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Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of ArizonaSaguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains
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I love the desert. And it seems every time I visit it, I fall deeper in love. The open space, the geology, the weather, and the unique flora and fauna of the American deserts never fails to pique my curiosity and my creativity. On a recent trip to Scottsdale, AZ, I had the pleasure of visiting the Superstition Mountains - a beautiful stretch of stately peaks dotted with saguaro cactuses. Ah, yes, the saguaro cactus. There are few silhouettes in nature more iconic than the saguaro cactus. That unmistakable outline with its central pillar rising out of the landscape like a Corinthian column, arms held staunchly to either side; it just screams American Southwest. They encapsulate the whole vibe of the desert that appeals to me. So when my companions and I ventured out on a short hike to visit some ancient petroglyphs deep in the Superstition Mountains, I seized the opportunity to photograph some impressive specimens of the saguaro cactus.

I brought my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera because I knew I'd be able to create some extra-shallow depths of field with its wide-aperture 110mm f/2.8 lens. Despite how impressive the Superstition Mountains appeared towering over the desert floor, I opted not to do any of the traditional high-color, high-contrast, wide angle, sweeping landscapes I typically gravitate towards. Instead, I wanted the saguaro cactus to be the star of the show. I wanted to create "portraits" of this desert succulent much like I did with the Joshua Tree over the summer (check those out here). My plan was to approach these cactus like I was creating a traditional black and white portrait of a person. I envisioned a shallow depth of field, a simple straight-forward composition, and side lighting to help bring out the subtle textures of these magnificent saguaro cactuses.

For the tech junkies out there, I used a wide aperture on these photos at either f/2.8 or f/4. A polarizer helped me create some separation between the clouds by darkening the blue sky. The film was Ilford Delta 100 professional developed N+1 (per the Zone System). I wanted these shots from the Superstition Mountains to have a timeless look, a gritty vibe, and an understated representation of the beauty in this landscape. But rather than continue talking about what I wanted these photos to capture, I'll let the shots speak for themselves. Thanks for reading.

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

Saguaro Cactus in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona

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

Private Workshop in Death Valley: Part 2

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

View "Private Workshop in Death Valley: Part 1"

For sunrise of the second day of our trip, my student and I visited the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. These dunes are gorgeous and easily accessible (relatively speaking), which, unfortunately, means they are quite popular. And popular sand dunes mean foot-printed sand dunes.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sand dunes are one of the toughest locations to shoot. Climbing up them is like going up the wrong way of an escalator, and before long, 35 lbs of camera gear starts to feel like 50. But that's not the worst part - that's just physical exertion. The real tough part is the footprints. They are damn near impossible to avoid, your own footprints included.

But we went off to a lesser-visited section of the dunes to capture some pristine spots. Of course, the next guy will have to frame out the holes from our tripod legs...

This was my first time photographing dunes at sunrise. I normally catch them at sunset, but the morning light here was gorgeous. I loved the dark, curvy shadows the dunes casted on themselves. And the ripples in the sand...it doesn't get much better than that. The moon even came out to pose for me.

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

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

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

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

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

After a much-needed nap for me, we ventured out into Panamint Valley to photograph the Panamint Mountains at sunset. We camped out near the dry lake bed there to catch the cracked dirt, sand, bushes and all the other weird formations there.

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Panamint Mountains at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Before heading home on the last day of our stay, we hit Devil's Cornfield at sunrise. Devil's Cornfield is an interesting area where tons of arrowweed bushes dot the landscape - some over 7 feet tall - like stalks of corn (I suppose). They remind me less of corn stalks and more like strange bushes that have been pulled up out of the ground and then set back on the sandy floor of the desert.

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Devil's Cornfield at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

And to seal off the trip, I did a quick self-portrait with my student, Kim Murphy. Check out that "stalk of corn". I'm 6'2" and that bush is taller than me!

Nick Carver & Kim Murphy at Devil's Cornfield in Death Valley National Park, CA

I had tons of fun taking Kim out on this private workshop. Her work is phenomenal and she's an incredibly talented photographer. Be sure to follow her blog and visit her website here. She also posted a blog entry about the trip, so check that out to see her beautiful photos from Death Valley.