Ubehebe Crater: A Challenging Photograph

The photograph you see here is the result of my effort to make a compelling photograph of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park. In addition to having a really cool name, the subject is very interesting, which inspired me to want to photograph it. But the actual process of making the image was not easy.

Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park
Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park

Ubehebe Crater is located in Death Valley National Park and formed several hundred years ago when hot magma rose to the surface and encountered a layer of water. The water quickly vaporized, and tremendous pressure built up. The result of all that steam pressure was an explosion that left behind the crater you see here. We don’t know exactly when the explosion occurred, but it’s estimated to have been around 300 years ago.

The crater is quite large; it’s around a half mile wide. I came to the crater in the afternoon and viewed it from the parking lot, which is on the north side of the crater. It’s really an amazing sight to see, and it almost feels like you’re in an alien environment. That’s actually a feeling I got in several other places in Death Valley as well. It’s an incredible place.

I walked along the rim of the crater for a while, and as I was exploring I quickly realized that photographing a crater of this size is not an easy thing to do. The problem is the light. Photography is all about light, and you need good light to create the best images. The problem is that by the time the golden hour arrives and the light is best, the interior of the crater is completely in shadow. The eastern side of the crater exposes the yellow and orange layers of rock that you can see in the photograph. I would love to capture the late afternoon and sunset light falling across those colorful rock layers, but unfortunately that is just not possible.

I traveled around to the west side of the crater and set up to capture some images. The sun was behind me and illuminating the crater and the mountains behind it in the distance. At this point in the afternoon, the east side of the crater with the orange and yellow rocks was lit up by the sunlight, and the remainder of the crater was in shadow. I created an image at this time and worked on it for quite a while at home during my post processing. In the end I discarded that version because I didn’t like the way there was such a harsh shadow line cutting across the middle of the image.

Instead, I waited until the crater was completely in shadow. The mountains in the distance were still completely illuminated. It was now 45 minutes later and about 30 minutes before the official sunset time. The light was much better, and I really like the way the distant mountains look in this final image. The shadow line is much more subtle because it kind of follows the edge of the crater so that you don’t really notice it. And there was still enough light that I was able to bring out the color in the rocks of the interior of the crater.

This photograph was a challenge to produce, both on site and in post-processing. But the result is worth it to me. I think this image captures the beauty of the crater and conveys the feeling of amazement I experienced when I saw it. I hope you enjoy it too!