Viewers: in countries Watching now:
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.
On the one hand it seems like coming to a beautiful spot like this and getting a good picture should be very easy. Because when I step out of the car here, it's fantastic, it's, it's spectacular and it's really pretty. But it's actually a difficult thing to shoot because when you got all of this, where do you start? You can't fit it all into your frame. So you've got to pick and choose, and when you do fit it into your frame, you've got to ascribe some order to it so that the viewer knows what to do. Now, I've been saying throughout this course, and you here me talk about it ad nauseum in the composition course and some other places.
About how you need a subject and you need a background. That's not so much the case when you're shooting a vista because your background is your subject. Your background is your foreground,.your foreground is your background. It gets very philosophical. So, the, I don't have necessarily the option of having a good, strong, foreground element to serve as an anchor for the viewers eye. Instead, what I need to do, is try to find things within the scene that I can use compositionally in a different way. And what I tend to think of it as, as. I tend to think of it as bordering the scene somehow.
I still need to work on trying to control the viewers eye and lead it in to the land scape. So, I set out to shoot a couple of different things from here, just as I was wondering around. And I took two different approaches, sometimes I shot panoramas that I will stitch together, because I couldn't get the full range that I wanted. And at other times I was able to get things in single shots. So here's a single shot of this scene, what's nice about this is I've got that big circular drive thing out there to form a boundary on the right side of the image.
I was looking for something on the left side, and thought, well, those shadows on the hills. When I zoomed out enough to frame the shot that way, I was very, very wide. So, now the landscape itself, the background details have gone very, very small. So, I didn't think that was the best idea. Instead, I zoomed in and shot a panorama. So that's one approach. I'm bounding the scene on either side. The thing is this image actually turns into when it's all stitched together, more of what I've been kind of doing all day, which is having a good, strong element in the foreground.
In this case, it is that driveway. So I walked out to the end of the drive, to try and just work the landscape by itself. And I did the same thing. I started by shooting a single shot, to try to define what I was going to use compositionally for my frame. And I'm sticking with those clouds on the left, or rather the shadow of the clouds on the left, and the actual clouds in the sky on the right. Those are right over Telescope Peak there. So your eye's probably a little bit lost in this image, because I've got all this exra stuff in the foreground. While I was shooting it, I was imagining that I would crop it to a very wide and short frame.
And, again, I'm back to that problem of because I had to go so wide, the details in the distance are very small. So, I then went top trying a panorama, using those same elements to bound my scene. So here's the leftmost shot with the clouds, and I pan to the right to get Telescope Peak with it's kind of little Mount Doom-like halo of clouds around it. And, because I'm zoomed in, those are a little big bigger. There are other things in the landscape, you know, sometimes, more isn't more. There are, there are segments on it that I could take.
There are little vignettes on it that I can take. Looking across the valley, and I can still see it right now, there's this little area of really rough looking, like, South Dakota Badlands, like, little foothills next to the. Panament mountains themselves, with telescope peak. And, at the time I was shooting, there was a very lovely cloud right on top of them. So I took some single shots of that, trying to find a balance between just the lower half of the frame and the upper half of the frame. So I've got the clouds holding up the top half, and I've got a lot of interesting things in the bottom. I've got that texture on the left, I've got Telescope Peak with its clouds on the right.
I feel like those three elements together worked to kind of hold the frame together and create a balanced image. I turned around, and looked into the distance and saw this. Now you may go ooh, what. yeah, it's not much of an image right now. What caught my eye was in the distance, those mountains way in the distance with the little clouds above them. What's killing this image is that bright bit in the foreground, a really bright light like that is a total eye magnet, it serves no purpose, I don't need it. So I cut in tighter and cropped this.
Look at the difference again, your eye is much more contained in the scene. I played a little bit with experimenting with those mountains on the side of the frame thinking that I've got these two wonderful slanted lines right there on the horizon created by these two different slopes on either side. That might be a really good way of containing the eye. I tried a few different things. I worked my shot, basically. Now, in a big vista thing like this, working your shot obviously doesn't mean moving around the subject, that would mean covering hundreds of miles. Working the shot typically means more cropping in different ways, either through changes in camera position or changes in focal length.
Sometimes, it does make a difference to take some steps left or right to rearrange the relationships of shapes within the scene. But that's, that's working the shot. I am here not just to take pictures. I just like being in Death Valley. And I saw something that I just simply wanted to document which was this. This is a simple panorama. Those are the sand dunes that we saw earlier this morning. And as I pan across, you can also see the dry lake bed we were standing on. When we were standing out there I pointed out that they didn't look that far away. Here in profile they look tremendously far away.
I'm not thinking at all about composition in this shot, I'm thinking simply about getting the elements in the frame that I want. There's nothing wrong with that, I'm not going to frame this picture and hang it on my wall but I'm glad to have a documentation of that thing that I saw with this incredible wind, the sky is changing very quickly. The, we don't have a tremendous amount of cloud cover but what we do have is moving through quickly. It's breaking up. It's shattering apart. So I then looked back around and Telescope Peak had changed again. I tried another take on that composition that I had earlier, because now the clouds looked different.
Looking at this now, I'm kind of surprised I took this shot. It really doesn't do anything for me. I liked the earlier cloud better, and I think that's interesting, it shows how much the actual shape of the cloud makes a difference in the composition. I don't feel like this one works that well, the other one which had a more solid oval cloud worked much better. Then I simply looked up in the sky and saw some nice clouds. Sometimes the sky itself is a vista. So, I grabbed some of those. That's a very simple composition, nothing really to talk about there. I did shoot it HDR though, because I thought, well these clouds might be something that I want to put a little more fine texture into, and HDR is going to let me do that. For the most part I have not been shooting HDR here, because of the haze. It is an inherently low dynamic range situation because the haze is cutting out so much contrast so there's been no reason to do it. And the clouds that have been here I feel like any change I want I can mostly get just through a contrast adjustment.
I should mention that earlier when I was shooting up there on the black rocks, the really high contrast situation, I was not shooting HDR there, either. Even though there was a tremendous dynamic range in that scene, what was attracting me to it was the darkness of the rocks versus the bright faces that were being highlighted. I didn't want any more detail in those shadows, so I didn't do HDR in there. So I feel like I've got some good stuff. It's going to need a little work. The panoramas have to be stitched, the haze has to be removed, and some other things that need to be done. And even as I'm sitting here the clouds are changing again. I want to go back and reshoot some of these things.
So, when you're out shooting these big vista things, keep in mind that though you don't necessarily have to find a strong subject because the vista itself is your subject, you do still have to think about controlling the viewer's eye. And you will do that by finding elements within the scene. Maybe plays of light and shadow, maybe simple geometric shapes, something like that. Here, I was using the slopes of the mountains or I was using the shadow of a cloud, or a cloud itself. You still need to work to contain their eye so it doesn't fall off the edge of the frame.
You'll also need to think about the size of the objects in your frame. Either you're going to be shooting very wide and making those objects very small, or your going to be trying to shoot more telescopically and stitch things together panoramically. So it's a weird thing to think about, I never knew you could maybe freeze to death in Death Valley, but this wind is making it very cold. The light is leaving. I think I'm ready to get out of here, it's been a good day shooting.
There are currently no FAQs about Travel Photography: Desert Road Trip.
Access exercise files from a button right under the course name.
Search within course videos and transcripts, and jump right to the results.
Remove icons showing you already watched videos if you want to start over.
Make the video wide, narrow, full-screen, or pop the player out of the page into its own window.
Click on text in the transcript to jump to that spot in the video. As the video plays, the relevant spot in the transcript will be highlighted.