Photographing Death Valley National Park began about a month before I actually visited the park. The more research I did on the park the more mysterious it grew. “Why turn a desert into a National Park?” I asked myself out of genuine curiosity (the closest to a desert I’ve ever been was when I visited Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon). Further, would there be enough to photograph in Death Valley to justify the time and money spent visiting? What challenges (environment or otherwise) would I need to prepare for?
For three weeks, my office desk was covered with the Death Valley National Park (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map) so that every time I sat down to work I could study another part of the map.
To be honest, after my last photography project (Santa Barbara CA) I wanted something that would be low key and semi relaxing. Perhaps a place I could visit where I’d have some down time to reflect and reset a bit. So, I ended up booking a room at The Oasis hotel in Furnace Creek… A classic, beautiful hotel with a swimming pool, that I would never end up using, and fine dinning. When I checked in I was informed that my room was probably spider free but to wear my shoes because small scorpions can and have gotten into the rooms before. Needless to say, I checked under everything including my bed sheets each and every time I came into the room.
In retrospect, I would probably look for something a little less posh for my next stay. I ended up eating cheese/meat/cracker trays from the little trading post down the street each night (I believe it’s called The Ranch) because by the time I got back to the room the restaurant was closed (the restaurant closed at 9 p.m. each evening. I’m certainly not complaining, I call this my hotel room picnic and it’s actually quite nice to have that time to myself and reflect on the day (see, I did do some reflecting on this trip).
Initially, my intentions were to focus my time on just a few key spots instead of trying to cover the entire National Park… I’d rather walk away with one really great image than several mediocre ones. I scheduled approximately four days in DV and figured that would be more than enough. I was wrong. Death Valley is a cornucopia of interesting and beautiful places to explore.
Keep your eye on the Death Valley National Park website to monitor road closures as wet weather has a tendency to wash out certain areas of important roads if you’re planning on visiting places like Artist’s Pallet or Badwater Basin. You can find this website here: Death Valley Alerts.
After figuring out how much time I would need, my next challenge was figuring out what equipment I would need because of the unique environment. There is no or limited cell service throughout much of Death Valley so I purchased the Garmin inReach Mini, Lightweight and Compact Handheld Satellite Communicator, a minuscule satellite phone (that can only text) that has an SOS button in the off chance I’m half eaten by a rattle snake or something. That turned out to be a Godsend as it was my primary means of communication with my family.
Most hiking deaths happpen with day hikers who are unprepared to be lost in the wilderness for more than a few hours (they pack too little). Don’t make that mistake, pack plenty of water, food, and something to keep you warm at night.
The inReach allows you to pay a monthly subscription where you can text as much as you want without getting killed in fees, it connects to my iPhone via Bluetooth so I can text as I normally would so long as I do so using their application. Additionally, it allowed me to turn on tracking so my family could follow me all day and see where I was on a map from the comfort of their home. This was really cool as my 3 year old was able to see where daddy was working and my wife could tell I was still alive.
After tackling my communication needs I wanted to make sure I had the means to navigate trails without having to rely on my phone. I did a ton of research on handheld navigation units, smart watches, and navigation watches and ended up purchasing the Suunto Traverse Alpha which allowed me to do 3 key things: I could create routes at home and save them to the watch so I could navigate any trail in Death Valley without cellular connection. I was able to drop “point of interest” markers wherever I found a spot that I wanted to return to for a shot (potentially in the dark). And I was able to monitor sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moon set, and moon phase from the watch each day (again, this was clutch as there was no internet connection that would allow me to pull up a trusty weather app on my phone with similar information).
** I can’t stress this last part enough, by the end of the week I had professional photographers who knew I was prepared asking me what time the sun was going to set, when the moon would rise/set, and when the sun would rise. All because their trusty phone apps would not load.
At the onset, it was evident that my trusty Lowepro ProTactic camera backpack wasn’t going to cut it for Death Valley. The Lowepro only has enough room for my camera gear, if I want to stuff a water bottle into the bag I’d have to remove a lens or camera body for room to do so. Again, I did a ton of research and ended up picking up the F-Stop Tilopa (and eventually the Lotus as well) backpack (reviews coming soon) which afforded me a ton of extra room and is built like a tank to withstand any weather I might run into. It worked beautifully. I carried a Leica M with a 75mm lens, and Leica M10-P with a 35mm lens, 2 Nikon D850 bodies with a Nikon 16-35mm and a Nikon 70-200mm lens as well as all the filters/batteries/etc., with tons of room to spare.
Finally, I wanted to find a small chair that could attach to or drop into my camera backpack for a couple of reasons. First, I knew I would be hiking a considerable amount each day and I wanted to make sure I had the ability to sit down while waiting for the right light in order to conserve a bit of energy and do it all over again the next day. Second, and more importantly, I wanted something I could prop my camera backpack up on while shooting in Badwater Basin where there was about a half inch of salt water and mud on the ground. The GoChair only weighs three pounds and folds up to the size of a bottle, it’s incredibly easy to open and close without having to worry about a bunch of sticks and rods linning up here and there. I was not paid to advertise this chair but would happily recommend it to any photographer out there (full review coming). Bonus: It’s incredibly easy to “assemble” at night in the pitch black.
Arrival At Death Valley
Initially you’d think that you’d be greated with the smell of heat and fistfuls of sand assulting your nostrils but that wasn’t the case. Flowers. Yeah, I could smell beautiful flowers and clean air when I first got out of my car in Death Valley. I didn’t see the flowers, but their smell was there. Almost immediately after passing the Death Valley National Park sign I could see some of the most amazing geography I’ve ever seen to the left of my car on the ride in… As if the ground had risen up in spots like massive ant hills, but prettier. Eventually, I realized I was seeing the tail end of what is called Zabriskie Point and Twenty Mule Canyon.
According to the USGS website, the formations you see at Zabriske Point were formed by mudstone formations from the prehistoric lakes that once stood where Furnace Creek now sits. Eventually this was covered by even more sediment and lightly cemented into mudstone. Interestingly, the website says that if you were to take a microscopic look (I left my microscope in the car with my beakers) at the sediment that they would look like tiny plates that prevent water from penetrating (tell my boots that, they were awfully mud covered after hiking there after a rain storm).
At this point, be sure to keep your eye out for the kiosk (if you’re coming in from Vegas) that will provide you with the park pass for a small fee. It looks like a small pull off you’d find on the side of the highway with restrooms and mysterious trucks that you always wonder what in the world is happening inside those sleeper cabins (at least I do). Don’t worry if there is nobody there, and then keep on driving like I did… There are little electronic kiosks like where you pay for parking in the city where you can enter what type of vehicle you have and pay for the ticket that is supposed to stay on your dash but inevitably either blows out of your window or sits in the cup holder because you forgot to put it back on the dashboard because you were protecting it from blowing out of the window… Again. If you miss this small pull off you don’t have panic, there is another kiosk that is also open 24/7 located in Furnace Creek at the Visitor Center right next to the gas station that charges a million dollars a gallon for gas (supply and demand I suppose).
Note: Take some tape and tape it to the bottom of your front windshield and you never have to worry about losing it as you take in the desert air with your windows down.
I’ve devoted an entire section to Zabriskie point because I believe this is one of the best areas in Death Valley for what I call a “target rich” environment. This simply means that you’d be hard pressed to not find a great photo here. The parking area fills up pretty quickly around sunset but it was never over-flowing when I was there in March, which is considered peak season. Still, I’d plan on getting there at least an hour before the sun sets. It can get rather windy so I’d recommend bringing goggles (I purchased a pair of desert goggles from Amazon and they worked perfectly for here and the sand dunes areas).
There are often photography groups at Zabriskie Point (as well as other popular areas) as it is easy to access and a really beautiful view all around. Unfortunately, some of the groups “take over” and will yell at other photographers or tourists who get in their way. This is not okay or approved behavior and it is okay to ignore these groups. If you are asked to politely step aside for a moment that is one thing but to be yelled at or bullied is unacceptable.
This image above was shot using another D850 with the 70-200mm lens and a .9 soft grad neutral density filter to retain details in the shadow area as well as the moon. It worked perfectly and the image is easily mistaken for some sort of composite image.
You won’t feel overcrowded on the trails around Zabriskie point, though they aren’t the longest trails in the world they are quite difficult for most visitors as there are many steep climbs (which reward photographers with beautiful panoramic views). The trails are relatively well marked but be sure to get back before dark unless you’ve got some sort of GPS unit because it could be easy to walk down what looks like a path and is really just a wash from water.
The image above was taken with the Leica M10-P which I have around my neck all the time when I’m out and about with my camera gear (otherwise it’s always nearby). I was hiking at a quick clip when I saw the girl with the umbrella and once I crested a hill and saw this scene (above) I took about a half dozen images knowing that one of them was going to work out. I simply zone focus my 35mm lens to infinity for the sake of speed.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that you could easily spend weeks exploring all a round Zabriskie Point… It’s that fascinating and there are that many different views you could capture. Just be careful and pack lots of water and try to avoid overheating if you’re hiking the trails… They call it the Badlands for good reason.
Badwater Basin may be one of the most recognizable features of Death Valley. It resides approx. 85.5 meters BELOW sea level. From the parking area you’ll walk basically in a straight line until you feel like turning around. The further out you get the more pristine the salt flat looks and the design gets more and more interesting. Fair warning though, I walked about a mile or two out and dropped a gps pin so I could find a really interesting formation for sunset photography, only to return hours later to see people had trampled all over it (I thought I was far enough out).
Something to keep in mind if you’re planning on photographing Badwater Basin for sunset or sunrise is that you will not be alone. Just like at Zabriskie Point, it’s a fairly easily accessible area so you may run into photography groups who feel like they own every direction they point their camera. My best advice is to get there early, set up, and live your best life (i.e. ignore others).
If I had to review places to photograph in Death Valley, Badwater Basin would not be on the must photograph list (it would, however, make my “must visit” list), but not for the reason you may think. I don’t think many people walk away with “this is my best shot” from Badwater, when visiting Death Valley, but I do think it’s worth the experience and that is an adventure in and of itself. Now, if you want a really great shot, skip the popular Badwater Basin parking area all together and turn right onto West Side Road (secrets out!) and drive the washboard road for about a mile or two until you find a small pull off on the left to park.
The image above was focus stacked while using the Nikon D850 as well as the 16-35mm lens and a .9 soft graduated neutral density filter to retain detail in the highlights as well as the shadows. The mountains in the distance have plenty of detail to bring them out further but there was a haze and the lighter I make them the more prevalent the haze which I feel takes away from the interesting parts of the image.
I didn’t find parking at the Badwater Parking area to be difficult at all, in fact, anywhere I went in Death Valley seemed to have parking available. The sheer vastness of the area is worth stopping and taking in the views. Shooting from the Basin proved more difficult than I had anticipated. As I mentioned above, the area I marked got trampled so be prepared to walk 2 or more miles to get to someplace solitary that may have interesting designs in the ground from the salt.
My best advice if you’re shooting Badwater Basin is to try to find something interesting for your foreground being that your background (the mountains) are so far away and you’ll likely want to use a wide angle lens to capture the neat designs the salt has created on the ground. Another suggestion I have is to take a small chair to lay your camera bag on so it’s not laying in a layer of salt water while you work (as shown in the image towards the top of this article).
No focus stacking was used in the above image as I was able to “wing it” and focus about a third of the way through the image (lazy persons way of hyper focal distance focusing). Had I thought the image was more interesting or the sky was much better I would have taken the time to focus stack the image properly.
The image above was taken with the Leica M10-P and a 35mm lens. When I’m hiking, the Leica is always around my neck and ready to go (as mentioned above). My Nikon cameras are snug in my camera bag until I find something I feel is a “can’t miss” shot. Often, the Leica is the one that captures it because they are fleeting moments, but from time to time I’ve got time to set up and execute the shot I want with the Nikon.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
There are a few different places you can visit to photograph sand dunes and I’ve seen them done quite magnificently at sunrise and sunset. The sky was almost 100% clear and the sunsets were not adding up to much so I made the call and decided to photograph them in the daylight with harsher light. Of the sand dune areas (Mesquite Flat, Eureka, Saline Valley, Panamint, and Ibex dunes) the Mesquite Flat dunes are by far the easiest to reach and photograph.
Spiders, scorpions, and snakes were nowhere to be found while I was hiking the dunes but red ants are aggressive little guys and have no qualms coming at you as you try to set your tripod up for the shot you want. I would set up, walk away, come back and make adjustments, walk away again, and then take my shots. I’m not sure if there is a great way to keep red ants away from you other than possibly hiring someone to step on them as you work?!
I would recommend sunrise for the Mesquite Flat Sand dunes if you’re feeling adventurous and the sky is working with you… Especially on a windy day. The wind blowing the sand, backlit by a low laying sun would be beautiful. Otherwise, don’t shy away from the sand dunes in the afternoon as there are still plenty of interesting shots to be made in all sorts of light. Be prepared to cover up though as the bugs are quite bothersome.
The image above was taken with the Nikon D850 and the 16-35mm f/4 lens (one of my favorite lenses) and I focus stacked the image. Focus stacking is simply taking an image at intervals along the path to infinity and then combining them in post processing so the image is completely sharp throughout. The D850 can do this automagically but I still do it manually because I feel like the auto mode can be a bit overkill and I end up with hundreds of unneeded photos.
While I was shooting in Badwater Basin I met a polite photographer who had shot at the Mesquite Sand Dunes the day before. He mentioned that if you park and then hike to the right for a mile or so you can find some dunes that were untouched (otherwise, everything you photographed would have people tracks through them). I rolled the dice and followed his advice, after about a mile I came to dunes like the one you see above that look as if nobody had visited them. So there you have it… Park and then hike to the right. You can also park along the road and hike through Devils Haystacks to get to this area more quickly but I’m not sure if Park Rangers would frown on that or you’d just get eaten by snakes and scorpions…
Initially, I had no intention of photographing Artist’s Pallet. Apparently, nobody else had intentions of photographing it at sunrise either. I was so exhausted from the day before, pulling a little boy from the Ubehebe Crater, that I didn’t have the energy to even walk up the path to Zabriske Point for sunrise. I threw in the towel, so to speak, and took the drive to Artist’s Pallet for sunrise for nothing more than to check it off my list of places I got to experience. Man, what a pleasant surprise that was.
First, I had the entire place to myself as the sun was rising behind me. I got to watch as the light began to blanket the valley ahead of me and subtlety change the colors of the “pallet” as the sun rose higher in the sky. I have to say, this was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve had in quite some time. I know it’s not listed anywhere as a place you’ve got to watch the sun rise from (because you can’t even see the sun rising) but I highly recommend spending a morning here if time allows. You won’t regret it.
In order to retain the details in the mountains in the distance I was using a .9 soft graduated neutral density filter from Lee Filters. Though it did cut into the top right of the mountain in my foreground, sometimes there is no avoiding that, I was able to balance the light out in post because I shoot in RAW and all the data was there.
Did I cover everywhere you could photograph in Death Valley? NOPE! I visited other areas but these were the ones that stood out the most to me and I felt I should share. If you’ve got more time there are places that you could visit with four wheel drive that would be awesome to photograph like Racetrack Playa, Warm Springs Campground, any of the other sand dunes, etc.. The next trip I take to Death Valley (hopefully this winter) I’ll rent a Jeep Wrangler from Farabee Jeep right in Furnace Creek and explore more of the hidden gems within the park.
Do your research, prepare well, and most of all… Have fun. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below and ask any questions you may have. You can follow my more recent travels and work on Instagram @PhotolisticLife.