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New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 2

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and WhiteMojave Desert in Black and White
Medium Format Ilford Delta 100 Film
Click Any Image to Expand

Continuing the previous post showcasing my photos from a recent trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert, this entry highlights a different photographic style of the same subject. In fact, you'll notice that many of the compositions shown here are identical to compositions in the previous entry because, as I mentioned in the last post, I wanted to see how different artistic styles could be applied to the same photographs for a little bit of variety. The photos I shared last week show a softer take on the Mojave Desert. With the wider dynamic range and muted color palette of Kodak Portra film, the contrast softened up a bit and the overall vibe was less intense than you might get from the usual high-saturation stuff. Also, I utilized a shallow depth of field in many of the shots to mix things up a bit from my typical  landscape photography.

The landscape photography I want to share with you in this post offers a different view of the Mojave Desert. These photos exhibit more of a classic, old-style take on this timeless landscape. My goal was to highlight the shapes, shadows, and textures of these sand dunes. Color was not my top priority here, it was the tones of the sky contrasted with the sunlit dunes and its shadows. Since there's no better way to highlight tonal differences than with black and white, I opted for Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. Without the distraction of color, the light and dark can really take center stage.

Using my spot metering process (that I teach in my online course here), I established that the tonal difference between the sunlit areas of the dunes and the shadowed areas of the dunes was only about 5 stops apart. I know through previous testing that my Ilford film has a dynamic range around 10 to 11 stops. So with only a 5-stop separation between highlights and shadows, the contrast wouldn't be very impressive. I wanted the highlights to be bright white and the shadows to be nearly black. 5 stops wasn't going to do it. This 5-stop separation meant the shadows were only going to be dark gray and the highlights light gray. Also, I found out that the sky was going to come out about medium gray. That wasn't going to work for what I envisioned. I wanted the sky to be nearly black with bright white clouds popping out from it.

So, to put it simply, I needed to increase the contrast of the scene so that the shadows would drop in brightness and the highlights would increase in brightness. In order to do this, I opted for N+1 processing. Those familiar with the Zone System should know what that means. Basically, I underexposed the film a bit to drop the shadows then later I developed it for a longer time period so as to raise the highlights. This would expand my 5-stop range to about 6 or 7 stops. But this still wasn't enough. To get that last bit of extra contrast, I utilized a Red #23A filter and a Circular Polarizer. The red filter further darkened the shadows and, coupled with the polarizer, shifted the sky towards a really dark tone. Now the contrast range was creeping up to 9 stops or so. Just what I wanted.

If you were to do this same style with digital, it's quite easy. When desaturating the image to monochrome, your image editing program should give you the option to darken or lighten specific color channels. In that case, you'd drop the brightness of the blues (sky and shadows) and raise the brightness of the yellows (sunlit dunes). Then a little tweak of the curves tool here and there would round it off nicely.

There you have style #2 from the Mojave Desert. In the next blog post I'll be sharing my third and final stylistic approach on these dunes: the high-saturation, high-contrast, Galen Rowell style approach.

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Park at Night on Ilford Delta 100 filmPark at Night - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:55pm
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Well, I finally made it to the 30th and final day of my photo a day challenge. I again found myself out at night to make my exposures, this time at a neighborhood park near where I grew up. The real reason I chose to visit this park to take photos is because there is a beautiful Gratitude and Honor Memorial set up there for the fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And seeing as how the date on this night was September 11th, I thought it would be fitting to photograph the memorial.

Here is a shot of just one section of one of the panels on this memorial. There are  20 panels in all - each one filled with names of soldiers killed in combat. As of this writing there are 6,714 names engraved in the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial (per www.northwoodmemorial.com). If you carefully review the names in the photo below, it's chilling to note some of the ages of these soldiers.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Northwood Park Military Memorial on Ilford Delta 100 filmWar Memorial - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:26pm
Click to Enlarge

The panels are glossy, so it was difficult to avoid reflections clouding the names. I first tried to get my own reflection out of the frame, but then I decided to let my outline show in the composition. I felt that my silhouette might serve as a reminder that these names aren't simply names on a plaque but names that represent real flesh-and-blood people fallen in the line of duty.

If you're in the area, I strongly recommend visiting this memorial.

After taking this photo of the memorial, I decided to venture around the park in search of other shots to finish off my final roll of film. I eventually found my way to the back of the park where I fixed my camera on a tree and lamppost with an interesting backdrop of silhouetted rooflines. Much like the photo from yesterday's blog entry, I think this shot of the lamppost is going to speak much more to me than anyone else. As I continue to mature in my photography, I'm realizing that more than capturing moments or subjects, I really want to capture "vibes" and emotions - those deeply-ingrained feelings that can't be articulated in words. This image of the lamppost and tree, I feel, captures a "vibe" that I can't articulate. I don't know if you'll get that same vibe from it, but that's what I like about it.

This 30-day photo a day challenge has been a huge growing experience for me. It helped me discover new approaches to photography and how to find photos in situations and subjects I wouldn't have otherwise thought to photograph. It helped me reach a point where I know now what to do next. I have project ideas sprouting up in my head left and right. The creative juices are flowing and I know where to go from here. This challenge certainly served its purpose.

Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 29

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 29 - Streetlight on Ilford Delta 100 filmStreetlight - Irvine, CA
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 at 10:13pm
Click to Enlarge

There is a recently-built road in the hills behind my old high school here in Irvine. This road will soon be lined by tract housing, but as of now, it's empty. I love it here. Without any buildings in the way, you get a great high-up view of the city below and the whole stretch of asphalt feels quiet and secluded. I especially love visiting this road at night. With nothing but the streetlights lining the road to illuminate the dark, you can really feel like you're out in the middle of nowhere.

For day 29 of my photo a day challenge, I decided to visit this deserted road to make my photograph. I had a pre-visualized composition in mind of just a single streetlight rising up the center of the frame with a completely black background. One of my favorite things in the world is the way artificial lighting in a nighttime settings simultaneous creates some of the harshest contrast and some of the softest tonal gradations you'll find anywhere. And the resulting simple shadows look awesome on black and white film.

With my Mamiya RZ67 loaded up with Ilford Delta 100 film, I found a streetlight on a relatively level stretch of the road, set up my tripod directly across from it, and metered my exposure at 1/4 of a second at f/4. I chose a relatively wide aperture because there was no need for a big depth of field here. My subjects were all lined up on the same plane, all about equidistant from me, and the background had no detail to it in the darkness. This wide aperture allowed me to use a decently quick shutter speed in this dim lighting. Still had to use a tripod, though. The way I arrived at exactly f/4 is because of the way it rendered the light itself. See, small apertures turn pinpoints of light into stars. The smaller the aperture, the more pronounce the star. Here, I wanted some faint light rays "shooting" out from the light, but I didn't want a full-fledged multi-pointed star. With the help of my depth of field preview button, I found that f/4 gave just the right amount of starburst.

Strangely enough, this is one of my favorite photos from the entire photo a day challenge. It may not mean much to the average viewer, but it means something to me.

Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.