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On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

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In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

New Photography: More Kauai Beaches

Kauai Beaches at sunrise Kauai Beach at Sunrise, East Shore
Fuji Velvia 50 film, Mamiya RZ67
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Continuing part 2 of my Kauai recap (see part 1 here), all of the photos in this post were taken on the same beach just outside my hotel on the eastern side of Kauai. As I stated in the previous post, Kauai beaches didn't end up being the recreational wonderlands I anticipated, but pair those trademark Kauai clouds with a good sunrise and I've got myself a photographer's paradise.

With the beach just outside our hotel and my internal clock still on LA time, waking up to photograph the rising sun was far from painful. And as I had hoped, the scattered cloud cover made from some vivid colors. One sunrise in particular was just stunning.

The only thing that was a real pain on these shoots was the sea spray. Now I'm no stranger to sea spray. I've photographed Orange County beaches countless times and I'm well familiar with the annoyance of salty mist settling on lenses and filters. But these waters were so damn choppy and the wind was so relentless that the sea spray all but ruined some of these photos. I had a hell of a time trying to keep my filters clean.

And speaking of filters, I utilized Lee hard-transition graduated neutral density filters in all of these photos. Some shots had 2 stops, some 3, some even 5. Early in the sunrise when the foreground was still in shadow, I needed some heavy filtration to darken the sky within range of the foreground. But as the sun worked its way up in the sky, the foreground saw some light and I was able to back the filters down to 2 or 3 stops.

The compositions here weren't anything new for me. I'd done almost identical compositions on my first couple days there, but the sky was so much more gorgeous in these shots that I really felt obligated to "redo" those same compositions with the new sky. Fuji Velvia medium format film rendered the colors beautifully. I utilized Velvia 100 and Velvia 50 films on this trip, alternating back and forth with each roll. Velvia 50 has a warmer color balance than Velvia 100 which made it perfect for the warm tones of sunrise. That's what I used in most of these shots. But Velvia 100 with its cooler tones and vivid greens worked well on the photos from the lush interior portions of the island. Both great films, but Velvia 100 is a little easier to work with.

This trip to Kauai was memorable, fun, and most of all, a learning experience. I learned that Kauai isn't the kind of island I expected it to be. Miles of white sandy beaches, gentle breezes, calm oceans, and warm waters...that's not Kauai. Kauai is a feast for the eyes. Kauai beaches are beautiful to look at, but few offer safe swimming or snorkeling. The Napali coast is a work of art, but you'll need a charted boat or a helicopter to get there. The north shore is lush and vibrant, but there aren't many places to get out and hike. The waterfalls are majestic, but some of the best of them are on private land. That's why I call Kauai "the island of inaccessibility." Charming towns, decent kayaking, interesting weather, and scenery that's simply unmatched anywhere else in the world. That's Kauai. But it doesn't offer the kind of beaches you see on those travel brochures with the good-looking middle-aged couple laying on lounge chairs on a white sand beach holding hands. I think that's more Maui's thing.

But hey, now I have an excuse to visit Maui again, so I can pit Maui vs Kauai in a death match of which island is better. For now, my conclusion is this: visit Kauai to drink in the gorgeous scenery, revel in the charming local vibe, see the sights, and kayak a river or two. But for that picturesque honeymoon type tropical vacation filled with relaxation, fruity drinks, perfect weather, and turquoise blue waters...you might want to try somewhere else.

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

Kauai Beaches at sunrise

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
Click Image for Larger View

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!