Photographing Death Valley

Photographing Death Valley

Photographing Death Valley

I just spent a weekend in Death Valley. The trip was mostly to go relax and enjoy, but I did manage to take a few pictures.

Death Valley is absolutely enormous. It’s the USA’s second largest national park, right up there behind Denali National Park in Alaska. And it’s not all flat, monotonous desert. The park is home to the lowest point in North America at 282′ BELOW sea level, but if you prefer mountains and thin air, that can be found at the 11,043′ high Telescope Peak. Death Valley is also one of the more “free” parks, in that you can camp just about anywhere that’s away from a road. With so much to explore, a short weekend there wasn’t enough time to scratch the surface and I’m already looking forward to returning sometime soon.

As I’ve taken more pictures through the years, I’ve found myself becoming far more selective about what I shoot. Instead of shooting everything I come across (like I used to), today I try to focus more on what works photographically. I think more about the process, and I try to take the time to figure out exactly what I want my picture to look like before I click the shutter. This has paid off for me in many ways. For one, I’m more able to enjoy the travel experience because I’m not constantly seeing it through my camera lens. My pictures have improved too – just because most of us shoot digital doesn’t mean we should necessarily waste our memory cards on quick snapshots that don’t work compositionally or artistically.

Along these lines, for my first shot in Death Valley I figured out where the North Star would be. I took my time to frame the scene and set up my tripod, and I went to bed as the camera clicked away for several more hours until the battery eventually died.

Stars Over the Camp

Stars Over the Camp. Death Valley, CA


We were up early for sunrise the following day. After a quick battery swap we were off for some sunrise light. Zabriskie Point, which overlooks much of Death Valley from a high vantage point, was tempting. But grand sweeping scenes don’t always work photographically. I typically like to include some leading lines in the foreground to give a sense of scale and place, and perches up high don’t always allow for this. So we headed off to Artist’s Palette instead for some nice sunrise light on the colored mosaic of rocks and sand:

Artist's Palette

Artist’s Palette. Death Valley, CA


After the nice sunrise light has passed, I typically use the daylight to enjoy the travel experience while keeping my eye out for photographic compositions. Death Valley has a plethora of hiking trails, some marked better than others. We explored a few of them and made plans to see Badwater Basin at sunset.

Because the basin is so photogenic, crowds are inevitable. But I’ve found that most people – even photographers – leave as soon as the sun dips below the horizon, and all you have to do is stick around a bit longer to enjoy the place all to yourself. As far as photographic light, sunsets are always dramatic, but the light tends to get even better in the 30-45min or so after sunset, further rewarding those who stick around. Tripods are mandatory in such dim light.

I made several long exposures in the fading light and the results were really dramatic.

Death Valley Badwater Basin

Death Valley Badwater Basin


The scene was so incredible not just to photograph, but simply to experience, that we didn’t want to leave. We stayed until the last ounce of color in the sky had yielded to black, at which point I made one more black and white exposure of the salt flats illuminated by moonlight.

Badwater Basin Illuminated by Moonlight

Badwater Basin Illuminated by Moonlight


The final day involved a stop at the Panamint Dunes. These dunes are some of the more remote in Death Valley, involving a 5 mile dirt road drive to a 3 mile one way hike on a nonexistent trail. The remoteness rewards visitors with solitude and a chance to experience the dunes all to yourself.

Panamint Dunes

Panamint Dunes


Maybe I’m just paying closer attention, but lately I’ve seen a lot of photographers converging on Death Valley. It’s not all sand and heat – there’s a plethora of terrain features, vegetation, and wildlife to experience and enjoy. I was happy with the shots after just 2 days there, and I’m really looking forward to returning sometime soon.

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