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New Landscape Photography & Video: Storm in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art PhotographyJoshua Tree in Fog
Image made on Ilford Delta 100 Film
with a Mamiya RZ67 and 110mm f/2.8

It's been kind of an unusual couple weeks weather-wise for Orange County. Temperatures have been soaring and we've had lots of scattered cloud cover. It's resulted  in some seriously gorgeous skies - the sunsets especially.

Unfortunately, though, the beaches are crowded and, frankly, I'm a little burned out on photographing beach sunsets. So although I've been enjoying the beautiful skies, I haven't really been photographing them. But Monday of last week I decided to get myself out to Joshua Tree National Park to photograph these dramatic weather conditions.

The forecast called for scattered thunder storms in the desert - which is really what made me decide to drive out there - but the thunder never materialized. That's okay though because the breaking storm made for some of the most beautiful light and skies I've ever seen in Joshua Tree National Park.

The drive to Joshua Tree from Orange County is about 2 1/2 hours, which feels about 3 hours longer than I remember. And especially with the heavy downpour and flooded streets through the desert, I was beginning to doubt my decision about an hour in to the drive.

But boy am I glad I took this trip!

On the way in to the park, I found a stretch of road where a heavy fog enveloped the Joshua Trees and rock formations, creating some truly stunning scenery for me to capture on my Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. I chose black and white for this entire outing for a couple reasons (with the exception of a single roll of color film I'm pretty sure I botched). First, I've simply been more attracted to black and white landscape photography lately. Maybe I'm burned out on color, maybe I just don't find it "artsy" enough anymore. But whatever the reason, B&W seems to be keeping my creative juices flowing in a way color film isn't. And aside from that, I mean come on...Joshua Trees in fog and breaking storms over the desert? It's just begging for black and white!

I spent the first half of the day photographing these unique yuccas in the fog with my Mamiya RZ67 medium format camera. I chose this format because with the 110mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to get a real shallow depth of field by shooting wide open. This helped to draw attention to my subjects as if I was shooting a portrait of each Joshua Tree. I made 10 frames of these "portraits" with plans to create a triptych from the best 3.

I used a dark yellow #15 filter on these shots to help introduce some contrast in this flat lighting and I over-developed the film intentionally to help raise up the highlights a bit (N+1 processing for you Zone System users).

After lunch, I spent the day in the higher elevations of the park scouting out a good location for sunset and creating some B&W 6x17 photographs highlighting the stunning sky.

I'm normally pretty humble and modest about my photos and I always feel weird heaping praise on my own work, but I am truly thrilled with the photos I made on this trip. For a long time now I haven't felt that my pictures are actually representative of me or of the vibe I want to create. But these pictures are a better representation of me than I think anything else I've put out before.

I must be moving in the right direction.

Please, oh, please click any image for a larger view

Breaking Storm over Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Landscape Photography

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree in Fog in Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Joshua Tree National Park Fine Art Photography

And check out the on-location video:

View on YouTube for full HD version

New Landscape Photography: San Onofre Beach at Sunset


Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Sunset at San Onofre Beach
4" at f/25, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND + Lee 1-stop grad ND
Click Image for Larger View

Last month a friend of mine and I went for a sunset shoot at San Onofre Beach in Southern CA. I'm generally a "lone wolf" when it comes to doing landscape photography because I enjoy the solitude, but Eric and I are very much simpatico when it comes to style, methodology, and philosophy (check out Eric Bryan's amazing photography at ericbryan.net).

San Onofre Beach is unlike any other in Southern California. You won't find long stretches of white sandy beaches here. Much of the beach is riddled with smooth, round boulders the size of...uh, I dunno, like a volleyball but a little smaller. I clearly know nothing about sports...

But anyway, this beach is gorgeous and generally empty. Not exactly easy to navigate this rocky shore, but the views are unbeatable. And looking inland, the shore is flanked by some stately red-sand cliffs that are quite breathtaking under sunset light.

On this shoot, I opted for the wide 6x17 format using Fuji Velvia 50 film. Now I gotta be honest...the photos are a little too dark for my liking. It's partly that I just overestimated how dark I wanted it to be, but here's the thing about Velvia 50 film: it's rated at ISO 50, but it really isn't 50. Based on my experiments and analyzation, I need to rate it more like ISO 33 or 25 in order to get accurate metering. I did ISO 33 here. I should have done 25.

And here's the other thing: my Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens exhibits some serious light falloff at the edges. Every wide angle lens on 6x17 format does. And I didn't have a center ND filter for this evening's shoot. That meant the edges came out much darker than I anticipated. The center of the frame looks spot on in regards to exposure, but the edges came out too dark. And since Velvia 50 is so contrasty, that 1 to 1-1/3 stops of light falloff at the edges looks major.

Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Post-Sunset at San Onofre Beach
20" at f/22, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND
Click Image for Larger View

I overestimated on my metering, I used a little too much split ND, I should have rated the film at ISO 25, I needed a center ND filter. Excuses excuses. Oh well. I'll do better next time. And I just picked myself up a sweet center ND filter off eBay to remedy the light falloff issue. It was a steal at $275. Center ND filters are ridiculously expensive. They usually run about $400-$500 used.

The composition could use some improvement, too. But it's time to stop flogging myself. The photos are actually pretty solid. I'm happy with them. It's just that inner photography teacher coming out of me.

The shot at top was made right as the sun dipped to the horizon. The second image was a little after sunset. Please click the images for larger views. These images are pointless unless you can see all the details.

First Impressions of Kodak Ektar

Kodak Ektar 100All images made on medium format Kodak Ektar film
Click any image for a larger view

I've historically been a color reversal film guy. I just haven't shot much with color negative film. I suppose that's a product of being a Galen Rowell fanboy. He was a Kodachrome and Velvia guy, so that's what I became (unfortunately Kodachrome was before my time, though).

But I decided to break out of my shell a little bit and give Kodak Ektar 100 a try because I've read great things about it and I've seen some beautiful colors from it. As far as I'm concerned, the biggest advantage to shooting Kodak Ektar over something like Fuji Velvia is the increased dynamic range and the ability to change the color balance after taking the shot. 

In the digital world, RAW and JPEG files have sometimes been compared to color negatives and color slides. That's because RAW files, like color negative film, have more flexibility in post-production than JPEG files. Much like a RAW file, I can change the "white balance" of my Kodak Ektar shots in the process of scanning. Also, I get a little bit wider range of tonality than on my trusty old Velvia. Velvia (and all color transparency films) are more like JPEGs - what you see is what you get, there's no doing drastic color changes after snapping the shutter, and the dynamic range is more compressed.

Having worked extensively with the "JPEG of film," I thought it was time to try the film equivalent to a RAW file.

So with my first roll of Kodak Ektar color negative film loaded up in my medium format Mamiya RZ67, I headed out to a local park at high noon. My goal was to create ultra-simplistic compositions of the overly-ordered suburban setting that is Irvine, CA. You see, Irvine is a master-plan community in Orange County, CA that might remind some of the Stepford Wives - the neighborhoods and parks are ultra-ordered, ultra-groomed, ultra-matchy, and ultra-artificial. Nice place to raise a kid, but it ain't exactly dripping with culture and variety.

These compositions aren't my usual high-contrast, high-detail landscapes that you might be used to, but that's the point. I wanted simple and ordered compositions to help highlight the artificiality of the community.

All in all, I felt that Kodak Ektar was a perfect match for this shoot. The wider-than-Velvia dynamic range allowed me to keep detail in the harsh shadows of midday and resulted in an overall softer contrast that suited this subject matter well. The vibrant yet soft color palette combined with the wide dynamic range helped me create the painterly look I was after.

I'm still working on testing this film on some of my more typical shoots - vibrant landscape photography - but I think it's safe to say that Kodak Ektar is a superb film that will forever remain in my arsenal of film stocks...well, at least until they stop making it.

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100

Kodak Ektar 100