Sunlight On Twenty Mule Team Road

The Scene

Death Valley National Park is one of the most interesting and beautiful places on earth. Although the name doesn’t say it directly, the park includes considerably more than a valley because elevations in the park rise to more than 11,000 feet. However, the valley probably is the area of greatest interest to most visitors and the park’s most dominant feature for me is the tremendous amount of bright sunlight that floods the valley floor. The paucity of plant life to intercept sunlight brings soil textures to life. If you like texture, it is hard to beat this national park. The photo shown here was an attempt to capture the dazzling bright light flooding one of my favorite places, Twenty Mule Team Road. I knew that a successful photo here would have to emphasize bright light and the texture of bare soil.

I selected a medium yellow filter to emphasize textures because its yellow color would strengthen shadows (which usually are blueish). This filter also cleared some of the atmospheric haze on the distant mountains so their structure could be more easily seen (mountain structure may not be visible in the low resolution image displayed here but it is an important component in the print). The yellow filter also darkened the blue sky. When the terrain in an image is brighter than the blue sky, it “feels” more luminous than it does if the blue sky is brighter. To further emphasize texture, I made sure that the entire scene was sharply focused from foreground to distant hills. This was accomplished by using a substantial amount of lens tilt along with a fairly sharp f-stop on the lens (f/32) as opposed to no lens tilt with an f-stop of, say, f/90, which would not produce an image which is as sharp.

To make sure the scene retained the feeling of strong luminosity, I placed values as high as I dared and my one degree spot meter was indispensable for measuring the luminosity of small details in the scene. From a practical standpoint, this meant letting small rocks in the foreground go to white or nearly white so I could elevate slightly darker areas of the scene to higher tonal values. I used a shutter speed of 1/30 sec and developed my Tri-X (ASA 320) negative for a normal amount of time.


Since my primary goal was to convey the feeling of dazzling sunlight, it was important to place a brightly lit portion of the scene prominently in the foreground. The two broad mounds of sunlit dirt on the lower left worked just fine.

The dark terrain in the midrange which enters the scene from the right helped the bright foreground terrain feel even brighter.

The road was curved and its apparent change from being wider at the near foreground on the right to being narrower at the midrange on the left helped move the viewer’s eyes deeper into the print.


The film exposure was good so the negative contained a nice range of rich tones.The film included large areas of bright tones that were extremely important to the image so I played it safe with my drum scanner by adjusting the gray level curve before scanning to darken bright values a smidgen. I knew I could readjust them as needed using PhotoShop later.

During editing in PhotoShop, I adjusted the gray level curve by moving middle and high tonal values higher but keeping dark tones low to contrast strongly with the brighter tones and help convey the feeling of bright sunlight.

To enhance the feeling of blazing sunlit terrain, I performed a moderate amount of local dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) with PhotoShop. I brightened small sunlit portions of the clouds to strengthen the overall feeling of luminosity emanating from above. I brightened several sunlit portions of the soil to enhance the overall feeling of light flooding the terrain, especially bright areas in the foreground. I also burned down some of the dark soil entering the scene on the right to contrast more strongly with the bright areas of the scene.

To help move the viewer’s eye through the image more effectively, I lightened the sunlit portion of the large mound in the upper center of the image. To add to this effect, I also lightened the walking path leading into the middle of the scene and continuing toward the left. I enhanced this effect further by brightening the four small rocks on the right edge of the path and the slightly larger hump of sunlit soil on the left side of the path to pull the viewer’s eye toward the image center and into the scene. The combined effect of drawing more visual attention to these areas was quite effective in moving the viewer’s eye through the foreground and into the upper center of the image.

As is the usual case for me, no sharpening was applied during scanning or image editing in PhotoShop but moderate sharpening was applied during printing.

The texture of this scene was composed mostly of small objects such as rocks, cracks in the soil and tiny shadows which are most visible when the image is printed to a fairly large size. I began with a 20 inch x 16 inch print and then made a 25 inch x 20 inch print. To me, the sense of texture is conveyed considerably better in the larger print. I’m quite certain that the image would look even stronger if printed larger, maybe very large.


I believe the image does a great job of conveying the feeling of blazing sunlight on bare soil as is typically seen in Death Valley. Any comments you might have about this image, the photographic approach, the image composition or the workup of the negative will be appreciated. For a larger view of this image, visit my website at  and click on the “Galleries” tab and then look in the “Western USA” gallery.

Randall R Bresee