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New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 1

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I recently went on a 3-day, 2-night solo camping trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to photograph this unreal landscape on large format film. I also put together three videos that will bring you along with me each day as I try to make photographs to capture this awesome terrain. And with each video I put out, I will also include the images featured in the video here, on my blog. This video chronicling Day 1 of my trip takes you behind the scenes of how I created this image:

Sunset over the Sierra Nevada MountainsSunset over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
Click Image for Larger View

In the arid rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the Alabama Hills is a unique desert of granite boulders formed by the elements. Named after the CSS Alabama, this area gets its name from some old prospectors in the area sympathetic to the Confederates in the Civil War. It's now owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is made available to the public for camping and other outdoor activities.

If you're ever in the area of Lone Pine, be sure to treat yourself to a day in these hills. It's unbelievably picturesque. The jagged peaks of the Sierras rising above the rounded-off boulders at the base creates a stunning contrast of environments. And man on man, that open space! A man can really breathe out here!

This area has caught the attention of Hollywood since the first westerns hit the silver screen. Just a few notable movies filmed partly in the Alabama Hills: Django Unchained, Gladiator, Transformers 2... Not to mention, just about every other car commercial is filmed in these hills. There's a good reason directors like to set up their cameras here. Aside from the convenience of easy access, the backdrop is just begging to be photographed.

This wasn't my first visit to the Alabama Hills, but it was my first time camping here. My goal was to create some photographs that would really encapsulate the beauty of this locale. Using my 4x5 large format camera, my 6x17 panoramic roll film back, and a mix of color and black and white film, I braved the bugs and wind to see what kind of images I could create.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. And please, please, please click the image featured here for a larger view. You really gotta see it big! And if you have a fast enough internet connection, be sure to select 720P HD when viewing the video for the full experience.

New Work: First Sunset of 2013

Sunset at Heisler Park - Laguna Beach, CASunset at Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/4 at f/25 - Lee 2-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Seems to be a tradition around these parts that the first sunset of a new year is quite stunning. Not sure why. Maybe it's just Mother Nature ringing it in the best way she knows how. It's her way of soothing the aching heads of hungover party goers all around Orange County. One of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen was on a New Year's Day several years ago.

Shen-Hao HZX-45IIaThe first sunset of 2013 was no exception. We had a great cloud cover to pick up the sunset light. And so with my large format camera in hand, I visited the local beach at Heisler Park to photograph it.

Photographing the beach with a large format camera is no easy task, as I've said before. It takes 5+ minutes to set up a single shot on this type of camera. If a wave comes in and sinks your tripod, you practically have to start over. It's about finding the perfect spot where the water will come up close enough to look interesting in the photo without ever actually touching the tripod legs. And that's not to mention the quickly changing light, which is difficult to keep up with.

But luckily, I've made enough mistakes to know what not to do on this night, so things went off without a hitch. I managed to fire off a couple horizontal compositions and a couple vertical compositions, the best 2 of which you see here.

I made both images with my Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa camera and a Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens (that's a wide angle on this type of camera). I used Fuji Provia 100F film because I had a bunch of it on hand and it's a little cheaper than my favorite film, Fuji Velvia. Provia is a little less saturated than Velvia, but it still managed to record some decent color. Plus I think it actually worked out for the best here because Provia has a warmer color balance to it than Velvia 100. Velvia 100 is very blue compared to Provia - can be great for mountain scenes, but not so much for beach sunsets like this.

I used a Lee 2-stop split ND filter on both of these photos so as to preserve color in both the sky and foreground.

Sunset at Heisler Park - Laguna Beach, CASunset at Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/4 at f/22 - Lee 2-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Corona Del Mar in B&W

It's been my dream for years to shoot 6x17 panoramas. 6x17 is a film format in which the negative measures 6cm tall by 17cm wide. It's a huge negative. Almost 7" wide! This means ultra-high detail and resolution in a beautiful wide format. Scanned at high resolution, you're looking 300+ megapixels.

Arch Rock, Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Ilford Delta 100, 18" at f/45 - 3-Stop Split ND & 3-stop full-field ND
Click Image for Larger Version

The only problem is that dedicated 6x17 cameras are heavy, rare, and ultra expensive. The gold-standard Fuji GX617 camera with one lens runs about $4,000...used. But man oh man would I love to shoot some true panoramas. No stitching digital files, no Photoshop, just good, pure panorama negatives.

But good news for me. Shen-Hao makes an attachment for their 4x5 field cameras that converts the standard 4x5 back into a 6x17 roll film back, just like the Fuji but for only $600 or so. I get to use my current large format lenses and I can even use camera movements like rise, shift, and tilt - something the Fuji can't do. That means I can keep vertical trees looking vertical and control distortion in a way only large format cameras can.

So I bought it last year as a Christmas gift to myself.

I'll be honest, the thing is difficult to use. There are a lot of things you can forget to do. It's all manual, it's slow, it's heavy. No fun for hiking and there's lots of room for error. But with some practice, I've become very adept at using it. And I'm addicted. I've been shooting 6x17 like crazy - black and white, color, beaches, forests...it's just plain fun.

For my first attempt at some serious 6x17 work, I went down to the local beach "Little Corona Del Mar." There's a great archway off the coast that I figured would be good practice. I decided to shoot B&W partly because I thought it would look good, but largely because it's cheap and I could develop the results that night.

I started with a horizontal pano. A simple composition with soft water and carefully placed rocks. Then as the night wrapped up, I tried a vertical pano that would highlight the distance between the near rocks and the far archway.

But other than that, I'll let the pictures tell their own story. Please click each for a larger version.

Arch Rock, Little Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6
Ilford Delta 100, 8" at f/32 - 2-Stop Split ND & Polarizer
Click Image for Larger Version

And all in all, I'm pretty happy with the results. It was a first attempt, so they're not perfect, but I think it's the start of a long love affair with 6x17.