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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
View on YouTube to see full HD

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

Photography On Location: Laguna Beach Palm Trees

Photography On Location Video: Laguna Beach Palm Trees at Heisler Park
View on YouTube to see this video in HD

I'm no stranger to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've taken more pictures there than I can count and I've worked with more students there than I can remember. It's one of those postcard-type parks - the kind of scenery that hotels want front and center on their website. And it's a tourist spot for good reason. The views are stunning, the beach is sheltered, and - my favorite part - the palm trees dotting the landscape are classic Southern California.

On a recent visit there, I came across 3 palm trees that I've photographed a dozen times before. They reach high above the Pacific Ocean right on the edge of a cliff where benches and coin-op binoculars give visitors an excuse to soak in the scenery. From the right vantage point, the crystal blue waters provide a perfect backdrop for these 3 palm trees.

In search of a different photo near the palms, I envisioned a composition that immediately had me wanting for a different camera. I had my medium format 6x7 camera with me at the time but the composition I visualized required my 6x17 panoramic. Oh well, I'd have an excuse to revisit this gorgeous park again - bummer. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to create another on-location video for your enjoyment. So with my panoramic gear and my video gear packed up, I ventured to my spot.

I normally shoot at sunset to get the best color and contrast for my Laguna Beach landscape photos, but this shot was going to be different. I actually needed to shoot at high noon with the sun directly overhead. The reason for this was two-fold. First, I needed the sky to be evenly illuminated behind the palms. In late afternoon or at sunset, the sky would be much brighter off to the right side of the image as the sun descended in the west. And secondly, I planned to use a circular polarizer to minimize the glare off the water. This would also darken the sky (which I was fine with), but only at high noon would the darkening effect be even across the whole panorama. Again, with the sun low in the west, the polarizer would have darkened the left-hand side of the photo much more than the right, further exaggerating the unevenly lit sky.

Shooting at high noon brings some challenges, though. For one, the color isn't as vibrant compared to sunset. No problem, I planned to shoot black and white anyway (Ilford Delta 100). The midday sun would also bring excessively high contrast. But again, no problem. I wanted the high-contrast look. The composition I envisioned consisted of a medium-dark ocean, medium-light sky, and nearly black palm trees. The midday sun coupled with my polarizer provided that perfectly.

The last challenge of shooting midday was the lens flare. I have no lens hood for this camera, so I had to shade the lens with my hand instead. As you can see in the video, it wasn't the most comfortable way to shoot. Keeping my hand over the lens for 2 and a half minutes at a time for 4 separate exposures got a little old...

I also used a Lee 10-stop BigStopper filter to get my exposure way down to 2 and a half minutes. I wanted a slow shutter so as to smooth out the ocean waves, turning the Pacific into a nice flat surface, and to let the palm tree fronds "fuzz out" in the breeze. The name of the game for this composition was simplicity. I wanted just the palm trees in the center with a lot of negative space to the left and right. I didn't want clouds or waves or anything else in the background to distract from the palm trees. The slow shutter smoothed everything out for me and created a great ethereal fuzziness around the palm trees.

Palm Trees at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Three Palm Trees - Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Click Image to Enlarge

Normally when shooting panoramas this wide, it's wise to use a center ND filter. This is a filter that is dark in the center, but clear around the outside edge. See, a wide angle lens on such a wide piece of film creates a major vignette at the edges of the frame. The center ND filter darkens the center of the image to match the natural vignetting and, thus, even out the exposure. But for this shot, I deliberately avoided the center ND filter. I wanted the natural vignette. I wanted those dark edges because I knew it would create a mood to match what I envisioned. I didn't want a bright, evenly exposed Peter Lik scenic (we got enough of those). I wanted an artist representation of these palm trees - a photo that incited a mood in the viewer, not just a snapshot of a tourist destination.

To put it simply without sounding arrogant, I'm really pleased with how this shot turned out. It's nearly identical to what I envisioned and it works as well on film as it did in my head. And this, by the way, is the reward of good training and experience - whatever you envision, you can make happen. So if you're a novice reading this, hang in there and keep working at becoming a better photographer. Eventually you'll have the tools to realize your visions on film (or digitally), whatever those visions may be.

Black and White Portraits


Black and White Portraits
Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film
Click Any Image to Expand

As part of my recent photo shoot with my brother using 35mm and medium format film (see part 1 here and part 2 here), I decided to try something I've never done before: black and white portraits. Okay, so maybe I've converted a few digital color portraits to black and white in the past, but I've never done true black and white portraits using black and white film. I've spent the past year or so getting comfortable with black and white photography so I figured it was high-time to apply my new experience to the world of portraiture.

I think the toughest part about black and white photography is learning to "see in black and white." With our full-color vision of the world, it's difficult to imagine what something will look like with all the color removed. Sometimes, when the color is sucked out, an otherwise gorgeous subject looks terribly bland. For example, early on in my black and white ventures, I decided to photograph a landscape that consisted of a crisp blue sky over a lush rolling green hillside. In color, the scene was gorgeous. But I found out quickly that the tonal brightness of the green grass was nearly identical to the tonal brightness of the sky. That meant that both the grass and sky desaturated to almost exactly the same shade of gray in the resulting b&w photo. There was virtually no separation between the two! Without color contrast, I had to learn to rely entirely on tonal contrast.

But this lack of color contrast is also what makes black and white photography so beautiful. Without the distraction of color, the tones and shadows can pop out and reveal a whole new beauty to the scene. In these black and white portraits, I utilized lighting that created deep, dark shadows and bright, contrasty highlights so as to add more tonal contrast and interest to the image. And when I didn't have the right light source for dark shadows (like in the photos out in the open field under diffused light), I created the necessary contrast using wardrobe. A jet-black coat over a stark white shirt helped create more tonal interest in this flat lighting.

I have a new appreciation for black and white portraits. The look intrigues me and the challenge makes the successes very rewarding.

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film

Black and White Portraits on Ilford Delta 100 Film