My Five Favorite Reasons for Photography in Death Valley

photographer on Badwater salt flat during sunrise

Death Valley National Park contains some of the most fascinating desert landscapes in the world. Complete with a myriad of salt flats, sand dunes, mountain vistas, slot canyons, and cracked playas, Death Valley remains one of my favorite locations for landscape photography. And as the title suggests, here are my Top Five reasons for why you should visit Death Valley for photography.

#1 The More Things Stay the Same, the More They Change

Sunrise over the Badwater Basin Landscape in Death Valley
Salt and mud combine to create fascinating patterns in Death Valley National Park at sunset
Badwater Basin Salt Flats Sunrise

I like to joke and say I’ve been visiting Death Valley for over 40 years, despite only being 46 years old at the time of this blog post. It’s not entirely inaccurate as my family traveled here when I was a child in the 70s. And while much of the valley may appear to be unchanged in those 40+ years, the first of my top five reasons for photography here has everything to do with how much actually does change in Death Valley…often from one year to the next! While the extreme conditions in Death Valley create striking features such as sand dunes and salt flats, these same micro-landscapes undergo both subtle and drastic changes based on short term seasonal weather. The salt flats found at Badwater Basin are the perfect “in your face” example of these changes. Intense rains can flood the valley as the desert ground saturates and creates ephemeral streams carrying water to the lowest point: Badwater. My second visit to the park was largely inspired by reports of a flooded basin. After multiple visits for sunset and sunrise, I was finally rewarded with perfect conditions to capture the unique look and patterns found only during a flood. Rains can also affect other parts of the park including the mud tiles nestled within the valleys of dune fields as well as out on the valley floor. These floods carry mud which undergoes a cycle of drying, cracking, and crumbling. The aesthetic quality of mud tiles transforms with each season until another flood event creates new mud tiles. Part of the challenge is locating these areas! So, if you want to find unique conditions, bookmark the NPS website for Death Valley and check in on the local weather. If they’ve had heavy rains, you may just find some unique photo opportunities!

#2 The Landscapes are Grand

Tiled mud cracks beneath golden cloud filled sky
Mud and salt patterns at sunset in desert valley
Blue and pink tones over salt flats

Grand Landscapes are certainly some of my favorite scenes to photograph. And if you visit Death Valley, expect to find them in ample supply! Grand Landscapes are characterized by the classic “near / far” composition, often crafted using a wide angle lens. These scenes immerse the viewer into your frame, showcasing the fine details often found just below your feet and lead one’s eye off into the distance, whether that be a colorful sunset or sunrise sky, mountain peaks, or twinkling stars. One of my early workshop clients told me his mother, a photographer herself, taught him to look for “lines and light”. Solid advice! This is where Death Valley shines as there are no shortages of lines here. And the light, when it’s good, will wrap around the valley like a warm embrace. Tip: When scouting for compositions, I highly suggest finding multiple options that lead in a few directions. For example, when at Badwater Basin, sunrise light can often be at its best to the south and swing all the way to the northeast, giving you close to 270 degrees of options. And the best light often shifts around as clouds drift by, illuminating at different times. Having options to compose towards the best light is key. Tip:  Some advice on finding lines: simplify, simplify, simplify. A wide angle lens at eye level will easily frame a section of foreground about 15′ (3m) wide. That is a lot to include and often the result is a loss of a main subject to start your frame. Fine details are also reduced when your lens is so far from the foreground subject. Remember, wide angle lenses exaggerate close subjects (inches to a foot or two away) and reduce impact in further subjects (more than a few feet away). Get low, get close, and simplify the lines so that your foreground contains only an area of 2-3′ (1m) wide at most.

#3 The Devil is in the Details

Desert badlands at sunset in Death Valley National Park
Undulating golden sand dunes
Salt circle and sinewy path on valley floor of desert

In case you weren’t aware, a lot of Death Valley’s attractions have to do with the Devil. Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, etc. So, yes, the devil is very much in the details here. One of the aspects that endears me to Death Valley is how each visit reveals another layer to discover. Slowing down your pace and observing the smaller scenes and details can open up a new world of image creation. Some of these details may be right at your feet, so make use of your wide to mid range focal lengths here, but other scenes require simplifying through isolation only found with a telephoto. On your next visit to the park, consider a moderately strong telephoto lens to hone into these smaller scenes, at least 200mm and up to 400mm can be useful. Tip: Keep an eye out for repeating patterns, dappled light, or a combination of the two. Distant layers of badlands or mountain ranges during golden hours can lead to stunning imagery.

#4 Dark Night Skies

Milky way panorama over desert badlands
Milky Way over sand tiles in the Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley
Milky Way rising over Badwater salt flat in Death Valley

Astro photographers and star gazers rejoice! Death Valley was designated as the largest Dark Sky National Park by the International Dark Sky Association and has a gold level status, the best possible. As clear skies are abundant here, photographing Death Valley from twilight into nightfall can be highly rewarding. Capturing the milky way can start as early as late February just before dawn and extends into a brief window just after sunset in October and early November. Star trail photos will dazzle the eye with the sheer quantity of trails streaking across the night sky. Tip: For static stars, a fast aperture lens of at least f2.8 is ideal, and using the 500 rule (or a modified 400 rule) for your shutter speed is helpful. Just divide 500 or 400 by your focal length to give you the number of seconds your shutter speed should be to avoid too much trailing. For star trails, almost any lenses can work. I find stacking multiple images the best approach for flexibility in post processing, but a single long exposure can also work.

#5 Going Where the Climate Suits My Clothes

Despite Death Valley getting a lot of press for being the hottest place on earth, the winter climate is indeed one of my favorite reasons to photograph here. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest five years ago, I am officially used to “wet and cold” being the best way to describe winters here. And I know much of the Midwest and northern states experience much more extreme winter weather. Death Valley is the perfect escape for the winter blues. While morning and evening temperatures can dip into the 30s and 40s, much of the day is a balmy 65-75 starting in late November through the first part of March. I schedule my Death Valley Photo Workshop for December through late February to make perfect use of this wonderful weather window. Shorts and short sleeved shirts in winter? I’ll take it! Just dress in layers for those chilly mornings, but be prepared to shed them as soon as the sun comes out!

Looking for more inspiration, check out my Death Valley Photo Gallery or consider joining me on my next workshop here!

Until next time, happy shooting!

Jim