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Death Valley Trip: Day 1

My brother and I went for a quick camping trip in Death Valley National Park over the weekend. It was our first time visiting Death Valley, rain and snow were in the forecast, we were both itching to get out of town and I was ready to photograph the hell out of this park. That's a recipe for fun if I've ever seen it.

Here are the pictures and my experience from Day 1 (of 2).

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

We arrived at the park, found a campsite, got some lunch, then headed right for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The winds were strong at the campsite, but luckily for our eyes, it was quite calm at the dunes. As I said, I'd never been to this park before so I'd never seen these dunes. I have, however, spent a lot of time at the Kelso Sand Dunes in Mojave National Preserve.

The Kelso Dunes are much larger and more impressive - they seem to go on forever. But these dunes in Death Valley were, in my opinion, a little more aesthetic. There are a lot less plants here, so the dunes are generally smoother with more uninterrupted ridges. But, being that it's Death Valley and tons more people come here than to Mojave National Preserve, it's a little harder to get shots without people and/or footprints in them. That's the toughest part about shooting on sand dunes: footprints stick around for awhile.

The cloud cover was pretty heavy with an incoming storm, so I had essentially no directional light to work with. It was all diffused. Diffused light is good for a lot of things, but sand dunes ain't one of 'em. Without the shadows created by directional light, the texture and shapes in the sand and ridges nearly disappear. Everything ends up looking flat.

But since I always try to make lemonade when nature gives me lemons, I decided to accentuate the stormy feel in this first shot by darkening the sky quite a bit with some stronger split NDs. I think it works quite well.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

Then I just had to do a panorama to really capture this expanse (click for larger version).

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park, CA

After we got our fix of Sand Dunes and exercise, we headed out to Badwater Basin to see the salt flats. I was really looking forward to this.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the US with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. The landscape is really unlike anywhere on the planet. With one big, unbroken expanse of salt shaped into unique almost-geometric shapes, it's easy to get a very surreal feeling when standing out there.

And being that it's a big, unbroken expanse in the middle of a valley with no trees or rock formations to shelter you, it can get pretty windy. And we chose a windy day to go out there.

To put it simply...it was insane.

The wind was out of control. I'd never experienced winds that strong. And trying to shoot landscapes in it was tough. It was the most stressed I've ever been shooting landscapes. Between worries of my camera blowing away (literally - it was THAT windy), trying to get a sharp image when the wind is making my camera tremble like a leaf, concern that my Lee filters would catch a gust of wind and blow right off the camera...I think I would have been sweating bullets had it not been as cold as it was.

I think this shot of my brother about sums up what we were dealing with:

Windy Day in Badwater Basin

Don't get me wrong, though. It was a complete blast. This is the kind of thing I live for. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Just so much fun.

Lucky for me, the clouds broke up and gave me a gorgeous sunset to work with. Also, every shot was tack sharp. It pays to have good technique ;D

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, CA

After the sun set and twilight fell upon us, a beautiful deep blue light washed over everything. It's difficult to explain how surreal this time of day is out on the salt flats. The ground seems to glow like it's under a black light, you look around and can't see a single soul for miles, there's nary a tree, bush, rock or bug in sight. I hate to use a cliché, but it's truly like being on another planet.

Here are the results (click the pano to see it larger):

Badwater Basin Salt Flats in Death Valley National Park at Twilight

Badwater Basin Salt Flats in Death Valley National Park at Twilight

After I got every shot I wanted, we packed it in and headed back to the campground for a hot meal and a break from the wind. But we had no idea the weather we were in for tomorrow.

Day 2 coming soon...