Location Photography – Telling A Story Through Photos

A massive sand dune glows red orange in the setting sun, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Sometimes when I go to new locations, they can be so awe inspiring that I feel photographically challenged. When this happens, I need to take a step back and think about the location’s special traits that fill me with such awe. What is important about this area – is there some natural event occurring, or some irregular weather phenomenon? In short, what are the stories this new place is trying to tell me? Answering this question often lends direction to my photography and helps me realize which stories about the area I want to share with others. (Note: although I primarily photograph natural subjects, this technique works equally well with any location or subject).

I recently used this technique when I spent several days in the Namib Desert in Namibia last year. At first, being surrounded by these huge red sand dunes was overwhelming. What should I shoot first? As I explored the desert around me, I began to recognize several stories that this place had to tell.

The most obvious story was about the sheer size of the sand dunes found here. This is the oldest desert in the world, and home to the world’s largest sand dunes. I had photographed sand dunes before, but never any of the massive size that I saw in this desert. The rust-orange massifs were more akin to sand mountains than something as temporary and fleeting as a dune. Some of the largest dunes stood over 1000 feet tall, dwarfing the sparse trees and flora that dared to grow at their feet. In the photo below you can faintly see a few trees, which give the enormity of the dunes a sense of scale.

The giant sand dunes of Namibia turn many shades of red and orange under shifting clouds, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
The giant sand dunes of Namibia turn many shades of red and orange under shifting clouds, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although this desert receives only 10 mm of rain each year, amazingly there are large mammals that thrive here. This was story number two. Here, a gemsbok oryx (one of Africa’s many species of antelope) roams among dry scrub and dying trees. With no ground water to drink, these animals rely on the occasional fog that rolls in from the Atlantic ocean. After the fog collects on plants and their fur, the oryx lick the scarce moisture from each other’s coats, sustaining themselves until the next foggy morning.

A gemsbok oryx stands in front of a massive dune, wet from a rare early morning thunder storm, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
A gemsbok oryx stands in front of a massive dune, wet from a rare early morning thunder storm, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

While I could take up-close portraits of oryx in other parts of Namibia, telling the story of these large antelope thriving in the desert necessitated using a shorter lens than I usually do for wildlife. A 400mm lens allowed me to include the massive red walls of sand that dominate this habitat. Again, it was important for me to use unique elements of the scene to tell the story of that location.

Gemsbok oryx cross flat ground in front of a wall of sand - the lower slopes of a massive sand dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Gemsbok oryx cross flat ground in front of a wall of sand – the lower slopes of a massive sand dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

A third aspect of this desert that I wanted to show photographically was the rust orange color of the sand. This reddish orange comes from the high iron concentration in the sand and the gradual oxidation of that iron. The older the dune, the more orange it becomes. In order to offset the beautiful orange and red tones of the sand, I needed blue skies, giving my photos nice complimentary colors. Counter to most of my landscape photos, I opted to shoot in late morning or early afternoon (instead of sunrise or sunset, when the sky itself would be much warmer and closer in tonality to the sand). Had I not been thinking of how to convey the story of these ancient orange dunes, I likely would have kept my camera in the bag at this time of the day!

Afternoon light provides enough blue in the sky to compliment the reddish-orange of the dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Afternoon light provides enough blue in the sky to compliment the reddish-orange of the dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

A final story waiting to be told about this area was the play of light across the contours and textures of the dunes. The photo below was shot at sunrise, creating extreme side light and casting a sharp shadow line along the front crest of the dune. This strong shadow added shape and contrast to the dune.

Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The shadows in the image below manifested very differently in that they are not created by the shape of the dune itself, but rather by clouds moving in front of the sun. Because these dune ridges are actually quite far apart, a large cloud shaded only a single ridge at a time, giving me endless shadow patterns to choose from over the course of about half an hour. This was my favorite image of this type, as the closest and farthest ridges are in shadow, isolating the middle ridge in sunlight.

Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Rare storm clouds cast shadows across the massive dunes of the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

When I first arrived in this vast desert, I was challenged by where to start with my photography. But by focusing on those stories that made this place so special, I could use them to direct my photographic effort. It even helped me develop a shot list to try to fill during my brief stay. Next time you find yourself in a challenging location, stop and listen. Perhaps the area will open up and share its stories with you.

Gear I used to create the photos in this post:

Storm In The Desert

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

The crackling of distant thunder woke me from a deep sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Instantly wide awake, I looked to the floor-to-ceiling windows to see flashes of light behind the thick drapes. I made my way out of the door of my bungalow to the balcony overlooking a wide expanse of the desert valley. Suddenly a lightning bolt ignited the night sky, silhouetting the 1000 foot dunes in the distance.

It was my last morning in the middle of the Namib Desert in western Namibia. I stood on the balcony in awe of mother nature’s light show. Lightning continued to split the sky as pregnant thunder clouds rolled across the endless dune fields. A dry cool wind was whipping across the desert floor, bringing respite from the African heat. All at once, the sky opened up and I stood in one of the most impressive downpours I’ve ever witnessed. This land receives only 10 mm of rain each year, and here was buckets of water drenching everything to the horizon.

Pre-dawn sunlight turns rare desert storm clouds orange over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although I was now soaked, I found that I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. After twenty minutes of intense rain, it suddenly stopped. Ten minutes after that I was dry, thanks to the return of the desert’s typical aridity.

I gathered my gear and met up with my traveling companions, who I was planning to join to do an aerial shoot at sunrise. Obviously these plans were quickly scrapped, as none of us wanted to be tossed around in a small aircraft in the middle of a thunderstorm. Instead, we headed out into the desert where we got into position to capture this marvelous sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains. Clear sky to the far east allowed the sun to light up the underside of the storm clouds, painting the sky a deep red. A couple of gemsbok oryx crossing the desert floor in front of the mountains added the icing on top.

Rain falls from a storm cloud over the Namib Desert, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

With rain still pouring from clouds in places, we chased the light through the dunes, hoping to capture this phenomena.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

Although there was not enough accumulation to create pools of water (I was hoping to find a reflection opportunity), the wet sand lent a very different look to the massive dunes. The water softened the edges of sand cut by the wind, diffusing the contours into abstract patterns.

A rare rainfall turns the giant dunes of the Namib Desert wet, forming patterns across the dune’s massive face, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.

After about an hour of dramatic lighting, the skies cleared up into their usual blue. I felt so fortunate to witness such drama on my last morning in the desert.

Grand Teton National Park – The Wildlife

A few weeks ago, I attended a landscape workshop with Jack Dykinga, co-lead by my friend Jerry Dodrill. I was able to arrive early, and spent several days before the landscape work began to check out the local wildlife.

It was a good time to shoot wildlife, because there was quite a bit of smoke in the valley from nearby forest fires, and the famous views of the mountains were more or less obscured. I was happy to quickly find many of my target species, including bison, moose, elk, and even antelope toward the end of my trip. I’m still processing many landscapes from the trip, so they’ll be coming soon. For now, enjoy some of the local fauna that I encountered during my six days in the park.

Bison

Bison graze in the grasslands of Grand Teton National Park
Bison graze in the grasslands of Grand Teton National Park

Several herds of bison could be found fairly easily. I had two extended photo sessions with two different herds, and by the end of my trip, I was driving past bison along the road without a second glance. However commonplace these animals can become over just a few days, up close and personal they are amazing beasts.

A bison shows his appreciation for the nutritious grass available for grazing in Grand Teton National Park
A bison shows his appreciation for the nutritious grass available for grazing in Grand Teton National Park

Their antics were framed by the beautiful fall colors that adorned their world. As I was watching one herd, one by one bison would drop to the ground and start to roll in the dirt, kicking up huge clouds of dust.

Bison kick up dust as they roll in the dirt, while others graze in the open grassland of Grand Teton National Park
Bison kick up dust as they roll in the dirt, while others graze in the open grassland of Grand Teton National Park

The sun finally peaked through the smoke and haze, and lit up the field in which they were grazing. I had to make sure to keep one eye on the viewfinder and one on the herd. I knew how fast they could charge if they so desired, so I stayed close to the truck at all times!

The setting sun illuminates a bison grazing in a Grand Teton grassland
The setting sun illuminates a bison grazing in a Grand Teton grassland

Elk

Elk were seen only in the early morning hours, when it was still very dark out for wildlife photography. In most cases, I just left my camera beside me and enjoyed the company of these graceful animals. One morning I found a buck out late, and was able to get a photo. He was swimming across a small river, and by the time I got out of the truck, we was out of the water and sauntering across a field.

A male elk struts through a field in early morning, with a fall color backdrop, Grand Teton National Park
A male elk struts through a field in early morning, with a fall color backdrop, Grand Teton National Park

Birds

There were quite a few birds around that I don’t typically get to photograph, but to be honest, I was keeping myself very busy with landscapes and the larger mammals, so I didn’t spend any time focusing on avian photography.

While photographing oxbow bend late in the morning (sunrise saw that area completely shrouded in fog), I saw several Canada geese swimming along the shore under a beautiful grove of aspen, all in their autumn finery. I knew if I could get at the right angle close enough to one of the birds, I might get a shot of it swimming through a sea of abstracted fall color reflection.

I dropped off my landscape gear and went for my big lens. After about 20 minutes of waiting, one of them finally swam through the best color on the river, and I was ready.

A canada goose swims through glassy water, reflecting it and the fall colors of Grand Teton National Park
A canada goose swims through glassy water, reflecting it and the fall colors of Grand Teton National Park

Moose

A moose cow eats greens from a shallow pond, the water running from her face when she emerges with food
A moose cow eats greens from a shallow pond, the water running from her face when she emerges with food

One of my most anticipated target species was moose. I had only ever seen one from a distance, and had never photographed one before. I was not disappointed by this trip! I was able to photograph moose on three occasions, some at very close range.

A young bull moose stands at attention as me makes his way through an open field
A young bull moose stands at attention as me makes his way through an open field

On one such occasion, I saw a bull walking across a field parallel to a small side road. I pulled over and set up my tripod. Then the moose turned in my direction, and walked directly toward me, ultimately crossing the road I was on about twenty yards away. As he was crossing the road, he stopped and posed for me, giving me the photo below:

A young bull moose walks through tall grass, pausing to check his surroundings
A young bull moose walks through tall grass, pausing to check his surroundings

I was ready to pay him a modeling fee, but he continued on before I could get my checkbook.

Another time I spent some time with a cow and her calf, this time with about 30 other photographers. The calf quickly disappeared behind some trees, but the mother stayed out in the open.

A moose cow eat greens from the bottom of a shallow pond, while surrounded by the fall colors of Grand Teton National Park
A moose cow eat greens from the bottom of a shallow pond, while surrounded by the fall colors of Grand Teton National Park

I swapped between my 100-400mm lens and my 800mm. At times the moose came so close that I was only able to get her nose and mouth in frame!

A moose cow eats greens from a shallow pond, the water running from her face when she emerges with food
A moose cow eats greens from a shallow pond, the water running from her face when she emerges with food

It was also rutting season, and I saw a young bull performing an interesting display. He stopped eating the branches in front of him, extended his neck and bared his teeth. I’m not sure if this display was meant for courtship (there was a female nearby), but I snapped away all the same.

A young bull moose lifts his head to make his presence known to females
A young bull moose lifts his head to make his presence known to females

Pronghorn Antelope

A pronghorn mother watches over her fawn. Fawns are very vulnerable when they are young, and spend most of their time beddings down and staying out of sight.
A pronghorn mother watches over her fawn. Fawns are very vulnerable when they are young, and spend most of their time bedding down and staying out of sight.

Lastly, I finally found a herd of pronghorn on my last morning in the park. Amongst the small herd was a doe with a fawn, sticking very close to each other. At one point, the fawn bedded down next to its mother, hiding itself in the grass. A few minutes later however, it popped up when some inconsiderate tourists started traipsing across the field, ignoring the many signs posted throughout the park that told them not to approach any wildlife.

A pronghorn mother stands with her fawn, Grand Tetons National Park
A pronghorn mother stands with her fawn, Grand Tetons National Park

Further down the road was a solitary buck foraging along a small rise. He was kind enough to pose just long enough at the ridge line to allow the photograph below.

A pronghorn buck stands at attention on a small rise. The pronghorn horn sheath is shed annually and made of compressed hair around a bone core.
A pronghorn buck stands at attention on a small rise. The pronghorn horn sheath is shed annually and made of compressed hair around a bone core.

Stay tuned for more from the Grand Tetons. I had a fantastic time exploring a new landscape!