Southern California

Summer on the Big Sur Coast

Summer on the Big Sur Coast

Wildflowers at your feet, seagulls overhead, fog clinging to the coastal range, and surf crashing below make the Big Sur coast a national treasure

The drive from San Simeon to Carmel should take two hours or so. In fact it’s an all day affair because you find yourself yanking your car into every overlook to drink in yet another incredible view. Just when you think it can’t become any more beautiful, it does – and often exponentially so. It’s just incredible how the combination of the coastal mountains, fog clinging to the coast, sunlight dancing in and out, wildflowers blooming, dramatic cliffs, and often the road itself can make a million different images, all unique and equally beautiful.

Such is the Big Sur coast. There are other beautiful drives in the world and I’ve been able to experience many of them. This may not be the most beautiful stretch of road in the world, but I’d say it’s in anyone’s top ten. It’s that dramatic and beautiful.

We were nearing Carmel Highlands where we would be spending the next couple of days when I noticed wildflowers filling the fields between the Pacific Coast Highway and the Pacific Ocean. I just couldn’t resist seeing what the actual coast would look like the few hundred yards away. So, my long-suffering wife patiently picked up her book and encouraged me to take a while to go scout and shoot what I saw. Have I mentioned how patient she is with my photography addiction?

Fortunately there were some well-worn paths through the vegetation leading to different vantage points along the cliffs. Apparently, this location is a fairly popular area for hikers and people walking their dogs. It’s not hard to imagine why. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to hike while soaking in the views.

Unfortunately, I was so engrossed with getting to the vistas I expected, I totally missed the abundance of poison oak that was embedded in the vegetation – and I was wearing shorts. I wouldn’t find out for a couple of days, but this would turn out to be a big problem. I’m allergic to poison oak and ivy and I acquired the worst case I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t mean a few spots that turned into a rash. I mean my calves and lower thighs were covered in a rash that ultimately scabbed over and itched like nothing I’ve ever felt. I went through an entire bottle of poison ivy gel just trying to keep the itch under control. It took a full two months for the rash to go away entirely!

But even with the future onset of a nasty case of poison oak, the hike out through the brush was worth it. I rarely have one of these moments, but when the trail ended at the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, the scene literally took my breath away. In front of me stretched an uninterrupted view of the ocean to the horizon, blue sky, a golden beach, beautiful blue water and white foam intersecting with the coast, and a steep cliff side covered with native vegetation and flowers. It’s a scene that I can envision clearly as I write this post. It was beautiful and I took a few minutes just to soak it all in.

Then, I got to work. I moved up and down the cliff-top trail looking for a vantage point that captured as many of the elements of the scene as possible while still retaining a sense of composition that would fulfill my artistic vision. I finally found it in this spot. The view is north toward Carmel and captures all of the elements I described above. Patience added a small flock of birds lazily riding the wind down the coast and into my frame. It was a perfect moment in time for a landscape photographer – minus the nasty rash to come. But, all in all, it was worth it. Hopefully, this image and my words bring you a bit closer to that beautiful place in the world that is the Big Sur coast. Enjoy.

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Sunset at the Santa Monica Pier

Sunset at the Santa Monica Pier

The Santa Monica Pier glows brightly as the sun lights up the sky over the Pacific

A few years ago, my daughter, Lauren, and I took a trip to California. During that trip I had envisioned a shot of the Santa Monica Pier lit up brightly with a glowing sunset overhead and a reflection of it all in the wet sand of Santa Monica beach. Alas, the weather did not cooperate. Fog rolled in on the night I was setting up for the shot and ultimately we couldn’t even see the pier from the beach! Fortunately, we were able to make it up the coast to Malibu and took another favorite shot of mine. You can view that image here.

So, on our recent trip to California I knew I wanted to take another shot at capturing that image. As it turned out, we spent our last night in Santa Monica. I actually wanted to stay in Malibu, but the hotel we wanted to stay in was already booked for that night. Fortunately, the hotel we chose was in the heart of Santa Monica and offered easy access to the beach and to the pier.

While my wife and daughters ate some dinner and rode some of the carnival rides on the pier, I worked my way over to the beach on the south side of the pier and scouted out my location for a sunset shot. That turned out to be pretty easy to do. The hard part was that a camera club had beat me to my spot and had already staked out some pretty good locations. I spent the rest of the night working around that group of people. Some of them were very talented and knew exactly what they were looking to do. Others really didn’t have a clue and seemed to be along for the ride.

I could tell that the clouds that were hovering offshore had a chance to create a pretty spectacular sunset. Of course, if there was no break in the clouds, the sunset could also have been a total bust. Fortunately for me and for the club members a pretty awesome light show ensued. I spent the next hour or so with my jeans rolled up standing on the edge of the surf (sometimes in it!) totally immersed in the experience of capturing the shot. What an awesome evening it was!

This shot was taken about twenty minutes after sunset with my D800 and a 24-70 f/2.8 lens. The shot was exposed for two seconds to create a silky feel in the water and I opened the lens to f/6.3 to get as crisp an exposure as possible and holding focus from a spot about ten feet in front of me to beyond the pier. I was also waiting for a set of waves to wash over the entire beach in front of me so that the reflection of the Ferris wheel would be as complete as possible. Of course all of this was shot on a tripod with a cable release and with the camera in mirror lockup mode in order to obtain as crisp an image as possible.

All of those elements converged at the right time on this occasion. There is a moment after sunset when the available light in the sky matches the subject matter and the image turns out just right. This was one of those occasions. If you can’t tell, I just love this image. It is definitely my favorite image of the entire trip. If only all the elements could come together on every photo shoot the way they did on this one. Enjoy.