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Mojave Desert, Part 1: Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography
Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
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You know me, I love the desert. When most people imagine the desert, they imagine a monochrome wasteland of barren terrain. But when I imagine the desert, I imagine a landscape bursting with color, unique land formations, and flora and fauna that you won’t find anywhere else. A place like the Mojave Desert is about as good as it gets for me. Open space as far as the eye can see, big skies, deafening quiet, and not to mention great off-roading. That’s why there are few things I love more than doing some landscape photography out in the Mojave Desert.

I think the desert just has a bad publicist. When a place is called “Death Valley” or “Badwater Basin” or “Devil’s Golf Course,” you wouldn’t know these are some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Then you throw in outlet malls and Podunk towns riddled with drug abuse, it’s no wonder people shy away from these areas. Plus the heat. People hate 100+ degree temperatures. But that’s 3-4 months out of the year. The rest of the year, these places have some seriously comfortable mild weather.

I guess it’s up to me and the rest of us cactus-huggers to turn the desert’s image around. I mean, come on, how can you not be in love with sand dunes and Saguaro cactus?

Unfortunately with the start of summer just around the corner, the heat out in these areas is getting into “unbearable” status. But luckily for me, I was able to squeeze in one last visit to the Mojave Desert at the end of January for a 3-day camping trip of landscape photography and some R&R with my two older brothers. The daytime temps were pleasant ranging from chilly to warm, but good God did we underestimate how cold it would get at night! Even in my high-performance sleeping bag I could barely sleep a wink because I was just too cold. Next time I’m bringing a space heater for my tent...and thicker socks...and a second space heater.

But poor night’s sleep aside, I came home with some decent landscape photography. I brought 3 cameras in all - my square format 6x6 Mamiya 6, my 6x7 Mamiya RZ67, and my panoramic 6x17 camera. That’s the beauty of driving to your location instead of backpacking - I can bring 40 pounds of camera gear. That just left the wind to contend with.

I’m breaking up my pictures from this trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert into 3 parts. This first part is all my color landscape photography from the 3 days out there shot on Fuji Velvia film and Kodak Portra film. The next post will be my black and whites. The final post will be just my detail shots of the sand textures. I went nuts photographing the sand ripples so they’ll need their own post.

Rather than keep yapping, I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy!

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA
Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA
Canon EOS 5D, Lee Split ND Filters
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Heisler Park is a classic picturesque beach park in Orange County that embodies the Laguna Beach scenery about as perfectly as any beach can. The palm trees, the white sand, the cliffs...it screams Southern California. To me, Heisler park is both a favorite photo spot and a second office for my teaching business. I take students here for Orange County private photography lessons and group photography classes all the time.

One of my favorite classes, Landscape Photography at the Irvine Fine Arts Center (details here), includes a field shoot in Laguna Beach to catch the sunset. In a recent session of this class back in February, the sunset was kind enough to offer up some brilliant colors for our practice shoot. In between helping my students out one-on-one as they practiced shooting in manual, using filters, and fine-tuning their compositions, I fired off a few compositions myself to demonstrate concepts in the next evening's meeting.

Luckily I was shooting digital (as I always do for these classes). Using my DSLR camera, I was able to shoot quick and review my results immediately. Film would have been a bit too slow and I probably would have missed a few shots. The colors and contrast are certainly rendered differently on my digital sensor than they are on my trusty Fuji Velvia film, but not necessarily for the worse - just different. In these photos I opted for my usual compositional approach - interesting foreground element, slow shutter speed to blur the water, wide angle lens to get it all in. They may not be wildly different from my previous work, but I suppose every sunset is unique and so every picture is unique.

Shutter speeds varied, but most were around 1 second and I used split ND filters in every shot. Without the filters, the colors of the sunset would have been lost forever.

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Sunset at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna BeachAbstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach
Double exposure on Ilford Delta 100 Film
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I'm not really known for abstract photography. Most of my work consists of more literal interpretations of landscapes and nature. Nothing wrong with that, but lately I've been feeling the urge to flex my creativity a little bit by attempting a more abstract approach on my subjects. I've found that forcing myself to see a subject in a different way that departs hugely from my typical straightforward approach tends to open up the flood gates of creativity in me and I often times create photographs I'm really proud of. If I skip the "obvious shot" and just concentrate my efforts on doing something different - anything different - from my first inclination and from what I've seen before, I often times like the results more.

I'm beginning to believe that an ounce of "different" is worth 10 pounds of technical perfection, dramatic composition, and epic light.

So one day in January when I ventured out to Laguna Beach to photograph the sights, I decided to try some abstract photography on the multitude of palm trees down there. I wanted to try something different than simply  straightforward photos of palm trees. I didn't want the viewers to look at these photos and think "yep, there's some palm trees in Laguna Beach." Instead, I wanted my viewers to be unable to express exactly what the photos made them think of or feel. I wanted their emotional and mental response to be difficult to explain.

See, I like it when a photograph or a painting simply instills a "vibe" in you - a feeling that you can't really express in words or describe fully to anybody else. The paintings of R. Kenton Nelson do that for me. When I look at his work, I just get a vibe. I can't articulate it and I don't even want to try. I just feel it.

I know, I'm getting deep here.

But seriously, I think a painting or a photograph should instill this kind of unexplainable sensation in viewers. It shouldn't be easy to describe why you love a work of art or what it means to you or what it's trying to communicate. Because if you could just put it into words, then what's the point of the artwork?

Now the thing about abstract photography is that it doesn't get the same enthusiastic response from viewers as the Peter Lik-esque epic landscape compositions that are bursting with color and drama. Flashy colors and epic scenics grab people, plain and simple. After all, those types of photos look awesome on a digital display. But I've come to realize that I personally don't like hanging such epic, in-your-face photographs on my own walls. I tend to gravitate towards the more subtle, somewhat understated photography that doesn't punch you in the face like the typical landscapes out there. I like wall art that accents a room, not overtakes it. 

So when I photographed these palm trees in Laguna Beach, I wanted to capture them in such a way that the pictures would be (1) something I've never seen before, (2) something I'd want to hang on my own walls at home, (3) something that would really push my creativity and force me to think outside my normal approach, and (4) something that would instill that unexplainable, difficult-to-articulate feeling in my viewers and in myself.

To accomplish (1) and (3), I exposed my film multiple times with overlapping compositions of clusters of palm trees so as to create a more abstract photography look that wasn't so structured. I wanted it sloppy, yet precise - simple compositional elements of various palm trees overlaid to create some interesting shapes and tones. The goal of the compositions was simplicity. Two of the compositions were triple exposures on a single piece of film, two were double exposures. The one with the seagull is a straightforward single exposure. I found out upon developing the film that I did successfully achieve point (2). And as for point (4), these photos do instill that intangible feeling within me, but I can only hope it achieves that in others.

I framed up this abstract photography of palm trees in Laguna Beach for a month-long display at Artist Eye Gallery in (fittingly) Laguna Beach, CA. If you're in the area, swing by Artist Eye Gallery on Thursday, April 3rd from 6:30-9:00pm for Art Walk to see me and these photos in person!

Click any photo to enlarge. And just for fun, there's a little Instagram video for you at the bottom.

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

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