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The Importance of Scouting for Landscape Photographers


What Lies Beneath | West Side Road, Death Valley National Park

What Lies Beneath | West Side Road, Death Valley National Park

As I start writing this post, I’m sitting by my gate at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. I loathe Vegas, but that’s beside the point. I managed to avoid the strip this time and will be home soon. I just wrapped up an incredible week leading a workshop in Death Valley National Park with my good buddy Brian Matiash and nine awesome students. This was my fifth trip to the park, and I’m starting to feel like I know the place like the back of my hand (even though there are still a several places I’d like to visit).

Joshua Trees in Death Valley

Joshua Trees in Death Valley

Ever since hearing about a lesser known area of the park known as Cottonball Basin (or Cottonball Marsh), I’ve been on the hunt for a certain kind of pattern found there. Cottonball Basin is hiding in plain site of virtually everyone who visits Death Valley. It’s located about five miles north of Furnace Creek off Highway 190, but there are no signs for it, and no areas for parking. You simply have to pull off into the gravel on the side of the road and start hiking out.

The trouble is that Cottonball Basin (and much of Death Valley) is always changing. Badwater Basin (which feeds into Cottonball) is an underground river, so the surface is always morphing and looks different with each visit. If you pick the wrong spot of the highway to pull over and start hiking, you could spend hours hiking around the marsh and find nothing.

During my last visit to the park (before this one), I hiked out to Cottonball twice and while I was able to come out with some decent shots, it wasn’t what I was looking for. I was never able to find the patterns I had seen in a few photos.

Even though I hadn't found what I was looking for, there is still plenty of beauty to be found all over Cottonball Basin.

Even though I hadn’t found what I was looking for, there is still plenty of beauty to be found all over Cottonball Basin.

This time around, I was bound and determined not to come up empty handed. Right before heading out, I purchased a Garmin Oregon 600 Handheld GPS. I had a cheaper Garmin before, but it was so unintuitive and difficult to use that I wasn’t willing to risk using it again. The Oregon series is a touch screen model that is responsive, quickly acquires satellites, and is very easy to use and understand.

The day before the workshop began, Brian and I hiked out to Cottonball Basin. We found essentially nothing. I felt pretty defeated. We ended up changing the workshop itinerary and nixed Cottonball Basin altogether. It wasn’t until a chance encounter at Racetrack Playa that my luck would change.

As our group began exploring The Racetrack, Brian and I noticed a group of four photographers at one of the best rocks on the playa. They were taking turns standing on the rock, sitting on it, and taking all sorts of photos with them in it (probably for Instagram or something). This made my blood boil, so before too long, we went over and laid into them pretty good. They apologized for what they were doing and promised to stop (I really don’t understand that behaviour).

Mesquite Sand Dune Crust | Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Sand Dune Crust | Death Valley National Park

After going back later that evening (they stayed at that same rock the entire evening) we began chatting with the main guy from the group taking pictures. He mentioned that he found some good patterns at Cottonball and showed us the shots he took with his iPhone. These shots were the closest I’ve seen in a long time to the patterns I was looking for and he was nice enough to let us know where to find them. Unfortunately, we only had one last day of the workshop so we’d have to try our luck alone after the students had already left.

On the last day of our trip, after the workshop had concluded, we headed out again to explore and scout the basin. Using my Oregon 600, I dropped a pin at our parking spot off the highway and began hiking out. Around half a mile in, we saw some good patterns starting to forming (this was after walking over some very unwelcoming terrain that would probably cause most tourists and/or photographers to turn back). Things were starting to look good. As we kept hiking out, the patterns began getting tighter and tighter together. Finally, around 1.5 miles into the basin we hit the mother-load. I dropped around 7 pins at different locations out on the basin because I knew these spots were going to be difficult to find again. It’s hard to describe, but Cottonball Basin is a massive expanse of completely flat terrain for the most part. You can pick the same exact parking spot, but if you hike out 20 degrees to the left of where you found the patterns, you’ll miss your mark by enough to not even see something useful.

Cottonball Basin

The shot I had been waiting thee years to get was finally mine. I wanted to capture as much as possible so I created this panoramic by taking five vertical images and stitching them together in PTGui Pro.

After lunch and a good nap, we headed out again for sunset. The Oregon 600 led us directly to the exact same spots we stood in earlier that da,y with plenty of time to spare for the light to be right. Oh man, did the light get right. Sunset that evening was one of the top three sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life (and I take ranking my sunsets pretty seriously).

If we hadn’t been relentlessly scouting this location, I’m quite confident I would still be in search of those patterns today.

Start to Finish Video Tutorial

Below is a video I put together from the trip. This is an in-depth video showing the scouting process, the sunset shoot, as well as the post-processing of the image once I got back home. Let me know if you have any questions!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

  • Michael O

    Nice article. Worthy read. Would love to visit there, without the instagrammers lol

  • James Brandon

    Haha, thanks Michael. Although, ironically, I might not have found this place without those instagrammers :-/

  • swalt2493

    Nice article, good tips. Now, please … explain why you felt the need to lay into the guys taking pics. Unless they were just hogging the area and not letting anyone else have use, then what’s the big deal with the “instagram” pics? I don’t do instagram, or take selfies. But the way you have written this, it seems as though you have a lot of contempt for those who do.

  • Charles

    The second half of the sentence you are referring to is a hyperlink. Click it and you will be taken to another article that James wrote, which explains his anger. He is not judging amateur photographers, he is decrying the destruction of a unique natural landscape.

  • James Brandon

    Yes, Charles summed it up nicely (thanks Charles). I have nothing against Instagrammers or amateur photographers. I have an instagram account and amateur photographers are the lifeblood of my entire business. What makes my blood boil is people disrespecting or destroying natural wonders of our world. If they were simply jumping up in the air in front of the rocks, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but standing and jumping on these rocks is not ok, by any stretch of the imagination.

    On top of that, they WERE hogging the rock. They got to that one rock about an hour before sunset and didn’t move until the light was gone. We ended up taking our group over to the rock anyway and getting what shots we could, but the person in question literally didn’t move his tripod from the spot he had the entire time.

  • Yair ? Sagiv

    Re- “instagrammers” – 1st off – it’s illegal to even get near these rocks. The footsteps destroy the natural beauty of the place.
    But yea, I agree that one should be careful these days. You can even get killed for saying the wrong word to the wrong person…

  • swalt2493

    I did that BEFORE I made my post. It does nothing to answer the question I posed. His post says nothing about them destroying anything. My question remains.

  • swalt2493

    If it’s illegal, then why did Mr. Brandon want them to move so he could take their place?

  • Charles

    The beauty of this landscape and the unique properties of these rocks depend heavily on the scenery remaining untouched. I
    thought the linked article made it pretty clear how moving, touching,
    or even getting too close to those rocks would be destructive.

    If after
    reading that same article you draw the line at taking a jackhammer to
    the rocks, then clearly our viewpoints are fundamentally different.

  • swalt2493

    Charlie, did you eat paint chips as a child? Your failure to comprehend the written language would lead one to think so.

  • This conversation is bordering on insulting one another and I request you both to stop replying as of now. It serves no useful purpose. Agree to disagree and move on – name calling is not condoned on dPS and if it continues you will be banned.

  • Ramneek Kalra

    The video is one of the best video I have come across to learn how to process landscape shots…. thanks James.

    By the way I completely agree with what swalt2493 has to say.
    If someone has reached a spot before you so he deserves to be there as long as he wants even its for nothing or something as simple as observing the sunset… As long as the property is not personally owned by you I do not think you have the right to ask anyone to leave or move.

  • Mujahid Ur Rehman

    thank you very much James. I couldn’t agree more with what you have highlighted here.

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