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Every type of location presents its own photographic challenges. For the stark wilderness of Death Valley National Park, these can include harsh desert light, stark landscapes, and a vastness that can be daunting to capture in a single frame. In this course, travel along with author, teacher, and photographer Ben Long to Death Valley to learn about the challenges and techniques behind capturing the exotic beauty and surprising details of the desert.
This is the Devil's Golf Course, so named because putting would just be miserable out here. These are weird salt formations. I don't think that's actually like the geological term for them. I'm calling them weird salt formations. They are in fact salt, I broke off a piece earlier and ate it and it was very salty. They this was an, an ancient sea, these are some weird salt formations that were deposited here. Curiously enough according, I don't actually know this stuff, I read the sign back there. According to the sign back there, new deposits continue to get made.
And we can see that when we look at the top, there are these really fine crystalline structures that we're tromping all over with our hiking boots. Fortunately new ones will be deposited, so I don't feel too guilty about it. It's a really, it is a unique landscape. You're not going to find this anywhere else, or maybe there are one or two places where something like this happens. So, telling you how to shoot the Devil's Golf Course, is really only good for coming to the Devils Golf Course and shooting. I'm going to shoot it anyway and talk you through my process, though. Because I want you to see how It is that I'm taking this particular landscape problem apart and trying to solve it. So, what I've got are these weird blobby structures everywhere, going all the way to the horizon.
And so it's creating this really interesting texture on the ground and, and the texture looks different depending on which way I look, and that has to do with the direction of light. So if I start looking this way with the sun behind me, I and this is just a, a quick and dirty shot, this is not actually, obviously any kind of image that I would really want as a keeper. I got a road in the way and those mountains back there, but notice that the actual features themselves don't look like much. It looks like a bunch of mud. When I turn into the light, with the sun behind the features, and you may have heard, well, you should never shoot into the sun. That's what they used to tell you in the old little Kodak Guide to Photography, little booklets that you'd get with cameras.
course Kodak doesn't exist anymore, so I guess those don't either. shooting into the sun, I get something more like this. This is much more compelling. Because the sun is behind the structures, I'm getting a shadowy front to them, and that's giving me both, more contrast, and a better understanding of the depth of the scene. When I look this way, everything looks kind of flat, and evenly lit. When I look this way I'm getting a lot of relief. Also because the salt structures are white, having the sun behind them is giving them this nice kind of luminous quality.
So my first decision has to do with direction of light. And I can say right away this is more interesting. So that's a good starting point. That cuts my field of view down to only 180 degrees to try and figure out. So now the next problem I've got is what's a subject? What, what am I working with here? I've got this big, just massive stuff. I can do what you might just be at, at first kind of tempted to do instinctively. Which is well, it's a big wide vista, I need a big wide shot. So I've got my 24 to 105 set on 24. I take my shot, and I get this.
So, it is a nice contrast. It is an interesting look at this structure. Obviously, I've got a few exposure problems. Also got a little bit of barrel distortion, but I could correct that. That's what makes the horizon look curved. I could correct that. In a way I don't have a subject. This is a big field of texture, and you could argue, well, that whole foreground thing is the subject. And that's true, but I feel like I could use some compositional skills to get this refined a little bit. Also, I got that big empty sky in the top.
There's not a cloud in the sky, which is often the case in Death Valley, because it's so dry here. So I need to figure out something to do with the top of the frame. And I think what I'm going to do is the mountains. If I totally fill the mountains, or fill the top of the frame with mountains, let's see what I get then. So, I'm zooming in closer. I've switched to portrait orientation. I'm focusing about, of the, I've set my focus point about a third of the way into the frame, and I'm at F11, aperture priority mode, so that I get as much depth of field as possible.
So now I've got this. This is good. I like, I think the portrait orientation, the vertical orientation is helping constrain things a little bit. and making me focus more on these weird structures rather than just having my, my, my eye wander over this whole big thing. The problem is I've still got that sky at the top. So look what happens if I crop the sky and just fill the top of the frame with mountains. That's better. But as soon as I see that, I see there's something interesting in there. There is a little ridge of, of little mountainlets, or something, that are darker than the, than the rest of the mountains.
Those are a good graphic object to work with. You can see them over there in the right side of the frame. I wonder what would happen if I centered that up, and had that be kind of a focal point at the top of the frame. So I think I need to move this way, so that I'm shooting more up against the background of that big mountain. I also would like to be shooting a little more into the sun so I get stronger back lighting on these formations. So I'm going to head this way. So, by repositioning, I've got more of that tall mountain behind the little mountainlet thing, or whatever it was I called it earlier.
So I think that's going to let me frame up a different relationship, a different ratio of mountains to weird salt formations. Trying to use every geologic term I can think of here. So that gives me this. And that's pretty good. So that's one approach to this. So what I did here was I first paid attention to the light. It's always about the light. I tried to decide the direction of light that was going to yield the best image. I was thinking about contrast. I was thinking about contour. And I was thinking about backlighting. I decided to shoot into the sun, which can be tricky. Next, I really employed my basic compositional ideas of trying to guide the viewer's eye, I narrowed my frame by switching to portrait orientation. I tried to find a graphic element that could be a focal point. So, I like that picture, I think that will work. The sun is setting quickly, we're racing, we're trying to get as much out of it as we can, we want to get to the next location, we were heading back to our cars, and a park ranger told us about this cool salt hole that's not too far, about 100 yards from the parking lot.
So we rushed out here to see it and it was really worth the trip. He was absolutely right. Really cool salt formation. Very fresh salt deposits and there's water in there. There's this huge cave underneath full of water. You don't see a lot of water in Death Valley, so this is great. This is the compositional anchor. That I was looking for to try and work some of these surrounding terrain around. So I shot a wealth of pictures in different directions, playing with light and contrast in different ways. So don't forget those park rangers can be very, very helpful. Don't hesitate to ask them about interesting subject matter or.
Things that they've seen that may be off the beaten path, ask them the places that they like to go, they might lead you to something like this and it's very cool. So, again we're racing the light, we're going to try and get to the next location.
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