Photographing Death Valley National Park
by Zack Schnepf
Death Valley has been at the top of my list to photograph since I first became serious about photography 7 years ago. The surreal landscape in this area is my favorite type of subject and begs to be abstracted. It’s a challenging area to photograph, the wind blows sand in any and every piece of gear that is exposed to it, you have a narrow opportunity for good light and the biggest challenge is dealing with all the other people there to enjoy the same beautiful area. With that being said, if you’re patient, resourceful and fortunate you can capture some wonderful and unique images.
This spring, on a whim, I finally decided to visit and finally explore this natural wonder for myself. I was richly rewarded for my spontaneity and perseverance. I arrived as a storm was ravaging Death Valley, there was thunder, lightning, extreme winds, and snow in the surrounding mountains. I didn’t see the sun for the first 2 and half days, which gave me a great opportunity to explore the different areas without having to worry much about photographing them. This is one of the reasons I think I was as successful as I was, when the storm finally did break I already had a number of spots lined up to photograph.
The Mesquite Dunes
The first location I wanted to photograph was the Mesquite Dunes, probably the most popular location in the park. The dunes are located a few miles from Stove Pipe Wells, and right off the highway. You can access the dunes easily from the parking lot, the hard part is finding an area that is not overrun with footprints to photograph. If you’re lucky enough to arrive after a good dry windstorm the dunes will be wiped clean, I was lucky to see this once out of the 7 days I was in the park. My best shot of the whole trip “Death Valley Dream”, came from the mesquite dunes as the storm moved out of the area. The conditions changed rapidly and once I noticed the conditions were changing I sprinted from the other side of the dunes. I arrived just in time to capture the best conditions I would see all day. The transitional weather and light were fantastic, the clouds were opening up and dappled light was moving across the dunes and mountains. This first shot I captured hand held because I didn’t have time to set up the tripod, the conditions were changing so fast. I’m glad I did, this is my favorite shot from the whole trip. The conditions continued to be very interesting for another 20 minutes until the sunset behind a thunderhead behind me, but the best conditions were captured in the very first shot I took.
Bad Water was my second priority to photograph. At 282 feet below sea level, Bad Water is the lowest point in North America, and one of the most unique and surreal anywhere in the world. This winter, the area received enough rain to fill the entire salt flats with water. It created a unique situation, and I was so excited to photograph in these unique conditions. Again, I had scouted this area the day before while the weather was crummy so I had my spot already picked out for this perfect clear morning. The salt patterns created in this brine are fascinating. I knew I wanted them to be the primary focus of the image. I arrived very early on this morning, an hour or so before sunrise. I’ve always loved that time in the morning when the light from the sun is just grazing our little corner of the earth. The most amazing blue color is produced, I’ve always called this time the blue hour, and for this composition it suited the landscape perfectly. There was a low crescent moon in this shot as well, but at this wide angle I thought it more of a distraction so I cloned it out, I may post the moon version later. The photograph “Another World“, came together beautifully and is one of my favorites of all time now.
There were a few locations I wasn’t able to photograph this trip because of the conditions and the amount of rain fall this year, but that gives me a good reason to come back again soon. I did manage to get a few worthwhile shots in the next few days, including “Golden Pyramid Dunes”. I had a wonderful experience and can’t wait to visit this park again. Kevin McNeal and I will most likely be leading a workshop here next winter in February or March, please contact one of us if you’d like more information.