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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LET US NOT ASK HOW TO – BUT WHY – MAKE LONG EXPOSURE PHOTOGRAPHS

If you were interested in learning about long exposure photography techniques and were to do a Google search: “how to long exposure photography”, you would find 32,300,000 search results giving you 1000 lives worth of information, tips, pointers, techniques and more.  Over 32 million!  Long exposure photography is obviously a very popular topic, and one you could study forever.  However, studying the topic of photography technique is not nearly as exciting as actually going out and photographing, so let’s tweak the question and ask “why”.  Why make long exposures?  Asking “how to” activates something in the thinking-mind that wants to research, study, and gain knowledge.  Curiously asking “why” is born out of a different part of our self and activates something else entirely – the inner creative.  When activated, the inner creative is more inclined to go out and photograph life and experiment with different techniques – not just sit at home and read about them.  When you understand the why, the how to comes quite naturally.

There are countless reasons why to make long exposure photographs.  Let’s look at some of them and you will begin to not only see the endless possibilities, but likely begin to feel sparks of inspiration that with some focused attention, will allow you to go out and make fire with your photographs.

FURY

You can create a hint of movement in the water, as seen here with a 1/15 second exposure of a wave exploding against the rocks.  Why?  Because you don’t want your photos to look like the guy who jumped off the tour bus and took a quick snap.  And, it lends itself more to the feeling that the wave is blowing up into the sky.

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SPACE AND SOLITUDE – BRINGING ATTENTION TO SPACIOUSNESS

SPACE AND SOLITUDE

INTERSECT  Maui, Hawaii

If you close your eyes and visualize your living room and the various elements within the room, what do you see?  A sofa, a coffee table, an entertainment center, a TV, art, and probably quite a number of other elements.  Now, let me ask you – which element is the largest in the room?

If you are like most people, your response might be – the sofa, the TV, or the entertainment center.  If you think a bit more cleverly, you might say – the walls.  What most people don’t recognize is, there is much more “space” than anything else, by far.  Physicists tell us that 99.999% of the universe is space – no-thingness.  Oddly, science can be so much more bizarre than science fiction!  If you removed all the empty space from the entire human race, leaving only electrons and the other subatomic particles, all seven billion human bodies would fit in the space of a sugar cube.  That’s just mind boggling stuff, right?  But that gives you a sense of how much space there is in relation to form – yet we rarely bring our attention to the space.

With the living room exercise, it points out how we as people are living primarily form-based.  That is to say, our attention is always going from one form to the next to the next – whether it be the external forms of the world, or the hyper-active thought-forms continuously flowing through our minds seemingly on auto-pilot.  We are form-conscious beings, but is this our natural state?  Isn’t it odd that 99.999% of everything is space yet we hardly bring our attention to it?

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MAKE FIRE – TURNING A PHOTOGRAPHIC SPARK OF INSPIRATION INTO FIRE

THE WALL  La Jolla, California

There we were on Shell Beach in Southern California’s “Jewel” – La Jolla.  If you consider shorts, t-shirt and flip flops ideal attire, then the mid-August weather was just perfect.  The sweet morning light was just beginning to show herself to those of us eager enough to be awake, which on this morning included myself and seven photography workshop participants who were joining me for one of my California workshops.  Shell Beach seemed like an ideal location to take seven passionate photographers for a sunrise – it’s small and intimate, yet contains many elements that can be arranged well for a diverse style of seeing photographic compositions.  It’s only as wide as a football field, yet both sides lead upward to steep cliffs that stretch out toward the sea, undercut with partial caves on the sides and a scattering of rocks throughout the beach, with a couple large rocks just offshore where pelicans and cormorants linger about.  Having photographed this spot many times before, I knew good compositional arrangements could be made, but of course, it is also quite easy to include too much or too little and fall short of success as well.  So, an ideal setting to place students – a place where they can make it work, or not, and then discuss the why’s and why not’s as to what is working and what is not working in real time.

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FINDING COMPOSITIONS IN THE LANDSCAPE

While working with a Maui Photo Workshop participant recently, I was asked a good question: how do you find your compositions?  It hasn’t been a common question among my students, even while discussing the many facets to composing mindful and compelling images, but I think it is a good question.  Of course, there is no one way I find my compositions, but there are a number of ways that seem recurrent.  Here are 5 ways I find my compositions.

The Jungle.  Maui, Hawaii

1.  I go where I feel compelled.  I explore.
Oftentimes when I go out shooting, I head out with no particular destination in mind, and with no image in my mind’s eye.  In these cases, I go where I feel compelled.  I often say that landscape photography is all about putting yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right frame of mind.  So, where is the “right place”?  Anywhere you feel compelled to photograph, and where you can visually arrange the elements into a compelling image.  It’s enjoyable to work this way – to go out without expectations or pre-visualizations, guided by your feelings and intuitions, and see what happens.


Pier.  La Jolla, California

2.  I go to the same spots over and over.  I study the scene.
This is another common approach that I take with many of my compositions, and has led to many of my most successful photographs.  Once you find a composition that has promise, resonates with you, and is a place that you enjoy spending time, go back time and time again.  I have spoke about the importance to studying the subject HERE.  Whether working near home or while traveling, this is a strong approach toward making successful and compelling images.  Not only does your chances for dynamic light, exciting tidal conditions, or some other interesting element increase, but your relationship with the subject deepens and often comes through the final image, making it more expressive.


Surrendering.  Maui, Hawaii

3.  I allow the elements within the frame to dictate.  I am present and aware.
With landscape photography, it’s best to be present and aware to the conditions around you.  When you bring your awareness to the movement of the oceans water, the breeze passing through the trees overhead, the clouds moving through the sky, or the rain in the distance, you will often find that a composition becomes clear.  You can work backwards from there.  For example, with Surrendering, I noticed how the waves would come ashore, reverse back and collide with the next breaking wave, causing a unique vertical splash in one area.  After noticing this within the scene before me, I worked through composing the scene, making an optimal and creative exposure, and then waited for that one extra element that would set the entire scene off – in this case it was the color in the clouds from sunset.


Hoodoo Storm.  Near Bryce Canyon, Utah

4.  I allow the weather to dictate where I go.  I remain flexible while exploring.
Sometimes when you are out exploring to see where you may feel compelled to shoot or heading to a scene that you have shot many times before, the weather is playing a factor and you can’t ignore it.  Perhaps you have one thing in mind but it’s down-pouring there, so you have to adjust.  Such was the case when I made Hoodoo Storm.  I was at Bryce Canyon and was planning on shooting through the sunset light, when a thunderstorm moved in and unleashed a lot of rain.  I jumped in the car and headed west, hoping to get to the edge of the storm.  30 minutes later, I made my way out of the rain, found a promising hill to hike up from the road, and discovered a compelling composition directly before me as the sun-setting light lit the underbelly of the clouds, resulting in a dynamic and compelling image.


Moonset.  Bandon, Oregon

5.  I research and study the landscape before visiting.  I use technology to assist.
Although the 4 methods above are my primary approaches to finding my compositions, I do tend to add an element of research online, especially before traveling to a new locale.  Google Maps might be one of the most exciting online tools for photographers in researching a shoot to a new locale.  Before my last trip to Oregon and Washington, for example, I studied the entire coastline of the two states to determine the sea-stacks I might be most drawn to.  Then, I used Google Images to get a visual feel of the surroundings.  From there, I was able to pinpoint one particular sea-stack along Oregon’s central coast that I was very drawn to, and a couple months later I was able to commit several days to photographing it, resulting in a series of images titled Rock Study.

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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“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!

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