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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
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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

Mojave Desert, Part 3: Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Sand Texture in the Mojave Desert
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I think I could photograph the ripples in these sand dunes for days and never get bored. That’s why I did a lot of it on this trip. I also find that shooting in the square film format and using my camera handheld (as opposed to my usual tripod method) makes photographing this sand texture all the more fun. The ripples are simultaneously perfectly ordered and utterly random. They’re like the grooves in your fingerprint - each one is different and yet they all look pretty much the same at first glance.

The most interesting thing about these ripples and textures is that they are formed entirely by wind alone. It’s nothing more than a side effect of a natural weather phenomenon. It’s simply remarkable that this is what mother nature creates when she’s left alone. And like an etch-a-sketch, each one of these sculptures is shaken clear and re-formed with passing time. They are transient and temporary, a fact that makes photographing them all the more special.

At the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, you’ll find faint layers of black sand mixed in with the more common beige variety. I presume the black sand comes from the volcanic rock of nearby cinder cones which has been eroded down to granules and transported by the wind onto these mammoth piles of sand. The real interesting part comes in how the wind separates the black sand from the beige sand. It seems one of these types of sand is heavier than the other. This fact is evident all over the dunes where a strip of black sand will crown the top of a crest or line the valleys of sand ripples like a black highlighter drawn along their edge. The result is a multi-colored painting of sand and wind that even the finest artist couldn’t create.

I personally like these types of compositions. They aren’t in-your-face like my more typical epic landscape photography, but their subtlety and near-abstractness is perfect for interior decorating. I plan to compile some of these images of sand texture into a triptych - 3 compositions side-by-side or one on top of the other to form a beautiful wall art piece that brings the texture of the Kelso Sand Dunes indoors. Or maybe I’ll do 4 compositions arranged 2x2...perhaps 6 arranged 2x3...maybe even 9 arranged 3x3.

I think we’re going to need a bigger wall...

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

Mojave Desert Sand Texture

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