For photographers, Death Valley National Park just might be the greatest desert landscape on Earth. A foreboding name, yes, but a place of great diversity and grandeur. It’s one of the hottest, driest, and lowest places in the world. Each one of those attributes contributes to the totally unique landscape of Death Valley.
Unique, and also ephemeral. Rain and wind constantly change the landscape of the park, erasing the old and creating the new. The playas, salt basins, and dune fields of the park are always under construction. This is an aspect of Death Valley that I really appreciate. For one, it requires extensive knowledge and good scouting to find the best locations. Two, if you capture something really special, there’s no guarantee that the same landscape will be around or in its same state 5-10 years from now.
I was fortunate enough to lead our first full departure to Death Valley in February with Kenton Krueger. We enjoyed an excellent group and photographed so much of what the park offers. We traveled high and low, and from mountains to dunes to find some of the best shots and light. It was a successful trip and one that I recommend. I try to make an annual winter trip to the park; it just has so much to offer.
Here are some of the highlights from our workshop.
A high-pressure system hung over Death Valley the week before our workshop and brought unseasonably high temperatures and clear, blue skies. We got lucky because our arrival timed up with the push of a low-pressure system, bringing cooler temperatures and clouds.
I knew we had the chance for some special light on the first evening so we went to a nearby mud crack playa. There’s a wash at this location and an alluvial fan, which gives way to an intricate system of cracks. And cracks, are a dream foreground.
Some cracks were washed out with the recent December rains, but we found others that were in great shape. I like this particular playa a lot because you can shoot both ways, and we did. Facing east, we had mountains dappled in sunset light and a rising moon. Facing west, we had the Panamint Mountains towering up thousands of feet and the setting sun.
If you’ve spent a lot of time chasing light, you could just tell that the sky was going to explode at sunset. And it did. There was a short lull maybe 20-30 minutes before sunset, but then the sky erupted into reds and pinks. It was one of the best light displays I’ve seen in a while, and I think we were in one of the best locations to witness it.
It’s always a highlight visiting the dunes of Death Valley. There are many, but the most commonly visited dunes are the accessible Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The dunes are fantastic in all conditions – sunrise, sunset, mid-day, clouds, clear sky, you name it.
If there’s one condition that makes the dunes particular special though, it’s wind. On our second day, the forecast called for high winds and I knew we’d turn to the dunes for sunset. The conditions aren’t ideal to brave, but if you can deal with the wind and blowing sand, the resultant images are fantastic. I always say that the best images that really move a viewer, are the ones that capture some type of movement because they’re able to portray the drama of the actual moment when the shutter was pressed.
Now, earlier in the day, a haboob dust storm actually passed through the dunes. Visibility was 0 and it was looking like a sunset might not even happen. But, the haboob eventually passed through and let behind some 15-20 mph winds, enough to kick up some sand!
We ventured out in the afternoon and spent all evening hiking in the dunes. The light changed frequently and we were able to capture many images and perspectives. It looked like we may be in store for another fiery sky, but the sun hit a wall of clouds on the horizon that killed the light at sunset. Still, we got some fantastic late afternoon shots of wind on the dunes and had a great adventure. You could take a trip to Death Valley, visit the dunes every single day and not be bored, they’re that cool.
We spent plenty of time below sea level during the week, but don’t forget that Death Valley is home to numerous mountain ranges and peaks measuring up to 11,000 feet. For sunrise one morning, we ventured outside of the playas and basins to a spot nearly 6,500 feet up. Once at the point, we gained an expansive overlook of the valleys below.
This point is one of my favorite overlooks in the park and it receives very little traffic. It’s fairly remote and requires a considerable journey on a dirt road. Sunrise is my favorite time there, it’s a great opportunity to pair a sun star with an impressive landscape. The point also features massive polished rocks, which jut out from the cliffside and make for great foregrounds.
Our morning brought clear skies and we captured the cresting sun over the mountains and valley below. We spent time shooting some more intimate landscapes as the sun rose up, and we even visited an old gold mine along the dirt road on our way back.
It was a great morning and a highlight. Death Valley offers so much in the lower elevations, but it’s a totally different experience when you head up into the mountains of the park, and I’m glad we were able to make it happen.
Death Valley has many iconic locations, but the badlands of Zabriskie Point may be the most iconic. For many, Zabriskie Point is the first stop as they enter the park. It’s a great introduction to the park too. Walk to the overlook and you instantly find yourself in a landscape that resembles a Martian planet, something far out there and not of this Earth. That’s how I feel every time I visit the park.
Zabriskie and the surrounding area are special. Places like 20 Mule Team Canyon, Artists Palette, and Golden Canyon are home to some of the most spectacular badlands in the country. The diversity in rock, mineral, formation, and color is astounding.
On our first day, we actually stopped at Zabriskie in the mid-morning, but I had planned a true sunrise shoot too. Manly Beacon, a staple of the badlands, lights up bright gold when the rising sun hits it and it’s something that can’t be missed. On our last morning, we shot sunrise at Zabriskie Point and it was some of the best light we witnessed during the trip. After the fireball on our first evening, we went a few days with clear skies, so we warmly welcomed some clouds for sunrise. It was fantastic. Even better, the moon set an hour or so after sunrise and we were able to grab some shots of a close to full moon framed with Manly Beacon.
Overall, this was a great trip and I’m excited to get back next year. Every winter I look forward to shooting somewhere in the desert and I think Death Valley is one of the best spots you can choose. Many don’t know that it’s actually the largest park in the lower 48. Death Valley covers a vast area and there’s always something out there, just waiting to be discovered.
Matt Meisenheimer is a photographer based in Wisconsin. His artistry revolves around finding unique compositions and exploring locations that few have seen. He strives to capture those brief moments of dramatic light and weather, which make our grand landscapes so special. Matt loves the process of photography – from planning trips and scouting locations, taking the shot in-field, to post-processing the final image.
Matt is an active adventurer and wildlife enthusiast as well. He graduated with a degree in wildlife ecology and worked in Denali National Park and Mount Rainier National Park as a biologist. He also spent 6 months working in the deserts of Namibia before finding his path in photography. Matt’s passion for the wilderness has taken him to many beautiful places around the world.
As a former university teaching assistant, Matt is passionate about instruction. It is his goal to give his students the technical and creative knowledge they need to achieve their own photographic vision. He truly enjoys working with photographers on a personal level and helping them reach their goals.
You can see Matt’s work and portfolio on his webpage at www.meisphotography.com