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Mojave Desert, Part 1: Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography
Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
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You know me, I love the desert. When most people imagine the desert, they imagine a monochrome wasteland of barren terrain. But when I imagine the desert, I imagine a landscape bursting with color, unique land formations, and flora and fauna that you won’t find anywhere else. A place like the Mojave Desert is about as good as it gets for me. Open space as far as the eye can see, big skies, deafening quiet, and not to mention great off-roading. That’s why there are few things I love more than doing some landscape photography out in the Mojave Desert.

I think the desert just has a bad publicist. When a place is called “Death Valley” or “Badwater Basin” or “Devil’s Golf Course,” you wouldn’t know these are some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Then you throw in outlet malls and Podunk towns riddled with drug abuse, it’s no wonder people shy away from these areas. Plus the heat. People hate 100+ degree temperatures. But that’s 3-4 months out of the year. The rest of the year, these places have some seriously comfortable mild weather.

I guess it’s up to me and the rest of us cactus-huggers to turn the desert’s image around. I mean, come on, how can you not be in love with sand dunes and Saguaro cactus?

Unfortunately with the start of summer just around the corner, the heat out in these areas is getting into “unbearable” status. But luckily for me, I was able to squeeze in one last visit to the Mojave Desert at the end of January for a 3-day camping trip of landscape photography and some R&R with my two older brothers. The daytime temps were pleasant ranging from chilly to warm, but good God did we underestimate how cold it would get at night! Even in my high-performance sleeping bag I could barely sleep a wink because I was just too cold. Next time I’m bringing a space heater for my tent...and thicker socks...and a second space heater.

But poor night’s sleep aside, I came home with some decent landscape photography. I brought 3 cameras in all - my square format 6x6 Mamiya 6, my 6x7 Mamiya RZ67, and my panoramic 6x17 camera. That’s the beauty of driving to your location instead of backpacking - I can bring 40 pounds of camera gear. That just left the wind to contend with.

I’m breaking up my pictures from this trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert into 3 parts. This first part is all my color landscape photography from the 3 days out there shot on Fuji Velvia film and Kodak Portra film. The next post will be my black and whites. The final post will be just my detail shots of the sand textures. I went nuts photographing the sand ripples so they’ll need their own post.

Rather than keep yapping, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy!

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 3

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertKelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Fuji Velvia 50 Film
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Here we are at the third and final blog post for my recent trip to the Mojave Desert. The trip was only a day, but as I outlined in my first post, my goal was to capture these sand dunes in 3 different styles. The first post showcased photos with a shallow DOF, muted colors, and soft contrast look. The second post featured my classic black and white landscape photography look. This post is more like my usual stuff: high contrast, high saturation, epic compositions...you know, my best impression of Galen Rowell. Again, some similar compositions as in the previous posts, but a different overall stylistic approach.

The style of photography you see here has become commonplace in recent years. It seems every photographer (myself included) realizes at some point that an easy way to "wow" viewers is with vivid colors and rich contrast. It's a cheap way to rack up "likes" on Instagram and Facebook. This is why newbies often go way overboard with the saturation tool in Lightroom. Intensifying the colors is addicting and it's easy to get carried away with it. But aside from wowing viewers, it'll even make you feel better about your shots. It's as though capturing ultra-vivid colors is some sort of a validation that you're a good photographer. It's not, of course, but it's an easy way to feel like you succeeded.

I love the high-saturation stuff. It was my first love and I still gravitate towards the vibrant colors like a moth to a flame. But in recent years, I've come to appreciate the more subtle beauty of a soft color palette and not-so-epic compositions. I've grown to appreciate anything that's different. This vivid stuff is good, but I wouldn't consider it different. It's an all-too-common approach these days.

All that being said, I still couldn't resist the urge to expose a roll of Velvia 50 while I was out there in the Mojave Desert. Velvia film is the gold standard for high-saturation landscape photography, and boy did it work here. The colors of the dunes and sky jump off the film like oil paints. Oh so satisfying... But I've come to a realization in recent years that took me a long time to come to terms with. This vivid, in-your-face style of landscape photography looks great on your computer screen, on an iPhone, or on a magazine cover, but it's not really the type of thing the average person hangs on their wall. That's why magazines and screen savers are chock-a-block full of these types of vibrant images but you'll rarely see one hanging in someone's home. That doesn't make this style of photography any less valuable or meaningful, just that it serves a certain purpose but that purpose generally isn't for fine art. And, well, since the majority of photography is digital sharing these days, all the more reason to shoot in this style, right?

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertThat's my friend Eric Bryan at the top of the dune there.
Check out his work at www.ericbryan.net

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 2

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and WhiteMojave Desert in Black and White
Medium Format Ilford Delta 100 Film
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Continuing the previous post showcasing my photos from a recent trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert, this entry highlights a different photographic style of the same subject. In fact, you'll notice that many of the compositions shown here are identical to compositions in the previous entry because, as I mentioned in the last post, I wanted to see how different artistic styles could be applied to the same photographs for a little bit of variety. The photos I shared last week show a softer take on the Mojave Desert. With the wider dynamic range and muted color palette of Kodak Portra film, the contrast softened up a bit and the overall vibe was less intense than you might get from the usual high-saturation stuff. Also, I utilized a shallow depth of field in many of the shots to mix things up a bit from my typical  landscape photography.

The landscape photography I want to share with you in this post offers a different view of the Mojave Desert. These photos exhibit more of a classic, old-style take on this timeless landscape. My goal was to highlight the shapes, shadows, and textures of these sand dunes. Color was not my top priority here, it was the tones of the sky contrasted with the sunlit dunes and its shadows. Since there's no better way to highlight tonal differences than with black and white, I opted for Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. Without the distraction of color, the light and dark can really take center stage.

Using my spot metering process (that I teach in my online course here), I established that the tonal difference between the sunlit areas of the dunes and the shadowed areas of the dunes was only about 5 stops apart. I know through previous testing that my Ilford film has a dynamic range around 10 to 11 stops. So with only a 5-stop separation between highlights and shadows, the contrast wouldn't be very impressive. I wanted the highlights to be bright white and the shadows to be nearly black. 5 stops wasn't going to do it. This 5-stop separation meant the shadows were only going to be dark gray and the highlights light gray. Also, I found out that the sky was going to come out about medium gray. That wasn't going to work for what I envisioned. I wanted the sky to be nearly black with bright white clouds popping out from it.

So, to put it simply, I needed to increase the contrast of the scene so that the shadows would drop in brightness and the highlights would increase in brightness. In order to do this, I opted for N+1 processing. Those familiar with the Zone System should know what that means. Basically, I underexposed the film a bit to drop the shadows then later I developed it for a longer time period so as to raise the highlights. This would expand my 5-stop range to about 6 or 7 stops. But this still wasn't enough. To get that last bit of extra contrast, I utilized a Red #23A filter and a Circular Polarizer. The red filter further darkened the shadows and, coupled with the polarizer, shifted the sky towards a really dark tone. Now the contrast range was creeping up to 9 stops or so. Just what I wanted.

If you were to do this same style with digital, it's quite easy. When desaturating the image to monochrome, your image editing program should give you the option to darken or lighten specific color channels. In that case, you'd drop the brightness of the blues (sky and shadows) and raise the brightness of the yellows (sunlit dunes). Then a little tweak of the curves tool here and there would round it off nicely.

There you have style #2 from the Mojave Desert. In the next blog post I'll be sharing my third and final stylistic approach on these dunes: the high-saturation, high-contrast, Galen Rowell style approach.

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White