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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

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA
Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA
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I've become obsessed with palm tree pictures over the past couple years. I'm not sure why exactly; I've never really had strong thoughts about them one way or the other. But having grown up in Orange County, CA, they've been ever-present in my life. Perhaps they've burned into my psyche as a symbol of home and my childhood, kind of like the smell of mom's home cooking.

Thinking about this recent obsession two things come to mind. The first is an interesting tidbit that a good photographer friend of mine told me. He said that nature photographers typically organize their work by terrain - coastal photos, mountain photos, desert photos, etc. But that's not really what artists do. Artists often pick a subject to do "studies" on. They'll spend time focusing on a single subject or topic and really dissect it to get to the juicy meat. This subject might even consume their work for years. Just look at Andy Warhol and his Campbell's soup cans. So rather than avoiding this obsession in the interest of pursuing variety (as a younger Nick might have done), I'm letting this obsession guide much of my work. I'm letting my obsession play itself out until I feel a natural urge to move on. I'm trying to roll with it rather than fight it.

The second thing that comes to mind is a quote from the great Annie Leibovitz:

"I’ve said about a million times that the best thing a young photographer can do is to stay close to home... Discover what it means to be close to your work, to be intimate with a subject... Of course there are many good photographs that have nothing to do with staying close to home, and I guess what I’m really saying is that you should take pictures of something that has meaning for you…"

- Annie Leibovitz

Ms. Leibovitz here is not speaking of home in the literal sense, I don't believe. She's talking about working with subjects that mean something to you, subjects you can be intimate with. As a life-long resident of Orange County, palm trees are a subject I can really sink my teeth into because they are everywhere you look. And as I mentioned above, palms trees are meaningful to me in what they represent: home, growing up, building my career, and many fond memories of trips to Palm Springs, CA. To put it simply, palm trees have been a regular companion to many of my most important life events. They've often towered above me like gentle guardians as I've experienced the major milestones and memories in my life. I suppose that makes them worth obsessing over.

But beyond my own personal connection with palm trees there's something else I love about them. Palm trees embody the "dream" of Southern California. Think of every cheesy movie you've seen where the small-town girl with big dreams risks it all to come out to Hollywood in hopes of making it big. The first thing they cut to in the movie when she's finally made it to the city is a row of palm trees with the crisp California sun beating down on them. Palms trees and the Hollywood sign are the most basic symbols of "California Dreamin'."

And there's a special dichotomy with palm trees. On one hand they represent this ambition to reach greater heights, make it big, and find that elusive fame. While on the other hand, palm trees are a typical token of relaxation, vacation, and a slower pace of life. These palm trees with their unmistakable silhouette simultaneously represent ambition and taking it easy. I don't think you could make the same claim of the pine tree.

That California Dream doesn't speak to everyone and I'm not even saying it's a real thing, but what it represents is awfully romantic, isn't it?


Technical Notes:

All of the palm tree pictures shown here were made on 6x17 film with a Shen-Hao TFC-617A camera at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. The color photos were made on Fuji Velvia 100 film and the black and white photos were made on Ilford Delta 100 film. The black and white photos are part of The Palms Collection - a series I've been working on using multiple-exposure techniques to capture that "California Dreamin'" vibe. You can view more of The Palms Collection here.

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

Palm Tree Pictures from Laguna Beach, CA

New Photos: Top of the World Laguna Beach

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop
Top of the World Laguna Beach

Click Any Image to Enlarge

I held a workshop last night at Top of the World in Laguna Beach, CA. Eight of my wonderful students and I ventured to this high-point overlooking Orange County to see what we could capture. Seeing as how it's "June gloom" season, the marine layer was out in full force.

For those of you outside Orange County, the marine layer is a thick blanket of clouds that keeps the beach cities in a perpetual state of overcast skies throughout June. It's a real bummer for tourists who plan their SoCal summer trip expecting that classic California weather. Take it from a local: you're better off coming in August or September.

Top of the World Laguna Beach is one of those places where the beautiful compositions don't immediately jump out at you. When you head down to a beach with some epic tide pools with an epic sunset and epic waves, let's be honest, it's not difficult to get an epic shot. Just throw on your wide angle lens and get low. But Top of the World doesn't offer such easy ingredients for a good shot. You have to work harder up here. You have to look for the subtle beauty - soft colors, layers, patterns, lines...

Everyone wants those "punch you in the face" landscapes. You know what I mean - super wide angle, bold colors, epic light - the kind of stuff that racks up the likes on Instagram. But it's good to try something else. It's good to try muted colors for a change and see what you can do with a telephoto lens.

I could tell when we arrived to Top of the World many of my students were skeptical about getting good shots up here. But once they found their groove and saw what kind of subtle beauty could be captured, I was proud to see them come up with stunning compositions! Some were thrown out of their comfort zone, and they came through like pros.

I'm sharing my pictures here because I just loved the light and scenery we had that night. The marine layer rolled in, filling in the nooks and crannies between the hills, providing some of the tastiest layers I've ever seen. We were pretty much eye level with the top of the marine layer, which was awesome! You could see the top of the "blanket" and the sky above, which resulted in some seriously stunning light. Plus, at Top of the World Laguna Beach, you have, hands-down, the best view of iconic Saddleback Mountain.

I took all of these shots handheld with my Canon 5D (original version). No filters were used, although I did get creative with the white balance to get some cool color casts. I was looking to capture lower-contrast, more muted, simplistic compositions. I was after subtle beauty, not the "punch you in the face" compositions.

If you'd like to join me on a workshop like this, check out my full schedule here.

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop

Top of the World Laguna Beach photography workshop