Several guides for photographers that I read before going to Death Valley rank two or three locations ahead of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes as photo subjects, including Badwater Basin and Zabriskie Point. But for someone like me, shooting in black and white and using only wide-angle and normal (50mm) lenses, the sand dunes were by far the best spot.
We went there twice. The first time, on a Tuesday, we arrived before sunrise, but not long enough before the sun rose over the mountains to be able to walk far out into the dunes to find ones that weren’t covered in footprints. Still, it was a worthwhile scouting expedition. We got a sense of the compositions we liked and found out that it takes a lot longer than we expected to walk to a destination through soft sand and up and down big dunes.
Wednesday was windy—which was a stroke of luck. The wind erased the accumulated footprints on the dunes. So when we arrived for our second visit well before sunrise (around 5:30) on Thursday, the ridges and faces of the dunes were pristine—except where even earlier-rising photographers had walked, but there weren’t many of those.
These are my four favorite photos from the dunes. I got other photos I like from Death Valley, but I think three of these are the best of the trip.
What makes this one successful are the extreme near-to-far perspective, the snaky ridgeline, the light and shadow contrast, and the texture pattern in the foreground. BTW, I never used a tripod on the dunes. I wanted the flexibility to change locations quickly and didn’t want to lug around and set up a tripod in the sand. It was the right decision for me, but clearly all the other photographers out there using tripods felt differently.
These close-up pattern shots are everywhere. I have a whole series that shows just some of the different patterns in the sand.
I had to walk about half an hour into the dunes to get the shot below. After I took it, I went even further, in order to make the big dune in the distance even bigger in the frame. But I didn’t like that shot as much. Note the tiny person (a photographer, of course!) walking down the right side of the big dune.
The image below and the first image in this post are tied for my favorite from the trip. I like that it has texture in the close foreground, dramatic light and shadow on the sand dune, a snaky line that leads to the side-lit mountains, and a sky with unusual clouds. The dune itself is a visually arresting central subject.
It’s clear to me now why Death Valley is so popular with photographers, and why people go back multiple times. I’ll post more photos from other locations next time.