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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Final Central Coast

IMG_7774 (1)

Moonstone Beach morning

My final day involved some early-ish morning shots at Moonstone Beach, the Central Coast mood is best when the mists are all thick. Then, after picking up an exquisite coffee cake from Linn’s Bakery in, driving (and stopping) and driving home to LA.

The coast from Cambria to Morro isn’t as dramatic as the wilds of Big Sur. But there are unique photo spots here if you keep your eyes open. And that’s what photography is after all, open eyes.

Shoot Location, Just North of Cayucos

In fact, a few miles south of Cambria, I noticed a large car pull-off area. I had planned to spend an hour or two exploring new photo spots in this section of coast. And this pull-off had a long apron of dry grassland leading down to a beach. Suddenly there’s an adventure.

For those interested in this spot, the pull-off is about a mile north of Caucus, and right at the “Welcome to Cayucos” sign:


Here’s the street level view:

At Welcome to Cayucos Sign, a surfer spot

A pleasant morning on the Central Coast. No place you have to be. And the thought comes, let’s see this place fresh, as photographer with camera. I walked down the dirt steps and entered into the dry field.

Beach, Cayucos Sign Viewpoint

Just down from the pull-off

And at first you just want to breath in a place, get the smell of the grasses and the ocean spray. Listen to the insects in the grass. And if you’re in the moment, you may  even sit down in the grass and take it all in. Why not.

Beach, Cayucos Sign Viewpoint

Textures of grasses

Walking the field, you start to see what makes Cayucos Point appealing.

Beach, Cayucos Sign Viewpoint

At Welcome to Cayucos Sign, a surfer spot

“Who are these men; what are they after,” the seals asked themselves.

Seals and Cormorants

After Cayucos, it’s just a short jump to get to Morro Bay and it’s famous rock. This pull-off on the north side is my favorite view of the rock.


Once you get to Morro Bay, the highway heads east to San Luis Obispo, past Pismo Beach, into wine country, west of Solvang, the mock Danish town, and all the way home.

Bay North of Gaviota

The unusual step architecture of the rock beach attracted me. I decided to go abstract.

Lower Central Coast: San Simeon, Cambria

Once you leave the highlands of Big Sur, the highway eases its way into flood plane and the eastern hills soften. The light is thick golden syrup, the hills rusty gold, the ocean deep, deep blue. This is the Alice in Wonderland that is San Simeon, the Hearst Castle. But our focus remains the lovely shot locations available on the coast.

Just another unmarked pull-off. It was a bit north of the elephant seal sanctuary and San Simeon. This is the classic  landscape of the lower Central Coast. For this image, I was drawn to the mossy rocks in the foreground and the surf — and seagulls huddling away from the blasting wind.


Just trying to stay warm

By 7:30 the wind is so penetrating that tourists are stopping at the elephant seal sanctuary, getting a shot or two and jumping back into the car.

The shots below are taken from just south of the San Simeon turnoff. A windsurfer would say that the wind is blasting. But no one should be out with this much wind at low tide.


Elephant Seals to San Simeon to Moonstone,  Cambia

The Golden Light is something the gulls can appreciate.

Elephant Seals to San Simeon to Moonstone,  Cambia

Moonstone Beach, Cambria

Moonstone Beach, west of Cambria, is a treasure most tourists don’t find. It’s a great spot to catch the sunset. And having 30 mph winds only adds to the appeal.

Elephant Seals to San Simeon to Moonstone,  Cambia

Elephant Seals to San Simeon to Moonstone,  Cambia

OK. How can I not use the cute seal shot. Who cares what the New York art establishment thinks anyway.

And just above the heads of our two seal buddies, the sunset goes on. Not sure why a sunset would distort the sun this way but it’s a nice effect.

Elephant Seals to San Simeon to Moonstone,  Cambia

San Simeon

And while we’re here, lets take a peak at Hearst Castle. What a strange treasure: the grounds, the banquet hall and pool, the art culled from around the world, and the house that kept being built and rebuilt. And ultimately, the sinful side of San Simeon with 1930s Hollywood coming up to party and copulate with their own kind — like an American version of the upper classes going to a country house for a hunting and shooting weekend.

Hearst is worth a day or two at if your photographic proclivities run towards Old School opulence. Below, the unwashed masses confront Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.



Next: A Final Look at Central Coast

Hidden Sur II

Big Sur can be dark and dangerous when dank weather settles in. You get the thick fog hovering, giving a desolate feel to the high cliffs.  On a sunny day, it’s all smiling beaches and seascapes. The beach at Point Sur Lighthouse is a bit of both.


This spot is about 15 miles south of Bixby Bridge. An impossibly desolate beach, some of the most desirable real estate on the California coast. One technical note: Set up the composition but time the shutter to sync with the lighthouse light’s rotation.

Just down the road, I noticed this view. No real stop. This one, just past the lighthouse to the south, was a good reminder to me of the possibilities of black and white.

This is about a mile before the lighthouse where the Little Sur River flows in. But we’re not through with the  big-shouldered cliffs as we head south.

Just past Nepenthe restaurant the cliffs are high enough so you can view almost forever. Can you see Morro Rock and Santa Barbara down there? No. But the Henry Miller library and bookstore is just down the road. Even this remote section of the state has literary history. Henry Miller wrote a book about Big Sur as did Kerouac and you can feel that boundary breaking mojo at the library (and spiritual home) of Miller.

Afternoon, Big Sur from Below Pfeiffer State Park to San Simeon

This shot was made at 2:45. Not always a great time to shoot. But having the sun lighting up the fierce blue ocean never tires.

Normally we’d stop at Julia Pfeiffer State Park, about an hour south of this. But on a Friday in late June, that park is like the 405 on a Friday. So we keep going. South towards our next stop, San Simeon. Or at least the motels just south of there.


But there’s still a bit of cliff we can use to get a classic Sur photograph. This spot isn’t on the maps either, just a pull-off towards the end of the mystery coast.

A more wide angle pic of the same section of road:


Next stop: San Simeon, Cambria, points south


Big Sur: Undiscovered Land

Most folks think of Big Sur as an endless drive with one knockout view after another. True. But that’s also the road tripper’s mistake. Because the road between Cambria and Carmel is too long and too congested to work as a one-day trip — at least if you want to enjoy the experience. Push too hard on Route 1 and one pull-off blends into the next and everyone wishes the hotel was closer.

Too many folks rush through Sur in a day, which is unfortunate given the number of great photo locations. And I’ve decided that if I’m doing the Big Sur road trip, I’ll take at least 3 days — and I may just plant myself in a motel or two on the route for most of a week. That’s how you start to appreciate the quirky weather and the moods of the place.

The point is, I know I need to treat these Big Sur locations with the same same respect as the iconic National Park spots. Sur is at that same level, like a national park spread over a hundred miles of pristine coast.

The Dark Sea

Below Garrapata, Above Bixby

Composition is landscape. And the landscape of Sur is broken down into bay and ocean, core eco-system and a horizon that goes forever.

Even on a summer day, the Big Sur coast can get dark and moody when blanketed in fog. This is a rough coast, Jack London seas, dense ocean life, crashing waves. And the dank, cloudy underbelly of Sur is as much the place as the sunny coast and blue ocean are.

Bixby to above Pfeiffer State Beach

I spend some thought on how much of the coastline to pull in, while using that path down as foreground element.

In fact, the more forboding weather seems to capture the raw muscle of Big Sur more than the pretty shots.

But Big Sur does the sunny face equally well. And a summer day here displays a primal beauty that seems an impossibility in a piece of coastline between two of the most populous cities. You see these overlooks and wonder how this coast managed to escape the endless building glut and the restless minions.

Bixby to above Pfeiffer State Beach

The curve of bay, rock outcrops like repeating patterns, foreground and background, the same compositional rules apply.

This image, all the images in this post, were taken from standard pull-offs from Route 1. You see no people below. You do notice the endless crowds blowing by you in their late model car or truck. A few people may slow down to see if you’ve found a good view, but they take a few phone shots and are gone.

Most tourists don’t stop that often except at the big name stops, the state parks and beaches, the restaurant or country store or  place like Bixby Bridge. But take in the no-name location, treat this or that pull-off as a full fledged photo shoot location and you can deliver great images.



This image is brother to the first shot of the blog post (above). But the ecosystem, the waves, wind, clarity in the air change from one moment to the next. So the way I handle each moment gets adjusted in Lightroom. In this image, the light in the upper third has sky-blue overtones. The foreground bay though is an angry green. So, more dark edge to the bottom 2/3 and a bit of negative Clarity and highlight in the upper third. Those adjustments take the eye onto a more complex journey.


Road Tripping Through Big Sur

Geographically Big Sur is just a wilder, more pristine extension of the Monterey Coast. But Big Sur is unique, one-of-a-kind, one of the great road trips in America. Yes, it can be a pain to drive, especially on summer weekends. But get past the quick pull-off and click mentality of most drivers, treat the different spots as the kick-ass photo locations they are, the trip becomes a feast for the photo enthusiast.

From the start of my Carmel photo tour, I had been planning to finish the time off by heading home down Highway 1 through Big Sur and the Central Coast instead of going the fast way, the 5 Freeway. So I spent two days driving the coast route, digging into locations I’ve shot before, but never fully experienced. My guess is I will be back soon for a longer stay. Big Sur is a visual feast.

Monterey Peninsula, Below Garrapata

This location, just a bit below Garrapata State Park, has the ecosystem of the Monterey Peninsula but the same cliffs you see further down in Big Sur.

The richness of the ecosystem has a lot to do with the tidal pool landscape. A spot like this one (below) is a perfect micro-system for plant, fish and animal life. I tried to capture that feeling visually by attending to the wave action as I timed my shots.

Monterey Peninsula, Below Garrapata

I noticed this spot (below) while driving down to Bixby Bridge with Mark Common and other folks on my Creative Academy photo tour. Mark pointed out a large field that slopes down to the sea just north of the bridge. He mentioned that this field of native grasses is used for car commercials that are going for the mythic California coast look. So I stopped on my way home for further exploration. (Thanks Mark.)

Below Garrapata, Above Bixby

Car Commercial Time… I used local adjustments in Lightroom to give a softer texture to the grassland and more Clarity to the harsh cliffs.

You can see Bixby Bridge in the distance. Here’s a variation on that theme.

Below Garrapata, Above Bixby

Both images are f/22. I wanted the whole DOF to be sharp. But this portrait mode image is at 300mm and uses the window in the sea cliff to anchor the image. I shot several of this view but went with the one that has the seagulls riding the ocean breeze.

Bixby Bridge and Old Coast Road

Bixby Bridge from Old Coast Road

One of the classic Big Sur photo locations. This location is a left turn of Hwy 1 (when going south) onto Old Coast Road just before crossing the bridge. Another location choice is just to use the pull-off just right of the bridge. But this location gives a nice mix of foreground and background.

Next Installment: Entering the Wilds of Big Sur

Just below Bixby

Just south of Bixby Bridge, the Big Sur cliffs begin to dominate. And when the fog gets thick and cold, you feel you’ve entered the wild again.

%d bloggers like this: