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.

Red-headed Finch

A male red-headed finch carries nesting material, Windhoek, Namibia.

Red-headed finches are a medium sized finch with a beautiful feather pattern on the body. The males display a bright red head, while the females have a grayish head with slightly duller body colors.

I came across a wild colony in Windhoek, Namibia, where it appears that they took over a set of old nests abandoned by some kind of weaver.

A male red-headed finch perches on a nest, Windhoek, Namibia.

The nests were hanging from the branches of a tree, with a small entrance on the underside. This species is known to take over and retrofit nests of other species, though they also build their own.

A female red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

I was not able to find much information on this bird, other than to read that they are occasionally bred as caged birds.

A male red-headed finch perches on a thick branch, Windhoek, Namibia.

It is birds like this that makes traveling to other parts of the world so much fun for me. When I arrive in a new area, even the most common species are new and interesting.

African Bush Elephants

An african elephant lifts its trunk to trumpet, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

I was very lucky to see and photograph both Asian and African wild elephants in a single year. My Asian elephant experience was in the thick forests of northern Tamil Nadu, India, while I got to get up close and personal with the larger African cousins on the plains of Etosha National Park in Namibia.

And these guys were certainly huge! They are physically larger than Asian elephants, with larger ears and tusks. I saw a few drinking and having a mud bath next to a waterhole.

An african elephant gives itself a mudbath at a waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

This elephant would suck up large amounts of mud and water with its trunk and alternate flinging it up and over its head, and blasting its underside. The grayish white on the elephant’s skin is mud dried by the hot midday sun.

An african elephant gives itself a mudbath at a waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

At one point we were watching a large adult snacking on some leaves of a low bush. After finishing its meal, it starting wandering in our direction, getting closer and closer. The beast soon filled my camera frame at 70mm, and yet it came closer still, making me nervous. My mind’s eye was playing out a scenario which involved this guy getting upset and flipping our van. Luckily, our driver was prepared and when the elephant got within 20 feet, he threw the van into gear and got out of there.

An african elephant flares its large ears as it grazes on branches, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

It was a joy to just sit and watch these mammoth creatures. Similar to watching primates, you can see the intelligence and intention in their movements. Their amazing multipurpose trunks that they use to grab, smell, drink, touch, carry, and sometimes break is endless enjoyment to see.

An african elephant eats leaves and grass, Etosha National Park, Namibia.

As excited as I was to see these large bush elephants, I was looking forward to seeing the smaller, desert-adapted elephants in a few days time. Stay tuned for photos!

Asian Elephants

An asian elephant herd surrounds a tiny baby to protect it, Mudumalai National Park, India.

On my recent trip to Mudumalai National Park in India, I was lucky to encounter a herd of forest elephants. Asian elephants differ greatly from their African counterparts in that they are smaller, have much smaller ears, larger nails on their feet (for digging and foraging) and have two large forehead bulges.

Two asian elephants surround a tiny baby in order to protect it, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Asian elephants have been domesticated by humans for the last 5,000 years, used for transportation, to move heavy objects, and for beasts of war.

An asian elephant walks across a clearing in the forest, Mudumalai National Park, India.

In Asian elephants, only the males have pronounced tusks (commonly known as “tuskers”). When females do have tusks, they are very small and usually only visible when the mouth is open.

An asian elephant stands at the edge of a forest eating, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Unlike the elephants I saw in Africa earlier this year, which were in the open savanna, these forest elephants seemed to appear out of nowhere. Like giant ghosts, they emerged from the thick forest overgrowth and surprised us. I was very glad at this point not to be on foot. These elephants seem gentle enough from a distance, but getting up close and personal could be a very dangerous prospect!

An asian elephant with a juvenile stands at the edge of a forest, Mudumalai National Park, India.

Later in the evening after seeing the elephants, I was back at the forest camp in which I was staying. About 10:00 at night we starting hearing some loud cracking and snapping coming from the dark forest, very near to us. We soon realized it was an elephant snapping bamboo and crashing through the underbrush. After a few minutes of this, we saw a large flash in the trees. The lights of the camp flickered a few times and then went dead for good. It turns out a large bamboo tree fell against the power line coming into the camp.

About 15 minutes later, we heard people shouting, banging pots, and lighting off fire crackers in the distance. The rogue elephant had left our camp and was now approaching a nearby village. Eventually these sounds died off and the forest went back to sleep. With no power. And an upset elephant. In the dark.