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Solo Camping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Kodak Portra 160 Film, Shen-Hao TFC 617-A
You gotta see these big - click any image to enlarge

Lately I've been trying to break out of my usual photographic style. Super-vibrant colors, rich contrast, epic wide-angle compositions..."yeah, yeah, we've seen it before, Nick." I've pursued this style for years because, let's be honest, it's an easy way to impress people. Flash some pretty colors on a computer screen and folks gather around like moths to a flame. It's no wonder this style has become so popular in recent years. Just boost that saturation slider in Lightroom and watch the "Likes" rack up.

But repetition is the antithesis to creativity. I've become so overloaded with that hit-you-in-the-face style of landscape photography that I just didn't feel creative anymore repeating my usual look. So when I found myself in one of my cyclic creative slumps again, I decided it was time to switch things up. I needed to try something new - something completely different than my usual modus operandi. I didn't even care if it was good, as long as it was different. An ounce of "different" is worth a pound of "good" when it comes to creating art, in my humble opinion.

With plans to take a solo camping trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to break out of my mold. So I made a mental checklist of what I typically do in my landscape photography: super saturated colors, deep dark shadows, wide angle compositions, and a pronounced foreground element. Good. Now I know what not to do.

My goal was to only take pictures with a lower-saturation film (Kodak Portra 160) so I didn't have the crutch of vibrant colors. This film also has softer contrast - one more crutch gone. Then I stuck exclusively to normal and telephoto focal lengths focused on more distant subjects. In other words, no using that sneaky trick of throwing on the super wide angle lens and getting right on top of an epic foreground element.

Also, the location was Anza-Borrego Desert State Park - a park with no notable geographic formations, no raging rivers or majestic peaks, and no iconic arches drawing people from all over the world. The park is bland compared to the photographer's Disneyland that is Yosemite. Point any lens at Half Dome and you have a 50/50 chance of creating something frame-worthy. But out here in the desolate badlands of southern California, Anza-Borrego Desert would provide no "get out of jail free" cards.

Putting myself in this position was uncomfortable. I was in unknown territory without my binky. The certitude that I would create at least one good photo wasn't coming with me on this trip. After all, what if this low-saturation, low-contrast, telephoto looks turns out terrible? What if nobody likes it?

It was tough fighting years of ingrained habits, but I came out unscathed and better for it. I'm happy with the photos. I like the softer look and the simplified compositions. They are photos I would actually hang on my own walls. But more than the look, I'm happy I broke out of my mold. It feels good to try something new. And ultimately, it's the only way to get the creative gears turning again once they bind up.

Now the question is, how long before I grow tired of this style?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA

And check out my sweet campsite:

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail...Snow in Orange County!
Click any image to enlarge

First off, HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's hard to believe 2014 has come to an end and we're staring into the face of 2015. It's the future, man! If Back to the Future II has taught me anything, I know the next 12 months will bring us hover boards, instant-dry jackets, and Nike Air Mags. I can't wait.

2014 ended with a bang here in Orange County with a pretty impressive winter storm that dumped several inches of snow in unlikely places like Temecula and Rancho Santa Margarita. We didn't get any down here in Tustin, but the nearby Santa Ana Mountains with its centerpiece Saddleback Mountain were blanketed in a glorious sheet of white. That's right, Orange County in snow- it can happen.

New Years day brought with it clear skies, calm wind, and cold temperatures - the perfect conditions to go exploring one of my favorite Southern California hiking trails: the Trabuco Canyon Trail in the Cleveland National Forest. I've shown pictures and video from this trail before (check it out here). The Trabuco Canyon Trail doesn't scream Orange County at any time of year with its densely forested hillsides and abundant spruce trees, but it was especially out of character on this day with at least 8 inches of snow in most parts.

My girlfriend, my brother, and I set out to explore the area and see it in this unique state on the morning of January 1st. Thought it would be a perfect way to start 2015. Unfortunately, half of Orange County had the same thought. The trail, luckily, was empty, but the traffic jam leaving the mountains would have made east-coasters double over in laughter. It's ridiculous how terrible southern California drivers are at negotiating icy roads. If the thermometer drops below 40, all hell breaks loose. The dirt-road drive that normally takes 15 minutes stretched to over an hour with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But aside from that little hiccup, this hike treated us to some of the most unique and stunning scenery I've ever seen. It's not often you get to see prickly pear cactus and giant oak trees poking out from deep snow. I didn't bring my "serious" camera equipment to document this unique sight because I didn't want to slow my group down and I just didn't feel like carrying the weight. Instead, I travelled with my pocket-sized Canon s100 point-and-shoot camera. The pictures aren't my best (ugly lighting, limited equipment, other dumb excuses), but they captured the Trabuco Canyon Trail in a way most people will never see.

Navigating the trail in this weather was tricky at best. And I don't mean it was difficult to find the trail on account of the snow cover (it was) but the trail was just littered with massive branches and bent over trees. The forest service has a hell of a job ahead of them cleaning this trail up, that's for sure. I hope they have some good chainsaws. The storm that passed over must have been a hell of a sight. The winds had to be incredibly strong to cause the destruction we saw.

This picture is a cluttered mess, which is exactly why I'm sharing it with you. This is the kind of chaos that storm wrought. Plus, check out those massive Southern California oak trees covered in snow...you don't see that everyday.

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

But now on to the pretty pictures. I guess there's no need to explain them. Simply feast your eyes on the Trabuco Canyon Trail in snow. And for the folks in other parts of the country, I know this must seem comical to you getting this excited about a few inches of snow, but hey, it's big news when we finally get a shred of weather around here. And I mean, come on, it's snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Nothing better than the smooth lines and reflected light you get with snow:

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Where's Waldo Drew?

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Snow and giant leaves? What the hell is going on?!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs - Fuji Velvia 100 Film
Click Any Image to Enlarge

This past September I had plans to visit Cabo San Lucas for a week with my family. We'd been looking forward to it for months. We're pretty much all self-employed which means no paid time off, which also means we take very few week-long vacations. We were counting down the days, getting our passports ready, buying new swimsuits...the whole nine yards. Then the morning of departure rolled around. Our flight was cancelled. Turns out Cabo San Lucas was about to be pummeled by Hurrican Odile.

Thank God we didn't fly out a day earlier.

At first, we were all pretty upset. A cancelled vacation is nothing to complain about when the residents down there were about to lose everything, but the morning of, we had no idea how serious the hurricane would turn out to be. Since this hurricane hadn't even been forecasted in the weather reports we saw, we assumed the airlines were just being overly cautious. Once we saw the destruction the hurricane brought later that week, we counted our lucky stars for avoiding it.

With our week wide open and all of us itching to put on our swimsuits, we quickly scrambled for a plan B.

Flying anywhere was off the table - tickets would be outrageously expensive. That left locations within about 6 hours drive of Orange County. San Francisco would have been nice, but just a tad too far away. Santa Barbara was suggested, but a few of us quickly vetoed that. Santa Barbara is pretty, but it wouldn't feel like much of a vacation compared to Orange County. Orange County is just an artificial Santa Barbara anyway. I literally live in an apartment complex in OC with "Santa Barbara style architecture" stated in its leasing literature.

Then I remembered something I'd been wanting to try for months. I'd heard you can rent retro 60's-era houses in Palm Springs, CA complete with Mad Men style furniture and a private pool. I'd looked into it before, but hadn't yet found the time or money to do it. This Cabo cancellation was the perfect opportunity. Ah yes, Jack Daniels and Sinatra by a private pool - it was starting to sound better than Cabo.

With iPad and iPhone in hand, I spent the morning finding just the right Palm Springs retro rental property for our group of 8. We found the perfect place with Oasis Rentals (www.oasisrentals.com) called "Tangerine Modern." Five bedrooms, a spacious layout, and floor-to-ceiling windows opening up to the coolest backyard I've ever seen - yeah, this would do.

Needless to say, we had a hell of a time. It was a much-needed break from the daily grind. The September Palm Springs heat was stifling, but the crystalline waters in our backyard provided all the relief we craved.

The sunrises in Palm Springs are gorgeous. The clear desert air provides little barrier for the sun to paint the palm trees and mountains with its golden light. I wanted to sleep in on my vacation, but I just couldn't let that morning light slip past me without breaking out the camera. So on one of the mornings, I got up in the wee hours (when it was already pushing 90 degrees outside) and snapped some shots around the neighborhood. The suburban setting at my feet meant I couldn't do my typical landscapes with foreground and background, so instead I opted to focus my lens up on the trees and mountain above. Fuji Velvia 100 film brought out the colors like only Velvia can.

So the moral of the story, I suppose, is that a cancelled vacation is not worth getting upset about when an entire town is looking down the barrel of destruction. When you get hit with a first-world problem, just come up with a plan B and thank God you aren't dealing with a real problem - like a hurricane.

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs

Sunrise in Palm Springs