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Mojave Desert, Part 2: Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography
Black and White Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
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I didn’t shoot a ton of black and white landscape photography on my most recent trip to the Mojave Desert. I’m not really sure why - I suppose the colors were just too delicious to desaturate at the time - but despite my slim-pick’ns on the monochrome front, I really, really love sand dunes in black and white. The contrast and lines are just superb for monochrome photography.

Right off the bat, most of the compositions here will look quite familiar if you saw my last post from this Mojave Desert trip with my color landscape photography. Once I set up a shot for color photography, I tend to try the same exact composition in black and white because it’s easy to do and I like having both options. I always tell myself that I’ll pick one later - the color or the B&W - as the final select, but I always find myself torn between the pretty colors and the rich monochrome shots. That’s why both usually end up on my website. I also often shoot the same composition in both horizontal and vertical framing. It’s good to have both varieties when making a fine art piece or trying to fit a picture into a magazine or book.

Each of the shots here were made at sunrise looking northwest. I was fortunate to get relatively clear skies on one of the mornings which allowed the unobstructed sun to bathe these dunes in a strong, harsh, directional side lighting. When you’re trying to highlight sand textures and shapes in the dunes, you need harsh light. If the light is softened up too much by a thin cloud layer, the texture just disappears under the flat lighting. And if the sun is too high in the sky - like at noon - the shadows aren’t going in the right direction to bring out the details. It needs to be side-lighting and it needs to be strong directional light. So, thank you, clear skies.

I don’t remember for sure, but I’m pretty sure I used a polarizer in most of these photos, a red #23A filter on all of them, and a split ND filter on most or all of them. Without these filters, the contrast would have been lackluster. And without solid manual metering technique, I would have botched the whole thing.

I have to say, the more I look at my landscape photography from this trip and other trips to the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert, the more I like the black and white versions. Does that mean I’m getting old?

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

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