This is part 2 of a 4 part guide to photography in Joshua Tree National Park. Part 1 discusses the fundamentals of photography in Joshua Tree. Part 2 discusses the technical aspects of photography within Joshua Tree. Part 3 is about the specific locations within Joshua Tree. Part 4 covers night photography specifically in Joshua Tree.

Black and White or Color? 

“Photography is painting with light”
Miroslav Tichy

Photography literally means means “drawing with light”. It comes from the Greek words “phos” (light) and “graphê” (drawing or writing). Light is by far the most important element in photography. Color isn’t a necessity in photography; in fact, it can often detract and distract. Photography is, first and foremost, the study of light, not color. Internalizing and integrating that philosophy into your photography can shape and transform your photographic eye. 

Following that philosophy, the question must be framed differently. The question isn’t when should you shoot in black and white, but rather, when should you shoot in color? 

I answer that question by asking myself the following questions, “does color add anything to this photograph, compositionally or thematically?” and “does color detract from the impact, composition, effect, or intended message of this photograph?” If color doesn’t add something significant to the photograph, I will usually opt for black and white. There is a timelessness and extraordinary quality to Joshua Tree that really suits the medium of black and white photography, probably more than any other place in the United States, in my opinion. It is such an alien and otherworldly landscape that it almost transcends color. 

Not only is Joshua Tree well suited–thematically–for black and white photography, but there are also sometimes technical constraints and realities that make black and white an often ideal–or necessary–photographic medium for Joshua Tree. In many instances, color detracts from photographs in Joshua Tree. Here are two examples of similarly framed and composed photographs in color and black and white, side by side.

In each of these images, a strong case could be made for both color and black and white. I would argue that both color and black and white works for each of these subjects and compositions, though in the second set of images, the black and white image is the stronger photograph. 

For the first set of images, in the color photograph, the golden hue cast on the landscape by the setting sun adds to the impact. In the black and white image, it was possible to push the exposure a bit further to the right, highlighting and accentuating the glowing aura around the cholla cacti; trying this same thing in color washed out that golden hue, leaving a technically poor image. Both color and black and white are equally successful here, in my opinion.

For the second set of images, in the color photograph, the tan of the rocks contrasts beautifully with the deep, blue sky. In the black and white image, the light and shadow are clearly the subject. In the second set of images, given that the light and shadow are the subject of the photograph, color doesn’t do anything to strengthen the impact of the subject; in fact, it detracts from it a bit. It is a bit challenging to come to this conclusion, as the tan and deep blue contrast well and produce a very aesthetically pleasing result. 

The question isn’t, “does it look good?” The question is, “what is my subject and does color strengthen its impact?”

Here is another set of images, this time identical, with one processed in black and white and the other in color. In this instance, the subject is an afternoon landscape at Joshua Tree, no golden hour sunlight, no study of light and shadow, a pretty basic and straightforwardly composed landscape.

In this set of images, the subject is an afternoon landscape at Joshua Tree taken in the afternoon. It is a simply composed photograph. In my opinion, while both are acceptable, I prefer the color photograph. While color isn’t an integral part of the photograph, it serves to highlight and communicate the role color plays in the afternoon landscape at Joshua Tree. The black and white photograph does a better job at conveying the drama of the scene, but the scene, framing, and composition aren’t particularly dramatic and aren’t meant to convey the dramatic nature of the landscape at Joshua Tree; they’re meant to depict it with accuracy and fidelity, so the color photograph is more effective. 

Technical Reasons

In some circumstances, especially in Joshua Tree, there will be conditions, variables, and technical limitations outside of your control that make black and white the more suitable choice. In the example below, I found the scene striking because of the prominent daytime moon. I liked the composition, as well. But, the harshness of the mid-afternoon sun washed the color out and made the image harsh, flat, and compressed. I tried to adjust everything I could in post, but the image always looked very poor in color. Processing the photo in black and white helps tremendously, but it is still a very technically lacking photograph. Although it’s still unsuccessful, it’s much better in black and white.

In this final set of images, a landscape photo taken at early night, the more the photograph was exposed–the brighter it was made–the less it looked like the night in which the photo was taken. Making the color photo bright enough compromised the intent. Processing it in black and white helped it feel more like night while also allowing the image to be brightened. Additionally, the color version is a much less accurate and true representation of what I saw and experienced; it was night time and I was surrounded by darkness. The black and white version conveys that more accurately.

Dynamic Range, Shooting RAW, and Exposure Bracketing/Stacking

One of the biggest technical challenges in photography is dynamic range. Dynamic range is the ratio–or range–between the darkest and lightest parts of an image. Most cameras can only capture about half of what the human eye can see. It’s why you have the classic problem of not being able to photograph a window from inside a room and see both the room and what’s outside of the window the way a human eye can. If you you expose for the scene outside the window, the room will be dark. If you expose for the room, the scene outside the window will be ‘blown out’ and too bright. Every year, cameras get better, but it’s still far from how the human eye sees things. 

Compounding this problem is the fact that the human eye can dynamically adjust its sensitivity based on where it’s looking. For example, during sunset, when you look at the sky, the pupil contracts, letting in less light, but when you look at the ground, the pupil expands, letting in more light. Then, your brain puts it all together in one mental image where both the sky and ground are exposed. Think of it as a type of mental, on the fly, exposure stacking.

Generally, when a camera captures an image, it does so with one exposure, with a limited dynamic range. During many conditions, especially sunrise and sunset, this means the resulting image will not look the way you saw and experienced it. So, it’s the photographers job to ‘process’ the photograph, ‘post’ capture, to make it the way they saw it or the way they creatively interpreted it. Thus the term post processing. 

In Joshua Tree, this problem is the most apparent during dawn, sunrise, sunset, and dusk, illustrated below in two identical photographs.

In the images above, they are the same file, with the one on the left straight out of camera and the other ‘processed’. When I took the photograph, I wanted to make sure I was exposing for the sky, underexposing at that, in order to retain as much color detail as possible in the sky. The result was an image that was much darker than the actual scene was. I knew, since I was shooting in RAW, that I would push the exposure and lighten the shadows in post processing while protecting as much color and detail in the sky as I could. Unfortunately, photographs will often take on a 'HDR' (high dynamic range) feel when processed in this manner. This can be a bit cliche and overdone, as there was a period in the mid-late 2000s when HDR photography was very popular. It's a bit like selective color editing. It should be done perhaps sparingly.

Here’s another, slightly different example:

In the identical images above, the scene I saw with my eyes was much closer to the darker image. It was night time when the photograph was taken. It was difficult, at times, to even see where I was going. I decided that I would underexpose the image and then push the shadows tremendously in post while protecting the highlights, resulting in the image on the right. Is this an ethical and honest practice? Is it cheating or cheap? The answer to that question falls outside the scope of this guide. What is clear, though, is that the image on the left is unusably underexposed and the image on the right isn’t.

There are, for the most part, three ways to deal with the issue of dynamic range. The first is to just accept it and lean into it, producing silhouettes and highly contrasted, more two dimensional images.

Such as the ones below.

The other solutions are to either shoot RAW and adjust the levels in post-processing or produce stacked exposure composite images. The benefit of shooting RAW is that you don’t need a tripod like you do when you produce stacked exposure composite images. The benefit of stacking exposures is that you have much more control of the final image and can produce a higher dynamic range photograph than you can by working with a single exposure RAW file. 

Exposure Bracketing and Stacking

Stacked exposure images are best produced in post-processing. Sometimes, cameras can produce an ‘in camera’ stacked exposure or ‘high dynamic range’ composite image. Check your cameras features and settings. Though, you will always have more control over the final image if you stack the multiple exposures together yourself in post. A tripod is needed to ensure each photograph (exposure) is exactly the same. Sometimes it’s possible to get away with hand-holding the camera to produce stacked exposure composites, but it can be more complicated and is more error prone than using a tripod. 

The ideal solution is to set your camera to take exposure bracketed images. With this setting, your camera will take between 3-5 photographs at varying exposures with a single press of the shutter. You can often set the exposure interval of each photograph. You can then stack them together with your photo editing / post processing software of choice. There are many good guides online on how to create exposure stacked, HDR images from multiple photographs. 

Shooting RAW

I strongly recommend shooting RAW instead of jpeg. It allows for a tremendous amount of flexibility in adjusting exposure, shadows, highlights, and white balance in post-processing. Not only is it easier and simpler than creating multi-exposure, composite images, but it allows for a much more enjoyable workflow, both in capturing the photograph and editing it later. Here is a comparison of an image processed as both jpeg and RAW. As you can see, the JPEG is virtually unusable; the JPEG compression process removes so much data that the could be retrieved from a RAW file.

Post Processing / Photo Editing

The negative is the score, and the print is the performance.

Ansel Adams

This guide won’t go into much depth, at all, on post-processing and editing. A post-processing workflow is a very complicated, personal subject. Everyone has their own preferred software and workflow. So far, almost everything in this part of the guide has been related to the subject of processing and editing: black and white, RAW vs jpeg, and exposure stacking. It’s all done in or pertains to post processing. 

The only important thing about post processing workflows is that you have one. At the end of the day, the camera is a relatively limited device. It can’t reproduce exactly what you saw, exactly the way you saw it, and it can’t understand your creative vision. There is something to be said for the purism that it takes to try and ‘get it right in camera’ and eschew any type of post-processing, but it’s important to know what tools you have available at your disposal in post and how to use them. I prefer Adobe (lightroom and photoshop), others prefer DXO or Capture One. Those are probably the most powerful and popular software solutions. 

When doing general post-processing on landscape photographs in Joshua Tree, there are some basic adjustments from which almost all photographs will benefit: a basic curves adjustment, light to mild sharpening, and a slight increase to saturation. Virtually every digital photograph will benefit greatly from those three adjustments, especially RAW files. Here is a good article from Adobe that goes into greater depth on curves adjustments: Using the Curves Adjustment

Here’s an example of a photograph edited using only those three adjustments:

Camera Settings


I highly recommend shooting manual when doing landscape photography. It’s the mode I use the most in my photography, and I don’t recommend it as a result of some sort of purist pretension. The biggest purported drawback of shooting manual is that it can be slower and more cumbersome, leading to more missed shots. With landscape photography, this isn’t a consideration; there is plenty of time to be deliberate and methodical. It also makes you think, intentionally, about exposure. 

While cameras have advanced tremendously over the years, and their metering gotten much better, they still don’t know your creative vision for a shot. They don’t know if you want to expose for the sky, the ground, a rock in the foreground, or if there is highlight or shadow detail you want to protect. You can change your cameras metering modes and find ways to make them work for you, adjusting your exposure compensation as you go along, but I find it so much easier to forgo all that and just shoot manual. No one knows the shot you’re trying to get but you. Leaving it to the camera to determine exposure is a sub-optimal solution when you have the luxury of time to set your own. 


At Joshua Tree, as a general rule, I use the smallest aperture (f-stop) I can get away with. This is determined either by how much light I have available or how sharp my lens is. If my lens isn’t very sharp or good, I won’t be able to stop-down as much before diffraction makes my images too soft. If there isn’t much available light, I won’t be able to stop-down the aperture because I need more light transmission. This means I am usually at f/9 to f/11 in the day and f/5 to f/8 during and after sunset. There might be unique circumstances in which I use a wider aperture, but as a general rule with landscape, you want as much depth of field as possible.


Shutter speed isn’t much of a consideration unless there is a lot of wind blowing the grass or you’re trying to capture birds, for example. Unless there is a need to capture or freeze motion, then your shutter speed only needs to be fast enough to prevent blur from camera movement. For Joshua Tree, I usually use–at minimum–the reciprocal rule, which states that the shutter speed should be at least the inverse of your focal length. For example, if you’re shooting with a 50mm lens, then the shutter speed should be at 1/50, though I’d recommend at least 1/60 or 1/80 to be safe. If you have in-body or lens stabilization, you can get away with lower shutter speeds. 

ISO (Sensitivity)

As low as possible and as high as needed once aperture and shutter speed are set. 

Lenses and Other Gear


Lenses and focal lengths in particular are another personal preference based on shooting and creative styles. With that said, I firmly believe that Joshua Tree National Park could be shot entirely with a 16-35mm full-frame equivalent lens without missing much. 

Compressed landscapes using medium telephoto focal lengths (70-135mm) are fun and make it much easier to highlight and isolate features and details of the park. It can be easy to make compelling landscape compositions using medium telephoto focal lengths, but they have a very limited compositional vocabulary, which can get old quickly if overdone. 

The ‘normal’ range of 35-58mm can be great for tighter landscape tableaus, but that focal length range can sometimes feel constraining in a wide, expansive landscape like Joshua Tree. 35mm is my all-time favorite focal length and I’ve shot many days at Joshua Tree using only a 35mm prime lens. I’ve never felt limited or wanting. Which is yet another reason why I recommend a 16-35mm equivalent or similar. 

The ‘wide angle’ range of 16-28mm is where one would spend most of their time while doing traditional landscape photography at Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is especially suited for wide angle photography. Wider angles highlight and accentuate the drama and curves of large rocks and formations. They do a better job of conveying the vastness and tremendous scale of the park. 

A 24-70mm or 24-105mm lens would be a very suitable choice for photography at Joshua Tree, but if I could take only one lens, it would be a 16-35mm.


This can be a divisive topic. Personally, I don’t like to use a tripod at Joshua Tree, except at night or in extremely low light, the exception being sunrise. In the park, my photography is a bit more dynamic than a tripod allows. There are some national parks where I always use a tripod and find it helps my photography, like White Sands and Death Valley. In Joshua Tree, however, I find myself rapidly moving from location to location and setting up and breaking down a tripod each time is very frustrating. Sometimes, when I see a composition I want to capture later, or when I am photographing the sunrise, I will use a tripod to more methodically and carefully compose the frame. 

When shooting sunrises, I like to plan my shots the day before, because when I arrive, it’s still dark and it’s difficult to plan shots in the dark. Sunrises pass pretty quickly, so it’s difficult to plan shots on the fly. With sunrises, I like to use a tripod; it helps cement my intentionality and the method makes me think a lot more about composition. 

Tripods are also necessary for stitched panoramas and stacked images (focus and exposure). Though chances are, if you're creating either of those, you have a tripod and already know to bring it.


This isn’t an in-depth guide, rather a quick familiarization primer, to get you broadly acquainted with the technical aspects of photography in Joshua Tree. There probably isn’t much new information for most people, but hopefully it helps during your trip. Part 3 of this guide will cover the specific locations for photography in Joshua Tree National Park.