Bedouins with their camels make their way across Wadi Rum.
E. Lawrence, known for his heroic actions during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, was immortalized as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the title of an epic 1962 film based on his wartime activities described in his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I channeled both Lawrence and Peter O’Toole, who played the dashing Britisher, as I made my way across the unforgiving but strikingly beautiful desert of Wadi Rum, where much of the film and the history it was based on took place.
A Photographer’s Checklist: Packing The Right Gear
To adequately capture my adventure, I have to decide what gear to take on the trip, which means I have to make some tough decisions. So, before heading out on an assignment, I try to envision what I will need in terms of equipment.
It’s always a balancing act. If I don’t have it, I can’t use it, but carrying too much can slow my response time to a photo op and become a physical burden.
On my excursion through Jordan’s mesmerizing landscapes, weight became a very important factor, even more than usual. That’s because I needed to reach each stop via a combination of Jeep, camel, mountain bike and on foot. I’d even need to scramble up and down unforgiving rocks.
So I decided that Think Tank’s MindShift Gear BackLight 26L was the right size and type for the trip. Its back-loading compartment allowed me to quickly access my camera and lenses by swinging it around my waist with the belt still on so I could avoid contact with the sandy locations I worked in.
Also, for a bag with a relatively demure size and excellent back support, it can handle an impressive load. I filled it with my Nikon D850, Nikon D810 and SB-910 flash and 24-70mm f/2.8, 70-200mm f/2.8, 20mm f/1.8 and 14mm f/1.8 lenses as well as a small tripod with an RRS ballhead in the side pocket.
My accessories included a B+W XS-Pro Kaesemann Nano Polarizer and 3-stop polarizer, Schneider Optics ND .6 and 1.2 grad filters with a Lee filter holder, a cable release, two extra camera batteries, some 128 SanDisk Extreme cards and a Sony HDD to back up my images. I particularly like this portable hard drive because it has both USB and Thunderbolt ports. If one goes down, I can still access my files with the other.
I then filled the front pockets of the MindShift bag with my 13-inch MacBook Pro and a 20-inch Westcott Illuminator silver/white reflector and was ready to venture forth.
Mapping Out My Strategy For My Photo Essay
For this trip, working with Jordan-based Terhaal Adventures, my six-day trek included Jordan’s most stunning regions: the Dana Biosphere Reserve, the “Rose-Red-City” of Petra and Wadi Rum.
Once I was packed and had my itinerary all set, the question I then asked myself was, “How am I going to translate this experience into photographs?”
One thing I’ve found from my years on the road with camera in hand is that one of the keys is to think in terms of a series of photographs that tells a story. In short, develop a photo essay.
As I’ve written in my book The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images, there are key photos that should be a part of the endeavor, including:
- An establishing shot.
- Environmental portraits (a portrait of a person in an environment that relates to them).
- Detail shots, such as food.
- A closing shot.
The idea is to visually take the viewer of your images with you on your journey.
Tips From A Photographer’s Travel Log Through Jordan
There are many factors to create powerful travel shots. Here are some thoughts on my trip through Jordan and how to improve your own travel photos, no matter where your travels take you:
Learning the route and its history: I joined a small group of fellow explorers and headed out from Jordan’s capital of Amman for the Dana Biosphere Reserve, where the Wadi Dana and the Great Rift Valley unfolded below us, right before our eyes and cameras.
If you’re not familiar with the term “wadi,” it refers to a valley or ravine that is dry, except in the rainy season, with the water and wind chiseling dramatic camera-worthy rock formations. We then continued on to Shobak Castle, one in a chain of castles that guarded the eastern edge of the Crusader kingdoms, and watched over the old trade routes that ran from the Red Sea up to Damascus.
The pros and cons of group travel: There are advantages and disadvantages with group travel, with economic savings and camaraderie on the plus side and time and schedule constraints on the minus side. This is an important aspect to consider. Award-winning photography often results from being not only at the right place at the right time but also being there at the best time of day in terms of dramatic light.
I’ve learned that more often than not, I can still get what I need in a group situation by getting up earlier, staying up later or occasionally skipping a group meal.
And remember: A writer may be able to describe the drama of a desert sunset after the fact, but a photographer has to be there in real-time.
Discovering photo ops and how to shoot them effectively: One of the great treks in Jordan is to enter into Petra via a spectacular Bedouin backdoor trail through the mountains. This “discovery” is why I love working with local tour operators such as Terhaal Adventures that have intimate knowledge of their country.
After a night of camping in the desert and a two-hour hike up and around dramatic cliffs, we came face to face with one of Petra’s most impressive sites, the immense rock-cut facade of ad Deir, a.k.a., “The Monastery.”
I found a nearby cave opening that acts as a natural frame for this historic site. We then continued down the stone steps of a Nabataean processional way into the heart of Petra, where its most famous monument, “The Treasury,” reveals itself.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site has been described as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.” But the surrounding high canyon walls make it a difficult subject to capture in a single frame. My 14mm, 20mm and 24-70mm (mostly at the 24mm focal length) become my lenses of choice throughout Petra. By hiking up to various overlooks, I avoid the extreme distortion of the wide angles (except for tilt-shift lenses).
Using scale creatively: The next day’s journey from Petra to Wadi Rum is by bike and camel. Wadi Rum’s desert landscape of sandstone and granite was described by Lawrence as “vast, echoing and god-like” and is the largest wadi in Jordan. So to convey its immense size, I carefully compose my photographs so that in some of my shots people appear small within the frame and landscape. It’s what I call “the extra element” and infuses some of my images with a sense of scale.
Shooting at night: The sun going down in the desert opens up dramatic landscape and night-sky photo opportunities.
Venturing out from our Bedouin campsite, it’s time to put my tripod to work. I have a dedicated Really Right Stuff L bracket on my Nikon D850. So there is no stress on my RRS ballhead during long vertical exposures.
Typically, I don’t let my exposures of a night sky go longer than 20 seconds to avoid motion blur with the stars.
Exploring Environmental Portraits: Photographing people is a vital part of telling the whole story of this desert region of the Hashemite Kingdom. Bedouins, who still herd goats and camels and still live in black goat hair tents in the desert as they have done for countless centuries, are ideal subjects for two types of portraits—the “eyes are the windows to the soul” type of portrait and an environmental portrait.
For the first type, I’ll use longer focal lengths, 70mm to 105mm at ƒ/4 or ƒ/4.5 for nice background bokeh—or the quality of the out-of-focus areas of an image. I’ll use an ƒ/4.5 to ƒ/6.3 on my NIKKOR 24-70mm for the second type of portrait.
Pulling the visual elements together: Early on in my trip, what became clear to me was that a history-focused photo essay, infused with dramatic landscapes, would be the best way to tell the story of this ancient land. So, throughout my trip, I used that knowledge to capture powerful, meaningful subjects in intriguing, carefully constructed compositions.
The images you see in this article are several from this series of photographs.