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.