First Light at The Flats / by Michael Zeigler

The sign that greets you at the end of the road.

The website said, “Drive on the salt flats at your own risk.” Well, ok then. Since I had a rental car I thought that was going to be an easy decision. However, that cautionary statement was followed by, “High risk of getting stuck in soft mud,” and then, “Rental car companies charge a fee if driven on the highly-corrosive salt flats.” Okie dokie, I thought, on foot it is.

I arrived shortly before blue hour after a 90-minute drive from my hotel near Salt Lake City. Having never been to the Bonneville Salt Flats before, I was eager to see if the long drive was going to be worth it. The information I found online was minimal at best, with a small snippet about the flats sometimes being flooded during the winter months. Reflections, I thought, as I drove in the darkness to reach the famous ancient lakebed.

My suspicions were confirmed when I came to a stop at the end of the road, which dead-ends at the flats. A faint orange glow from the east reflected like a mirror off the flooded plain for as far as the eye could see. My first thought was, Wow, this is really amazing. Followed shortly thereafter by, OMG, it’s really cold. The ambient temperature was a mere 16ºF. No big whoop … I came prepared.

I was envisioning reflections, and even a self portrait in the mirror-like landscape. As I neared the water’s edge, the water only appeared an inch or two deep … very doable with my waterproof hiking shoes. But, that water quickly grew deeper as I ventured further from the safety of road. Next time, I thought, pack your boots.

The expanse of mountain peaks, especially snow-covered Pilot Peak, was breathtaking as the sun slowly illuminated the cloudless sky. Although I was hoping for some high clouds to add some color, I was not at all disappointed by the morning light.

Self portrait. Nikon 24-70mm at 48mm. 3 seconds, ƒ/11, ISO 64, no filters.

Looking at the reflections, I decided to try my hand at my first landscape panoramic composite image. But first, I wanted to make a self portrait with Silver Island taking center stage as the backdrop. The road leading up to the water’s edge was firm and flat, which made it easy for me to set-up my tripod, and made an ideal place for me to stand since the water was simply too deep for my shoes. The built-in intervalometer on my Nikon D850 allowed me to a make a few photos in a row, and since the exposures were on the longer side, the intervalometer worked much better than the self-timer.

Now it was time to change lenses to my trusty Nikon 70-200mm for the vertical pano of Pilot Peak and the surrounding range. Once I managed to level the tripod the best I could I mounted the camera and framed up the shot. It became evident early on that I would not need to use any filters for this sunrise shoot, which was alright with me since my fingertips were beginning to feel the wrath of the frigid pre-dawn temps. I manually focused on the mountains and set a three second exposure delay between shots to ensure I wouldn’t get any camera shake after moving the camera and long lens between images. The use of my trusty shutter release cable helped minimize any shake as well.

Five image pano, stitched in Lightroom. Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200 ƒ/2.8 @ 70mm, 0.5s, ƒ/11, ISO 64. No filters.

I made several panos as the light changed quickly across the horizon, with each resulting pass having a different look and feel. I continued shooting until just after sunrise, when the sunlight flooded the hillsides and the morning color left the sky.

Try This: When making several panoramic images, separate the series of images by taking a photo of your hand at the end of each pass. This makes it very easy to see the different passes when you view the images in Lightroom or other software.


After importing and keywording the raw files in Adobe Lightroom, I stitched a few images together. Stitching a pano in Lightroom couldn’t be easier. I simply selected the images I wanted to stitch, then right-clicked and chose Photo Merge > Panorama. In a minute or two Lightroom had stitched my images together, creating the photograph I had envisioned all along. From there I edited the image in Lightroom as I would any other image. For full transparency, I did pull the pano into Photoshop to remove a spit of land that was in the first frame. That land was actually part of the road on which I was standing to make the image.

My highlighted images in Lightroom.


As an added bonus, I found my newly downloaded PeakFinder app to work very well. It provides a very accurate overlay of the surrounding peaks and even allows you to use your phone’s camera to make an image with the overlay information. I found this to be very useful not only for educational purposes, but also when I geek-out with my Lightroom keywording.

Image from my iPhone 6s from the PeakFinder app with the peak overlay information on the image.

It was my first time to the Bonneville Salt Flats but it certainly will not be my last. I’ll be back, most likely next winter (with my boots!).

I learned a few lessons during the trip. The biggest one being to check your images before you leave the destination. You most likely invested a lot of time in planning and travel so take a few seconds to make sure the images are tack sharp. One of my panos was ruined because one of the images was soft. I must have slightly bumped my tripod with one of my frozen limbs during the exposure. All good, though. Learning these lessons is how we progress and improve. Happy shooting and safe travels!