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New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 1

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave DesertThe Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Kodak Portra 160 film
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I've visited the Mojave Desert a couple times over the past month and a half in search of some new landscape photography. My location of choice for both trips was the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve. I've often said the Kelso Sand Dunes just might be my favorite place on the planet, and it seems every time I go out there, that sentiment grows even stronger. It's a truly magical place within the vast Mojave Desert where you'll find some of the tallest sand dunes in the United States scraping the cobalt blue skies of Southern California. This area of the desert is rich in open space. As you gaze out onto the horizon the sheer lack of clutter will leave you entranced. You'll feel like you can stretch out further than you ever thought possible.

A lot of people don't "get" the desert. The millions of commuters driving through the Mojave Desert on the way to Vegas each year might view this terrain as nothing more than a dry, empty wasteland that only serves as a platform upon which to build our highways. But it's so much more than that. The desert is as beautiful as Yosemite Valley when viewed through the right eyes. It's a gallery of unique geological features formed and crafted by the elements of wind, water, and weather that bathes in some of the most stunning light found in any ecosystem. The beauty found in the desert may not be the kind of obvious beauty you find in giant redwood trees or epic waterfalls, but grandeur is there nonetheless. The allure of the desert is more subtle. It requires a deeper appreciation for the wind-swept, water-carved geography and the indomitable forces that shape it. It is this deep appreciation that pulls me to the Mojave Desert to take photos highlighting its often-misunderstood beauty.

The photos highlighted in this post (and in the next 2 posts) are from a one-day trip I took out to the dunes with a photographer friend of mine back in December. My goal on the trip was to take pictures that went a little outside my usual comfort zone and style. My usual modus operandi is to do the typical high-color, high-contrast, large depth of field, epic scenics that everyone is doing these days. Although I did do some shots in this category, I wanted to devote the bulk of my efforts towards something new: shallow depths of field, softer color palettes, brighter exposures, ultra-simple compositions, and of course some black and whites. With my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera and its removable film cassette backs, I was able to try similar compositions with different films ranging from muted-color negatives to high-color transparency film to traditional black and white.

So over the course of the next 3 blog posts, I'll show you my 3 different takes on this landscape - 3 different styles of photography all from the same camera and the same photographer. You'll notice many of the compositions are the same, which shows how wildly different the overall style and look can be even when the composition is identical. This first post showcases a style that exhibits a simple, soft color palette achieved through the use of Kodak Portra 160 film, minimal use of filters, and an intentional tendency towards brighter exposures. I also opted for ultra-simple compositions and a shallow depth of field in many of these shots for a minimalist (and sometimes abstract) look.

In the next 2 blog posts I'll share my ultra high contrast black and white images followed by my more typical high-saturation classic scenics.

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

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

Heisler Park in Laguna Beach


Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach
Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA
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Ah, finally. The first post of the new year. It's been awhile since I've put up any new pictures or articles, but what can I say? I got caught up with the commotion of the holidays. Now that things have settled down a bit, I'll be back to my old routine (hopefully).

As my first post of 2014, I thought I'd share some photos I took last month at a local stomping ground in Laguna Beach. I was itching to take some shots on this particular Wednesday and the clouds overhead looked promising for a colorful sunset. With my gear loaded up and a few rolls of film in hand, I ventured out to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach to photograph the sunset. Heisler Park is a cliffside park just off Pacific Coast Highway near Las Brisas restaurant that features beautiful views of the Pacific, outdoor sculptures by local artists, and a nice little beach complete with rock formations, tide pools, and stretches of smooth sand.

I've photographed Heisler Park a thousand times before and have brought students there for private lessons and group classes more times than I can count. Sometimes the beach is packed with people, sometimes it's completely empty. This evening it was somewhere in between. But whatever the day of the week, whatever the time of year, there is one thing I always see at Heisler Park beach when I visit at sunset. Every single time I've gone out there, I see a photographer set up with a clean-cut nuclear family wearing white shirts and blue jeans (or the wildly different black shirts and blue jeans) sitting on the sand posed for a portrait to hang over the fireplace. It's always the same attire, always the same Sears-catalog family, and always in the same pose. Oh, and there's occasionally a chocolate lab thrown in to the mix just to complete the Orange County vibe.

The guy taking these pictures, I'm sure, is making bank on these photo shoots. But man that's gotta get old. I often wonder if every once in awhile he just freaks out and goes postal on another client requesting a family photo down at the beach at sunset wearing white shirts and blue jeans. I picture him screaming, "White shirts and blue jeans down at the beach?! SO original! Have you ever worn matching white shirts and blue jeans for a family day of fun down at the beach? Have you ever worn perfectly matching attire at any point in your life? Don't you ever just want some trees or a hillside behind you? What the hell is the matter with you people?!" But maybe I'm being too harsh. He's found a target market and he carved himself out a nice, stable niche. More power to him.

Anyway, I digress. This beach is beautiful and at this time of year (winter), the sun sets more south than it does during the rest of the year. That puts the sunset right over the water, 90-degrees out from the shoreline - right over Catalina Island. And Heisler Park is unique in that the rock formations vary widely from week to week as the sand level rises and drops. I've been there at times when the sand is so high there are practically no rocks to be found above the surface, and other times when the sand is so low that the majority of the beach is rocky terrain. I was pleased to see that I had some rocks to work with on this shoot.

All of the photos you see here were made on medium format film using a Mamiya RZ67 camera. The photo at the top of this post and the first 2 below were made on Fuji Velvia 50 - a high-saturation, high-contrast transparency film. The 2 at the bottom of this post are the same compositions but made on Kodak Ektar print film (negatives). You can see that the Kodak Ektar isn't as contrasty and colorful as the Velvia. I think both looks have their merits, but I tend to gravitate towards the Velvia look more - thanks largely to my admiration of Galen Rowell and his work. I didn't record the specific exposure and filter details for these shots, but I will say that I utilized split ND filters on every one of these photos.

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach

Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach