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DEATH VALLEY
the photographer's view
Death Valley is a landscape photographer's treasure. Subjects abound! But like many such locations, it has it's challenges. The first is weather....heat and wind, mostly. Plus, Death Valley is one of those areas surrounded by mountains. As such, many iconic areas one wants to shoot at first light would find them shadows. Sometimes, an area is not lit until 30 minutes or more after true sunrise. It certainly shortens that "golden hour" photographers love.

ZABRISKI POINT is one of the most popular spots in Death Valley, and one of my favorites.

With clear skies, the afternoon sun is setting in front of you and really leaves much of Zabriski in the shadows. So, morning is time to shoot. The sun comes up behind you, although because of the mountains on the eastern horizon, the first light on the area isn't until as much as 30 minutes past official sunrise. In March, the morning light is pretty much striking some iconic views at a 90 degree angle, and thus lacking shadow and texture. Ideally, the best time of year for mornings is near Winter solstice, because the sun is rising more to the south, providing more side lighting on the structures. Plus, first light should be a little closer to sunrise with the somewhat lower mountains in that direction. 

With scattered clouds, however, both morning and afternoon can be excellent, especially a little before sunrise, or a little after sunset.

Also, depending on the time of year,  a day or two after the full moon, you can capture our celestial neighbor setting beyond Zabriski Point.


evening Twilight
morning moonset
Zabriski Sunset

Manly Beacon


afternoon Texture

morning Texture
MESQUITE FLATS SAND DUNES - The sand dunes provide lots of photographic opportunities, both at sunrise and sunset. That is, if the winds are calm. Moderate winds will obscure details, but fierce winds can pelt one so hard you feel like you're being sandblasted, or as my wife described it, mother nature's exfoliation! Not fun!!
Pat getting sandblasted

windblown dunes
On a calm day, you have two things going for you. For one, as you drive along the road near the dunes, the relative position of the dunes is constantly changing, providing seemingly endless compositions. The other factor is very reminiscent of the views from Steptoe Butte in south eastern Washington, in that as the sun rises and sets, the shadows are constantly changing, again providing numerous compositions. With a telephoto lens, you can capture lots of good images just from the road. My Canon 100-400mm gave both somewhat wide shots, as well as close-up details, especially with the cropped sensor on my Canon 7D. Still, there is a great desire to walk into the dunes, and capture the texture and detail close up! If you venture in, give yourself a good 20-30 minutes time make the trek.
sunset at Mesquite Flat Dunes
The one thing you have little control over is other people! It seems people will be out in the dunes most of the time, although much fewer at sunrise. And with that influx, footprints will mar the landscape, especially if it's been a while since the last significant winds. The best scenario one can hope for is a calm morning visit, preceded by strong winds the night before. In other words, you need a lot luck!

first light fading

Greeting the sunrise



salt "honeycombs"
BADWATER BASIN - This area is noted for having the lowest point in North America, at 282 feet below sea level. It's also noted for the hexagonal, honeycomb shapes on the lake bed, caused by repeated freeze-thaw and evaporation cycles in the salt covered crust. However, because this is such a popular area, you'll have to hike out a ways to find untrampled hexagonal shapes. Also, with a mountain directly east of the viewing area, much of the basin is in shadows until perhaps an hour after sunrise.
As one drives through the valley, the mountain ranges that surround it provide plenty of picturesque landscapes, seeming  changing around every corner.  But like most areas, the midday light is pretty flat and boring, and the colors muted. As is normally the case, I use midday for exploring, finding the best spots to return to in the "golden hours". Keep in mind that, because of the park layout, one  set of surrounding mountains will be in the shade during one golden hour, but sunlit the other. So, you get a different view of the colorful vistas in the morning than you would in the afternoon. Again, that provides you with more photographic opportunities.
There's lots of history in Death Valley, although taking pictures of building ruins and weathered mining gear is not my thing. But Scotty's Castle provides one with many photographic subjects. The exteriors and courtyards are very nice. Unfortunately, my one trip there was midday, with it's flat light. I'm sure it would very nice late afternoon.  The interior can only be seen as part of a tour, which costs $15. No tripods are allowed, but you can use flash. I prefer natural light, so I bumped the ISO up to 3200 to get acceptable, hand-holding shutter speeds. If you don't want tourists in your shots, bring up the rear in the tour!

a bedroom at Scotty's Castle

Scotty's living room

looking up th staircase
Mileage- Death Valley is a vast area, and sometimes great distances between locations. If you stay overnight, Furnace Creek is the only place with lodging,  so I'll use that as your reference point. The closest photo stop is Zabriski Point, a mere 5 miles away. The Badwater Basin viewing area is 17 miles south of Furnace Creek. Stovepipe Wells, near Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes, is 28 miles northwest. Scotty's Castle is about 55 miles away, also to the northwest. These spots are along paved roads running through the Valley, with mostly highway speeds posted. There are numerous unpaved roads taking you to other locations, but those are pretty slow going, and some fairly primitive. And, there are hiking trails galore. As you're planning your stops in Death Valley, keep these distances in mind. It's easy to distracted at one stop, and then realize you want to be at another for sunset, with little time left! And remember, there are only a couple gas stations in the Park, and expect to pay $1 - 2 more than outside the Park.

Morning Twilight at Zabriski Point

Windblown Dunes

Photographer's Shadow

Before Sunrise at the Dunes
Equipment - My usual combination is a Canon 5D w/24-105mm lens and Canon 7D w/100-400mm lens. Because the vistas in Death Valley are so huge, I didn't find it necessary to use a super wide lens (17-40mm). I use a tripod most of the time, along with a cable release.  I found a polarizing filter very helpful in Death Valley, particularly in the non-golden hour shots. Another helpful "tool" is a plastic bag to cover my camera and lens to keep the sand out. It was especially valuable the morning I got sandblasted at the Dunes a few years ago! And to help me figure out where the sun and moon will rise and set, especially in a place like Death Valley, I always have a compass! I check out a number of websites ahead of my travels to know when and where those rises and sets occur.
e-mail: pat@patschilling.com
Unless otherwise noted, Pat Schilling owns exclusive copyright to all photographic images on patschilling.com. ANY use is prohibited, unless explicitly granted by Pat Schilling.