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Photography On Location: The Pumpkin Patch in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Photography On-Location:
The Pumpkin Patch at Anza-Borrego Desert
View on YouTube to see full HD

Oh, boy. It's been awhile since my last post. And it's been even longer since my last on-location video. I wish I could do this more often, but life gets in the way sometimes. Well, work gets in the way.

And I must say that I have been completely surprised by all the positive feedback I've gotten on my videos. When I posted my first video on YouTube, I was prepared for the worst - mean, critical, "just kill yourself, you Wil Wheaton look-a-like" kinds of comments. Man, was I wrong! The vast, vast majority of comments have been incredibly encouraging, positive, and supportive.

Hooray! Humanity is alive and well!

So thank you to my viewers and those who have taken the time to encourage me to do more. It really keeps me motivated on this stuff.

For my latest "photography on location" video, I took a day trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to check out a strange geological formation called "The Pumpkin Patch." Aptly named, this remote section of Anza-Borrego is dotted with pumpkin-sized spheres of sandstone - sandstone concretions as the informative placard called them. Not that I had to look this up in a dictionary or anything, but a concretion is a hard solid mass formed by the local accumulation of matter.

And as the handy placard also clarified, such concretions are believed to be formed by the natural cementing of sand particles to a small object such as a piece of shell, a grain of sand, or even an insect. You see, these are basically giant sandstone jawbreakers with a nougaty core of dead insect. A spider dies beneath the surface, a concretion forms around it, the soil eventually erodes away, and the concretion is exposed to wind which slowly smooths it into a spherical shape.

These are desert pearls, my friends!

The Pumpkin Patch in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

The Pumpkin Patch in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

It's very interesting stuff. So when I learned about this pumpkin patch in my local desert, I figured it might be worth photographing.

Getting there is pretty easy. You can probably get there just fine without 4x4, but you'll definitely need a high-clearance vehicle at the very least. This patch is nestled in the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, so this isn't something right off the side of the highway. You'll have to spend some time navigating the twists and turns of sometimes-barely-marked dirt roads and desert washes. This is the kind of place meant for dune buggies and Jeeps. I recommend checking in with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center to get reliable directions and an update on the road conditions.

On this trip I only ended up shooting one roll of film. It was Ilford Delta 100 film pushed 1 stop (for a little extra contrast) coupled with a red filter (for even more contrast) in 6x6 format. In hindsight, I think I may have gone overboard on the contrast, but then again it worked really well for a few of the shots. Things just got a little too dark and moody for some of them. The red filter probably would have been sufficient without pushing the film too.

You'll notice that many of these pictures have a vertical whitish line off to the right. That's from a light leak in my Mamiya RZ67 camera. I don't know where it's coming from, but somehow light is creeping into the camera through the cracks and spilling onto the film. I replaced all the light seals already to try and fix it, but no dice. It's still getting in. I need to troubleshoot things a bit to get that leak under control.

Ah, these are the joys of using an old film camera. We're spoiled by perfectly tight digital cameras nowadays.

It's a real bummer about that light leak, though, because it ruined some otherwise perfectly good photos. But as they say, live and learn. Now I know it's leakin', so I know it needs fixin'.

Click any picture to see it bigger and be sure to check out the video!

Ocotillo Cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Ocotillo Cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Ocotillo Cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Ocotillo Cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Ocotillo Cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

The Pumpkin Patch in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

The Pumpkin Patch in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Joshua Tree National Park (and Musings on Photography as Art)

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

All images shot on Ilford Delta 100 film
using a Shen-Hao TFC 617-A Camera
Please, oh please, click any picture to see it bigger

I've been to Joshua Tree National Park more times than I can count. Sometimes I go and, no matter how hard I try, I just can't find a photo worth taking. Those times can be mind-numbingly frustrating. Because really there's no better way to feel like a hack than being unable to take a good picture when you're literally surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas, stunning rock formations, and stately Joshua Trees. A 3-year-old with an iPhone should be able to take great pictures when they got this kind of scenery to work with.

But I've learned after enough of these failed attempts that there's a difference between creating great photographs and creating art. *Cough* *Cough* Oh, God *Cough* Sorry...I nearly choked on the pretension of that sentence. Hold on, let me put on a beret and an ascot before I proceed with this line of thinking. Okay, at the risk of sounding pretentious, here goes. And I write this not as a person who has it all figured out. I write this as an aspiring artist who is trying to figure this all out.

Here was the basic evolution of my photographic style: I started by aspiring to copy my idols (Galen Rowell was the main one for me). I studied and practiced until I could create a pretty good facsimile of the pictures I admired. I got good at it, too. I could create a pretty damn good imitation of what I thought a National Geographic photographer would do. I even took it a little further, putting a slight spin on this style so I could call it my own. I was content with this for a long time - creating pictures that were good, some of them great. But eventually I got bored. I felt like I was repeating myself again and again. It became a formula - use this lens with that composition with these filters. "It's resulting in great photos - why change it?" Same thing over and over.

And then I crashed (creatively, not literally). I got so fed up with photography that I barely ever picked up the camera anymore. I was sick of it. How many more high-saturation wide angle epic-foreground-under-a-fiery-sunset pictures could I bear to make? It was a very troubling time for me. I felt like I was losing my identity as a photographer/artist. But really, it was never my identity to begin with - it was my best imitation of the professionals I admired. I was the photographer-equivalent of a cover band.

But slowly, I began to realize what the problem was. I wasn't striving to create art. I was simply doing my best impression of Galen Rowell and Peter Lik and a million other people on Flickr.

*** Keep scrolling...More pictures below ***

I still do that style now and then, but I view it differently now. To me, it's not creating art. That high-saturation stuff with the predictable compositions, it's paint-by-numbers. Good clean fun, but nothing deeper than that. And don't get me wrong, there's a place for the paint-by-numbers style of photography. It's therapeutic, it's fun, and it makes for great pictures. But if I never go out and try to make my own creation - something that truly comes from deep inside - I'll never really feel that deep sense of artistic satisfaction.

I can't define art and I certainly don't have "what makes good art" figured out, but I know how it feels when I'm trying to create real art and when I'm just painting by numbers. The trips to Joshua Tree that go well these days, those are the trips where I'm really working to break out of the paint-by-numbers groove. When I'm really trying to create art, that's when I'm burning through rolls of film in the very same park where last time I couldn't find a single photo.

My most recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park was one of those times where I was in "art mode." And what does "art mode" mean to me? It means I'm open to the landscape, I'm ready to see what it shows me with no preconceived ideas of what pictures I intend to or should make. I'm a blank canvas going in. And I have to feel a deep affinity for the environment around me, I have to want to be there and I have to clear my mind so I can see what it has to offer. I also have to be okay with getting no good photos. If inspiration doesn't strike, that's okay. When you're not painting by numbers, there's no guarantee you'll have a picture at the end of it.

It can be difficult to get in that mode sometimes. The distractions I was supposed to leave back home often cling to me like barbs. Plus, my preconceived ideas of what I "should" be doing with composition, light, color, etc. can paint my blank canvas before I even get there. If that happens, I'm painting by numbers again. But if I can clear my canvas, open my mind, and let myself get in touch with that monster rumbling deep down inside me that wants to create true meaningful art - if I can do all that, I will come home satisfied.

Now whether or not true meaningful art is actually created, that's beside the point. I suppose that's for the viewer to decide. But ultimately for me, it's about creating something I'm proud of and, most importantly, something that I feel is a reflection of my inner fiber. I'm happy to say in that respect, this trip was a success.

Okay. I've now removed my beret and ascot. Let's talk unpretentious camera-geek stuff. I made all the pictures here using my Shen-Hao TFC 617-A 6x17 panoramic camera. They were all made with Ilford Delta 100 Professional film, all of them push-processed then scanned with an Epson V750. Tone curve adjustments done in Adobe Lightroom.

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Joshua Tree National Park Black and White Photography

Fun With Long Exposures in Laguna Beach

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposure at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA
1 minute at f/32

I've been hooked on black and white photography lately. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older, but I think I'm just a little burned out on the whole "make an epic landscape bursting with more color than a box of Crayola crayons" approach to landscape photography. I dig photos that depart from reality a little bit - something that doesn't look like a facsimile of real life. For these same reasons, I've been experimenting with doing ultra-long exposures down at the local beaches.

When you get into the territory of super long exposures like 30 seconds and longer, the ocean takes on a surreal foggy look from all the motion of the waves. The result is a smoothed out water surface and a beautiful mist along the shore. With some good dark rocks in the foreground to break it up, the surrealism that results is addictive.

For this series of photos, I set up my tripod at a local stopping ground - Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've photographed this beach more times than I can count. It's classic Orange County, CA with picturesque palm trees lining the sun-soaked cliffs and some excellent rock formations for this style of landscape photography.

The photos you see here were made on Ilford Delta 100 black and white film with a Mamiya RZ67 camera, but these effects are even easier to achieve with a digital SLR. The shutter speed in each photo here was 1 minute. In order to get that long of an exposure, I had to close my aperture down real small - f/32 - and use 6 stops of neutral density filter to cut back the light. Also, the fact that it was a little bit overcast helped, too. If you were doing this with a digital camera, you'd need to do the same things I did - small aperture, ND filter, and be sure to use a low ISO of 50 or 100. And since the shutter speed will be beyond 30 seconds, you'll need to switch your camera into "bulb" mode. Bulb mode is where the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter release. Best use a locking cable release so that you don't have to sit there with your finger on the shutter release. Use a stopwatch to time the shutter speed or just count "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi..." I also used a split ND filter here to darken up the sky a bit.

I'm sure I'll be taking many more long exposure pictures like this in the near future. I'm hooked.

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA