Like many photographers, I live relatively close to an iconic photographic spot. In my case, it's Death Valley, California. Yet I have avoided shooting there, simply because I didn’t want to seem cliché. So many other photographers visit the site that I didn’t want to appear lacking in originality. But lately I have changed my thinking and am revisiting all the spots I have always “wanted” to photograph.
First Impressions of Death Valley
When I visited Death Valley National Park for the first time, I was very impressed. As a photographer and lover of deserts in general, I wonder why I waited until I was 40 years old to see and photograph this amazing area of the California Mojave Desert.
I took the shot (above) as we traveled east on route 190 past Stovepipe Wells on our way to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. This great vintage “scenic route” sign in the perfectly still desert landscape caught my eye because I am interested in visual communication and wayfinding. Finding this scene was a great way to start the trip. Also, I like this shot in black and white vs color.
The same is true for my favorite shot at Mesquite Dunes (below). The best time to shoot dunes is either early in the morning or late in the day. The sun casts low shadows that make visually interesting compositions. My taste is to shoot low and see the maximum amount of sand pattern. This shot, taken in a heavily visited spot, says more about human interaction with the dune than the natural patterns that the wind makes in the sand.
I am also a big fan of the Creosote Bush, an evergreen shrub that flowers in the spring and smells wonderful after a desert rain. Because these bushes almost litter the landscape, some photographers regard them as banal and uninteresting. But the bush thrives in the desert because it has adapted so well to the harsh conditions. Some botanists believe that the “King Clone” ring of Creosote bushes in the Mojave Desert is one of the oldest living organisms on the planet. (It is estimated to be more than 11,700 years old.) For the image below I used a polarizer on my lens and did a bit of post processing with Color Efex Pro by nik Software.
I used the same post-processing technique with this image from the Badwater Basin area of the Park (below). The basin is the lowest point in North America with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level. This shot depicts the presence of human interaction with the geography and the observation deck’s fusion with the landscape.
During my visit to Death Valley, I couldn’t resist creating a few panoramic images, including the pano below of Artist Palette. A one-way road takes you through a geologically rich area marked by colors you usually don’t see in a desert mountain.
Visiting Zabriskie Point was a real treat. But it can be intimidating to shoot at such a “sacred” place that has been photographed by so many tourists as well as some of the world’s best photographers. My visit was so enjoyable, I know the image below is only the first of more to come.
One of my favorite images from my Death Valley journey depicts the flight of an adult raven over the Panamint Range, an area in Death Valley from which you can simultaneously see both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States. While I was at a lookout, the raven flew perfectly into view. It had such a commanding view of the landscape that it seemed like a watcher over all the desert animals. Because the landscape and weather were so still, I could hear the sound of its wings flapping in the air.
Enjoy the Experience
After visiting Death Valley, I have a new attitude about visiting tourist destinations that may have been photographed a million times before. I hope you, too, will venture out and shoot a popular place that you may have been avoiding.
Allow yourself to explore whatever landscape you want to explore. Don’t worry about convention or how many others may have shot the exact same subject matter. Simply enjoy the experience and photograph your own particular view of the surroundings.
If you succeed in photographing an often-visited site from a fresh perspective, we invite you to share your experiences!