Winter Photography in the Chihuahuan Desert

Winter is Big Bend’s most popular season – our cool, sunny winter days draw visitors from all walks of life – tourists, hikers, campers, naturalists, and sports lovers. Photographers love it too – though there are few blossoms and the winter palette is composed mostly of earth tones, the grand skies and landscape are still present and great photographs can be found almost everywhere you look. Here are some ideas to help you get the best pictures possible during your visit.

Get Out of the Car and Walk

No matter what your skill level or quality of equipment, there’s nothing you can do that will enhance your experience of a park more and net you better pictures than getting out of the car and walking. You needn’t go on great hikes – beautiful pictures are often only a few car-lengths away. This beautiful scene is about 100 yards off the main road in Big Bend National Park.

Image of eroded clay landforms and wildflowers.

This canyon is less than 100 yards from the main road in the Big Bend National Park.

The smallest, driest creek beds frequently turn into beautiful canyons “just around the bend.” I followed what looked like a small crack in the ground to find this lovely scene:

Photograph of erosion feature in Aguja formation.

Small drainages may rapidly grow into larger canyons in these areas.

Scout Locations

Movie makers and professional photographers often spend a lot of time “scouting locations.” They’re doing just what you’re doing during your little mini-hikes; the only difference is that they’re also thinking about the pictures they would like to take there, and at what times of the day the pictures will look the best. You can do the same thing – pay attention to the sun and how the shadows lie. Try to imagine how the sun will traverse the sky and what will happen to the scene you see now during the course of the day. Then make notes and come back later to verify your guesses. If you were right, take the picture and congratulate yourself on having “scouted” a great location.

Getting Serious

If you find you’re getting hooked on taking great pictures, it’s time to take the next step – finding locations in advance. For this you will need maps and a compass. If you’re interested in plants or wildlife, look for springs and green areas you think you can walk to. These isolated watering spots are great places to find plants and wildlife of all kinds.

If you’re mostly interested in landscapes, look for places on the map where the elevation lines (contours) are closely spaced. Closely spaced lines indicate rapid elevation changes. Steep mountainsides, high cliffs, and the walls of scenic canyons invariably show on the map as tightly spaced contour lines. When the lines bend into points along water courses, you’re likely to find dramatic pour-offs and creek beds filled with colorful boulders and interesting plants.

Topograph map illustrating cliffs and canyons

Identifying ground features on a topographic map.

Increasing Your Odds of Success

If your stay will be short and your main goal is to capture great images, you’ll want to do all you can to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Start by learning when the sun and moon rise and set. Get the positions on the horizon for these events too. The Photographer’s Ephemeris software is available for Mac, PCs, IOS, and Android devices. It shows you when and where the sun, moon and stars rise and set. You can use this information on any map to estimate how the light will play out during the day or night. If you’re scouting on the ground, carry a compass and check it occasionally to visualize how the light will be when you come back for the “shoot.”

Get a GPS and Mapping Software

Repeat visitors can profit from carrying a GPS. Have the GPS track your walks. Set annotated “waypoints” at places you see pictures you’d like to take when conditions are better. Take a few snapshots of the area and let your mapping software link them to the map to help you remember what you were looking at when you were there. Many smartphones have GPS sensors built in. Even if you are in a remote area without service, the phone will download the needed map when you get back to town.

Carry Graduated Neutral Density Filters

West Texas skies tend to be very bright, and the land is often igneous and dark – the range of light is too wide for any camera. Graduated neutral density filters tame the contrast and help you take great shots with colorful skies and properly exposed foregrounds in some situations.

Discover HDR

HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is one of the most useful tools available to the digital photographer. Software generates HDR images by sandwiching three or more exposures and using the best parts of each. In the early days, results tended to be pretty tacky, but current technology allows you to take natural-looking photographs in even the most extreme conditions. Many cameras have the feature built in, and there are apps for smartphones that will do the trick. With older equipment you can simply bracket your photo and use Photoshop to generate the final image.

Photograph showing backlit clouds and cliffs and water features in shade.

This photograph would be impossible without HDR technology.

In this photograph HDR enabled me to keep tones, detail, and color under control despite the subject being located at the bottom of a dark canyon with brilliantly lit walls and a bright winter sky over head.

Photograph showing small pouroff blocked by a boulder in Closed Canyon

Closed Canyon is located in the Big Bend Ranch State Park near the River Road (SH 170). The canyon is narrow and deep shade envelopes parts of the channel.

Above all, get out and enjoy the outdoors, away from the car and off the road. You’ll get better pictures and have better memories to take home from the trip.


About aneyefortexas

Retired writer/teacher/photographer, now photographing the Chihuahuan Desert at the Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.
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4 Responses to Winter Photography in the Chihuahuan Desert

  1. Still taking photos, Gary??

  2. Very informative. I always enjoy your posts. Thanks!

  3. Deborah Douglas says:

    For someone who has limited time to do photography, these are invaluable suggestions, especially the one about “scouting” with a topo map before you ever loading your backpack.

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