In Northern California we're blessed not just with beautiful scenery, but also with an amazing variety of beautiful scenery. Mountains, ocean, and desert are all within a few hours drive of my home. On the coast Big Sur gets lots of justifiable attention, but no less spectacular is the coastline north of San Francisco to the Oregon border (and beyond). The entire length of this breathtaking land/sea interface, skirted by the twisting and often precarious Highway 1, offers an endless assortment of photogenic cliffs, coves, and beaches.
Familiarity is a significant factor in consistent photographic success, and because I don't spend as much time on the coast as I do in the mountains, it sometimes takes me a while to feel comfortable photographically there. I sometimes find myself overwhelmed by the crashing surf and unobstructed vistas, loosing sight of the details that make a coastal scene special. (It's a good lesson for me, as I imagine it's similar to the way my workshop students feel the first time they try to photograph Yosemite.) When I return from Big Sur or the Northern California coast I'm often disappointed by the volume of "merely" pretty pictures that nevertheless lack that elusive quality that makes them stand out from all the other pretty Pacific Coast pictures.
On recent trips to the coast I've made an effort to identify and capture the qualities that most appeal to me. The violent collision of surf and sand and the defiant rocks are obvious places to start. Another quality that excites me anywhere, and that is made particularly dramatic by the unobstructed ocean horizon, is the vivid color marking the transition between day and night.
My brother and I planned this trip with these elements in mind, and timed it for a crescent moon that would set shortly after sunset. We started with sunrise on the Marin Headlands, photographing the Golden Gate Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background. The next stop was the coastal redwoods of Muir Woods, and then on to Point Reyes National Seashore. We meandered up the coast with no particular destination in mind, stopping at whatever scene struck our fancy, before finally ending up at sunset here at Shell Beach, north of Bodega Bay.
This was the first time I'd been here, but I knew immediately it had everything I was looking for. Unfortunately, there was nothing happening in the sky to make for an interesting sunset, so we shot a bit and waited for the moon. As the daylight faded, the moon's thin crescent materialized in the electric, post-sunset color. There was still enough light to reveal ample detail in the shadowed beach, rock, and surf, but photographing the scene required me to choose between the colorful highlights or the textured shadows.
Opting for the highlights required me to render the shadows as silhouettes; I found these rocks and positioned them against the lighter ocean and sky, then metered on the brightest part of the sky, choosing exposure settings that would retain the color. That took care of the rocks, twilight color, and moon, but what about the surf? I quickly realized that an occasional wave would strike the rocks with the combination of size and angle of attack that caused a skyward explosion. I dropped my tripod to sand level, composed my frame, and waited for my wave.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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