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 The Salton Sea, California Photography Hot Spot

Photography Hot Spot Location – The Salton Sea, Southern California

The Salton Sea is a bird photographer’s paradise.  It is a shallow, saline, endorheic rift lake located directly on the San Andreas Fault, predominantly in California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys.  The modern sea was accidentally created by the engineers of the California Development Company in 1905. To increase water flow into the area for farming and irrigation, canals were dug from the Colorado River into the valley. Due to fears of silt buildup, a cut was made on the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow. The resulting outflow overwhelmed the engineered canal, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years, filling the historic dry lake bed and creating the new sea, before repairs were completed. It was once a thriving resort community until the fish started dying, and the smell was just everywhere. That’s when everyone left.

Sunset here is pretty incredible as you can see the colors burst in the image above, but there is a smell of dead fish that you can get used to as you explore this post-apocalyptic looking town. We were a little nervous in this desolate city. It’s filled with old beat-up trailers that are falling apart, and you wonder if anyone is living in some of them. We don’t scare easy at all, but we had a strange feeling here. You are also right near the Mexican border, and the thought of that made us spook a little.  DO NOT drive into Mexico. It’s way too dangerous.

We drove all the way around the lake. I had to hit the wildlife refuge on the southern side. The photo of the salty looking dry area was the south side. The northern side was just filled with birds. There are plenty of birds everywhere. I just like the north shore best. It seems to be more there and less driving in between.

We met a man here named Jose. We called our photo file, five years ago, “The Salton Sea with Jose.”  He showed us around at sunset when we tried to find the right spot to get to the sunset on the water. It was in a farming area around the lake. Jose told us that If we had gone out there alone at night, there was a good chance that we might not come out, so don’t be like us and go wandering in the dark alone.

There is also a cool road that runs away from the sea there that is just incredible. It is Coyote Road off of the midway point along the north shore of The Salton Sea.  It’s the images with the clouds rolling in above.  That is a road you must travel down. It would be great if you could get clouds like that, but that doesn’t often happen here in the high desert.

The Salton Sea
The Salton Sea
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When to Go: Weekdays, when it is slightly offseason, is best. This is a tourist town, so be prepared for people. Keep in mind this is also a milky way dark sky area, so you might want to plan your trip around a new moon or the week before during milky way week.

Camera Settings

Aperture Priority

It is generally used to control the depth of field (control how much is in focus from your subject back). If your shutter speed drops to 1/30th sec. or lower because you lack light, you will need to put your camera on a tripod to avoid blurry pictures. Anything handheld below 1/30 sec will be blurry. The higher the “f” number, the less light that will come in, and your shutter speed will drop to let more light in.

When your “f” number goes up, your aperture closes. At f-22, you are barely letting any light in.  Always watch your shutter speed when taking your shot, look at the bottom of the screen through the viewfinder and check your shutter speed. Do not let your shutter speed go too low when hand-holding.  Sometimes you cannot get a super high f stop because you do not have enough light. This will happen quite often at times, such as a sunset. Again, put your camera on a tripod, and now your photos will not blur except for any subject moving in the image.

You might want the opposite effect. That is when your subject is in complete focus, and the background is blurred, called the bokeh effect. You will use your lowest F-number, such as 2.8 or 3.5. Go as small as your particular lens will allow.  Shooting in Aperture Priority allows you to control this.

Shutter Priority

If you have moving subjects such as people moving, you will want to shoot in shutter priority to be sure your images come out sharp. When people are moving slowly, shoot at 1/250th sec, and adjust your ISO accordingly. If they are moving very fast, increase your shutter speed to about 1/1000th sec. If it’s a bright sunny day, go as high as 1/1200 second for very fast-moving subjects.

Manual Mode

If you have moving waters here, you can do your long exposure running, milky water shots.  You will have to use a tripod for this effect.  All of your settings will vary depending on the lighting and what neutral density filter you have. You will shoot in manual mode for the milky waters.

ISO is always 100 or as low as your camera will allow. Aperture is f22. Your shutter speed will vary depending on the light. Take some test shots to decide on your shutter speed after you put your neutral density filter on. (It’s like sunglasses for your camera to stop light from coming in).

Use your shutter release or your 2-second timer also to prevent camera movement. Voila. You now have your milky water exposure. You will want at least a 5-second exposure for water. (If you don’t have a neutral density filter, you may not get more than 1/15th of a second in the sun. That does not give you a good effect). Go to our store to buy your ND filter. We like a 3.0 for super long exposure in the daytime, and we have a ten stop filter for bright sunny days.


Announcing our PhotographyContest

All of the winners will have their photo featured in our Magazine  Lots of Prizes

 See all of the Details on our Photography Contest Page.

Photography Magazine Extra Pam Goodyer

Park and Area Information:

Entrance Fees:   Day use – $5.00  Boat Launch $3.00


Day use area for
Fishing, visitor center, picnic, birding, sightseeing
Headquarters full RV hookups
New Camp developed campground
Boat Launch

These park areas will be subject to summertime Off-Season closures (Jun-Jul-Aug-Sep.) :

30 miles south of Indio on Highway 111.  Located on the north shore of the Salton Sea, it is about a three-hour drive from the Los Angeles or San Diego areas.  From Los Angeles, take Interstate 10 east to Indio, take 86S exit then turn left at Avenue 66, then right onto Highway 111.  Go south about 12 miles to the Salton Sea SRA Headquarters entrance.  From San Diego take Highway 78 east, then left (north) on Highway 86.  Turn right at Avenue 66 and then right onto Highway 111.  Go south about 12 miles to the Salton Sea SRA Headquarters entrance.
Photography Magazine Extra Pam Goodyer

Hotel Information:

Pam’s Picks  – We like this one because it is for the mature crowd. If you have a ton of kids in tow see our other pick.

Glamis North Hot Springs Resort
10595 Hot Mineral Spa Rd.
Niland, California 92257

food and dining photography magazine extra


There is a Subway on your way in at the very north tip of the Salton Sea. There isn’t much food out here so be sure to grab something. I always bring snacks and of course water. Lot’s of water. This is the desert you know.  They are not always open so be prepared!

Subway – North Side

90480 66th Ave

Mecca, CA 92254

Buckshot Deli & Diner – North Eastern Side

8120 CA-111

Niland, CA 92257

Alamo Restaurant – West Side

2100 Marina Dr

Thermal, CA 92274

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These park areas will be subject to summertime Off-Season closures (Jun-Jul-Aug-Sep.) :

Mecca Beach campground    
Corvina Beach
Salt Creek primitive campground

Open during the In-Season Oct.-Nov.-Dec.-Jan.-Feb.-Mar.-Apr.-May.
Visitor Center  – Summer Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fri, Sat, Sun.
– Off Season hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fri, Sat, Sun

weather photo magazine extra

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