Creative Field Techniques - Difficult Lighting

At the Black Place which is adjacent to Lybrook Badlands, I was confronted with an unusual landscape, at least for this Florida photographer. Long ago, the Rocky Mountains rose and the uplift created erosion that washed away layers of sand and sediment that had built up for millions of years. Eventually, this created the distinct and gentle sloping gray formations. The gray comes from the oxidation of iron and manganese in the ash. White bands indicate ancient rivers. American painter, Georgia O'Keeffe likened this landscape from afar to a "mile of elephants" and called it the "Black Place". Kialo led me to the specific location where O'Keeffe painted her Black Place scenes. There stood the same rock where O'Keeffe sat and posed for a photograph, and where I stood for a photograph seen above.

I came to the badlands with two lenses, a 70-400mm attached to a crop sensor camera (105 to 600mm effective focal length range) and 28 to 75mm on a full frame camera. Up until about 30 minutes before sunset, I handheld the camera for all my shots. At the Black Place, I used my big lens almost entirely. What unfolded before me were waves of undulating rock formation. Using effective focal lengths 300mm & higher, the frame filled with rock formations. This gave the more distant rocks a stronger presence and emphasized the repeating wave-like design. The light was strong and this yielded shadows with contrasting brighter areas, further emphasizing the patterns. I found the strong sunlight to work nicely with these scenes as I positioned myself with the sun to my left or right.  When processing the next three images, I applied a cool blue filter and a Gaussian blur filter to the background area of the scene to add contrast with the foreground area that included some red (and green) tones and detailed textures.

I had some wide angle lens opportunities as well. The ground was covered with pieces of shale rock, some very small and some quite large. These stood out against the gray background with their sharp edges and rust-color tones. Creating compositions that included these rocks was fun for me as I could apply a minimalistic approach, my favorite! And the cloudless blue sky made that easier to do.

Above is one shot at 28 mm. I attempted to balance the scene using the sky against the landscape, and the soft curves of the sandstone hills against the sharp shapes of the shale stones. The minimalistic appeal of this next scene below, shot at 75mm becomes more evident in black and white. I simply love the contrast of the sharp rock & its shadow with the gentle slopes of the texturized hills.

Next, Kialo and I drove deep into the Lybrook Badlands. This required a 4-wheel drive vehicle driven several miles on gravel & sand roads with steep climbs through canyon washes. By the time we arrived and began the 1 1/2 mile hike into the canyon, it was about 3 hours before sunset. This gave me enough time to explore the area before heading to a location Kialo chose for the sunset shoot. The sky remained cloudless and the light harsh. This was especially so in on the valley floor surrounded by rugged chalky white cliffs as high as 300 feet. The terrain is rough as these cliffs drain into several shallow branches and occasional deep arroyos. During the rainy season, you can get caught easily in a flash flood with no way out until the water drains away. The valley floor is scattered with strange formations of hoodoos consisting of brown and chalky white sandstone. This was fun to explore but not easy to photograph!

Like a kid, I wandered up and down through the rocks, playing with various scenes and lighting situations. Using the 28-75mm lens, I composed some intimate scenes with the hoodoos, like the one below.

The challenge was to frame the tall rock structures with a balance of elements, leading lines and/or a significant focal point to lead the viewer's eyes into the scene. What it boiled down to is a study in strong contrast with shadows and bright areas. Conversion to black and white brings out that contrast and places greater emphasis on the shapes of the rocks against a blank sky. Keep in mind that black and white conversion works best with a wide tonal range on the grayscale from black to white. Here is one more hoodoo scene.

About an hour before sunset, the nearly full moon began to rise over the rocks. With the big lens, I zoomed in on a scene where the moon could serve as a nice accent. Once again I found black and white to work well with the wide tonal range available in the rocks as you see below.

It also looks very nice with that brilliant Navajo sandstone.

At last, we were nearing sunset. Unlike Florida where the setting sun glows over the entire low lying landscape until the moment it falls behind the horizon, here in the valley below, the tall rock formations impede the sunlight before the sun sets. But this can be nice as taller peaks remain in the glow until sunset. This was the case in the scene below.

I zoomed in to 50mm to enlarge the peaks, the focal point of the scene. Because of the prominent shadowed areas below the brighter peaks and sky, I used two exposures to blend into one image. I added a gold tone to the peaks and brightened the white areas of the valley to emphasize depth of field. And last, remember that blank sky I was complaining about? Well, it never went away, so I decided that this particular scene lacked sky drama to complement the drama of the landscape. So I made an executive decision in Photoshop where I applied a sky replacement as you see here. This is a first for me, but it really does improve this image greatly, in my opinion. I'll let you be the judge and offer you the original to compare.

This was an amazing first experience in New Mexico's badlands areas. Now that I have a "lay of the land", the next visit will be less bewildering, which will free up my mind to experiment with composition and lighting. And it would not hurt to spend the night in there as well to capture the night sky over the badlands. And with any luck, I'll have clouds at sunset and a clear sky at night!

If you like to learn more about elements of composition to improve your images, check out these blogs:

Rule of Thirds

Leading Lines

Negative Space

Focal Point

Clouds for Balance

And check out my video about how to visualize and shoot black and white photos with a digital camera.

Please visit my "USA Travels" Gallery to see more images I have taken across the country while traveling in my home, the RV. And if you have any questions about my camera techniques or post processing workflow, please contact me at I am also available for workshops in Florida beginning December 2021 through April 2022.