We have been to Death Valley, CA the last two Decembers and plan to go again this year, weather and schedule permitting. The trips were very different, both for how the Valley looked, but also how we planned and approached the trip and how our photography skills changed from 2009 to 2010.
Death Valley is a place of extremes. It is the largest National Park in the contiguous United States. It includes Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. It is the hottest place in the USA with summer temperatures reaching 120 degrees. Many sites in Death Valley invoke evil or the devil: Dantes View, Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater, Devil’s Cornfield, and Furnace Creek to name a few.
Death Valley is a 4 ½ hours drive from Los Angeles and 2 ½ hours drive from Las Vegas. There are few pit stops and mostly 2-laned roads through desolate desert. The best time is late fall through early spring as it gets well into the 100s in the summer months. Here is a photography plan you can do over 2-3 days.
Zabriskie Point Sunrise
To me, Zabriskie Point may be the best view in all of the Western deserts. Surely, given the relatively easy drive, ample parking lot and short walk of about 100 yards, it is by far, the best pay-off for the least investment in time and resources. It is my favorite spot in Death Valley.
This is an ideal sunrise spot, but also an interesting place for sunset. As I always recommend, get there early. There is a high concrete platform that most people stand on to see the valley. However, the better photography spot is just below on the large dirt mound.
In the morning, the sun will come up over your left shoulder as you face the Valley and the Panamint Mountains. The best light will be 15-30 minutes before sunrise as the clouds and sky over the Panamints turns pink. Then, the light will touch the top of Telescope Peak which is the highest point in the Panamints. The light will start to works it way down the mountain range and into the Valley growing brighter and brighter. At some point the light is too bright for a “big landscape shot”. DO NOT LEAVE.
Start to focus your attention on the foreground and “tighten up” your composition so that you just have the red and yellow mounds in front of you. Wait for the sun to hit the peaks of the isosceles trapezoid shaped mound in front of you. Quickly take a few photos. The light will be changing very quickly now. You will only have seconds before the entire foreground is washed out.
Now move left and get a few shots of the “elephant feet” with side lighting. These will also look great in the afternoon sunset with side lighting from the other direction.
Your sunrise shoot is over. Now, head over to Furnace Creek for breakfast.
Zabriskie Point Sunset
Again, arrive about 60 minutes before sunset and set up on the high concrete platform. The sun will set almost directly over Telescope Peak in front of you. Now, instead of shooting out toward the valley, compose to your right and to your left to get side lighting as the sun goes down. This is where you will get a great shot of the “elephant’s feet” to your left and the majestic Red Cathedral to your right. In fact, my favorite sunset photo subject here is the Red Cathedral. Unless you have a really outstanding sky with plenty of clouds, it is a tough shot to get the Valley and the Mountains together…too dark and contrasty.
After the sun sets, go to Furnace Creek for cocktails and dinner.
Badwater Sunrise and Sunset
My second favorite spot in Death Valley is Badwater Basin. Badwater is famous for being the lowest point on the continent. This is an excellent spot for sunrise, sunset, and even middle of the day shooting, if you think in black and white.
Again, the sunrise and sunset routine is the same. The sun will rise over your shoulder as you face west and will come over Zabriskie Point which is about three miles behind you. In the afternoon, the sun will set over the Panamints as you face them. If there is no water here, you can shoot the very interesting salt deposits up close or use a wide-angle to get the vastness of the salt flats with the mountains in the background.
If there is water here, you are in for a treat. When Badwater floods, it can leave 1-2 inches of water on the salt pan for miles in every direction. When we were there last December, we were treated to a sunrise and sunset shoot with water and used this to create these reflection shots.
The Devil’s Golf Course is near Badwater in the valley and is similar in setup. The main difference is the salt deposits are significantly larger and more treacherous. Though I do not have any images from here, there are plenty on Flickr.
Golden Canyon and the Red Cathedral
The Golden Canyon is a cut between the Valley and Zabriskie Point. There is a small parking lot that fills up pretty quickly each day. I suggest you hike from the parking lot east toward Zabriskie point. The Canyon is a golden color, but I really have not found it that attractive. The reason you do the hike is to the reach the end where you have a tremendous view of the Red Cathedral. We usually do this in the middle of the day and shoot for black and white.
The Artists Pallet
This entrance to this area is near the Furnace Creek Inn and in the same direction of the Golden Canyon and Badwater. It is a narrow one way road, so once you are in, you are in. This is definitely an afternoon shot as you want the sunlight from the west to bounce off of the red, green, and yellow colors. You can do wide-angle here, but also natural abstracts as you zoom in on the terrain.
Harmony Borax Works
On your way North to the other side of the Park, stop at the Borax Works for a quick photo. There is an old red wagon train that looked good against the blue sky. Because it was the middle of the day, we used an HDR composite to get this image.
Mosaic Canyon is a fairly short walk with a few good photo spots. I found it hard to find a good composition, though hiking through it was visually pleasing. When we walked through in the early morning, it was all in shadow. The polished white granite is very pretty and we made a few black and white images.
The Devil’s Cornfield
Continuing North you will drive right through the Devil’s Cornfield. I like this as a sunset spot, but only after you feel like you nailed Badwater and Zabriskie. You can get a kind of chiaroscuro shot when the sun sets. However, I find the corn stalks, which are really clumps of arrowweed bushes, not very pretty.
Mesquite Flat and Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes
Mesquite Flat and Stovepipe Wells is a huge dune field. It has both the “great dunes” in Mesquite Flat and smaller dunes at Stovepipe Wells that are north and east. There is a large parking lot for the Mesquite Flat dunes and if you can get there early enough for sunrise, you may have little company. However, it gets crowded very quickly and you will have lots of foot prints and people in your dune shots.
If you want pristine dunes, you will have to take the road to Scotty’s Castle and turn off a couple of miles later as you travel northeast. There is a gated dirt road that leads down to the east side of the dune field and the original Stovepipe Well. Here the dunes are not as high, but the chances are they will be without foot prints. You will not have to walk in far to get some good shots.
I won’t go into how to photograph the dunes, so please take at look at my blog about photographing sand for tips and ideas.
It is a bit of a drive and commitment to go up to Dantes View. It is another good option for sunset. When we left the floor of the Valley is was about 70 degrees and as the sun went down, the temperature dropped to 30 degrees on the top of the peak. Bring warm clothes and gloves.
From Dantes view you will have an unimpeded view of the entire valley looking north. You will see beyond the Panamint Mountains and have Badwater below. Mary made several natural abstracts of the Valley floor.
A Final Comment
Now, there are several famous places we have not been too, including Kettle Junction, the Race Track, and Scotty’s Castle. These are farther North and the Race Track is an entire 12 hour day to get there and back again. If you want to see some of these, search on Flickr. There are plenty of images.
We have stayed at Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek is bigger and nicer and near the southeastern entrance. Stovepipe Wells is more north. Neither is bad as the main attractions within the Park are all within a 60 minutes drive. We like this book to help plan your trip. This is another national park that you can go back to again and again. To see more of our photographs of Death Valley and other interesting places, go to www.pamphotography.com.