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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.
As I've been saying, the middle of the day out here in the desert can be tricky. If you've got a lot of ground to cover then you might just be driving for a long time. Today we don't have a lot of ground to cover. We just need to go over the pass and into Death Valley to set up for something we want to do over there. But I want to shoot along the way. The problem is the light's gone all flat. It's so different than in the morning. In the morning, it sometimes just feels like you can't be moving fast enough. Images are opening up before you so quickly. That's definitely not happening now. It's, I, I've gotta dig and work a little bit harder for my compositions out here when the light is like this.
There's a, a reason we come to the desert to shoot, one of them, and that is that the light is so particular in its quality. It's a very white bleaching, clean kind of light and that's because it's so dry. There's just no moisture in the air. So I get this crystal clear view when I'm looking at things nearby. It gives me contrast that I can't get in a damper environment. It gives me color saturation. It's just a really great light to work in. But, here's whats weird about it, is that when I stop here to take a look at this beautiful vista here, it's not all crystal clear and clean and white, it's really hazy. And so I've got this contradiction going on, when I'm shooting within a certain distance I get this light that's got this clarity that I don't get anywhere else. And now, when I'm looking into the distance, I've got all this haze to shoot through.
So, how can there be haze when the air is so dry? Part of it is, bear in mind the scale we're looking at here. I'm standing most of the way up the pass, the Panamint Mountains heading into Death Valley. And I'm looking this way, I don't know if you can tell, but there's some snow-capped mountains back there. One of those is Mount Whitney. That's like 45 miles from here. The reason there's haze is I'm looking through 45 miles of atmosphere. It doesn't matter how dry it is, there's just a lot of air there, and that's creating some optical issues. So, what do I do about that? You know, I'm, I'm coming over this pass, I see this big vista, I want to take a picture of it.
You can't always say, well I've gotta come back when the light is good. This is when I happen to be here, so I need to shoot it. So what can I do? What is the problem that I'm facing here? You can kind of take it apart if you just apply some of what you know about image editing. Now I'm assuming here that you're comfortable with some basic tonal adjustments in Photoshop. That you understand, or whatever image editor you choose to use. That you know how to use a Histogram, you know what I mean when I see black point or white point. Ideally, you know what I mean when I say levels or curves adjustment. So as I look there in the distance, I see first of all in the foreground I've got good contrast, I've got really dark shadows and really nice bright highlights.
I can even go to that first row of hills over there and they still look pretty good. But, about the time I start looking down at the lake bed, the dark shadows aren't so dark anymore, and when I look at the mountains on the other side, not the snow capped ones, but just the other side of the valley, the darkest shadows are really not black at all. And maybe they don't need to be completely black but they're, they're a really, really light gray. In other words, that background part is low contrast. An image with good contrast has black blacks and white whites. I have lost my blacks. That's what that haze is cutting out.
So when I take a picture of this. And I'm going to just frame up a shot here. It's the middle of the day, and this is nothing, this is not a spectacular shot, but it's something I want to document. And the reason I want to document it is I'm, I'm looking at Mount Whitney right now, the highest part in the continental US. Yesterday I was at the lowest point. In fact, apparently there's some places in the park where you can just turn left and right and see both at the same time, which I think it very cool. So this is a thing worth documenting. That I want to go home and show my friends. Here's the image that I got, though, and sure enough those background parts are really, really low contrast. That's great.
Having broken the problem down to simply one of contrast, and one of bad contrast in one part of my image, I know how I can take care of this, and I'm going to do that when I get back to my room. We're cheating a little bit here. Using the special gearing in our minivan, we've traveled forward in time so that I can show you what I'm want to do to fix the haze in this image. So, back in my room, I've got the image loaded up in Photoshop here, and you can see it really does look exactly like it was looking then.
I've got very low contrast back here. Let's take a look at the histogram, and you can see that actually I've got pretty low contrast overall. In general the darkest stuff is right in here, the lightest stuff is right in here. All of the tones in my image are squished together, clustered into the middle of the histogram. So, overall this can use a contrast adjustment, but I'm going to need to do a little localized adjustment, to, try to clear the haze out of the way. So I'm going to start out by making a levels adjustment layer. And, I'm just going to bring my black point up to here, which is improving the black throughout the image.
And what's that's done is, immediately popped up the contrast here. It hasn't taken care of my haze though. Let me turn that off for you. So that's before. That's after. I'm going to stop right there with this. Because if I pull the black point any farther, 2 things happen. I do get rid of the haze and I get better blacks here. But I crush all the blacks down here. So I'm going to leave this here, and now I'm going to make a second levels adjustment layer. And my idea with this is I'm going to build a mask to constrain it to only affect this area up here.
So I'm going to come in here like that. What I'm doing now is just paying attention to this to the far cliffs. I'm not worried about the foreground. So if this is going bad, that doesn't really matter. I'm also ignoring what's happening to the sky. So I'm going to set that about right there, and now I'm going to grab my gradient tool and quickly create a gradient layer mask. And I think I'll do it more like that, to ramp up and edit. So now I've constrained this layer adjustment to only this little layer.
My sky needs a little bit of work so I'm going to quickly do that. And then we're going to go back and look at that middle layer because it's still not quite right. And sometimes you can't tell what the proper settings should be until you get your layer mask in place. So I'm just going to adjust the contrast of the sky a little bit, try and bring out a little bit of extra contour in these clouds, and then I will ramp that off with a layer mask. So, here's before, that's my original image.
Very hazy, lousy contrast in here, those distant cliffs look really distant. With my layer masks on I get this, so I've cleared the haze out of the way but I've kind of messed up the image in another way. Couple of things have happened. First of all, these cliffs are now far more contrasty than is believable. The fact is, we expect a certain amount of atmospheric haze. It's one of the ways we measure distance. Having it brought, in a sense, completely to the foreground in front of us is making the image a little bit confusing. It's making the image look flat.
So I need to back off on contrast adjustment. Before I do, I want you to notice something else. The, cliffs over here are looking very blue. They actually have a blue cast to them, and when I've adjusted my black point, I have exaggerated that. So that's another reason that I need to back off. I may need to actually even desaturate the blues, from this adjustment. So, I'm going to click on my, middle adjustment layer here, and just pull some of this back. Maybe to about there. That's looking a little more believable to me. I'm going to turn these off again so that's my original image. That's my edited image.
So I still managed to clear away the haze but basically, I've not taken all the haze out. I've left some there for two reasons. One, because an image like this should have some haze in that part. And two, I, I don't want the blue to be punched up so much. It still looks maybe a little blue to me. I could pull that down. I don't really, I'm not going to get too finicky about it on this monitor, because I don't normally edit on this laptop. I don't know how accurate the monitor is, I'm going to do some test prints, I'm going to go at this for real. But I wanted to show you how it is possible to pull that haze out using nothing more than a levels or curves adjustment to set the black point.
Don't get carried away with it, you don't want to take the haze out all the way. A little bit needs to be there to give the viewer a queue for how much depth there is. But it is a nice way of, getting usable landscapes, out of that, that dead flat lighting part of day, where you gotta lot of haze in your way.
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