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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

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of ArizonaSaguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains
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I love the desert. And it seems every time I visit it, I fall deeper in love. The open space, the geology, the weather, and the unique flora and fauna of the American deserts never fails to pique my curiosity and my creativity. On a recent trip to Scottsdale, AZ, I had the pleasure of visiting the Superstition Mountains - a beautiful stretch of stately peaks dotted with saguaro cactuses. Ah, yes, the saguaro cactus. There are few silhouettes in nature more iconic than the saguaro cactus. That unmistakable outline with its central pillar rising out of the landscape like a Corinthian column, arms held staunchly to either side; it just screams American Southwest. They encapsulate the whole vibe of the desert that appeals to me. So when my companions and I ventured out on a short hike to visit some ancient petroglyphs deep in the Superstition Mountains, I seized the opportunity to photograph some impressive specimens of the saguaro cactus.

I brought my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera because I knew I'd be able to create some extra-shallow depths of field with its wide-aperture 110mm f/2.8 lens. Despite how impressive the Superstition Mountains appeared towering over the desert floor, I opted not to do any of the traditional high-color, high-contrast, wide angle, sweeping landscapes I typically gravitate towards. Instead, I wanted the saguaro cactus to be the star of the show. I wanted to create "portraits" of this desert succulent much like I did with the Joshua Tree over the summer (check those out here). My plan was to approach these cactus like I was creating a traditional black and white portrait of a person. I envisioned a shallow depth of field, a simple straight-forward composition, and side lighting to help bring out the subtle textures of these magnificent saguaro cactuses.

For the tech junkies out there, I used a wide aperture on these photos at either f/2.8 or f/4. A polarizer helped me create some separation between the clouds by darkening the blue sky. The film was Ilford Delta 100 professional developed N+1 (per the Zone System). I wanted these shots from the Superstition Mountains to have a timeless look, a gritty vibe, and an understated representation of the beauty in this landscape. But rather than continue talking about what I wanted these photos to capture, I'll let the shots speak for themselves. Thanks for reading.

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Black and White Portraits


Black and White Portraits
Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film
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As part of my recent photo shoot with my brother using 35mm and medium format film (see part 1 here and part 2 here), I decided to try something I've never done before: black and white portraits. Okay, so maybe I've converted a few digital color portraits to black and white in the past, but I've never done true black and white portraits using black and white film. I've spent the past year or so getting comfortable with black and white photography so I figured it was high-time to apply my new experience to the world of portraiture.

I think the toughest part about black and white photography is learning to "see in black and white." With our full-color vision of the world, it's difficult to imagine what something will look like with all the color removed. Sometimes, when the color is sucked out, an otherwise gorgeous subject looks terribly bland. For example, early on in my black and white ventures, I decided to photograph a landscape that consisted of a crisp blue sky over a lush rolling green hillside. In color, the scene was gorgeous. But I found out quickly that the tonal brightness of the green grass was nearly identical to the tonal brightness of the sky. That meant that both the grass and sky desaturated to almost exactly the same shade of gray in the resulting b&w photo. There was virtually no separation between the two! Without color contrast, I had to learn to rely entirely on tonal contrast.

But this lack of color contrast is also what makes black and white photography so beautiful. Without the distraction of color, the tones and shadows can pop out and reveal a whole new beauty to the scene. In these black and white portraits, I utilized lighting that created deep, dark shadows and bright, contrasty highlights so as to add more tonal contrast and interest to the image. And when I didn't have the right light source for dark shadows (like in the photos out in the open field under diffused light), I created the necessary contrast using wardrobe. A jet-black coat over a stark white shirt helped create more tonal interest in this flat lighting.

I have a new appreciation for black and white portraits. The look intrigues me and the challenge makes the successes very rewarding.

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film