BEST PLACES TO PHOTOGRAPH IN SAN FRANCISCO

You could spend an entire lifetime photographing the San Francisco Bay Area and still not capture it all.  It is one of those rare gems – packed full of scenic vistas and perspectives that can keep the passionate photographer endlessly inspired.  It certainly keeps me visually interested and coming back, year after year.  I still continue to find new vantages that compose nicely in the photographic frame.  But what if you are only coming to the city for a weekend, where do you go?  I will share with you some of my favorite locations to photograph in San Francisco.  Some of them are very iconic, some of them are a bit less widely known.  Alternatively, you could join me personally and explore my favorite spots alongside me during one of my SF photo workshops.

THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE TOWER AT SUNRISE

GOLDEN GATE SUNRISE  San Francisco, California

#1.  Battery Spencer     This spot is certainly no secret, but regardless, it is one of the most spectacular locations to photograph.  And not just in San Francisco, but perhaps the entire country!  This is called Battery Spencer.  Get up there at sunrise or sunset and be prepared to be blown away!  It feels like the Golden Gate bridge is close enough to reach out and touch, which is a very cool feeling.  If you can translate some of that feeling photographically, you are likely to make a powerful photograph.  You can use wide angle lenses all the way to longer lenses for countless perspectives.  Get creative and experiment.  For the above photograph, I was in position well before sunrise and prepared when the light started to get sweet.  The thick fog helped keep the composition simple and clean – making it all about the light, color and atmosphere.

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DEAR BANKSY…

Dear Banksy,

I have two favorite artists – you and Vik Muniz.  I have been lucky enough to see Vik’s work in an extensive exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla a few years back, but had not yet been fortunate enough to see your work in person.  I follow your website and own your book, Wall and Piece, so am familiar with the work.  While strolling down a street in San Francisco’s Chinatown a few days back, I was totally surprised to glance down an alley and see one of your works!  I immediately knew it was one of yours, and the plexiglass covering the original work was obvious confirmation.  Unfortunately, some friggin’-idiot had totally defaced the plexi so that the work was barley recognizable!

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THREE NIGHT DIVERS IN LA JOLLA

THREE NIGHT DIVERS  La Jolla, California

I was heading out 4 or 5 nights a week into the dark cool evenings of the La Jolla night and photographing with little or no light.  On this particular occasion, I was heading down the street and saw three divers having just loaded on all of their wetsuit and scuba gear, heading for the water’s edge.  I was curious to see what I might be able to capture. Continue reading

“HOW DO YOU GET THOSE COLORS IN YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS?”

When I exhibit my work, I am often asked this question in one form or another: how do you get these colors in your photographs?  I can’t help but to be a bit bemused by the question, especially when it comes the day after an epic island sunset that had sicko colors blazing across the entire sky, but have come to expect having to answer this question.  I find it an odd question mainly because I see insane colors in nature all of the time.  Granted, as a photographer, I likely pay closer attention to this than others, but still, there are many times where nature’s light is so dynamic that it forces you to stop and look, whether it be sunset light or a vibrant wildflower – do these folks not see this color?

For those of you who are color-deficient (not due to medical reasons), here are 3 easy ways to Enhance the Vividness reaching your eyeballs:

  • 1)  Take walks at sunrise or sunset.
  • 2)  Pay attention to your surroundings.
  • 3)  Purchase a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses!
  • I’ve been wearing these glasses for 15 years and they truly make the world more beautiful!  I don’t step outside without ’em…unless it’s nighttime ;)

Now, I know that most of the people who ask me about the color in my photographs aren’t asking me because they don’t feel that it exists in the world, as much as it doesn’t exist in their photographs.  This is what they’re essentially asking: Why don’t my photographs look like this?  (In fact, I get that exact question too, and I generally respond by saying, You probably haven’t dedicated the past decade to photography.)  So, if this is what people are essentially asking, then I wonder, why would you expect your photographs to look like this?  If you haven’t awaken 104 times before sunrise to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t missed 234 dinner-times to get out shooting in the past year, and if you haven’t fully dedicated yourself to trying to see and capture dynamic light and color, then why would you expect your photographs to look like this?

The reality is, the dynamic nature of the color in my photographs come from a number of elements.  First of all, place and time of day.  This is obviously the most important factor and it can be insulting when people overlook this and go straight to some comment like, So, are these colors all like photoshopped?  I usually have a quick Woody Allen movie-like-moment in my head where I smack ’em in the head and tell there 6 year old to get their goofball dad outta here before I clone-stamp his ass to oblivion.  (Actually, I totally just made that up and have never thought that before, but you get the idea..)  These type of people require you to have a thick-skin, that’s for sure!  It comes from ignorance, and generally someone who wants an easy explanation of-a-thing – something that will fit nicely in a little box and get compartmentalized and then it’s off to the next thing to quickly solve.  For those people – have fun with that.  So when I say obviously, obviously I am not speaking about everyone.  For the rest of you, place and time of day is the most important factor.  You gotta have dynamic light and color in the foundation of your image, captured in-camera, to have a dynamic and vivid image in your final results.  Or, at least – I do.  After that, you’ve got your post-production, printing, finishing, lighting – all important elements to the color that people see in the work.

This week, I did a photography workshop here on Maui with a father and son from Washington State.  They wanted to cover a number of things, but they were both curious and made multiple inquiries to my color in the days leading up to the workshop.  I decided to take some of the mystery out of it and show them a few images from beginning to end.  I am going to show you the same thing with this image from the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco that I captured during my last visit to California.

Here is the RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw, straight outta the camera.  The colors are all in the foundation to the image.  The way a digital camera records a scene, it leaves things a bit unfinished.  Whereas a positive slide transparency like Fuji Velvia, properly exposed, is damn near a complete photograph outta camera, digital RAW capture is more like a negative and needs to be completed by the photographer.

Oh, and the back-story to the image – I was shooting here the night before for sunset when the fog moved in, so I felt optimistic about some ethereal sunrise possibilities.  I stayed with a friend in South City 45 minutes away, and although we stayed up ’til 1am-or-later drinking beer and playing Wii bowling, I still managed to get my ass up at 4:30am and get back up here for sunrise…without coffee!  Why on earth would I do such a thing?  Because of Enhance the Vividness Rule #1 people…to get the color.

All I have done in ACR is brought the color temperature down a bit, making the image cooler.  In so doing, the blues and pink become more blue and pink.

Here it is opened into Photoshop.

I open the image into Nik Colr Efex Pro and put a Contrast Color Range layer onto the image.  This is a tool that I use quite often and like.  You can achieve the same results on your own without the plugin, but it speeds things up and works very well.

Here, I apply a subtle curve to the upper part of the image and sky, just to bring those levels up some.

Finally, to add that little bit of punch, I add a little Vibrance and small-kine Saturation.

There, you get to see the path this image followed from out-of-camera to completion.  Not a big stretch.  The foundation has to hold the goods, otherwise you gotta get back out there and shoot it again.  You don’t get good shots every time you go out, because there isn’t going to be dynamic light and color every time you go out, and then the 10 times you do get the sweet-light, 1/2 the time you’ll still not get the shot because of one reason or another.  So, in reality, if you want to get dynamic color in your photographs, you’ve got to get out there a bunch and shoot lots.  If you simply want to see vivid color, pay closer attention and get yourself some Maui Jim’s!

SCRIPPS PIER OF LA JOLLA

SUN STAR PIER, La Jolla, California, August 2009

Within days of moving to La Jolla at the beginning of 2005, I discovered this local landmark – the Scripps Pier, and immediately was drawn to it photographically.  I didn’t have any previous connection to piers or other of man’s constructions along the water’s edge, but that would change living in La Jolla, and in large part because of this pier.  I returned every sunset for nearly 3 weeks to get my first successful image of this pier – Time.  That particular photograph really started a new direction for my photography and made my work more personal.  It would be fair to say that that image marked the beginning of working on my own aesthetic and creating my own images, as opposed to looking at others and trying to replicate.  I imagine that most photographers and artists go through similar stages – it begins with trying to make the work you look up to and respect, and once you feel capable and have learned the techniques involved and the process, then you can begin to find your own aesthetic and create a new style that is more unique.  This photograph, Time, and the process of making it, being patient and returning every night before everything was right, had much to do with directing me to a new and more personal path as an artist.

Prior to this time, once I had a successful image of a location, I would generally not return to shoot it further.  Why mess with a good thing?  That too changed in La Jolla, and again, in large part because of this pier.  After several months, I had began to learn much about this tunnel-view composition and what I was drawn to about it.  It hung in the front of the gallery that I spent much time in and I had the opportunity to speak with the public about the photo in length.  This furthered my feelings and understanding of the piece.  A desire to shoot it again arose and within a year, after many visits, I had made a second successful image, Fog.

Through the first 2 years, I made, what I would call – 2 successful images that were “gallery worthy”.  In my third year, I went through a major aesthetic change in my work and went from shooting primarily bright Fuji Velvia color panoramic work to dark and moody black and white square compositions.  There were a number of reasons behind this, a darker mood and life outlook due to events in my life; a feeling that color was too often distracting the viewer of more clear communication; finding myself more drawn personally on an artistic level to cleaner, simpler works, to name a few.  In the end, this transition came completely naturally and with ease and my shooting was invigorated like never before.  I began to re-shoot many of the compositions that I had become familiar with in the area, and found many new ones and ways of making images.   At the end of a string of, yet many more visits, I had made my third successful image, and perhaps my favorite yet, Passage.

Through 3 1/2 years in La Jolla, I would say it’s safe to say I have photographed the Scripps Pier over 100 sunsets.  I have certainly thought that it would be cool to capture an image with the sun setting down the center of the corridor, and at one point, I made some conscious pursuit at it, but my timing was off and I never really followed through with it, never getting closer than a week of the proper time.  I suppose it wasn’t so important to me that I find the exact day or two of the year that it’s do-able.  In reality, I’m really not that much of a planner and it goes against my style completely to turn the art into a science and research as to the exact time and earthly coordinates…blah!  That would be one quick way to take the joy out of photographing, for me.

So, you could call it sweet karma, randomness, coincidence, dumb luck, or whatever you’d like, but on my final evening in La Jolla before moving away, I decide to head out one last time to shoot Scripps Pier at sunset.  I’m super-busy packing and cleaning, and generally waiting until the last minute, like I do.  As I arrive at the pier, it’s 5 minutes from sunset and I can see that the sun is lining up better than I have ever seen.  This is pretty cool, I think as I set up the tripod.  Just as I get the camera set and my settings in order, the sun clips the upper right corner of the frame at the end of the corridor.  Sweet! I take about 8-10 exposures, bracketing and trying different f-stops before settling on f/22 to get the more dramatic starburst.  The sun is visible in the frame for about 2 minutes before it moves north out of sight in this composition.

To get this on my last night in La Jolla!  Pretty cool is an understatement!

TIME, 2006

FOG, 2007

PASSAGE, 2009

(in retrospective – May, 2012)

With some years and many images now between me and this era in La Jolla and these images, it’s interesting to look back, and to see how new thoughts and feelings have developed.  I still feel that Time was the image that sent me on my own path, it felt so original at the time, and therefore it still holds a special place along my path as a photographer.  I wonder if most artists have such a clear moment when their works become more personal.  Perhaps for many, this exact moment is not clear, or for others, clarity of vision never comes at all.

Not too long after Time and Fog, and while still living in La Jolla, Peter Lik came to town and opened a gallery around the corner from my work/exhibit place at that time, the Bartram Gallery.  He evidently was attracted to the composition as well, because soon after he saw my image Time, he came out with his own version – the same composition but, on a gray day with poor light.  Obviously, he didn’t go down there a bunch of times to get sweet light!  It looked like a one-and-done, which I found a bit surprising from him – if you’re gonna replicate, then you’ve got to at least match-or-better the original, right?!  Especially if you’re the self-proclaimed greatest photographer in the galaxy.   Well, I’m guessing he agreed that his first attempt was weak because more recently, a few years later, he’s now come out with a newer version with a bit more dynamic light.  Better than the first attempt, but I think I’ve still got him beat on this one. ;)

 

SUN FIRE IN LA JOLLA

SUN FIRE  La Jolla, California

When we depend on our eyes and our heart to see the world in a new and inspiring way, photographing at home can often be the photographers biggest challenge.  It can almost seem easy to be sparked and to capture life and landscape in a fresh way when you are visiting a faraway exotic locale where everything is new and your senses are heightened, but to do it at home in a place you see everyday and feel so familiar with isn’t ever easy and can border on tedious.

My time in La Jolla had been a good lesson and was successful in teaching me that it is possible to make strong images at home, and to overcome this familiarization with the area that can often extinguish any inspiration to be creative.

The creative approach becomes different.  Whereas when you are traveling, you are in a locale for maybe a few days.  You are likely to be exploring the area and experimenting with many different compositions and burning through lots of film.  In the moment, it is best to shoot shoot shoot and edit later, trusting your eye and skills to capture some gems along the way.  Whilst at home on the other hand, the approach is to really slow down.  You can become more intimate with the subject because you know it will be there the next day.  You begin to know how much the scene changes due to tidal changes, weather, or time of day.  You saturate a potential scene with visit after visit until you feel that the image can no longer get any better!  It is a different approach and not one we as photographers generally daydream about.  It’s always traveling to some foreign wonderland where the light is always sweet and at night there is good beer and good company.  How often do we fantasize about going 1/4 mile down the street 100 times to get the best possible image that our eye and skill can produce?!

It is a test.  It is a different creative approach, but ultimately, I think in many ways it is more rewarding, and I think the work is stronger and more dynamic.  When your persistence takes you to a place where you can honestly say – I can do no better with this scene – then you have truly done your best and can feel complete with the image, and then move on to the next.  Such is the case with this image – Sun Fire.  I have surely photographed these two rocks well over 50 times.  At different times and at different angles using a variety of techniques.

It was one of the more dynamic sunsets of the entire year!  But mixed with the longer exposure of 60 seconds, the water gets that smooth-foggy look that I absolutely love, simplifying the scene and making the rocks evermore dramatic, which adds balance to the drama in the sky.

This is one of a handful of photographs from La Jolla that fall into this lesson learned and an approach to image making that I continue today.  Sure, I want to travel the globe in search of exciting new areas to capture, but I also realize that there is endless scenes right in my backyard too.  Surely it’s no coincidence that my first award winning photographs to receive acclaim were the ones that were produced in this way and mindset…and I never went further than a mile from my front door!

TIME EXPOSED = 60 SECONDS

WINDANSEA AND PEEPS IN THE PIX

Inevitably, while working with long exposures, you are going to have elements included in the picture that you had not planned on.  At the beginning of this work, I found it very frustrating and figured images were ruined if a person walked into the scene or a plane flew by, and oftentimes I would stop the exposure and wait for a clear scene.  Many times, the clear scene doesn’t come and the light passes and you miss the shot, which with this mindset, leaves you going home flustered.  The secret is to embrace it.  Embrace being in the moment, outdoors, doing what you love.  Magical things can happen when you allow it, and some of my favorite images have been from the tracks of planes, boats, or with ghostly figures of people entering into my composition.  If, however, you want to avoid this look of the blurry peeps or passing cars, know this – the general rule of thumb is that something needs to be stationary for approximately 20% of the exposure to register.  Therefore, the longer your exposure, the more likely you will have a clean image.

Although this image was quite a long exposure and over four minutes long, the people that are registering are all standing or sitting around, enjoying the sunset.  If they had simply been walking by, you would not see any signs of them at all.  In fact, there surely were some people that walked through and do not register in the picture.  This was taken at La Jolla’s Windansea, a popular surf spot in Southern California, during an inland fire which caused for some ethereal sunsets along the coast.

TIME EXPOSED = 254 SECONDS

AN IMMORTAL MOMENT

AN IMMORTAL MOMENT  Mono Lake, Eastern Sierra, California

This is why you have to set the alarm to 4-something and get up out of your warm sleeping bag and get out there!  It’s called Sweet Light and it is always a sight for the eyes and makes the heart giddy – or is that the  sleep deprivation?  Either way, it’s well worth waking for, even after a late night of cold-adult-beverages and the company of good friends.  Hell, you can sleep during the day when the light sucks! and if you’re a little slow (a.k.a. hungover), there’s nothing like the Sweet Light to lift you up.

We camped at Oh Ridge Campground for a couple nights which is the perfect place to stay to shoot at Mono Lake.  It overlooks the scenic June Lake and is a 20 minute drive from the campsite to the parking area at the State Natural Reserve along the north shore of Mono Lake.

I went down three times to this area over the couple days and walked away every time with shots I was happy with.  Sure, I was lucky with the stormy skies, but even with clear skies, I think you could make some compositions work here – it’s just that interesting of a place!  This image is looking west with the sunrise at my back.  Most of my efforts during this spell were with a black and white aesthetic, but for this 10 minute period, it was impossible to ignore the color version of this amazing scene.

TIME EXPOSED = 30 SECONDS

THE GATE

THE GATE San Francisco, California

Watch the video below to see into the time exposed of the above picture, a new image of mine from San Francisco. This is what I love about long exposure photography! There is so much going on, but the scene becomes distilled over time. Birds, boats, fog horns, the sound of the ocean lapping up onto the shores – this all makes up the experience one gets while “out there” in the world, and it is my feeling that long exposure photography is better suited to capture and evoke this mood, or essence of life.

TIME EXPOSED = 60 SECONDS