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Shooting the sand dunes in changing light

From: Travel Photography: Desert Road Trip

Video: Shooting the sand dunes in changing light

A lot of times when you say "desert" to someone, what they picture are the Lawrence of Arabia kind of big sand dunes off to the horizon kind of thing. The fact is that actually doesn't happen that often. It's difficult to find areas where you get sand dunes. As I mentioned before, Death Valley has 4 different dune fields. I'm sorry if I feel, if I look distracted. It's just incredibly beautiful over there, right now. Not like over here where it's incredibly beautiful. Anyway, Death Valley has 4. Four different dune field, this is the one near Stovepipe Wells. The reason this happens is you've got a whole bunch of wind blowing sand off of the mountains and off of some of the dry lake beds and things from that way, and you've got a whole bunch of wind coming from that way. The wind in Death Valley because it's this.

Shooting the sand dunes in changing light

A lot of times when you say "desert" to someone, what they picture are the Lawrence of Arabia kind of big sand dunes off to the horizon kind of thing. The fact is that actually doesn't happen that often. It's difficult to find areas where you get sand dunes. As I mentioned before, Death Valley has 4 different dune fields. I'm sorry if I feel, if I look distracted. It's just incredibly beautiful over there, right now. Not like over here where it's incredibly beautiful. Anyway, Death Valley has 4. Four different dune field, this is the one near Stovepipe Wells. The reason this happens is you've got a whole bunch of wind blowing sand off of the mountains and off of some of the dry lake beds and things from that way, and you've got a whole bunch of wind coming from that way. The wind in Death Valley because it's this.

Big valley is very predictable. And, and so the sand can pretty much only get this far and then it just falls to the ground. And it's been doing that for, ever, and so there are these huge dunes. Now, we're not in the main dune field here near Stovepipe Wells and that's because we're a commercial shoot. If you're a commercial shoot you actually can not go into them. They're over there. They're spectacular. They're very tall. Honestly, it's -- I could stay there all day long, particularly when the weather's nice, like this. If it was 128 degrees, I might change my mind.

It's, it's difficult to explain what it is about this environment. It's incredibly quiet. It's these beautiful curves, this incredible contrast these wonderful highlights and reflections that are coming off of things. It's, it's just a really peaceful, wonderful place to be. So we're in this kind of smaller offset of it. We're not going to see some of the things that I would do in a bigger dune field, but you're going to kind of see what the issues are that I'm thinking about and how I'm choosing to approach this. Now we've gotten lucky, the sun has come out.

What's great about the situation we're in right now is, we're getting the best of both worlds. We're getting good, high contrasting light. Look at all of the texture on the dunes. We're getting a difference between the bright side of the dune and the dark side of the dune. But we still have something interesting in the sky. One of the things that's frustrating about coming out here when it's not cloudy is, like we were facing in some other locations, there's just that big empty blue Thing at the top of the frame that you never quite know what to do with. So this is a really great situation to be in, we've got contrasting light and something in the sky. Now, very often when you are in sand dunes, what you're going for, and you can only get this in the morning or the afternoon, is that harsh differential between the shaded side and the bright side when you get that really strong seam running between them.

We're not going to have that in these dunes because they're. Smaller but still I'm getting these cool changes in texture and I'm also getting just going off into the distance just this wonderful rolling, undulating thing. We climbed up on one. One of the great things about this field we're in here is no one else has been here. So there are not footprints around. I'm going to choose my path very carefully because I don't want to spoil any dunes with my own footprints. So I'm starting out by working this shot here. I like this, it's like the spine of some animal going off to the hills out there. And I've got a very clearly defined line along the top of the dune.

It's not a sharp cornis like, like some dunes would have. It's kind of rolled, but still it's smooth on one side and very rippled on the other. So, I'm trying a couple of different things here. I am starting out by just taking that strong line along the surface of the dune and playing with that going to the horizon. (SOUND) I'm taking a fair amount of sky here. Because the sky is actually interesting. And I'm trying to figure out do I want that line just straight in the middle of the frame, (SOUND) going up to the horizon? Do I want to play with making it more of a diagonal line which I can do by moving up.

Here so that it cuts across the frame. And I can play with how much it cuts across the frame by moving back and forth. I think I've done about as much as I can do from here so I'm going to move forward now. The sand is nicely hard packed so it's easy to walk in. Yeah and I, I think I'm liking this better. I'm cutting out some of that big, just empty expanse of sand that I had.

Oh and this is completely different. Ooh, and I've dropped down a little bit which is changing my perspective on the sky. What I'm doing right now is being careful that there's no flare interfering with my shot. Now there's something else to consider here. Anytime that I have a nice sky, I want to possible consider switching over to high dynamic range mode, shooting in HDR. Bracketed set of this scene. It's going to allow me to pull a lot of detail out of the sky. Sometimes it's a garish distracting amount of detail, but I'm going to risk it anyway. This camera has an auto bracketing mode.

That works very well for HDR, I just press the button once and it automatically shoots three shots bracketed one step apart. Again, it's just great having these clouds. I'm distracted by this little bush over here. So, the things that I'm looking for, objects on the ground that I can build a composition out of. I've got a lot of other stuff going on here. I have actual mountains in the background giving down on the valley and putting the soft shapes of the dunes against the mountains might be something. And then I have all these just wonderful repeating patterns.

So got a fair amount of light and it's keep changing. As the sun goes down lower a few things are going to happen. These undulating patterns are going to get more distinct. And the sand itself is going to pick up a whole lot of texture. The grains of sand are actually going to start to look bigger. So. I want to keep an eye out for all of that. One thing I've learned, or been reminded of over the last few days we've already talked about, is the difference of shooting in to the light and shooting away from it. I don't want to get so fixated on one direction that I ignore what the light might be doing behind me.

So, I'm going to try to move kind of quickly here. Earlier, I shot this. I was playing with this cool triangular shape, that dune and this bush. And as you can see here, I tried a few different things. Now that the sun has come out, I've got this harsh shadow, so I'm going to give up on that triangular thing. I'm sure there's some name for it. And just work on the bush here, which is getting a lot of really nice contrast on it. And I think I can probably. Put that dune directly behind it.

(SOUND) Don't forget to move up and down because as you do, you dramatically change relationship with the foreground to the background here. Something else to just be ready for. If you're coming into sand dunes, you're going to get sandy. It's going to get all over your clothes, it's going to get in your shoes, it's going to get all over your gear. none of that matters. What matter is that you get masterful photographs. Anything else is just a waste of time. No pressure. Yeah, it might screw up your camera, but that can be repaired.

You have to keep moving. You have to keep moving when you're shooting anything. In an environment like this, you really have to keep moving, because every time I turn change directions or move forward and back. A new vista pops up, they're not always perfectly composed. Why can't the world be more perfectly composed? So I like that I'm getting just repetition of rolling dunes going out there and this rugged landscape behind it. I'm going to start with just a simple wide shot of that and see what I can Get.

I'm, as much as I'm having a strong emotional reaction to this space, I'm not really sitting around going what does it mean to be a sand dune or what does it make me feel or anything like that. I am simply working Basic, formal, compositional ideas of geometry, simplicity, teying to make sure ther's a subject and a background in my frame. There's not a, this is not a real emotional kind of photography, other than the emotion that I'm really glad that I'm here because it's pretty spectacular. (SOUND) One thing to be aware of is that a lot of times, you might think, well I just always want that ability to grab lots of details, so I'll just shoot HDR all the time.

Doesn't always work that way, you've got to shoot HDR when you are in a situation with a lot of dynamic range. Earlier, when the sun was behind the clouds, there was no reason to shoot HDR. Nothing was that. totally or, or, there's not a tremendous brightness differential between one thing or another. So HDR is not always a guarantee of being able to pull a lot of detail. So this is what I'm just going to continue to do for a while. Wander around here, trying to work as quickly as possible, finding interesting texture, interesting line.

Again I'm, I'm just composing in a very formal way. Trying to move quickly, trying to do all my basic exposure stuff. I'm thinking about depth of field, I'm watching my aperture, I'm in aperture priority mode, and I'm just going to see what I can find.

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Travel Photography: Desert Road Trip

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