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.

Deadvlei – A Study In Graphic Forms

The clay pan of Deadvlei contains numerous camel thorn trees that have been dead for at least 600 years.

Welcome to Deadvlei, one of those mystical places on earth that simply takes your breath away. There are a few places in the world that have spoken to me this way – whether it’s 5,000 year old Bristlecone Pines clinging to life on a windswept mountain slope, or morning sea fog rolling through a quiet stand of old growth California coastal redwoods (why do these special places always seem to involve trees?). Deadvlei is certainly one of those places.

Deadvlei is a dry and dusty river bed, located in the heart of Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Deadvlei translates to “dead marsh”, taking the Afrikaans word vlei, meaning a seasonal pond or marsh. This area once lined the banks of the Tsauchab river, flooding at times of abundant rainfall. Around 600 to 700 years ago, a great drought hit the region, drying up the river. Blowing sand encroached upon the flood plain, blocking the river’s path and forming the massive dunes that cover the land today. The camel thorn trees that grew in this marsh died, but due to the extremely dry climate, none of the wood decomposed, leaving skeletal husks still standing for hundreds of years. Centuries spent in the hot African sun have scorched the remains into blackened ghosts.

600 years ago, a drought dried up the Tsauchab river, 1000 foot dunes encroached on the dried up marsh, and the river was blocked.

In order to do an on-sight scout and be ready for the light, I arrived before dawn. This involved rising about 4 AM, hopping in a hired safari vehicle (with giant tires) and taking the 45 minute ride among the largest dunes in the world. The asphalt road soon turned to dirt, which turned to sand. Low tire pressure, 4-wheel drive, and high clearance are all musts in this area – no sedans allowed.

From the drop off, it was a 15 minute hike into the dunes before I topped a rise and saw Deadvlei down below me, surrounded on three sides by immense walls of blood red sand. The tallest point is south east of the clay pan, nicknamed Big Daddy. Standing over 1,000 feet tall, it towers above everything else in the area.

I did a quick scan from my vantage point before descending to a stand of trees. I set up a composition, and waited for the light.

The wood of the dead trees does not decompose because the area is so dry.

Based on my trip research, I knew much of my shooting at this location would be a study of form and separation. Before I set up for any particular shot, I spent a lot of time looking for the right composition. I needed to avoid unnecessary converging lines, and try to separately my subjects from each other. I would walk around clusters of trees, trying to discern how I would render three dimensions onto a flat, two-dimensional plane.

I imagined the trees in silhouette, reduced to graphical elements of lines and shapes. I moved forward and backward, up and down, trying to find the angles that would convey the subjects in a compositionally elegant manner.

Sun spotlights the side of a dune wall behind a desiccated tree.

The sun moved higher in the sky, spotlighting parts of the landscape through lazy clouds. I looked for new patterns that the light played out across the desert surface.

Tree husks reach out of the clay pan toward the morning sky.

As the desiccated trees moved from shadow to light, their dark forms contrasted against the bright ground and red sand, emphasizing the graphical nature of the scene.

Pulling a three-dimensional stand of trees into a flat plane can be challenging.

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. As I was standing in that dusty, dry, ancient river bed, I could hardly believe I was there. I was half a world away from home, and my surroundings could not have been more alien. I truly relish these experiences. Being able to capture an area photographically and share it with others is rewarding, but there is nothing that could replace being there in person.

Processing For Moods

Recently I uncovered a couple of unprocessed photographs in my collection that I took in Death Valley National Park several years ago. These were sitting in my “reject” pile, but upon a second look, I thought each photo had its own merit. When I looked at these two images a little more closely, I began to feel a very different mood with each.

Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park
Blue shadows of twilight dance over the dunes of Death Valley National Park

What struck me with the first photo were the vibrant blue hues that emerged after sunset. Shot in deep twilight, the evening sky was reflected off the light tan sand, creating an amazing blue glow throughout the dune field. In order to accentuate this glow, I increased the contrast of the image overall, and increased the clarity. High contrast helped show off the intricate texture of the foreground dune, showing sharpness in each ripple of sand. Contrast was increased two ways: the first was to set the white and black point of the image. While I didn’t use the extreme ends of the histogram, I got pretty close.

The second was to add a contrast s-curve to the image. All adjustments were done in Adobe Lightroom. I kept the white balance pretty close to what the camera chose, increasing it slightly. This gave me a white balance of just over 6000 Kelvins – I was amazed at how blue it still was even after using such a warm color temperature.

In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park
In the blue shades of twilight, smooth dunes stretch to distant mountains, Death Valley National Park

The second image I selected gave me a sense of calm and quietness. In order to accentuate this mood, I kept the contrast very low. I left the white and black points where they were originally, and actually decreased the clarity, giving the dunes a soft, buttery appearance. Because this was more of a graphic image, the low clarity and contrast helped to de-focus attention on the sand texture, and instead allow the dune pattern to abstract, driving the eye up toward the distant mountains.

When making processing decisions, I find it vital to fully understand the message I am trying to convey with each photograph. These moods convey two extremes, even though the images were captured within 20 minutes of each other.