Michael Kormos and his wife Sophie run a boutique portrait studio in NYC & San Diego, specializing in refresh & modern family photography. They recently photographed a maternity shoot in Death Valley and have graciously shared their experience. Read Michael's first hand account of executing this shoot in Death Valley.
I’m schlepping through sand dunes a hundred feet high, looking for a composition. Nothing works. In part, because it’s hazy and everything looks flat. The weather has been quite wet too (a rarity in these parts), and the sand is littered with a thousand footprints (which—when dry—get blown away by the wind). After an hour, I give up, and decide to head back to the car where my assistant/wife awaits. She’s got some bad news. Our model called: her car broke down en route and she is awaiting repairs, some 90 minutes away.
We had originally traveled to Nevada to attend WPPI, but decided to spend a day at the nearby Death Valley National Park for some conceptual portraiture. So much for that! The day is almost gone, and we don’t have a location, nor a model, and the sun is quickly setting. I can feel my left eye twitch as the stress level builds up from the realization that weeks of planning are going down the drain. I open the car door to load up my gear, when one of my cameras slips off my shoulder and hits the pavement. My 24-70mm it seems, is gone, and this shoot is never going to happen.
But let me back-up a little, and start at the beginning.
The premise was simple. Do something no one has done before (at least to our knowledge!) - capture a series of 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 places in North America. We immediately 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. Even as you drive around, you will come across “radiator water” pull-outs on the road, for those times when your vehicle should overheat (summer temps regularly reach 125°F/52°C, which is why we chose to do this in the winter).
As we leave Vegas, we stop at JR Lighting & Grip to rent light stands, some grips and a folding chair (for $1/day, it’s a given. More on that later). During the 2.5hr drive to Death Valley, the landscape unfolds before you with all its vastness. For someone who grew up in NYC, I am simply not accustomed to seeing expanses such as this. 75mph feels like a crawl.
When we finally arrive at Badwater Basin to scout, I figure, “hey, been here before; what could go wrong?” For starters, those pristine hexagonal salt formations you see in the image above? There was not a sight of them. In fact, here is what the landscape actually looked like:
At this point, Sophie uttered “Please tell me we didn’t fly 2500 miles to photograph a pregnant woman in cracked mud”. That’s nature for you. Unpredictable. I suppose the few days’ worth of rain must’ve caused the dry lakebed to undergo some changes? There are days I wish I knew more about geology.
At this point I remember another picturesque location in the park that would still befit our original concept. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, about an hour’s drive north. Just do a Google Image search and you’ll see what I mean. It’s gorgeous (under the right lighting).
And this, is where we started.
Ultimately, we end-up back in Badwater, only this time I am determined to make this location work. Come to think of it, I really have no choice. I should’ve planned for more than a few hours’ worth of scouting. I should’ve anticipated vehicular problems of our model. I should’ve anticipated that I’d break a lens. You know, Murphy’s law #1 – everything that can go wrong, will.
So with walkie-talkies in hand, Sophie and I start criss-crossing the salt flats of Badwater Basin, in dire search of undisturbed salt formations, which would make for a perfect foreground.
Well what do you know? A short while later, out of pure luck, I find them, about half a mile to the north. Good news at last! Fast forward another 15 minutes, and our model arrives, with make-up and hair, and ready to roll! Ultimately, we had about 30 minutes left to set everything up and shoot before the sun would set.
So 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 (like the 14-24mm), nor have I EVER taken a portrait with my aperture down to f/16. I love fusing my background in landscape photography with portraiture. I think it’s a win-win situation, and that’s exactly what this project was about.
Badwater Basin is an odd place. You’re standing at a dry lakebed, 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 these two shots is the sun. In the first, it’s just about to set, and its light really defines the salt formations on the dry lakebed. The ground looks like something a planetary orbiter would’ve photographed on… Ganymede? These two shots were taken with the 14-24mm f/2.8G. Due to the obvious wide-angle distortion of this focal length, I tried to keep the subject close to center to minimize the effects.
The folding chair was a life-saver for our model (who was pregnant, after all). The ground isn’t exactly mushy like sand. It’s rough, and sharp. It’s crystals of salt you’re walking on, and we brought plenty of it back with us, as it contaminated everything from our rental car to most of our equipment.
20 minutes later, the haze cleared up a little, and we were blessed with some clouds, so I composed the shot with a bit more sky. However, the lack of sun (which had now set) caused the salt formations to be rendered flat and featureless. Here the strobes provided much needed illumination.
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. 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).
In this shot, I decided to use a telephoto. I am always amazed at the difference in perspective that a simple focal-length change can do. This was shot with a 105mm f/2DC. The sky behind the mountains was still pinkish, but the rest of it (overhead) was now deep blue. In post, I’ve had to tune my white balance up 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 less than it takes to fill up your gas tank, 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. The next morning, before heading back to Vegas to attend WPPI, we decide to scout early in hopes of getting a few more shots. Just east of the famed Zabriskie Point, we find these surreal formations without any of the crowds.
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:-)
Equipment used: Nikon D4/D800 cameras, lenses: 14-24mm f/2.8G, 105mm f/2DC, and 200mm f/2G , Lee SW-150 filter system, Gitzo tripod+head, Profoto B1 strobes with Air remote, rented light stands and grip.
Michael Kormos, along with his wife Sophie, run a boutique portrait studio in NYC & San Diego, specializing in fresh & modern family photography. They have two beautiful children who keep them very busy and constantly inspired. Like them on Facebook, follow them on Google+, and visit their website for more of their work: Michael Kormos Photography.