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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5 thoughts on “The Big Bend National and State Parks with the Nikon 35Ti and Portra 400

  1. Looking forward to the comparison mentioned above. Just scrolling down to the same view shot as an HDR shows greater apparent sharpness in the digital image. And I get to congratulate myself on my initial reaction to the HDR: subtle, excellent use of the technique. The colors — when compared to the film image — are consistent, just showing a wee bit more punch. I see none of the tonal or color abuse another reader complained about.

  2. Nice work. Some advice from someone who lived on film for a long time.

    BRACKET. Seriously. Get a hand held meter and/or use spot metering, exposing for the brightest spot in your picture. The rest will come if you master the highlights. With spot metering, at least you know what you are exposing for.

    You need three prime lenses: a wide angle — 24mm to 28mm was always the favorite. Portrait length — somewhere between 90mm and 135mm, depending on your personal preference. A normal, between 45mm and 60mm — again, depending on your personal preference. With those three lenses you can rule the world.

    1. Wise words.

      Regarding cameras, like in the digital world, I prefer mirrorless cameras even in film. It will be easy to get the lenses you mention on a SLR but more challenging in a compact / point and shoot. Keep in mind that the Nikon 35Ti is a compact camera with a fixed 35mm lens. I can’t change out the lenses. There are some interchangeable rangefinder cameras but those are quite expensive and more than I want to pay for.

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