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Photography: Fireside self-portrait

How to capture a dazzling fireside self-portrait in California's Anza-Borrego desert? Our photographer explains

Photography: Fireside self-portrait
Image: Kris Davidson

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The Anza-Borrego desert in southern California is magical, especially as night falls. A sense of stillness and solitude prevails, even as planes soar past towards Los Angeles, the megacity glowing in the distance.

Generally, the best way to illustrate how a human experiences the world is to include a person in the composition. Since there was no one else about in the desert that night, I opted for a self-portrait. 

With dusk shots, timing is everything; the time frame in which the sky colour and the fire will look best is fleeting, perhaps a few minutes at most. After building the fire, as dusk was approaching, I set up the composition. I was using a Canon 5D Mark III with f/2.8 24-70 lens, positioned on a low-sitting tripod. Test shots showed that the ideal exposure would be at ISO 1600 at f4.0 with a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds. The exposure was made in RAW mode, allowing for additional exposure manipulation in post-production. To achieve the self-portrait, I used a Vello FreeWave wireless remote.

The slow shutter speed is a crucial component to this particular image. At half a second, the flickering embers become graceful lines dancing across the frame. With the Vello transmitter hidden in my right hand I used my left to nudge the fire with a log, creating a stream of embers. 

Not looking through the viewfinder can present various challenges, including inaccurate focus. During the course of the session, I checked the images a few times on the back of the camera, making slight adjustments for exposure. I also zoomed into the image to gauge the focus, finally locking in the correct plane of focus on myself. In low-light photography, a wide aperture is often required in order to expose the image properly. In this case, since the shutter speed of 0.5 seconds was specific, there was very little wiggle room with the aperture and depth of field.

Finally, the last step in this shoot was to sit back, breathe the clean desert air, and just let the wonder and beauty of dusk in the desert wash over me.

Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)