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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

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Easy Light

Photography Tip Skill Level: Beginner

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Easy Light
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Good lighting in portrait photography can be the difference between a terrible photo and a phenomenal one. I'd go so far as to say that the lighting used is more important than the composition, the subject, the makeup, the wardrobe, the lens, the exposure settings... If you have good light, the job becomes very easy. But it seems that photographers like to overcomplicate things (shocking, I know). They start adding flash when it isn't necessary, breaking out soft boxes, umbrellas, light stands, Pocket Wizards, and who knows what else to try and get the light just right. Sure, that works great if you have the time and budget of Annie Leibovitz, but for most of us just looking to get better portrait photos without going crazy, this approach can be a bit much. So I thought I'd post this portrait photography tip about how to find good, flattering light that'll take your natural light portraits to the next level. No need to purchase anything for this portrait photography tip, you just need to move into the right position.

So a friend of mine manufactures these amazing sunglasses made out of exotic woods (keep an eye out for Knottywoods Eyewear). He dropped me a line over the holidays because he was going to be in town and wondered if I might be down for a photo shoot highlighting these awesome specs. Although you might think of me as a landscape guy, I can still snap a mean portrait and I love the opportunity to get creative on something like this.

The situation was a little tricky. We went out into a local nature park, brought some props, and started searching for a good place to set up. The tricky part was the light. It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, and the sun was beating down harsh on our models. If we shot in open sunlight, the shadows would be too harsh because direct sunlight is generally hideous for portraits (unless it's towards sunset or sunrise). The dark, hard-edged shadows created by the open sun exaggerate facial features and blemishes. It can also put dark shadows on people's eyes, robbing the photo of that sparkling glint in the irises. So direct sunlight was a no-go.

The second option was shooting under a tree. But that gave us mottled light - blotches of sunlight mixed in to the shadows of the branches. Also no good.

That brought us to the third option and the subject of this portrait photography tip: flat even shade. That's right, some of the best light you'll ever find for portrait photography is even shade. And when I say even shade, I just mean the shadow is big enough to completely engulf your subject - no splotches of sunlight breaking through. Whenever I'm shooting portraits in natural light outdoors, the first thing I look for is a big shadow I can throw my model into. But not just any old shadow will do. You need a shadow that has some lighting bouncing into it from the sunlit environment around it. In other words, I don't want to be so deep into a shadow that virtually no light is illuminating my subject. I want to be near the edge of the shadow so that the sunlight bouncing off the trees, clouds, ground, buildings, street, and whatever else just outside the shadow will bounce into the shadow, bathing my model in a nice, soft glow.

For this shoot, I found the shade I was looking for on the eastern side of a big oak tree. The tree was sufficiently large enough to completely block the westerly sun, casting a nice big shadow for my models to pose in. And just beyond the shadow (further to the east) was a sunlit landscape of hills and trees that kindly bounced that sunlight right back into my shadow in a huge, soft glow. As you can see in the photos, the light on my models is soft, even, and consistent. No dark eyes, no exaggerated features, no highlighting blemishes. The light is easy to work with and it results in softer skin, requiring no touch-up work in the computer. The light works very well regardless of the tools used. Here I used a DSLR and medium format Portra 160 film.

Don't make your portrait photography shoots more difficult than they need to be. Remember this portrait photography tip and just put your models in the shade. They'll be more comfortable, your job will be a lot easier, and they'll like the pictures more (which is the most important part).

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light