3 Tips For Amazing Southwest Photos | Lightroom Everywhere Newsletter Issue 4

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3 Tips For Amazing Southwest Photos

Harsh light. Blown-out skies. Vast landscapes with no foreground elements.

Photographing the rugged terrain of the American Southwest can certainly be challenging. This is a truth that I've come to learn after having lived in southern Utah, and I've since figured out how to approach these challenges best. While some of these tips involve gear and editing techniques, there's a greater mindset that you should adopt when photographing these vast expanses of rock, dirt, and sky. And while I'm focusing this article on the American Southwest region, it can just as easily apply to any other landscape environment around the world.

Here's the thing: whether you already live in the Southwest, you're planning to visit the area someday, or you have similar wide-open spaces near where you live, these 3 photography tips will help you get photos you'll be excited to share. In fact, as I prepare for my trip to Utah next week, I'm already figuring out ways to incorporate these tips. I hope you enjoy them, too!

Tip #1: Use Prime Lenses

My prime lens trinity:
Zeiss Batis 2.8/18 | Zeiss Batis 2/40 | Zeiss Batis 2.8/135

 "But I love my zoom lenses! They're way more convenient!"

 I can hear you saying that right now, right? ūüėČ

Here's the funny thing I've learned by spending more and more time photographing in this region: you don't need a lot of different focal lengths when you're shooting in the desert. Wildlife is pretty hard to find, so you're not going to need the 200-400mm range that much, with the exception of possibly isolating a distant mountain peak. You'll also likely not need to get wider than 18mm, although if I'm being honest, I do wish ZEISS did make a 12mm Batis lens. Still, I've never found this kit to leave me in a lurch. 

Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 4.0 sec at f/18; ISO 100
Wide-angle shots can be wonderful in the Southwest... if you've got a compelling foreground. Without one, your photos will be more likely to fall flat.

Heck, some of my favorite "wide" compositions were taken with my ZEISS Batis 135mm lens! That could hardly be considered a wide focal length, but it didn't stop me from getting sweeping shots that I absolutely love. I'll talk a bit more about that in Tip #2.

Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | 1/320 sec. at f/2.8; ISO 160
A composition like this looks like it would have been taken at 18mm - 24mm. But it was taken at 135mm!

There are a number of substantial benefits to consider when deciding between a prime and zoom lens, especially when you factor in your primary surroundings: the desert. The first benefit is that prime lenses are generally smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. That is absolutely the case when I compare my prime lens trinity to the equivalent zoom lenses. Sure, I don't have the convenience of zooming in and out, but I have not come across a situation where that has hindered my ability to compose a strong photo. It may have made things more challenging, but I love to be challenged creatively, and you should, too. It is also a pleasure not to have to lug around a bunch of heavy, bulky lenses when I'm hiking up and down sand dunes or steep and rocky terrain.

I brought up the desert deliberately just before because the next benefit of using a prime lens is pretty huge. All three of my zoom lenses (Sony 16-35mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6) telescope in and out when I adjust the focal length, creating a suction action. Do you know what happens when you introduce a suction action like a telescopic zoom in an environment made up almost entirely of fine sand and dust?

It's not pretty. My 24-70mm lens got so bad that whenever I'd zoom in or out, I'd not only hear a crunching sound from the sand that got sucked in, but I'd also feel it grinding. As a result, I had to send the lens in for comprehensive servicing, which wasn't cheap. That was one of the reasons why I have chosen to stick with prime lenses: they're far less prone to getting debris in them because there is no barrel to suck air and dust in. So, if the sound of sand scratching the inside of your zoom lens makes you cringe, I recommend sticking with prime lenses.

And don't forget about that camera in your pocket!

While I'm on the topic of alternative thinking to the gear you will use, why not see what you can accomplish with your smartphone camera? I wrote extensively about my thoughts regarding iPhone photography, and I'm convinced that we're only at the beginning of this mobile renaissance.

Also, one of the benefits of going mobile-only is the weight savings that can be used for more important things. Here's what one of my readers had to say about it:

Instead of carrying the weight of a prime lens, carry some extra water. Mid-day humidity has been in the low teens." ~Kevin B.

Kevin makes an excellent point. With the weight savings you'll enjoy by going mobile-only, you can pack some more water, snacks, and extra layers of clothing (because it can get COLD in the desert). All of these things will probably serve you better and result in a more enjoyable shoot should you need them, as opposed to a collection of lenses that you're lugging around. Again, I'm not saying that you should always go mobile-only, but it is worth a second or third glance.

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max | Pano stitched from 8 vertical images using Lightroom

Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max

Tip #2: Get Creative with Your Tools

Remember the Stitch

There are lots of ways to pump up a lackluster desert photo, and you shouldn't be afraid to try them! Earlier, I mentioned getting wide-angle compositions using telephoto focal lengths, like with my ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 lens. The trick is to get a series of vertical images that overlap each other by at least 20% and then stitch them together using your favorite pano-stitching software. In my case, I use Adobe Lightroom to stitch these panos together.

Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | 1/100 sec. at f/2.8; ISO 800
This 16:9 wide-angle pano is made up of five stitched vertical photos that I took handheld.

The resulting images aren't necessarily what you typically expect to see when you stitch a pano. Usually, panoramic images are far wider than they are tall. However, because I limit the number of vertical panels in my shot (and sometimes take two rows of panels), I'm able to preserve the typical 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios of a single photo. By going this route, I'm also able to produce a massive, high-megapixel photo that I can either crop in or print huge.

One of the really nice advantages of composing stitched wide-angle shots using a long lens is that you get this amazing sense of depth thanks to the lens compression introduced with telephoto focal lengths. Another advantage is that your background will appear closer and more proportionate than if you used a wide-angle lens. If I used a wide-angle lens to get this photo, that rock face would be much smaller and appear farther away in the frame.

Become the Cloud-maker

When I was living in southern Utah, I experienced more consecutive days with pure blue skies than I have in my entire life. I used to think that blue skies were great, but I've come to realize that I pretty much can't stand them... at least not for so many consecutive days without clouds. Clouds are wonderful elements to include in desert photography. They are perfect when you want to break up the monotony of a blue sky, and they pair up so nicely against all of that red rock.

Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 1/80 sec. at f/14; ISO 100
I am all for blue skies...

Sony a7R IV | ZEISS Batis 2.8/18 | 1/80 sec. at f/14; ISO 100
...but I'd much rather have some clouds to break things up

If you're clutching your pearls or grabbing your pitchfork at the idea of masking in some clouds, then perhaps this part of Tip #2 isn't for you. I believe in the simple philosophy that you should be able to do whatever you want to your photos, so long as you don't try to pass them off in any sort of authentic or journalistic way. I wanted some clouds in this photo, so I masked them in. To clarify, I didn't replace the sky. That's the original sky. I just used a series of techniques in Photoshop to add clouds to the sky seamlessly and I'm way happier with the resulting image.

My point is that you should be as aware of the compositional and editing tools you have at your disposal as you are with your camera and lens.

Tip #3: Escape the Crowds

We all want this shot...


...but we don't want to deal with this reality.

We all want that classic shot of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, but none of us want to actually deal with hundreds of other tourists and photographers also vying for the exact same photo.

Listen, I get it. It's easy for me to poke fun at this because I've been to Delicate Arch many times. I have all the sunrise, sunset, and starry night photos that I could ever want from this location. But I've also had to deal with hordes of tourists and other photography workshop attendees (and instructors), some of whom have terrible manners and little sense of personal space. And at the end of the day, I will get the exact same photo as everyone else there. There's nothing wrong with that to a degree. However, the truth is that there are SO MANY other amazing places in the Southwest to visit. Heck, there are tons of places in Arches National Park to explore beyond these super-popular locations, and they're just as beautiful and probably far more unique in their own ways.

There are tons of "undiscovered" (read: not Instagrammed) and off-the-beaten-path locations in the Southwest. Rather than visit all the hot spots in this area, I've spent my time looking for places that no one really knows about or talks about but that are just as stunning. 

Sony a7R IV | Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye | HDR at f/18; ISO 100
I was the only person photographing this arch at sunset, and it was wonderful. Locations like this one can be found all over. You just need to be open to exploring.

In reality, the over-crowding and over-tourism of super popular locations in the region, like Delicate Arch, Mesa Arch, and Horseshoe Bend, are resulting in a variety of terrible outcomes. A lack of care and respect for the surrounding environment and ecosystems of these popular destinations has led to long-term, if not permanent, change. It is also becoming unsustainable to accommodate the sheer number of tourists who all want to visit.

That's why I strongly encourage you to consider exploring different locations. Check out more of the state and city parks in this region. Maybe even consider hiring a local expert to guide you around to some of the lesser-known—yet equally impressive—locations. Heck, take a minute to speak with a park ranger at Arches National Park, for example, and ask about the lesser-known and less popular trails to explore.

Sony a7R III | ZEISS Batis 2.8/135 | Pano at f/4.5; ISO 200
It's hard not to overstate just how many amazing locations there are with no crowds or queues to deal with. You just need to be willing to explore a bit... or hire a guide.

At this point, I've resigned myself to avoiding all of the popular national parks in the area unless I've got family or friends visiting who really want to see these attractions. Photography is a very personal and solitary practice for me, and I'd much rather work to find locations that I can explore in peace and quiet, even if it means giving up the popular tourist traps.

BONUS TIP: Just have fun!

Sometimes I feel like I don't say this enough, but photography should be a joy to do, right? Even if photography is your primary career, it should still provide you with satisfaction to express yourself creatively. So, even though this article has a bunch of tips and things to consider, the most important thing I'd like to impart is a reminder to have fun! For my Utah trip next week, I'm only taking my iPhone 15 Pro Max, a travel tripod, and some filter accessories. I am going to see just how far I can push this little pocket camera, but I'm also going to enjoy every second of it. And you can bet that I'll report back on my experiences soon enough!


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