A Visit to Point Lobos State Reserve

Point Lobos, just south of Carmel on Route 1, is one of the most popular of the California state parks. I visited the park last month with a photo tour that was run by Mark Common of Creative Academy. The mix of Monterey Cypress and the Central Coast eco-system is enticing. And every turn in the trail brings new overlooks to savor.

Our morning photo session started at Weston Beach, named after one of the legends of American photography, Edward Weston. Weston Beach is a tidal pool area filled with starfish, crabs and lots of stone pattern work — the kind of thing Weston liked to shoot.

After hassling a few crabs with my camera, I followed the trail east to Hidden Beach. The lighting at that time of morning was still great.

Point Lobos, Second Morning,

Just past Weston Beach

Further down the trail I saw this egret poking its head out. But he didn’t want to pose for long so this was the best shot I got.

Point Lobos, Second Morning

Egret, on way to China Cove

Going another half mile east took me to the Hidden Beach overlook. The place is like a living emerald. The challenge is to frame a small enough part of the scene so the image doesn’t get too busy.

Point Lobos, Second Morning,

Hidden Beach, Point Lobos State Reserve

Late Afternoon Shoot

By late afternoon (after a great lunch and some chill time) we were shooting along the Cypress Grove Trail. This northwestern section of park is home to one of the original stands of Monterey Cypress.

I framed the cypresses there with a twisted tree foreground element. Nothing fancy, just trying to capture the shapes and colors that make this area so enticing.

Evening, Point Lobos, Cypress Cove

Point Lobos State Reserve

The stone stairs and twisted cypress below were just around the corner. Here I’m using the stairs to lead the eye in to that wind-twisted tree.

Evening, Point Lobos, Cypress Cove

Point Lobos State Reserve

Putting a wind-swept tree into a composition with the rocky cove was hard to pass up. I took several shots here. But I found that putting too much of that twisted foreground into the composition muddled things up. I propped myself up higher so my shot angle keep these red branches from being intrusive.

Cypress Cove

Cypress Cove

I had some extra time after that trail and started on the North Shore Trail. The shot below, done from the other side of the peninsula was magical in the evening light. The immense cypresses are backlit by the golden glow and that warmth adds depth to the forest. I worked on the image a bit in LR to eliminate the worst of the light washing and add clarity to the gnarly branches.

Evening, Point Lobos, Cypress Cove

Point Lobos State Reserve

On the other side of the cove was my favorite, a huge cypress that played off the stretch of coastline.The challenge here was to use the tree to anchor the composition while giving enough room so the eye can stretch up coast.

Evening, Point Lobos, Cypress Cove

Ancient Cypress

Again, there was an issue with light bleed. I’m shooting directly into the sun. But by putting the sun behind the huge tree trunk, I found I could get nice backlighting of the tree branches and that stand of cypress on the other side of the cove. Even so, I had to do local adjustments to lighten or darken areas of the shot.

The final shot was of a plant that looked to be growing larvae. I have no idea what it’s called. But the shape was elegant, a study in pure form.

Mystery Plant

Mystery Plant, Point Lobos State Reserve

Point Lobos gets tons of visitors a day. But there are so many potential shot locations that you could spend a week having fun. It’s worth the visit if you’re in the Carmel area.

But one note. Once the park folks hit the allowed number of cars, no more cars can enter until another car leaves. This can happen by about noon, even in fall and spring. But since the park closes before sunset, the traffic going in slows down a bit.

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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