Urban Landscape + Lifestyle Photography

Texas

The Big Bend National and State Parks with the Nikon 35Ti and Portra 400

Land Rover, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend Nation Park, Texas

Land Rover, Santa Elena Canyon – Big Bend National Park, Texas

You might remember that I used a slew of cameras on the Big Bend trip a week and half ago. A mind-boggling, to some, 6 cameras in total. I had my “high profile” cameras such as the full frame digital Canon 6D, or the medium format film, Mamiya 645E, as well as my ultra fun compact digital, the Pentax Q7. But the camera that really delivered some beautiful photos was my 20-year-old 35mm compact, the Nikon 35Ti.

The Nikon 35Ti was a rich man’s travel camera introduced back in 1993. This titanium clad beauty was sold for a hefty $1,000 back then. I picked it up last year for under 300 bucks. My first roll, the tried and true Kodak Portra 400, a very easy film to shoot.

I mentioned earlier that my first experiment with Velvia 100 didn’t turn out as well as I hoped. I under exposed the film too much and I wasn’t crazy about the colors either. No such issues with Portra 400. Nearly every shot from the first roll came out great. Portra is easy to expose since it has so much latitude and I’m also familiar with the way the 35Ti meters.

About the only gripe with this camera, at least for landscapes, is the fixed 35mm focal length. I would have loved to shoot something wider, at least 28mm or more. That said, I think I managed some nice travel shots. What I love the most is the warm and mellow colors. That’s the main reason I’m experimenting with film.

Trees, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Path, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

On the first morning, we went to Santa Elena Canyon. There was a wonderful old Land Rover parked in the lot. The group rushed out to the canyon but I stayed behind and shot the wooden path with several of my cameras. As you know, I like the man-made and like how the path created a winding leading line towards the massive canyon walls.

Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

At the river itself, I couldn’t find a good composition. My sensibilities wanted me to be in the middle of the river with the walls rising on either side but I wasn’t prepared to risk my equipment for that vantage point. Obviously, I’m not a serious landscape photographer. By the way, this is the “mighty” Rio Grande which separates the U.S. and Mexico. So yes, the cliff on the left side is Mexico while the right side is in the “country of Texas”.

Cabin, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Fence, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

A couple of stops later we got the Castolon Ranger Station. I made my way back to the historic displays which got me into my element. As you know, I’m a urban landscape photographer which means I’m at home in the city and near man-made things. Nature is great as long as its taken in moderation, I say.

Window, Castolon - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Little House in the Desert - Big Bend National Park, Texas

There is no question, I “see” a lot better with the hard angles and geometry of the man-made. I also enjoy the compositions more, I think. At least for now since I don’t usually shoot nature by itself. Unlike my typical city shots, I like how I get to juxtapose these structures with the wide open west.

These western landscapes have a painterly look to my city slicker eyes. I don’t know if it’s the light, the dust or some other mysterious X factor, but the images look different here. These were taken around noon but they don’t have the harsh look that usually dissuades me from shooting midday.

Road, Tuff Canyon #1 - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Road, Tuff Canyon #2 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Next up we stopped at Tuff Canyon. I shot from near the car. The road and leading lines, attracting my attention. Again, the man-made mixed with nature, I guess.

Flowers, Tuff Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

I did shoot the flowers though, that’s nature, right?

Path, Sam Nail Ranch - Big Bend National Park, Texas
Chisos Mountains from Sam Nail Ranch - Big Bend National Park, Texas

We quickly stopped by Sam Nail Ranch before having a late lunch at 2pm. We were just passing through. Those mountains in the distance, the Chisos, would appear golden if we came here at the right time near sunset.

A view from Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

The last stop, after lunch and a rest was Chisos Basin. This is one of mountain formations behind the famous “Window”, which we shot for sunset. The weather and light didn’t cooperate so our sunset “window” shot wasn’t impressive but at least I got this snapshot of the big mountain.

Th photo is grainer than the others, which means the image was most likely underexposed and the scanner brightened it. Portra was able to recover this well and I’m left with a decently exposed image. Velvia would be less forgiving in this case.

This was the end of the first day. We stayed until it got dark, past blue hour, and then headed back to our cabin.

Contrabando #1 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #2 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #3 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Contrabando #4 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The 2nd day, we spend the bulk of the day at Big Bend Ranch, which is the Texas State Park that’s located next to the national park. Right off the road, not far from the entrance, is Contrabando, an old movie set. Several western B movies were filmed there. As you can imagine, my architectural interest drew me in for more of the man-made set in nature type photos.

Rio Grande from Contrabando - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Behind the set was the Rio Grande again with its readily accessible border with Mexico. Incidentally, Big Bend is in a middle of a desert as is the Mexican side. The borders are permeable since no one in their right mind is going to be walking through the area. The tall mountains and the harsh climate forms a natural barrier going north or south.

Rio Grande from a rest stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rio Grande at the Rest Stop #2 - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rocky View from DOM Point - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

What’s great about the Big Bend State Park is the easily accessible dramatic shots right off the highway. We detoured several times at a rest stop and turn outs to get these dramatic views. Not much hiking involved, which is fine with me. I took all my gear including the tripod to shoot at these locations. The Nikon 35Ti though worked great handheld. It was truly an easy point and shoot experience. Not bad for a 20-year-old film camera, I say.

Framed, Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
A view from Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

The highlight of the trip was Closed Canyon, where they shot the last scene from the movie Boyhood. It took a few snaps here with the Nikon as well as a whole bunch with my other cameras. I did my first real hike here, only about a mile and half round trip. The ground was more uneven than expected so the hiking boots really helped.

The Rio Grande - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Finally, the last photos of the first roll were shot here, again just off the highway. It’s my favorite view from the entire Big Bend Trip. I think I shot nearly every camera from here and every photo looks different. It will make an interesting comparison for a future blog post.

It’s here where I switched out the Portra 400 roll for Velvia 100, which I shot for the rest of the trip with the 35Ti. I haven’t finished the roll but I’ll get that developed eventually to see if Velvia came out better on the Nikon than my medium format Mamiya 645E.

What struck me is that with 37 photos from the first roll, I covered a nice selection of scenes. I know I shoot like crazy with my digital cameras but selective shooting works great too. It’s so old school where you might only shoot several rolls per trip but end up with a lot of keepers.

I think the image quality from 35mm looks great too, depending on your target output. On my Retina 15” MacBook Pro, these images, full screen, look gorgeous. Lovely color, sharp details and not even a hint of grain. If all I wanted was photos for my MacBook Pro, 35mm would be more than enough. However, displayed on my external 27” monitor full screen, the image quality degrades somewhat.

These photos still look decent on the large screen but I can see difference compared to digital or medium format film. The grain is noticeable too though not really objectionable. This is the limitation of 35mm film. Displayed large, either on a monitor or paper, the image suffers.

People I know that shot 35mm told me that they feel comfortable with prints up to 8” by 10”. After that, sharpness begins to degrade. Interestingly, the 15” MacBook Pro screen measures 8” by 13”. Is it the perfect resolution and size for displaying 35mm? Perhaps. It’s not to say, these images can’t be blown up much larger. I’ve seen 35mm printed big and it can look nice, depending on the subject.

I’ll need to experiment more and even print some of those photos larger to see what they look like. But the surprising thing about the Nikon 35Ti, along with the Portra 400, is how wonderful these images look. They might not have the detail and resolution of digital, but I prefer the colors a heck of a lot more.

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I took all photos using my Nikon 35Ti 35mm camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400 film. I enhanced the color saturation digitally which were scanned by Precision Camera, when the film was developed.

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Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.



Observations on Velvia 100

Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chisos Basin – Big Bend National Park, Texas

I’ve always been curious about Velvia, the super saturated film that’s typically used for landscapes. I’ve heard about its legendary colors for years and now that I’m playing with film, I finally gave it a try.

I brought several rolls of Velvia 100, a reformulated version of the classic Velvia film (which is now called Velvia 50), to Big Bend. I got to use it for the majestic western landscapes both in medium format and 35mm. It was going to be great. Except, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.

Rockface, Boquillas Canyon - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Velvia is slide film, which is different. Unlike the easy to use negative film, Velvia can’t be overexposed or the highlights get blown, kinda like digital. It also lacks the large exposure latitude of standard (negative) print film. I knew this going in so I under exposed by about 1/2 stop. I also tweaked my exposures somewhat, depending on the scene. The problem was I over compensated — many of the images came out darker than I hoped. At least I didn’t blow out the sky.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

In retrospect, I probably should’t have worried about the sky for most of my landscapes. The dynamic range on slide film wasn’t going to capture everything anyway. So what if the sky looked white, as long as I properly captured the magnificent landscapes. Luckily, not all my photographs were a total loss. Lesson learned, hopefully.

No question, Velvia is colorful. I like bold colors and for the first time, in film or digital, I didn’t need to increase the saturation. But there is a bigger problem — I don’t like the Velvia colors. I find them too red and too cool. I generally prefer the warmer tones, like what I get with Kodak Portra 400, especially after I digitally increase the saturation.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas
Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Take a look at these two photos. I took the first one with Velvia 100 on the Mamiya 645E and the second with the Nikon 35Ti with Portra 400. Portra is a portrait film with muted colors but I like the effect when I add saturation in post processing. I realize this is a personal thing. I’m sure some prefer the look of Velvia.

Rio Grande at the Rest Stop - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

I took the same Velvia image and shifted the colors to warm it up. I’m getting a closer match but things are a bit off and the sky is a bit wonky and I still prefer the warmth of Portra. The good thing is, I’m not a film purist. I have no hesitation to digitally manipulate my film scans to make them match my “vision”. But I don’t have a desire to do extensive changes. It’s a lot easier to get the look I like from Portra than Velvia.

Sharp Rocks and the Rio Grande - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

I understand the attraction to Velvia though, pre-digital. When you couldn’t increase saturation, Velvia was the way to go. I wouldn’t like Portra, for example, if I couldn’t amp up its colors. But Digital post processing is a game changer for film. I get the warmth of analog tweaked the way I want it. And even with all this digital manipulation, I still find that film, even manipulated film, has a different feel from photographs created with a digital camera.

Sotal Vista Morning - Big Bend National Park
Window at Sunset, Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas

The salient question for me is, should I continue to shoot Velvia 100? I can tweak its colors but negative film is a lot easier to shoot and it costs less too. If my results with Velvia aren’t materially better, is it worth it? I hear that classic Velvia 50 is warmer with more yellows. Perhaps I should try that instead of the newer Velvia 100.

I’ve just started my journey with film and I have a lot to learn. It certainly is challenging but fun, in a different kind of way, from pure digital photography. I think there is a place for both in my repertoire.

Formation at Chisos Basin - Big Bend National Park, Texas
The

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I took all but one the photographs with the Mamiya 645E medium format film camera loaded with Fujifilm Velvia 100. I shot one photo using my Nikon 35Ti 35mm camera loaded with Kodak Portra 400 film.

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The movie Boyhood and the little connections that make it more meaningful

Boyhood Book Signing, Precision Camera - Austin, Texa8

Boyhood Book Signing, Precision Camera – Austin, Texas

I watched Boyhood the other day. You might have heard about this movie, created over 12 years by Director Richard Linklater. It recently won a Golden Globe for Best Picture, Drama and is up for several Academy Awards. Don’t worry, no spoilers in this post. Just in case you want to see it. And I do recommend that you watch the movie.

As this is a photography blog, most everything I post is somehow related to photography. If you watch the movie, this connection will be obvious. But for me, it goes beyond that, which makes this a particularly interesting film.

I’m not a film critic so I won’t go much into it. All I’ll say is, unlike typical Hollywood movies, Boyhood is authentic. Perhaps a bit more drama than a typical family but totally believable. You get to follow a family, especially the son, over 12 years, filmed in real-time. This may be the first time this has ever been done.

The movie was shot in and around Austin and I recognize may of the places, which is always fun. But it’s more than that. As a father of two boys 15 and 11, I see them growing so fast. Not quite as fast as in the movie but close enough for discomfort. I have my own Boyhood moments when I look at photos of my kids that I took years ago. They seem like just yesterday.

There are other enjoyable connections too. Late last year, I was in Precision Camera and stumbled on a book signing. Local photographer Matt Lankes, who got to document the movie over the 12 years, created a wonderful portrait and behind the scenes book on Boyhood.

Closed Canyon - Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas

Then two weeks ago, at our monthly Austin Photographic Society meeting, Matt gave a talk on his photography and the movie. We found out they filmed their final scene in Big Bend. Yet another connection, which we explored when we visited Closed Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park, last week. You might recognize this photo, if you watch the movie. A neat place for sure and it was one of the highlights or our trip out west.

So a big thumbs up for the movie unless you want to see car chases, explosions, zombies or a dystopian future Earth. Boyhood doesn’t fit the typical Hollywood mold and that’s what makes it all the more special. Oh and pickup Matt’s book too.

Boyhood Book - Austin, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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The best sunset of my Big Bend Trip

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

Highway Sunset – San Antonio, Texas

I got back from my first excursion to Big Bend last night, actually right during the Super Bowl. No worries, I’m more interested in photography than football. It was a good trip and this city boy made it safely though 5 days in the country.

The weather was better than expected but we still had a fair amount of overcast or uninspiring skies. Ironically, the best sunset occurred on the way back home. I shot these photos out the back of the minivan as we passed through San Antonio, Texas. Beautiful skies to be sure, but we all wished that we got something like this out in Big Bend — mountain silhouettes are usually more inspiring than overpasses. But of course, I’m usually an urban photographer so perhaps it’s just fate.

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

Therein lies the challenge with landscape photography, of course. You have no control of the weather and not much control over the light. Composition maybe the only saving grace but that only goes so far. So on my first serious landscape photography trip, I learned to make do with whatever I had. It was a fun time and I’ll certainly talk about the details over the next bunch of posts.

Highway Sunset - San Antonio, Texas

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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My first Big Bend Trip: A city boy is going to the big open country

Planning the Big Bend Trip - Austin, Texas

Planning the Big Bend Trip – Austin, Texas

I’m going to the country. This may not be a big deal for most, but for me, it’s a momentous occasion. You see, I was born in New York City and lived mostly in big cities. Actually, Austin is one of the smaller places I’ve lived. When my family goes on vacation, we go to larger urban areas to recharge.

My situation is a source of endless fun for my friends. After all, I’ve never been camping, never been on a horse and never done other typical outdoorsy activities. Not to say I haven’t lived life though. I ask my nature-loving friends if they’ve ever ridden on the outside of a subway train before. Well anyway, that’s back when I was in high school and they frown upon outdoor train riding in NYC now.

from Austin to Big Bend Map

I’m going to Big Bend National Park, all the way on the South Western end of Texas near the border with Mexico. A photography expedition and a workshop of sorts. My friend Alex Suarez is leading it. Between him and the other participants, we have a lot of experienced people and a total of 8. It will take at least 7 hours, not including food and rest stops.

hiking boots

It’s been interesting preparing for it, mainly the non-photography gear. I’ve gone to REI more than I ever have, picking up comfortable hiking boots and assorted knickknacks. So, I’m going to a desert in the dry season in a middle of a drought and the forecast says it’s going to rain? Are you kidding me? Back to REI for some weatherproof pants.

I even “invested” in a new camera backpack too. A nice Thinktank Streetwalker Pro which seems perfect for the gear I plan to bring. When I travel on planes and through cities, I go light with a small messenger style bag and mirrorless cameras. This trip is different. We’re going by car (minivan actually) and it’s going to be packed to the gills with everyone’s photo gear. We’re supposed to be hiking too, which got me a little concerned. Remember that bit about never being in the country?

I’m going to say it right here, before the trip, that my gear selection might be a colossal mistake. But, I’m doing it. I’m taking 5 cameras! Crazy right? I know. And not all of them are the small mirrorless variety.

Thinktank Backpack

First up, I’m bringing my Canon 6D with the 24-105mm f4 lens. It’s my highest quality digital camera and I’m going to use it for landscapes. I also have an old manual focus Tokina 19 – 35mm which I’ll use for night, wide-angle shooting. Big Bend is supposed to have the darkest skies in the continental U.S., I want to shoot the Milky Way. Oh, did I mention that I’ve only seen the Milky Way once or twice in my life? Stargazing in NYC, not good.

I said in my previous post that I’m getting into Medium Format Film. So, I’m also taking my Mamiya 645E with 3 prime lenses. I now have a 55mm, a 80mm and a 150mm. In 35mm terms, they equate to a 35mm, 50mm and 93mm focal lengths. I’m really curious how medium format film compares to my full frame (digital) Canon 6D. How are the colors? The detail? I think Big Bend will be a wonderful landscape test for both cameras.

I’m also bringing my Nikon 35Ti compact film camera. I get to shoot it along side the big film camera — with the same film. Kodak Portra 400, which I always use and Fujifilm Velvia 100 slide film, which I’ve never shot. Slide film is more challenging than negative film so I’ll see how that goes.

film

I’m taking my ultra compact Pentax Q7 system with 3 lenses. I’ll have the 40mm equivalent prime but also the 18 – 28mm and 70 – 210mm equivalent zoom lenses. The entire system weighs a mere 1 pound. Ironically, I’m going to have the most reach and flexibility with the lightest system. It will be fun to document the trip and I might even use it for landscapes.

Finally, I’m bringing the Olympus OM-D E-M10. Charles from Olympus let me use it along with the wide-angle lens. I’m going to do something special with it, which I’ll talk about after the trip. It will be neat if it actually works.

So there you have it. My crazy kit for my first ever landscape excursion. I won’t hike with all my gear but with tripod and water, the backpack is still going to be 20 pounds. Much more than I’m used to carrying since I’m usually a light and nimble mirrorless guy. We’ll see. As I get tired, I might shed gear on subsequent hikes.

Wish me luck, I should be back Sunday.

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I took all the photographs with the Pentax Q7 in JPEG.

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Make sure to click on the photographs to a see larger version. Hover over the photos to see the picture details.