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New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 2

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and WhiteMojave Desert in Black and White
Medium Format Ilford Delta 100 Film
Click Any Image to Expand

Continuing the previous post showcasing my photos from a recent trip to the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert, this entry highlights a different photographic style of the same subject. In fact, you'll notice that many of the compositions shown here are identical to compositions in the previous entry because, as I mentioned in the last post, I wanted to see how different artistic styles could be applied to the same photographs for a little bit of variety. The photos I shared last week show a softer take on the Mojave Desert. With the wider dynamic range and muted color palette of Kodak Portra film, the contrast softened up a bit and the overall vibe was less intense than you might get from the usual high-saturation stuff. Also, I utilized a shallow depth of field in many of the shots to mix things up a bit from my typical  landscape photography.

The landscape photography I want to share with you in this post offers a different view of the Mojave Desert. These photos exhibit more of a classic, old-style take on this timeless landscape. My goal was to highlight the shapes, shadows, and textures of these sand dunes. Color was not my top priority here, it was the tones of the sky contrasted with the sunlit dunes and its shadows. Since there's no better way to highlight tonal differences than with black and white, I opted for Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. Without the distraction of color, the light and dark can really take center stage.

Using my spot metering process (that I teach in my online course here), I established that the tonal difference between the sunlit areas of the dunes and the shadowed areas of the dunes was only about 5 stops apart. I know through previous testing that my Ilford film has a dynamic range around 10 to 11 stops. So with only a 5-stop separation between highlights and shadows, the contrast wouldn't be very impressive. I wanted the highlights to be bright white and the shadows to be nearly black. 5 stops wasn't going to do it. This 5-stop separation meant the shadows were only going to be dark gray and the highlights light gray. Also, I found out that the sky was going to come out about medium gray. That wasn't going to work for what I envisioned. I wanted the sky to be nearly black with bright white clouds popping out from it.

So, to put it simply, I needed to increase the contrast of the scene so that the shadows would drop in brightness and the highlights would increase in brightness. In order to do this, I opted for N+1 processing. Those familiar with the Zone System should know what that means. Basically, I underexposed the film a bit to drop the shadows then later I developed it for a longer time period so as to raise the highlights. This would expand my 5-stop range to about 6 or 7 stops. But this still wasn't enough. To get that last bit of extra contrast, I utilized a Red #23A filter and a Circular Polarizer. The red filter further darkened the shadows and, coupled with the polarizer, shifted the sky towards a really dark tone. Now the contrast range was creeping up to 9 stops or so. Just what I wanted.

If you were to do this same style with digital, it's quite easy. When desaturating the image to monochrome, your image editing program should give you the option to darken or lighten specific color channels. In that case, you'd drop the brightness of the blues (sky and shadows) and raise the brightness of the yellows (sunlit dunes). Then a little tweak of the curves tool here and there would round it off nicely.

There you have style #2 from the Mojave Desert. In the next blog post I'll be sharing my third and final stylistic approach on these dunes: the high-saturation, high-contrast, Galen Rowell style approach.

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

Mojave Desert Landscape Photography in Black and White

New Landscape Photography: Mojave Desert, Part 1

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave DesertThe Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave Desert
Medium Format Kodak Portra 160 film
Click Any Image to Expand

I've visited the Mojave Desert a couple times over the past month and a half in search of some new landscape photography. My location of choice for both trips was the Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve. I've often said the Kelso Sand Dunes just might be my favorite place on the planet, and it seems every time I go out there, that sentiment grows even stronger. It's a truly magical place within the vast Mojave Desert where you'll find some of the tallest sand dunes in the United States scraping the cobalt blue skies of Southern California. This area of the desert is rich in open space. As you gaze out onto the horizon the sheer lack of clutter will leave you entranced. You'll feel like you can stretch out further than you ever thought possible.

A lot of people don't "get" the desert. The millions of commuters driving through the Mojave Desert on the way to Vegas each year might view this terrain as nothing more than a dry, empty wasteland that only serves as a platform upon which to build our highways. But it's so much more than that. The desert is as beautiful as Yosemite Valley when viewed through the right eyes. It's a gallery of unique geological features formed and crafted by the elements of wind, water, and weather that bathes in some of the most stunning light found in any ecosystem. The beauty found in the desert may not be the kind of obvious beauty you find in giant redwood trees or epic waterfalls, but grandeur is there nonetheless. The allure of the desert is more subtle. It requires a deeper appreciation for the wind-swept, water-carved geography and the indomitable forces that shape it. It is this deep appreciation that pulls me to the Mojave Desert to take photos highlighting its often-misunderstood beauty.

The photos highlighted in this post (and in the next 2 posts) are from a one-day trip I took out to the dunes with a photographer friend of mine back in December. My goal on the trip was to take pictures that went a little outside my usual comfort zone and style. My usual modus operandi is to do the typical high-color, high-contrast, large depth of field, epic scenics that everyone is doing these days. Although I did do some shots in this category, I wanted to devote the bulk of my efforts towards something new: shallow depths of field, softer color palettes, brighter exposures, ultra-simple compositions, and of course some black and whites. With my medium format Mamiya RZ67 camera and its removable film cassette backs, I was able to try similar compositions with different films ranging from muted-color negatives to high-color transparency film to traditional black and white.

So over the course of the next 3 blog posts, I'll show you my 3 different takes on this landscape - 3 different styles of photography all from the same camera and the same photographer. You'll notice many of the compositions are the same, which shows how wildly different the overall style and look can be even when the composition is identical. This first post showcases a style that exhibits a simple, soft color palette achieved through the use of Kodak Portra 160 film, minimal use of filters, and an intentional tendency towards brighter exposures. I also opted for ultra-simple compositions and a shallow depth of field in many of these shots for a minimalist (and sometimes abstract) look.

In the next 2 blog posts I'll share my ultra high contrast black and white images followed by my more typical high-saturation classic scenics.

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

Landscape Photography from the Kelso Sand Dunes of the Mojave Desert

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