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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.
We have slowly, started our return to civilization. We drove out of Death Valley, yesterday. Rather than, going all the way home, we decided, we got a little extra time. Let's, go explore some of the surrounding region. Maybe we'll find some stuff to shoot along the way. We came into the southern part of the Sierras, to Lake Isabella. Found a place to stay, it was nice. I got the chance to go through some images and just quickly pull a few selects and do some edits on them so that you can see, you've seen in a lot of cases the image that I shot as I shot it. I want you to see where I ended up and maybe get a little idea of why I've chosen these. Also it's just a good idea to figure out what I might want to do differently Next time, what went well this time.
We of course started out the first place I shot was at a railroad station in Mojave. You know, railroad tracks are such a kind of cheap and easy photographic subject. You just, they're such strong lines, you've, kind of have built in nice composition. It's hard to go wrong with them. just simple, straight diagonal line stuff. I also tried just some still-lifey kind of stuff around the tracks, seeing what I could find. We stopped at Owen's Lake as the sun was setting. Got some really beautiful color in the sky. I don't know much about, this is not my computer. I don't know much about how to read this screen.
I don't really know how it's adjusted. Laptop screens are always a little difficult to work with. I think there's probably some more color saturation to bring out in here. Not so much that it becomes garish looking, but there's probably some more pink to add in there. And there's some sharpening issues and some things that I need to deal with but I, I like this shot. Our first actual day of shooting in Death Valley, was driving south in Panamint Valley. This is where we pulled over by the side of the road because I wanted to take that shot of the road. But before then I actually just worked with some of the bushes in the area. This is one of the first shots I took.
I'm not actually crazy about it. I don't think it actually worked. What had caught my eye was the symmetry between the plant and the shadow, but the ground is just too busy. I, I'm losing a lot of that, so, I doubt I'll really do anything with that. Playing just with the shadow is interesting. I think that worked kind of well. I might be able to work some of these up some more. The tricky part's going to be improving contrast in here to get some detail. Without lowering the overall contrast between the shadow and the ground. And then of course there was the actual road shot. I took a lot of these.
Curiously into that being I think the last one that I shot. And it's funny. Sometimes I work a shot and sometimes it's one of the ones that I've kind of refine in the middle. Most of the time, it's either the first shot that I took or the last shot. Either I nailed it right away and then worked Or, I worked up to the shot. That's why it's important to really shoot a lot of coverage of your stuff and experiment and play. So, I got the things that I wanted. The bright highlighted road going into the distance and this weird dust layer that was laying there. So, I'm pleased with that. Again, all of these are going to need adjustments for print.
And this is also a great example of why I was shooting raw the whole time. We didn't really talk about that in the course at all. I was shooting raw which you need to do when you're shooting landscapes, because you are almost always shooting a high dynamic range scene, and I was really glad in this case to have a raw file, so that I could recover highlights from this area. That's going to be true in almost all of these images. I've had to do a lot of highlight recovery. Not because I was garishly wrong with my exposures but just that's the nature of shooting in a high dynamic range situation. This road was heading to Ballarat we went on down the road and hung a left and went up into this area. And that was the old mining town, the ghost town we went to. I started shooting that old house, this is about the only thing that came out of it from the inside, just a still-life of something that was in there. What attracted me to this was just the light and the texture on the chain. I'll be able to pull more detail out of this, work those highlights just a little bit.
This is a nice texture, although rather than just randomly shooting texture I'm still composing around strong elements trying to build up a strong shot that makes sense to the viewers. I just noticed this looks like a little face here I hadn't seen that before. This was a little railroad bar or something (INAUDIBLE) see a little bit of a crop and this image is really just a formal geometric composition mostly built this circle. With this shadow in it, I like that. I think there's more texture to be had in there with some more levels adjustments. But again, I lowered the, or raised the saturation here just because it looked a little dull.
This is the inside of that weird building. This is actually an HDR sequence, there was no way to get detail out there and detail here in a single shot, so that's three images merged. And then, of course, what may or may not be Charles Manson's truck. you've seen this shot already, I haven't really done anything to it. I just wanted to hit again the importance of when you're working these kinds of compositions, you've got to pay attention to every little detail. The difference, looking right here between this shot and this shot, is very important. It's just really essential that we have that extra little bit of room around there.
This looks like a snapshot, this looks a little more considered. I worked the truck with my macro lens and I found these rust bits that I really like. They look like these kind of Jetson's era astro iconography kind-of-things, so I shot some of those up and, like those a lot. We were having great light even though it was the middle of the day. Great thing about being here in the winter is we've still got a nice, low angle, so we're getting a lot of relief on these things. The next day we were on to, the Devil's Golf Course. And as you'll recall, in facing this really repetitive terrain, my idea was to build a composition around this one darker element up here.
Now you saw these frames while I was shooting them, and it was difficult to see that. I had to do a lot of work to, pull that out. A lot of adjustment layers with layer masks to isolate my edits. But I like the way this is working and I do think it was. This does hold the image and allow my eye to just wander through this really weird texture. What I'm not sure of is whether I like it with the sky or another frame that I shot without the sky. I'm leaning more towards the sky one, which was not my impulse when I was at the scene. When I was at the scene, I thought, well, I'm going more simple here.
I'm eliminating elements. That's better, but as I look at this now, I like this more. Again, this is why you shoot a lot. It's why you work your shot. Sometimes you can't really tell through the camera, what the right image is. This one could probably be helped by a crop. Maybe taking it down to there. The foreground's just a little too dominant. My eye gets lost down here, and there's no real detail here that's interesting. And then, of course, we were taken to the really cool salt hole. Now, as you'll recall, we were on our way, chasing the light to try to get out of the park to go to, or not out of the park, but out of the Devil's Golf Course to go to Bad Water, and we were told about this.
We ran over there, we tried to shoot it. And I think I was rushed. I didn't work this enough. I, I like this shot in terms of, boy, this is just an amazing tonal gradient out here. And I like that there's this bright star burst here, and then all this weird stuff. I like the bright line on the horizon. I want more of the circle of it. I wish I could have gotten back and up more. maybe with a wider lens. And I'm beating myself up now going well why didn't I get that shot, and my first impulse is, well I was rushed and I was hurried, I was worried about the light changing, I wanted to get the bad water, I didn't do my work as a photographer. It maybe that I'm just forgetting that there wasn't actually anyplace to stand to get that shot.
This is not the most forgiving landscape to be moving around on. If I come back to that valley I want to go back out here and try it again. If I come back to that valley, when I come back to that valley, I'm going to go try that again. On to Bad Water, a difficult shooting situation, the light was going so fast. We hadn't really had time to explore. I was frantically running around. I like this shot. I think it works well. It is what I thought it would be when I was shooting it, which is just these nice, strong lines. Holding the eye. This white bit kind of this path in the middle of this otherwise jumbled landscape.
But I really like this line on the horizon. Nevertheless, I think this is the shot I prefer more. This was one of the very last ones just right before the light was going to change and I just feel like it has a stronger subject. While this works conceptually, I don't know if anyone else will see it, so. I did get a broader landscape view. If I had had time to prowl the lake a little bit more before the light started going, what I probably would have found somewhere would have been really strong patterns with really tall salt ridges. That 's what I've seen before but you gotta look for em.
They're really nice geometric shapes to find. this I think is going to need some cropping also I would like to take that end off and maybe tighten in here because while this is interesting what I really think will hold the image together is this triangle right here. Against this, lighter mountain range here. I feel like that's the, compositional, relationip in the image that's interesting. So I'll probably do some cropping there. Also, I'm not sure about the pink tint that the salt has. It's accurate. That's what the light looked like then, and it was really beautiful, but when you're standing out there you're so struck by the whiteness of the salt.
I might want to work on pulling that down to actual blocking I'm not sure. Then into the sand dunes the next day. a really miraculous day of shooting thanks to the light. Simple composition, here I kept it square. What had caught my eye was just the relationship of curve to strong pointy triangle, but I like that there's this extra layer here and this is a great example of why you want something in the sky. This image would not work, I don't think, without With just a blue sky in the background. Other just simple, compositions moving around just trying to play geometrically, playing with the light, like the triangle here, and of course these just beautiful sand textures that were impossible not to shoot.
Going back and forth again between the details of the scene, and the larger vistas at hand. This is the other part of the dune field. There was one moment when it just lit up. and so this again might need a little crop, I cropped it some already, I'll play with this some more. The contrast in this is going to be tricky because I am shooting through a lot of haze, I need these things to look distant, but I really liked how punchy this stuff was, I'll play with that some more. And then the light turned just insane, so I, I like this shot. I like all of these shots where the light just had this luminousness that was incredible.
So, I've cropped obviously, I've worked to play up these different bits of lighting. A lot of gradient masks to hold the sky, but still get the highlights where I want them. This was that sky, that cloud that suddenly appeared that I liked. This might need a little crop. I'm not sure that this couldn't be a square image. Because this round shape is actually mirrored pretty symetrically just by this nice gentle curve here, with this x in the middle, so that might get some cropping. This one struck me because I happened to move in to a position where I could get this shadow to look triangular, which mirrors this triangle right here, so I'm still not convinced about the crop on this one, I might be able to.
Make that a little more obvious, except I like the sky up here, so I don't know, that I might be the keeper. I'm going to play some more with contrast on that image. I like this one. very often I'm hesitant to skew the camera like that because it feels like it's overly dramatic or distracting. It can upstage the viewers' experience of the image. The first thing they think of is the camera is tilted. But in this case I feel like this is a strong enough line and it's set up so that it just leads you right into the setting sun. I like this image. It's going to be a tricky contrast question of finding out how dark I can take the shadows and still have them look real.
This shadow is starting to go a little too dark but I like having that extra contrast in there. I'll play with that some more. Then we were on to Pediment Dry Lake Bed. As you'll recall I saw this stick and lay down in the ground to shoot it. This is a focus stack image. I shot three different images and stacked them, focusing in three different places and it came out. I'm, I'm really happy with how this came out. Everything really is in focus there's maybe a little bit of softness right there because I didn't have enough overlap. I like this image. Again, a focus stacked image but one that didn't work that well because I didn't have enough overlap.
So again, focus stacking is, I had focused first here, then took another shot focused here, and then here. And I'm using my fingers like this to indicate The depth of field and then those are all combined. Well you can see that I didn't get enough overlap in here so there's blurriness in here. There's blurriness right in the front which is just too bad because I like the composition. That said, here's just one of the single frames and I think this one actually doesn't need to be focus stacked because When the focus is too deep I lose any sense of scale of this. I actually like the fact that because of the really shadowed depth of the field, I can tell this is just a twig, and a little rock. And in a landscape that is otherwise overwhelming in its magnitude, having just this moment of, yes, but there's this little twig here. Everything in the desert has to fight so hard to survive, and there are so many tiny little bugs and birds and things working to make a living there. The fact that they can do it is amazing.
And I, I had so I kind of like this for that reason. I think maybe it's a square image, though. There's, there's no point to that blue sky up there. I've got that little bit of cloud. That's nice. I don't need this blurry part in the foreground, so I'll probably take it down like that. I did just some still life's walking around. I did not arrange any of these, these are found. just this pattern, I like the red rock and the stick. I take these, but I never do anything with them. I never print em out or anything. I don't know why I take them but they're fun exercises. This I like this pattern of rocks, however, I've gotta bad flair over here. I don't know if I can fix that.
The sun was right here, it was a difficult situation shooting this wide. I found in a few different angles I'll have to see if I can fix any of that. Again this was some of that dry lake bed texture that we managed to get to there's a lot more of this if you can go further from the road so again just pretty straight up composition its leading me into the center and then my eyes kind of come back out into the sky. More contrast work to be done there. Pretty straight ahead image. I like this leading to that stripe. I think I've got this overdone a little bit. I'll probably pull that back in terms of contrast.
that I think might need a little crop. This rock holds that bush in place really well and then I got those clouds. There's this nice relationship there. I think it gets a little disrupted by all that stuff on the bottom. More texture. And that texture came from this thing. This was this river of mud that had dried. It was not actually this contrasty. I cheated this a little bit. I pulled down the saturation of the reds. In the surrounding area to really play up the reds here. So it's a little bit of a cheat, but I feel like, while there may not have been that much contrast while I was standing there.
While I was standing, my eye really did just pick out this flowing river of mud. So I feel like this is an edit that serves to recreate the feeling of what I was seeing while I was there. Did that sound too defensive? Am I really like, do I sound guilty? Anyway. Telescope Peak. I kind of like this, sort of, mount doomy thing that it had going over it. So, what I can't decide is whether I like that cloud up there or not. I may crop, the top off. I've done, some contrasting work down here, brightening up some of these little bushes, and brightening up the foreground, just because it's too dark.
on its own because it's such a high dynamic range situation. And that's it, we're back to our trains. So I've got far more images than that. Those are just a few selects and I thought you might want to see so you can see the types of edit that have been. So now we have to leave and. It's hard looking back at these images. I really want to go back. I miss Death Valley already and it's been all of 12 hours and now it's turned stormy outside. I've got exactly the sky that I would want to have for going into the sand dunes. This is why I'll return to this place in addition to it just being a place that I'm so drawn to. Photographically, I will return because now I can see that, wow, different weather would really Make a big difference.
So whether you are shooting low desert, high desert, I hope you've seen some of what can be done with this landscape that is so varied and so full of stuff when you stop and look at it even though that your first impulse might be that it's just empty. Take some time, there's a pull to it that's really hard to resist and I'm, I'm feeling it right now So thank you very much for watching. I hope you can get out somewhere very hot and dry and do some shooting real soon.
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