A Second Look at the California Coast

It seems that travel photography can be both rewarding and frustrating, subject to the whims of nature. At first I’m excited to visit a new place and take photos that I can’t create back home, partly because of unique lighting and weather conditions, but mainly it’s the wealth of new subject matter. The California coast provides an endless number of beautiful scenes. On the other hand when you either get complete fog cover or not a single cloud in sight, the resulting photos are like an unfinished painting, waiting for us to return with some sense of inspiration.

Returning to the unfinished work is not always a joy, sometimes done so only with grudging determination. I’ve visited these sites before and was not pleased with the results, either with my lack of skill that day, or the weather conditions of which I have no control. Waking up at 5am again with this in mind is not easy. I tend to hit the snooze button repeatedly, telling myself that it’s not worth the effort. Regardless, I made the most of the trip and the resulting photos.

I’m learning that research makes a big difference in setting up expectations, as you would expect, but also that research doesn’t start the night before. I’d love to take one of those iconic photos of the Golden Gate Bridge when the fog is rolling in, but its not an every morning or every season event. Reading the comments in other photos I’m finding that I need to plan ahead for certain seasons, weather conditions, etc. I also may have to visit the same location over and over, fingers crossed and God willing, to catch that perfect mix of light and nature.

Some clouds would make a big difference here, but I like the above photo for the very fact that there are no clouds; the simplicity of those blue tones balances out the complexity of the plant life below. The sun was already just below the horizon so I quickly looked around for a nice pattern in the flowers, set up the tripod and snapped a few shots before the park services closed the gates to the beach access. If you ever plan on shooting at any of the beach access points in Half Moon Bay, make sure you park outside of the gated area and plan on hiking a few minutes from there.

This photo was a little tough to catch, keeping in mind that I was alone. Climbing into a seaside crevice minutes before sunset is not the best idea when you have no cell reception and no one can hear you over the crashing waves. I’ve come up with the following rule: In a situation where I might fall, get stuck, etc. then I shouldn’t go alone. In addition to that, when traveling with company, take risks one person at a time. In the event of a fall at least one of you can call for help.

Capturing the above photo required a slippery sideways rock climb, in addition to timing the waves (I only have one pair of shoes with me on this trip) to get deep enough in the crevice to find a dry spot to setup. I did remember to check the tides and low tide was approaching, so the water rushing in with each wave was subsiding not rising. Either way I was more lucky than skilled in this little adventure, so finding a fellow photographer at work is a must for the next trip.

Take Two

Late in the evening I decided to take another small risk, climbing down into the rocks, and took this shot from a lower perspective. I already had a great shot (shown earlier) but I wanted a bit more compression to shrink the foreground rocks and scale up the lighthouse. Going low to the rocks allowed me to zoom in a bit, but still get a good amount of the rock “path” for your eyes to travel up to the main subject. It’s only a 9mm difference, but the increased size of the lighthouse is dramatic.

Each of these photos took a bit of work to balance out the tones, get the right colors (long exposures tend to go very cool on the white balance scale) and plenty of cloning for distracting elements. In the crevice shot I wish I’d taken the time to collect enough exposures for an HDR photo but the D610 gives me plenty of latitude in the shadows. A slight underexposure saved the sunset, and I could still bring up those green and red tones in the plant life.

In Conclusion

With each trip I feel more confident that 1) I can take less photos because I’m thinking more about each exposure and 2) as a result I’ll have more keepers from that trip. I attribute a portion of this to recent reading, specifically Ian Plant’s Visual Flow which I consider a very scientific exploration into the qualities of good composition. Majority of the credit however must go to the rinse-and-repeat process of visiting sites numerous times, researching the predicted weather conditions, and evolving my compositional eye by learning from past mistakes.

If you ever find yourself discouraged by a memory card full of photos that you ended up throwing away, I would suggest that you visit the same site again under different conditions. I’ve learned that “chasing the light” not only applies to the minutes around sunset/sunrise, but in all the other elements that modify the light across days, months, even years. The difference in a seasonal cloud formation, or the position of the setting sun on the horizon not only changes the light, but the composition as well.