Big Sur and the Central Coast With Camera, Final Thoughts

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
—Leonard Cohen

At some point I want to publish something on Highway 1 photo locations from Monterey and Big Sur to points south. This piece of highway is known as one of the ultimate road trips. But it’s far more than the driving-up-the-coast media myth. And my recent time on the highway to Sur reminded me yet again how a camera can act as a door into the creative mind.

For most of us, the Central Coast is part Hollywood dream, part reality. Even if we drive it on a weekend, we don’t know it. But like Walden took shape for Thoreau, spending real time in this area, engaging in nature, can unlock the creative juices in wonderful ways.

But what makes this piece of landscape unique? How does it resonate as a place to create art? I can’t speak for anyone else. But my experience, why I keep returning, is that the locations along this archetypal highway are so purely, abstractly Nature and physics. They resonated in a more primal way than almost anywhere I’ve been on the Coast.

This sliver of coast, starts (for the sake of argument) at Morro Rock, the focal point for endless forays into bad photography. The road, curving past the golden hills God leased to the Hearsts, takes a visitor to waterfalls and hidden coves, ancient cliffs and endless ocean. At the north end, the ribbon of highway spills into the raw coastal Monterey Peninsula and one of the richest eco-systems of our country.

As a whole, the land here is a study in pure composition and the dynamic force of ocean. Doing justice to that reality in a photo is impossible — and a lovely pleasure to attempt.

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Inception

I’ve traveled Hwy. 1 lots of times since moving to the South Bay. And I’ve been wanting to do this road the right way. Even before writing the Utah landscape photography books, I’ve known that to do my best work, I need to plant myself in a place — be a photographic Thoreau. Drive-by photography (which is the norm for most here) doesn’t cut it. So I’ve been thinking of doing a week or more along this stretch of highway.

My creative focus really crystalize once I decided to do a Monterey Peninsula photo tour with Mark Comon.  Mark has done this trip for years and I knew he would have plenty to share. Doing any good photographer-oriented tour gives you a real leg-up when it comes to shot locations. And an expert like Mark is a wealth of knowledge on the artistic and logistical issues of an area. So I decided to make that tour the first three days of my week of exploration.

The Photo Tour

My approach meant heading up on Interstate 5 on a Sunday in October to join the tour.  We got settled in at Carmel Mission Inn and Mark gave us the overview of the agenda and tour locations in that area, Garapata State Beach, Point Lobos Reserve, Asilomar State Beach, Carmel Mission, Bixby Bridge. All amazing photo locations. Plus we had a chance to spend time at the studio of Kim Weston, grandson of the great Edward Weston and an inspiring photographer in his own right.

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I’ve photographed several of the spots before. But working with the photo group like Mark’s puts you on your best behavior. Plenty of time at each spot, plenty of photo knowledge from Mark, feedback from the other shooters, a real focus on technique. And in the evening, more time to connect with the enthusiast community. (Which may be the most important takeaway.)

When I’m shooting on my own, I don’t always have the luxury (or desire) to carry a full kit and tripod. If you’re shooting at Subway slot canyon (in Zion NP), you have to carry a tripod and wide angle, that’s plenty on an eight mile hike. But for the Carmel locations, it was easy to take a range of lenses plus polarizer, neutral density filter, etc., because the locations were all so close. And Mark’s folks were serious about getting to a spot and thinking about composition and technique before shooting. What a concept.

So our 3 1/2 days on tour challenged me to constantly up my game. There really is nothing more useful to an enthusiast than a well-run photo tour regardless of your skill level.

Next Stage

End of photo tour, goodby hugs, contact info exchanged. Some folks going home, some continuing with the Mark Comon/Kim Weston class. Me doing a 3 day walkabout down the coast. I started that Thursday shooting Lovers Beach in Pacific Grove and then moved down-coast through Pebble Beach to Carmel.

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I got to Lovers Beach early enough that the Peninsula was still locked in fog. That gave the coast the sense of moody abstraction that is a hallmark of the area.

For Lovers Beach, I decided to do one of my walkabouts. My walkabout approach has certain rules:

  • Behave as I would on a professional shoot
  • Follow (as much as possible) my creative intuitions
  • Shoot in close to real time
  • Attend to the changing dynamics of nature (waves, wind, tides, light) on a moment-to-moment basis
  • Ride my camera setting as situations change
  • See the composition, then shoot, then analyze the result and make adjustments
  • Document how the human element engages with Nature

Some of these creative adjustments are standard for any good enthusiast. But I like to remind myself of these ideals so my internal computer is running the latest software for that shoot location.

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My Lovers Beach walkabout got me totally stoked and I felt good about the whole session. The approach also allowed me to stay in the creative zone for two hours straight with an occasional break to snack and hydrate and remind myself to listen.

After that there was time to wander through Pacific Grove and then shoot along the western beaches, mostly Asilomar. I ended the day by doing the 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach. That part was decidedly underwhelming.

Heading down the coast

The rest of my time was spent further down the road, in heart of Big Sur and the lower Central Coast. The coastline that Hwy. 1 follows is (if taken as a whole) one of the richest eco-systems in North America. But like a glacier, much of this natural dynamism is found below the surface. The crustaceans and endless kelp fields, fishes and happy otters flow through the coves of the coast.

I’ve gotten some decent photos from the pull-offs along the way. But I didn’t see this road trip as the national treasure it is. (And really, why doesn’t our country have road trips that are designated national treasures?)

And as I mentioned above, I choose to treat each pull-off as a potential shoot rather than just jump out of the car, take a few shots and drive to the next spot. Some spots weren’t worth more than a look-see. But it takes only 5 or 10 minutes to gauge a place and take in that vista. And, if the location warrants, I would go through a full analysis of what I liked about the place, which shot location would be the best starting point, and begin to explore compositions.

Several spots in the Big Sur part of the coast were a creative goldmine given the gray morning and sea mist.

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The Cayucos location was one spot that I’ve never noticed before that I totally loved. I spent over an hour there.

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Thoughts on Shooting

Because anyone who’s into road trips or photography (or is a poet at heart) can take this creative guide for their own purpose, spend a weekend or a month in this place. I don’t think anyone needs to be a photo enthusiast to visit this spot. But having a creative path to follow helps.  Whether you are poet, painter or photographer,  breathing in the Highway 1 locations can act like a Walden experience for creative exploration.

Here are a few steps I take at locations along the road to get me into the creative mind:

Don’t fight tourists. Don’t even think of doing the drive on a weekend in summer. You might as well be driving up to Malibu on PCH. Go for a week during the off-season. The nay-sayers would say, “But there’s never an off-season for the Central Coast. You can have traffic jams in November.” True. But on weekdays between November and the end of April, you can find relative seclusion. And for many photographers, a great shot of the rough cliffs in fog is worth ten picture postcard days in July.

Forget the destination. So, you’ve reserved a place to lay your head; you’ve booked that in advance. And once you’re settled in Cambria, Big Sur, Pacific Grove, etc., make the decision to forget the time and simply follow your instincts.

Breathe in, don’t drive.  Yes, you will drive to one destination or another, this is a road trip. But spend 90% of the time at a place. Pull over when intuition tells you. Take that spot in. Walk into nature, see if that little pull-off or park can intrigue. If you’re just getting a few snaps at one stop and the next, you’re doing something wrong.

The cliffs and seascapes unwrap over a hundred miles of two-lane. The trick is minimize the driving and maximize the creative silence. And that really isn’t so hard to do if you cover the area in a week rather than two days.

Plant yourself for longer periods if you can. Thoreau spent a year at Walden, just aligning himself with the seasons. Henry Miller didn’t do drive-by work, he made that a home base and turned the experience into a book. Edward Weston photographed Point Lobos State Reserve time and again over the years. He was at one beach there so often, they named it after him.

So forget about spending hours driving while your on the Central Coast. Drive for half an hour to Julia Pfeiffer State Beach. Go before the crowds hit and figure on spending a few hours. Realize that if it’s a Tuesday morning in March photograph, that beach waterfall will be all yours.

Learn to see the physical and artistic dynamics of each location. There are plenty of places with cool landscapes. But few mountain or desert vistas allow you to see the presence of Nature this intimately, viscerally. These parks and pull-offs are ocean ecosystems. They change moment-to-moment. And for photographers, that means that your composition is going to change each second. The ocean blasts itself against a cliff face, a flock of heron winds it’s way past, the fog gives way.

Seeing the Shooting Dynamics of Sur

The coves along this road are physics in pure form. The moon pulls at the ocean, the cliffs slowly erode, fog rises, the light filters in, and below the waves, the eco-system goes with the flow. It’s your job as an artist to plant yourself in the midst of that, to frame these impulses of matter and energy into composition.

For me, it helps to think I’m standing there right at the center of a spinning merry-go-round composing the perfect alignment of wooden horse and child. The whole picture is in constant motion. You can’t control that. But you can set your tripod so as to frame the spinning wheel or ocean and cliff in a way that pleases you — knowing the various elements of wave and wind will repeat now and again. And you’ll be ready.

That’s really all you can do, prepare yourself and then improvise. And that’s just what the pros do, set up at a good spot, crank off several images to cover the possibilities, then recompose.  And in one of those shots, a sea otter will be perfectly happy coasting along the curve of that next wave. Here’s a bit of my interior thought process when I’m out.

OK. Why does this spot appeal? … How do I frame it … and what are the elements I want to include anyway? Yeah, I want to align these two massive structures in my foreground, I want that distant cove as background, ..maybe go a bit higher there. Let’s get the timing right when that wave hits… maybe if I slow down the shutter speed it will heighten the impact. Guess I need to use my neutral density filter. …Let’s frame it tighter so there’s no clutter.

These are the kinds of things that take you on a creative journey. It’s all process for the photographer and it’s all physics — and composition.

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