Trip Report: Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America. During the California Gold Rush of 1849, a group of westbound settlers got lost in Death Valley for several weeks, forced to eat several of their oxen to survive. When they eventually found a way out, one of the women in the group turned and said, “Goodbye Death Valley” – and the name stuck. Although I suppose she said those words with a certain amount of relief, today’s visitors to Death Valley National Park aren’t so cheered by the prospect of leaving. Instead, goodbyes to this remarkable landscape are laden with sorrow, and an eager wish to someday return.

Badwater Basin, the lowest place in North America (at 282 below sea level), is a favorite stop for most photographers. Badwater is a salt pan that stretches for miles, and one can find interesting hexagonal patterns that are the result of infrequent flooding. I was lucky to be there after heavy rains, leaving the Badwater Basin covered by a thin layer of water for several days – perfect for reflection photos!

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 2.5 seconds.

One of my favorite viewpoints is the overlook at Zabriskie Point, which stand above a twisted maze of yellow and red volcanic badlands. Sunrise is the best time to photograph this view, and if you get lucky, a few clouds might drift overhead to complete the composition. I made this photo during the soft glow of morning twilight.

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 105 seconds.

Much of the photography in Death Valley is heavily reliant on finding interesting foregrounds. I found this cracked mud, the result of a flash flood that dried in the hot desert air. I explored the mud flow until I found some interesting cracks pointing to a small rock marooned by the flood. A got really low in order to achieve a unique perspective, and focus stacked 10 photos, all taken at different focus points, to achieve near-far sharpness throughout the image frame. A beautiful sunrise was the icing on the cake!

Related Article: Tips for Using Foreground to Create Depth

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Canon 5DIII, Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens, ISO 100, f/11, 0.8 seconds.

Death Valley has several sets of sand dunes, including the very popular Mesquite Flat Dunes. The dunes are best photographed after a heavy wind, which erases all of the footprints left behind by the eager hordes of tourists and photographers who descend on this place on a regular basis. The wind can also create dramatic features, such as the one I found in the image below. Sand blowing over my composition added some energy and interest to the shot.

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Canon 5DII, Contax 35-70mm f/3.4 lens with Canon adapter, ISO 100, f/11, 1/40 second.

Death Valley holds so much photographic opportunity – tall mountains, stunning vistas, dunes, cracked mud playas, salt pans, wildflower blooms in spring, moving rocks, and even a few waterfalls – that you’ll likely want to visit it time and time again. You’ll never want to say goodbye!

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About the author: World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to several leading photo magazines and the author of numerous books and instructional videos. You can see more of Ian’s work at www.ianplant.com.

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3 Responses to “Trip Report: Death Valley National Park”
  1. Tony

    Beautiful photos in a unique environment. Would you explain why you use F11 instead of a higher F/stop and where you focus. Thanks

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      The photographer who presented that lesson is unavailable at this time. That said depending on the lens you may find that the
      sharpest overall f stop may be found in the middle of the range of the lens at around f11. In other words stopping down to the highest f stop
      may introduce other artifacts into the file to make it appear less snappy.

      You can always test this out on your own lenses by shooting at a various settings to determine what f stop looks best for your specific lenses.
      The other variable will be what you are shooting. If you don’t have objects in the near foreground your focal point and even overall f stop setting
      becomes less of an issue as you get to infinity focus.

      In that regard where you focus is dependent on your subject matter. A general rule to follow is to locate whatever you feel is the most
      important visual elements and put the central focus there. When in doubt, since pixels are free, shoot options with the focal point in
      different places and see what is most appealing. Also that allows you to blend images in photoshop in post production to stack the
      focus wherever you like.

      Happy Shooting!

      Reply