3 Practical Lessons Photographing Death Valley Helped Me Remember

3 Practical Lessons Photographing Death Valley Helped Me Remember

On my most recent photography trip, I was reminded of some key landscape and travel photography lessons. In this article, I want to dive into how you can apply these to your next photography trip.

Accept That Conditions Might Not Cooperate

Landscape photography lives and dies by light. While there are tricks to make the best of uncooperative lighting, interesting lighting and conditions are what have separated my favorite photos from my just-OK photos. 

Unfortunately, on this trip to Death Valley, I was really time-constrained, and conditions just didn’t cooperate. While the weather was great for actually enjoying the park as a visitor, cool temperatures and the clear blue skies during the day left the lighting flat and skies relatively uninteresting.

Further frustrating things, both nights featured heavy winds blowing in, souring any chance of accomplishing my personal goal of some astrophotography out on the dunes. Still, perseverance was key to securing one of my favorite shots: a dust cloud rolling in under the crepuscular rays of sunset.

While this particular shot wasn’t even one I had planned for, I was still happy to walk away with something from the trip out to the dunes. Keeping my mind and eyes open to other possibilities also paid off on the drive-in, where before I even made it into the National Park proper, I was pleasantly surprised to find some huge fields of wildflowers.

With the emphasis on social media these days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing your shots to the best of thousands of hours collectively spent in these locations and end up discouraged. At the end of a trip, instead of comparing 1:1 with online work, think about your progress as a photographer. Did you get to try some new techniques? Did you make the best of the conditions you had? Did you enjoy yourself? While I didn’t walk away with some must-print portfolio shots, I genuinely enjoyed myself and my visit to a new-to-me National Park.

Keep Your Gear Realistic

On a more practical consideration, when packing for a trip, consider what you’re bringing carefully. Some sour grapes might tinge this, but I had brought a few lens options for astrophotography, only to end up shooting none. Among them was the huge new Sigma 15mm f/1.4 fisheye I hoped to review. Lugging it along with my 12-24mm f/2.8 all the way through the airport and across the desert, I was supposed to have a payoff under the stars, only for both lenses to never come out of my bag. Were I to pack again, I’d go with a single lens and make plans to secure it in the hotel when unnecessary.

Even without the added justification of a potential lens review, I’ve often fallen into the mindset of trying to pack for every eventuality. I think I need a macro lens, 3 types of filter, and enough spare batteries to power a Times Square advertisement. Not only does this take up bag space, packing time, and add stress in the field when juggling accessories, it’s not necessary. 

Today’s equipment can perform very well across multiple roles, particularly if you’re willing to make small compromises. For instance, while I knew there’d be some wildflowers out in the Valley thanks to the huge rains they experienced, a dedicated macro lens was probably overkill. Instead, by using the .5x magnification of my 70-200 f/4 II, I was able to capture a useful composition of these flowers. Many midrange zooms can also work as a pseudo macro in a pinch, as magnification ratios around .2 to .3x when combined with a bit of cropping work for most flowers.

The same thinking goes for other applications. Instead of ND filters for a one-off long exposure of water, consider shooting and stacking in Photoshop. A single battery or power bank, like the Belkin Boost or Smallrig’s excellent V-mount battery can power or recharge an array of items. Broad support for USB-C charging means no need for a dedicated charger and also allows de-duplication of cables. Just ensure your USB-C cable is rated for the current or transfer speeds of your most demanding device. 

Understanding the capability and flexibility of your gear can help you make more informed decisions when packing and in the field.

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Practical Accessories

One thing I did get right on this trip was some of the practical preparations I had made. Inexpensive items, like a blower, protective filter, and even some cheap ziplock bags, proved to be worth their weight in gold. 

As you might have guessed, I was dealing with a lot of sand and dust thanks to persistent wind. Being able to keep my gear clean was crucial. Small optimizations, like throwing ziplocks over my tripod’s feet, meant I could shoot with impunity out on the dunes, without worrying about gritting up the mechanisms.

These optimizations might look different for different trips: it might be a warm jacket and hand warmers if you’re shooting in inclement conditions, or adding a waterproof action camera like an Insta360 Ace Pro to your bag when visiting the tropics. Doing a bit of research and thinking outside the box can help you have a better time shooting and ensure you come back with a wider range of shots.

Some other great accessories are a rocket blower, external SSD for easy backups back at the room, and a tripod multi-tool. That last one is a particular favorite: it’s carry-on friendly, unlike regular multi-tools, plus it packs a selection of photography and videography-centric drivers. I’ve slipped one into my travel bag and left it there for every trip.

Lastly, while it fortunately didn’t come into play on this trip, Airtags are a must-add to every bag. For checked bags, having a true understanding of where your bag is can be huge for both peace of mind and recovery when the airline inevitably misplaces a bag. I’ve even seen innovative options for integrating Airtags right into gear via hidden compartments in lens caps or tripod plates. While this isn’t a panacea against gear theft, every little bit helps.

Overall, while my trip to Death Valley didn’t leave my portfolio overflowing with photos, it was still a valuable trip from a learning perspective. I got the opportunity to try some new techniques, including stitching my largest-ever panoramas, and got to brush up on some of my fundamental travel skills. Hopefully, these lessons will help you prepare for your next trip!

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

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I'm curious about the rocket blower. How much better at dislodging dust from a sensor is it?

Depends on what you’re comparing it to - it does well at picking off particles that haven’t adhered too strongly. Oil spots and “welded” dust will still need a cleaning, but the blower can work well on bits the sensor self-clean can’t shake loose. Also works good on cleaning front and rear elements of lenses.

I was in New Mexico several years ago and was able to get some nice photos, in spite of being a rank amateur. Airtags are a great thing to have. They not only guard against theft but misplaced luggage or put on the wrong aircraft help track and recover items.