Deserts & Gold Dust Adventure – The Recce

Jun 12, 2022 | Flash, GFX, Location, Travel | 16 comments

Event: A recce for an adventure/ workshop in 2023
Models: Lydia Cooke and Claire Rammelkamp
Styling: Damien Lovegrove
Photography: Damien Lovegrove

Camera: Fujifilm GFX 50s II
Lenses: GF 32-64mm, GF 110mm, GF 250mm
Lighting kit: Godox AD200, fresnel head, 5″ reflector

This trip was a point-to-point adventure tracking between points that I had placed on a Google Maps chart. Apart from a couple of nights accommodation that I had pre-booked we left ourselves the freedom to alter plans and make changes as we went. Not all of the locations that you see pictured here have made it onto the final route that I will take photographers on next year but the vast majority have for sure.

 

Part 1: Figures in dramatic landscapes

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

01. We headed off track to reach this dry lake bed in Nevada. The temperature was rising and the sun was right overhead.  With absolutely no shade for 50 miles I used a splash of flash from the Godox AD200 to keep the lighting interesting.

A Chevy Tahoe was our vehicle of choice and the 4×4 drive train came in very handy a couple of times on our route. We certainly needed the ground clearance too as we negotiated ourselves up through gorges and down through canyons.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

02. A bit of research took me to these wonderful rock formations. Nevada has so much to offer if you are prepared to seek it out.

We had to work out the accessiblity of these locations. How close we can get a convoy of four Suburbans or Tahoes, and how challenging the climate at each point is going to be. At our high desert locations, typically above 6000ft it was just 2°C at 9am while in Death Valley it was already 37°C by that time. Although these temperature changes gave us challenges on the recce I have managed to forward plan the shoot times on the workshop to give us the best experience at each spot.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

03. We spent a bit of time hopping between Nevada and California in search of fabulous landscapes like this. I lit Lydia here with a Godox AD200 fitted with the fresnel head.

This spot was one of those places where it takes a round trip of two hours to reach but by juggling the route I’ve managed to incorporate an overnight stay nearby where there is a ‘cowboy bar’ with swing doors, shuffle board, pool and plenty of character. There are a few great restaurant options in town too.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

04. Evening sunlight and a splash of flash was a great combination to use here.

We stayed to the East of the Sierra Nevada mountain ridge throughout the trip. The pass over the top to Yosemite was still closed following recent snow but the roads around Mono Lake were open. Yosemite is best reached from the West of the mountains and that is going to be part of another road trip in the future. This trip was concentrating in the rain shadow of the great Sierra mountain range.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

05. The lakes in the foothills of the Sierras combine dramatic geology with wonderful scenery. Top: The terminal moraine from glacial times holds back the snow melt water in Convict lake. Bottom: Towering tufas rise up from fresh water springs beneath Mono Lake giving it a dramatic shoreline.

I’m really looking forward to spending more time shooting at Mono lake because on a recce the emphasis is on ‘seeing’ all the opportunities that present themselves so the best ones can be selected for the workshop.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

06. I used the Godox AD200 with the fresnel head to light Lydia wearing a Nasty-Gal wrap dress.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

07. California is susceptible to wild fires and the aftermath can make a dramatic scene for a figure in a landscape portrait. The Godox AD200 came out again for this quick shot of Lydia. This was a quick stop location that we kind of stumbled upon. Next year, new growth may well have changed the landscape here again.

On one long and arduous drive to an abandoned gold mine we came across a forest of Joshua trees. They are strange looking trees but make fun and interesting close portrait backgrounds.

We won’t be taking the same route or visiting the same mine because there really was very little of note left at the site. We will however be seeing many other Joshua trees and some fabulous old mines on our route.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

08. Joshua trees frequent certain parts of the landscape. The altitude and land drainage are key factors in providing ideal homes for these dramatic trees. We detoured off track to visit the U2 shrine at the place where the photograph was taken for the cover of  their The Joshua Tree. An interesting distraction.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

09. Death Valley is hot. It is also blessed with vast features like these sand dunes. These shots were taken before breakfast because later in the day the temperature reached an oppressive 117°F or 47°C.

I find deserts exciting places to shoot in. Care must be taken because they are inhospitable, but the rewards are spectacular. In each vehicle we carry big cooler boxes full of drinks on ice. The air-con is very welcome out in the desert too.

Part 2: Portraits at abandoned gold & silver mines

The main cause of my fascination with this part of America was the western movies of the 70s. “There’s gold in them there hills.” I’ve always wanted to see the dramatic landscapes featured in the films and to scratch around in the dirt to find a few nuggets of gold for myself. The history is real and although a lot of the towns are now abandoned the dramatic mining structures remain in various states of decay. The next 20 years or so could see the majority of these places lost to the elements and wild fires. The clock is ticking.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

10. Mine workings litter the hills in Nevada and California. My task was to identify the best ones to visit. Some are just dangerous with the access trails falling away down the mountainside. I have had to identify where we can safely put four large SUVs and gain access to the buildings. I did an assessment of the risks at the structures for health and safety too. Locations like this are perfect because they are accessible with the right vehicles and there is little or no hike to reach the best shoot spots.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

11. I love winding houses with big cogs and cables. I lit Claire with the AD200 flash. “What does this lever do?”

We are going to have fun in locations like these because a splash of flash with a Scatterflash gel and a puff of smoke will bring them alive. I’ll be taking my smoke machine on this trip for sure. We will just have to use it wisely because we don’t want to trigger an emergency response. Wild fires are a big threat in places like this.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

12. Motors, drive belts, Ore crushing mills and paraphernalia all make great locations for shooting. These shots were taken using just natural light because time was tight on the planning trip.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

13. Mid shots, wide shots, long shots and close ups are all there to be had. Top: Natural light shots give great opportunities to be creative with viewpoint and composition. Bottom Left: This wall of corrugated zinc plated steel was the perfect backdrop for a long shot of Claire. Bottom Right: A shallow depth of field and a bit of sunlight provided great separation from the background for Lydia. We will be visiting this “5 star” shoot location for sure on our adventures in 2023.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

14. Sometimes the opportunities for pictures seem overwhelming to the untrained eye. That is where good vision and direction play their part. On a Lovegrove Adventure, we walk the site identifying the best bits, then we work out where we are going to shoot the wide shots that deliver the narrative. Those are the tricky ones. What do you leave in? What do you leave out? Where do you place the subject? How big is the subject in the frame? etc. The closer images are easier to shoot and we are often led by light to capture those.

Part 3: The old railroads of Nevada

From day one on this trip, the railroad was a continuous visual player in the landscape and the sounds from the engine horns and the clatter of the railcars were simply fantastic. I felt the need to incorporate some of this railroad memorabilia into this adventure. My friend Tim put me onto this shoot location and with permission assured us this will be one of the highlights of the workshop for sure.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

15. Sidings of old wagons and coaches prove to be fabulous shoot spots in the morning sunlight. I just love the font of the 802.

A lot of the land is ‘fenced off’ in America but the railroads I came across on this trip are generally ‘open’. These railroads fuelled the expansion of the mines and their presence lies in the heart of the once prosperous mining towns. Each town has its station and there’s a hotel opposite on main street. There is so much recent history to be explored in the Wild West before it vanishes forever.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

16. Locations like this are a dream to shoot in. Access all areas is so important along with the full safety briefing. The dynamic range of the GFX comes into its own with high contrast scenes like this.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

17. The smell of soot and oil lingers in the air. The curves and lines on these engines have a beauty of their own. The architects and engineers of the railroads were certainly artists and able to fuse form and function in such a fabulous way. Iconic design meets industrial might.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

18. I loved the light falling on this steam engine undergoing restoration. I asked axle greaser, Claire to hang in there for scale and drama.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

19. I always try to take the time to capture the detail. I think it stems from my days as a wedding photographer where my task was to tell the story of a day in about 300 pictures within a 10 hour time frame. Sometimes less is more and when I’m putting together a body of work that is eloquent and self supporting I’m drawn to the texture and still life settings that speak volumes about a place. They visualise a moment in time in a romantic way that sometimes the wide shot fails to do.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

20. Rivets, castings, wheels, hoists, chains and the human form present a great contrast to capture.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

21. Pop a bit of smoke in here with a splash of flash and the shots will be epic.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

22. The GF 110 is a great lens to isolate and foreshorten the perspective. I’ll have the GF 80mm lens with me on the next trip because it is more inclusive of the background but still able to isolate focus.

Part 4: Ore processing sheds and abandoned shacks

Every mine we visited had a mill where the ore was crushed prior to being carted away in small one ton wagons. In a typical mine, it took about a ton of ore to generate one ounce of gold. When the gold price was high and the labour cost low, it was a very profitable operation.

These days, gold is mined in vast open cast pits. The whole mountain is removed one layer at a time and the spoil heap creates a new mountain of its own where none existed before.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

23. This mill was quite fancy. The rough ore entered the top room via buckets on the cables that you can see and the refined ore left from the  building beneath it in wagons that were sent 5 miles down the valley. The weight of the full wagons going down pulled the empty ones back up by a system of cables and pulleys.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

24. The depth and light in these shacks is wonderful. Often, the wider the shot the more exciting it looks. I gave these shots a ‘look’ in post production using a LUT.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

25. Styling matters: The hat was from Boot Barn, the boots were from AliExpress, the shirt from CAL Ranch Stores, the jeans were Lydia’s own.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

26. The same spot with two perspectives. I was drawn to the cedar shingles on the external wall of the shack and the light patterns inside.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

27. The GFX 32-64mm lens is a stalwart and probably my most used lens on this trip. A shallow depth of field is not an absolute requirement when shooting shots like this. I still like to work between f/4 and f/5.6 choosing to use a high shutter speed and a low ISO.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

28. “Hop up on there Lydia” An early morning light shot high up in the desert at 6000 ft.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

29. I guess you know by now that I love shacks and we certainly found fabulous shacks on this trip.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

30. A good shack in the morning sets you up for the day. The cool white balance reflects the cold temperature of the moment. It was about 4°C at the time we shot this frame.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

31. Fingers crossed the top shack is still standing this time next year. It doesn’t have long for this life but wow! It’s beautiful.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

32. We decided to shoot some fashion lit frames using the AD200 flash with the sun as a backlight. I used the fresnel head for this shot and also for the ones in set number 35 below.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

33. A dead tree with the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background caught my eye. The rim light on Lydia completes this shot taken in evening light. The resolution from the GFX50 sensor is spectacular and shots like this really make the most of the format when printed.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

34. Occasionally I love to use a calm, low contrast tone set. The Fujifilm GFX has the Acros G film simulation and I love to shoot portraits with it. I push the exposure a bit to shift it into a high key look and I dial in H tone -1 and S tone -2. My Lightroom is set up to auto apply those tone settings upon image input.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

35. I bought this hat at the Hackberry General Store on route 66 some 5 years ago and it comes with me on all my USA trips now. I guess it has travelled over 8000 miles on road trips with me. Plus the air miles.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

36. Some of the places that we visited were a hotch potch of fakery like this building. Absolutely nothing is original here and unfortunately this site is just a tourist trap, so we won’t be visiting spots like this on our tour.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

37. This general store is in a mountain town with a current population of just 8 and it’s fabulous. A lot of artefacts have been assembled in these rooms but the feeling one gets here is electric. This town was once more populous than Los Angeles. The gold rush was amazing.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

38. Shots are there to be had when you least expect them. Some opportunities just present themselves. It’s a case of be there and magic will happen.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

39. Sunlight and the toll house. Claire’s skirt was from AliExpress (made to order) and the vintage Wonderbra came from Depop.

Part 5: Classic Americana

I’m a sucker for what we in the UK call ‘Americana’. The fonts, classic design from the 30s Art Deco era to the 50s, automobiles, neon signs, pastel colours and shabby chic.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

40. I set out to have a bit of practice with this scene. Top: Natural light. Bottom left: AD200 flash to simulate street light and Bottom Right: AD200 flash to simulate moonlight.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

41. We drove past this classic cinema and we just had to turn around and shoot it. I love the scale of the frontage.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

42. Top Left: A classic hearse and of course the Blues Brothers car :) Top Right and Bottom Left: Details capture the design artistry of a bygone era and the gun culture that is evident everywhere around these parts. Bottom right: The paint burns off the steel in the relentless desert sun but the dry atmosphere stops the bodywork from deteriorating. These cars are all restorable.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

43. 53 years young, the car that is.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

44. I really like the old cars of this era. I’m sure John Boy Walton had one of these. This house is one of many abandoned dwellings in this town. The history lives on in the people that still live in the neighbourhood.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

45. This saloon was fabulous. So original. The kind of establishment where drinks are served with the glass sliding down the bar. The people in the bar were super friendly and have probably lived in the town for most of their lives. It’s simple living.

A few iPhone pictures

When I’m on a recce I use my iPhone a lot to record places and scenes. The iPhone captures the GPS data so that I can find the exact spot where the picture was taken. Some of these iPhone shots are fun so I’ve included them here.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

46. Top Left: We will be shooting this truck as I love the patina. Top Right: “After you.” We won’t be venturing into unmaintained tunnels like this on the trip although one mine owner has agreed to put on a full mine tour for us when we return as a group. Middle Right: This car has over 100 bullet holes in it. It looks like it was once a chopped coupe.

Portraits taken on a dry lake bed in Nevada in the heat of the day.

47. Top Left: Our Chevy Tahoe. We will probably rent four of the longer Suburbans on the workshop. Top Right: Our first stop on the tour will give us a great place to get everyone up to speed with the flash kit. Bottom Right: The accommodation is fairly basic but we can do better than this place.

If you would like to be kept informed of the workshop dates and prices be sure to drop me a message here.

16 Comments

  1. Chris Elliott

    Hi Damien. Excelled as ever. Let me know details asap. Interested in the change to Mk2. I guess you considered it worthwhile. Currently in Alabama but not for photography your post makes think I should try more! Best wishes

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Chris,

      It’s great to hear from you. Thank you for the compliments. I’ll keep you in the loop re this workshop for sure. I used this trip to get to know the 50s Mk2 and put it through its paces for sure. To be honest I prefer the Mk1 so I’ll be letting the Mk2 go and I’ll have my Mk1 serviced by the team at Fujifilm. I missed using a tripod and I missed the tilting viewfinder out in the desert sun. The tripod can be used for either camera but it seemed unnecessary to use one with IBIS. The tilting viewfinder however is a must for me. The image quality from both cameras was identical and I think I prefer the focus on the Mk1. The mk1 focus algorithm seems less prone to missing the spot despite being a fraction slower to get there.

      I’ll be in touch in a week or so with dates and rates etc.

      Kind regards,
      Damien.

      Reply
    • Damien

      Thank you Ralph.

      I’ll keep you in the loop too.

      Cheers, Damien.

      Reply
  2. Mark Devereux

    Fabulous, as usual. Line of the day: “A good shack in the morning sets you up for the day”….hahahaha!

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Mark,

      I’m glad you spotted that line :))

      Thanks for the compliments,

      Damien

      Reply
    • Damien

      Thank you Julie :) x

      Reply
  3. Marie Sauter

    Love, love, loved all these wonderful photos and beautiful locations. 2023 might be great year for another Lovegrove Adventure?

    Reply
    • Damien

      Thank you Marie. This will be a fabulous trip for sure :) It would be amazing to have you on this one too. I’ll send you the details when I have finalised them.

      Kind regards, Damien.

      Reply
  4. gary powell

    fantastic imagery Damien and congratulations to the girls too not the easiest conditions to stay looking composed. All beautiful – as usual.

    Reply
    • Damien

      Thank you Gary :)

      Reply
  5. Jeremy

    Wow, a lovely set of photos and some amazing locations. I SO want to go on the workshop next year, that would be such a great adventure!

    Reply
    • Damien

      Thank you Jeremy, as a previous multi workshop guest your place is assured. It will be a delight to have you on this trip. Thank you for the compliments.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien

      Reply
  6. Frank MacDonald

    Absolutely gorgeous places to visit. Stunning photos of course. I plan to do similar on a motorbike one day. Hmmm, maybe more to it than I thought. A great read Damien. Thank you

    Reply
    • Damien

      Hi Frank. Thanks for the compliments. The tracks are rocky in places so an all terrain bike might be needed ;) Regards, Damien.

      Reply

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