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Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego ZooFemale Jaguar, Nindiri, at the San Diego Zoo
35mm Ilford Delta 400 film pushed 1 stop
Click Any Image for a Larger View

I'm a cat person through and through. I like cats. I "get" cats. And I'm absolutely enthralled with big cats. So when my girlfriend and I planned a trip to the San Diego Zoo, I made sure to stop by all the big cat exhibits.

Now I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer. I don't know why I'm not that attracted to photographing animals, but one thing that does light my fire is black and white wildlife photography. I mean just look at the stunning work of Nick Brandt (check out Artsy's Nick Brandt Page) or Andy Biggs. And oh man would I love to photograph wildlife with my medium format camera and a 110mm lens wide open to f/2.8 on some B&W film. Hey, a guy can dream...

I'm certainly not on the same level as Nick Brandt or Andy Biggs - they are masters of their craft - but I thought I'd do some casual black and white wildlife photography at the San Diego Zoo to try my hand at it.

I brought my 35mm camera and a single roll of Ilford Delta 400 film. I didn't take a single shot almost the entire day. Fences, mesh screens, dirty glass, and ugly, ugly light all gave me good reason to leave the camera in my backpack. But we eventually made our way to the African Rocks exhibit where we watched a gorgeous jaguar named Nindiri eat her lunch.

This cat was just stunning. Her smooth coat dotted with jet black spots, I concluded, is the most beautiful of any animal I'd ever seen. And lucky for me, her favorite eating spot was right up near the glass in a dark enclosure with soft light pouring in from the side. Beautiful animal + beautiful light = Nick's breaking out the camera for the first time all day. And unlike many of the other animals we saw, Nindiri was kind enough to face the camera.

It was a very tough shooting situation. It was ultra dim lighting that was repeatedly blocked by other patrons. And never mind their annoying red AF assist beams and on-camera flash killing the light I was trying to capture.

My ISO 400 film didn't give me a shutter speed nearly fast enough. It came out to something like 1/4 of a second, and I had no tripod. So decided to push my film 1 stop to ISO 800. For those of you unfamiliar, pushing film is a process wherein you use the film at an ISO rating higher than what the canister says, then just develop it like it's a higher ISO film. The result is a higher working ISO which allows for faster shutter speeds. The trade-off is that it results in more pronounced grain and exaggerated contrast.

Higher ISO, lower image quality. That old story...

But I was willing to make that tradeoff because the high grain can actually look kind of cool, and this was really my only option to get the shutter speed faster. So with my film pushed to ISO 800, my shutter speed increased all the way to 1/8. Still really damn slow. I had to just do my best with this slow shutter. I turned on image stabilizer, squatted down low, braced myself against a pillar and the glass, held my breath, and waited for moments when Nindiri was relatively still.

Many of the photos came out blurry from her movement, but I'm happy to say that no picture was ruined from camera shake. That's what you call a steady hand...

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Oh, and I got a couple pictures of the meerkats on our way out:

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Landscape Photography: Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park at SunsetJoshua Tree National Park at Sunset
Fuji Velvia 50 Film
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I recently posted a blog entry about my day trip to Joshua Tree National Park during a storm (view the photos and on-location video here). I took lots of black and white photos on that day because the foggy and cloudy weather just looked phenomenal in monochrome.

My plan was to shoot black and white right up until the sunset, then switch over to color film to capture the rich colors of what I figured would be a very colorful sunset. And, as I hoped, the sunset ended up being a brilliant display of orange, red, and yellow.

Unfortunately, though, I spent too long working on a black and white composition just minutes before the sun dropped. I thought I had more time than I did and, before I knew it, the sun was in prime position but I was still working on my black and white composition. So I scrambled over to my pre-determined "sunset position," loaded up a roll of color film in record time, metered the scene, then started shooting. I was working like mad. I hate being rushed, but I really couldn't let these sunset colors go.

When I'm hurrying, I tend to make mistakes out of frustration for the ticking clock. And by the end of this roll, I was convinced that I botched the whole thing. I was scrambling and my technique was sloppy. Surely none of the shots would come out right.

So when I got home from the trip, I focused my efforts on the rolls of B&W film, anticipating that those would hold the quality shots. And much to my pleasure, the black and whites came out great. In fact, that one B&W composition I was working on just minutes before sunset - the one that made me rush so terribly as the sun dropped - that turned out to be my favorite composition from the whole trip. So, pleased with my work, I silently thanked the universe for the botched roll of color film in exchange for 3 rolls of great B&W film.

There the roll of color film sat on my desk, waiting to be developed. But sure that the photos were terrible, I didn't take it to the lab for developing until a few days later.

Upon finally receiving the film, I was pleased once again. The shots didn't come out perfect and they didn't capture the peak color, but they weren't half bad. So I thought I'd share with you the best shot from the single roll of color film I exposed that day in Joshua Tree National Park (at top).

There's room for improvement on this photo. I could have done things a little better, but that's what happens when you rush. That'll teach me to try and get 2 different compositions during the same sunset on my slowest camera.

New Landscape Photography & Video: Storm in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art PhotographyJoshua Tree in Fog
Image made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
with a Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f/2.8

It's been kind of an unusual couple weeks weather-wise for Orange County. Temperatures have been soaring and we've had lots of scattered cloud cover. It's resulted  in some seriously gorgeous skies - the sunsets especially.

Unfortunately, though, the beaches are crowded and, frankly, I'm a little burned out on photographing beach sunsets. So although I've been enjoying the beautiful skies, I haven't really been photographing them. But Monday of last week I decided to get myself out to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph these dramatic weather conditions.

The forecast called for scattered thunder storms in the desert - which is really what made me decide to drive out there - but the thunder never materialized. That's okay though because the breaking storm made for some of the most beautiful light and skies I've ever seen in Joshua Tree National Park.

The drive to Joshua Tree from Orange County is about 2 1/2 hours, which feels about 3 hours longer than I remember. And especially with the heavy downpour and flooded streets through the desert, I was beginning to doubt my decision about an hour in to the drive.

But boy am I glad I took this trip!

On the way in to the park, I found a stretch of road where a heavy fog enveloped the Joshua Trees and rock formations, creating some truly stunning scenery for me to capture on my Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. I chose black and white for this entire outing for a couple reasons (with the exception of a single roll of color film I'm pretty sure I botched). First, I've simply been more attracted to black and white landscape photography lately. Maybe I'm burned out on color, maybe I just don't find it "artsy" enough anymore. But whatever the reason, B&W seems to be keeping my creative juices flowing in a way color film isn't. And aside from that, I mean come on...Joshua Trees in fog and breaking storms over the desert? It's just begging for black and white!

I spent the first half of the day photographing these unique yuccas in the fog with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera. I chose this format because with the 110mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get a real shallow depth of field by shooting wide open. This helped to draw attention to my subjects as if I was shooting a portrait of each Joshua Tree. I made 10 frames of these "portraits" with plans to create a triptych from the best 3.

I used a dark yellow #15 filter on these shots to help introduce some contrast in this flat lighting and I over-developed the film intentionally to help raise up the highlights a bit (N+1 processing for you Zone System users).

After lunch, I spent the day in the higher elevations of the park scouting out a good location for sunset and creating some B&W 6x17 photographs highlighting the stunning sky.

I'm normally pretty humble and modest about my photos and I always feel weird heaping praise on my own work, but I am truly thrilled with the photos I made on this trip. For a long time now I haven't felt that my pictures are actually representative of me or of the vibe I want to create. But these pictures are a better representation of me than I think anything else I've put out before.

I must be moving in the right direction.

Please, oh, please click any image for a larger view

Breaking Storm over Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Landscape Photography

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Photography

And check out the on-location video:

View on YouTube for full HD version