Death Valley National Park

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In a return to some images from an extended photo trip taken earlier this year (and a return to this blog in general…) I wanted to take a moment and share this collection of shots from Death Valley National Park in California. By the time I made it here it was mid-January and I was on the run- running out of money and starting my push for home while still trying to see as many places as my limited funds would allow. In all, I only spent about 14 hours in Death Valley which is downright negligent, but I’d never been here before so I was grateful for the chance to at least stop for the night.

Rather than waste time driving around, I stopped and set up camp at Stovepipe Wells and spent the evening exploring the nearby Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  The dunes were amazing and I felt like a wide-eyed little kid while investigating this stark, dramatic, beautiful landscape for the first time. The only problem, from a photographic standpoint, is hundreds of other “wide-eyed kids” had also enjoyed this opportunity, leaving a highway of footprints crisscrossing everywhere through the sand. With nature photography, I strive to capture images that at least appear to be of untouched, virgin wilderness (though such places are in reality exceedingly rare.) The proximity to a roadside parking area all but eliminated this option, and with daylight fading fast I didn’t have time to venture beyond range of the front country crowd.

The next morning I rose early, broke camp and headed out. My intent was to drive to Furnace Creek (about 25 miles away,) spend a little time there, and move on. I hoped to make it to Zion National Park in southwest Utah by mid-afternoon so there wasn’t a lot of time to linger. However, as I approached Mesquite Flats again and saw this magical light casting the dunes in golden glow, I had a quick and drastic change of plans.

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I pulled the car over immediately, grabbed my gear and headed out; cross country through the desert. If I’d continued to the parking area I would have had to trudge for miles through soft sand to get to a place that hadn’t been tracked, and certainly would have lost my light in the process. But by sticking to the edge of the dunes I could move quickly across the playas, beeline my way past all the footprints and hopefully find an area that was unmarked.

My plan worked. I’m not sure how far I actually had to go. My trek was fueled by adrenaline as I watched the dramatic dance between shadow and light unfold across the land. I hurried toward a point on the horizon, intersecting the vast dunes which extended on for miles, and was thrilled at my arrival to find nothing but wind blown patterns in the sand.

I immediately started taking photos, but quickly realized that I needed to be very deliberate in my decisions and movement. My footprints would of course disturb this pristine canvas as well. It was a good exercise in selective and thoughtful composition, and personal awareness of my interactions with the landscape.

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Several months later, these photos (and this experience) stand as some of my favorites from the trip. In post-processing I ended up adding a little more vignette than I might normally. There were a couple of reasons for this. For one, I’d tried to save a little money and bought a cheap polarizing filter; a mistake that left me with unnatural dark looking spots in the center of my otherwise blue sky. Adding some extra vignette to the upper corners kind of helped to tie this in and not make it as noticeable. I also liked how this adjustment helped to accentuate the contrast between the shadows of dunes and morning glow of the sand.

Happy as I may be with these images, I’m also realistic in knowing that these captures will only prove gratifying in a personal sense. When it comes to prints and greeting cards, to the farmers markets and art shows, I already know that these scenes won’t sell here. I’ve already struck out with my Joshua Tree images this season- desert imagery just doesn’t catch many eyes in the Midwest…

It makes little difference though. When I look at these photos I see what’s behind them; growth of skill, extra effort, and the joy and adventure of exploring a new landscape. For as long as I continue to do photography, despite trying to make income and perhaps one day a living from it, I never want to lose sight of the fact that this is what it’s all about.

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4 thoughts on “Death Valley National Park

  1. I’m a desert lover, and find these images simply wonderful! The story that goes with them adds to the feeling, and yes, I’ve also come to the realisation that I need to take photos because I need to for myself, and if others can enjoy them so much the better, but most importantly, I have to go with my heart.

    • Thank you! I agree totally… and on a related note I’ve also completely fallen in love with desert landscapes. So much beauty and so much to explore. I can’t wait to get back!

  2. Beautiful work, love your vision and story. I will be heading to Zion, Sequoia, etc this spring for the first time in many, many years, any places in particular that you would recommend?

    • Thanks! To be totally honest, my experience in some of these areas is somewhat limited. I’ve only been to Zion twice and Sequoia I’ve only hiked through the backcountry… but all the same my general rule of thumb is you can’t go wrong with a national park! Each is beautiful and unique in its own way, and a visit to any park service area generally offers up at least one moment guaranteed to leave you breathless. Depending on what time of spring you plan to travel, you might take wildflowers into consideration. I’ve really been wanting to get out to some of the desert parks in later winter and early spring to see the vegetation in bloom. Joshua Tree seems like it might present some great opportunities for this…

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