Creative Technique: Strategies for Photographing Unfamiliar Locations

When I first arrived at Goblin Valley, it was midday, the sky was cloudless, it was very windy and the temperature had risen above 90 degrees. I set my sights to photograph at dusk, but before that, I needed to get a lay of the land since I had never been there before. Goblin Valley is accessed from a parking lot overlook. From there, you walk down into the valley. The image above is the valley seen from the overlook.

I brought my iphone camera for my scouting expedition. When first visiting unfamiliar locations where I am camped, I typically do a walkabout armed only with the phone. This allows me to relax and simply take in the scenes and begin to anticipate my shoots. I make note of the sunrise and sunset locations using my SunSurveyor app. With that, I can anticipate specific locations from where to set up for shots in the late evening and early morning.

With the iphone, I also took several photos and explored the composition possibilities. I am thinking about things like use of space between elements, placement of elements along the edge of the frame, leading lines, foreground interests, and vertical vs horizontal orientation. Above are a couple shots taken during my midday walkabout. After an hour or so of exploring in the high heat, I went back to the RV with lots of ideas and prepared for my evening shoot. I considered two possibilities, shooting from the overlook at evening with the sun setting behind me and shooting the next morning inside the valley.

What I didn't realize at the time was that midday was actually a good time to photograph the hoodoos. When I went back to the valley about two hours before sunset, I walked around the same hoodoos I photographed earlier, but everything appeared different. Look at the image above, taken with my Sony camera and 17-28mm lens at 21 mm. Note that late afternoon light is warmer on the rocks, this is nice! But what made it almost impossible to photograph the cluster of hoodoos were the long shadows cast by them. At midday, there were no shadows!  I found compositions to be difficult as shadows competed with the rocks.

Back on top overlooking the valley, the sun began to set and it was perfectly positioned behind me. I switched lenses and attached the 28-75mm so I could zoom in to isolate scenes. As the sun went down, it selectively lit up the upper portion of the rocks. This can be a beautiful juxtaposition of light and shadows as you see above, shot at a focal length of 75mm.

For a scene like this one that has bright highlights and dark shadows, I rely totally on the histogram and try to avoid taking multiple exposures (maybe I am just lazy!). I find that my Sony camera has a wide dynamic range to handle the highlights and shadows well enough to avoid losing detail or blowing out the brights. Look at the histogram in the image above, this is the unedited version straight out of the camera. All the pixels fall within the histogram, with bright areas pushed to the right but leaving enough room to avoid clipping. With the shadows in tact, I can manage the tones in editing.

Once the sun sets and the rocks no longer receive direct sunlight, the light evens out and the sky begins showing some color. This is the best time to shoot, its beautiful and the exposure is relatively easy. Opposite of my earlier shots, now I was more concerned about losing details in the rocks than blowing out the sky. Once again referring to the histogram, I made sure the darkest pixels were shifted to the right far enough to avoid losing details. By slightly overexposing the scene, I maintained detail without worrying about blowing out the brighter sky. Check out the two images above, shot after sunset.

The next morning, I went into the valley among the hoodoos. As luck would have it, I had some interesting clouds in the sky to work with. This would add nicely to the compositions. I found shooting about 2 hours or so past sunrise to work well to avoid interference from long shadows. For this shoot, I exclusively used the 17-28mm. The wide angle exaggerates distance and as you can see in the image above, this works great with the clouds leading into the rocks. To take this shot at 17mm, I stood only a few feet away from the base of the duckbilled rock.

The compositions were endless. Erosion from wind and water creates a variety of rock formations, tones, patterns, and textures. I found an area in the valley where the lightened Navajo sandstone floor was shaped with gentle swirls of rock layers and impressions where rain water might accumulate. This served as interesting foreground that leads the eye toward the darker (Entrada sandstone) hoodoos and sky as you see in the image above.

For these wide angle shots, I looked for interesting objects to add as focal point and create balance. This required me to get within a foot of the object while composing. I used distant features (taller rocks, leading lines) to add to the background. The sky was necessarily prominent in these wide angle images, so I also included clouds as part of the composition. I often found both vertical and horizontal to work equally well.

For these shots with a prominent foreground and background shot at wide angles, care was taken to choose the right focus point to get foreground and background objects sharp and in focus to enhance depth of field. This is where hyperfocal distance comes into play. For the two images above, the small bush was positioned within 12-16 inches from my camera when I took the shot. Because these were shot at 17mm, the distance is exaggerated and the bush looks farther away than actual. To make sure it and the rocks in the distance were all in focus, I determined the hyperfocal distance for my settings (focal length and aperture) and  pointed my camera at an object that was approximate to that distance. I then recomposed and took the shot (see below for more info on hyperfocal distance).

Here's one more image where I used hyperfocal distance for sharpness throughout, objects in the foreground to add depth of field, strong color contrast between sky and rocks, and created a simple and balanced scene by incorporating negative space in the foreground area.

To summarize, when photographing an unfamiliar subject, take the time to explore it first. Use your phone camera to initially experiment with composition and framing, do your homework on sun direction and possibly other sky events (such as a full moon setting at sunrise), and pay close attention to certain details like shadows and potential foreground interests. Don't throw any old object in the foreground, instead find objects that are attractive and complement the surroundings with its color, size or shape. And take more than one shot of the same scene, altering your perspective slightly or switch between horizontal and vertical orientations. It's easier to delete your shots than it is to go back again and try to recreate the image!

And last, to determine hyperfocal distance, use an app or look up a hyperfocal distance chart on any numerous photography website. You an create your own cheat sheet to take into the field. And you can get more detailed instructions on how I use hyperfocal distance on my YouTube video titled "Simplifying hyperfocal distance for sharp wide angle shots". At the very least, auto focus on an object and take a shot. Review your image and zoom in to examine distant and close objects for sharpness. Adjust your focus distance accordingly to get that sharpness throughout.

If you would like more personalized instruction, either in the field or Photoshop editing, please contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com. I do offer individualized workshops in south Florida from November through April. Whether it is to learn how to use a new camera, refine your camera techniques, develop skills for long exposures, bird photography, or simply wanting to photograph Florida scenes for the first time, my workshops are designed to cater to your personal photography goals.