A few months ago, I had the pleasure of heading out to Joshua Tree National Park to shoot Zenni Optical’s new Desert Collection. I grew up in Southern California, but I hadn’t been back in several years, so it was a treat to come out and explore this incredible landscape once again.
Just a few hours from Los Angeles, Joshua Tree encompasses over 1,000 sq miles of desert (larger than the state of Rhode Island!). With its unique, massive rock formations, wide landscapes, and striking Joshua trees, it’s an amazing place to shoot.
Chase the light
Rule #1 of shooting most places is to use the light to your advantage, and the desert is no exception. Especially with the strong red and gold tones you’ll find in the desert, the light at sunrise and sunset brings out the best of the landscape. The golden hour, sometimes called the “magic hour,” is the period about an hour after sunrise or before sunset. Because of the angle of the sun, the light will appear much redder and produce longer shadows. It’s a great time for getting richer colors and tones out of your photographs. Shooting at high noon will not only give you flat light, it can be unbearably hot in the desert. Maximize the golden hour time to get your best shots and to keep cool!
Featuring the Black Manzanita with 80% gray tint and red mirror finish
One of the unique things about the desert is the feeling of vastness. A super wide shot can help to show your subject in the context of this incredible sweeping landscape. A shot of the same landscape without your subject for scale might appear uninteresting, but adding that bit of context can make an otherwise dull image shine!
Whether it’s sand, rock, or flora, the textures of the landscape around you can provide great contrasts for your photos. Position your subjects close to interesting textures or patterns and see what happens!
Featuring our new Serpentine Juniper frames with a gradient gray tint
Play with aperture and angles
Many people think the desert always looks more or less the same, but that is not true at all. Experimenting with angles, aperture, and framing will help you create one-of-a-kind shots in any given environment. For example, to capture a standout shot in a sea of Joshua trees, I chose to shoot through the limbs of a fallen tree which frames the subjects and brings a unique focus to the center of the photo, with the blurred spines of the Joshua tree on the outside.
Crawling around and exploring the rock formations revealed a bevy of interesting angles to shoot from, especially playing with light and shadow. Getting off the beaten path and scrambling around the rocks of Joshua Tree is really the best way to explore the park.
Featuring our new Blue Juniper glasses with 80% gray tint & silver mirror finish
Take care of your gear
While Joshua Tree isn’t the worst place for sand, the desert can be a destructive place for your camera gear. Wind can blow dust and sand into the mechanisms, jamming lenses or scratching sensors. Always shoot with a UV or other filter on your lenses to prevent damage, and carry some cleaning fluid and lens cloth. Try and avoid changing lenses too often (or at all), as that is a crucial moment when your camera is most vulnerable to the elements.
For this shoot, I brought my A7rii and A7, with a Sony 24–70 2.8, Rokinnon 14mm 2.8 and Sony Zeiss 55m 1.8. The 24–70 was my main workhorse. It has, an incredibly sharp lens and the higher aperture gives a lot of flexibility when creating contrast between the subject and background/foreground. The 14mm was great for capturing those super wide shots to establish the scale of the desert, and the 55mm is perfect for medium shots and closer portraits.
Overall, it was a great few days with the Zenni crew. As always, Joshua Tree is a fantastic place to explore and it was a pleasure getting to shoot the new Desert Collection! Let me know what you think in the comments below.