Why Photographing Race Track Playa in Death Valley in California

As professional landscape photographers, Race Track Playa is for us a place out of the ordinary. It is a small lost corner in the Valley of Death in the state of California in the United States. This dry lake contains a unique treasure in the world: the moving stones.

A sailing stone in the dry lake of Race Track Playa in Death Valley in California.
A sailing stone in the dry lake of Race Track Playa in Death Valley in California.

A Phenomenon that Took Tens of Years to be Elucidated

The mystery of the sailing stones phenomenon was clarified in August 2014. A time lapse video showed that the stones were moving in high winds while a thin layer of ice was present on the dry lake.

For years, researchers have been trying to understand how magmatic stones from the surrounding slopes, mainly composed of feldspar-rich donut syenite, can travel for several tens of meters leaving a trace of 30 centimeters wide and 2 centimeters deep.

Once the mystery is solved, the fact remains that Race Track Playa is a wonderful place to photograph.

A Dry Lake, Stones, Tracks and Mountains

Creating interesting photos of the Race Track Playa sailing stones is not as easy as it sounds. The best is to arrive early in the morning or to wait until the end of the afternoon. During the day the lights are very raw. The reliefs are crushed by the sun. Contrasts are almost absent when the sun is high in the sky.

We made several trips before understanding how to capture the supernatural side of the scenes to be photographed. Choosing a point of view is difficult because the stones are small. Finally, it was on the fourth trip that we understood how to position ourselves to properly manage the area composed of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Photographing a geological curiosity is a possible approach for this site. But we are photographers who create artistic photographs. We wanted to go beyond documentary photography. We wanted a more symbolic approach by appealing to the imagination. These photos will create one of our collections of art prints "Around the Mind".

These photographs are part of one of our collections of artistic photographs. We chose to make them in our "Shades of Blacks and Whites" style because the lake, stones and mountains offer interesting textures and details to showcase. The most demanding thing was the management of the sky. Indeed, during our first trips, we have always had blue skies without any clouds.

Finally, our perseverance paid off because during a trip, we were lucky to have many clouds. As we often say in our landscape photography workshops, clouds are the language of the sky. They allow to accentuate the messages that we want to transmit in our photographs.

It is possible to use wide-angle lenses or long focal lengths because the variety of subjects is unlimited. We also recommend using a tripod because the choice of framing and scene compositions can be difficult.

Photographs are a Real Reward

Photographing Race Track Playa is a real reward. It is necessary to have a 4x4 because the trip takes place on a track dotted with pebbles and stones.

Temperatures in Death Valley are often high. It is essential to bring water to prevent dehydration. In addition, no telephone signal is available. If a problem should occur during the three-hour journey from the nearest hotel, one would have to wait for the next car.

Race Track Playa is a place that can quickly become dangerous if you do not take precautions.


Photographing the sailing stones of Race Track Playa in Death Valley is a challenge because the conditions to get there are difficult. But it must be raised by preparing well because the photographs are extraordinary and unique.

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.

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