Why and How Photographing Death Valley in California in Black and White

Death Valley is a mythical place for landscape photographers. The landscapes are so varied and rich that one must make many journeys in order to understand and grasp the entirety of the nuances of this arid land that is not easily undertaken.

For several years, I have traversed the stony tracks of this national park to create artistic photographs. My efforts seem to have been successful, as I seized the soul of this unusual and extraordinary region.

Dunes of Death Valley in California.
Dunes of Death Valley in California.

An Extraordinary Desertic Region

One can describe Death Valley with many superlatives. It has an area of 7,800 km2 (3011 square miles). Traveling from north to south or from east to west takes several hours. Its lowest point is in Badwater, the lowest point in the United States, as it is 85.5 meters (280 feet) below sea level. The highest temperature recorded on Earth was on July 10, 2013. It reached 56.7 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit).

Death Valley contains huge dunes and desert areas covered with salt, an oasis with palm trees, and the famous lake with sailing stones. Many landscapes can be photographed. But the area is so vast that it takes a lot of time to make interesting photographs.

Distances Are Problematic

To properly photograph Death Valley and to be able to capture the right photos at the right time, I chose a hotel and campsite that was nearby. Indeed, the distances are so great between two different photogenic points in Death Valley that it is sometimes impossible to stay at the hotel and experience the right lights. For example, some of my locations, two sites with dunes and Racetrack Playa with the sailing stones, are far away from each other. My only solution is to camp, but I must be careful because the nights are very cold. It is often zero degrees Celsius or less, thus it is essential to my survival that I am well prepared.

Similarly, when you want to photograph the Panamint region, you must plan to camp to be closer to the sites for the morning lights.

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Photographing Differently

Death Valley has been photographed by thousands of photographers for decades. The main difficulty for me as current photographers, is to be unique and stand apart from the hundreds of thousands of photographs that exist to this day. For my project, I decided to adopt another vision.

First, I chose black and white. This style emphasizes matter, geological structures, and forms. Next, I strived to adopt different frames and compositions especially for the stones that move. It is certainly this part that has given me the most trouble. Indeed, visitors have stolen many stones to sell them. Although the site has retained its exceptional character, the largest stones weighing several tens of kilograms have disappeared. I had to adapt myself by walking extra distances to discover new stones and innovative points of view.

The dunes are also a real challenge to photograph. They only provide interest in photographs if they are displayed with strong modeling that allows a photographer to create volume and depth. This technique allows me to show large areas of sand. But the light is capricious, and sometimes, my morning alarms have not been successful. The light was diffused and flattened; it did not emphasize the forms of sand.

This is my fifth photographic project in the Valley of Death, and yet, this is the first time I have managed to create interesting photos. The previous four projects were unlucky due to capricious weather or not enough time to wait for the perfect shot. It takes at least a week to make artistic photos.

But despite its strenuous difficulties, Death Valley is one of the most extraordinary places to photograph on earth. Its landscapes give free rein to the imagination. Although much preparation must be made before arriving at this destination, once a photographer is present on site, there are many good surprises that always arise.

Some Photographs of Death Valley in Black and White

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it.


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