I know I talk all the time about how lucky I am to live where I do. I feel like a broken record when I say things like “as far as coastal photography it doesn’t get much better than Big Sur.” But it’s true and until someone yells at me, I’m probably going to keep saying it. Big Sur is great, I love it, I even wrote about how much I love it. But sometimes you can’t muster the energy to get yourself out of the house and drive 20 minutes down the road, amirite? Fortunately for me, the coast that happens to be a three-minute drive from my front door is also pretty dang neat too.
There is a stretch of coast on the pacific face of the Monterey Peninsula between Asilomar State Beach and Point Pinos Lighthouse that is about 1.5 miles long that I generally refer to as Asilomar. Is that the technical name? Maybe, I’m sure someone knows. Anyway, the coast here is pretty rocky with the occasional little sandy cove. Depending on the tide, waves, wind, cloud cover, time of day, the scenes can be dramatically different. Sometimes the coast looks so different from day to day that I forget where I have actually stopped to shoot (and there is only a half-dozen or so places to pull off). What I’m getting at here, is that Asilomar is a great place to practice coastal photography. It might not have the massive waves and amazing cliffs that Big Sur sports, but I love shooting here. It’s pretty much where I taught myself how to shoot the ocean after years of shooting in the mountains.
When I think of my photography there are three things that come to mind: composition, lighting, and aesthetics. The first two are what is required to actually make a photograph. You must point your camera at something interesting and it has to be lit. The third, aesthetics, is subjective. What is interesting to me, the artist? My definition may be different from yours but we both have a valid viewpoint. The combination of all three are required anytime you want to move beyond taking snapshots and start making art.
The thing about Asilomar that brings me back time and again is how different each day is and how the changes in light can be quite dramatic. It is also the thing that makes this location great when you want to try out new styles and techniques. On a calm day you can get something like this:
And on a windy day you can get something like this:
You can get a pretty standard sunset:
Or you can get an end-of-days type feel:
Keep in mind that every single one of those shots was taken within walking distance of the other. And while I do use some post processing to clean up the exposure and contrast, I generally don’t play with color too much. Side note: I do shoot in RAW format which means to actually get an image that is true to nature I need to do some post processing. Even if this weren’t art, RAW images come out of the camera pretty flat and need a contrast adjustment at bare minimum.
Up above I said that I pretty much learned how to shoot coastal scenes at Asilomar and that wasn’t hyperbole. I did live on the Atlantic coast for a while, so I had shot at the ocean before, but that was a long time ago (relatively speaking). When I first moved to this coast, I quickly learned that it was a completely different animal than the mountains. When it comes to composition, you have to change your perspective. When you shoot in the mountains, you always have something massive to anchor the top third of your shot. Case in point, not too much to worry about in the top half of this shot, Taylor Peak pretty much has you covered:
You don’t need to consider the horizon in nearly the same way as you do at the coast. If you aren’t careful when shooting the sea, you can end up with two-thirds of your image being flat and boring ocean/sky. I had to train myself to look down at the scene as opposed to looking up at scene. For instance, this shot has too much sky, fully half of the image is misty nothingness:
This shot, from literally the exact same location is just aimed down a bit and I find it to be a much stronger image:
Composing your image is very important but an equally important aspect is lighting. You can be looking at the most spectacular thing that ever existed but if the scene isn’t lit correctly your image could just end up being crap. I tend to shoot at Asilomar during sunset and since this is a west-facing location that can make lighting really tricky.
I think most people’s instinct when they see a pretty sunset is to stop and shoot directly into it. That kind of makes sense and I’d be a liar if I said I’ve never done the same thing. The first thing you’ll notice in those shots is how pretty the sky is. The second thing you’ll notice, or should notice, is how boring the rest of your shot is. Take a look at this shot. I still like it otherwise I’d never show it to you but notice how dark the foreground rocks are. There is very little detail in those rocks because in order to expose the sky appropriately there isn’t enough light on them:
There are a couple of things that I do right away to limit the impact of shooting towards my light source. The first thing I do is I tend shoot at some angle away from the source. In the next shot, you can see based on the way the light hits the rocks that the sun is to my left. It is shining on some of the rocks giving color to my foreground and not completely washing out my sky:
Sometimes a washed-out sky is fine and fits the mood of the image. But you can tell based on the color gradient in the sky that I’m still not shooting directly at the sun:
There are also tools that you can use to help with your exposure. Every time I shoot at the coast I use, or at least carry, my graduated neutral density filter. This filter blocks some of the light at the top of the frame and gradually fades to the point where it is letting in all of the light at the bottom of the frame. This means that you can take a longer exposure, long enough to properly light your foreground, without blowing out the sky. I didn’t own one of these filters before I moved to California, now I wouldn’t be caught dead shooting without it. That’s how you end up getting these shots where we get both the beautiful sky and detail in the foreground.
One last trick is patience. I know that isn’t really a trick but hear me out. Tourists flock to where I live and every time I go out shooting there are tons of people stopping by taking photos. But almost everyone leaves the moment the sun drops below the horizon. For them, the show is over. As a photographer, the last thing you should do is leave the moment the sun goes down. In my experience there are still a good 15-20 minutes of shooting. Case in point:
In both of these shots, the sun was gone but there is still interest in the sky and interesting photographs to be made. And now, I can shoot whichever direction I please because there isn’t some giant glowing orb lurking, waiting to destroy my photo.
This brings me to the last little section, aesthetics. Photography is art, anybody who tells you differently is wrong. This is the part where you get to be creative. One thing you might notice in pretty much all of the shots above is that the water has a milky evenness to it. That is not by accident. For those of you who aren’t photographers, I get that effect by using long exposures (typically longer than a half second). Before moving to the coast, I had done some long exposures but here is where I’ve really gotten into the swing of it. The fun part is playing around with just how long you want to keep the shutter open for. In this shot, I kept the shutter open for 1/3 of a second and you can see the curling of the wave crashing and the trickle of the water off the rock in the foreground:
In this shot I kept the shutter open for 2.5 seconds and you can’t even tell there were waves crashing in the foreground. The only remnants are the white streaks from the bubbles as the waves broke.
Art is art, and everyone gets their shot to look at a scene and try to interpret it however they want. Putting together all of the things above, here are some more shots from this amazing little stretch of coast.
Thanks for stopping by, I hope this post has been at least pleasant to look at if not even a little helpful. I’d love to hear some of your tips and tricks for shooting at the coast, so leave a comment in below and let us know how you do it.
Until the next time,
P.S. all of my art is for sale. If there is something that piques your interest drop me an email and we can talk about it.
Camera – Nikon D850
Lens – Nikkor 24-70 f2.8, Nikkor 70-200 f2.8
Tripod – Manfrotto 190X Pro 3 with 804 Mark 2 head
Filters – Tiffen graduated 0.6 ND, Hoya 5-stop ND, Hoy 10-stop ND