the anatomy of a desert maternity shoot

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the anatomy of a desert maternity shoot

“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.


Profot logoThank you to Profoto for sponsoring today’s article!  They are giving away a medium sunsilver Collapsible Reflector, value $79, to one random winner.  Enter below by noon on Thursday June 5th!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About the Author:

Michael Kormos is a portrait photographer serving NYC and San Diego. Working together with his wife, Michael has a fun and fresh approach to family photography. He has two beautiful children who keep him very busy and constantly inspired. Visit Michael Kormos online.


  1. Shauna May 29 2014 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Beautiful images – thanks for the pullback. It’s always fun to see behind the scenes. I also can’t believe the 25000k – crazy!

  2. Jennifer W May 29 2014 at 11:56 am - Reply

    I would photograph in a tropical rain forest somewhere…

  3. Carolin V May 29 2014 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    … and a location like this goes straight to my “shots to take before I die” list! Great insights!

  4. brandy May 29 2014 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous pictures! What a location.

  5. Ebony May 29 2014 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Lovely post! So interesting to read about the extremes of the location and how it affected the use of the gear to achieve such a variety of photographs! Thanks for sharing, Michael!

  6. Angie m May 29 2014 at 12:59 pm - Reply

    I think I would like to photograph in Santorini Grece 🙂 I’m always drawn to the photographs pf that place.

  7. Amanda Hildebrand May 29 2014 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    I just love desert landscapes! Beautiful work.
    My passion is street photography, so my ideal place would be Morocco – for the markets and beautiful architecture.

  8. JoyG May 29 2014 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Beautiful location, beautiful model , beautiful photos.

  9. Aga Plonka May 29 2014 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    beautiful photos and great idea! if I could shoot anywhere in the world I would choose any lakes or mountains!

  10. Rebekah May 29 2014 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Hawaii 🙂

  11. Meghan May 29 2014 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    great idea to photograph in such a unique location

  12. valerie a. May 29 2014 at 4:52 pm - Reply


  13. stacy May 29 2014 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous! I’d photograph at the “Tunnel of Love” (Ukraine) or the Maldives starry beaches!

  14. Kathleen Collins May 29 2014 at 8:20 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous! I’d love to photograph Paris.

  15. Leanne May 29 2014 at 11:21 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous photo’s!! I would like to do a shoot in the mountains when the wildflowers are in bloom 🙂

  16. celeste pavlik May 30 2014 at 8:51 am - Reply

    Wow Michael, those are amazing! I’m from AZ and have never heard of any of those places around there. Makes me want to get out of my comfort zone and travel a bit. I love the contrast of her softness against that amazing backdrop. Thank you for describing your day and your vision. You’re very talented!

  17. Jeff May 30 2014 at 3:26 pm - Reply

    I’m a big fan of Michael Kormos’ work, and I would love to shoot my family in Central Park at sunset, or maybe wherever he shoots with all the cherry blossoms! We don’t have fields of them like that in Hawaii…

  18. Lanye Bush May 31 2014 at 7:50 pm - Reply

    Anywhere in the world? That’s so hard to choose, but I’d have to go with Japan!

  19. abrianna May 31 2014 at 11:44 pm - Reply

    Would love to win this!

  20. Sarah May 31 2014 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    If I could shoot anywhere in the world, it’d be India. At this moment. I’m sure it’ll change tomorrow.

  21. Kathleen Jun 01 2014 at 8:35 am - Reply

    If I could shoot anywhere in the world? That would be easy – France

  22. lisacng @ Jun 03 2014 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    I’d love to photograph a model in a deserted industrial building.

  23. Tara L Jun 03 2014 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    GOGRGEOUS maternity shoot! wow!!!

    If I could photograph any where I would choose Fiji!!!


  24. Allie Jun 03 2014 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    I would love to photograph in Ireland–green and lush countryside!!!

  25. Leigh Anne W Jun 03 2014 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    The alps! GORGEOUS shoot!

  26. Lauren Jun 03 2014 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    Interesting post!!!

  27. Amanda Jun 03 2014 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous session! Would love to shoot in the Caribbean. So many vibrant colors!

  28. Kendra Jun 03 2014 at 10:28 pm - Reply

    These are beautiful! My dream location would be some place tropical such as Costa Rica or Belize!

  29. Tracy Jun 03 2014 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    I would love to photograph the Great Wall of China.

  30. Amy Jun 03 2014 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing!

  31. Emily Annette Benson Jun 03 2014 at 10:41 pm - Reply

    There are so many options but I would love to do portraits in Paris. I’ve never been to Paris but I love the idea, and the photos I’ve seen there are stunning!

  32. Donna Jun 03 2014 at 10:42 pm - Reply

    I want to capture the love of a family that is so captivating that it overpowers their surroundings. ; )

  33. Breanna Jun 03 2014 at 10:51 pm - Reply

    Beautiful work! I would love to have a shoot in Tibet 🙂

  34. Susan T Jun 03 2014 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    I would love to take photographs in Hawaii.

  35. Hitsendletgo (Karns) Jun 03 2014 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Beautiful capture! I’d love to shoot underwater in Bora Bora.

  36. Robby Jun 03 2014 at 10:55 pm - Reply

    Great work! Thank you for sharing!!

  37. Kristen Jun 03 2014 at 10:58 pm - Reply

    I’d love to take an amazing shot in Paris with the eifle tower in close up behind my daughter!

  38. melanie melugin Jun 03 2014 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Amazing! How I would have loved to come along and learn from a seasoned professional landscape photographer….that also knows about lighting!

  39. JoyG Jun 03 2014 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

    • JoyG Jun 03 2014 at 11:24 pm - Reply

      And I’d love to go to France and take photos of the lavender fields.

  40. Jinnee Jun 03 2014 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    How beautiful! Love the lighting.

  41. Michelle F Jun 03 2014 at 11:36 pm - Reply

    Somewhere tropical!

  42. Shari S Jun 03 2014 at 11:45 pm - Reply

    Lovely images! Wow, love the look of the salt/ bad lands!

  43. Karen Jun 03 2014 at 11:53 pm - Reply

    Beautiful pictures. Love the description of how and why you did it too.

  44. Crystal Jun 04 2014 at 12:20 am - Reply

    Absolutely stunning!

  45. Christine Wright Jun 04 2014 at 12:45 am - Reply

    I would love taking photos in Greece or Italy with all the beautiful classic architecture. Or, I might just join you in the desert. These photos are amazing!

  46. Joanna Jun 04 2014 at 1:32 am - Reply


  47. Deanna W Jun 04 2014 at 2:21 am - Reply


  48. Ashleigh R Jun 04 2014 at 2:30 am - Reply

    Wow! Beautiful!!

  49. Wendi Forcina Jun 04 2014 at 7:27 am - Reply

    I would love to photograph in a rainforest somewhere.

  50. Ellen Jun 04 2014 at 8:38 am - Reply

    The lavender fields in France!

  51. Kim Peterson Jun 04 2014 at 8:43 am - Reply


  52. Maria Riley Jun 04 2014 at 8:48 am - Reply

    These are amazing!

  53. Karen Dunham Jun 04 2014 at 10:47 am - Reply


  54. Colleen Jun 04 2014 at 11:20 am - Reply


  55. Kara Spillman Jun 04 2014 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    I would love to shoot in Provence region of France.

  56. Jamie Mork Jun 04 2014 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    I would love to shoot in Hawaii! I’ve been there but I just had a point and shoot. I would love to go back with my DSLR.

  57. Sunni Jun 04 2014 at 11:36 pm - Reply

    Adventurous journey for sure. You must be very satisfied with the results of your hard work.
    I would like to do some shooting in England.

  58. Catherine Jun 05 2014 at 12:06 am - Reply


  59. Jana Jun 05 2014 at 10:08 am - Reply

    I would love to photography in England…love of the CM shares that come out of Wales.

  60. Amy Langley Jun 05 2014 at 11:19 am - Reply

    These are just beautiful! I’d love to shoot in Greece-can’t beat the blue water!

  61. Kelly Mars Jun 05 2014 at 11:31 am - Reply

    I’d love to photograph in Tahiti or Bali – I won’t be choosy 😉

  62. Amy Stevens Jun 05 2014 at 11:47 am - Reply

    Beautiful work!

  63. Tre Jun 05 2014 at 11:12 pm - Reply

    These are beautiful!

  64. Carmen Jun 11 2014 at 3:11 am - Reply

    Wow – stunning landscape, stunning maternity photography – amazing.

  65. Kelly Dec 28 2015 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    That was the most inspiring piece! Thank you sooooo much. My passion is also between landscape and family photography and combining them makes my heart so happy.

  66. Eric Nov 08 2017 at 8:05 am - Reply

    just stunning! Great article. Thank you very much!

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