Las Vegas Dry Lake Bed Photography with Steampunk and Poi!

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Las Vegas Dry Lake Bed Photography with Steampunk and Poi!

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When people think of Las Vegas the images they conjure typically are ones of slot machines, buffet lines, and Cirque du Something shows. They also think of the hot desert sun. The Las Vegas valley is in a geographic basin, surrounded by a variety of different mountains and even some exhausted volcanoes  When one pictures a scenic desert landscape of Saguaro cactus, interesting wildlife, and gorgeous rock formations, they won’t see it here in Las Vegas. For that, you need to visit one of the surrounding areas of Red Rock Canyon or Valley of Fire. In Las Vegas, the ground is made of ugly rocks, lots of brush, and compressed calcium deposits known as Caliche. At one point in time, much of the Las Vegas basin was actually underwater and today, our only major natural source of water comes from Lake Mead, which was created in the 1920s when the Hoover Dam was constructed to block the Colorado River. However, you can still see remains of where large pools of water would accumulate. As the water in the Las Vegas area has a very high mineral content, when the water leaves through evaporation or through absorption into the ground, the calcium stains remain as a permanent white tattoo upon the rocks.


Models Robert Runkle and Mariah McBride pose with a 1947 Army Jeep at one of the nearby dry lake beds outside of Las Vegas.

Models Robert Runkle and Mariah McBride pose with a 1947 Army Jeep at one of the nearby dry lake beds outside of Las Vegas.

As water runs down from the mountains that surround Las Vegas, it will sometimes pool into an actual lake. The dry, flat ground absorbs the moisture but with the Las Vegas climate, it doesn’t stick around for very long. As the water soaks into the ground, it creates vast open areas of flat, cracked earth. As the water evaporates or is absorbed into the ground, the mineral soaked ground becomes dry and cracked, creating a dry lake bed in it’s wake. As the average amount of rain accumulation we receive in Las Vegas is about 4 inches per year, it doesn’t take long for the ground in one of these dry lake beds to go turn from a swamp-like mud after it rains into a newly formed ground of cracked earth, different in appearance from the way it looked after the previous heavy rain fall. This fresh looking ground layer is something of the likes of science fiction movies as, once dry, it appears as though you’re walking upon the surface of another planet. This typically means the few dry lake beds around Las Vegas become a magnet for two different types of people. The first are those with dirt bikes or four-wheelers who love to tear up the new, flat surface. A week after a good rain, it’s common to see entire parties of four-wheeler riders on the dry lake beds having races or training kids on how to ride as there is little fear of actually crashing into any objects out there. The second group it attracts is photographers! The Las Vegas dry lake beds are frequently a location of choice for amateur and professional photographers alike due to the vast, open nature of the area plus the unique look of the cracked earth and nearby mountains that create the backdrop.

Official band photo for local group, The Roxy Gunn Project, who can be seen performing at casinos and events all over Las Vegas.

Official band photo for local group The Roxy Gunn Project, who can be seen performing at casinos and events all over Las Vegas

There are several different dry lake beds around Las Vegas but the two most popular ones are within a 1 hour drive of the Las Vegas Strip. The first of which is just south of the city, on I-15 headed toward Los Angeles. Its exact location is right outside of Jean, Nevada. Jean is a small town most travelers pass as it is located between the greater Las Vegas area and Primm, Nevada (otherwise known as “State Line” as it sits right on the Nevada/California border). The two most exciting things to the residents of Jean are the closed Southern Nevada Correctional Facility prison and the dry lake bed that crosses over it. BE WARNED: rumor has it that this dry lake bed is now being patrolled by park rangers so there is a chance that, if caught, you would have to pay a fine if you are planning a larger shoot there on your own!The second dry lake bed is located off of I-95 as you leave Las Vegas to Boulder City, Nevada. As you take I-95 out of the city, you will come across a lonesome hotel casino, the Railroad Pass. There is actually a traffic light there to stop traffic for those coming and going from the casino. Immediately after that, you will see a turnoff to the south which heads to Searchlight and Laughlin. Along that drive you’ll also, eventually, see the turnoff to Nelson Nevada and Eldorado Canyon as well (as I wrote about in a previous blog). Once you take this exit, approximately five miles down the road will be a huge dry lake bed on your right. You can actually see it once you’ve made the turn from this exit. The dry lake bed is approximately 1 mile wide by 5 miles long. Of the two major dry lake beds, I’ve found that this one in particular is the easiest to access and also is the better of the two to work in as it is more isolated from the light of the city for night shoots and also creates a nice look of the shadows during sunset. As this area is on the west side of the highway (which is slightly elevated over the lake bed), your only real way to take pictures is to the west, into the mountain range on the dry lake bed’s western border. 

Driving Directions to the Boulder City Dry Lake Bed outside of Las Vegas

Driving Directions to the Boulder City Dry Lake Bed outside of Las Vegas (Click for larger view)

 Taking photographs in this area, though, can be rather tricky. First there is the temperature. People tend to forget that deserts have vast temperature swings from day to night, so when arriving there in the winter time, it may be comfortable during the day, but almost immediately after the sun sets you’ll feel a 10-20 degree drop in temperature. During the summer, the dry ground acts to reflect all the head it’s absorbing from the sun, so walking on the surface during the June, July, and August months can be quite unpleasant during the day, where you’ll feel a dramatic temperature increase over the surrounding areas, but cools down to a very comfortable level once the sun sets. Next, if you are taking pictures of people, you need to think about where you want your shadows and lighting to be. To get the sun at your back, you have to setup and start taking photos very early in the morning. As the sun rises , the flat ground will amplify any shadows you may have so most of your photos will have your own shadow in the shot unless you get creative with your angles. When the sun is overhead, it’s going to create some very hard looking shadows as well, so if a hot summer look is what you seek, you might want to arrive just after the sun is directly overhead



For example, I recently did two amazing photo shoots at the Boulder City dry lake bed in January of 2013. Each of the two shoots was quite different and each shoot used two very different lighting systems. The first of the two shoots was a Cosplay shoot (Costume Play), which are always fun. Much of my Cosplay work has been published around the world and I’ve written about it several times in the past in this blog, although this specific type of shoot was a form of Cosplay involving a Steampunk theme. Stempunk is a genre of science fiction involving steam-powered, yet futuristic technology. There are two different styles in Steampunk…the Wild West genre involving more Western U.S. looks and the second involves more of a Victorian flair, which happens to be my favorite of the two and the theme for the shoot we did. To pull this shoot off involved one very amazing team of dedicated artists and models to make this one of my favorite shoots of all time. It never ceases to amaze me what happens when you put lots of creative-types in one room together, or, in this case, a dry lake bed.


Model Tina Carbaugh having her hair professionally styled by Kalliann Hass


Angelika Markovic performs her makup artistry on model Katrina Wilkinson

I have been wanting to do a Steampunk shoot for some time so when I put the word out, I never thought there would be so many talented people in Las Vegas that wanted to get involved. The two models, Tina and Katrina were absolutely awesome! Hair and makeup were also done by two seasoned professionals in this industry and we also were fortunate to have an incredible costume designer on board to tailor-fit these custom-made costumes to our models. I could not have found better professionals for this shoot if I tried and I was so happy that everyone had such a great time on this project! I even contributed in some non-photographic measures by constructing the prop guns used in the shoot, which was a ton of fun also. 

behind-the-scenes shot of myself and models Tina Carbaugh and Katrina Wilkinson.

Behind-the-scenes shot of myself and models Tina Carbaugh and Katrina Wilkinson. My wife, Bethany, was off camera holding the reflector. A giant softbox with a studio light was positioned on my right. These AMAZING costumes were custom designed for our shoot by Vanessa Irino of Jrock Ginger, who’s attention to detail was nothing short of incredible.

This was shot at approximately 4 PM out at the Boulder City dry lake bed and was shot with a series of large lights powered by a portable power pack. It was a slightly complex shoot as I had to capture all the details of the costumes, makeup, hair, and the beautiful poses of the models, not to mention the sun setting in the background and other fine details you can only get in a cool place like a dry lake bed. I think the amazing results speak for themselves that this shoot was a very positive one that yielded some very exciting photos for which I hope get picked up somewhere in publication. Here are the results so be sure to leave your comments at the end of this blog if you like them!


Models Katrina Wilkinson & Tina Carbaugh





Our favorite and most complex shot of the set. (CLICK HERE FOR LARGER VIEW)


Certainly everyone involved in this great photo shoot deserve special credit: 

Model: Tina Carbaugh

Model: Katrina Wilkinson [FACEBOOK LINK]

Makeup: Angelika Markovic

Hair: Kalliann Hass [OFFICIAL LINK]

Costume Design: Vanessa Irino of Jrock Ginger [FACEBOOK LINK][OFFICIAL WEBSITE]

My second shoot of January out at the Boulder City dry lake bed was a very radical departure from some of the other shoots I typically do. This involved an amazing team of performers here in Las Vegas known as Big Horse Productions. This group of horseback stunt riders, dancers, acrobats, and fire spinners (known as “poi”) just oozed cool.

Aaron Crippen lifts acrobat Manya Silver high into the sunset at the Boulder City Dry Lake Bed

Aaron Crippen lifts acrobat Monnya Silver high into the sunset at the Boulder City Dry Lake Bed outside of Las Vegas

Big Horse Productions has been breaking the mold in equine entertainment since 1997 and have won many awards for their amazing feats of acrobatics and horsemanship. Their signature act involves founder Eric Martonovich riding an 8-horse hitch of 2,000+ pound Belgian horses with acrobats at the same time. They have toured all over the United States and Canada but are based here in Las Vegas. They currently are in the process of launching their next big show, “Gladius”, which will open in 2014. This show, which involves a Roman/Gladiator feel will be a 90-minute show unlike anything you’ve ever seen! Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of pyrotechnicians and poi dancers but never have I ever worked with a group of people so knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Years ago I had seen some video of people spinning fire not with standard poi but instead with fine steel wool! Most people are not aware that steel wool burns very easily and the embers, when mixed with lots of air, produce a shower of sparks unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve always wanted to do a photo shoot involving the use of steel wool and when I bounced the idea past Manya Silver, one of the group’s members, she said she was in! A few phone calls later, and Manya arranged a shoot for three other members of the organization, which yielded some incredible photos on a very cold night in January.


Founder Eric Martonovich lets the fire and sparks fly in this quick demonstration of spinning poi.


Equestrian vaulting world champion, acrobat, and fire performer Lisa Varmbo shows off her skills of spinning poi in the freezing January winter.


Mixing fire and sparks, Aaron and Monnya work with pryo like nobody else!


Lisa Varmbo stands in her umbrella of fire and sparks!


Both Monnya Silver and Lisa Varmbo create beautiful patterns in the Las Vegas desert dry lake bed near Boulder City, Nevada


Group Shot of all four participating members of Big Horse Productions.
Top: Monnya Silver
Left: Aaron Crippin
Middle: Lisa Varmbo
Right: Eric Martonovich

Big Horse Productions can be contacted through their website at and be sure to Like them on Facebook as well! One of the great things about being able to photograph in places like an obscure dry lake bed in the middle of the Nevada desert is that you are able to flex your creative muscles in ways you haven’t even begun to dream of. The amount of things you can do in these dry lake beds is infinite and every time I think I’ve exhausted all my ideas for shooting there, I always come up with something new and innovative. Over the years I’ve done large commercial photo shoots there, photo shoots for world famous fashion and glamour models, for nature magazines, and even for family portraits or fun photos for visitors outside the Las Vegas area wanting something really memorable to take back home with them instead of a typical Las Vegas tourist souvenir.

So whether you are a professional model or just someone who wants some amazing photos taken at an incredible location, I’m the one to call to make your photos really pop. I don’t just get you photos, I get you RESULTS! To book a shoot at one of the Las Vegas dry lake beds or any other kind of highly creative shoot, be sure to check out my website, Adam Sternberg Photography of Las Vegas at or call me direct at 702-204-1740!

7 comments on “Las Vegas Dry Lake Bed Photography with Steampunk and Poi!”

  1. OMG Adam, this work is amazing! That cosplay/steampunk stuff you do is the best!!!!

  2. I travel with a carnival group around the southwest and want to book you to shoot our troupe!

  3. Suzanne Martios says:

    I’ve been searching for cosplay people in Las Vegas for over a year since I moved here from New York. It looks like I found the best there is! GREAT BLOG!

  4. What are the best days to shoot out at one of the dry lake beds?

  5. The dry lake bed in las vegas is starting to get a little cliche’ but every time I see you shoot out there you seem to do things nobody else does. awesome work Adam!

  6. Your best bet is to wait at least ten days after any rainfall in Las Vegas or the dry lake beds will be more like a swamp but the best days really are Monday-Thursday. On the weekends, you get a lot of four-wheelers running around out there tearing up the ground and making a lot of dust. Stick to the weekdays and you’ll usually have better luck.


  7. Awesome Riata. All you have to do is call me at 702-204-1740 or email me at

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