The Death Valley Landscape Photography Guide
It really is surprising how much beauty you’ll find in Death Valley! Death Valley National Park is located a four hour drive from Los Angeles and a 2 and a half hour drive from Las Vegas. The first thing you want to do when you enter Death Valley National Park is to go to the visitor center and pay your entrance fee. At the visitor center, you’ll get a map for the entire valley and find loads of inspiration for photography. In Death Valley, there’re two “main towns”. Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek, both located relatively in the middle of the valley, but still with a distance of 40km between them. Obviously, Death Valley can become very, very hot since it’s a dessert, which is the reason most people visit the park during winter time, which is also high season.
Artists Drive is a short drive which leads you to Artists Palette, which is an area knows for colors caused by oxidation of different metals on the face of the Black Mountains. You should try and visit this location after a rainfall. When the minerals are wet the colors shine way more. It’s the same effect as when you find a beautiful wet stone at the beach, but when you come home and the stone is dry the colors have turned flat and boring. If you can combine a rainfall with the beautiful colors of the sunset, you’re in for a treat. Visiting this place in harsh daylight does not give justice to the location – as we found out, but it is still immensely beautiful!
The Devil’s Golf Course
The Devil’s Golf Course is located south of Furnace Creek and is one of the most fascinating and rough landscapes I’ve ever experienced. What you find here is salt formations and they’re very hard, almost petrified hard, so you have to be extremely careful with where you put your feet, if you fall over you’ll likely be pierced by one of the pointy salt spikes not to mention what would happen to your lens if it falls front first! It is hard to photograph here and get a compelling picture and since I knew that I prioritized other locations above this, but I would like to mention that you at least have to visit this gorgeous place on your way to DV.
Badwater Basin Salt Flats
Badwater Basin Salt Flats is along with the Devils Golf Course one of the most fascinating locations I’ve ever visited. Dependent on the time of year their looks will change. When we visited in the end of November and start December the flats were all dry and mainly white, but I’ve seen pictures and videos from other seasons where the salt flats were covered in a thin layer of water.
When you’ve parked at the parking lot you’ll have to walk for around 20-30 minutes to get to the best parts, where the hexagonal shapes are most visible. If you can’t find them just keep walking. And it should go without saying that you don’t drive your car into the salt flats.
The entire area feels so otherworldly and the shapes look like something out of a science fiction novel. My main goal for photographing Badwater Basin was actually some nightscape photography. It was the days around new moon we spend in Death Valley so the conditions were pretty good since Death Valley is also a Dark Sky Park. I shot a good amount of foregrounds during sunset and sunrise and when darkness came and the Milky Way became visible I got some amazing photographs of that one too.
Sadly the position and direction of the Milky Way at this time of year didn’t make for a compelling vertical image, so I shot the foregrounds and the Milky Way separate and made a series of composite night images instead.
I did, however, manage to pull off a huge Milky Way Panorama.
Badwater Basin also looks phenomenal during the golden and blue hour, where the sky lights up in different colors. Try to find different shapes, which can work as foreground and lead your eye into the picture.Something I missed myself, but can be a tip for you while visiting both Badwater Basin and the Devil’s Golf Course is to bring a macro lens or some macro rings for getting
Something I missed myself, but can be a tip for you while visiting both Badwater Basin and the Devil’s Golf Course is to bring a macro lens or some macro rings for getting close-ups of the beautiful salt formations and crystals. The amazing shapes of salt in Badwater Basin also invite to abstract photography with all the amazing textures. With a combination of the 10-second timer and using my tripod as an extension of my arm, I could photograph straight down from a high angle.
Zabriskie Point is the most famous landscape photography location in Death Valley. It’s located fairly close to Furnace Creek and there’s both a huge parking lot and a big vantage point. Most photographers prefer to get down and out in front of the vantage point as to not get tourists and other photographers in their photographs. Zabriskie Point is always beautiful and always worth a visit, but as with many locations, it’s doing very well in the golden hour. We visited both during the night and during sunrise, but the sunrise was definitely the best time since we got beautiful colors in the sky just before the sun rose and the location got lit up by the sun when it came above the horizon. In regard to the lens, you’ll definitely benefit the most from a good zoom lens. A 70-200mm covers most, but do not forget your kit lens either.
If you continue further up the road for around 20 miles, you’ll come to Dante’s View which is one of the best viewpoints in the Valley if you’re interested in getting up high. There’s a hiking trail up there, but since it was biting cold while we were there we decided only to focus on getting a few beautiful abstract photos of Badwater Basin 1700m below us. Unless you are going for a big wide panorama, a 70-200mm telezoom is what I’d recommend for this location.
Mesquite Sand Dunes
The Mesquite Sand Dunes are a central attraction of Death Valley and is located only a few kilometers outside of Stovepipe Wells. There are a rather big parking lot and some boards with important information. Mesquite Sand Dunes are not the only dunes in Death Valley, but they’re definitely the most accessible since you’ll need a four by four and special wheels to get to the other dunes.
If you come a day with wind where the sand is blown around and hit sunset or sunrise the beautiful golden light will set the dunes ablaze and you’ll get some absolutely spectacular shots. I can highly recommend you to check out some of the photographs from Michael Shainblum or Alex Norriega. Also, all the tourist footprints will be washed away and you get nice and clean dunes.
The further you get away from the parking lot the fewer footprints you’ll see. The east and north-east part of the dunes are really great for landscape photography.
After the sun has set behind the mountains, but before sunset the sky turns into one huge softbox, which lights up the dunes with soft yet contrasty light, it looks very special and I consider it to be the best light we got, while photographing the dunes since we didn’t have much wind during sunset or sunrise.
The wider range of focal lengths you can get the better. I’d suggest something like 28mm to 300mm. Alternatively, bring two cameras with two different lenses. Especially if the wind blows the sand and dust around you do not want to change lenses. Sand and dust are terrible to get inside your camera so make sure your camera is sealed against the elements. Also, bring your lens hood it will protect from both lens flares and sand.
When it comes to the practical stuff come in good time to scout for some proper compositions. I’d suggest at least three hours before sunset. Remember to bring a lot of water and some food. When you’re far into the dunes you don’t just walk back to the car. And definitely bring a headlamp, which in general is an absolute must in your landscape photography kit.
I also tried to get a few pictures of the dunes and the night sky, but a few clouds were in the way and I realized rather fast, that finding a composition in the pitch black darkness was next to nearly impossible. It was actually at this point I really decided to solve this problem by composite different pictures together, even though I’ve had the idea for some time.
Be sure to check out the video. There's a ton of more visual information!