Who says that winter photography has to include sub-zero temperatures and snowy conditions? While I truly enjoy the winter locations we travel to each year; Yellowstone, Norway and Canada, there is something to be said for enjoying winter photography without extreme temperatures. Some of the best locations to photograph during the winter months are in the desert, and they can offer a retreat that is much more comfortable for those who enjoy being outdoors and photographing during the winter months.
Amazing Desert Locations
While there are many desert locations to choose from, Death Valley, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, plus the Valley of Fire in Nevada are a few of my favorite winter destinations. These parks generally have fewer visitors this time of year which always creates a more peaceful experience.
Desert colors and cool crisp mornings can create drama in the environment which is something a landscape photographer is always searching for. A backdrop of snow covered mountains, a dusting of powder on red rocks or even some fog can create the perfect conditions for landscapes.
Desert temperatures are milder than our favorite arctic locations. However, they can still get pretty cold, especially at night. So make sure you are prepared with layers and gear to get you through your sunrise shoot. I wear my waterproof gear over my layers for added warmth, and also bring a hat and gloves to each shoot. It does rain and snow in the desert, so check the weather forecast to be prepared. Elevation will also affect your temperature and clothing requirements. For example, one of the best vista points in Death Valley is Dante’s View. This viewpoint over the salt basin has an elevation of over 5,400 feet, so you can imagine it will be much colder there than it would be on the valley floor which is 282 feet below sea level.
Death Valley located in the northern Mojave desert of California offers endless photo opportunities. You could spend several days exploring this desert landscape and barely see all of the diversity the area has to offer. There are a few sand dunes to explore throughout the park, which in winter have less foot traffic and foot prints to get in the way of your shot. Precipitation in the desert is always minimal, but winter months get the most amount of rain. If you are lucky and mindful of the forecast, you might be able to catch Badwater Salt Basin filled with water to catch reflections at sunrise. When moisture is present, be prepared to photograph fog. There is something quite alluring about the mixture of misty fog moving through a desolate landscape.
The Winter Sky
Winter skies are often more dramatic simply due to the amount of, or lack of, moisture in the atmosphere. Winter blue is a darker and deeper shade of blue which in contrast to red rock formations is stunning. These hues are remarkably beautiful throughout the desertscapes of Utah. Sprinkle your landscape with snow, and magic happens. While you are exploring your composition, look for frost or ice as these elements, especially when hit with sunlight, can give your image the appearance of crystals and creates a very beautiful effect.
To me, the best part of winter begins after the sun has risen, the warmth of the sun sets in, and you can begin to expand your creativity. Change your lens, and start searching for details. Is there frost or ice that you can photograph with a macro lens? Can you find reflections of color in the snow or ice? Look for abstracts of color and patterns in your surroundings. Not every photo has to be a grand landscape. Some of the best photos are the most simple.
Winter is a peaceful season marked by long nights, quiet reflection and anticipation of spring. Whether you bundle up for an arctic adventure or just want to have a solitary photo shoot, the desert awaits with simple tranquility.