Buying Used Photography Equipment

How to safely buy used photo equipment.


In today’s economy every nickel counts, and just like everything else cameras and lenses cost way more than anyone wants to pay.  I’ve had good and bad experiences with buying used equipment.  However, if you do it correctly then you can save a bundle.

Used equipment is available from several sources; some examples are eBay, craigslist, store returns, pawnshops, and private sales.  There are others but these are what I will be covering. I’ll give you the goods a bads and recommendations on what to look out for.

The type of equipment you buy is a huge consideration.  Stay away from used “push-pull” zooms.  These usually get loose and wear out with age.  Outdated cameras are also not a bargain like they might seem.  For example, you can buy a Nikon d1 or d2 very cheap now.  The problem is that while they were good in their day, now they are not.  The older pro cameras are slow with writing to memory cards, use a lot of battery power and usually have much more noise than even today’s modern consumer level cameras.  They were great in their day, really awesome, but now they are just simply old technology.

Tripods are a mixed bag; if you can see it and try it before you buy then it might be a good deal.  Things to watch for are loose clamps, bent legs, center shafts that are warped, and cracks in the legs on carbon fiber models.  I would avoid eBay or any online store that does not offer a money back guarantee on anything, but especially tripods.

Big expensive professional lenses are a tough one.  Here’s an example for how to be safe.  Nikon has been selling a 70-200mm 2.8 lens for years.  They recently upgraded that lens and most pro photographers will buy the new upgrade even if their old lens was working fine.  That’s usually a safe bet.  If a lens has been upgraded then buying the old model gives you a good chance that the old owner just upgraded.  The best way to be sure is to buy the old model right after the newer model is introduced; that’s when the market is flooded with the older lenses.  Same is true for professional cameras.  When the D4 is introduced later this year (I hope) there will be many many D3’s going up for sale.

Filters are a pretty safe bet.  Unless the threads are damaged or there is a scratch on the glass then there’s nothing that can go wrong with it.  Avoid batteries at all costs!  That seems like common sense but I see used batteries online all the time.  Strobe units are another to avoid, just way too many electronic parts to go wrong.  Bags and soft cases are usually safe.  Avoid hard cases because the padding is usually already cut to fit the previous owner’s equipment.

Used underwater cases are a huge treasure! So many scuba diver try underwater photography and fail it’s ridiculous.  Ebay is full of underwater systems that are used very little and you can save thousands sometimes!  Just remember to test the case in a pool without your camera in it first to make sure it doesn’t leak.

So where to buy your stuff, what’s safe, who will screw you?  Those are the important questions.  I’ll address several companies I’ve purchased from.  I really have no specific complaints for any company—I think I’ve just had a lot of good luck, ha ha. is my favorite place to buy used cameras and lenses.  They are very very honest and their return policy is awesome.  Their descriptions are accurate and their grading is very strict.  I hardly ever buy their top condition grade because I think they are way too strict. I usually look for items in their BGN or bargain grade.  To me they look almost perfect.  As far as I can figure is that if there is a scuff or scratch on something then it’s bargain to them. If there is anything specific wrong like a ding in the filter ring they will note that in the item description.  Their service is super fast often shipping the same or next day and the people on the phone are very knowledgeable.  Unfortunately you will wait on the phone on hold for a while because they are so popular.  I think that’s my only complaint with them.  Their return policy is simple, if you don’t like what you buy for any reason you can send it back and get a refund! has a section that they sell items people have returned.  These things aren’t really  “used” they are simply customer returns.  If you call and get the right person sometimes you can get the operator to look in the notes and find out why it was returned too.  Do not wait and “think about it” these items move very fast, so buy it fast.

Ebay is a risky place.  I’ve had mostly good luck but remember, these are usually regular people that think their item is in much better condition that it usually is.  You will often see descriptions such as “mint, perfect, like new, pristine”  these are simply sales words and really don’t help you any.  Look at the description and contact the seller with specific questions.  I always ask for a phone number from the seller so I can call him and talk to him about it.  If he doesn’t give it to me I move on to the next item, easy.

Craigslist is another source.  Unfortunately it seems that everyone selling on craigslist thinks their stuff is made out of gold.  I rarely find good deals on there.  The advantage of that site is you can physically put your hands on the item and examine it before you give out any cash.  You can also put a listing on there that you want to buy used camera equipment.  This gives you the ability to name your own price if you are a good negotiator.  The only problem with that is you will get tons of people calling you and annoying you with old junk film and point and shoot cameras.

Pawnshops are great. You can get a great price and still be able to examine the item before buying it.  In today’s economy people are pawning everything.  The shops are paying almost nothing these days and that gives them a lot of leeway in what they need to charge.  Don’t pay the first price they ask, haggle with them.  If you develop a relationship with a certain store they will often call you when they get something in that they think you will want to buy and give you a better price than a normal customer.

Even with all these sources I still buy a lot of my equipment brand new. Just go by the old philosophy of Buyer Beware and use common sense and you should be fine.



Camera Stabilization

No matter how good of a photographer you are, if you can’t hold the camera steady your images will turn out like crap.  Image stabilization is one of the most important aspects of photography.  If you have a great picture opportunity make the most of it and be sure you will be holding that camera steady.

This article will explore a lot of different tools that you can use to hold your camera steady and reduce the dreaded camera shake. I will also give my opinions on brands.  So here is my disclaimer: I do not have any corporate sponsors, I pay retail for all my equipment and I give ya the good and bad opinions for brands of things I try.

First, lets examine the best ways you can hold your camera to be steady on your own without extra mechanical aids.  Really, who wants to carry extra crap if you don’t have to, right?  The basic rule for years has been anything slower than 1/60th of a second you can’t hand hold.  That rule still applies and you also have to remember that it was designed for use with a 50mm lens.  A more accurate rule is that you can’t hand hold anything lower than the “length of your lens”.  For example 200mm you need 1/200th, 600mm you need 1/600th.  There will always be people out there that have big egos and like to compete about who can hand hold 1 second exposures, but they are usually young and have a lot less years on their body than I do, ha ha.

There are a few techniques you can use to help hold steady.  The way you hold your camera is a big consideration.  Keep your elbows in and hold the camera to your face to help stabilize it.  Also, hold your breath as you press the shutter.  Leaning against something like a tree or a building can help you a lot as well, or sitting.  If you are in a car, that car window is a great support for your camera.

After you are done with your best ability of your body there are many mechanical aids out there that will make your life easier.  Some are bigger and bulkier than others; basically you sacrifice comfort for greater stability.

Tripods.  Tripods are the best means of stabilization.  Basically the bigger, stronger, heavier they are the more stable they will be.  I started out many years ago using a Slik aluminum tripod.  I still have it and my kids use it all the time.  It is actually nice and steady and lightweight.  The head is useless but the kids are just happy to have something big and professional looking, ha ha.  Slik still makes tripods and I haven’t tried one out, but I’d say they are worth a look since they have always been low cost.  Plus if they are still in business they must be doing something right after all these years.

Today I use Gitzo carbon fiber tripods.  I honestly can’t say anything bad about them except for the price, ouch.  But they open and close easily, they are strong and the quality is worth the price.  I do have one Benro tripod.  It is the travel one that folds up backwards to make it very small and compact.  Unfortunately I really can’t say much good about it except for the small size.  The included ball head does not let me feel comfortable with a professional camera and medium size lens.  I’m afraid it will fall off or wobble around.  The biggest complaint I have with it is the legs do not stay locked.  Now, let me explain; often when I’m walking through the woods I use the tripod to help me steady myself.  I extend one leg and use it like a walking stick or support when I’m climbing over a log or large rock.  With the Benro tripod it will almost always collapse inside itself.  I have never had it collapse when I’m using it with a camera thank goodness, but it is a big complaint I have.  Upon examination I discovered that they use a very fine thread pattern to tighten and loosen the twist clamps for the leg.  I think the fine thread is the problem because obviously it doesn’t allow you to tighten it enough.   Also, for some weird reason they do not use the “righty tightly , lefty loosen” method to tighten and loosen the legs; it’s backwards.   So enough bashing them, just buy the gitzo version and you’ll be happier.

Now, if you can’t afford the best tripod out there you can add some stability to the one you have.  Firstly, try not to extend the tripod out all the way.  The shorter it is the more stable it will be for you.  Try not to extend the center column either, that will take away some of your stability.  If you do have to have all the legs extended, hang something heavy from your center column.  This will help it stay down and make it a bit stronger.

Ball heads are the next important part of a tripod.  I personally haven’t found one that I’m overjoyed about.  I suggest that you go out and try a few at your local store if possible.  Look for a heavy one that has big knobs which you don’t have to turn much to tighten or loosen for adjustments.  If you are using at larger lens like a 300mm 2.8 or larger then you need to use a gimbal head.  Wimberley makes an awesome one.  There are a lot of knock off versions of their older model.  Some are good, some are not.  Their newer model is spectacular and I figure if you spend thousands on that big lens then spend another $500 and get a real Wimberley head.  They are a small company and it feels good to support them.  Plus they have the best customer service that I have ever delt with from any camera equipment manufacturer. Period!  Call them, I’d love to be sponsored by them, I think they really deserve our money.

Moving down the road we come to monopods.  Monopods are awesome if you only need to get a little bit of stabilization or if you need to be portable.  I often use a monopod on my 600mm with fantastic results.  The best way I’ve found is sitting with it extended a small amount to get the least amount of wobble with that big lens.  They are great tools where you are in a rush to get the shot or you just don’t want to carry that big bulky tripod all over the woods with you trying to find those bears.

Beanbags are wonderful for all sizes of lenses.  A beanbag can completely immobilize a camera on a car window, a rock ledge, almost anywhere.  The biggest complaint I hear about beanbags is that they are big and bulky and take up a lot of space, well that’s easy to fix.  I don’t own an actual beanbag, I have an empty zip lock bag and I fill it with dirt, sand, or whatever is laying around the area.  It works, it’s free, and it doesn’t take up any space in my bag.

Recently I’ve discovered a new product called a Steadepod.  It basically screws into your tripod socket on your camera, then a wire comes out of it and you step on the end of the wire.  Then you pull up and it adds tension and support.  I know you have no idea what I mean so check out their website they can explain it better than I can.  I haven’t tested it enough to say one way or another if I like it yet, but for $25 it’s worth a try I figure.

Nobody likes to carry a tripod and set it up and then carry it back to the car, it’s a pain in the ass.  Unfortunately it’s often a necessity until we can figure out how to make the assistant become frozen.







cape neddick lighthouse

cape neddick lighthouse, originally uploaded by Michael Leggero.

Cape Neddick Lighthouse is a lighthouse in Cape Neddick, York, Maine. In 1874 Congress appropriated $15,000 to build a light station at the “Nubble” and in 1879 construction began. Cape Neddick Light Station was dedicated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and put into use in 1879. It is still in use today.

Plans had been in the works to build a lighthouse on the site since 1837. The tower is lined with brick and sheathed with cast iron. It stands 41 feet (12.5 m) tall but the light is 88 feet (27 m) above sea level because of the additional height of the steep rocky islet on which it sits. Unusually, the stanchions of the walkway railing around the lantern room are decorated with 4-inch (100 mm) brass replicas of the lighthouse itself.

Nikon 600mm vs. Sigma 300-800mm

When you need a huge long lens for your Nikon there are a few choices.  Today we will talk about the Sigma 300-800mm and the Nikon 600mm.  If you are looking for a quick answer, in my opinion, the Nikon 600mm is the better lens. There, now you can quit reading if you only wanted a fast answer.

Onto the details:  I first purchased the Sigma lens when I couldn’t find anyone that had the Nikon in stock.  The Nikon is still extremely difficult to find and buy however.  Both lenses have advantages and disadvantages from weight, size, and both have a learning curve to being able to use the lens to it’s best.

When you have both in your hands the Nikon is a smaller lighter lens but it is still very large and heavy.  The sigma weighs just under 13lbs while the Nikon weighs 9.8lbs.  I’m not sure that’s really a noticeable difference when you are carrying it around with all the other gear, but if you are only carrying the lens and camera body hiking a couple miles I’d rather bring the Nikon.

Length, the Nikon is 17.5” and the Sigma is 21.5” which does make a difference in traveling.  I fly a lot and I would never ever want to check this lens.  I try to pack all my gear in a standard roll aboard suitcase so I can bring it with me onboard the plane as a carry on.  The Nikon will fit in a standard roll aboard suitcase and the sigma will not.  This is a huge advantage to me because if you get a grumpy flight attendant they can enforce the one carry on rule and you’re stuck out of luck.  Both lenses come with their own cases; hard case for Nikon and soft case for Sigma.  Both of the cases are acceptable as carry on size but like I said, one carry on rule can get ya sometimes.  My basic rule is that if I’m traveling alone I only bring the Nikon.  And if I’m doing a driving road trip then I use the Sigma.

Physically handling each lens is different.  The Nikon has VR so in the right conditions you can “almost” hand hold it.  Basically, I’ve been successful using a monopod or leaning it against a tree, rock, car window, or other stable surface.  The sigma does not have VR so a large stable tripod is a requirement.  When I use the Sigma I put it on a large gitzo with a Wimberley head and a 6” Wimberley plate.

The big advantage of the Sigma is that it is a zoom lens.  You will read in other reviews that you can find your subject at 300mm and then zoom in to 800mm.   This does work good and I’ve used this technique several times with good success.  I don’t think it’s a huge advantage though once you learn how to keep both eyes open with the Nikon you can find your subject easily too.  To clarify that technique, look through the viewfinder with one eye and keep your other eye open looking at your subject.  Your eyes will adjust and kind of “match” and you can find your subject easily using that technique.  It takes practice but works with any lens.

Performance; both lenses will give you great images.  Both lenses have internal motors to focus.  The Nikon does focus faster.  Nikon also says you cannot autofocus with teleconverters.  This is NOT true.  With a Nikon 1.4 or the new 2.0 teleconverter I can still use autofocus.  When you put both converters on and stack them you do have to use manual focus.  The sigma will autofocus with the Nikon 1.4 converter but will not autofocus with the 2.0 teleconverter.

So now we get to the real story. How sharp are they and which one gives you a better image.  Honestly there is very little difference in sharpness.  I’m not going to go into crazy charts and scientific method, you can see all that stuff on their web site and if you understand what those charts mean then you are better than me, ha ha.

To test sharpness I went out to a cemetery and found a dark stone against snow with some good colorful flowers.  I figure that’s going to give the best idea of color, contrast and sharpness.  The following pictures were taken on a Nikon D700 set at iso 200 and aperture was 5.6 for each image.  I set the Sigma to 600mm so it would show the same magnification as the Nikon lens.  The images have not been sharpened or anything.  There is no post processing work done to any of the pictures.

As you can see, the Nikon images have a bit more brightness and contrast which makes it appear a tiny bit sharper.  However, I don’t think it actually is sharper.  If you process the Sigma image and add some contrast then the sharpness is identical.  It’s just a trick of your eye.  Personally I like the brighter contrast in the Nikon lens, but that is just a matter of opinion.

Both lenses are excellent.  Don’t get discouraged by thinking a non Nikon lens will give you any less performance than using Nikon glass.  When you get to this price range Sigma really did the job well and didn’t cut any corners.

That being said I would recommend the Nikon mainly because of the faster autofocus and the vibration reduction.  Unfortunately it is almost impossible to find the Nikon 600mm lens to purchase in the USA.  I finally had to get mine from Canada and Nikon USA will not honor any warranty for goods purchased outside of the United States.  I am playing the odds on this one simply because I figure if I spend a fortune on a lens then they are going to build it well and I’ll never need warranty repair.

If you can’t find the Nikon 600mm then purchase the Sigma 300-800mm and throw on a few teleconverters and go take a picture of the United States flag on the moon.

UV Filters in Photography, pros and cons

UV filters as protection on a lens.  This subject has been a huge constant battle among photographers for as long as I can remember.  The topics range from quality of glass, protection, vingnetting, and more.

Right off the top, I DO NOT use a UV filter on the front of any of my lenses. I will do my best to give information in this article on both sides of the issue so you can make your own informed decision instead of going with the cool crowd.

UV or Skylight filters  ( I’ll just say UV from this point forward) are traditionally put in on the front of your lens to protect it from being scratched.  While this is a good theory it has quite a few drawbacks.

First, lets examine the construction of the filter.  Basicly the UV filter is a piece of glass coated to keep the ultra violet rays of the sun from hitting the film.  Today film is rare so this factor isn’t really an issue.

The glass is surrouned by a metal ring which screws onto the front of the lens.  Here is the first problem.  If you have a wide angle lens sometimes this filter ring will be seen at extreme wide angles and cause vignetting.  There are some filters that are “slim” design which have a thinner ring construction but most of those do not have theads on the outside to put a polarizer or any other type of filter you may want to attach.  So there is problem one; vignetting caused by the filter ring.

Another problem is the quality of the glass used to make the filter.  Lens manufacturers spend a fortune to test and develop and polish their glass to perfection for the lens.  Then you just slap a cheap filter in front of all that expensive polished glass.   This will create a noticeable difference in image quality.  I can say with certainty that filter glass is not the same quality as lens glass.  So there is problem two, lower quality of glass in front of optimal quality lens glass.

In the following pictures you can see the difference between pictures, one with a filter and one without a filter.

with filter above

without filter below


An additional problem is that today’s cameras are all basicly handheld computers.  They are calibrated for use without filters.  When you put a filter in front of a lens it changes how the camera reads the image and can cause subtle exposure and color changes as it reaches the sensor.  There is problem three, changes to the image exposure and color.

Now, there is the advantage of using a filter to protect your expensive lens.  If you have a filter in place and you hit the front of the glass it will damage the filter but hopefully not the lens.  Also this can work for banging the side of the filter ring.  You will again damage the inexpensive filter  instead of the main filter rings on your lens.  I see these things as irrelevant.

Firstly, if you respect your equipment the risk of damage to the lens is much lower.  I use lens caps, and lens hoods.  Both of these together have worked great for me, I have never scratched the glass on my lens or dinged the filter ring either.  I have often hit the end of the lens hood so I definitely recommend leaving that in place.  Usually when I’m driving around doing my landscape and wildlife work I have cameras sitting on the passenger seat of the car. I have had them fall off the seat, accidents happen.  But even with them falling off the seat to the floor the lens hood protects the end of the lens from breaking and the lens cap prevents scratches.  I think that if I only used a UV filter I would have more severe damage.

Using a filter is a personal decision, you have to judge in your head what kind of a risk you feel is acceptable.  I personally feel that anything in front of the lens that can degrade the image is a liability.  Image quality comes first to me.  Whatever you chose just try not to drop the camera in the lake, no filter will save that. Ha ha ha



Photographing Dangerous Animals

Photographing dangerous animals is something that a lot of us enjoy.  It gets us excited as we are interacting with something that has huge teeth, speed, and weighs as much as a Yugo! I hope I’m not the only one old enough to remember what a Yugo is…  Really, who is going to get an adrenaline rush by taking pictures of a cow?

As with everything else in life, the more fun it is the more risky it can become, so today I will share some of my techniques that I use to get closer to larger wild animals and get those great shots.

Bears, tigers, lions; those are what everyone thinks about when they think of dangerous animals.  And it’s true, they are dangerous, I’m going to deal with bears for the most part since they are the most likely animal you will encounter on your own.  At my last trip to Glacier National Park it was September and the bears were getting ready for hibernation.  All they had on their mind was eating and building up fat for the winter.

Bears love berries, and if you found a big huckleberry patch then chances are a bear will be there sooner or later.  Luckily, once they find the berry patch they don’t leave for a while. The bear is happy sitting there and eating for hours at a time.  This is the safest way to work with these animals, they are happy, content and unless you do something very threatening you usually won’t be bothered by them. Now, that is true for berries, but if you find them near a fresh kill things change drastically.  Keep your distance, they will aggressively defend that kill and will see you as a threat.

In Glacier National Park you can often see bears from the roadside.  The safest way to photograph these animals is to just drive by and then shoot from within your car.   However, by doing that you will create a “bear jam”.   Every car behind you will stop and suddenly there are 30 tourists with cameras making a lot of noise.  Sometimes this helps because it will get the bear’s attention and he will often look around and even stand up to get a better view; good photo opportunities.

Most of my experience with bears is with the black bear.  These are the more dangerous bear and you will have to be extra careful.  Trust your senses; you can smell them if they are close to you.  It’s a musty manure smell that’s suddenly in the area.  These animals are territorial and will stalk you.  So pay attention.

Photographing these animals is lots of fun though.  I recommend a long lens, the bigger the better that way you are obviously further away.  When I am walking through the woods I usually have my 70-200 2.8 ready and in my hand at all times.  If you startle a bear while you are on a trail they will almost always run away.  So be ready with that camera or all you’ll get is the backside of this big brown thing going through the bushes.  Try to keep your shutter speed at 500th and aperture of 4 or 5.6 at the most.  Smaller apertures will not blur the background and you will get a distracting image.

If you know where the animal is and you have a chance to set up a tripod and wait, that’s the best opportunity.

Bears don’t have very good eyesight so you can sit and observe them with a long lens 400-600mm is ideal.  Set up a tripod and sit still and just watch him eat those berries.  When you are comfortable in your spot sitting there quietly you will get some great images.  If you want to get his attention don’t wave your arms or make big movements, that will usually scare him away.  Simply use a whistle; one quick sound will make him look up and if you are lucky he will look right into your lens.  Once he realizes that you aren’t moving towards him aggressively he will usually go back to eating.

Now, if things go bad.  There are so many different people out there that advise different things.  I’ve heard all the stories about what you should do, everyone has a different opinion.  Personally I feel my life and anyone’s life with me is more important than a bear.  I do not carry bear spray, you have to be close to use it and once the bear is that close to me it’s too late in my opinion.  I carry a gun, if he is running at me the first shot goes to the ground, the second goes to him.  Sorry if that’s not politically correct but I’d rather pay a fine for shooting a bear than be mauled by one.  Loud noises of the gun will usually scare most animals, just be sure that if you have to take that second shot you have a gun big enough to put it down.

If you don’t agree with that fine, just make sure you can run faster than your assistant! Ha ha ha

I’ve never had an instance where I’ve had to use a gun but I always believe better safe than sorry.

Other animals you can enjoy are bison and moose.  While they don’t have the teeth and claws of bears; these are much more aggressive and dangerous in the wild.

Moose are often found in water during the early morning and daytime.  They are very very territorial and will charge you if you get too close.  The best way to photograph them is to set up and wait for them to appear.  Moose are a predictable animal, they often return day after day to the same place at the same time.  Scout your area; get to know your subject.

Once you have figured out where they will be its time to get set up for the next day.   Setting up a blind is a great way to get some spectacular shots and stay safe.  Pick a good spot where the sunlight won’t be reflecting off your lens and where you can get a clear view of your subject.  Hunting blinds are great for this.  They are already camouflaged and have a small hole for a rifle which works perfect for a camera.  Bring a chair and your iPod because you will probably be sitting there for a while waiting.  Wildlife photography is all about patience.  Early morning is not the best time for bright light, so a strong tripod is key.  Sometimes you will have to shoot 1/60th of a second with a 600mm lens!  Use live view with a cable release and you will be ok.  These animals don’t make fast movements so as long as you can hold the camera and lens steady and not jiggle it you will be ok with a slow shutter speed.  If slow speeds are not your thing then push up the iso.  Today’s cameras allow us to use high high iso settings with less noise than ever before. Just remember, a picture with a lot of noise is better than no picture at all.  Even if you can’t fix the noise in your post processing today, in a year from now you can revisit that image and the software will be much better and can probably fix it for you.

Bison are one of my favorite animals to photograph. However of all the ones I work with I honestly think these are the most dangerous.  Once they are charging, nothing stops them.  And they are always in herds, so it’s not just one you have to worry about, it’s all of them!

Most of my bison photography is done on farms.  I have a friend that raises them so I can get out and drive right into the pasture in the “somewhat” safety of a truck.  And I say somewhat safety because of the huge dents in the side of the truck where they charged it and rammed it!!

Try to use the same method, find a nice bison farm with a huge field, and then go talk to the owner.  Most bison farmers are a very relaxed sort of people.  They are used to visitors and usually love to answer questions about their animals.  Often they will have a small store selling jerky and meat products and that’s your foot in the door.  Start becoming a customer and often they will let you go out in the pasture (in a vehicle) and take pictures all day.

Yellowstone National Park has some great huge bison herds that are used to tourists and walk right along the roads.  The problem is a bison walking along the road is not a great picture next to the family car.  The other problem is that if you see them moving around, they don’t move slowly.  They will not wait for you to get into position and get your shot.

Farm bison don’t leave the pasture, you can drive around, get the angles you want with the lighting at the correct time of day.

And farm bison are just plain safer for you.   You won’t need a long lens. Often 200mm is more than enough.  Often I can use a wide angle and get very close to them.  Sometimes I’ve even been able to use a flash to add fill light to the subject.

To give you an idea of how strong and dangerous they are I’ll tell this story.  My first encounter with bison was at a restaurant and I loved the meat, it’s delicious and lower in fat than chick breast!  So I decided I wanted more of it.  Buying it retail at $20 per pound was not an option so I bought an entire bison and had it butchered.  The neat part was when I went to the farm he let me go out and pick out the one I wanted and shoot it myself.  This isn’t for everyone, but I’m a hick so I liked that idea.  Well to make it a short story, they are so strong it took 7 shots to bring it down!  While butchering it they found wounds in the lungs, heart, head, and spine!

So simply put they don’t go down easy and once they start charging you with your camera they will not stop until they hit you and chances are you’ll be pretty badly hurt or dead.  Stay in a vehicle, don’t walk near them out in the open and respect them more than a bear!

Animals are so much fun and so enjoyable for me to photograph.  It’s very relaxing for me to watch them move and interact with each other in their natural habitat.  Their life is so much easier than ours; they wake up, wander around, and eat.  Then they go back to sleep and do the same thing again the next day.  Photographing them allows me to share in that relaxing lazy day of theirs.

Death Valley Photography Travel

Death Valley is one of the most unique places on the earth.  The colors and landscapes you can see there are amazing and I haven’t found anywhere else where you can photograph all of them in such close proximity.   Death valley is huge and without good planning you can easily get stranded without gas in the middle of literally nowhere.

I’ve been there several times and even with my knowledge of the roads and trails I’ve had my share of close calls.  I’m going to share some of my tips and tricks to see the most sights and avoid the common mistakes as well.  Death valley has many many things to see but some are more spectacular than others.  It’s a real let down to travel 2 hours to see something and get there and say to yourself “that’s it?”  This guide will help you to plan a good trip and keep you safe.

For most people your adventure will start in Las Vegas where you pick up your rental car.  Anything four wheel drive is fine for the trip you don’t need a hummer, but the luxury is nice.  My first trip I had a small jeep, remember, you are in a desert and dust gets everywhere!  Jeeps are great off road and durable but they do not keep out the dust.  It takes about 2 hours to drive from Vegas to Death Valley.  Before you leave Vegas make sure you stock up on food and water. The stores in Death Valley are not well stocked and the prices are outrageous.  A can of chili was $4.29!!  Gasoline prices are a bit higher than civilized areas but not too crazy, just make sure you fill up any time you pass a gas station.

As you drive towards Death Valley from the town of Pahrump you will see a sign for Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge.  This is a nice place to stop and stretch your legs.  There isn’t too much to see there but it’s a nice little creek and some birds that are unique to the area.  I haven’t ever seen any other wildlife in this “wildlife refuge” however.

Camping is the best way to see things on this trip.  You can camp virtually anywhere in the park and you’re not restricted to campgrounds.  If camping isn’t your thing there are several motels in the park.  They are about a 1 or 2 star hotel quality.  The motel at Stovepipe Wells is the most centrally located and if you use that as your base you can see many things going back and forth each day.  The advantage of camping is that you can camp in close proximity to great views for the sunrise and sunset hours.  Driving in Death Valley in the dark is not something I would advise except on the paved roads.

As you drive in you will see Zabrinskie point on your left.  This is probably the most photographed place in the entire park.  The colors of the mountains are spectacular at dusk as the sun shines down on the valley.  Keep driving into the park and make sure you stop at the Furnace Creek visitor center to get a map of the backcountry roads.  This is not the normal map; you have to ask for it specifically from a ranger. Without this map you WILL get lost.

Death Valley is all about the backcountry roads.  You can see some of the sites from the paved roads and even these sites are amazing.  However to see the very unique things you need to get off the pavement and start exploring. The majority of the roads are well maintained and you will see people driving them with normal cars.  Just remember it’s a dirt road so it takes longer to stop than it will on pavement, and keep your speed low to reduce dust.

Some of the best things to see in the park are hidden and I think that is a good thing.  You have to travel and earn the right to see some of these spectacular sites.  Titus canyon is one of these for sure.  Take the one-way road from Rhyolite ghost town and you will be treated to spectacular mountain views and canyons reaching to the sky on both sides as you travel through.

The racetrack is the famous Death Valley moving rocks site.  This is a good place to camp and get some really spectacular sunrise or sunset photographs.  The drive there also gives you a chance to see a very dramatic cactus forest that just appears suddenly and then ends the same way.

Travel north from the start of the racetrack road and work your way to Eureka Sand dunes, the tallest sand dunes in California.  I’ve never made it to the top yet but I keep getting higher each time. Someday…  On the way there you will see a huge sulfur mine on your right side. Very dramatic orange and white colors and a huge opportunity for photography in the whole area.  You can easily spend a day there.  If your timing is right when you are at the sand dunes you can have a jet from the nearby air force base fly overhead.  The dunes are so high that you feel like you could hit the plane by throwing a rock at it!

If you have the off road driving skills then continue from the Eureka dunes through steel pass and end up at the Saline Valley Dunes and Salt Flats.  These dunes and flats are well out of the way for most people and receive few visitors.  You can reach it from the main road but using the main road will add many many more miles and hours.

A final out of the way thing to see is Darwin Falls.  The turnoff is just after Panamint springs.  Panamint springs has a great little restaurant with thousands of pictures on the walls and honestly this is probably the best little hidden restaurant in the park.  Darwin falls is nestled at the end of a nice walking trail in a green leafy forest.  It’s amazing how such a place can exist in a desert.  There is a 2nd waterfall above the first you can reach by taking a very narrow and somewhat dangerous trail.  I would estimate only about 500 people a year see the 2nd waterfall because of the difficulty getting to it.

There are many many many more things to see in Death Valley but these are just a few.  There are entire books written on the park so there is no way to mention it all here.  Make sure you see the salt flats below sea level, that’s easy to find just south of the furnace creek ranch.  Almost everything there is 500% better when photographed at dawn or dusk so try to plan ahead to be at your locations safely at the right time.

If you want a really interesting sight and you have a very clear day, go to Furnace Creek Ranch and look towards the Panamint Mountains.  If you have a very good telescope or binoculars you will see what looks like two large dark caves or holes in the mountains.  These are rumored to be the windows of a long ago abandoned government alien research station.

Safety is important there, drink a lot of water, about a gallon a day per person.  Most modern rental cars have no problems with overheating. Make sure you have a spare and a jack and know how to change the tire.  Flat tires are the most common mechanical breakdowns in the park.  There is a repair station in Furnace Creek.  If you do get a flat and are driving on the spare make sure you get the old tire fixed before you head out on the trail the next day.

Warning, when a sign says “advanced four wheel skills needed” believe the sign.  This is the only place in the world where I’ve actually agreed with this sort of sign.  Death valley has death in the name for a reason.  If you are not someone with advanced off road skills then do not go on the advanced roads or you will probably have an accident and fall off the side of the mountain and be seriously injured or die.  If you want to know why then park your car and walk for a mile on the trail.  You will understand, and it only gets worse as you go on.  The advanced trails are narrow with no room to turn around and there is no turning back, so once you start you have to go all the way.  Luckily there are few of these roads and there are always long ways around to see the same thing at the end.

Death Valley is home to thousands of abandoned mines.  Please remember to stay out of the mines, as they are dangerous.  There can be poison cyanide inside, unstable rafters and floors.  If you enter and get hurt it can be days or never before someone finds you.