Photographing Death Valley (My Trip Recap)

Death Valley Dunes
Before we get going, if you’re into Lightroom I have a few seminars coming up. This week I’ll be in Oklahoma City, and next week is Austin. In February I’ll be in Arlington, TX and Atlanta, GA. Then in March I’ll be in Phoenix. Here’s the link to the seminar page if you want to come out and join me. Now… on to the post.

(NOTE: As you look at the photos make sure you click to see them larger)

Last week I had the chance to go out to Death Valley with some friends of mine for a few days. Wow! What a place! There were so many different things to see from beautiful sand dunes, to salt flats, all the way to old mines and houses. It was a great trip and I’m really happy with the photos I came back with. I figured I’d share a few with you here.

The Gear
My gear for the trip mostly consisted of:
Nikon D800
Nikon 16-35mm lens
Nikon 24mm f/1.4
Nikon 70-200mm
• Really Right Stuff TVC-33 Tripod
• Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead

Unless I mention that I took the photo with the 70-200, most photos were taken with either the 16-35 or the 24 f/1.4 (I’ll write more this week about why I ended up using the 24mm a lot). I also tested out the Tamron 24-70mm lens and was very happy with it (again, another post).

Camera Settings
I used Aperture Priority mode 99% of the time. For most photos the Aperture was f/16 or f/22. If I put the 70-200 lens on and was zoomed in, I shot at f/8 since I typically didn’t have to worry too much about depth of field. I was on a tripod so I didn’t care much about shutter speed, and the ISO was at 100 (except for the morning after my night photos where I forgot to change it from ISO 1600 – ouch!) :)

The only time I switched to Manual mode on the camera was for the night photos. I wrote a post about shooting night and star photos a while back. Here’s the link.

Day 1 – Land in Vegas and hit the nearest REI Store
REI is a recreational outdoor and clothing store. Living in Florida, even our cold weather gear isn’t really meant for very cold weather. Brian and I spent an ungodly amount of money there, but I have to tell ya – at the end of the trip, it ended up being the best money I’ve spent in a long time. As photographers, we easily spend thousands on our equipment. But, to me at least, when I’m cold my creativity just goes away. All I can think of is when I can get warm again. So all of that expensive gear we have goes out the door, because you’re not out using it. While it hurt my wallet walking out of the store, I was totally happy I spent the money within the first day of being there.

Day 1 – Zabriskie Point Sunset
On the first day, my friend Brian Matiash and I drove in from Vegas. We weren’t sure how far we’d make it before the sunset so we stopped when we saw these cool looking clouds in the distance. This was our first taste of the cold and the wind so we quickly grabbed all that cold weather gear. This was the scene we saw off the side of the road. I thought the way the clouds funneled into that opening in the sky look really cool. Kind of an ominous welcome into Death Valley.

(Click to see them larger)
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On our way into Death Valley park, one of the first places you come across is Zabriskie Point. It’s an overlook into an eroded landscape of mountains. The sun went behind some of the clouds right before sunset and it ended up showing off some god beams in the background. After that, we headed over to our hotel in Stovepipe Wells.

Death Valley

Here’s a quick shot I took of Brian Matiash while he was shooting. I love photographer silhouettes.

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Day 2 – Sunrise At The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
We woke up around 5:15am on Friday to shoot sunrise at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Luckily, it’s literally 5 minutes from the hotel in Stovepipe Wells. It’s kinda weird to see these dunes in the middle of nowhere right off the side of the road. They’re not particularly large looking until you hike out to them and start climbing. It was like taking 1 step forward and 3 steps falling back. But it was worth it once you got into the dunes. I think the tallest one is about 250-300 feet. And those aren’t even the tallest in Death Valley though. Eureka Dunes (which we didn’t make it out to) supposedly has dunes that are 700 feet tall. Crazy! Anyway, here’s some photos I took before sunrise.

(Click to see them larger)
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Oddly enough, I ended up really liking the twilight shots of the dunes. The soft blues and magenta colors really work for me. Another funny moment was when we arrived, the dunes in the back looked so far away. We mumbled to ourselves that we’d never get back there. But I kinda set my sites on them and meandered my way back, while shooting on and off. After hiking around for a while, my friend Amy Heiden and I found a good spot to wait for the sunrise.

Death Valley

Death Valley

Death Valley

Here’s a shot where I turned the other way and you can see our shadows on the dunes behind us.
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The cool thing about dunes is that once the sun comes up, you can still shoot. When the sun hits them, it opens this entirely new world of textures and patterns that you’d never see if it weren’t for the low angle of the sun, against the sand. I walked back even further for another 10-15 minutes (which in dune-time, is only about 200 yards ;) ) and found a cool spot.

Death Valley

Here’s a wide photo so you can see where I was at and where I went to. It doesn’t look far in the photo but it took a while to get there. Especially when you don’t want to trample foot prints along the top of the dunes, for you and other photographers, so I had to walk down and around to get back up.

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Day 2 Sunset – Badwater Basin Salt Flats
After heading back for some food and to process images for a while, we headed out for our sunset shoot at the Badwater Basin Salt Flats. This was one of my “Bucket List” photos for the trip so I was excited to get out there. Basically, the area has a small spring-fed pool of “bad water” next to the road in a sink; the accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, which I guess is what gives it the name “badwater”. For photographers it’s a cool place because the salt forms these hexagonal crust patterns. And as photographers, we love our patterns :) Here’s a few photos ranging from about 30 minutes before sunset, all the way to 30 minutes after sunset. Again, I found myself really digging the twilight photos here. Plus, I put my Lee Big Stopper on for some long exposure photos, hence the streaky sky in the last one.

(Click to see them larger)
Death Valley

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Day 3 Sunrise – Zabriskie Point
This is the same place we were at for sunset the other day. But at sunset, you’re shooting right into the sun. For sunrise, the sun comes up behind you and illuminates the entire area little by little. This was my first taste of the cold and wind. It was so windy that my camera strap (the Upstrap Pro, which has some weight to it) was horizontal in the air. I even saw a few tripods almost tip over. I used my Really Right Stuff TVC-33 which is fairly heavy, and attached my camera bag to the hook under it to keep it secured to the ground.

(Click to see them larger)
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Here’s a shot from before the sun came up. There were some really nice blues and pinks in the sky and it gave the whole scene a very cold feeling (which was good because it was kinda cold) :)

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The sunrise wasn’t looking like it would be spectacular. There were no clouds in the sky and I figured I’d already gotten a pretty decent “cloud” photo from sunset the other day. So I decided to change it up a little, since I’d already been there, and I didn’t want to come back with two shoots of the same exact thing. I put my 70-200mm lens on and really zoomed in to the mountains in the background as the first light hit them. The combination of the warm light on the peaks, with the blue and pink hues of the early morning sky made those shots my favorites from the morning.

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Here’s a 2-shot pano I did with the D800. The size of this thing with 2 photos stitched is sick!

Death Valley - Zabriskie Point

Day 3 Sunset – The Racetrack
This was another spot that I was really looking forward to. The Racetrack Playa is a dry lake where the famous/mysterious “sailing stones” leave tracks on the ground. It’s about a 2-3 hour drive on a 4-wheel-drive-recommended road. We took a side-tour to an old mine which definitely put the rental Jeep to the test, but other than that I didn’t think the road was that bad. I’m sure glad we had a rental though :) This is where our cold weather gear was really put to the test. After sunset, the temps went down into the teens and the wind picked up. I actually didn’t even realize it though since I was so warmly dressed that only my eyes were showing. But my buddy Brian went to get a drink from his backpack and the water was frozen. I reached for a granola bar at one point which, again, was frozen solid. What a cool place though! We shot from about an hour before sunset (about 4:50pm), all the way to around 9pm.

I started at the western end of the playa shooting sunset. It worked out pretty good, because once the sun went down behind the mountain, I was able to run across the playa to get to another sailing rock, and shoot another sunset. Then I was able to do it once again after that before losing the light totally. I always like to get the sun just as it’s setting or rising above a peak, so you get that nice sun-star in your photo. So I was able to get 3 tries at it here which was nice.

(Click to see them larger)
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Death Valley - Racetrack

Here’s another buddy of mine (Brian Bonham) in the background shooting. This gives you a good look at how close (or far) the rocks were. It was pretty easy to find a rock to call your own, and work the composition for a while.

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The sky was nearly crystal clear and the stars and milky way kept me busy for a while. I’ve really been digging the star photography stuff. It’s a treat for me because I rarely get to see stars like this, especially the Milky Way, because of light pollution where I live.

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Day 4 Sunrise – The Sand Dunes (again)
This was going to be my last shoot before heading back to Vegas for my flight the next day. I’ll admit it was tough waking up since we got back pretty late from the Racetrack the night before. But I had scoped a place in the dunes from the other day that I wanted to try to shoot for sunrise. I don’t know about you, but it happens a lot to me. The first time I go somewhere is really only a warmup. That was the case with the dunes. I didn’t find the spots I really wanted to shoot from until the light had already gotten bad. So a couple of us headed back there again. Unfortunately we thought we were taking a better route to the large dunes in the back, but we misjudged it a bit. I ended up walking up and down the huge dunes for about 50 minutes straight looking for my location from the other day. Luckily I found it but, sadly, it was trampled with footprints from the weekend tourist traffic. So I went into Plan B mode, put my 70-200 lens back on and started shooting some more zoomed in photos instead of wide.

Death Valley Dunes

As I walked back to the car (sadly another 45 minute walk across the dunes), I found some cool looking patterns in the sand and this ended up being one of my favorites from the area.

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Post-Processing
Most photos were processed with a combination of Lightroom, Photoshop and finished with onOne Perfect Effects (their “Magic Desert” preset, appropriately enough, worked AWESOME here).

A Fun And Successful Trip
All-in-all this was an awesome trip that exceeded my expectations. I’m always happy if I come back from a trip with one shot I’m happy with. With this trip, I have at least 10 that I really like. Plus, I got to hang out with some old friends, as well as make some new ones which is always fun.

I hope you enjoyed the Death Valley Photography trip re-cap. If you have any questions, just leave ‘em here. Thanks for stopping by and have a good one.

  • BenPal

    Stunning landscapes and photos with stunning sharpness. Thanks.

  • Peter Nord

    Did you encounter any cold weather problems with the D800 batteries? Did you have to keep some in a warm pocket?

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Nope. Had a spare battery the whole time and never had to use it. Mine usually lasted a full day on a charge.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Nope. I always had a spare battery in my bag ready to go, but I never needed it. A full charge the night before lasted the entire day after each time.

  • http://markpovey.com/ Mark

    Great work Matt. Those photos are amazing.

  • Dennis Zito

    Wow, Matt! These a some of the most AMAZING photographs I’ve seen of Death Valley! The contrast and sharpness of these is Stunning! I was look at these with my new Apple Retina Display Laptop, and I was blown away with the clarity and sharpness! I could see the pebbles in the sand! Just fantastic captures and processing Matt! Thank you so mush for sharing your adventures with us! I’m looking forward to your blog on the 24mm 1.4 lens!

    Thanks again,

    Dennis

  • Blake Robinson

    Fabulous work, Matt. on your blog, love the way you can click on the images and they kind of “boing” open to a larger size. how do you do this? Is it a WordPress plug-in and if so which one? thanks, Blake

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Thanks Blake – the “boing-ing” is from a wordpress plug-in called Fancy Box Plus.

  • George Hendrix

    You pointed out that you frequently shot at f/16 and f/22. Since I’m sure you’ve seen the online chatter that on the D800 diffraction becomes an issue at f/8 or f/11 (opinions seem to vary), I’m guessing that you’ve thought this through and reached a reasoned opinion that makes you comfortable with smaller apertures. What’s your reasoning? As a D800 shooter myself, I find that I’m constantly trying to sort out the usable information from the barrage of adulation and hand-wringing that this particular camera seems to generate. Thanks.

    Beautiful photos. And congratulations for managing to freeze your butt off in the hottest spot on the continent.

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Hey George. I’ve actually not seen any chatter about issues at f/16-f/22 on the D800. I’ve heard techies point out things about diffraction, etc… at those apertures on all cameras and I’ve heard it for years. I just look at the image. As you can see if you click on them larger, there doesn’t seem to be any issues so I’ll happily continue to shoot at f/16. I do think lenses in general tend to be sharper at lower apertures so I shoot at f/11 or f/8 when possible, but I can barely ever tell a difference when I look at them side by side in Photoshop.
      Best advice I can give. Take a scene and shoot it at all apertures and see if you can tell the difference.
      Thanks :)

  • John F. Williams

    Matt, Thanks once again for sharing the photographs and especially your thoughts and approach on making them.

  • Brian Bonham

    Where’s the B&W dunes? You had my hopes up. I think I’m still recovering from the second walk in the dunes Amy, Ricardo and I took.

    Love seeing your shots in one spot.

  • Greg Hughes

    Loved this post, Matt! As I’ve got a late winter and late fall trip at elevation, and since I live in northern California, wondering if the apparel followed the ‘layers’ and fleece/wool advice… Any helpful tips for fingers and toes?

  • Greg Hughes

    Matt – Another question: Did you do any video with the D800? Have had mine since it came out, have only used it a couple of times. Do you typically do video capture on these types of trips? Any suggestions? Thanks…

  • David

    Great shots there Matt. You need to come visit the Great Sand Dunes here in Colorado. High Altitude to go along with 700Ft tall dunes, but outstanding sunrises and sunsets up against the Sangre de Cristos Mountains. Remember to visit the REI in Denver or bring the cold weather gear with you.

  • Colin Vickers

    Such beautiful landscapes – thank you for sharing!
    I should use this opportunity to thank you for the knowledge you have shared with the community – I found The Grid a few weeks ago and have learnt so much from you and the others on that fabulous show. It made me think more about my own photography and it has really inspired me to be a better photographer. Thank you!

  • Brian

    Great post today Matt! I am coming to see you next week when you come to Austin. Will they be selling your books at the class?

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      You bet they will!!! :-)

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      You bet they will! ;-)

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  • Craig Cullum

    Hi Matt,

    Fantastic pictures! You said most pictures you used the 16-35mm. With the sun burst pictures are you using the 14-24 or the 24mm fixed? I find it impossible to get sunbursts with the 16-35.

  • Don Bromberg

    Beautiful clicks as always. I look forward everyday to reading your blog. Thanks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Charlie.Garcia Charlie Garcia

    Thanks for the tips and insight Matt. I enjoy your articles and learn something new from each one. Keep up the great work!

  • http://www.facebook.com/beth.mcnabb Beth Reynolds McNabb

    Great shots and thanks for taking us along for the adventure!

  • http://twitter.com/MuddyRiverMedia Mark Fogarty

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the Tamron 24-70mm.

  • John Batdorff

    Matt, wonderful images. How did you like the drive to the Racetrack?

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  • Carla C

    Hi Matt, very enjoyable reading. I’m heading out to DV this weekend… I’ll have two sunrises and two sunsets. I’ve been looking forward to this excursion for some time. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos and experience. By the way, the cold is good because it scares away lots of people. =)

    • http://www.mattk.com/ Matt Kloskowski

      Sweet!! Dunes, Badwater, Zabreski, Racetrack… lots of opportunities for two days. Lots of driving too :)

      • Carla C

        Thanks Matt! ;-)

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