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DV - Lik 101

Photo tips from Death Valley

By Lee Otsubo

Death Valley National Park (DVNP) is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. It’s in this iconic American wilderness (91 percent of Death Valley is wilderness) where we’ll start our photographic journey.

Hello and welcome to my first blog post for My name is Lee and I am The Digital Photo Guy. Not just any digital photo guy but THE Digital Photo Guy. For the past 17 years, I’ve been a photographer and photography instructor. I started blogging on my website in 2009. Here, I’ll post photography tips for RVers. The same advice applies to non-RVers but I’ve found RVers to be self-sufficient, DIYers who are always interested in learning new things.

Today’s post is what I call JBOTS (Just a Bunch of Tips.) I’m going to throw out a bunch of tips and ask you, the readers, to tell me what interests you. For some, these tips may be too basic while others may find them too complex. You’ll have to tell me what subjects and level meet your interests.

Entering Death Valley via US Route 190 from Pahrump, Nev., the first wide spot is Death Valley Junction (DVJ,) home of Amargosa Opera House and Hotel where, for the first time in years, something had changed. Peter Lik, an Australian photographer who has photographed much of Death Valley, installed a gallery at DVJ. It’s not staffed and you can’t buy anything, it’s just a small building with four large picture windows, each displaying a large Lik photograph.

Everyone’s first inclination is to make a photo of the building and photographs. But, that doesn’t really capture the odd, absurdity of a 250-square-foot building housing four large photographs. Since we had set up camp at the empty lot across the street ($10/night payable at the hotel), I waited until dark to make a high dynamic range (HDR) photo of the surreal scene. (see above)

HDR is a process of making multiple (usually three to five) images at different exposures and blending them to create the appearance of a wider range of light to dark. In a moment of pure dumb luck, the photo facing the window to the right created a reflection reminiscent of a ghostly dancer, very apropos of Amargosa Opera House. It may not be an award winning photo but, at least, it’s not the same bland photos as everyone else.

Some smart phones can create HDR by automatically taking three images and processing them into a final HDR photo. This image was created with a Samsung Galaxy Note II. You can see the HDR effect isn’t nearly as impactful as the first photo, which was made with a Canon 5D Mark II but not everyone wants to lug around a digital single lens reflex camera?

DV - HDR demo

Due to the lower quality of this photo, I chose to convert it to black and white for greater impact. This photo could be made much better with Photoshop or Lightroom, but most of us really don’t want to put in the time and effort needed to become photo-editing mavens.

The next three photos illustrate the power of focus. Cropping (cutting away) the unimportant clutter in a photo focuses the viewer’s eye. The first photo shows the entire front of the opera house. The clutter is enough to make your head spin. The eyes don’t know where to focus first.By either cropping the photo in different ways or remaking the photo, we can focus the viewer’s attention.

The cropped front of the opera house focuses the viewer on the sign and architectural elements. In the last photo, I selected a different angle and isolated the fire hose and reel to emphasize the woeful inadequacy of the firefighting equipment.

DV - Amargosa opera house 2 DV - Amargosa Opera House 1 DV - hydrant

Inside Death Valley National Park, one of the premier attractions is Scotty’s Castle, which is another weird, unique and surreal surprise. Built in the early 1900s by Albert and Bessie Johnson, Scotty’s Castle is a mixture of Spanish, Moorish and Mexican architecture with a dash of Rube Goldberg thrown in for good measure.The tour of the underground power plant is well worth the fee.

Like many indoor tours, the National Park Service prohibits tripods, monopods and flashes inside. Photos generally look better in natural light but low light photography without a tripod or monopod is difficult. So, what can you do to avoid those awful, blurry photos? Brace yourself because the answer is to just, brace yourself!

The two photos (below) are tiny crops of a large steam engine under Scotty’s Castle. Both photos were made at the same time albeit from different angles. In the left photo, I tried to handhold a 0.4 second exposure. I believe the proper term is, “fail!”

On the right is a ½ second (0.5) exposure while leaning against a beam. The difference is night and day. Let others show those laughable blurry, shaky photos. You can do a whole lot better by simply bracing yourself.

DV - Bracing 1 DV - Bracing 2

Speaking of indoor photos, always check your white balance when moving between different lighting conditions. The photo of the 1914 Packard was made under harsh fluorescent lights with white balance set to fluorescent. When I stepped outside and forgot to change white balance, the first photo of the main house had a blue color cast because sunlight at noon is “cooler.” To make life easier, for outdoor photos, set your white balance to “cloudy,” that’s close enough for most outdoor photos.

Many people rely on automatic white balance, and that may be good enough for casual snapshots. But, when you start making and editing large numbers of photos, automatic white balance doesn’t always get it right and requires too much effort to correct each photo after the fact.

DV - White balance 1 DV - White balance 2

I hope this has been interesting and/or useful to you. I don’t have another trip planned for a few months so in my next post, I’ll dig up photos from past trips to illustrate my tips. Until then, safe travels.

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  1. Interesting…Thanks for the tips!

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