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New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 1

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I recently went on a 3-day, 2-night solo camping trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to photograph this unreal landscape on large format film. I also put together three videos that will bring you along with me each day as I try to make photographs to capture this awesome terrain. And with each video I put out, I will also include the images featured in the video here, on my blog. This video chronicling Day 1 of my trip takes you behind the scenes of how I created this image:

Sunset over the Sierra Nevada MountainsSunset over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

In the arid rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the Alabama Hills is a unique desert of granite boulders formed by the elements. Named after the CSS Alabama, this area gets its name from some old prospectors in the area sympathetic to the Confederates in the Civil War. It's now owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is made available to the public for camping and other outdoor activities.

If you're ever in the area of Lone Pine, be sure to treat yourself to a day in these hills. It's unbelievably picturesque. The jagged peaks of the Sierras rising above the rounded-off boulders at the base creates a stunning contrast of environments. And man on man, that open space! A man can really breathe out here!

This area has caught the attention of Hollywood since the first westerns hit the silver screen. Just a few notable movies filmed partly in the Alabama Hills: Django Unchained, Gladiator, Transformers 2... Not to mention, just about every other car commercial is filmed in these hills. There's a good reason directors like to set up their cameras here. Aside from the convenience of easy access, the backdrop is just begging to be photographed.

This wasn't my first visit to the Alabama Hills, but it was my first time camping here. My goal was to create some photographs that would really encapsulate the beauty of this locale. Using my 4x5 large format camera, my 6x17 panoramic roll film back, and a mix of color and black and white film, I braved the bugs and wind to see what kind of images I could create.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. And please, please, please click the image featured here for a larger view. You really gotta see it big! And if you have a fast enough internet connection, be sure to select 720P HD when viewing the video for the full experience.

New Work: Laguna Beach Sunset

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1/2 at f/22 - Lee 2-stop split ND filter

- Please click images for larger versions to really enjoy the detail -

Believe it or not, the best sunsets here in Orange County don't coincide with peak tourism season. I always feel bad seeing the beaches packed in June and July under overcast skies. Visitors from the other side of the country aren't aware of our "May Gray", "June Gloom", and "July Ugly Sky" (okay, maybe that last one isn't a common phrase). They have dreams of a sunny Southern California, but instead get something more akin to London.

Our best skies really come in early fall and late winter. I think it must have something to do with the seasons changing - it just brings good clouds for colorful sunsets. Not good sunbathing weather, but boy is it good for photography. Plus, the beaches are usually empty at this time, so you know, double bonus!

This last February brought some beautiful clouds that resulted in some very photogenic sunsets. Luckily, I was able to get out and shoot one of them. I opted to use my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera as opposed to my large format 4x5. I love the process and incredible detail of 4x5, but it's just hard to run away from waves when the camera is that big and slow. The Mamiya gives me a little more room to book it when a wave comes in hot. And while I was out shooting, I was happy to show some curious teenagers how my strange "box camera" works. A lot of people might feel old using a camera that a seventeen-year-old has never even seen before, but I love it.

I used a 50mm lens for this shoot (which is considered wide-angle in the medium format world) along with my favorite high-saturation film - Fuji Velvia 100. In hindsight, I wish I'd used Velvia 50 for a warmer color palette, but the cooler color palette of my chosen Velvia 100 worked just fine.

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 3-stop split ND filter

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 3-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA

Mamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
1 second at f/16 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

Sunset in Laguna Beach, CAMamiya RZ67 with 50mm f/4.5 on Fuji Velvia 100 film
2 seconds at f/11 - Lee 1-stop & 2-stop split ND filters

New Work: Sequoia National Park – Part 2

Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA View from Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

8 seconds at f/22 - 3-stop split ND filter

- Click any image for a larger view -

As I described in Part 1 of this post, I was having a hard time getting the shots I envisioned in the groves of Sequoia trees due to the old, dirty, partially melted snow. It just wasn't flattering to such beautiful sculptures.

But thankfully, with a little bit of scouting around, I came upon Beetle Rock, which is a large granite rock formation with a breathtaking view out to the west. At this altitude, you can see for miles when the weather is clear. Truly a stunning overlook.

On my first evening there, we had a clear sky to the west that produced some beautiful deep red hues of sunset light on the trees. Unfortunately, though, not being familiar with the area yet, I wasn't standing in the right place at the right time. So to put it simply, I squandered that light. Would have been some great color panoramas from Beetle Rock with that kind of a sunset.

But not ready to give up yet, I planned to come back to the same spot the following sunset. I was all jazzed up to shoot some panoramas on the rich color palette of Fuji Velvia film. I was comfortable with the area now, I had a rough pre-visualization of the composition I wanted, I knew when the light would be good...I had all my ducks in a row.

And then the clouds rolled in.

Bummer. I wouldn't get that deep, colorful sunset light. The clouds were too thick. It was practically overcast. But after all that work and anticipation, I decided to make the best of what nature gave me. So I pulled out the black and white film again. I may not get good color on this night, but the textures and shapes were excellent - perfect for black and whites.

I started with a horizontal, wide panorama view of the mountains to the south. The layers receding off into the background gave such a beautiful sense of distance from this high vantage point. Be sure to click for a larger version of these panos - the minute details are where these pictures really come alive.

 Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA View from Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

1/4 at f/22 - 2-stop split ND filter

With the light fading and the clouds showing no signs of breaking up, I decided to scout around Beetle Rock in search of a composition that would make better use of the flat lighting. I needed something with a more pronounced shape. Something that could make use of the dramatic cloud cover.

Just in time, I found a gorgeous tree sprouting out of the rock itself. It's wind-sculpted shape would be the perfect element to superimpose against the cloudy sky. And the textures of the rock at its feet would give just the right amount of interest to the foreground.

I started with a horizontal panorama. I wanted to capture this tree as a regal symbol for the hardship of these high altitudes and the resilience of the organisms that battle the elements to thrive in this terrain. By positioning myself so that the tree would rise up high from the rock, reaching into the sky and blocking the sun behind it, I was able to create the image I envisioned - one that paints this tree as the noble champion of strength that it is. This became my favorite image from the whole trip.

Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA Tree at Beetle Rock, Sequoia National Park, CA
Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa on Ilford Delta 100 film

1 second at f/45 - 3-stop split ND filter

I then tried a vertical 4x5 composition of this same tree (at the top of this post). The communication was similar in this composition, but with a closer, more intimate view. This composition doesn't highlight the majesty of this tree in quite the same way as the panorama, but instead I wanted to show the granite foundation of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from which these trees sprout.