Death Valley: Extremes in photography |

Death Valley: Extremes in photography

Jeff Munson
A visitor to Death Valley National Park photographs the wildflowers near Jubilee pass. Photos by Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune

It’s the hottest, driest and lowest place in 48 states. And if you’re an aspiring outdoor photographer, it’s probably second on the list of “must shoots” with Yosemite National Park being the first.

Known as the land that teems with extremes, Death Valley National Park is a place where civilization collides with the elements. The park’s name suffices to say which of the two has won out in the battle over time.

And that is precisely why Lake Tahoe Community College photography instructor Dick Johnson has taken students to it every year for at least 15 years.

“Unlike Tahoe, with its forests and vegetation which hides basic land forms, Death Valley shows all of them,” said Johnson, who will lead a group to the desert at the end of the month. “And when the light hits the land, especially early in the morning along the sand dunes, there’s no other beauty that can compare.”

In a place that gets only 1.65 inches of rain a year, this year will be the exception of all exceptions at Death Valley. About 4 inches has fallen this year in some areas, making it an exceptional place for wildflowers, which are expected to peak right around the time the class begins.

“With the rain, the wildflowers will be great this year, no matter where we go,” Johnson said. “There have been years where there haven’t been flowers. This year, though, I’ve heard it’s nothing but wildflowers in some areas. And that you only get once in a great while.”

Death Valley has gotten so much rain that a normally dried lakebed called Badwater – the lowest point on the continental U.S. at 282 feet below sea level – is filled.

“There’s even been reports of people kayaking,” Johnson said.

Spring temperatures in Death Valley are also extreme, ranging from 70 to 100 degrees. It makes for a nice contrast with Tahoe winters, during which even the most seasoned veteran of the basin gets a little antsy for warmth and abundant sunshine.

For Johnson, who is one to enjoy such extremes, the class also provides a way to see the earth in its most raw and rugged form. And, at the end of the day, after his students have shot all of the photographs they can muster, they break for camp.

Camp consists of good food, storytelling and music. Johnson is known to bring along his mandolin and musicians are always welcome to bring their instruments. In fact, last year, several students were all versed in traditional Irish brogue music.

When it’s time for bed, some students opt for tents. Johnson, on the other hand, prefers a sleeping bag under the billions of stars.

Even without a camera, they make for great pictures, he said.

What: Landscape photography class at Death Valley, offered through Lake Tahoe Community College

When: March 30-31

Registration: Begins on March 15 and can be done online at or in person at LTCC, 1 College Drive, South Lake Tahoe. The two-unit class cost is $34 plus $10 camping fee. Class is limited to 22 students and is open to anyone with an interest in outdoor photography. Call (530) 541-4660.

Orientation: An orientation class will be held on Friday, March 25, 6 p.m. in classroom E100. This orientation describes the Death Valley course, basic photography techniques for digital and film photography and helps arrange rides for students.

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