Visiting Joshua Tree National Park to commune with the ancient boulders

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, ND Filters, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios by Cole Thompson

It was the first time I had visited since 1987 when my wife and I went camping there. Coincidentally, our trip occurred right after U2 had introduced their new album “Joshua Tree,” and I remember listening to it non-stop as we sunned ourselves on the large round boulders at the park. The music and that location are positively and indelibly intertwined in my memory. Each time I hear those songs, I am transported back in time. So it was with great nostalgia and anticipation that I returned with my camera in hand, searching for inspiration in this wonderful place.

As I headed to Joshua Tree, I had no idea of how others had portrayed it, nor did I care. I only hoped that I could portray it through my own vision. As some of you may know, I practice what I call ‘photographic celibacy’ meaning that, in an effort to see as originally and freshly as possible, I do not study the work of other photographers.

I first spent some time wandering and taking it all in. One of the things you notice about Joshua Tree National Park are the Joshua trees themselves; a very large and treelike species of yucca. But what eventually caught my attention were those large, round boulders formed 100 million years ago. These were the the same boulders that I had sunned myself on 25 years earlier. They struck me in the same way the monoliths of the Oregon coast struck me; ancient, unmovable and eternal. I imagined them sitting there, quietly observing the frail undertakings of man as he scurried about. Perhaps these ancient stones were amused or perhaps they didn’t care at all.

I decided to create these images with long exposures extending from 30 seconds up to 6-minute exposures. I wanted to portray a sense of motion that would contrast with the massive stones and emphasize their permanence.

To achieve these long exposures, I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter. These two filters gave me 13 stops of neutral density which would only give me a 30-second exposure. Because the clouds were moving slowly that day, I needed longer exposure times to create the streaking effect that I wanted. To get even longer exposure times I added a third 10-stop ND filter which gave me a total of 23 stops of neutral density. To put this into perspective, if your correct exposure without any ND filters was 1/2000 of a second, then 23 stops of ND would allow an exposure time of 32 minutes. For these images I was using a maximum of 21 stops of ND to achieve 6 minute exposure times.

So why did I use a variable ND filter in this situation? First let me explain that a variable ND filter operates much like a polarizer in that it allows you to adjust how much light enters the lens; turn it one way and you get more light; turn it the other way for less light. The advantages of the Vari-ND in this situation are two: first I can ‘open up’ the filter making it brighter and easier to compose through the viewfinder (at 23 stops it’s almost impossible to see anything). Secondly, it makes setting the correct exposure easier because I can simply turn the Vari-ND filter to get the right exposure.

While stacking three filters together allows long exposure times, it also presents some interesting challenges. Three filters give you a tremendous amount of vignetting at the corners, especially with shorter focal lengths. You can overcome this either by using a longer focal length or by going with a square format and simply discarding the corners. Because I was in close quarters when photographing many of these rocks, I could not go with a longer focal length, but the square format was perfect for this series. I think the square format is very elegant and find myself using it more and more.

When I photographed these stones I had a vision of what the final image would look like, but as is often the case, inspiration can also strike later in the creative process. While processing these images I chose to darken the images, giving them an almost night-time feel, and I also blurred most of the image except where I wanted the eye to focus. It gives the images an almost tilt-shift-lens look.

I truly enjoyed finding and creating these dramatic images. I feel my trip to Joshua Tree National Park was both a nostalgic and creative success.