Against the Traffic: Death Valley – Badwater Basin

It’s 4:30am.  I am completely alone in Badwater Basin, the lowest place in the western hemisphere. It seems like the dark side of the moon. Still bleary eyed, I slowly, contemplatively set up my tripod. A steady and warm breeze waltzes across the salt flats. I have never been to nor experienced anything remotely like this place. I quietly await the dawn. I notice someone apparently crawling from a sleeping bag several hundred yards off into the basin. I now notice their tripod already set and ready. I muse, a kindred spirit.

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In the parking area I noticed a painted stripe on the rock cliff indicating the sea level mark, 282 ft above me. Ironically, Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous 48 states, while Badwater is the lowest and the eighth-lowest spot in the world. Along with Salton Sea, south of Palm Springs (-227 feet), it makes the United States the only country to have two locations among the world’s lowest places. This gives you a rough idea how explosive this area was millions of years ago.

Walking out onto the salt flat you hear the crunch under your feet. Repeated freeze–thaw and evaporation cycles gradually push the thin salt crust into hexagonal honeycomb shapes. The accumulated salts of the surrounding basin make it undrinkable, thus giving it the name.

The sun starts to poke up. It goes fast and catches a sparkle from the zillions of salt crystals that surround you. My impression is that my camera’s sensor is able to receive and articulate this action better than the human eye. A friend of mine once referred to the area as “Badlight Basin”. I’m shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and select my 24-105mm lens.

Pay close attention to your exposure. As in shooting snowscapes, your camera can be fooled. There are several points of view as to how to handle this issue. I recommend Jim Zuckerman’s discussion in his book “Techniques of Natural Light Photography” if you are not comfortable with the subject.

If you go to Death Valley, DO NOT MISS THIS!!!

Happy Shooting!