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Joshua Tree National Park (and Musings on Photography as Art)

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

All images shot on Ilford Delta 100 film
using a Shen-Hao TFC 617-A Camera
Please, oh please, click any picture to see it bigger

I've been to Joshua Tree National Park more times than I can count. Sometimes I go and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't find a photo worth taking. Those times can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Because really there's no better way to feel like a hack than being unable to take a good picture when you're literally surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas, stunning rock formations, and stately Joshua Trees. A 3-year-old with an iPhone should be able to take great pictures when they got this kind of scenery to work with.

But I've learned after enough of these failed attempts that there's a difference between creating great photographs and creating art. *Cough* *Cough* Oh, God *Cough* Sorry...I nearly choked on the pretension of that sentence. Hold on, let me put on a beret and an ascot before I proceed with this line of thinking. Okay, at the risk of sounding pretentious, here goes. And I write this not as a person who has it all figured out. I write this as an aspiring artist who is trying to figure this all out.

Here was the basic evolution of my photographic style: I started by aspiring to copy my idols (Galen Rowell was the main one for me). I studied and practiced until I could create a pretty good facsimile of the pictures I admired. I got good at it, too. I could create a pretty damn good imitation of what I thought a National Geographic photographer would do. I even took it a little further, putting a slight spin on this style so I could call it my own. I was content with this for a long time - creating pictures that were good, some of them great. But eventually I got bored. I felt like I was repeating myself again and again. It became a formula - use this lens with that composition with these filters. "It's resulting in great photos - why change it?" Same thing over and over.

And then I crashed (creatively, not literally). I got so fed up with photography that I barely ever picked up the camera anymore. I was sick of it. How many more high-saturation wide angle epic-foreground-under-a-fiery-sunset pictures could I bear to make? It was a very troubling time for me. I felt like I was losing my identity as a photographer/artist. But really, it was never my identity to begin with - it was my best imitation of the professionals I admired. I was the photographer-equivalent of a cover band.

But slowly, I began to realize what the problem was. I wasn't striving to create art. I was simply doing my best impression of Galen Rowell and Peter Lik and a million other people on Flickr.

*** Keep scrolling...More pictures below ***

I still do that style now and then, but I view it differently now. To me, it's not creating art. That high-saturation stuff with the predictable compositions, it's paint-by-numbers. Good clean fun, but nothing deeper than that. And don't get me wrong, there's a place for the paint-by-numbers style of photography. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it makes for great pictures. But if I never go out and try to make my own creation - something that truly comes from deep inside - I'll never really feel that deep sense of artistic satisfaction.

I can't define art and I certainly don't have "what makes good art" figured out, but I know how it feels when I'm trying to create real art and when I'm just painting by numbers. The trips to Joshua Tree that go well these days, those are the trips where I'm really working to break out of the paint-by-numbers groove. When I'm really trying to create art, that's when I'm burning through rolls of film in the very same park where last time I couldn't find a single photo.

My most recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park was one of those times where I was in "art mode." And what does "art mode" mean to me? It means I'm open to the landscape, I'm ready to see what it shows me with no preconceived ideas of what pictures I intend to or should make. I'm a blank canvas going in. And I have to feel a deep affinity for the environment around me, I have to want to be there and I have to clear my mind so I can see what it has to offer. I also have to be okay with getting no good photos. If inspiration doesn't strike, that's okay. When you're not painting by numbers, there's no guarantee you'll have a picture at the end of it.

It can be difficult to get in that mode sometimes. The distractions I was supposed to leave back home often cling to me like barbs. Plus, my preconceived ideas of what I "should" be doing with composition, light, color, etc. can paint my blank canvas before I even get there. If that happens, I'm painting by numbers again. But if I can clear my canvas, open my mind, and let myself get in touch with that monster rumbling deep down inside me that wants to create true meaningful art - if I can do all that, I will come home satisfied.

Now whether or not true meaningful art is actually created, that's beside the point. I suppose that's for the viewer to decide. But ultimately for me, it's about creating something I'm proud of and, most importantly, something that I feel is a reflection of my inner fiber. I'm happy to say in that respect, this trip was a success.

Okay. I've now removed my beret and ascot. Let's talk unpretentious camera-geek stuff. I made all the pictures here using my Shen-Hao TFC 617-A 6x17 panoramic camera. They were all made with Ilford Delta 100 Professional film, all of them push-processed then scanned with an Epson V750. Tone curve adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom.

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness: Minaret, Cecile, and Iceberg Lakes

Minaret Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Minaret Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness
Click Photos to Enlarge

Backpacking is a tough thing for landscape photographers like myself. It's exhausting, overwhelming, and mentally challenging. I'm speaking, of course, of the agony spent over deciding which camera to bring. The hiking itself...that's just one foot in front of the other. But come on, for a camera junkie like me, the real difficulty is deciding which gear to pack! So when I planned to take a backpacking trip to the Minarets in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, I had a difficult decision to make.

The Gear

Nick Carver Backpacking in the Ansel Adams WildernessOkay, first we can strike off the Shen Hao TFC 617-A panoramic camera. The scenery up there would be perfect for this camera, but there's no way I could bring it. If you don't know why, Google image search that beast. Then there's the Mamiya RZ67 - an awesome camera with an excellent negative size for capturing intricate detail in the landscape. But no dice on the RZ because, well, I'm not Arnold Schwarzenegger. So what about my Fuji GA645Zi? Nah, it's a rangefinder camera which means no using Split ND filters while I'm out there - a definite deal-breaker.

That left my Canon EOS 6D digital SLR. This is my workhorse camera I use every week for my professional work. It fit the bill perfectly. Sure it lacks the romanticism of shooting film, but it has excellent image quality and resolution, it's relatively lightweight for a full-frame DSLR, and it has an impressively high maximum ISO, which meant I'd be able to photograph the Milky Way in the dead of night. I attached my Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS and packed a set of Lee filters: 1-, 2-, and 3-stop hard edge split NDs; 2- and 3-stop soft edge graduated NDs; and a polarizer.

I've moved away from what I'd call "traditional" color landscape photography in recent years - you know, bright colors, epic wide angle compositions, a strong foreground - but I decided on this trip to deliberately go back to this style for a couple reasons. One: it's a great way to capture the epic-ness of such an epic place. The bright colors and wide angle views jive well with this kind of in-your-face scenery. And second: I pursued this style of photography for years based largely on my admiration for world-famous photographer Galen Rowell. He basically invented this style of high-saturation, high-alpine photography that drew me into picture-taking all those years ago. Since I knew this scenery was in the heart of Rowell's stomping grounds and since I'd be doing a bit of mountaineering - something for which Rowell was well-known - I figured it would be fun to go full "Galen Rowell style" on this trip and just embrace the style he made so popular. I'm glad I did.

Framing up a shot at Iceberg Lake with Canon EOS 6D DSLR

Framing up a shot at Iceberg Lake with my Canon EOS 6D

But then there was the issue of the tripod. Now I sure as hell wasn't going to opt for one of those ridiculous little ground tripods because, I don't know about you, but very few of my best compositions are from 6-inches off the ground. After a lot of research and comparing models, I ended up with a set of Oben CT-2331 Carbon Fiber legs (link) and a Benro IB2 ballhead (link). $320 out the door with a featherlight total weight of 2.5 pounds and a maximum extended height of nearly 5 feet. Sure, it's not the most rock-solid and rugged tripod in the world, but you can't beat that weight, height, and price. With my camera on mirror lock-up and with the help of a cable release, I was able to get all the stability I needed.

Crampons: The most useful tool of the tripAll-in-all, I was happy with this camera setup. There were a few times I wish I had a 20mm or 18mm lens, but that would have meant carrying a second lens, which wasn't worth the extra weight. I wish Canon would make an 18-100mm lens for full-frame cameras, but alas, that was not an option.

Aside from the camera gear, I had the usual stuff: tent, sleeping bag, bear canister, food, water filter, clothes, etc. But the 2 items that win the award for the "Thank God I Brought This" category: crampons and bug spray.

Hiking in the snow along Cecile Lake

My 2 compadres on the slopes along Cecile Lake

The Trail

Our proposed trail ran like this:

  1. Sleep the first night at Mammoth Mountain Inn to get acclimated to the higher altitude
  2. Hit the trail next morning starting at Devil's Postpile National Monument
  3. Hike up to Minaret Lake for night 1
  4. On day 2, hike to Iceberg Lake via the "unofficial" trail up and through Cecile Lake
  5. Camp night 2 beside Iceberg Lake
  6. Hike out to Agnew/Red's Meadows to catch the bus out of there


The start of the trail - Devil's Postpile

The start of the trail: Devil's Postpile

I'd like to elaborate on each one of these points for anyone who's thinking of doing a similar route, but before I do that let me just say that this plan worked out great! Both of our campsites were stunning, the hiking was fun and full of variety, and we were never once bored. The weather was mild, too, by the way. It was the last week of June and the temperatures were high 70's, low 80's at most, 40's at worst. It was the perfect 3 days, in my humble opinion.

  1. Acclimate the first night: Best idea we had the entire trip. Don't go up to 9,500 feet from sea level and just hop right onto the trail. Give your body a night to catch up. You'll be less winded the following day when you start your journey up the mountain.
  2. Start at Devil's Postpile: You have to take the bus in for this. They'll pick you up at Mammoth Mountain Inn and drop you off at Devil's Postpile. Check to be sure, but when we went in June, the buses ran 7:00am to 7:00pm with a new bus picking up about every 45 minutes. You'll take the same bus out but from a different pick-up at Agnew/Red's Meadows.
  3. Night 1 at Minaret: Absolutely stunning. See the pictures below. There are 2 campsites on the far west end of the lake that are gorgeous and provide easy access to running water. But if you go in June like we did, bring a vat of mosquito repellant. My God, the mosquitos...
  4. Hike to Iceberg Lake via the "unofficial" trail: Okay, lots to say here. This trail starts at the far west inlet to Minaret Lake, travels steeply up the scree-covered mountain on a barely marked path, leads you up to Cecile Lake, across the bank of Cecile Lake, then eventually down to Iceberg Lake. Don't let my short description here belie the reality of this trail. This was, without question, the most trying portion of the trip.First off, the journey from Minaret Lake up to Cecile Lake is not officially marked on park maps for a reason. It barely exists. There isn't really a worn trail to follow once you get above tree line. You have to rely on some sparse cairns and your gut to find it. Not to mention the scree and vertical nature of the path makes climbing it pretty difficult at times.Secondly, there was a lot of snow there...in the last week of June. We brought crampons thinking "eh, we probably won't need these, but just in case." Oh, man, thank God we brought them, because we really needed them. There was no path in the snow so we had to forge our own trail along an incline that, at times, must have been 45-degrees or steeper. But that's not all. When you get to the end of Cecile Lake and it's time to go down to Iceberg Lake, you're in for some sketchy rock scrambling. Another hard-to-find scree-ridden ultra-vertical trail made this the most nerve-racking portion of the trip for me. Climbing down really steep scree is one of the sketchiest things you can do with 46 pounds on your back. One little misstep and you could be in for a long fall.

Check out this view from the end of Cecile Lake. This is what you see right before you start the near-vertical descent down to the far side of Iceberg Lake. If this view doesn't make your heart flutter a bit, I don't know what will.

Overlooking Iceberg Lake from Cecile Lake

Here's the view from the end of Cecile Lake looking down to Iceberg Lake

Once you get past this part, it's time for more leg-cramp-inducing trail-blazing across even steeper embankments of snow. It was exhausting, scary at times, and so damn fun! It was tough, but the scenery was beyond words and the experience was something I'll never forget. Plus, if you go later in the season, I'm sure there would be less snow, which would make the journey much easier.

Here's a rough diagram showing the trail we took down from Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake. This picture is taken from our campsite at Iceberg Lake looking back at where we came from:

Iceberg Lake Campsite Looking Back Towards Cecile Lake

Here's the view looking back after we reached camp #2,
showing where the previous picture was taken from.
Our trail is marked in yellow.

So, in summary, if you want to hike the trail from Minaret Lake to Iceberg Lake via Cecile Lake, I highly, highly recommend it. You'll be in for some major eyegasms. But make sure you're in good shape, you're okay dealing with heights, and give yourself plenty of time to tackle it. Best to go slow and arrive alive than to be rushed and find yourself sliding down a death slope. And bring crampons.

Nick Carver navigating the trail with crampons along Cecile Lake

Me navigating the trail back up at Cecile Lake
Thank God for those crampons.
(Photo by Austin Mattison)

  1. Camp night 2 at Iceberg Lake: Beauty beyond description. Won't. Even. Try.
  2. Hike out: Originally we planned to hike down from Iceberg Lake, camp a third night just few miles away from the end of the trail, then pack it out the next morning. We changed our mind when we saw the final campsite. The bottom line is it's just too close to civilization, so you get a lot of the crap that comes with it - bits of trash, idiots' names carved into trees, well-worn campsites. After staying in the breathtaking scenery of the high country, this low-country stuff wasn't worth it. Plus, the mosquitos were even worse than before! So instead of staying there for the third night, we finished off the remaining few miles to the bus stop and got an early start on the drive home.

Overall I think this was a really good itinerary. I'd only do a couple things differently. First, I'd try another time of year to avoid the incessant cloud of mosquitos. The mosquitos were really the only thing taking the enjoyment down a few notches, and they did that very effectively. I counted 70 mosquito bites on my body when I got home - almost all of those having occurred through my clothes! And second, I'd spend more time in the high-country at tree line and higher. I'd plan on staying a 3rd night, but somewhere high up, like at the beautiful Ediza Lake we saw on the way out. Spend as little time as possible in the lower altitudes because it just can't hold a candle to the high country.

The Scenery

It really is beyond description, but I'm going to have to try to supplement my photos with some words because even the photos don't do it justice. It was so beautiful that it was sometimes laughable. I hope you've experienced this before, when something is so stunningly beautiful that you can't help but laugh at how perfect it is. As in "Haha - that's ridiculous. That can't exist." or "Haha - Come on. Are you kidding me? This kind of beauty is real?" or "Haha - Oh my God, I am an insignificant speck in the universe and I will never create, imagine, or conceive anything remotely as beautiful as this." You know, that's all.

This level of beauty is why backpackers return to the wilderness despite the sweat, aches, bug bites, and dangers. I've been to some of the most incredible places in the natural world, but when it is completely untainted by human hands like it is up there (and unlike in a National Park), it takes on a whole new level.

And these particular mountains are especially gorgeous. People travel from all over the world to California just to hike in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and for good reason. It's like Lord of the Rings made a baby with Yosemite National Park and fed it a steady diet of Ansel Adams photos. This area we backpacked in is called "The Ansel Adams Wilderness" for Christ's sake!

The Eyegasms

All that brings us to the real meat of this post: the photos. As I mentioned, I used my Canon 6D for most of the trip but I also snapped some quick photos with my iPhone while we were hiking (too much work to get out the camera until we got to camp). I used my Lee split ND filters pretty heavily on this trip. As per usual, none of these photos are HDR or composite images. They are all single-frame photos shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

Day 1: Minaret Lake

Stream under the Minarets

Fading Light at Minaret Lake

Snow Cups at the Minarets near Minaret Lake

This unusual cupping effect in the melting snow is called "sun cups"

The setting sun along Minaret Lake

Setting Sunlight at Minaret Lake

The Minarets

Dusk at Minaret Lake

Can't beat dusk at high elevation

The Milky Way over Minaret Lake

The Milky Way over Minaret Lake
For the photo junkies: 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 20,000

Star Trails Over Minaret Lake

Star Trails over Minaret Lake
Photo junkies: 21 minutes, f/5, ISO 200
Single frame exposure, not stacked

Campsite Night 1 at Minaret Lake

Not a bad front porch

Day 2: Cecile Lake to Iceberg Lake

Hiking to Cecile Lake from Minaret Lake

On the steep hike up to Cecile Lake.
Minaret Lake in the background.

Crossing 10,000 ft on the way up to Cecile Lake

Crossing 10,000 feet on the way up to Cecile Lake

More snow cupping on the way to Cecile Lake

More sun cupping

Cecile Lake in late June

The top! Cecile Lake in late June.
Look at all that snow!

Austin enjoying the view from up high

Drew enjoying the view

Iceberg Lake

Finally down to Iceberg Lake

Fading light at Iceberg Lake

Fading Light at Iceberg Lake

Iceberg in Iceberg Lake

Flowers beside Iceberg Lake

Sunset at Iceberg Lake

Day 3: Iceberg Lake Sunrise

Camp along Iceberg Lake at sunrise

Camp along Iceberg Lake at sunrise

Campsite next to Iceberg Lake at sunrise

Sunrise at Iceberg Lake

Sunrise light and quarter moon over Iceberg Lake

I thought this might be kind of interesting to the photographers out there. Here is Iceberg Lake photographed in the afternoon, at sunset, then finally at sunrise. It's amazing how different light alters the landscape.

Iceberg Lake in daylight

^ Iceberg Lake in afternoon light ^

Iceberg Lake at Sunset

^ Iceberg Lake in sunset light ^

Iceberg Lake at Sunrise

^ Iceberg Lake in early morning light ^

Day 3: Hiking Out

We stopped at yet another stunning lake on the way out: Ediza Lake. I'd love to come back here for a day hike sometime. The water was crystal clear and the views were gorgeous! Please forgive the ugly light and quick-snap iPhone panoramas - this was just a quick stop on the way down the mountain.

And, by the way, the scenery all the way down from Ediza Lake to the trailhead was far from disappointing. Roaring waterfalls, verdant meadows, serene lakes, boundless views, and stately Sequoia trees were just some of the things we were treated to on the way down. It was on the way down that my hiking partner and I agreed that this whole area really should have been a national park, because the beauty surpassed Yosemite in many ways. Then we agreed that we're glad it never achieved National Park status. We don't need more crowds out in these parts!

Ediza Lake

Ediza Lake

Backpacking the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Thanks for reading!

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Octopus Agave, Puffy Clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film
Shot with a Fuji GA645Zi Camera

Click Images to Enlarge

There are three things I love - succulents, puffy white clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 film. And when they all come together at the same time, that’s a perfect storm of good vibes.

This year’s El Nino has brought some great things to southern California. Of course, the extra precipitation is a godsend with the ongoing drought, but there are certain other side effects to El Nino that I’ve really enjoyed. First, this spring we’ve had a higher-than-normal share of days with what I call “the perfect sky.” It’s that crystal clear blue color behind a sea of fair-weather cumulus clouds - those herds of puffy cotton balls gently migrating across the sky. And second, El Nino has coaxed out some impressive spring blooms.

Back in March I found myself with some spare time on one of these “perfect sky” days, so I grabbed my delightfully fun-to-use Fuji GA645zi camera, loaded it up with Velvia 100 film, and ventured out to the Jeffrey Open Space Trail in Irvine. I went out with no plans of what exactly to shoot. All I knew was I wanted to incorporate the sky in some way.

The Jeffrey Open Space Trail is a developed walking trail with landscaping that features some very impressive succulents. As I ventured along the trail, I came across a cluster of Octopus Agave plants - an agave from Mexico with fleshy leaves that twist and crawl out from its core. Shooting up from the center of each plant was a long, slender spike about 15 feet tall, each wrapped in countless green-yellow bulbs. They were stunning. The flowers were not in full bloom on this day, but still, the unique shape and design of these plants were begging to be photographed.

I decided to concentrate my compositions on these alien-like spires shooting up into that Monet sky because I loved how unusual they looked. I excluded the base of these plants from my compositions to preserve the bizarreness of what stood before me. With no base to provide context, these spikes became even more curious. I kept my aperture relatively wide open to let the background blur out ever so slightly, further drawing attention to the plants against their backdrop. And that color palette of green-yellow, sky blue, and white…man, oh, man…Mother Nature really knows how to pair colors, doesn’t she?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

For the film geeks out there, I want to tell you a little more about the camera. I bought this Fuji GA645zi off eBay as my “walking around” camera. My main landscape photography cameras are so big and slow to set up (a Shen Hao TFC 617-A and a Mamiya RZ67) that I decided I should carry a lightweight, point-and-shooter to fill in the gaps. This old camera has a lot of modern amenities including auto focus, auto exposure modes, flash, exposure compensation, and even a power zoom lens (albeit not a very wide focal length to work with).

Fuji GA645Zi Medium Format Camera

I have to say, I have fallen in love with this camera. The size is just right, it’s easy to use, and the power zoom function is great for fine-tuning composition. I use this camera most often in Program (P) mode or Aperture Priority (A) mode instead of full manual so I can concentrate on the composition instead of metering. The auto exposure meter has been very reliable. Exposures are often perfect and the exposure compensation lets me sway it when I know it’s going to make a mistake. This camera is flat-out fun to use, which might be the best reason to own a camera.

I learn something new or am reminded of an old lesson every time I take out my camera. On this occasion, I was reminded that I need to get out with my camera in-hand more often - no plan, no preconceived ideas of what to shoot - just get out with my camera and see what the world shows me. Because who knows when you’ll find a 15-foot tall alien plant against a perfect sky?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film