Photography in the Desert

My recent trip out to the southwest gave me the first opportunity to try shooting in a new environment, the desert.  I’m no stranger to outdoor shooting, as even a quick glance through my posts and gallery will demonstrate, but this was a very different environment, both in the obvious of few trees and little water, but in more subtle ways such as the way the sun interacts with the landscape.  So I thought I’d not a few observations of the differences between working in Arizona and Nevada compared to my normal Tennessee and North Carolina locations.

As always these are just my observations from a couple weeks in early June.  It will definitely will be hotter if you go in July or August where I’m not sure I’d even go outside during the noonday sun.  It will also likely be more humid then too.  In the winter it will be completely different I’m sure.  In other words before taking this as gospel, check a weather forecast.

The Desert is Hot and Dry

WonderHussy-1I know you’re thinking, “No kidding.”  Still it’s one thing to read or hear that the weather is hot and dry, but it’s a different thing to be standing out in that weather.  I was fortunate during my trip that the weather was actually a little cooler than normal, but still 100 degree heat is nothing to dismiss.  I will note though there is a notable difference between the humid heat where I normally work and the dry heat of the southwest.  I felt more comfortable at 100 degrees in Arizona early this month than I have in Tennessee this week at ninety degrees with the higher humidity.

That said, it’s still hot and potentially dangerously so.  And the dry air means that water just leaves your body in no time.  You sweat and it evaporates.  This does make you feel a little cooler, but it also means that drinking water is a constant necessity outside.  My sinuses dried out in minutes. I have a daypack that I normally take when hiking or shooting around home that holds 3L of water.  I normally can come back from a full day outdoors with water left in the pack.  While shooting out west I normally drank somewhere between 3/4 and a liter or water per hours while hiking or shooting in the desert.  If you take one piece of advice from this, drink lots of water.

The Sun

I’d in fact say the biggest change for me wasn’t the heat or the dry air, but the lack of shade.  I normally shoot in forests where trees 100+ feet tall are the norm around you.  Outside of the higher elevations above 5,000 feet like the Colorado Plateau I’m not sure I saw any plant even fifty feet tall.  Most plant life is brush with a height measured in inches.  What few tall plants exist are narrow.  The result is that shade is rare and shade big enough to put a person into, either yourself or a model, is even harder to find.  Clouds are almost non-existent.  I think I was out west for five days before I saw a cloud, a small whispy puff of white at the side of a mountain in Utah as I was driving from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas.

This will have two direct affects on you as a photographer.  The clear, dry air means the sun is there and will beat down on you.  If you’re out in the hottest part of the day where the sun is high in the sky there is nowhere to escape from it’s heat.  This makes the hot and dry aspect worse on your body and the body of your model.  The desert sun also has a very harsh and bright light that makes photographing during the middle of the day largely an exercise in futility.  I did one shoot with a model during the late morning to midday.  We found some places to work thanks to rocks providing shade, but for shooting in the desert think early or late in the day.

Sunscreen is a requirement.  Especially for the fair skinned such as myself.


JenPhoenix-39As I mentioned, the sun when high in the sky is harsh and terrible for photographing a model.  With little hope of overcast, you’re only option is to find shade.  Fortunately there are rocks. In fact I think the rocks are the best feature of the southwest landscape.  For the times I was out in the harsher sun, I was mostly able to find locations to work around rock formations.  If you’re forced by scheduling to work during the middle of the day, look for a location with rocks formations.

The light during golden hour, the time right before and right after either sunrise or sunset, is simply gorgeous though.  The things that make the midday sun so annoying work to make this late light wonderful.  I can say that the golden hour light in the southwest would probably be the most enjoyable and wonderful natural light that I’ve worked in.


There’s not a lot of people in the desert.  The big cities are big, Phoenix and Las Vegas for example, but in between cities there is a lot of wide open space.  Compare that to my area where you come through a small town or city every few miles on the major highways.  Out west it’s not uncommon to drive hours and not see a group of more than a hundred people together.  In short it’s a lot easier to find nice private places for shooting.


The terrain just looks different.  Water is so rare those westerns where people fought wars over it now make a lot more sense.  The deep green colors are rare with browns and muddy green more common.  Mountains look totally different without the green.  The novelty is part of the appeal, but I really think there is something I love about the different landscape and the vast openness.  I’m already looking forward to my next trip back.  Coming up over the next couple weeks expect to see more photos from my desert shoots including those previewed in this post.

Other Thoughts

Plush-1All the models I worked with were locals and knew more about posing nude in the desert than I did.  All brought water to drink and stayed out of the sun as much as possible when not posing or until it lost much of its force.  My biggest concerns for a model or photographer working in the environment for the first time would be not drinking enough water and the sun on exposed skin.  I kept pretty well covered in sunscreen while outdoors, but did redden just a bit on my last shoot which ended in the full force of the midday sun.  I drank plenty, but still felt like I got behind a few times.  Plenty of water is the one thing I cannot overemphasize as the heat and dryness really pull water out of the body.

I also would suggest really focusing on the times around sunrise or sunset not just for the great light, but to give the best conditions.  It’s cooler and the sun is just too fierce and harsh to easily work during the middle of the day.  I’m also looking forward to trying some light painting my next trip out there.

Wildlife is another concern.  The desert of course holds several animals you’d prefer not to meet such as the rattlesnake and scorpion.  Thankfully I saw none of those while out shooting or hiking.  My personal favorite was the yellow signs similar to the ones we commonly see in the east warning of deer.  I saw plenty warning me to watch for bison or elk in the road.  Then as I travelled through the higher elevations of central Arizona I saw one warning me to watch out not for buffalo or elk, but mountain lions for the next ten miles.

I stayed in my car the next ten miles.  And a few more after that.

In conclusion I loved the desert as a location.  I’m already looking at planning a trip back outside of summer to shoot among a few other adventures I’ve planned.  Like any other location there are precautions and challenges, but the rewards are worth them.  A lot of common sense goes a long way as with any outdoor work.


A couple days before leaving for my trip out west I shot with Ginger for the first time in a couple years.  There’s irony that I last worked with her early in my comeback after a very long break from photography, and this time I worked with her to end my longest shooting break since then.  The green was wonderful this time of year, but the mild winter left things more grown up than expected which limited a few places I wanted to shoot.  Ginger was wonderful to work with as always.  The shoot went well except for an annoying encounter with stinging nettle that she refers to as Nettlepacolypse.  A few photos from the shoot.


Reflecting at 33,000 Feet

I started this post 33,000 feet over Kansas thanks to the wonder of in flight wifi.  The quality is quite nice in fact a person in front of me watched part of the US Open on it.  It made the four plus hours flight and made me a lot more productive.  I didn’t publish from there because the photo I wanted to include below was in my checked bag so not available.

I noted in the post written before I flew out west that I’d hoped to clear my head a bit both artistically and personally on this trip.  Ten days later and I’m happy to say I’ve accomplished a bit of both out here.  I flew into Las Vegas, but spent the first part of my trip around Phoenix, AZ shooting the local landscape and working with several amazing models.  I already wanted to come back to Phoenix before I had left the city.  The people I met and worked with there were all wonderful and accomplished artists.  The desert landscape and terrain is so different from what I normally shoot that I want to explore it more.  In particular a late afternoon to sunset shoot I did produced some amazing work I’ll be showing later.  I’m likely going back in the fall or spring when the heat isn’t quite as pressing during the middle of the day and shooting will be easier throughout.

I then made my way northward to spend a few days at the Grand Canyon.  If you’ve ever thought of going there, just do it.  The first glimpse surpassed all expectations I had.  I can say the word awesome is used in its true sense when describing the place.  The photo to the below was taken on the less visited north rim my last night there at sunset.  It was the one night I was able to stay inside the park and the view of the stars that night (which I did not photograph due to dead camera batteries) were beyond humbling.  I already want to come back again here and do the hike from rim to rim soon.  That’s definitely not a summertime activity, though I did meet a group of young women who did just that.


After my Canyon stay I headed back over to Las Vegas for the rest of my stay.  I love Vegas in doses, but I’m never that sad to leave.  Early in the stay I had a wonderful shoot at my hotel with an amazing, artistically minded model.  It was my only indoor shoot on the trip and I can’t wait to get through the photos.  I tried some new things there and pushed out of my comfort zone a bit, but the results look to be worth it.  I also had a nice desert shoot outdoors this week in a great location outside the city.

A great trip overall.  I got the photos I had in my mind I wanted to get on the trip.  I pushed myself artistically and personally and successfully for the most part.  In the desert I actually had a tumbleweed roll across the road right in front of my car near the Utah and Arizona border just like in a movie.  I watched a dust devil cross the road a few hundred yards in front of me and then fall apart before I could pull over and get a photo.  I saw beautiful sunsets, smog over Phoenix from the mountains near the city, and the devastating fires in New Mexico as we flew overhead close enough we flew through the smoke.  I saw bachelor parties, bachelorette parties, the fun, and the insanity of Vegas.  And on my flight back I sat behind a couple that got married while out in Vegas.

Photos to come soon as I get time now to finally work and process them starting with a shoot a couple days before I left out of town.

Make Good Art

I have history with commencement speeches.  I’ve been through two as a participant, once for high school and once for college.  I may be in my third when I complete my Master’s Degree in December.  At the high school one I had to give a short speech.  All that I really remember about it was the wind blowing something on my regalia off kilter as I walked up to the podium and getting me so shaken up I never quite recovered during the speech.  My college one was less exciting as my sole job was to walk across the stage.  That’s probably one of the few conscious, sober moments in my life where I truly have no memory of the actual event.  I remember the rest of ceremony and there is a photo of me getting the diploma, but the moments from leaving my seat until returning have always been a blur.  Working in education for more than a decade means I’ve set through many more ceremonies either in person or while monitoring the streaming of the ceremony out to the world.  I’ve sat through some pretty good ones, some pretty dull ones, but never a really bad or really great one.

A great one would be like this one by Neil Gaiman.  It’s twenty minutes long and I’ve watched it twice times since coming across it a couple weeks ago.  It’s one of the few things on the Internet I saw and immediately felt the need to share it to everyone I knew that would care.  After a few emails to some people I knew would love it, I just posted it to Facebook and Twitter to save time for the rest.  The speech is simply amazing and I suggest you go watch it now if you’ve not seen it yet.  A few of his points stood out for me right now though:

  • Embrace your fear of failure and make peace with imposter syndrome.
  • Enjoy your work and don’t get swept up in the next thing before enjoying the present.
  • The creative landscape is in constant flux and rules change all the time. So make your own rules.

Early this year I worked with a new model.  She had more than ten years of experience  with a good history and experience.  While we shot she several times commented that she liked my lighting.  After the shoot she posted a couple of the images from the shoot to her portfolio.  I had trouble because I just couldn’t believe at heart the work was that good.  I mean I could see the photos and I liked them.  I knew they were well lit, they showed her well, and that they were good, but at some level I just couldn’t believe they were good enough to post above all the other work she had access to.

I think I have an realistic view of my skill level.  I know that I’m not great yet, but I think I occasionally approach it.  I think most of the time I’m good, often I’m really good, and occasionally I kick ass.  At the same time I’ve been fighting this feeling that I’m really just a GWC that gets lucky.  That the good work isn’t my skill, but just the amazing models I’ve been lucky enough to work with and blind luck – the photographic equivalent of the monkey that types out a Shakespearian sonnet while banging on a typewriter.  I know that’s not right, but it’s a feeling I’ve not been able to shake.  I think everyone who creates things and actually cares about their work always has moments where they wonder if they are really any good or just get lucky at times. For some reason it stuck a bit this year in my photography.  That’s imposter syndrome.

At the same time I’ve also been fighting what I can describe as the photographic version of writer’s block.  Too much I felt like I’m repeating myself and doing the same things again and again.  Or doing something I’d already done before.  Beyond that there are things I prefer not to go into even in the relative anonymity I enjoy here.  Worlds have collided a bit and the impact left a mess at times.  The damage was not the fault of malice or poor intent by anyone, but simply bad luck and things going places no one expected.  Repairs and rebuilding takes time and are still in progress

I did something I’d not done in a long time.  I stopped shooting for a while.  I scheduled nothing for most of May.  I’d had one shoot that canceled on me at the start of the month and one at the end of the month that didn’t come to pass because of the weather remnants of a tropical storm.  But for the first time really since early 2010, I intentionally did not shoot for a while.  It was partly a chance to recharge and clear the fog.  And it was partly to look at other work and just feel that fire again, the burning desire to create.  I do again.

At the end of his speech, Mr. Gaiman sums it up wonderfully.

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.”

In a shoot earlier this year a model pointed to an absolutely wonderful place to shoot and I didn’t do it.  Why?  A lot of perfectly valid good reasons that were all logical.  I’ve regretted it since.  The spot was wonderful and we should have shot there and would have gotten some great shots there.  A few years ago I had a model freeze while moving to a location.  It was high and exposed and truthfully a little risky.  She got part of the way up there, but couldn’t make it the rest of the way.  I’d never really known how she felt, wanting to do something with the fear winning, until after that shoot.  I’d been timid and I didn’t like it.

So that’s my hope for the near future.  Not just in my photography, but overall.  I want to try things and if they screw up, at least they will be glorious and wonderful mistakes.  They will be mistakes that I can point at and say, “That was cool to try.”  I want to enjoy my work again and feel I’m doing something interesting each time I pick up the camera.  I want to get back into a life that I enjoy being a part of in every aspect.

Around the time this posts to my blog I’ll be on an airplane heading west.  It’s my first trip out there since I’ve been serious photographer.  I’m hoping to try some work in the amazing desert landscapes and I’ve set up some thing with a few good models.  I’ve got several shoots set for after I get back from the trip.  I’m going to try some new things, experiment with some new styles, and see what happens.  I know that some of it isn’t going to work.  I know that in fact some of it is going to really and truly screw up.  It will though be interesting even when it does.  And as always a lot of the results will show up here.

Spring Keira Part One

So in a year without winter it decides to get cold for my two outdoor shoots I’d scheduled for today and tomorrow.  Right now it’s in the mid forties right now and raining where it’s been in the 70’s most of the month.  My shoot today with Nyxon changed to indoor and I’ve rescheduled my shoot tomorrow with April to be indoor too.  Getting itchy to get back outside though so hopefully May will be more cooperative.  That’s no guarantee though as cool days are possible even into summer.

Tonight a few images from my shoot in late March with Keira Grant.  These are from earlier in the day before we went outside and playing with some erotic concepts before the outdoor part of the shoot which went perfectly.  Some shots form that coming soon.





A Few Photos Outside with JEM

I always enjoy the first time I can get outdoors and shoot.  This year my first outdoor shoot was with JEM in mid March.  She admitted up front not to usually do outdoor work, but I’d caught her in the right mood.  The warmer than normal spring weather probably helped since it felt more like April or May than March outside the day we worked together.  I took JEM to a favorite spot and near the same place I’d had my last outdoor shoot of the fall with Adrina Lynn.  She did wonderful work and glad to be outdoors again.




Today is World Backup Day

Today is the second annual world backup day.  It’s a reminder of the importance of backing up the data on your computer.

It’s easy to forget that computers don’t last forever.  They’re electrical and mechanical devices that fail.  Sometimes they provide warning, a noise coming from your hard drive or computer case, but sometimes they just stop working.  If you have a computer savvy friend or take it to a repair shop, sometimes they can resurrect you information, but if not then it’s lost.  The most common component to fail in a computer is the one that holds all the data you’ve stored on it, your hard drive.  If the hard drive fails, getting the data back can be expensive or time consuming.

Think about what’s on your computer right now and nowhere else.  Are there photos?  Financial data?  The only copy of your Master’s thesis?  If your hard drive failed or someone stole your laptop and you never recovered it, what on there could you never replace?

My system is complicated, but leaves me feeling quite secure on my data.  Most of my data, including my photos, is stored on a server that spreads it across multiple disks to ensure a single failed drive doesn’t destroy my data.  My Windows computers all back up nightly to that same server.  My MacBook backs up using the built in time machine to an external hard drive that’s encrypted.  The server backs up all the data automatically to a cloud storage service and to an external hard drive on a regular basis.  All the other computers also back up to a cloud storage service to also backup any critical data stored locally.  A good backup system should protect again something happening to your computer and something happening to the place you keep your computer.

If you’re not backing up now, start.  Use a cloud backup service such as Carbonite (my favorite for just one computer) or Crashplan (my currently used and suggested for those with multiple computers).  Or buy an external hard drive and use Time Machine (for Macs) or Windows Backup (for Windows) and back up to it.  If nothing else, just take the important files on your computer and copy them over to an external drive.