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New Work: Fall Color and Bishop Creek

Fall Color and Bishop Creek - Bishop, CA

Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 
Fuji Velvia 100, 1 minute at f/25 - Polarizer and 81C Warming Filter
Click Image for Larger Version

As has become somewhat of a tradition for me as of late, I took a trip to Bishop last autumn to catch the fall color. I'd been the previous year and was treated to a very impressive show of leaves along Highway 168 into the mountains. North Lake and Lake Sabrina were stunning with good water levels and vibrant colors on their banks. So with my fruitful trip in 2011 under my belt, I hoped my 2012 excursion would be just as rewarding. 

Although the colors weren't nearly as vibrant and the lakes were miserably low, the trip turned out to be rewarding on an entirely different level. That's because I decided to shoot 4x5 film exclusively on this trip. I'd just recently acquired my first ever large format view camera, a couple of lenses, and a few hundred dollars worth of film and I was itching it try out the new format in "the wild." I'd already gotten comfortable with the basic operation of this camera back in my stomping grounds - the beaches of Orange County - but this would be my first jaunt into mountainous terrain.

I shot a total of 36 pictures over the 3-day period, which is a lot for 4x5 work. I'm still breaking my old digital habits of shooting fat and fast. Plus, at $5.00 per picture (including processing), those 36 frames cost me $180.

Shen-Hao HZX 45-IIa 4x5 view cameraBut coming home with only 36 pictures instead of a more typical digital crop of 300 hundred photos didn't leave me feeling like I missed out on anything. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Having to restrict my shots and knowing that each photo cost me five bucks forced me to slow down and really think out every composition. I exposed 7 frames on the first sunrise instead of 50. I didn't waste shutter clicks on sloppy compositions and less-than-perfect moments in the light. More time between shots gave me a chance to absorb the scenery and light and really appreciate it with my eyes instead of through my viewfinder.

One of my primary grumbles about shooting with a DSLR is that at the end of a trip, I ironically felt like I had been absent for the very photos I took. It was like I wasn't there for that sunrise during which I took 50 photos. The mental image pictures in my mind were faded or not there. It's a really weird phenomenon and it took me some time to come to a reasonable theory on how I could possibly feel like I didn't even see a gorgeous sunrise that I'd photographed for over an hour.

My theory is that I spent so much time with my eye pressed up against a viewfinder, taking every damn picture I could so that I wouldn't miss the perfect moment, that I forgot to look around and just soak it all in with my eyes. I was so busy making digital images that I neglected to make sufficient mental images.

But that wasn't the case on this trip. With my view camera, I take maybe 10-15 minutes setting up the shot and metering the scene, then I step away from my camera and look past it in the same direction of the lens, waiting for the right moment with the cable release in my hand. The majority of my time isn't spent with one eye closed looking through a viewfinder. For the most part, I'm standing next to my tripod and camera just waiting. Waiting and looking around, soaking in the scenery and light with my eyes.

For the first time in a long time, my mental image pictures are more solid and real than the photos themselves. It's a nice feeling.

The photo at top is one of the "keepers" from this trip. I made this picture at the tail end of the sunset in a shaded valley between two mountain peaks. The creek you see is Bishop Creek as it leads away from South Lake.

This particular location just a few yards from the road had a nice spread of aspens at peak color along the banks. I pre-visualized an image similar to what you see above with the creek cascading along the foreground and the fiery leaves at the top of the composition. The only difference in my head was that the creek would be rushing towards the camera, dropping down a few levels in the boulders for a good eye trail into the trees. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't find an angle where the creek flowed towards me with strong color in the background. The best color could only come from shooting downstream.

It's not my first choice to have the water flowing away from the camera, but sometimes you just have to take what mother nature gives you.

I positioned my camera on a islet in the creek bridged by a fallen tree. With my 150mm lens (equivalent to about 50mm in full-frame DSLR terms) and camera leveled, I raised the film standard just a bit to include more of the creek. For those of you scratching your heads at that last sentence, let me explain.

On view cameras like this, you don't often tilt the camera up or down to change the framing. Especially in scenes with vertical objects - like trees - it's best to keep the back of the camera (the film standard) perfectly vertical. This keeps the trees looking vertical. On a regular DSLR camera, to include more creek, I'd need to tilt the camera down, but that would make the trees "bend" towards the edges. It's the same effect that makes buildings look like they're falling backwards when photographed at an upward angle.

If you want to keep the film plane vertical, the only way you can include more foreground is to literally raise the film up while keeping the lens stationary. It would be like if you could slide the back of your DSLR camera up on some rails while keeping the lens exactly where it is.

Why up? After all, I want more of the creek at the bottom of the frame. Well that's because the image records on film upside down. So the creek is at the top and the trees are at the bottom. To include more creek, I need to slide the film plane up.

So once I had the camera adjusted and focused, it was time to add any necessary filters. I used a circular polarizer on my Lee system to reduce reflections in the water, and since this was taken in the shade of a valley, I used an 81C warming filter to combat the natural blue tone of the shade. An 81C warming filter is just a piece of plastic resin with a light orange tint to it. This causes the light coming through the lens to shift towards the orange end of the color spectrum. Shade is naturally blue, so without this filter, this shady scene would have looked too "cool." The 81C cancelled out the blue tone in the shade so that the fall colors rendered accurately on film.

Digital cameras have white balance to deal with these color casts. But film is "locked in" to a certain color balance - hence the necessity for warming filters.

All that was left now was metering using my handheld spot meter, factoring in the loss of light from the filters, cocking the shutter, setting the aperture, sliding in the film, removing the dark slide, and clicking the cable release. The exposure was at an aperture of f/25 at 1 minute (timed with a stopwatch on the "bulb" setting).