Blowing sand, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Blowing sand, Death Valley NP, California

Claudia and I just got back from Death Valley, where I taught at the Out of Death Valley photo conference. What a fun event! I really enjoyed meeting, chatting, and photographing with all the participants. Many hadn’t been to Death Valley before, so it was a treat to introduce them to this amazing place. And it was great to connect with the other instructors – an all-star list including William Neill, Sarah Marino, David Kingham, Jennifer Renwick, Cole Thompson, John Barclay, Michael Shainblum, Colleen Miniuk, TJ Thorne, Alex Noriega, Erin Babnik, Michael Gordon, Joshua Cripps, and Nick Page. It was a wonderful event, and I think everyone had a great time.

We had beautiful conditions during the conference, with a couple of spectacular sunrises and sunsets. But before the conference we also got to photograph a dust storm.

Now you might think that a dust storm would be something to avoid, rather than a photographic opportunity. But dust storms in Death Valley can be highly photogenic. You can often find high points that allow you to look down on the dust filling the valley below. And if the wind isn’t too bad it’s possible to photograph from within the storm – with proper precautions.

On the Friday before the conference gusts were predicted to reach 30 miles per hour. And by late morning Death Valley was filling with dust. Claudia and I decided to go up to the area around Zabriskie Point to get above the dust and see what we could see. We found patchy clouds overhead, with the sun breaking through from time to time, and a thick wall of dust to the west that obscured the mountains across the valley. I think any kind of unusual conditions can make for interesting photographs, even in such a well-photographed area, so I spent most of the afternoon in this part of the park. Here’s one of my favorite images from that afternoon:

Badlands and Manly Beacon during a dust storm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Badlands and Manly Beacon during a dust storm, Death Valley NP, California

The next morning, knowing that the wind would wipe away footprints, we decided to head out to the dunes with our friends Charlotte and Gary Gibb. It looked like the winds would die down by then – at least somewhat.

It turned out to still be quite windy. Not as windy as the previous afternoon, but still, I’d estimate we experienced gusts up to 25 miles per hour. The wind was blowing north to south, and if you stood below the crest of a dune on the leeward side you got a face full of sand. But if you stood on top of a dune most of the sand blew by near your feet, so relatively little sand reached a camera set up at eye level.

I used a rain cover on the camera most of the time, and never set my camera bag on the ground where all the sand was blowing. Luckily my Mindshift Backlight camera bag allowed me to access my gear, and even change lenses (turning my back to the wind of course) without setting the bag down. I ended up with a lot of dust on my sensor, but that was easy to clean, and otherwise I had no issues.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend photographing sand dunes in a windstorm; there is a certain level of risk to your gear, and how your equipment fares depends on how dustproof it is. But I know many photographers who’ve photographed the dunes in even higher winds than we experienced, and the most trouble I’ve heard about is getting some grit in the lens mechanism.

And the dunes were so beautiful that morning. The dust was like mist, softening all the contours of the sand. When the sun rose it looked like sun breaking through fog, casting gorgeous, soft, warm light on the dunes.

I got to photograph many more beautiful moments in Death Valley, both before and during the conference, and I’m sure I’ll post more images from our trip. But photographing the dunes in a sandstorm was a special treat. Here are a couple more images from that morning:

Sandstorm sunrise, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sandstorm sunrise, Death Valley NP, California

Dunes in a sandstorm, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Dunes in a sandstorm, Death Valley NP, California

— Michael Frye

P.S. There’s still time to register for the Night Photo Summit this weekend! I’ll be doing a presentation called Expressive Night Photography, but that’s only one of many amazing presentations scheduled for the summit, with speakers like Art Wolfe, Lance Keimig, Tim Cooper, Colleen Miniuk, Adam Woodworth, Jess Santos, Kevin Adams, Chris Nicholson, Royce Bair, and many more. You can learn more and sign up here:

Night Photo Summit, February 4-6, 2022

Related Posts: Out of Yosemite Conference; Death Valley after Dark; Soft Images in a Harsh Landscape;

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.