Photographing Death Valley National Park

Out of world experience at Death Valley. Pristine, dry land of extremes and all the ingredients to make it a photographer’s paradise. Reminds me of Mungo National Park which I visited in Australia several years back. This is a photographer’s paradise because of the amazing pictures you can capture at “magic hour” (sunrise/sunset). Death Valley is a Mars-esque landscape and not surprisingly NASA uses these grounds to test rovers

If you want to know what climate change will do to our planet, visit Death Valley…

  • This used to be a lush river stretching from Mono Lake to Death Valley at the end of the last ice age. Climate change led to the rivers drying up and salt accumulated in the valleys
  • The local guides told me that sand storms have also been increasing in frequency in recent years due to climate change
  • In Oct 2015, they had a “thousand-year-flood” event when a series of unusual storms hit

This is a place of extremes because

  • Highest and lowest points in the continent are here. Badwater Basin, the park’s lowest spot, rests at 282 feet below sea level while Telescope Peak rises to 11,049 feet
  • Despite the foreboding name, there is incredible bio diversity and more than 1,000 plant species and nearly 500 species of animals inhabit the park.

For camera equipment I used the following

  • Camera: Nikon D7200
  • Lenses: Nikkor 12–24 mm & 105mm
  • Filters: Polarizing filter & ND8 Neutral Density filter
  • Tripod & cable release
  • Lens blower and cleaning kit (to clean off the dust and sand)

For those seeking a photo safari in Death Valley, some do’s and don’ts

Do’s

  • Start the trip with a visit to the National Park Service Visitor Center at Furnace Creek. They are extremely helpful and were even open on Christmas Day
  • Stay in the park since it is easier to drive to these locations very early in the morning to take sunrise pictures. You need to drive long distances so it pays to stay in the park. E.g. had to leave at 4am in the morning to catch the Panamint Mountains sunrise
  • Check for sunrise / sunset times and make sure you get at the photo shoot location atleast a half hour prior
  • Drive atleast an entry level SUV to negotiate the dirt roads. If you want to do Titus Canyon, even an SUV will not do. You will need a Jeep. Farabee Rentals has very good service and they also provide guides. Jesse James is a great guide
  • Visit these photogenic locations: Artist Drive, Badwater Basin, Mesquite Sand Dunes, Panamint Mountains, Titus Canyon & Ubehebe Crater. There are others that are highly recommended that I did not get to visit like Charcoal Kilns

Don’t

  • Take any rocks or damage the park. This land is considered sacred by the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe and taking samples / damaging the park is tantamount to desecration not to mention that we are stealing from future generations. Can also bring bad luck. I saw a letter from someone who had apparently taken some stones from the park posted at Farabee Rentals. She shipped them back to the guide at Farabee to ask that they be returned. She also mentioned bad luck in her letter

Artist Drive

This is also called Artist Palette and is famous because of the vivid colors on the rock faces due to oxidation of different metals. Iron produces red, pink and yellow, mica renders green and manganese displays purple hues

  • Photo Tip: Late afternoon / sunset brings out the best color so schedule a trip around then
NIKON D7200 1/125 105mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017
NIKON D7200 1/5 ISO100 with HDR. Dec 22, 2017

Badwater Basin

Badwater is the the lowest point in North America, with a depth of 282 ft (86m) below sea level. It is called Badwater because the accumulated salts make the water undrinkable, hence bad water. More details at wikipedia.

Photo Tips:

  • It is a 30–40min walk from the parking area to the photogenic areas where the hexagonal honeycomb shapes have not eroded so make sure to factor this in.
  • Use a graduated neutral density filter. Position it so it is clear on the bottom and darker towards the top. This filter exposes the foreground details while keeping a rich top half
Badwater Basin at sunrise. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/10 24mm ISO100. Dec 24, 2017
Badwater Basin at sunrise. NIKON D7200 f/4 12mm ISO100 with HDR. Dec 24, 2017
Badwater Basin at sunrise. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/3 14mm ISO 100. Dec 24, 2017
Badwater Basin at sunrise. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/10 24mm ISO100. Dec 24, 2017
Surya namaskar from Dante’s View at sunrise, looking down on Badwater Basin. NIKON D7200 17mm, ISO 100. Dec 25, 2017
Surya namaskar from Dante’s View at sunrise, NIKON D7200 f/4 18mm ISO100. Dec 25, 2017

Ubehebe Crater

This is a large volcanic crater 600 feet deep and half a mile across. The reddish orange sediments were deposited by streams and the layers represent seabed sediments. Do not recommend walking to the bottom of the crater with all your heavy photography equipment. Walking down is easy, walking up can be very arduous due to the loose soil

Ubehebe Crater during late afternoon. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/80 24mm ISO100. Dec 24, 2017

Photo Tip: This is a good scene for stitching panorama images so remember to use your tripod as you go around the crater

Ubehebe Crater during late afternoon Panorama stitched with Adobe Lightroom. NIKON D7200 24mm ISO100. Dec 24, 2017
Ubehebe Crater during late afternoon. NIKON D7200 f/4 24mm ISO100 with HDR. Dec 24, 2017

Titus Canyon

This is an adventurous ride and recommend a sturdy jeep since the trail is very rough.

Below is Leadfield, the remains of a historic mining town which soon turned into a ghost town after the fraud was exposed.

Leadfield at late afternoon. NIKON D7200 1/80 105mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

Parts of the trail are like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie especially as you negotiate the canyon like you see in the image below

Late afternoon. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/80 12mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

Petroglyphs are ancient rock carvings/ paintings. Unfortunately this site has been the subject of a lot of desecration so mush so that it is hard to tell the original carvings from vandals. Below is a carving representing bighorn sheep.

Late afternoon. NIKON D7200 1/125 105mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

Can you spot the Desert Bighorn sheep and the Berry Cactus in the picture below?

Late afternoon.. NIKON D7200 1/40 105mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

Millions years of geology at work as you can see in the multiple layers of sediment lifted up

Late afternoon. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/160 14mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

Panamint Valley

This trip was a disappointment. Went to Father Crowley Vista but the morning light did not cooperate.

Sunrise from Father Crowley Vista. NIKON D7200 24mm ISO 100

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Cap off your evening by visiting Mesquite sand dunes. They have also been a locale for the Star Wars movies.

Late afternoon. NIKON D7200 f/4 1/640 24mm ISO100. Dec 24, 2017

Mesquite Sands parking area is also a great place for star photography. No light pollution and easy to setup a tripod in the parking area

NIKON D7200 f/1.4 30s 24mm ISO100. Dec 22, 2017

I hope this is the first of my many visits to Death Valley. Good luck on your next photo safari at Death Valley National Park!

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Prakash Hariramani

Interested in landscape photography, payments, education & meditation