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Death Valley Photographer's Guide: Where and How To Get The Best Shots

There are some obvious photo opportunities in Death Valley National Park. Everyone wants a shot from Badwater, the lowest point in the United States. And Artist's Palette is a given.

But then what?

Well, Dan Suzio has some suggestions for you.

Mr. Suzio, you see, is a photographer who has spent more than a little time focusing his cameras in the Southwest. During the past 35 or so years he's hiked and navigated around Death Valley and come away with some great advice on where you, the national park visitor, can get some great shots.

And not only does he offer tips -- "I'll give you some advice on photographing the landscapes, animals, plants, and historic sites that make Death Valley what it is," he says -- but he also cites 60 locations around the park where you can get intriguing photographs. He even tells you when you can expect the best lighting at those spots, too.

Of course, before you can go out into the desert and start snapping, you need the tools -- the camera and supporting gear. To that point, Mr. Suzio offers a checklist of what's in his camera bag.

It's really not that daunting. Among the obvious: two digital camera bodies, extra camera batteries, extra memory cards, a 300 mm f4 telephoto lens, an 80-200 mm f2.8 telephoto zoom lens, a 105mm f2.8 macro lens, a 10-24 mm f3.5 wide-angle zoom lens, and, of course, various filters, tripods, monopods, and flash.

What might not seem obvious to some, but which makes perfect sense in the desert, are map and compass, headlamp, notebook and pencils, and water.

The Death Valley Photographer's Guide: Where and How to Get The Best Shots also is part travel guide, as it provides directions to the park, very basic lodging information, weather and climate details, and even a few words on "Staying alive."

"In addition to the high temperatures, the landscape includes cactus, loose rocks, steep cliffs, and abandoned mine shafts," he points out. "And don't forget the venomous snakes, scorpions, various stinging and biting insects, and the occasional mountain lion. Seriously, you need to be careful."

But let's get to the serious stuff, in terms of photographing Death Valley.

Between the covers of this 114-page softcover (that is scheduled to be available next month from this website) you'll find details on places such as Joshua Flats and The Racetrack, the Harmony Borax Works and Dante's View, and even Father Crowley Point and Darwin Falls.

For each location Mr. Suzio opens with highlights of what to shoot (ie, birds, flowers, ghost town buildings, reptiles), when is the best time of year to see flowers, best times of day for lighting, whether your access route is paved or dirt road, and directions to the area. He even tosses in the elevation of the site, something he says "can be helpful in looking for wildflowers as well as predicting the temperature."

To make it even easier, from a traveling standpoint, he breaks his location listings down into sections of the park: the North, East/Central, West, and South.

Here's a sample entry, from Rhyolite, Bottle House, and Goldwell Open Air Museum:

Highlights: Ghost town, outdoor scultures

Flowers: April-May

Best light: Early morning, late afternoon

Elevation: 3,800'

Access: Paved road.

The ruins of Rhyolite's banks, brothels, and other buildings provide endless photo opportunities. Take some time to wander amont the ruins and shoot whatever appeals to you. Try shooting from different perspectives, or using the ruins of one building to frame a shot of another. The weathered wood of the smaller buildings holds unexpected details of texture and color.

Dramatic compositions can be found here any time of day, although, as with most subjects, you'll have the best light in the early morning or late afternoon. At sunrise the warm light on the Amargosa Desert can make a dramatic background for the ruins when you're shooting from the upper end of town. This can also be an interesting location for nighttime photography, using flash or moonlight.

The larger concrete buildings are located along the paved road. The jail and many smaller buildings are scattered on dirt roads to the east of the paved road. You can drive into that area, but I recommend walking; you'll see more that way and probably make better photos.

At the lower end of town are the Goldwell Open Air Museum, with its large outdoor sculptures, and the Bottle House, built by miner Tom Kelly from 50,000 beer and liquor bottles.

See p. 30 for more information about Rhyolite.

Directions: From Stovepipe Wells Village, E on SR 190 about 7 miles; turn left toward Scotty's Castle for about 0.6 miles; right for another 22 miles; left at the sign for Rhyolite. From Beatty, Nevada, W on SR374 about 4 miles; turn right at the sign for Rhyolite. 

Naturally, the book also features more than a few of Mr. Suzio's images to show you what is possible.

If you don't have the patience to turn the pages of the book, you can simply go to the back where there's a chart that lists locations, pages they're described on, when best to go, and whether the photo possibilities revolve around wildlife such as birds and lizards or historic structures or landscapes.

All in all, this is a handy reference book that will not only help you get better photographs at Death Valley, but help you develop your eye for wherever you find yourself in the National Park System.

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