Spring 2017 Update: I wrote the book on landscape photography in Southern California. Literally! I spent five years of my life researching and writing it! While my 320-page guidebook “Photographing California Vol. 2 – South” includes 40+ locations in Death Valley National Park, if you want to chase the light most efficiently while you cover a park this large, there’s no substitute for real time guiding and feedback/instruction. I personally lead all of my workshops, so you can be sure that I’m planning every trip for a peak season or opportunity: wildflowers, Milky Way, meteor showers, and so on.
You may have heard how great this winter has been for snow California’s Sierra Nevada already, but Death Valley has gotten a couple of good soakings as well. The rain distribution was uneven and the peak timing will be different from the 2016 superbloom, but I’ve already scouted in January, and I’ll return again in February to monitor where the rain will nurture growth and color, as well as when. Both of the March dates I’ve scheduled should offer the parks’s diversity of exotic landscapes, wildflowers, and stunning night photography.
2017 Death Valley Workshop Dates
March 1 – 5, 2017 – Death Valley with Wildflowers (5 days) Click to register: $1195
Last year the best wildflowers were from early February to the very beginning of March, peaking about three weeks into February. Different areas had distinct peaks, and you couldn’t be a week off and get the same shots. Towards the end of that period, areas of prolific growth were getting devoured quickly by millions of caterpillars!
Based on what I’ve seen so far, in 2017 I expect one area to be blooming well by early March, and another to be going strong in late March into April. I’d rather hit the two areas each as close to peak as possible than split the difference than risk having the outcome be mediocre everywhere!
With the relatively recent release of my 2017 Death Valley workshops this is likely to be a lightly attended session, but I like the more relaxed outings where I can get to know my customers better.
March 22 – 26, 2017 – Death Valley with Wildflowers (5 days) Click to register: $1195
Death Valley can start to get hot in the lower elevations by mid-March, but wildflowers start blooming up in elevation and they can be going strong down in the valley until early April when the rain timing was right, so there can be a lot of diversity to the spring wildflower opportunities at this time.
Death Valley has been designated a “Dark Sky Park” by the International Dark Sky Association, and this workshop is timed to enable us to practice night photography if you’d like. I’ve been chasing astrophotography in Death Valley National Park for years, and I’d love to show you some of my favorite locations.
With the relatively recent release of my 2017 Death Valley workshops this is likely to be another lightly attended session, where you can get a lot of personal attention at no extra charge.
I have a request to add a session, stay tuned for details!
November 19 – 19 – Death Valley and Leonid Meteor Shower (TBA)
The Leonid meteor shower is not the strongest meteor shower of the year, but temperatures are attractive at a range of elevations, broadening our choices of foreground subjects. (More details coming soon.)
December 9 – 13 – Death Valley and Geminid Meteor Shower (TBA)
The Geminid meteor shower is considered by most astronomers to be even more active than the popular Perseid meteor shower in August. Since it happens in winter though, fewer people want to stay out at night to see it. Fortunately I live near Death Valley, the “hottest place on earth”, so it’s a relatively mild place to enjoy this spectacular sight and photographic opportunity. (More details coming soon.)
Join me for a photography tour of the hottest, driest place in the United States, in its friendly and approachable season! Death Valley National Park features some of the country’s most exotic landscapes: massive sand dunes, colorful and deeply eroded hills, salt flats, sinuous canyons carved through solid rock. We can visit all of the iconic Death Valley sites during their best light: Zabriskie Point, Badwater, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Artist’s Palette, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View, perhaps Agueberry Point and Mosaic Canyon if the roads are open and in good shape.
Beyond the classic views, we can visit many lesser-known or difficult to reach sites as well. Death Valley is America’s largest park in the Lower 48 states, nearly 3.4 million acres, so our opportunities are endless. I live about 3 hours from the park, so I’ve been visiting it multiple times per year for many years, always expanding my photographic coverage and geographic knowledge of the park. I always like to explore new areas, and for the past 5+ years working on a landscape photography guide book and an upcoming Death Valley guide to be delivered via an app, I’ve been actively working on visiting and capturing an inventory of different types of exotic locations. I’ve made a point of exploring new sites along the majority of the park’s roads that are unpaved, many requiring high clearance and/or 4WD. There are a lot of sights just off the beaten path which people who haven’t invested that time, specifically exploring and seeking photographic opportunities, in an appropriate vehicle, will never see.
There are several sand dune fields in the park and 8-11 or more in the vicinity depending upon your radius and whether or not you count the unnamed ones. There are dozens of slot canyons, 4-5 of which are particularly nice. There are multiple places to access the salt flats in Badwater Basin better than the Badwater parking lot, some with uniquely interesting foregrounds. I’ve lost count of how many mines and mining camps I’ve visited in the park, but it’s over a dozen. I don’t say any of this to brag, only to illustrate that whatever Death Valley subjects or themes photographers are interested in, we can show you the best of it. You’ll be in good hands to see more than you could on your own, or guided by someone with limited or infrequent experience in the park.
On our spring trips our timing will be excellent to include the added element of wildflowers in many of the unique and dramatic landscapes of Death Valley. The park only received 1.9 inches of rain in a year, so the wildflower bloom in the park tends to be sporadic and spread out among areas which received just the right amount of rain from showers. The distribution of wildflowers is sporadic and varies from year to year with where rain showers occur, so it’s useful to visit the park early in the winter to see where in the park this year to scout out where they’re growing best. I saw these plants growing in November after an August monsoon rain. I often visit the park in December for the Geminid meteor shower as well, then January for the Quadrantid meteor shower, so I get a great preview of conditions.
Spring is also the time when nights get a little warmer, perfect for practicing night photography, including light painting and star trails. The Milky Way rises before dawn in March, and 2 hours earlier in the night every month after that. If you’d like to try converting a sequence of images into a time-lapse movie, I can show you how to do that as well.
So how much ground could we cover in 5 days, 4 nights? Take a look at my album showing some of the places I visited in 3 or 4 days one November.
Or look at this album from a few days in March 2013. Deep geographic knowledge is a key asset in a massive park such as Death Valley. Experience outside of the typical spots visited by workshops is critical to selecting the best locations among the many types of subjects. Anyone proposing that you join them should be able to show you hundreds of photos of the park that they’ve taken, perhaps even sorted by year to show that they visit multiple times per year, and hopefully they reserve many many additional locations that they don’t show, so you’ll have unique compositions to bring home.
We practice “leave no trace” guiding, which includes not encouraging hordes of people to show up in large quantities at the less trampled places we may be visiting, so other than those well-known locations the park’s 1 million visitors commonly visit (Zabriskie, Badwater, and the other sites mentioned above), we request that participants not name the locations we shoot in when you share photos from the trip online. There are enough heavily-trampled places in California already and the problem of crowds of photographers only gets worse over time. No need to worsen that situation; let’s respect our investment of time and effort to find unique locations by keeping them anonymous. My kids call our favorite locations “Voldemort” (“the one who must not be named” from the Harry Potter series). In Death Valley we have Voldemort dunes, Voldemort mine, Voldemort slot canyon and many other sites we’re committed to protect.
If going beyond the sea of tourists in the normal crowded viewpoints sounds like fun, check for workshop listings below or (if I haven’t had time to update the site recently) contact me for details on my upcoming Death Valley trips. I’d love to show you around one of my favorite local parks! It’s hard to keep secrets in this age of digital sharing ans rampant plagiarism of concepts, but note the date of the photos of the people you’re considering taking a workshop with, and ask yourself… do you want to go to the park with a leader, or a follower?
About your instructors: I have a deep knowledge of digital imaging, and became involved in the industry in 1984 as an applications engineer at the Graphic Printing and Imaging Division of Tektronix (the world’s leading color printing company at the time). I have owned at least ten digital cameras since 2001 (real cameras, not counting digital devices like smartphones). I currently shoot with two Canon full frame DSLRs and one Nikon, plus an APS-C sensor model, so I can help you navigate the menus and I have ample experience with differences in depth of field, high ISO noise and other varying characteristics of the different sensor formats.
My co-instructor is Lori Hibbett, who shoots with both full frame and DX format Nikons, so we have all the major bases covered. Depth of field varies from full frame to crop sensors, so it’s important that your instructors have years of experience with both to adequately meet the needs of a diverse group. We’ve taught people with other brands such as Sony and Pentax DSLRs as well. Fortunately, the key photographic differences such as depth of field are due to sensor size and geometry, so the key factor is that workshop instructors having years of experience shooting with the format (sensor size) you’ll bring.
Our Death Valley trips are convenient for participants arriving through Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Mammoth Lakes. We can often help you connect with other participants to share a rental car. (Lodging, transportation, food, and park entrance are not included.)
Our Death Valley workshops can vary between lodging-based trips and more remote and adventurous itineraries which involve some camping to reach more remote areas of the park. AWD or 4WD vehicles aren’t required, but 2/3 of the park’s roads are unpaved, so we may be able to reach a few of the park’s more interesting sites if we have enough vehicles with clearance to carpool in. The National Park Service recommends travelling with two spare tires on many of the park’s unpaved roads. I’ve gotten two flat tires at once there, and I was able to drive out. Know who’s showing you around, and exactly what precautions they take. Upon booking, I’ll forward you suggestions for camera accessories and free software applications you may wish to consider, as well as notes on appropriate clothing and outdoor gear.
Last but not least, some competing workshops tout their 1-week, 72 hour Wilderness First Responder class training in first aid, as if that’s some sort of unique benefit. Not only have I been certified in the longer, 12-week, 120 hour Outdoor Emergency Care class offered by the American Red Cross many times, I’ve practiced treating scores of injured people for years volunteering for the American Red Cross. Lori brought literally thousands of people on wilderness survival trips she offered for 10 years through U.C.L.A., and with that volume of people, on one occasion she did have to coordinate an emergency medical evacuation from a backcountry location. We’re committed to minimizing injuries on our photography trips, and with each of us having started backcountry guiding over 30+ years ago, we’re extremely qualified to achieve that goal.
Our wilderness experience also provides you with excellent interpretive information. Lori has an in-depth knowledge of native plants and their uses; I love animals and every year I have the privilege of rescuing snakes off of roads so they won’t get hurt. We’ve faced everything from black bears and coyotes to rattlesnakes, cougars and grizzly bears, and we love them all… you’ll be in good hands! (There are no grizzly bears in California fortunately, but ask me about the one I accidentally startled away from “his” berry bush in Montana!).
There are sidewinder rattlesnakes in Death Valley, and they sometimes bury themselves for safety and to ambush prey. In March 2013 we came across fresh tracks in the park’s heavily-visited Mesquite Flat Dunes, and in 2016 I finally met a live one! Fortunately we can identify most lizard and snake species in the park from their tracks. In the unlikely event that we see sidewinder tracks, we’ll know which way he went to minimize the odds of a surprise encounter.
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