“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
– Ansel Adams

behind the scenes picture of a Death Valley maternity photo shoot by Michael Kormos

With my origins as a landscape photographer, I still make the time to travel to the West Coast at least once a year for some artistic adventures.  Some of my favorite settings have been Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.  This year, I decided to do something different.  I wanted to combine my love of landscape photography with my passion for maternity portraiture.

I chose the location of Badwater Basin, because the harsh textures and vast expanses of salt flats would be the perfect juxtaposition with the gorgeous curves of pregnancy.  Not to mention, no portraiture had been done there before.  Hmmmm, I wonder why no one else thought of finding a Mommy-to-be willing to trek all the way out to a remote area in the middle of nowhere, literally called Death Valley, likely without any cell phone reception, as the sun goes down… Not to mention, the lowest and driest area in the country, and the hottest place in the world!!  Not exactly a casting call that will have pregnant women lining up around the block.

Death Valley sea level sign

Thankfully we have an incredible network of fellow photographers, and I was able to find the absolute perfect model.   Christina was tall and lanky, with gorgeous red hair, and imagine my delight to find out that she’d been a high fashion model in her previous life (She’s currently busy being a mother to two little cuties, and photographer extraordinaire.)!  We had the most stunning chiffon maternity gown made by one of our favorite vendors, and it was ON.

Flash forward to the day of our big adventure.  My wife Sophie and I spent the morning picking up lighting gear from a local rental shop.   Followed by a quick trip to Whole Foods to stock up on snacks for the day, since there’s nothing worse than trying to get the creative juices flowing with the distraction of a grumbling belly.  We’d wanted to pick up a leaf blower to add some motion to the dress, but realized too late that we would have had to charge it the previous night.   As much as you plan, there will always be hiccups along the way.  That’s what keeps these adventures exciting.

The drive through Death Valley was breathtaking.  When we finally arrived at Badwater Basin, I must say we were somewhat disappointed.  There must have been a recent rainfall, because the flats were a muddy brown, and the formations were all dried up and cracked.  With my extensive research, I hadn’t even realized this could happen!  After walking around for an hour, I finally found a small area of perfect formations.  From the right angle, I could hopefully make it work.  By this time, we had just an hour till sunset.  I rushed to the car to get the lighting gear and set everything up, as Christina changed into her gown.

Death Valley photo by Michael Kormos

As a family photographer, it’s not often that I use a tripod or graduated filters. It’s also uncommon for me to use an ultra wide-angle lens (like the 14-24mm), nor do I recall EVER taking a portrait with my aperture down to f/16. Crazy, right? Although it took more gear than usual to capture my vision, I loved the unique experience of fusing my passion for landscapes and portraiture.

In the first three images, the sun is just about to set, and it’s light really defines the salt formations on the dry lake floor. The first two shots were taken with a D800 with 14-24mm. Due to the obvious wide-angle distortion of this focal length, I tried to keep the subject close to center to minimize the effects.

maternity portrait in Death Valley by Michael Kormos

maternity portrait in Death Valley by Michael Kormos

maternity portrait in Death Valley by Michael Kormos

Twenty minutes later, we were blessed with some clouds, so I composed the shot with a bit more sky. However, the missing sun caused the salt formations to be rendered flat and featureless. Here the strobes provided much needed illumination.  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).

maternity portrait in Death Valley by Michael Kormos

Another twenty minutes later, I decide to use a telephoto. I am always amazed at the difference in perspective that a simple focal-length change can do. D4 with the 105mm f/2 DC. The sky behind the mountains was still pinkish, but the rest of it was deep blue. I had to tune my white balance in post 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.  Luckily the valley floor was much warmer, although I must say that the salt formations are razor sharp and not as soft as they may look!

maternity portrait in Death Valley by Michael Kormos

Badwater is such an odd place. You’re standing at a dry lake, 282 feet below sea level, while out in the distance, Mt. Whitney soars at 14,505 feet high. The lowest and highest points in the country.  Talk about extremes. But we didn’t pick this location because it would be easy.  What’s the fun in that?!

Equipment used: Nikon D4/D800 bodies, 14-24mm f/2.8G, 105mm f/2DC, 200mm f/2, Gitzo Tripod, Lee Filters, and Profoto B1 strobes.


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