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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
Click Any Image Enlarge

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
Click Any Image Enlarge

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