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Death Valley winter weekend

March 4, 2011 |  3:43 pm

Mesquite Flat Dunes

Any amateur photographer worth his or her Badwater Salt Flats knows winter provides the best shooting opportunities in Death Valley, especially early and late in the day. The sun stays low, the weather is tolerable and the air is clear — barring any sand storms, as we endured on the last day of a recent trip.

That said, digital photography in the desert presents some unique challenges. Sure, that undulating sandstone and filtered sunlight looked fantastic in the slot canyon when you snapped photos during a hike. But very often, no amount of processing will help a downloaded image that ends up with a washed-out sky and a shadow-heavy canyon.

And when it comes to composition, does the world really need yet another shot of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes with the Grapevine Mountains in the background? (Guilty as charged, see photo above.) As we discovered in a ranger-led program on desert photography that we stumbled upon at Death Valley National Park, the answer is a resounding "no."

My partner, a budding photographer with a fancy new digital single-lens reflect camera, scoffed at the idea of a ranger-led photography lecture. But 10 minutes into the walk in colorful Golden Canyon, he whispered to me, "This is great!"

Ranger Bob That was thanks to interpretive ranger and park photographer Bob Greenburg (left), who led the entertaining hike part of the way into Golden Canyon. Ranger Bob told us to avoid the "spray and pray" habit of shooting gazillions of images, hoping that one is a winner. Instead he suggested taking photos that "tell a story." He also advised getting away from the crowds, waiting for good light and looking for unusual features.

As the sun lowered and shadows began to deepen in the canyon, Ranger Bob pointed out one such feature, a slab of rock jutting out the canyon wall. "Who does that look like?" he asked. I was on the right track when I suggested that the shadow cast by the rock looked vaguely like Richard Nixon.

Reagan rock Right party affiliation, wrong president. Bob had us examine the Ronald Reagan rock (right) from all angles, thinking carefully before taking a shot. I thought the resemblance to Reagan was a bit of a stretch, but I got Bob's point.

We spent the rest of our weekend trying to get our pictures to tell a story on hikes at Echo Canyon, Mosaic Canyon and at the photogenic Zabriskie Point (though a windstorm made our story a bit hazy).

We also hiked in Titus Canyon -- an area known for bighorn sheep, which we didn't see -- but didn't so much enjoy that the trail was basically an unpaved road driven by people who'd rather take in the sights from behind the wheel than on foot. We found nearby Falls Canyon with its no-vehicles hiking trail more enjoyable.

All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the photography hikes in a national park full of surprises.

—Julie Sheer

Photos by Julie Sheer. More on flickr.