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Octopus Agave, Puffy Clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film
Shot with a Fuji GA645Zi Camera

Click Images to Enlarge

There are three things I love - succulents, puffy white clouds, and Fuji Velvia 100 film. And when they all come together at the same time, that’s a perfect storm of good vibes.

This year’s El Nino has brought some great things to southern California. Of course, the extra precipitation is a godsend with the ongoing drought, but there are certain other side effects to El Nino that I’ve really enjoyed. First, this spring we’ve had a higher-than-normal share of days with what I call “the perfect sky.” It’s that crystal clear blue color behind a sea of fair-weather cumulus clouds - those herds of puffy cotton balls gently migrating across the sky. And second, El Nino has coaxed out some impressive spring blooms.

Back in March I found myself with some spare time on one of these “perfect sky” days, so I grabbed my delightfully fun-to-use Fuji GA645zi camera, loaded it up with Velvia 100 film, and ventured out to the Jeffrey Open Space Trail in Irvine. I went out with no plans of what exactly to shoot. All I knew was I wanted to incorporate the sky in some way.

The Jeffrey Open Space Trail is a developed walking trail with landscaping that features some very impressive succulents. As I ventured along the trail, I came across a cluster of Octopus Agave plants - an agave from Mexico with fleshy leaves that twist and crawl out from its core. Shooting up from the center of each plant was a long, slender spike about 15 feet tall, each wrapped in countless green-yellow bulbs. They were stunning. The flowers were not in full bloom on this day, but still, the unique shape and design of these plants were begging to be photographed.

I decided to concentrate my compositions on these alien-like spires shooting up into that Monet sky because I loved how unusual they looked. I excluded the base of these plants from my compositions to preserve the bizarreness of what stood before me. With no base to provide context, these spikes became even more curious. I kept my aperture relatively wide open to let the background blur out ever so slightly, further drawing attention to the plants against their backdrop. And that color palette of green-yellow, sky blue, and white…man, oh, man…Mother Nature really knows how to pair colors, doesn’t she?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

For the film geeks out there, I want to tell you a little more about the camera. I bought this Fuji GA645zi off eBay as my “walking around” camera. My main landscape photography cameras are so big and slow to set up (a Shen Hao TFC 617-A and a Mamiya RZ67) that I decided I should carry a lightweight, point-and-shooter to fill in the gaps. This old camera has a lot of modern amenities including auto focus, auto exposure modes, flash, exposure compensation, and even a power zoom lens (albeit not a very wide focal length to work with).

Fuji GA645Zi Medium Format Camera

I have to say, I have fallen in love with this camera. The size is just right, it’s easy to use, and the power zoom function is great for fine-tuning composition. I use this camera most often in Program (P) mode or Aperture Priority (A) mode instead of full manual so I can concentrate on the composition instead of metering. The auto exposure meter has been very reliable. Exposures are often perfect and the exposure compensation lets me sway it when I know it’s going to make a mistake. This camera is flat-out fun to use, which might be the best reason to own a camera.

I learn something new or am reminded of an old lesson every time I take out my camera. On this occasion, I was reminded that I need to get out with my camera in-hand more often - no plan, no preconceived ideas of what to shoot - just get out with my camera and see what the world shows me. Because who knows when you’ll find a 15-foot tall alien plant against a perfect sky?

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

Octopus Agave on Fuji Velvia 100 Film

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
Click Any Image Enlarge

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

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 3

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertKelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Fuji Velvia 50 Film
Click Any Image to Expand

Here we are at the third and final blog post for my recent trip to the Mojave Desert. The trip was only a day, but as I outlined in my first post, my goal was to capture these sand dunes in 3 different styles. The first post showcased photos with a shallow DOF, muted colors, and soft contrast look. The second post featured my classic black and white landscape photography look. This post is more like my usual stuff: high contrast, high saturation, epic compositions...you know, my best impression of Galen Rowell. Again, some similar compositions as in the previous posts, but a different overall stylistic approach.

The style of photography you see here has become commonplace in recent years. It seems every photographer (myself included) realizes at some point that an easy way to "wow" viewers is with vivid colors and rich contrast. It's a cheap way to rack up "likes" on Instagram and Facebook. This is why newbies often go way overboard with the saturation tool in Lightroom. Intensifying the colors is addicting and it's easy to get carried away with it. But aside from wowing viewers, it'll even make you feel better about your shots. It's as though capturing ultra-vivid colors is some sort of a validation that you're a good photographer. It's not, of course, but it's an easy way to feel like you succeeded.

I love the high-saturation stuff. It was my first love and I still gravitate towards the vibrant colors like a moth to a flame. But in recent years, I've come to appreciate the more subtle beauty of a soft color palette and not-so-epic compositions. I've grown to appreciate anything that's different. This vivid stuff is good, but I wouldn't consider it different. It's an all-too-common approach these days.

All that being said, I still couldn't resist the urge to expose a roll of Velvia 50 while I was out there in the Mojave Desert. Velvia film is the gold standard for high-saturation landscape photography, and boy did it work here. The colors of the dunes and sky jump off the film like oil paints. Oh so satisfying... But I've come to a realization in recent years that took me a long time to come to terms with. This vivid, in-your-face style of landscape photography looks great on your computer screen, on an iPhone, or on a magazine cover, but it's not really the type of thing the average person hangs on their wall. That's why magazines and screen savers are chock-a-block full of these types of vibrant images but you'll rarely see one hanging in someone's home. That doesn't make this style of photography any less valuable or meaningful, just that it serves a certain purpose but that purpose generally isn't for fine art. And, well, since the majority of photography is digital sharing these days, all the more reason to shoot in this style, right?

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave DesertThat's my friend Eric Bryan at the top of the dune there.
Check out his work at www.ericbryan.net

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography in the Mojave Desert