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On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

View on YouTube for full HD version

In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Heisler Park in Laguna Beach


Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach
Heisler Park at Sunset in Laguna Beach, CA
Click any image to expand

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

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Park at Night on Ilford Delta 100 filmPark at Night - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:55pm
Click to Enlarge

Well, I finally made it to the 30th and final day of my photo a day challenge. I again found myself out at night to make my exposures, this time at a neighborhood park near where I grew up. The real reason I chose to visit this park to take photos is because there is a beautiful Gratitude and Honor Memorial set up there for the fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And seeing as how the date on this night was September 11th, I thought it would be fitting to photograph the memorial.

Here is a shot of just one section of one of the panels on this memorial. There are  20 panels in all - each one filled with names of soldiers killed in combat. As of this writing there are 6,714 names engraved in the Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial (per www.northwoodmemorial.com). If you carefully review the names in the photo below, it's chilling to note some of the ages of these soldiers.

Photo a Day Challenge: Day 30 - Northwood Park Military Memorial on Ilford Delta 100 filmWar Memorial - Irvine, CA
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 at 7:26pm
Click to Enlarge

The panels are glossy, so it was difficult to avoid reflections clouding the names. I first tried to get my own reflection out of the frame, but then I decided to let my outline show in the composition. I felt that my silhouette might serve as a reminder that these names aren't simply names on a plaque but names that represent real flesh-and-blood people fallen in the line of duty.

If you're in the area, I strongly recommend visiting this memorial.

After taking this photo of the memorial, I decided to venture around the park in search of other shots to finish off my final roll of film. I eventually found my way to the back of the park where I fixed my camera on a tree and lamppost with an interesting backdrop of silhouetted rooflines. Much like the photo from yesterday's blog entry, I think this shot of the lamppost is going to speak much more to me than anyone else. As I continue to mature in my photography, I'm realizing that more than capturing moments or subjects, I really want to capture "vibes" and emotions - those deeply-ingrained feelings that can't be articulated in words. This image of the lamppost and tree, I feel, captures a "vibe" that I can't articulate. I don't know if you'll get that same vibe from it, but that's what I like about it.

This 30-day photo a day challenge has been a huge growing experience for me. It helped me discover new approaches to photography and how to find photos in situations and subjects I wouldn't have otherwise thought to photograph. It helped me reach a point where I know now what to do next. I have project ideas sprouting up in my head left and right. The creative juices are flowing and I know where to go from here. This challenge certainly served its purpose.

Read the backstory on this Photo A Day Challenge here. See previous days here.