Friday, April 1, 2011

Photographing Badwater in Death Valley National Park

Badwater salt polygons and
Black Mountains
Badwater is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and a popular draw for most people visiting Death Valley National Park.  The salt polygons are a curiosity draw, offering a unique viewing experience and a chance to walk amongst a different landscape than most are accustomed to.  Oh heck, they are cool!

Don't expect to be alone here in the evenings, but seek solace in the fact that the any crowds are easy to leave behind.  How?  By simply walking further out into the salt pan.  The further you walk, the better the polygons become as you leave the wandering foot prints behind.  By the way, evening light is fairly forgiving towards light footprints.

Most likely you will encounter other photographers along your walk, and it is fun to set your tripod up near one for some pleasant conversation and story sharing.  Since you will be shooting either north or south and the foot path is east-west, it's pretty difficult to be in each others way.
Sunset over Badwater salt polygons

Definitely consider the effects of the salt on your camera gear and clothes.  They are very real and corrosive.  Refrain from letting any of your camera gear come in direct contact with the salt, and be certain to clean your tripod feet and legs immediately after your shoot.  Knee pads and/or a small sitting cloth is also recommended so that you don't have to kneel or sit directly on the salt.

 The salt polygons are excellent to photograph in mornings or evenings.  Evenings offer afternoon light on the Black Mountains to the east.  Mornings offer brilliant light on Telescope Peak and the Panimint Range.

Early light on the Panimint Range above
uplifted salt crusts near Badwater.
Arriving in late afternoon, you will likely find many tourists near the parking lot and for the first 1/4 mile or so of the walk out on the salt pan.  Beyond, the numbers will dwindle.  As sunset approaches, they will mostly disappear and you will find only a handful of other photographers around. 

Early mornings will also find you with limited company.

Just a 1/4 mile south of the Badwater parking lot the road rounds a Sharp bend and offers a wide shoulder for parking.  A short walk leads the curious photographer to some very interesting uplifted salt crusts.  I found these extremely photogenic with lots of compositional options incorporating the Panimint Range and Telescope Peak. 

I spent two mornings here (alone), and two evenings at Badwater.  I found this arrangement to work out well.  I definitely recommend visiting this area multiple times during your visit.  Another location, referred to as "devils fortune cookies" is located only a short distance further south (not obvious from the road, so you will need to scout).

Early light on Telescope Peak and the Panimint Range above
uplifted salt crusts near Badwater.
Normal range and wide-angle lenses are excellent for this area.  Consider graduated neutral density filters a must, and a warming filter a friendly addition.

Badwater is located 18 miles south of Furnace Creek along CA 190.  Allow yourself extra time for the walk out along the salt polygons or to scout the uplifted salt crusts.  Most importantly, enjoy!

More images may be viewed in my Death Valley Gallery if interested.

In closing, I must qualify all the information you just read above.  During the winter of 2010/2011, floods apparently dissolved much of the polygons and salt crusts.  My friend Jon Cornforth visited the area this spring and reported them to be gone, and that their return is expected to take a few years.  I would encourage you to contact the park directly for specific information if planning a visit.

I will be leaving for Yosemite National Park and Redwood National Park shortly.  I will continue my Death Valley posts upon my return, and hopefully have new images from my trip to share!

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