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Shooting Film in Death Valley

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

I was fortunate enough to work with a student this past week in Death Valley National Park for a 2-day, 2-night, 1-on-1 photography workshop. We met in Stovepipe Wells, shot 2 sunrises, 2 sunsets, and spent the daytime discussing techniques, reviewing photos, and covering topics to apply for the next outing. We were lucky to get stunning sunrises and sunsets.

My student was a blast to work with and it was really amazing to see how much his photography progressed over a mere 2 days. It was actually quite unbelievable that one person's entire approach to landscape photography could change so dramatically in such a small amount of time. His dedication and passion for the craft paid off with excellent photos. I'll be sharing one or two of his images with you in the coming weeks.

As for me, with my recently re-discovered passion for film, I decided to shoot film exclusively on this trip. Although I would have loved to bring my 4x5, I opted instead for a lighter, quicker system so as to not hinder my student. So, I "Galen Rowell'ed" this trip by packing light with a 35mm film camera and my split NDs.

I shot Fuji Provia 100F color transparency film and Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. All in all, 1 roll of color, 1.5 rolls of B&W. This post is only about my color photos, which I shot with my trusty Canon EOS 1V.

Canon EOS 1V 35mm film SLR camera

The Canon EOS 1V is a beautiful camera with top-notch electronics and ergonomics. The viewfinder is big and bright, the meter is dead accurate with a +/-3 scale, the viewfinder blackout time is practically non-existent, it's weather-sealed...it's a very nice machine. Truthfully though, this camera is a bit much for shooting landscapes. The EOS 1V was Canon's flagship film camera for years and was built to accommodate the rapid-fire shooting and lighting fast auto focus required of sports shooters and photojournalists - stuff I don't need for landscapes. But the weather-sealing can sure come in handy, and even though I don't need all the bells and whistles, it doesn't hurt to have 'em.

I also used an all-manual Nikon from the 70's or 80's, too, but only for my B&W stuff. That'll come in another post. This post only includes my color images on Fuji Provia.

All in all, I'm quite pleased with the results. We had excellent light to work with, interesting terrain, I metered just about every picture correctly - no major errors or hiccups. And I tell ya, the more I shoot film, the more I realize why I'm shooting film. It's so much fun seeing those color transparencies on the light table in all their pure, untainted, un-digitized glory.

And as I look at more and more pictures taken on film, I'm remembering more and more how much better I like the color rendition achieved with film. I'd forgotten how much more beautiful the purples and blues look compared to digital. Provia especially leans a little bit towards the magenta/purple end of the color spectrum (as opposed to the slightly greener Velvia) which matches my taste in colors nicely. For sunset and sunrise images, especially at the coast and the desert, I prefer a little more magenta than green. Gives the sunset colors a nice glow.

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

The Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at sunrise in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Badwater Basin at sunset in Death Valley National Park, CA

Oh, and as a nice little bonus while were out shooting the sunrise, the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber happened to fly over us several times. Not sure why it was out, but I used to be obsessed with this amazing jet as a kid, so it was a treat to get to see it in flight. Managed to fire off a few photos of it (which ended up being my only digital shots from the trip).

B-2 Bomber Over Death Valley

Venturing Back Into Film

I want to share with you a picture I recently made in the White Mountains of California. This image of an ancient bristlecone pine tree bathed in warm sunset light as it clings to the jagged rocks is a unique image for me on account of 3 factors.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine in the White MountainsShen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Velvia 100, 1/4 at f/29, no filters
Click Image for Larger Version
 

First, these trees are among the oldest living organisms on Earth. The oldest known tree (Methuselah, at over 4,840 years old) lives here. This area of the world and the trees that inhabit it are downright awe-inspiring. They are treasures. They are a gift for anyone who has the privilege to stand next to them. So the subject matter alone makes this image special to me.

Secondly, this was my first visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and my first encounter with this species of tree. One day soon I will try to put into words the profound impact this place had on me. I have plans to explore this area and study these trees much more in the near future.

And finally, the main reason this image is special to me is that I made it on film. That's right. They still make film. And I used it to make this image. 

I've recently decided to venture back into film for all of my major landscape and nature work. Don't worry, I'm not turning my back on digital. Digital isn't going anywhere and neither is my expertise in the digital medium. I fully intend to continue instruction, classes, blog posts and articles geared around making people better digital photographers.

As some of you may know, I got my start in analog film photography about 13 years ago. My first camera was an all-manual 35mm Minolta followed by a succession of better and better 35mm cameras until I reached the Canon EOS 1v HS. I used color transparency film exclusively with my films of choice being Fuji Velvia 100 and Provia 100. These 6 years in my early photographic life marked an important period for me as I developed my style and mastered the techniques. The learning curve was slow, but I couldn't get enough of it.

I was also one of those guys who was never going to go digital. I resisted it for awhile and took pride in the fact that I still shot film. I believed that film just looked better, although my undeveloped eye at the time couldn't pinpoint exactly why, and my idol Galen Rowell was a 35mm slide film guy, too. Whatever he did, I wanted to do.

Eventually, the Canon EOS 5D came to market as the first affordable full-frame digital SLR. So with a combination of factors coming together at one time, I decided to go to "the dark side" and purchase a 5D.

Digital photography with my Canon DSLR proved to be a great learning experience. The learning curve was lightning fast. I mastered techniques like metering, filtration, composition and more in much shorter time than I could have with film. And although I hated to admit it, I really enjoyed the instant feedback digital gave me.

But now after 6 or so years of shooting with a DSLR, I've decided to return to film. Except now, I've decided to do it big. Instead of using my old format of choice, the dinky 35mm, I've taken the dive into 4x5 large format photography. Here's my new camera:

Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa
Shown with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 

I know a lot of my regular followers out there are serious digital shooters. Upon hearing this news, you may have a lot of questions on your mind as to why I would "take a step backwards" into film when digital is the "best" choice these days. And if you're a new visitor to my site (welcome!), you may have similar questions.

Well I fully intend to answer all of those questions. But I feel like I could write an entire book on why I'm going back to film. So instead of trying to fit all of that into a single blog post, I will regularly put out little articles on my blog here addressing one specific topic at a time. These posts will not be a sales pitch on the virtues of film and why you should start shooting film yourself. After all, I feel the vast majority of people would prefer and should shoot digital.

My bigger goal with these upcoming "Why I'm Shooting Film" posts will be to show people another side of photography. A side of photography that has, unfortunately, been trampled by the stampede of HDR, Photoshop plugins, and sloppy shooting techniques that digital has engendered. By exposing you guys to my techniques for shooting with this new camera, I hope to spark some curiosity in you, to make you think about how to get even more creative with your shots and break out of the usual mold of today's digital techniques. I want to show you what's possible with good, solid technique and not a lick of Photoshop to help you out. I hope to instill the same spirit of curiosity towards all aspects of photography that Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams have instilled in me through their writing.

So I intend not for these essays to come across as holier-than-thou treatises on why digital is bad and how much better I am for choosing film. In fact, my intent is quite the opposite.

This venture back into film has opened my eyes to how much I don't know about photography. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface on the field of science and art that is photography. The future is bright with creative possibilities, new topics to learn, new mistakes to make, and new ways to be creative. Film has brought forth in me an invigorating thirst for knowledge that I haven't experienced in some time. It's a great feeling and I want you to have it too. That's why I want to bring you along on my journey as I master new techniques myself and figure out new ways to express myself through film. Hopefully my rediscovered enthusiasm for photography will be contagious for all who read these articles.

I will also soon post articles discussing the technical aspects of 4x5 large format photography, including how it's different than other formats, how the camera works, what types of lenses I use and more. This will probably come in a separate series of posts titled something along the lines of "About Analog Film Photography."

So thank you for reading this far and thank you in advance for returning to read my upcoming posts about analog photography. I look forward to bringing you new images made with this camera.

Photography Tips: Backlighting with Plants

Skill Level: Beginner

When beginners set out to photograph things like flowers and leaves, the natural inclination is to approach the subject from the front, in sunlight, with the sun hitting the front of your subject. It makes sense after all - you need some light on your subject in order for the camera to take a picture. There's even the old adage in photography to shoot with the sun to your back.

But this approach to photographing a subject tends to yield boring results. Front lighting (that is, when the light is hitting the front of your subject) just isn't interesting. Front lighting flattens out your subject, squashing depth. Think of deer in headlights or on-camera flash. It may get the job done in terms of being able to see your subject, but it definitely isn't pretty.

You could, of course, utilize side lighting to rake across your subject and create depth. You could also opt for overhead lighting which, depending on how strong the light source is, may or may not be flattering. Better yet, you could utilize soft lighting like that of an overcast day. But one really fun and really interesting use of light in photographing plants is backlighting.

Backlighting (that is, when the light is coming towards you from behind your subject) gives semi-translucent subjects like leaves, flower petals, and ice crystals a sort of glowing effect that adds a nice bit of "pop" to your photo. With brightly colors flowers and fall leaves, backlighting can be a great way to accentuate the color, making the pigment glow like a neon sign. It's also a great way to bring out all the little veins and texture in a leaf.

And if you can position yourself so that the backlit plant has a dark, shadowed background, those leaves or flower petals will glow like fireworks on the fourth of July. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

Finding backlighting is easy. Just head outside on sunny afternoon or morning and find yourself a leaf or flower in direct sunlight. But instead of approaching the subject from the front (where the light is hitting), move around to the back of it so that the sunlight is coming towards you. This works best when the sun is lower in the sky. So avoid high noon and stick to morning or afternoon. But don't worry, this doesn't have to be done right at sunrise or sunset.

Working with backlighting can be a little tricky. To make it easier on yourself, keep these points in mind:

  • You don't want the sunlight actually hitting the front of your lens. Your lens needs to be shaded by a tree, overhang, lens hood, or a carefully placed free hand. If the sunlight does hit the front of your lens, you'll get lens flare - that's those little semi-translucent circles of red, orange, green or purple spread across your picture.
  • You don't need to have the sun directly in front of you to get backlighting. The sun can be quite a bit higher or to the left or right of the picture. But if you get the glow on your subject, all is good.
  • Unless you're shooting in manual, your camera may want to make the picture too dark as a result of the backlighting. Camera's don't do very well with backlighting. Make sure you stay in control of the brightness by using the exposure compensation tool on your camera.
  • Try the picture at different brightnesses using the exposure compensation tool. A much darker or lighter version may look really cool.
  • Your camera may have a hard time focusing when working with backlighting. You may need to manually focus your lens.

When winter rolls around, try backlighting on icicles or frost-covered plants to get a great sparkly effect. Like this:

Backlighting can keep you busy for hours when photographing flowers and leaves. So the next time you're out enjoying nature's beauty, give backlighting a try.