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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).

Shooting Film in Death Valley

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

I was fortunate enough to work with a student this past week in Death Valley National Park for a 2-day, 2-night, 1-on-1 photography workshop. We met in Stovepipe Wells, shot 2 sunrises, 2 sunsets, and spent the daytime discussing techniques, reviewing photos, and covering topics to apply for the next outing. We were lucky to get stunning sunrises and sunsets.

My student was a blast to work with and it was really amazing to see how much his photography progressed over a mere 2 days. It was actually quite unbelievable that one person's entire approach to landscape photography could change so dramatically in such a small amount of time. His dedication and passion for the craft paid off with excellent photos. I'll be sharing one or two of his images with you in the coming weeks.

As for me, with my recently re-discovered passion for film, I decided to shoot film exclusively on this trip. Although I would have loved to bring my 4x5, I opted instead for a lighter, quicker system so as to not hinder my student. So, I "Galen Rowell'ed" this trip by packing light with a 35mm film camera and my split NDs.

I shot Fuji Provia 100F color transparency film and Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. All in all, 1 roll of color, 1.5 rolls of B&W. This post is only about my color photos, which I shot with my trusty Canon EOS 1V.

Canon EOS 1V 35mm film SLR camera

The Canon EOS 1V is a beautiful camera with top-notch electronics and ergonomics. The viewfinder is big and bright, the meter is dead accurate with a +/-3 scale, the viewfinder blackout time is practically non-existent, it's weather-sealed...it's a very nice machine. Truthfully though, this camera is a bit much for shooting landscapes. The EOS 1V was Canon's flagship film camera for years and was built to accommodate the rapid-fire shooting and lighting fast auto focus required of sports shooters and photojournalists - stuff I don't need for landscapes. But the weather-sealing can sure come in handy, and even though I don't need all the bells and whistles, it doesn't hurt to have 'em.

I also used an all-manual Nikon from the 70's or 80's, too, but only for my B&W stuff. That'll come in another post. This post only includes my color images on Fuji Provia.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with the results. We had excellent light to work with, interesting terrain, I metered just about every picture correctly - no major errors or hiccups. And I tell ya, the more I shoot film, the more I realize why I'm shooting film. It's so much fun seeing those color transparencies on the light table in all their pure, untainted, un-digitized glory.

And as I look at more and more pictures taken on film, I'm remembering more and more how much better I like the color rendition achieved with film. I'd forgotten how much more beautiful the purples and blues look compared to digital. Provia especially leans a little bit towards the magenta/purple end of the color spectrum (as opposed to the slightly greener Velvia) which matches my taste in colors nicely. For sunset and sunrise images, especially at the coast and the desert, I prefer a little more magenta than green. Gives the sunset colors a nice glow.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Oh, and as a nice little bonus while were out shooting the sunrise, the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber happened to fly over us several times. Not sure why it was out, but I used to be obsessed with this amazing jet as a kid, so it was a treat to get to see it in flight. Managed to fire off a few photos of it (which ended up being my only digital shots from the trip).

B-2 Bomber Over Death Valley

Venturing Back Into Film

I want to share with you a picture I recently made in the White Mountains of California. This image of an ancient bristlecone pine tree bathed in warm sunset light as it clings to the jagged rocks is a unique image for me on account of 3 factors.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine in the White MountainsShen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Velvia 100, 1/4 at f/29, no filters
Click Image for Larger Version
 

First, these trees are among the oldest living organisms on Earth. The oldest known tree (Methuselah, at over 4,840 years old) lives here. This area of the world and the trees that inhabit it are downright awe-inspiring. They are treasures. They are a gift for anyone who has the privilege to stand next to them. So the subject matter alone makes this image special to me.

Secondly, this was my first visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and my first encounter with this species of tree. One day soon I will try to put into words the profound impact this place had on me. I have plans to explore this area and study these trees much more in the near future.

And finally, the main reason this image is special to me is that I made it on film. That's right. They still make film. And I used it to make this image. 

I've recently decided to venture back into film for all of my major landscape and nature work. Don't worry, I'm not turning my back on digital. Digital isn't going anywhere and neither is my expertise in the digital medium. I fully intend to continue instruction, classes, blog posts and articles geared around making people better digital photographers.

As some of you may know, I got my start in analog film photography about 13 years ago. My first camera was an all-manual 35mm Minolta followed by a succession of better and better 35mm cameras until I reached the Canon EOS 1v HS. I used color transparency film exclusively with my films of choice being Fuji Velvia 100 and Provia 100. These 6 years in my early photographic life marked an important period for me as I developed my style and mastered the techniques. The learning curve was slow, but I couldn't get enough of it.

I was also one of those guys who was never going to go digital. I resisted it for awhile and took pride in the fact that I still shot film. I believed that film just looked better, although my undeveloped eye at the time couldn't pinpoint exactly why, and my idol Galen Rowell was a 35mm slide film guy, too. Whatever he did, I wanted to do.

Eventually, the Canon EOS 5D came to market as the first affordable full-frame digital SLR. So with a combination of factors coming together at one time, I decided to go to "the dark side" and purchase a 5D.

Digital photography with my Canon DSLR proved to be a great learning experience. The learning curve was lightning fast. I mastered techniques like metering, filtration, composition and more in much shorter time than I could have with film. And although I hated to admit it, I really enjoyed the instant feedback digital gave me.

But now after 6 or so years of shooting with a DSLR, I've decided to return to film. Except now, I've decided to do it big. Instead of using my old format of choice, the dinky 35mm, I've taken the dive into 4x5 large format photography. Here's my new camera:

Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa
Shown with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 

I know a lot of my regular followers out there are serious digital shooters. Upon hearing this news, you may have a lot of questions on your mind as to why I would "take a step backwards" into film when digital is the "best" choice these days. And if you're a new visitor to my site (welcome!), you may have similar questions.

Well I fully intend to answer all of those questions. But I feel like I could write an entire book on why I'm going back to film. So instead of trying to fit all of that into a single blog post, I will regularly put out little articles on my blog here addressing one specific topic at a time. These posts will not be a sales pitch on the virtues of film and why you should start shooting film yourself. After all, I feel the vast majority of people would prefer and should shoot digital.

My bigger goal with these upcoming "Why I'm Shooting Film" posts will be to show people another side of photography. A side of photography that has, unfortunately, been trampled by the stampede of HDR, Photoshop plugins, and sloppy shooting techniques that digital has engendered. By exposing you guys to my techniques for shooting with this new camera, I hope to spark some curiosity in you, to make you think about how to get even more creative with your shots and break out of the usual mold of today's digital techniques. I want to show you what's possible with good, solid technique and not a lick of Photoshop to help you out. I hope to instill the same spirit of curiosity towards all aspects of photography that Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams have instilled in me through their writing.

So I intend not for these essays to come across as holier-than-thou treatises on why digital is bad and how much better I am for choosing film. In fact, my intent is quite the opposite.

This venture back into film has opened my eyes to how much I don't know about photography. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface on the field of science and art that is photography. The future is bright with creative possibilities, new topics to learn, new mistakes to make, and new ways to be creative. Film has brought forth in me an invigorating thirst for knowledge that I haven't experienced in some time. It's a great feeling and I want you to have it too. That's why I want to bring you along on my journey as I master new techniques myself and figure out new ways to express myself through film. Hopefully my rediscovered enthusiasm for photography will be contagious for all who read these articles.

I will also soon post articles discussing the technical aspects of 4x5 large format photography, including how it's different than other formats, how the camera works, what types of lenses I use and more. This will probably come in a separate series of posts titled something along the lines of "About Analog Film Photography."

So thank you for reading this far and thank you in advance for returning to read my upcoming posts about analog photography. I look forward to bringing you new images made with this camera.