Death Valley. The name alone conjured images of a dusty barren wasteland. The park has virtually no water, and is full of sun-bleached rocks and sand, devoid of the lush vegetation usually associated with beautiful landscapes. Not to mention the extreme temperature fluctuations a photographer must endure to get the shot in the best light of dawn, where it can be freezing at 4am and 90 degrees by the time you drive out of the park at noon.
However, Death Valley National Park is a desert photographer's dream with over 3 million acres of landscape where you can see for miles. Great views both on the lists of "must-sees" in any guidebook, and some treasures that are waiting for you to discover through your own exploration. With so much area to cover, you could make a career out of desert photography at Death Valley (and many have). Here are a few of the places I enjoy capturing.
Right smack in the center of the park are the Mesquite Dunes. These are the most iconic dunes of the park, and for good reason. The massive dunes provide an interesting contrast of light and shadow, and weather conditions around the dunes often provide for interesting and colorful cloud formations. Come in the early morning for the best chance of capturing a photo without the many tracks in the sand from hundreds of other desert photography enthusiasts.
Travel south to Badwater spring, the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level. While not a great location in itself for photography due to accommodations made to preserve the landscape while allowing visitor access, it's here you'll find a trail that leads to the salt flats. The endless expanse of white salt reflects the blue skies, pink clouds of sunrise, and deep purples of sunset. Snap a shot every few minutes as the sun rises or sets and you'll enjoy a rainbow of shades in the changing light.
But if you can only take one photo of Death Valley, make it at dawn at Zabriske Point. With any desert photography, you are gifted with weather conditions that make your shots more or less interesting. However Zabriske point is spectacular no matter what the weather. If you're lucky the dawn will bring pink clouds and snow formations on the mountains in the distance. On a "bad" day you'll be entertained by a symphony of light rays that dance over the peaks and valleys.
Midday is the time to travel. The light is harsh and its usually hot, so hop in your car and drove the few hours up to Aguereberry Point for the sunset. It's a long drive that ends in several miles of gravel road, so you're likely able to enjoy the desert in solitude. As the sun sets Death Valley darkens ominously while the peaks are still fully illuminated in the distance. This view is a challenging one to capture even for the experienced photographer and is a situation where graduated neutral density filters or blending of multiple exposures comes in handy.
These are just a few of the great vistas Death Valley provides, and there are thousands more to explore. Whenever I visit a park I'm saddened by the erosion and damage to fragile areas that are the result of visits by too many people taking too little care with their surroundings, please respect the parks signs and don’t drive off road. As always, when photographing the natural splendor, take only photographs, leave only footprints, and be rewarded with breathtaking desert photography for generations.