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New Work: Aliso/Woods Canyons in Fog

We had a stretch of foggy mornings here in Orange County back in November. Dense fog makes for great photos in the right environment and it's one of the few things that will get me out of bed before sunrise. I'd been exploring the Aliso and Woods Canyons Wilderness Park on my mountain bike quite a bit over the previous couple months and had scouted out a couple areas that would be perfect to take advantage of the fog.

Fence in fog - Aliso & Woods Canyons Wilderness Park, Orange County, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 lens
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/2 second at f/16 - Lee 2-stop split ND
Click for larger version

When shooting foggy landscapes, you need subjects receding off into the distance. See, the only thing that makes fog look like fog in a 2-dimensional photo is that there are subjects in the background areas that appear more faded than the near subjects. If you have a rock right in front of you, a tree 50 yards away, and a hill 500 yards away, you're golden. The near rock will be un-occluded by the fog and will thus appear relatively crisp. The tree in the middle ground will be slightly faded due to the dispersion of light caused by the fog, and the hill in the back will be very soft and muted. All this equates to fog in the resulting shot. The more you have of these layers, the better.

But if instead you have a simpler scene of a barn 50 yards away surrounded by trees that are just 60 yards away, then the sense of fogginess gets lost. Everything will be about equally muted by the fog and, thus, the photo will look flat. There won't be that sense of depth and layering created by having subjects at varying distances from the camera.

Knowing this, I envisioned a photo in Aliso/Woods Canyons that would utilize a dilapidated gate from an old corral in the foreground, the fence receding into the mid-ground, and several layers of hillsides into the background. All these subjects at varying distances would give me my "fog look."

I decided to use my medium format Mamiya RZ67 for this photo - partly because I just wanted to try out this new camera, but I also wanted to capture the minute details in this scene with better resolution than 35mm. I could have captured maximum resolution with my large format 4x5, but I knew the fog would dissipate quickly, so I wanted something a bit quicker to set up.

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 LensMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 lens
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With my Mamiya packed up in my backpack along with my 35mm camera loaded with B&W film (those pictures coming soon), I set off on my mountain bike to my planned spot. Between the medium format camera, 35mm camera, accessories, and tripod, my pack was pretty heavy. Carrying this much weight while on a mountain bike can be a little tricky, but I'm getting more and more comfortable with it - and it sure trumps walking in terms of speed and effort.

It was a beautiful morning. I saw half a dozen coyotes deep in the fog like ghosts watching me through the haze. It was calm, cold, and quiet. Mornings like these remind me to go riding at sunrise more often.

At my desired spot, I worked out a composition as the light intensified. Using my handheld spot meter, I calculated an exposure of 1/2 second at f/16 using Provia 100F film. I knew the photo would come out quite blue due to the blue light of early morning and the further bluing caused by the moisture in the air. I could have warmed it up a bit with my 81C warming filter, but I decided to let the blue color ride, banking on the fact that it would create an appropriate mood to match the fog. I also used a Lee 2-stop hard-edge split ND to hold back light in the background.

After firing 2 more identical exposures, I ventured off on to another trail in search of a different composition. I eventually found myself in a small meadow of golden grass where orb spider webs dripping with dew dotted the meadow, picking up the backlighting from the morning sun like chandeliers.

With my Mamiya and 50mm wide-angle lens (equivalent to roughly 24mm in 35mm format), I tried a vertical and horizontal of a particularly beautiful web. Both utilized backlighting to highlight the dew, but the horizontal framing ultimately won out. I chose an aperture of f/8 to blur the background a bit so as to draw more attention to the web, which brought my shutter speed to 1/30. A Lee 3-stop hard-edge split ND held back light in the bright background. I could have used 5-stops of split ND to prevent the background from blowing out, but I wanted to keep it bright to give a better sense of the bright morning sun breaking through the fog.

Dew on Spider web in Aliso & Woods Canyons Wilderness Park, Orange County, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 lens
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/30 second at f/8 - Lee 3-stop split ND
Click for larger version

With one roll of medium format film exposed and another roll of 35mm black and white completed, I rode my way back uphill to the car and treated myself to some McDonald's breakfast on the way home. Good times.