Seastacks and Smoke: A Photographer’s Journey in a Time of Plague

The idea for this journey began during our lockdown here in the South Bay.  I’m a professional landscape photographer that’s lived in the South Bay since ’99. I photograph everything from the tidal pools along the coast to Iceland and Europe to the National Parks. And during the lockdown, it was frustrating not having access to any of that.

So I concocted a photo escape plan once the lockdown ended. The photo road trip I had planned for May, to Scotland, was out. But there are plenty of iconic photo locations in the USA away from crowds where I could just be out in nature.

The obvious answer was the Pacific Northwest. Not hard to get to, minimum of logistical hassles, way  less Covid risk … and some of the best seascapes in America. So I took the two hour flight up to SeaTac and rented a car. And found myself in Forks, Washington, 20 miles from Olympic National Park and the sea stacks of Rialto Beach. Sweet. 


Rialto is towards the top of the Contiguous 48, where the peninsula juts out into the north Pacific. And from the Makah Indian Reservation down to below La Push, on the Quileute Tribal Reservation, you’ll find one mythic seascape after another. These are the crown jewels of Olympic NP. … Sadly, several of the iconic beach locations were closed because of the lockdown. But Rialto Beach was open — and glorious.

With over a mile of thick sand and massive bleached tree trunk, Rialto is big. Hike north a mile, you come upon a couple of hulking sea stacks. They’re practically joined at the hips, have been for a millennium or two, and almost have personalities. If they were in Iceland, it would be the old troll sisters frozen at sunrise. I laid my pack and camera on an old tree trunk, open up the tripod and took it all in.

Sea Stacks at Sunset, Rialto Beach
Rialto Beach is one of the crown jewels of of the Northwest. And on this evening, the troll-like monoliths were like amber in the diminishing light. 3.2 sec exposure

The shot. I got to Rialto just before sunset so I was working quite fast. The composition wasn’t hard to see, side-by-side monoliths leading the eye towards distant rocks and that final sunset glow. Basically a foreground-midground-background shot. I shot it a bit dark so as not to blow out the sky. For photo techies, my settings were f10, ISO 100, 3.2 sec. That long exposure smoothed out the surf and helped evoke the mythic nature of the place.

My post style. This image has a different feel from most of the photos on Instagram or Facebook. That’s partly because of my post production (Photoshop, Lightroom) choices. The great challenge for landscape photographers is dynamic range. No camera can “see” the sun and deep shadows at the same time, not like the eyes. So to capture the full range of nature, we shoot Raw. Then use the software tools to pull out shadow texture, save sky colors that have been blown out, any anything else you can imagine.

Each person uses these algorithmic tools in their own ways (as do the phone makers). The style I’ve developed is definitely my own. It’s a style that feels heightened in some ways, more 3D than that flat camera look. It gets called painterly. Which is partly because painters use the same techniques if they want to create depth and a more subjective reality.

These images push beyond the 2D camera version of reality because human eyes and brains see and feel nature differently. Because I want the viewer to be immersed in an art photograph as if they were there.

The Troll Sisters of Rialto Beach, Olympic NP

Each artist makes post production choices. Even the guy who gets the file out of camera and goes straight to PRINT is making a choice. So I use the Raw file as if it were a symphonic score that comes alive once it’s played. I don’t add stuff that isn’t there at pixel level. I do eliminate junk from the picture (branches, a person or two, etc.) with Photoshop. I’m creating an art work, not doing photo journalism. So I touch each image as a photo painter, adding layers, creating an interior world using brushes Ansel Adams never imagined. This image is the Rialto Beach of my imagination, not Canon’s.

Cannon Beach. Next stop on my photo tour was northern Cannon Beach in northern Oregon. This little beach town, just off the coastal 101, seems carved out of the forest. It’s 1 1/2 hours west of Portland and about half the size of Carmel. Cannon isn’t old money and high art like Carmel but with lots of BnBs and restaurants, it’s got tons of charm. The eastern edge of the beach has friends and families huddled around the fire pits — giving the beach a hickory smell and sense of community. And at low tide the waves slip over the wide beach like a liquid mirror of light.

Even in August there was an openness you can’t find in SoCal. The evening was cool and breezy and up beach, families and a young crowd was around the big fires that were set up. Other folks strolled out to the water’s edge to warm in the setting sun. A community savoring the sunset with no need for mask or worry.

Blue Hour, Cannon Beach
Footsteps on a mirror made of sunset,
With beachcombers suspended between Haystack Rock and the golden canopy.

Cannon Beach is a place of communion for the town, much like the South Bay beaches, but less populous.The entire state of Oregon has half the population of LA County. And as I traveled south, I kept marveling at the vast coastline and the lack of congestion. With so much seascape and dense forest, a morning walk can be a time for solitude.

Hug Point. So, once you leave Cannon heading south on Hwy 101, the human presence gives way to forest and ocean. And even just a mile south of Cannon on 101 puts you into the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest. The area from the Silver Point Overlook out to Hug Point is emblematic of the real coast, the part most folks never see except for from the road.

Until well into the 20th Century, the area around Hug Point was too densely forested to have a coastal road. So stagecoaches and early automobiles drove along this stretch of beach to cover ground. But at Hug Point a vehicle had to be careful, hug close to the cliff-edge, especially at high tide.

Morning, Silver Point Overlook — Hug Point in the distance.
A pale beaches along the Oregon coast provides a necessary solitude.

Landscape photography should be about mood, moment, the feeling one gets when out in nature. The experience of awe. It’s not a new feeling. Been around for thousands of years. The Romantic poets were serious practitioners of this, just look at Tinturn Abbey: “… on a wild secluded scene impress/Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect/The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”

This feeling is everywhere in the art world. It’s an idea embodied by the Hudson River School (long before Ansel) … and ancient Taoist landscape painters. I loved both of those styles of painting when I was growing up. The Hudson River School because they had those majestic paintings of Yosemite and the Sierras. The Chinese pen and ink painters because they could evoke that sense of awe-in-nature so purely with washes of black ink on white paper.

And this image of Hug Point is like my take on a Chinese landscape pen and ink. It’s a mood. A woman walking a vast expanse of beach on an overcast morning. And what she’s thinking may not be too far removed from that of the Taoist monk immersed in a mountain scene. A walk on the beach as a meditation. An image can evoke the awe just as surely as Wordsworth.

Cape Kiwanda. The Cape Kiwanda Natural Area is a large sandstone peninsula on the outskirts of Pacific City, a town of a thousand. It’s not much of a city. It’s got motels, a handful or restaurants, a craft brewery, grocery store, no pharmacy but two cannabis dispensaries.

When I’m doing a photo road trip part of my MO is to target points of particular interest and stay as close as possible to my landscape shot locations. I stayed in Pacific City for two nights just because of Cape Kiwanda. Much of the Oregon Coast has an igneous origin. The Kiwanda sandstone bluffs have been shaped into natural sculptures by the waves and I spent hours wandering there.

Cape Kiwanda Sunset

For the image above, I found a high point in the cliffs and use the thrust of the cliffs as a leading line with Haystack Rock in the distance. On the top left you can see sunset worshippers perched atop the cliffs. I used my 16-35mm lens to capture the vastness of it. I tried a long exposure but a faster shutter speed (1/200th) better captured the dynamism of high wind and big waves.

A Hidden Beach, Cape Kiwanda
To the north, whispers of clouds get pushed on the wind.

Just north of the first image, I hopped the fence and came to the end of Cape Kiwanda. I used the Kiwanda cliffs to frame the distant beach. Since it was Golden Hour, the side lighting brought out the shape of the cliffs. And in post I brought out the sandstone texture and the softness of the forest and clouds beyond. The result is that the eye goes on a journey — from the warm light and texture of the cliff to the waves and pastel beach to clouds and distant hills. It’s a photograph the eye can get lost in.

One of my watercolorist friends thought this image was a pastel at first. And with an image like this one, it’s not hard to bend the visual notes in the direction of pastel or watercolor — links like how a blues harpist might bend a note. But somehow, when I mix the painterly textures with a camera’s high def imaging, the imagination starts to take over.

Thor’s Well. Yachats, Oregon, midway down the coast, was my next stop. It’s a bit larger than Pacific City and had a couple of must-see shot locations — Thor’s Well being the most challenging. Every photograph has challenges — lighting, composition, shutter speed, logistics, etc. And a tidal pool like Thor’s Well is particularly complicated.

The first hurdle is that the Well only works its magic at high tide. You need to have waves flowing over the high rocks, down into the “well” and out again through the lava tube. No high tide, no show. I knew that early on, I’d called the state park rangers before my trip. Thor’s Well also has the usual challenges, you need to be there when the light is good, i.e. at sunset. It also helps to have nice clouds and a slower shutter speed to capture the excitement of the flowing water. And when I got to Yachats, I didn’t have any of that.

The tides weren’t cooperating, there was nothing I could do. I still scouted the spot, figured out the best way to capture the Well. I hiked some trails, photographed the Hecate Lighthouse which is 15 miles further south. But I didn’t have any captures of the well to share. And after two days, I drove south to Bandon Beach, my next stop. The next evening, I did the two hour drive back up to Thor’s Well when the tides and light were more cooperative.

Hecate Head Lighthouse. Here in the South Bay, we have three lighthouses, Point Vicente, Point Fermin and Angels Gate. The lighthouse at Point Fermin is my fave partly because of the lovely garden, partly that there’s the whole “house” part where the keeper lived. I also live just up the hill, so I like that.

The one at Hecate is different, esp. in how it connects with the tough Oregon coastline. That’s one thing about lighthouses, they have a job beyond their lives as calendar photos. And the Pacific Northwest has always been a hard coastline for ships, particularly in winter. Just look at images of Cape Disappointment on Instagram or 500px.

Heceta looks out over forest and cliff. And just below Hecate is a mountainous island that the waves point against.

Hecate Head, A Light on the Oregon Coast

The shot. This image is all about composition and context. This location needed for me see I needed to climb up the hill behind the lighthouse. To get that visual alignment of glowing lighthouse light, rocky island and distant coast. The lineup is almost mathematical, almost Zen. And you get a boost of adrenalin when you’re standing in the right spot.

Post. Basically, you can’t shoot in Raw without doing post. It’s a digital negative. Notice the rocky edges of the island and coast? The scent of Douglas Fir? How the fresnel bulb glows in the sunset, the effulgence of light along the right side. Those are all pulled out. And when you look at this image now, it seems obvious and right. And it’s the best approximation of how I saw it last August I could do.

But doing post is something like repairing a car. There’s lots of ways of seeing the problem and fixing it, but a very few of those ways will allow the car to run. I think this version of a Heceta Head sunset captures a piece of the sacred. … but

An evening in Bandon. Bandon Beach (like Cannon) was a place I could see living. Yes, the place gets 62 inches of rain a year. But that beach, wow. The town is charming as well with homes along the plateau above the beach. Half a mile north, old town Bandon. Shops, seafood places — all outdoors, a little bookstore, good pastry place, no boat tours now. But it’s August with a nice flow of visitors and the folks are making it work.

But the beach is the icing. It goes on forever with the big sea stacks sprinkled here and there, over a mile from Table Rock down to Haystack. You could get lost here on an August evening.

The Evening Show, Bandon Beach Overlook
A place like Bandon is a landscape photographer’s playground. The sea stacks, the tides, the changing light.
They’re all in motion. So, let’s play.

This was an easy shot to see. From the overlook, that set of monoliths is like an arrow to a sunset. The third leg of the triangle is the couple down at the bottom left rule of thirds point. And they’re tiny down there, visually. But she’s wearing turquoise blue. And their attention is the anchor point, the bow.

Evening at Bandon
What do you say?

Once you’re below the cliffs, you’re in a different universe. An occasional tourist, a photog with tripod. The birds own the beach now. The sea fans out on the smooth sand. … Being here’s not the same as shooting Iceland’s sea arch, Gatklettur in March at 4:30 am. You’re on a different ocean. It’s warmer, you can go barefoot. And you notice the sea birds flying up the beach with golden light dripping down from above. Art as experience.

Beach Painting #3
Rock, wave … light

To me every landscape image is pure physics, pure math; a rock mass, the pull of a wave, a painted sky — balance. Get this close to things and the simplicity of physics becomes clear.

Seagull Study, Bandon Beach
Sure, it’s tough to get seagulls to hit their marks. They can be bird brains. And just when you think they’ve got it, one idiot walks offstage.

By this point I was getting better at listening to the scene I was being given. And it didn’t hurt that I didn’t have all the footprints in the sand. That reminded me to see the beach as canvas — a canvas I wandered through until picture could emerge. And right about now I was taking in this chunk of rock and the seagulls ahead who really didn’t want to move for me. And I got that … and they were nicely in a line as they drifted into Blue Hour. And I stepped a bit to the right to make the most of that big swath of gold.

It was almost the end of Blue Hour when I left that night. Walking up all those steps, dragging my tripod. The camera was already stowed in my pack. And I noticed the reddish glow on the hill grasses and a sprinkling of flowers. And just behind me, the sky saying goodnight. So I pulled the camera out….

Blue Hour, Bandon
I didn’t see him at first — right there in the center of things. I’m not sure what he was thinking, the guy standing out on the ridge. Most folks were back home or a hotel by now. But there he was, floating in a haze of orange, ochre, blue.

Southern Oregon Coast. Driving 80 miles south of Bandon gets you to Brookings, Oregon, arguably the least developed (so most natural) section of the coast. But what a coastline. Meyers Creek Beach is a vast expanse of sand dunes, native grasses and sea stacks. A few miles further south are miles of hiking along the coastal cliffs and through dense forest. I spent three days there and couldn’t get enough of the high grasses and smell of spruce.

Sunset and Sand Dunes, Meyers Creek Beach

The Shot. When I first take in a location, one I’ve never been to, I do two things: 1. Look at what the light’s doing and 2. Figure out the key elements. I see if there’s an enticing foreground — maybe native grasses catching the warm sun. Then there’s how the creek cuts its way past the sunlit beach. And for a background, the sky with sea stacks. Once you’ve got the right ingredients, it’s just a question of giving each the room to breath.

Meyers Creek Beach #2
A curve of flowing water, a reflection of clouds.

Meyers Beach #2 was photographed 50 yards further north and 50 minutes later. But here I used the creek as a leading line and found a way to add the reflection. Just the big curve of quiet water gives a different feeling … of reflection.

Samuel Boardman Scenic Area. Drive ten miles south of Meyers Creek and the wide beaches give way to dense forests. There are numerous pull-outs along 101. Each stop links you to trails that overlook secret coves and stretch for miles. I spent a couple of days in Boardman and gave up trying to make sense of the landscape. I got lost several times which was OK because the overlooks were always amazing. Plus I knew I just had to walk up hill to get back to 101 and my car.

Secret Beach, Samuel Boardman SP
The smell of cedar at a spot overlooking Secret Beach.
Natural Bridges Viewpoint
The light is what makes this one — and that person walking the top edge of the sea bridge.
Arch Rock, Samuel Boardman Scenic Area

This spot, down from the Natural Bridges Viewpoint was a total discovery for me. An amazing view south along the coast and this

Last Stop, Sonoma Coast. I continued my road trip south on 101 through Northern California: Eureka, Mendocino, Gualala. By now I was running into way more tourists. Folks from further east trying to get away from the heat and the Covid risks of Sacramento, San Francisco or the wine country. And it’s amazing country that I need to explore further.

But my key landscape location in Northern California was the Sonoma Coast. The area around Jenner is a bit like the cliffs along Big Sur but with sea stacks. And I booked into a BnB in Jenner and gave myself two days to capture it. After I checked in and dumped my stuff, I scouted the best locations as the afternoon turned into an unusual Golden Hour.

Late Afternoon, Sonoma Coast State Park

By late afternoon, the wildfires to the east were getting noticeable — even when looking due south.

Picnic at the Overlook

To the north, the fire was more obvious but not too threatening. Though it had become a subject of picnic conversation.

An hour later, at sunset, those of us still out could see how unique the moment had become.

Sunset and Fire, Sonoma Coast at Jenner

By 8PM only a few folks were still at the park. But for the four folks with cameras, the feeling was you were capturing a historic news event — but the way a landscape artist does it — through composition and color. Capturing the moment was important in a different way.

As composition, this image has two leading lines. On the left, the trail through the grass leads the eye into a perfect sunset. And three photographers are capturing that moment. On the right, the rough Sonoma coastline leads the eye to the smoke that’s obliterating the sky — which the photogs are also capturing.

It’s a visual moment that is immensely beautiful — and on many levels, horrifying. These fires caused immense damage. They sent a wave of fear throughout California. The smoke stayed with us for a few months. People died. And both of these elements, sunset and fire, are essential cycles of life here in the West. Not that I knew all those ramifications when I captured this image.

Long Exposure, Last truck out of Jenner

With the sunset, I headed back to my room in Jenner. But before I did, I took a few more photos from the road in front of the motel. In the middle of that photo, a big F250 pickup truck drove by like a bat out of hell. Literally. When I got to my room I found a post-it note that said “Evacuation Order.” A couple of minutes later, a police cruiser drove by telling folks to leave town immediately.

I couldn’t see finding any other lodgings in the area, not at that point. So I got onto the Coast Hwy heading south towards San Francisco. I found a room at one of the airport hotels at about 11. The next day I drove home, the sky orange with smoke almost the entire way.


The Northwestern Coast, it turns out is even more than I imagined. Quiet dunes, sea stacks, waves painting pastel beaches, set up against old growth forest. It was just what the soul required. There were other tourists, mostly folks from Oregon or Washington, all coming to the coast to reestablish that primal connection to nature, color and the pursuit of good light.

Biographical Notes

I’ve had a wide ranging career. An MFA in theater, ten years of acting, and teaching theater, a move to the South Bay in 99 when I was doing web site marketing, content and product development — and the occasional SAG job. By the time I got to, I did all their photo work — portraits, event shooting there as well as my Product Mgt role. Moving to the South Bay also gave me access to the strong photo community here, and the Pauls Photo classes. And with my background in the arts, I did the same kind of serious training in photography and composition, Lightroom and Nik, location shooting, that I had done in my earlier acting, directing, play writing.

After came the two shooting Utah parks books. That led to my current approach, doing long three or four week photo tours, like the one I just did from Olympic NP down to Oregon and finally Sonoma. Previous photo tours, solo or with my wife, were in China, Monument Valley, Scotland, Canyon de Chelly, Rome and Venice, Iceland, Cinque Terre and Amalfi, etc., — and back here shooting the coast.

And these Northwest Pacific art pieces are the other side of the photo travel, the best 6 or 8 compositions that I will add to my web site, show at galleries, enter in contests and sometimes see in someone’s home. True, landscape photographers don’t support themselves just by selling their art. It’s called doing what you like … and doing it well.

With my background in acting, writing, and business, the photography has been the next step in artistic exploration. I love the process: shooting, shaping the image into art in post, and sharing of the work with like minded souls. Only the best get posed on Instagram or my local Facebook groups. I’ve done 8 or 10 shows locally, won awards (1st Place at the OC Photo Contest). Now I’m doing a holiday show of the Pacific Northwest work (plus some local faves) I’m calling Mythic Pacific. That’s weekends at Crafted in San Pedro at 112 E. 22nd St.

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