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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
Click Any Image to Expand

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
Click Any Image to Expand

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

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 1

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave DesertThe Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Kodak Portra 160 film
Click Any Image to Expand

I've visited the Mojave Desert a couple times over the past month and a half in search of some new landscape photography. My location of choice for both trips was the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve. I've often said the Kelso Sand Dunes just might be my favorite place on the planet, and it seems every time I go out there, that sentiment grows even stronger. It's a truly magical place within the vast Mojave Desert where you'll find some of the tallest sand dunes in the United States scraping the cobalt blue skies of Southern California. This area of the desert is rich in open space. As you gaze out onto the horizon the sheer lack of clutter will leave you entranced. You'll feel like you can stretch out further than you ever thought possible.

A lot of people don't "get" the desert. The millions of commuters driving through the Mojave Desert on the way to Vegas each year might view this terrain as nothing more than a dry, empty wasteland that only serves as a platform upon which to build our highways. But it's so much more than that. The desert is as beautiful as Yosemite Valley when viewed through the right eyes. It's a gallery of unique geological features formed and crafted by the elements of wind, water, and weather that bathes in some of the most stunning light found in any ecosystem. The beauty found in the desert may not be the kind of obvious beauty you find in giant redwood trees or epic waterfalls, but grandeur is there nonetheless. The allure of the desert is more subtle. It requires a deeper appreciation for the wind-swept, water-carved geography and the indomitable forces that shape it. It is this deep appreciation that pulls me to the Mojave Desert to take photos highlighting its often-misunderstood beauty.

The photos highlighted in this post (and in the next 2 posts) are from a one-day trip I took out to the dunes with a photographer friend of mine back in December. My goal on the trip was to take pictures that went a little outside my usual comfort zone and style. My usual modus operandi is to do the typical high-color, high-contrast, large depth of field, epic scenics that everyone is doing these days. Although I did do some shots in this category, I wanted to devote the bulk of my efforts towards something new: shallow depths of field, softer color palettes, brighter exposures, ultra-simple compositions, and of course some black and whites. With my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera and its removable film cassette backs, I was able to try similar compositions with different films ranging from muted-color negatives to high-color transparency film to traditional black and white.

So over the course of the next 3 blog posts, I'll show you my 3 different takes on this landscape - 3 different styles of photography all from the same camera and the same photographer. You'll notice many of the compositions are the same, which shows how wildly different the overall style and look can be even when the composition is identical. This first post showcases a style that exhibits a simple, soft color palette achieved through the use of Kodak Portra 160 film, minimal use of filters, and an intentional tendency towards brighter exposures. I also opted for ultra-simple compositions and a shallow depth of field in many of these shots for a minimalist (and sometimes abstract) look.

In the next 2 blog posts I'll share my ultra high contrast black and white images followed by my more typical high-saturation classic scenics.

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert