Zig Zag Winter Light
The popular Mesquite Flat sand dunes are adjacent to Stovepipe Wells Resort in Death Valley National Park.
Landscape photographers often talk about low angle "golden hour" light, when sunlight is more golden from passing through more of the earth's atmosphere. There are longer, deeper shadows as well, providing a more dramatic feeling. In winter, this light is available most of the day, instead of at brief ends of the day. In Death Valley for example, the sun never rises above 31 degrees in elevation, compared to over 50 degrees in March and as high as 77 degrees in June at Badwater.
In addition to a lower mid-day sun elevation in winter, the long, gradual rise and set of the sun at a low angle produces higher quality, lower angle light during golden hour and for much of the day. Another factor that comes into play is that the sun sets much further south in winter than it does in spring, fall or summer, so the light angles are different and winter photos are unique.
In Death Valley in particular, in our workshops we've noticed that there are times of the day when some of the sand dune fields are particularly well lit, but it's not sunrise, sunset or golden hour. And the seasonally low angle of the sun enhances the light when these favorable sun-landscape alignments occur. So we enjoy a triple bonus of favorable sun compass direction, higher quality warmer lower angle light, and we enjoy that low angle light for longer periods of time.
In Death Valley we find both parallel sand ridges and interlocking zig zag patterns to the ridges, sometimes mixing in interesting ways in the same composition. The low angle light lasts so long in winter, sometimes it's hard to leave the dunes for breakfast or dinner, the light is so good!