California is in the midst of the strangest winter I’ve ever experienced: a rainy season without a drop for nearly two months, daytime highs consistently in the sixties, and a virtually non-existent snowpack in the Sierra. January days in the Central Valley are usually wall-to-wall gray; nights are an opaque muck. But this year it’s been an endless cycle of blue skies and twinkling stars. Mornings have been just chilly enough to fool me into donning my winter flannel or wool; by noon I’m rummaging the back of the closet for a polo shirt I haven’t worn since October.
If I sound bitter about this eternal spring, it’s because I feel cheated–winter is for nature photographers. Not only does dramatic weather make great photography, winter’s frigid temperatures, biting wind, and monotonous rain drive the general public inside, leaving the landscape to us photographers. But this winter the most productive thing I’ve done so far is pack my camera off to Canon for some long postponed TLC. Sigh.
Okay, enough whining. Honestly, every photographer needs conditions to throw a curve from time to time, a reminder that nature photography isn’t all sunsets, rainbows, and shafting light. True creativity rarely comes when Mother Nature smacks you between the eyes with something spectacular, it’s usually best when she forces you outside your box to see the things you miss when the sky lights up or a rainbow arcs.
With that in mind, I head off to Big Sur to co-lead Don Smith’s winter workshop next week. The forecast is for more of the same, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I do about 80 percent of my photography in the mountains and foothills, so what better location to stretch myself than Big Sur–and what better conditions than blank skies?
Last year Don and I guided the group to Garrapata Beach for sunset. There’s a lot happening here and everyone quickly scattered–some stayed on the cliffs above, some moved up to the creek and calla lilies on the north end of the beach, and others stayed down among the rocks on the south end. To those who stayed near me, I demonstrated some shutter techniques to get different effects from the surf.
When it became clear that the sky wasn’t going to do anything special, I turned my attention to the sand and waves at my feet. To emphasize the textured sand, I opted for an extremely wide, vertical composition, using rocks protruding from the surf a couple of hundred yards distant to frame the upper portion the scene. The bland sky I relegated to a thin stripe at the extreme top of the frame. I decided that f16 gave gave me the best combination depth of field and minimal diffraction–a larger aperture would have risked loss of sharpness throughout the sand; a smaller aperture would have risked loss of sharpness due to diffraction.
When photographing waves, once I get my composition set I click many frames, carefully timing them for various effects. On this evening I added a variable neutral density filter, dialing in a variety of shutter speeds by adjusting the amount of light. Watching my LCD, I decided that my favorite effect was a one second (or so) exposure of a receding wave, and managed several frames like the one above.
I look at this image as the start of a process–it may very well never become particularly “successful” (whatever that means), but I learned a few things that I’m looking forward to applying next week. Stay tuned….