you.
Nine hours and a couple of greasy fast-food chains later, I pulled my SUV up onto the sand at the Salton Sea. Sitting only 20 miles from the Mexican border, this beautiful environmental disaster is quite possibly one of the most bizarre places I have ever been. It began in 1905 when a breach in a nearby canal channeled the Colorado River straight into the Salton Sink. Mix one of the most powerful rivers in the world with a salt basin 277 feet below sea level and - voila! Almost instantly you have California's largest lake. Decades of farm runoff have created a salt content more than three times that of the ocean, which in tandem with 120-degree temperatures each August have made for an annual die-off of hundreds of thousands of fish. As I stepped over the mounds of fish carcasses that coat the shore, holding my nose from the stench and trying to ignore the even weirder locals combing the beach, I suddenly caught sight of the setting sun's incredible color reflected in the calm water. Instantly, I understood the beauty of the Salton Sea and for a moment nothing else seemed to matter... but that moment ended abruptly when I found myself being eaten alive by swarms of flies. I hastily threw my bag over my shoulder and bolted in the direction of the car.
The next morning I awoke before the sun was up and transferred the previous day's images onto my iPad via Apple's Camera Connection Kit. I find it nearly impossible to review photographs on three inches of LCD so the iPad has become an invaluable tool to assess the day's work while on location. Speaking of the iPad, this magical device has improved my business and life as a photographer in a hundred different ways. Portfolio for iPad allows me to carry my portfolio with me wherever I go in a dynamic and interesting way. An app called Square gives me the ability to charge a client for services on location or a customer for prints at an art festival. DSLR Camera Remote HD even enables me to control my camera and see what it sees live and remotely through the iPad.
After another day of treading over crunchy Tilapia, I was ready for something a bit different. I saddled up the vehicle and made my way a few hours north through the Mojave Desert until I rolled into Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree has always held a special place in my soul. Perhaps it's the Dr. Seuss-like trees and peculiar rock formations, or maybe U2 is partially to blame, but either way three days didn't seem like nearly enough time. This little corner of the Mojave was the perfect place to test out Sun Seeker for the iPhone. Sun Seeker is an app that momentarily makes you feel like a character in Star Trek. With the help of a newfangled piece of technology called augmented reality I am able to use the iPhone's camera to super-impose the sun's path, complete with hourly interval marks, on the land in front of me. This allows me to stand in any location and see the exact time the sun will pass by a building, or more importantly hit the mountain ridge and cast a shadow over the terrain. "Wow" doesn't seem to cover it, and if you have used this app you know what I mean.
72 hours and 300 miles later I found myself traveling down highway 178 through Death Valley at 70 miles an hour. The hairdryer of 100-degree temperatures was blasting me in the face. The air conditioning couldn't seem to keep up, so at a certain point I end up rolling the window down and sticking my head out like a dog. Needless to say, it wasn't helping. Death Valley is very easily my favorite place in California and quite possibly the country. It is my Mecca. I make a point to drive out once a year, and still after years of doing this I am always blown away by the landscape and unadulterated extremes of the park. The expanse of Death Valley is unimaginable. At 5,300 square miles and about 3.5 million acres, the park is larger than the state of Connecticut. The place was built for my next digital secret weapon. The di-GPS slides onto the top of my Canon body in the hot shoe port. It records and embeds my GPS location in the metadata of each shot I take. Some of the locations I like to explore in Death Valley are quite remote. The Racetrack, for instance, is half a day's drive from the nearest town, most of it at 5 mph on an off-road trail over large boulders and up the side of a mountain. No matter where I am on the planet, the di-GPS will log my location so that years later I will be able to pull that image up and know within a few feet where it was taken.
As I pointed the car back toward San Francisco, the home of Silicon Valley and the dot-com explosion, I realized that I don't have access to a teleportation device, and I wasn't headed back to some sort of domed biosphere... but as a photographer my life has been changed irreparably over the past decade by technology. For better or worse, we have been thrust as a society head first into the digital age. While I still embrace and deeply enjoy photographing with my medium and large-format film cameras, I appreciate and am equally excited by what the future of digital is able to offer.