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Panamint Playa / iPhone 15 Pro

Panamint Playa is one of my favorite locations in Death Valley because of the abstract shapes and patterns that provide endless photographic opportunities. “Playa” is the Spanish word for “beach,” and is other wise known as a dry lake bed, a basin that was formerly a lake (a million years ago!) but has since dried up.

Exploring this giant mosaic of intricate shapes and textures on the playa is lots of fun and I can spend many hours marveling what nature can produce given enough time.

Just as the sun was setting behind the nearby mountains, the light became softer and created a nice “glow” that I knew I only had a few seconds to capture. One of my goals on this trip was to test the capabilities of my iPhone 15 Pro, so I aimed it straight down and tried to keep it as parallel to the ground as possible while moving around to find interesting designs.

That also included adjusting the “amount” of the pattern that I captured to find a nice balance between too little and too much. The right balance adds a sense of abstraction without over doing it either way.

The key for me in terms of composition is keeping the diagonals “engaged” so that I can lead the viewer into the image towards the center of interest. In this case it’s the interesting shape in the lower left third that has the lighter tone and color.

Placing it along the major diagonal emphasizes its important and adds more “energy” to the composition, so I tried to create the same movement along the opposite diagonal as well.

Red lines show the diagonals lines that lead the viewer into and around the patterns. Yellow lines delineate the major shapes I tried to balance. Blue lines show the thirds which I use to create a sense of balance and variation.

I used the default camera app on the iPhone in ProRAW mode to capture the highest quality file possible, and at roughly 30mm, the file size is 36mp. Below are the basic steps I used to develop the dng file in Lightroom on my iPad Pro. You’ll notice I didn’t use any local adjustments—that’s rare for me, but I don’t think the image needed any. As I often say, don’t use a tool simply because it’s easy and available…always ask yourself, “what am I trying to accomplish here?”

Lightroom developing

The initial unedited ProRAW file.
Basic adjustments in the “Light” panel to expand the dynamic range and soften the highlights.
I used the Tone curve to add more contrast, particularly in the shadows. I’ve highlighted the curve with blue dots to show the changes from linear in red. I’m still searching for the “feel” of the image which should be warmer and richer in color – I address that next.
I adjust the temperature to add warmth and richness to the color, and push the Tint slider towards magenta for a “reddish” undertone.
Finally, I add some “character” with Texture, Clarity. and DeHaze, and darken the edges with a vignette to add more energy to the center of the composition.


I always assumed that I would do the final edits in Lightroom Classic on my desktop PC. However, that never happened—it looked great on my desktop and so I just went straight to the Print module to make a print.

For the print I used an Epson P800 and printed on Canson Arches BFK Rives. It has a slight but distinct texture that I would complement all of the textures in the image beautifully, and the matte finish would preserve the dimensionality of the playa floor that completely captured my attention and imagination.

I hope you enjoyed the tour, and hope it provides some insights for your own image making. Questions or feedback? Please share it below!

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for doing this Robert. Always interesting to see your thought process, and I believe I am learning from these.

    1. Thanks so much Colin, appreciate it and great to hear from you. Yes the iPhone is amazing and I’m using it more and more in unexpected situations. While I still very much enjoy the technical aspects of using a DSLR, there’s something liberating yet paradoxically constraining about using the iPhone – it’s ALL about seeing and composing.

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