Why and How Photographing Racetrack Playa in Death Valley in California

As professional landscape photographer artist, I believe that Racetrack Playa is an extraordinary place. Hidden in a small lost corner of the Valley of Death in California, United States, this dry lake contains a unique earthly treasure: the moving stones.

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

A Phenomenon That Took Decades to be Elucidated

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 meters leaving a trail about 30 centimeters wide and 2 centimeters deep.

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

Although the mystery is solved, the fact remains that Racetrack Playa is a wonderful place to photograph.

A Dry Lake, Stones, Tracks, and Mountains

Creating interesting photos of the Racetrack Playa sailing stones is not as easy as it sounds. During the day the lights are blindingly harsh, and there is no shade to be found. The contrast of the scene is nearly absent when the sun is high in the sky. I have learned that my best option is to arrive early in the morning or to wait until the end of the afternoon.

I made several trips to Racetrack Playa before fully understanding how to capture the supernatural side of the natural scenes. Choosing a point of view is difficult because the stones are small. Fortunately, on my fourth trip, I understood how to position myself to properly manage the area containing the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Photographing a geological curiosity is a possible approach for this site. But I am a photographer who create artistic photographs. I wanted to take a step beyond documentary photography; I desired a more symbolic approach by appealing to the imagination. These photos will contribute to my collection of art prints "Around the Mind".

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These photographs are part of one of my collections of artistic photographs. I chose to present them in my "Shades of Blacks and Whites" style because the lake, stones, and mountains showcase interesting textures and details. The most demanding element involved managing the sky. Indeed, during my first trips, I have always had blue skies without any clouds.

Finally, my perseverance paid off. During one trip, I was fortunate to experience many incredible clouds. As I often say in my landscape photography workshops, clouds are the language of the sky. They allow me to accentuate the messages that I want to transmit in my photographs.

For these scenes, it is possible to use wide-angle lenses or long focal lengths, as the variety of subjects is unlimited. I also recommend using a tripod because the framing and scene compositions can be difficult.

Photographs Are a True Reward

Photographing Racetrack Playa is a true reward. It is necessary to have a 4x4 vehicle because the trip takes place across a track dotted with pebbles and stones.

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

Racetrack Playa is a place that can quickly become dangerous if you do not take the necessary precautions.

Some Pictures of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it.


Photographing the sailing stones of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley is a challenge because the conditions are challenging. However, it is important to understand that with the proper preparations, the trip will be worthwhile due to the result of extraordinary and unique photographs.


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