Big Sur Coastal Photography Workshop – June 11th

Big Sur doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to weather and Sea to Summit workshops.  On our last Big Sur workshop we were practically drowned by the torrential rain.  So this past Saturday when Jim, I, and our students pulled into the parking lot at Pfeiffer Beach under sunny skies, we thought luck was on our side.  We thought we would get to enjoy some nice, relaxing photography on a beautiful beach.   But little did we realize that as the clear blue skies dazzled peacefully overhead, Mother Nature was waiting to spring a trick on us once we got down to the beach.

It started as a gentle swish through the trees as we left the parking lot.  But the light breeze that ruffled the leaves above our cars grew in strength and volume with each step we took toward the sand.  By the time we emerged from the shelter of the trees onto the beach itself, the wind was a gale-force roar which whipped at our clothes and shot stinging sand into our faces.  Laughing at the ridiculousness of it, Jim and I lead our cautious but optimistic group over to the water’s edge, where the damp, compacted sand was less likely to fling up into our eyes.

As usual we started the workshop off with a discussion of all the specific and interesting challenges shooting seascapes entails, with the wind being a wonderfully applicable example.  Even though we had to shout to be heard over the wind, it was encouraging to see the eyes light up and the heads nod as we talked about tripods, chamois, rain covers, and the importance of always keeping one eye on the ocean.

The heavy winds were discouraging us all from getting our cameras out and shooting so Jim and I talked to the students about ways to turn their brains on in the field.  Rather than relying on machine gun-style digital photography to produce keeper images, it’s vital to refine your creative vision before you even press the shutter button.  As we got the students talking and thinking about their respective creative visions, it was fascinating to hear all of the different and subtle things each student noticed in the scene in front of us.  Whether it was crashing waves, reflections, light and shadow, or patterns in the sand, each student saw something different at Pfieffer Beach. The tricky part is to take those visions and turn them into photographs, which is exactly what our workshops help students do.

At this point in the day we split the group up.  Jim took the less experienced students and began to explain the inner workings of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, how they’re related, and when to use which settings in which situations.  I took the students who already had a grasp of the technical aspects of photography and started helping them pin down some of the strongest and most important ideas in composition.  As the students then roamed up and down the beach searching for their shots, Jim and I went from person to person to help them refine their compositions and nail their exposures.  But soon we were all feeling a little abraded by the wind and the sand so we took refuge back at the parking lot for some snacks and a little peace before we hopped in our cars and headed off to beautiful Garrapata Beach.

It never ceases to amaze me how different Pfeiffer and Garrapata beaches are despite being only a half-hour’s drive apart.  Where Pfeiffer that day was harshly sunny and wildly windy, Garrapata was calm, cool, and collected, with some beautifully dramatic clouds overhead providing smooth light over the beach.  Our students were certainly glad to be out of the wind and they took to their photography with blazing enthusiasm.  Jim and I led a discussion into more advanced composition ideas like how to create depth and perspective, control your viewer’s attention, and use near-far concepts to really tell the story of a place.

The clouds overhead also allowed us to dig into filter use and shutter speed.  These are always the most popular topics on our workshops and you could really see the students getting jazzed as they learned how to slow their shutter speeds, capture some silky water motion, and then balance the light in the sky with graduated neutral density filters.  As the students experimented with different shutter speeds and different timing, we encouraged them to really get close to the water to get the most dramatic motion.  It was great to see most of the group gung-ho about charging into the waves to get their shots.  And it definitely paid off: there were some fantastic shots being produced Saturday night.  At 8:30 the sun set and a beautiful set of subtle purples and pinks filled the sky.  The light continued to fade, but the group’s enthusiasm didn’t and we had students standing knee-deep in the chilly waters of the Pacific at 9:00 pm, capturing photos with 30 second exposures.

But eventually the growls of our bellies overpowered our eagerness to shoot and we packed it in, said goodnight and thanks to all our wonderful students, and headed out for pizza!

A huge thanks to Mike, Sean, Allan, Michael, Petra, Matt, and Joel for coming out with us on this workshop.  You guys were a terrific group and I hope you enjoyed the day as much as we did.

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