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New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 3

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My third and final day in the Alabama Hills Recreation Area was my last chance to create the composition I'd originally set out to make. When I pre-visualize a composition like I did for this trip, it can be anything from a definite, perfect imagination of what I want, to a vague concept with only the major components laid out - a "rough draft" of sorts composed in my head. I was somewhere in between for this trip. 

I knew I wanted a wide shot with the reddish-pink glow of early sunrise painting the mountains in the background with an interesting arrangement of boulders in the foreground. I envisioned what I would call an "organized mess" of boulders for the foreground. Something that communicated the disorder of this aeolian landscape but without over-complicating the composition with too much clutter. I wanted to bring attention to the interesting juxtaposition of smooth, rounded off granite in the Alabama Hills with the sharp, jagged granite of the Sierras.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Sunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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When viewing this terrain, you can almost imagine that big chunks of granite broke off the Sierras as they rose higher and higher from the force of tectonic plates. With a deafening crash, these chunks tumbled to the desert below, their edges rounding off in the commotion, before settling at the foot of these majestic peaks. Of course, that's not really how this landscape was formed. The boulders are smoothed out by wind, and although these boulders undoubtedly originate from the same gigantic slab of granite that is the Sierra Nevadas, they didn't come "tumbling" off them like the epic scene in my head. But regardless, that's the story I wanted to paint with my images.

Although a couple of my compositions up until this point on the trip were pretty close to what I wanted, they still weren't quite "there". But on the final morning, I found a perfect location with just the vantage point and arrangement of rocks I wanted.

I started with an exposure in the very first minutes of sunrise (image shown above) with the light in that deep reddish-pink hue I envisioned. Using a couple of Lee split ND filters, I held back the exposure in the mountains and sky to capture detail throughout the scene.

Since my large-format field camera is so slow to set up and change compositions, I decided to remain in my current spot with my current composition, but try it with the morning light hitting the entire landscape. The light was much more golden than red at this late in the sunrise, but I think it brought out some great details and textures in the rocks. I like both compositions in their own right, but I have a special place in my heart for the first one (shown above). The way Fuji Velvia 50 film renders reds, magentas, and blues is just gorgeous.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation Area

Morning on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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So that concludes my recent trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. I hope you've enjoyed the videos, photos, and descriptions. I plan to do many more of these on-location video series, so stay tuned and be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 2

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Day 2 of my trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation area proved to be a productive one. In between moving my camp and scouting the area, I created 5 photos: 2 4x5 black and white compositions and a few 6x17's. 

My first composition at sunrise started to resemble what I'd originally set out to get on this trip. It was the shot I'd pre-visualized months before, consisting of the Sierra Nevada Mountains basking in the warm pink glow of morning light with the rolling, jumbled-up boulders of the Alabama Hills filling the foreground on a wide 6x17 shot. This image was close, but still not quite there. However, this shot was an important step in the evolution towards what I'd get on the third day, where my pre-visualized composition finally came together as I envisioned.

Please click any of the images in this post for a larger view.

Sunrise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaSunrise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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My vertical panoramic composition from the morning of Day 2 was one of those last-minute shots. The kind of composition that comes from improvisation. I had no pre-conceived notions of doing a vertical pano like this - it just came together as I watched the light change. If I hadn't been working on a different composition at first light, I would have liked to try this image earlier in the morning. At this late in the sunrise, the blue sky turned the shadows on the foreground rocks too blue for my taste. If it had been earlier, when the light was real pinkish-gold, the color balance between sunlit background and shadowed foreground would jive a little bit better.

Sunrise on the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains from the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaMt. Whitney at Sunrise from the Alabama Hills
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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As I said in the video above, black and white works much better for the harsh midday light than color film does. Colors just get washed out at this time of day and the shadows are much too harsh for my high-contrast Fuji Velvia 50 film. But truthfully, I'm not entirely blown away with my black and whites from this trip. I want another go at it. There is a lot of potential in this area for great black and white compositions - Ansel Adams proved that long ago - but I just wasn't 100% invested in them on this trip. I guess I was having too much fun with color film. Plus, if I'm honest, the heat in the middle of day was a bit oppressive. Makes me sloppy with my technique and uninvested in my subject matter.

Lone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders in the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaLone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders
Ilford Delta 100 film, 4x5 Format
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Lone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders in the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaLone Pine Peak and Granite Boulders
Ilford Delta 100 film, 4x5 Format
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Sierra Nevada Mountains over the Alabama Hills Recreation AreaSierra Nevada Mountains and the Alabama Hills
Ilford Delta 100 film, 6x17 Format
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I'd like to come back and do some B&W large format in the winter, when the Sierras are blanketed in snow. A stormy, cloudy sky would be nice, too. Good thing this place is only a 5-hour drive away from me. I'm sure I'll be heading back there soon with black and white film on my mind.

New Work & Video: Alabama Hills, Day 1

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I recently went on a 3-day, 2-night solo camping trip to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to photograph this unreal landscape on large format film. I also put together three videos that will bring you along with me each day as I try to make photographs to capture this awesome terrain. And with each video I put out, I will also include the images featured in the video here, on my blog. This video chronicling Day 1 of my trip takes you behind the scenes of how I created this image:

Sunset over the Sierra Nevada MountainsSunset over the Sierra Nevada Mountains
Fuji Velvia 50 film, 6x17 Format
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In the arid rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, the Alabama Hills is a unique desert of granite boulders formed by the elements. Named after the CSS Alabama, this area gets its name from some old prospectors in the area sympathetic to the Confederates in the Civil War. It's now owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is made available to the public for camping and other outdoor activities.

If you're ever in the area of Lone Pine, be sure to treat yourself to a day in these hills. It's unbelievably picturesque. The jagged peaks of the Sierras rising above the rounded-off boulders at the base creates a stunning contrast of environments. And man on man, that open space! A man can really breathe out here!

This area has caught the attention of Hollywood since the first westerns hit the silver screen. Just a few notable movies filmed partly in the Alabama Hills: Django Unchained, Gladiator, Transformers 2... Not to mention, just about every other car commercial is filmed in these hills. There's a good reason directors like to set up their cameras here. Aside from the convenience of easy access, the backdrop is just begging to be photographed.

This wasn't my first visit to the Alabama Hills, but it was my first time camping here. My goal was to create some photographs that would really encapsulate the beauty of this locale. Using my 4x5 large format camera, my 6x17 panoramic roll film back, and a mix of color and black and white film, I braved the bugs and wind to see what kind of images I could create.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. And please, please, please click the image featured here for a larger view. You really gotta see it big! And if you have a fast enough internet connection, be sure to select 720P HD when viewing the video for the full experience.