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Mojave Desert, Part 2: Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography
Black and White Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
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I didn’t shoot a ton of black and white landscape photography on my most recent trip to the Mojave Desert. I’m not really sure why - I suppose the colors were just too delicious to desaturate at the time - but despite my slim-pick’ns on the monochrome front, I really, really love sand dunes in black and white. The contrast and lines are just superb for monochrome photography.

Right off the bat, most of the compositions here will look quite familiar if you saw my last post from this Mojave Desert trip with my color landscape photography. Once I set up a shot for color photography, I tend to try the same exact composition in black and white because it’s easy to do and I like having both options. I always tell myself that I’ll pick one later - the color or the B&W - as the final select, but I always find myself torn between the pretty colors and the rich monochrome shots. That’s why both usually end up on my website. I also often shoot the same composition in both horizontal and vertical framing. It’s good to have both varieties when making a fine art piece or trying to fit a picture into a magazine or book.

Each of the shots here were made at sunrise looking northwest. I was fortunate to get relatively clear skies on one of the mornings which allowed the unobstructed sun to bathe these dunes in a strong, harsh, directional side lighting. When you’re trying to highlight sand textures and shapes in the dunes, you need harsh light. If the light is softened up too much by a thin cloud layer, the texture just disappears under the flat lighting. And if the sun is too high in the sky - like at noon - the shadows aren’t going in the right direction to bring out the details. It needs to be side-lighting and it needs to be strong directional light. So, thank you, clear skies.

I don’t remember for sure, but I’m pretty sure I used a polarizer in most of these photos, a red #23A filter on all of them, and a split ND filter on most or all of them. Without these filters, the contrast would have been lackluster. And without solid manual metering technique, I would have botched the whole thing.

I have to say, the more I look at my landscape photography from this trip and other trips to the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert, the more I like the black and white versions. Does that mean I’m getting old?

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Black and White Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert, Part 1: Color Landscape Photography

Mojave Desert Color Landscape Photography
Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert
Click Any Image Enlarge

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

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

I love me some vintage cameras. Take a stroll through my office and you'll find old cameras on display all over the place. They just look cool. Vintage cameras are like vintage cars - they're from a time when visual aesthetic appeal didn't play second fiddle to cost of materials and functionality. Sure, most of these cameras didn't sit in your hands as comfortably as a modern day DSLR with its ergonomic grip and rubber coating, but they looked awesome.

Modern cameras, like modern cars, are designed primarily around the ideas of functionality and comfort. It's no wonder they all look the same - same grip, same shoulders, essentially the same control layout. Once manufacturers have a design that sells, they're afraid to mess with the ergonomics and style shooters have become comfortable with.

But vintage cameras are as varied as snowflakes. Designers were still experimenting with different designs back then. The collective ideas of survey-based marketing hadn't destroyed the art of product design yet. They had beautiful lines, interesting color schemes, and a charming lack of bells and whistles. Vintage cameras are sculptures that should be put proudly on display.

My favorite thing about vintage cameras is that their designs were usually so simple that there was little to break or malfunction. No electronics meant no deteriorating circuit boards. Few precision mechanisms meant fewer things to go out of alignment or timing. So long as you can find a film to fit, many vintage cameras from 100 years ago can still be used. I once put a roll of film through a 1920's era Kodak Brownie. It worked just fine.

A good friend of mine recently gifted me an Argus 40 TLR camera. "TLR" stands for "Twins Lens Reflex." "Twin Lens" because it has 2 lenses - one you look through to compose the image and the other lens to actually expose the film. "Reflex" because it has a mirror in it. Any camera with a mirror in it is a "reflex camera" because one definition of "reflex" is "archaic: (of light) reflected." You can probably guess how they got the name "Single Lens Reflex (SLR)."

I was thrilled to learn that this Argus 40 camera still worked - not bad for a camera from the early 1950's - and that it can accept modern film with a simple modification. It used the now-discontinued 620 film. 620 film just so happens to be the exact same size as modern-day 120 film, just on a thinner spool. So I picked up some old 620 film spools off eBay for $15, re-spooled a roll of 120 Ilford Delta black and white film onto a 620 spool and boom, I had myself a fully-operational Argus 40 ready for shooting.

With no internal light meter, I had to meter manually using a handheld light meter. No problem, that part's easy. The tough part was the focus. It's all done with a crude distance scale on the lens. I had to guess how far away my subject was, then find the corresponding measurement on the focus ring. My estimation of distance was really put to the test.

To try out my first roll of film, I ventured to nearby Old Towne Orange to photograph some old structures there (thought it was fitting for this camera) and finished off the roll at Corona Del Mar beach. I also threw in a photo of our dog for a real challenge.

I love the look this camera creates. The 75mm lens gets a nice, shallow depth of field, the square format is just classic, and the crude-by-today's-standards lens created some awesome lens flare, vignetting, and blurring. The images are gritty and riddled with flaws - just how I like it. Can't wait to do some portraits with this bad boy.

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Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR