Embracing Blue Skies in Death Valley: Exploring Opportunities to Photograph Without Clouds

Dunes take on a blue hue after sunset during a windstorm.
Sand Dunes

Dunes are an ever-changing landscape, and because of this, they provide a landscape photographer with many opportunities to photograph a variety of scenes. Without clouds, you get the chance to appreciate the different stages of light that the dunes display during the course of a day. One thought I keep in mind when heading out to photograph dunes is to “arrive early and stay late.” One of my favorite dune fields to wander, photograph, and practice this advice is the Mesquite Dunes.

I generally like to arrive at these dunes an hour before sunrise, and I remain an hour after sunset to work with the delicate glow of twilight. Twilight casts a beautiful light onto the dunes, and I enjoy working with my telephoto lens to isolate the curves and textures of the sand. A longer exposure time will accentuate this delicate light and allow you to photograph well before or after the sun, maximizing your photographic opportunities. You can witness various colors from this light, including silver tones, blue, and occasionally purple or pink tones. The colors will be dependent on the hue in the clear sky as the sun rises and sets.

As the sun rises or sets, take the time to look for backlighting. This type of light occurs right after the sun rises and sets below the horizon. The sun illuminates the rims of the dunes, creating beautifully lit ridgelines. Using these highlighted lines, look for layers, curves, and symmetry to create eye-catching compositions. If you have windy conditions, the backlight will also illuminate the blowing sand near the tops of the dunes. Use a wide-angle lens on those windy landscapes to capture blowing sand in the atmosphere above the dunes to create a dreamy and atmospheric scene. While I’ve talked about morning and evening light, don’t discount the harsh but beautiful mid-day light as well! Intense mid-day light in combination with the dunes creates an excellent opportunity to work with black and white. The textures and the shadows are accentuated in mid-day light and create stunning and dramatic black and white photographs.

On a clear evening, backlight from the setting sun creates rim light on the Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley.

Death Valley National Park has quite a few badlands areas, and one of my favorites is the area of badlands around Zabriskie Point. I’ve taken some of my favorite photos of these badlands on clear days, and find that photographing during morning twilight, sunrise, and the late afternoon are the best times to work these badlands and clear skies. The early morning light brings out the vibrancy in the colors and layers, which you need clear skies to appreciate. A longer exposure during morning twilight will significantly enhance these colors. As the morning light gets harsh, that’s the time to start thinking about black and white scenes. The badlands make for exciting and abstract black and white photography with their contrasty shadows and rigid lines. During the late afternoon light, look for reflected glow among the layers of badlands. This late afternoon light tends to be warm and inviting, creating pleasant feelings in this rocky and barren landscape.

Similar to the dunes, using a mid-range or a telephoto lens will help you isolate the layers and colors, allowing you to create compelling abstract and small scene compositions. Since the badlands consist of undulating and rolling hills, moving around with your camera and changing your perspective with help you seek out and explore different compositions. Walk around and handhold your camera to explore the landscape and different angles before setting up your tripod. You can climb up high and use a wide-angle lens to communicate the vastness or zoom in for a more intimate take. When you find an exciting composition, then you can set up your tripod and take a photo. 

Late afternoon light on clear days results in warm light, which illuminates the badlands and creates a beautiful glow among the layers.

Death Valley contains many expansive playas that are made up of salt and occasionally dried mud cracks. One remarkable feature of the playas is that these surfaces are reflective. The playas can take on the colors of the sky at twilight, creating beauty to these already fascinating landscapes. During twilight, mud and salt will take on soft glows, creating pleasing pastel scenes. You need a clear sky to see and photograph this glow because if you have clouds, they are not as reflective. The vast playas can be a bit overwhelming to photograph, but you can create many different photographs from one scene if you take the time to wander around and explore opportunities. You can utilize a wide-angle lens to capture the sense of place with the vastness of the playa, or zoom in with a telephoto on more minor features, such as tiny salt crystals or smaller mud crack abstracts. Mud tiles will take on the color of the sky and the warmer highlights during the blue hour. These colors reflect on the tiles, creating a pleasing combination of colors. If you photograph the playa as a grand scene, be sure to look out for the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus in the sky to add some color to the clear sky. This phenomenon is seen in the opposite side of the sky as the sun, before sunrise and after sunset. This is seen only when you have a clear sky, as clouds would obscure it otherwise.

Small mud tiles reflect the blue from the sky and the last warm light, creating a pleasing color palette resulting from clear skies during sunset.

While it may not seem obvious, there are slot canyons in Death Valley. The canyons are well-hidden and carved into the many mountain ranges throughout the park. Canyons are a subject that you need clear blue skies to appreciate that “canyon glow.” With a slot canyon, sunlight hits a canyon wall and creates bounce light that reflects on the opposite wall. This bounced light emits a warm glow that contrasts with the cool blue shadows created by the reflected blue sky. This combination creates a complementary color pairing and is one of my favorite combinations to photograph. It’s not only fun to follow the shifting light around each canyon bend, but it’s also a great respite from the warm and harsh desert heat. You can catch this canyon glow anywhere from morning until afternoon, as long as the skies stay clear without clouds.

When photographing the slot canyons, I start with my wide-angle lens to create a sense of the towering canyon walls and the mystery beyond each bend. After that, I switch to my telephoto lens and search out the smaller details within the canyon walls. Look for areas of interest, including lines, shapes, and color changes. You can create smaller abstracts with the rocks that make up the walls, and you can photograph the shifting light between warm highlights and cool shadows. With these photos, you typically leave the sky out near the top, of the canyon walls so you don’t have the dynamic range as a challenge, with bright skies and dark shadows. Capturing that canyon glow would be impossible on a day with clouds, which is why they make an excellent subject on those clear days. 

Warm reflected light glows around a bend in a slot canyon with surrounding blue tones. To see this beautiful glow, you need a cloudless day.

By opening your mind and embracing the idea that blue skies can lead to different photographic opportunities, you will not only walk away with a more diverse portfolio, but you’ll also be a happier photographer. Whether you find yourself joining us at Out of Death Valley or you’re out photographing Nature’s other landscapes, releasing those expectations that there is nothing to photograph on those clear days will maximize your opportunities and allow you to see you too, can embrace those blue skies.


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