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Solo Camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Kodak Portra 160 Film, Shen-Hao TFC 617-A
You gotta see these big - click any image to enlarge

Lately I've been trying to break out of my usual photographic style. Super-vibrant colors, rich contrast, epic wide-angle compositions..."yeah, yeah, we've seen it before, Nick." I've pursued this style for years because, let's be honest, it's an easy way to impress people. Flash some pretty colors on a computer screen and folks gather around like moths to a flame. It's no wonder this style has become so popular in recent years. Just boost that saturation slider in Lightroom and watch the "Likes" rack up.

But repetition is the antithesis to creativity. I've become so overloaded with that hit-you-in-the-face style of landscape photography that I just didn't feel creative anymore repeating my usual look. So when I found myself in one of my cyclic creative slumps again, I decided it was time to switch things up. I needed to try something new - something completely different than my usual modus operandi. I didn't even care if it was good, as long as it was different. An ounce of "different" is worth a pound of "good" when it comes to creating art, in my humble opinion.

With plans to take a solo camping trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to break out of my mold. So I made a mental checklist of what I typically do in my landscape photography: super saturated colors, deep dark shadows, wide angle compositions, and a pronounced foreground element. Good. Now I know what not to do.

My goal was to only take pictures with a lower-saturation film (Kodak Portra 160) so I didn't have the crutch of vibrant colors. This film also has softer contrast - one more crutch gone. Then I stuck exclusively to normal and telephoto focal lengths focused on more distant subjects. In other words, no using that sneaky trick of throwing on the super wide angle lens and getting right on top of an epic foreground element.

Also, the location was Anza-Borrego Desert State Park - a park with no notable geographic formations, no raging rivers or majestic peaks, and no iconic arches drawing people from all over the world. The park is bland compared to the photographer's Disneyland that is Yosemite. Point any lens at Half Dome and you have a 50/50 chance of creating something frame-worthy. But out here in the desolate badlands of southern California, Anza-Borrego Desert would provide no "get out of jail free" cards.

Putting myself in this position was uncomfortable. I was in unknown territory without my binky. The certitude that I would create at least one good photo wasn't coming with me on this trip. After all, what if this low-saturation, low-contrast, telephoto looks turns out terrible? What if nobody likes it?

It was tough fighting years of ingrained habits, but I came out unscathed and better for it. I'm happy with the photos. I like the softer look and the simplified compositions. They are photos I would actually hang on my own walls. But more than the look, I'm happy I broke out of my mold. It feels good to try something new. And ultimately, it's the only way to get the creative gears turning again once they bind up.

Now the question is, how long before I grow tired of this style?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

And check out my sweet campsite: