Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Don Smith enjoys photographing California's Big Sur coastline just for the beauty of it

The name Big Sur is an amalgamation of the Spanish El Sur Grande and its English translation, The Big South. The name refers to the spectacular cliffs, beaches and forests found along this magical route on the California coast. Veteran landscape photographer Don Smith likes to quote author Henry Miller's description of Big Sur as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world." "The entire coastline," says Don, "is generally defined as a magnificent 98-mile stretch of land and sea from Carmel to the north, to Cambria at the southern end. The famed Highway 1 is the main route that runs north to south. Although the entire route is considered a visual treat for the eye, my personal preference is the northern-most 37-mile stretch from Carmel River Beach to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This is where I concentrate the majority of my photography along with my photo workshops.

"No photo trip to Big Sur would be complete without a stop here at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to capture the 80-foot fresh-water McWay Fall as it spills into a turquoise-colored cove. Near winter solstice, one can actually include the sun setting into the Pacific as it lines up with the opening of the idyllic McWay Cove. "I used a 16mm lens with a Singh-Ray thin-mount LB Warming Polarizer and handheld my Singh-Ray 3-stop Darryl Benson Reverse ND Grad along with a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad to hold back the light on the vibrant sky. I was extremely pleased with the detail in the storm clouds as they served as a border to hold the eye in the frame. As the sun began to hit the horizon, I timed the waves and made my image.

"Moving 10 miles north up the coast from McWay Fall, one comes to another iconic winter scene – the famed Pfeiffer Portals located on Pfeiffer Beach. For roughly a two-month timeframe centered on Winter Solstice, one can capture beautiful shafts of warm light pouring through both arches if the horizon is clear during the last half-hour before the sun sets. Factors such as tides, swells and humidity all play a factor in creating the mist necessary for the shaft to appear, but when conditions are correct, the light is simply magical. "Though I make a yearly pilgrimage to photograph both arches, the main arch (seen above) is by far my favorite. This year I decided to use my Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo so I could achieve a mistier look to the water. I played with various settings but liked the result of this 20-second exposure. The built in polarizer allowed me to saturate the shaft of warm light as it streamed through the arch. My method of working with the Vari-N-Duo is a three-step process: compose the scene, turn the polarizer to achieve the look I desire, then carefully turn the ND ring while holding the polarizer ring with my index finger. Thanks to my LCD screen, I can now play with varying amounts on ND and judge the results instantly!

Because the coastline runs north/south and is bordered by the Santa Lucia mountain range to the east, finding strong sunrise locations is a challenge. North of the village of Big Sur is the lava-formed landmass known as Point Sur Light Station, which is still a functioning lighthouse (though now automated) that directs ships away from the treacherous rocks that make up this coastline.

"At dawn, I like to shoot from just off the highway at a pullout that places one in line with Point Sur looking down a magnificent stretch of coast. Winter and spring mornings are generally fog-free and can produce exquisite warm light as seen in this image. I used a Singh-Ray LB Polarizer coupled with a 2-stop soft-step ND Grad to balance this vibrant sky at dawn with the cobalt-colored Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse beacon rotates roughly once every 12 seconds and using a small aperture of f/16, I was able to achieve a starburst!

"Another location I really like for morning light is Sobranes Point, located near the northern end of Garapatta State Park. I had timed my winter workshop to coincide with a moonset at dawn and had my group on-location in near darkness to be ready to capture this scene. With the help of my Singh-Ray LB Polarizer, I simply waited for the ambient light to match the light of the moon and made this image in one frame. The magic happened when a vivid twilight wedge formed just above the setting moon and my LB Polarizer ensured that I would properly capture this warm light. Needless to say, breakfast tasted a whole lot better that morning!

"Lastly, no photo trip to Big Sur would be complete without a stop at Point Lobos State Reserve. Due to California State budget cutbacks, the famed Reserve now closes at 7pm year-round. That means that if you wish to photograph a sunset, the late-fall and winter months are your only chance.

"Before embarking on a trip to Point Lobos State Reserve, I always check my tide chart app. On the evening this image was made, my app (TideGraph for iPhone) told me I would experience a negative 1.5-foot tide. With this information, I took my workshop group to Weston Cove (named after the late Edward Weston). Walking around the cove is like searching through a treasure chest and I was lucky to spot this stray piece of kelp that had been deposited on this rock. To my surprise, a beautiful S-line (almost matching the same shape formed by the kelp) took my eye past colorful algae-covered rocks and to the sunset sky that I controlled with the help of my Singh-Ray 3-stop hard-step ND Grad filter. I used a 24mm Tilt/Shift (fitted with a Singh-Ray thin-mount LB Polarizer) to carefully place focus on the rock and kelp while gradually allowing the rest of the scene to fade to softness. I patiently waited for the setting sun to illuminate the kelp and recorded my image!

"Though colorful sunrises and sunsets are common during the winter and spring months, Big Sur should be experienced in all seasons. The summer months add the drama and soft light of fog. Regardless of the season, Big Sur is a must-see for anyone serious about landscape photography. With the help of Singh-Ray filters, controlling the light and enhancing the already beautiful colors is a simple matter."

If you would like to experience the magic of Big Sur for yourself, Don will be holding his Spring Big Sur Workshop this March 7-10, or consider his Grand Canyon/Sedona/Page-Photo Workshop from April 23-27. He also offers his latest e-book, The Photographers Guide to the Big Sur Coast.
For more information, visit Don's website, like his Facebook page, or read his blog.