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Photography On Location: Laguna Beach Palm Trees

Photography On Location Video: Laguna Beach Palm Trees at Heisler Park
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I'm no stranger to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've taken more pictures there than I can count and I've worked with more students there than I can remember. It's one of those postcard-type parks - the kind of scenery that hotels want front and center on their website. And it's a tourist spot for good reason. The views are stunning, the beach is sheltered, and - my favorite part - the palm trees dotting the landscape are classic Southern California.

On a recent visit there, I came across 3 palm trees that I've photographed a dozen times before. They reach high above the Pacific Ocean right on the edge of a cliff where benches and coin-op binoculars give visitors an excuse to soak in the scenery. From the right vantage point, the crystal blue waters provide a perfect backdrop for these 3 palm trees.

In search of a different photo near the palms, I envisioned a composition that immediately had me wanting for a different camera. I had my medium format 6x7 camera with me at the time but the composition I visualized required my 6x17 panoramic. Oh well, I'd have an excuse to revisit this gorgeous park again - bummer. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to create another on-location video for your enjoyment. So with my panoramic gear and my video gear packed up, I ventured to my spot.

I normally shoot at sunset to get the best color and contrast for my Laguna Beach landscape photos, but this shot was going to be different. I actually needed to shoot at high noon with the sun directly overhead. The reason for this was two-fold. First, I needed the sky to be evenly illuminated behind the palms. In late afternoon or at sunset, the sky would be much brighter off to the right side of the image as the sun descended in the west. And secondly, I planned to use a circular polarizer to minimize the glare off the water. This would also darken the sky (which I was fine with), but only at high noon would the darkening effect be even across the whole panorama. Again, with the sun low in the west, the polarizer would have darkened the left-hand side of the photo much more than the right, further exaggerating the unevenly lit sky.

Shooting at high noon brings some challenges, though. For one, the color isn't as vibrant compared to sunset. No problem, I planned to shoot black and white anyway (Ilford Delta 100). The midday sun would also bring excessively high contrast. But again, no problem. I wanted the high-contrast look. The composition I envisioned consisted of a medium-dark ocean, medium-light sky, and nearly black palm trees. The midday sun coupled with my polarizer provided that perfectly.

The last challenge of shooting midday was the lens flare. I have no lens hood for this camera, so I had to shade the lens with my hand instead. As you can see in the video, it wasn't the most comfortable way to shoot. Keeping my hand over the lens for 2 and a half minutes at a time for 4 separate exposures got a little old...

I also used a Lee 10-stop BigStopper filter to get my exposure way down to 2 and a half minutes. I wanted a slow shutter so as to smooth out the ocean waves, turning the Pacific into a nice flat surface, and to let the palm tree fronds "fuzz out" in the breeze. The name of the game for this composition was simplicity. I wanted just the palm trees in the center with a lot of negative space to the left and right. I didn't want clouds or waves or anything else in the background to distract from the palm trees. The slow shutter smoothed everything out for me and created a great ethereal fuzziness around the palm trees.

Palm Trees at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Three Palm Trees - Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Click Image to Enlarge

Normally when shooting panoramas this wide, it's wise to use a center ND filter. This is a filter that is dark in the center, but clear around the outside edge. See, a wide angle lens on such a wide piece of film creates a major vignette at the edges of the frame. The center ND filter darkens the center of the image to match the natural vignetting and, thus, even out the exposure. But for this shot, I deliberately avoided the center ND filter. I wanted the natural vignette. I wanted those dark edges because I knew it would create a mood to match what I envisioned. I didn't want a bright, evenly exposed Peter Lik scenic (we got enough of those). I wanted an artist representation of these palm trees - a photo that incited a mood in the viewer, not just a snapshot of a tourist destination.

To put it simply without sounding arrogant, I'm really pleased with how this shot turned out. It's nearly identical to what I envisioned and it works as well on film as it did in my head. And this, by the way, is the reward of good training and experience - whatever you envision, you can make happen. So if you're a novice reading this, hang in there and keep working at becoming a better photographer. Eventually you'll have the tools to realize your visions on film (or digitally), whatever those visions may be.

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 3

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My third and final day in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area was my last chance to create the composition I'd originally set out to make. When I pre-visualize a composition like I did for this trip, it can be anything from a definite, perfect imagination of what I want, to a vague concept with only the major components laid out - a "rough draft" of sorts composed in my head. I was somewhere in between for this trip. 

I knew I wanted a wide shot with the reddish-pink glow of early sunrise painting the mountains in the background with an interesting arrangement of boulders in the foreground. I envisioned what I would call an "organized mess" of boulders for the foreground. Something that communicated the disorder of this aeolian landscape but without over-complicating the composition with too much clutter. I wanted to bring attention to the interesting juxtaposition of smooth, rounded off granite in the Alabama Hills with the sharp, jagged granite of the Sierras.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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When viewing this terrain, you can almost imagine that big chunks of granite broke off the Sierras as they rose higher and higher from the force of tectonic plates. With a deafening crash, these chunks tumbled to the desert below, their edges rounding off in the commotion, before settling at the foot of these majestic peaks. Of course, that's not really how this landscape was formed. The boulders are smoothed out by wind, and although these boulders undoubtedly originate from the same gigantic slab of granite that is the Sierra Nevadas, they didn't come "tumbling" off them like the epic scene in my head. But regardless, that's the story I wanted to paint with my images.

Although a couple of my compositions up until this point on the trip were pretty close to what I wanted, they still weren't quite "there". But on the final morning, I found a perfect location with just the vantage point and arrangement of rocks I wanted.

I started with an exposure in the very first minutes of sunrise (image shown above) with the light in that deep reddish-pink hue I envisioned. Using a couple of Lee split ND filters, I held back the exposure in the mountains and sky to capture detail throughout the scene.

Since my large-format field camera is so slow to set up and change compositions, I decided to remain in my current spot with my current composition, but try it with the morning light hitting the entire landscape. The light was much more golden than red at this late in the sunrise, but I think it brought out some great details and textures in the rocks. I like both compositions in their own right, but I have a special place in my heart for the first one (shown above). The way Fuji Velvia 50 film renders reds, magentas, and blues is just gorgeous.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Morning on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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So that concludes my recent trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. I hope you've enjoyed the videos, photos, and descriptions. I plan to do many more of these on-location video series, so stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 2

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Day 2 of my trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation area proved to be a productive one. In between moving my camp and scouting the area, I created 5 photos: 2 4x5 black and white compositions and a few 6x17's. 

My first composition at sunrise started to resemble what I'd originally set out to get on this trip. It was the shot I'd pre-visualized months before, consisting of the Sierra Nevada Mountains basking in the warm pink glow of morning light with the rolling, jumbled-up boulders of the Alabama Hills filling the foreground on a wide 6x17 shot. This image was close, but still not quite there. However, this shot was an important step in the evolution towards what I'd get on the third day, where my pre-visualized composition finally came together as I envisioned.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaSunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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My vertical panoramic composition from the morning of Day 2 was one of those last-minute shots. The kind of composition that comes from improvisation. I had no pre-conceived notions of doing a vertical pano like this - it just came together as I watched the light change. If I hadn't been working on a different composition at first light, I would have liked to try this image earlier in the morning. At this late in the sunrise, the blue sky turned the shadows on the foreground rocks too blue for my taste. If it had been earlier, when the light was real pinkish-gold, the color balance between sunlit background and shadowed foreground would jive a little bit better.

Sunrise on the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaMt. Whitney at Sunrise from the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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As I said in the video above, black and white works much better for the harsh midday light than color film does. Colors just get washed out at this time of day and the shadows are much too harsh for my high-contrast Fuji Velvia 50 film. But truthfully, I'm not entirely blown away with my black and whites from this trip. I want another go at it. There is a lot of potential in this area for great black and white compositions - Ansel Adams proved that long ago - but I just wasn't 100% invested in them on this trip. I guess I was having too much fun with color film. Plus, if I'm honest, the heat in the middle of day was a bit oppressive. Makes me sloppy with my technique and uninvested in my subject matter.

Lone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders in the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaLone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders
Ilford Delta 100 film, 4x5 Format
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Lone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders in the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaLone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders
Ilford Delta 100 film, 4x5 Format
Click Image for Larger View

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaSierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Ilford Delta 100 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

I'd like to come back and do some B&W large format in the winter, when the Sierras are blanketed in snow. A stormy, cloudy sky would be nice, too. Good thing this place is only a 5-hour drive away from me. I'm sure I'll be heading back there soon with black and white film on my mind.