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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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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Final Images from Carmel Trip

And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.
Fern Hill

I’m finally finishing up Lightroom work for my trip to Carmel and Big Sur. These were’t part of the photo tour, just stuff I discovered when I returned to shoot locations we had covered on the tour (or with the Carmel Beach images, the beach just down from my little hotel).

Carmel Beach, Morning

The misty morning thing is what Carmel seems to wake up to most mornings.

Even into late June, the mist gets thick on Carmel mornings. And like the Lovers Beach shoot, the mist adds an almost primal element, a sense of life being reborn.

Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill captures the feeling best:

And as I was green and carefree,
…In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,…

Morning Play

And nothing is as joyful as a golden retriever following the call of DNA.

Carmel Beach, Morning

I darkened the edges of this to pull out the deeper shape.

One final image from Pacific Grove, taken in the late morning light.

Pacific Grove, Asilomar State Beach

I set shutter speed a bit low for this one, 1/50, so I could get some wave motion blur. Somehow that gives the scene a more visceral edge. Slowing the waves down more seemed too much, pulling focus from the rest of the scene.

Photo Improv: Lovers Beach

Each time you take your camera to a spot, you look at that place with certain conscious (or unconscious) goals. You want to show what a place looks like, show the folks back home where you visited, or maybe trying to collect a few artful images. For this visit to Pacific Grove, my goal was to photograph the life of this place in an almost stream of consciousness mode, a kind of improv on one spot from multiple points of view.

During the previous days I had been doing a photo tour of the Monterey Peninsula with a bunch of other photo enthusiasts. At those locations, we had been fairly rigorous: bringing tripod, cable release and a range of lenses, weighing what worked and what didn’t. Mark Common, our leader, encouraged the group to look for unique image possibilities and follow composition best practices.

So with the class over, I wanted to keep that kind of rigor but work more on-the-fly without the tripod to slow things down. So for the next hour or so, I tried to keep one eye on good composition and the other on capturing the spontaneous moments of this popular beach in Pacific Grove.

The mistiness of the beach got me thinking of how the rocks and sea worked as abstraction, like a Zen garden in water.

Seagull, Lovers Beach

Capturing a seagull at just the right moment is pure chance. But taking a lot of shots helps to even the odds.

Juxtaposing two design elements creates abstraction. The curvature of this wall gets emphasized when I went wide angle.

Going abstract

The wall creates two design planes.

Improv with People

Adding people to the mix still requires an awareness of abstract composition. But people also have a habit of engaging with each other in ways that are telling. So I try to use layout to tell the story.

Lovers Beach

Being girls and boys

Swimmers, Lovers Beach

Something about this woman looking out at the swimmers appealed to me.

Two Friends, Lovers Beach

Mother and child, two friends on a wall, smiling for the camera, composition as relationship.

Photo Opp

Meta photography

After over an hour I had 300+ shots, an improv on the life of a beach. It was a fun exercise, part landscape, part street photography. Kinda like real life.

Lovers Beach, a different angle

Carmel Sunset

Before my recent Monterey Peninsula photo tour, I spent the evening down at the Carmel city beach. The town spreads out like an amphitheater around the beach and mostly gets used by residents once the tourist influx leaves in late afternoon. By sunset, folks are walking their dogs or taking in the view.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach

The Golden Hour. I believe the house on the cliff was designed by a son of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Carmel Beach, Sunset

I perched on this rock for a while just breathing in the moment. There was a guy from Switzerland (who lives in Australia), we chatted as the sun headed lower.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach

The last peek of the sun pulled me off my rocky perch. By this point in the evening the color palette gets simple, yellow-orange and deep blue. So I began to play more with color and shape.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach

Head uphill above the beach and you get a more expansive moment.


Here’s another variation of the shot — more zoomed in to make the pool of water in the foreground the center of attention.

Carmel Beach, Sunset

Carmel Beach

The shot of the surfer taken after sunset is even simpler.

Carmel Beach

Surfer, Carmel Beach


Putting the Composition Elements Together

In my previous post I talked about the idea that a photographer should start out at a new photo location by looking at the deeper visual elements that will make an exciting image. Foreground and background elements, leading lines — all the physical structures of a place need to be recognized and then framed, adjusted (by adjusting your position or zooming), and shaped into a composition.

Here’s some shots I took at a recent trip to the Monterey Peninsula that show someone adjusting the composition elements for effect. Most of these are just jpgs out of the camera.

1. A classic shot as the eye might see Garapata.

Garapata State Beach

Garapata State Beach, 47mm, 1/125 sec, f/9

The foreground flowers  and curve of the coast line frame the sea and the main rock formations line up in the distance.

2. Wide angle version.

Garapata State Beach

Garapata State Beach, 24mm, f/14, 1/125

In wide angle, the foreground takes precedence and the rocky pillars seem too far off. Also notice that the two large rocks in mid-ground have more visual overlap, that’s not ideal.

3. Changing the foreground element, emphasizing wave impact.

Garapata State Beach

Garapata State Beach, 70mm, f/22, 1/8

Here the foreground element on the left leads the eye in with help from the crashing wave.    And with the extra zoom makes the massive rocks the center of attention. I’ve also slowed the shutter speed a lot. It gives the wave crest more motion and the crash of waves against the rocks has a more visceral feel.

4. Emphasizing the impact moment.

Garrapata State Beach, First Morning

Garapata State Beach, 96mm, .8sec., f/22

Here I’ve zoomed in big time. These two rocks have become foreground and the two sets of rock that are further back are closer. But the main visual you notice now is the motion blur of crashing waves. In fact, at .8 sec of shutter speed, the entire sea is like a boiling caldron.  And if I hadn’t been using a tripod with a cable release,  the rocks and coastline would have been a blur as well. Note: getting shutter speed this slow during the day requires a neutral density filter, a closed down aperture (f/22 here) and low ISO.

5. Going for balance.

Garapata Beach

Garapata Beach, 79mm, f/9, 1/640 sec.

The slow shutter speed in #4 is an exciting look but may emphasize the turbulent wave action a bit too much. So much of the frame is a blur that the viewer may not appreciate the full landscape.

Here, we’re keeping two massive foreground rocks close enough to anchor the frame. And the wave crash has lots of drama. But the rest of the frame has lots of visual elements to keep the eye exploring. Of course, I’m not sure which version I like best. Each has a mood all it’s own. But I’ve played with the dynamics of foreground, layout, composition and shutter speed. And I have some decent stuff to choose from.

Learning to See

The Bear Woods article (below) gives some good insights on seeing the  main visual “elements” of your shot location. (And if you are into landscape photos, Bear Woods is a good blog to follow.)

The scene you’re looking at when you’re out in nature is just a blank canvas until you see it in terms of elements in a composition. Because until you can see a visual dynamic between the design pieces, you can’t frame it. You can’t put stuff together into a composition.

And that’s what you’re doing out there, shooting on a Sunday afternoon, breaking a landscape spot you’re in the midst of into its visual components. And then seeing them whole through your viewfinder. That’s what you do when looking for a foreground element or using the Rule of Thirds.

That foreground bush is an element. A waterfall in the distance, that’s another element to pull into the final composition.

Mission Church in Carmel

Mission Church in Carmel. Chandeliers, alter area, pews, holy water in a large metal bowl… reflection of the chandelier in the water


So once I see the scene as elements, I can adjust my framing to pull those elements into a dynamic arrangement, a little visual engine that’s called a photo.

Below, one of my fellow photographers was playing with this location at Point Lobos and I joined her. The location had several elements that I found enticing, the stone steps leading up to a twisted cedar, a wall of stone and flowers, a tangle of branches and a flash of sunlight.

I spent quite a while getting the framing and angle right. Later in Lightroom, I  adjusted each of the elements separately: darkening the scene locally, adding contrast to the light fall on the steps, lightening and adding clarity to the signature tree and pulling out the textures in the wall of stone on the left. Lightroom helped fix lots of light issues here (you need to when shooting into the sun). But I needed to see the elements first.

Evening, Point Lobos, Cypress Cove

Point Lobos State Reserve

I can’t control everything at a shoot location. But I can’t control anything if I haven’t started seeing the elements. And as I engage with the location, framing, moving here or there in order to fine tune the visual elements, I discover more about how all the pieces fit together.

Maybe I can’t make the composition work. That happens a lot. Maybe I can get the elements to sing. If nothing else, I’ve provided myself with an enjoyable afternoon.


Seals, Sunset, Moonstone Beach

Bear Woods Happenings

Secret Canyon 071016h copy

Learning to See.
When I am out photographing or for that matter teaching, I study the elements in front of me. I talk to my students and try and get them to identify a subject and other elements within an area. I emphasize the idea of studying the relationship of the elements and how they compliment or contrast the subject. In short, I teach them to “See” a scene. Tunnel vision is something that can block a composition quickly, so I like to start wide and work down or start tight and work out. In doing so, you see lines and shapes that form patterns to help complete your vision. That is another reason I love photographing in the slot canyons, you learn to see and how things can flow to or away from your subject.
Tamron SP 15-30mm f2.8 Di VC USD lens on a Canon 5Diii…

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