Ok I admit. As a portrait photographer it’s not often that I use my tripod. Or that I use filters (LEE graduated ND saved the day here). It’s also uncommon for me to use an ultra wide-angle lens (like the 14-24mm), nor do I recall EVER taking a portrait with my aperture down to f/16. Crazy, right? I love fusing my love of landscapes with portraiture. I think it’s a win-win situation 🙂
On a recent trip to WPPI in Las Vegas, Sophie and I decided to spend two days at the nearby Death Valley National Park, and do something that no one has ever done before (at least, to our knowledge!). To capture timeless maternity portraits at one of the most raw, desolate and inhospitable places in the USA (ok, we’re not counting Alaska this time around). Death Valley (and Badwater Basin in particular) is one of the driest, hottest, and lowest (in elevation) places in North America. We loved the idea of juxtaposing its alien environment with the frailty and innocence of new life.
A few things to keep in mind: Death Valley has literally no cell phone reception, and gas prices generally hover in the $6/gallon range. As you drive around, you will come across “radiator water” pull-outs on the road, for those times when your vehicle overheats (summer temps regularly reach 125°F/52°C, which is why we chose to do this in the winter 🙂
Thanks to my little assistant for keeping the Profoto B1s pointed right where they needed to be, to our wonderful model for making the trek from 4 hours away (you’re the best, Christina!), to Valerie for the absolutely gorgeous maternity gown, and to Sophie for being my radio DJ during the many hours we’ve spent on the road, and for her attention to posing, hair, wardrobe, and everything else that went into making this (couldn’t have done it without you!).
Equipment used: Nikon D4/D800 bodies, 14-24mm f/2.8G, 105mm f/2DC, 200mm f/2, Gitzo Tripod, Lee Filters, and Profoto B1 strobes.
Badwater Basin is an odd place. You’re standing at a dry lake, 282 feet below sea level, while out in the distance, Mt. Whitney (just past that mountain range) soars at 14,505 feet high. The lowest (and highest) point in the country. Talk about extremes. But we didn’t pick this place because it would be easy. What’s the fun in that?
The biggest difference between the first two shots below is the sun. In the first, it’s just about to set, and its light really defines the salt formations on the dry lake floor. The ground looks like something a planetary orbiter would’ve shot on… Ganymede?. The first two shots were taken with a D800 with 14-24mm. Due to the obvious wide-angle distortion of this focal length, I tried to keep the subject close to center to minimize the effects.
20 minutes later (image #2), we were blessed with some clouds, so I composed the shot with a bit more sky. However, the missing sun caused the salt formations to be rendered flat and featureless. Here the strobes provided much needed illumination, one left, one right (for the hair and rim).
When you shoot at a place this remote and unforgiving, you want “equipment failure” to be the last thing on your mind. We used Profoto B1 strobes with Air Remote. One reflected off a white umbrella provided the key light (camera left), the other was shot through a honeycomb grid and provided our hair/rim light (camera right).
Another 20 minutes later (image #3), I decide to use a telephoto. I am always amazed at the difference in perspective that a simple focal-length change can do. D4 w/105mm f/2DC. The sky behind the mountains was still pinkish, but the rest of it was deep blue. I’ve had to tune my white balance in post to 25,000 Kelvin in order to render her skin tone nice and warm. Crazy! The 105mm brought the Panamint Mountain Range so much closer. That’s Telescope Peak to the left, blanketed in snow, standing 2 miles high. Luckily, the valley floor was much warmer 🙂
Sophie and I spent the night in Beatty, NV (where you can find a room at Motel 6 for $50, vs. the $300/night resorts in Death Valley), that is, if you don’t mind the 1hr+ drive. Come to think of it, most things out here are 1hr away by car. It must be.. the standard unit of measure. Next morning we scout early, and find these surreal formations north of Zabriskie Point (image #4). This time of year is about the only season you can photograph in Death Valley and not get baked (no really, BAKED!). Death Valley is consistently ranked as one of the hottest places on Earth. Sophie was a good sport, and reminded me that asking a pregnant model to climb these hills isn’t the best idea. Luckily, we brought along a silicone belly (we HAD to have had a back-up!). That’s Sophie, dressed in pink 🙂
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