The Arizona desert in spring can be one of the most strikingly beautiful places on Earth. I spent several days in the superlative Kofa Mountains, looking for a combination of light and composition to tell the story of this fantastic place. One perfect morning, everything seemed to come together.
The hardest thing about photography in the desert is crafting a simple, unified composition out of a chaotic jumble of elements. The Sonoran Desert is a surprisingly lush place, especially during the spring bloom. It is packed with cholla, ocotillo, brittlebush, and dozens of other desert plants and cacti. Finding order out of chaos is the first order of business. To that end, I spent hours exploring the desert beneath the towering Kofa Mountains, looking for pleasing arrangements of desert plants.
My luck was running high, for as it turned out the sun was rising right through the middle of a prominent notch in the mountains. I was able to watch the emerging shadow cast by the mountains as the sun rose higher in the sky, and thus anticipate which part of the desert would receive light next. A promising arrangement of plants, still in shadow, caught my eye, so I rushed over and set up a shot, waiting for the sun to peek over the mountains and light the very tips of the cacti and brittlebush. I chose a composition that juxtaposed the foreground cholla cacti with the sun, putting them on an opposing diagonal line. My intention was to establish a visual relationship between the two elements, and to accordingly create compositional interest.
I was using my Nikon 14-24mm lens (with a custom adapter so that it works on my Canon camera), and I made sure to get in very close to my foreground elements, exaggerating their size and importance in the scene. The Nikon lens has a bulbous front element making use of filters difficult, so instead of using a graduated neutral density filter to control contrast in the scene, I shot two exposures—one for the sky and the other for the foreground—with the intention of manually blending the two exposures on my computer using Photoshop. I waited for the sun to get high enough to light the tips of the desert plants in the scene. I used a small aperture (f/16) in order to create a “sunburst” effect. By partially blocking the sun with the mountains, I was able to reduce flare.
Sometimes things just seem to come together. When they do, be ready to seize the moment!
Technical data: Canon 5D Mark II, 14-24mm zoom lens (@14mm), ISO 100, f/16, double exposure blend for dynamic range.