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Big Sur

A Prime Exploration


Point Sur Lighthouse. Big Sur, CA — February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L lens @ ISO 200

Timing was a critical element in the creation of this shot. The sun was just clearing the mountains to the left of frame shortly after sunrise, illuminating the wave tops with a lovely warm light. The beam of the lighthouse flashed by every 12 seconds on its rotation. My goal was to capture both at the same time. Sometimes I missed the beam, and sometimes when the beam came round the waves weren't right. This frame, the last one shot before the warm light disappeared caught them both.

I had been considering doing a shoot in the Big Sur for some time. I had visited that awe inspiring stretch of Southern Central California coastline several times over the years but had never had the chance for a few concentrated days of landscape photography.

When a major manufacturer called and asked if I would like to review an upcoming product this seemed like a great opportunity to revisit Big Sur and do a field test at the same time. As sometimes happens (more often that you would believe) there was a last minute scheduling foul-up and the product wasn’t available for testing as promised. But, since the airplane tickets were bought and other plans had been made I decided to proceed with the trip regardless. (No, I won’t say who the manufacturer was.) I rationalized the situation by telling myself that this would be a blessing in disguise as I wouldn’t have the equipment test to distract me from the simple pleasure of a shoot in such a spectacular location.

The Big Sur


Surf. Big Sur, CA — February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 100

We left our motel in Carmel about 90 minutes before dawn and drove south on Hwy 1. At the point that there was enough light to see that there even was a coastline we pulled into a turnout and set up for this shot. The exposure was 16 seconds at f/8. The surf has become a dreamy mist due to the long exposure. A common technique, but when combined with the soft and almost monochromatic pre-dawn light it makes for a very pleasing image.

Big Sur, as almost every photographer knows, is the spiritual home to 20th Century American landscape photography. It was the stomping ground of two of the last century’s landscape masters, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, as well as many of their acolytes. But, unlike the grand landscapes of the American West, such as Yosemite or Monument Valley, the Big Sur area is more intimate. And, whereas there was a time when every photographer and his dog was shooting there regularly, and fine art as well as commercial images of this lonely stretch of Pacific Coast were ubiquitous, in recent years it seems to have fallen out of favour, potentially making it fresh again.

In thinking how I wanted to approach this shoot, freed now from the constraints of doing an equipment test, I decided that I would apply a bit of a discipline to my approach. Instead of using the usual range of zoom lenses that have become the mainstay of my equipment arsenal I decided that I would limit myself to just 4 lenses, and that each of them would be primes.

There are photographers for whom the idea of using zoom lenses is anathema. They have bought into the headspace that says that zoom lenses are somehow a cheat. That there is an inherent purity to the use of primes. Some also believe that zooms are optically inferior to primes. This certainly once was true, but isn’t any longer, at least not when top-of-the line lenses are used.

In any event, I subscribe to neither school. I believe in using the appropriate tool for the job, regardless of what it is, and for me that means using zoom lenses much of the time. On this shoot though, since the pace had been reduced from that of a frantic test to a leisurely shoot, I decided to play a game with myself and see how I would make out with one hand tied behind my back, so to speak. And, to be honest, my friend and frequent shooting partner Steve Kossack would be working with me, and he would have a bag full of zooms that I could borrow in case my bold experiment ran astray.


White Heron. Point Lobos, CA — February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 400

Though wildlife wasn't specifically on the agenda, and the 300mm lens ended up being used extensively for landscape work, I'm glad I had it along, because late one afternoon in Point Lobos we were able to get close to both White Heron and Great Blues, as well as Sea Otters and Sea Lions. I have applied a gaussian blur layer to soften the image, producing what is for me at least a look that mimics how the scene appeared in the soft light of a late afternoon.

There was one more consideration. In the 3 months leading up to this shoot I had switched from doing landscape work in medium format to using the new digital Canon EOS 1Ds. I had quickly determined that this full-frame 11 Megapixel camera actually exceeded medium format film in every way, and I had subsequently sold almost all of my medium format camera gear.

What I had also found though is that while the 1Ds produces images as good as if not better than medium format film, it handles like a 35mm camera (which it still is in most ways) and therefore my shooting style remained that of 35mm rather than the slower and more contemplative approach that I usually take with medium format. So, by only using prime lenses on this shoot I also wanted to slow myself down and bring some of the disciplines of medium format work to the 1Ds.

In The Bag

The kit I put together for this trip consisted of two bodies and four lenses. The 1Ds was the main camera and an EOS D60 served as backup. The lenses chosen were the 24mm f/3.5L T/S, 50mm f/1.4, 135mm f/2L and the 300mm f/2.8L IS. A classic three prime set up – wide, normal and long, with a modern super-tele prime thrown in in case we encountered any wildlife opportunities. Without the fast 300mm it could have been my kit from 1965. Almost.

What was different was the 24mm tilt-shift lens. This is an ideal lens for doing intimate (as opposed to grand) landscape work. Wide, but not too wide, and with full perspective control capability. The fact that it is a manual focus lens added to the almost retro nature of the outfit. Just right, it seemed to me for the environs of Big Sur.

Big Sur


Surf & Turf. Big Sur, California — February, 2003
Canon EOS 1Ds with 135mm f/2.0L lens @ ISO 100

Sometimes a single image can capture the essence of a place. This frame does this, at least for me — the soft light, rugged coastline and unique trees that are the hallmarks of this special place. Even "the hand of man" plays a role in the image, as it does in the landscape itself.

Big Sur isn’t just one place. It is a stretch of Pacific coast that runs from the artsy tourist town of Carmel down to San Simeon, some ninety miles. There are two state parks in the area that carry the name, but there is no actual town of Big Sur. The name Sur, incidentally, means “south” in Spanish. This as a region so desolate and foreboding that to the early Spanish explorers as well as later settlers it was simply “the south”, meaning – south of Monterey.

Today it is still found to be sparsely settled and with few amenities for the traveler. Once past the upscale resorts of the Carmel Highlands there are just a few lodgings and places to eat for nearly 75 miles. But, these miles are some of the most beautiful to be found anywhere in the worlds; a place where the mountains and the ocean meet with a drama of tides and weather found few places else.

One of the things that makes it unique is that the road, which was built with convict labour in the 1930’s, features numerous turnouts and “vista points”, allowing the leisurely tourist or photographer to enjoy the impressive sea and mountain views almost every mile of the way. Elsewhere in the world I have often been frustrated with lovely mountain or coastal roads with great views but nowhere to safely pull over. Not so at Big Sur, and actually not along most of the impressive California coastline. Turn-Outs-R-Us.

Weather and Time of Year

Our 3 day shoot took place in late February, the most quiet time of the year in this very popular area. Accommodations were easy to find and at everything from restaurants to pull-out parking spots there was no need to compete for space with anyone. My ideal.

The summers are of course the busiest time of year. You’ll need advance reservations at hotels and motels, and except in the very early morning Highway 1 is heavily trafficked.

We found the late February weather to be similar to an early May day in Toronto, where I make my home. Wildflowers were to be seen and the trees were stating to bud. We were extremely lucky to have mostly clear weather, with some early morning fog and haze, and one overcast afternoon. Most of the time this coastal area has fog, which can sometimes enhance but mostly hinders landscape photography.

Getting There & Where to Stay


Big Sur Sunset — February, 2003
Canon EOS 1Ds with 24mm f/3.5L T/S lens @ ISO 100

The day had started with interesting light but by late morning a heavy gray layer descended. We returned to Carmel at mid-day and spent a few hours browsing the photography galleries. By 4 pm it was still heavily overcast but we decided to head back down the coast regardless. We roamed the cliff face and about 40 minutes before sunset I found this spot and set up with the 24mm T/S lens. I leveled the camera and used the rising front at full extension to add enough sky. Then I tilted it about 3 degrees to obtain foreground to background sharpness using Scheimflug. I spent the next half hour, until the sun was finally below the horizon, taking a series of bracketed frames.

Ever since switching from medium format film to digital for my landscape work I have left behind my trusty Lee filter kit and its assortment of graduated neutral density filters, and am now using various digital blending techniques in Photoshop instead. So, rather than use a split ND I simply took two shots, one exposed for the foreground and one for the background, about 3 stops apart. I then blended them in Photoshop using the techniques found in my tutorial on digital blending. The aperture for both frames was f/16 while the exposure for the sky frame was 1/3 sec and that for the foreground, taken about 30 second later, was 4 seconds.

Carmel, the start of Big Sur if you’re heading southward, is about a two hour drive by expressway south of San Francisco airport. This is an upscale town filled with more than 80 art galleries. If California ever slides into the ocean during a big quake much of the world’s supply of bad art will find itself at the bottom of the Pacific ocean when Carmel slides beneath the waves.

There are four photography galleries in Carmel as well, all within a few blocks of each other. These feature the work of Ansel Adams (of course) as well as Edward, Cole and Brett Weston and numerous other major figures.

Assuming that you’re not going to be staying at one of the $500+ per night resorts in the Carmel Highlands and further down the coast, such as the Ventana Inn, The Highlands Inn or the Post Ranch, I can recommend the Village Inn right in Carmel. Prices there range from $89 to $149 a night, depending on the day of the week and time of year. It is centrally located and offers good value, given that Carmel is otherwise a very expensive place. There are also some excellent (though expensive) restaurants in town. We had a superb if pricy dinner one evening at Bouchée. They also have an outstanding wine cellar.

On The Road

But this isn’t about food and lodging, it’s about photography, so let’s hit the road. Just south of Carmel lies Point Lobos State Park. Made famous to photographers by Edward Weston’s work, it is today a tightly controlled park with fenced off hiking paths, restricted parking facilities and tremendous crowding during the tourist season. Once there are a certain number of people inside the gates are closed. Also, the gates open at 9 am, long after sunrise and you must be out of the park by 5 pm, long before sunset. Business hours at a state park. Curious. Obviously this is all an impediment to photographers. I was last at Point Lobos in the mid 1980’s and remember it to have been much wilder and less controlled. Such is the price for the tremendous growth of tourism in our time.


Point Lobos Heron. Point Lobos, California. February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L IS lens @ ISO 400

The "wildness" of the Point Lobos landscape is seen here. What you unfortunately can't clearly see online is the Heron in the tree in the upper left hand corner. In a large print this adds scale to the image. It is shown in the crop below.

17 Mile Drive

Just north of Carmel lies 17 Mile Drive, where the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course is found. It costs $8 to drive along this private road, and while years ago it was a pristine coastline "spoiled" only by the golf course it now is full of large mansions as well. According to the listings seen in real estate office windows in Carmel house prices here are in the $3M to $8M range.


17 Mile Cypress. Carmel, California — February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 50mm f/1.4 lens @ ISO 400

The warm light just before sunset illuminated these boulders and cypress trees bringing their texture into bold relief. In a large print you can count individual blades of grass and almost feel the textures of the bark and rock. We were fortunate indeed to have such light as this stretch of the California cost is frequently overcast or foggy at this time of year.

The Sur Coastline


Foggy Vista. Big Sur, CA — February, 2003
Canon 1Ds with 300mm f/2.8L IS @ ISO 100

There are dozens of places along the Sur coast with vistas like this one. The trick is to be there when the light and weather are just right. Long lenses are necessary if you enjoy this type of compressed perspective.

The 90 miles between Carmel and San Simeon is studded with state parks, vista points and turn outs — far too many for me to list here. In many places there is coastal access while in others access is blocked by private property. Do try and do some hiking in the state parks and other areas where access is possible. The cliffs can be dangerous though so caution is advised, especially before sunrise and after sunset.

In addition to the obvious drive down Hwy 1 there are two other roads to be explored. One is the Carmel Valley Road. It begins just south of Carmel and runs across the mountains and through lush valleys, farmland and vineyards. There are excellent photographic opportunities along almost every mile.

The other is the Coast Road. The is part of the original settlers wagon road that ran through the hills above the ocean, rather than today's highway which runs close to the coast. (It's called the "Coast Road" but it's really the mountain road. Go figure.) In any event, it now runs for 12 miles between an entrance near the Bixby Creek Bridge, and Andre Molera State Park to the south. Take it. It's one of the most beautiful 12 miles rides that you'll ever take and it has endless photographic potential. Figure on 2-3 hours for the drive, including stops. But, be forewarned — this is a rough, steep, twisty and potholed dirt track. Calling it a road is overly generous. It is also impassable when wet — which is a lot of the time. We were in a 4WD vehicle and had no trouble on a dry day. It could be done in a sedan, but not in my sedan. Maybe in a rental though.

So What About The Primes?

You may recall that on this shoot I only brought primes, leaving my zoom lenses behind. I expected more grief than there turned out to be. There were a few occasions where my back was up against a wall (or cliff, as it were) and I couldn't get wide enough, or where using the 135mm it turned out to be either too long or too short, and I would have loved to have been using the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS instead. But, on the whole I never had to borrow a zoom from Steve.

Would I do this again? No. Why fight with one hand tied behind ones back? High quality zoom lenses yield little to primes, especially for this type of landscape work where a tripod is used most of the time and optimum moderate apertures can be used. It was fun though pretending that it was the 1970's all over again.


Branches. Big Sur, CA — February, 2003
Canon EOS 1Ds with 135mm f/2.0L lens @ ISO 100

One closing equipment thought. The Canon 135mm f/2L is a relatively new lens in my arsenal. I bought it for doing documentary work where its speed and relatively compact size for its focal length will come in handy. I knew that the lens had a sterling reputation. But I was bowled over by the image quality that I saw when making prints the following week. I thought that the 70-200mm zoom was very good, but this lens is in another league. Image quality is comparable to the 300mm f/2.8L IS, and that's about as good as it gets. Still, I'll take the versatility of a zoom in this focal range for most occasions when doing landscape work. Like most things in photography one must make tradeoffs, and these differ from day to day and between different photographers.


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Concepts: Canon EOS-1Ds, Full-frame digital SLR, Monterey County, California, Photography, Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Medium format, Image sensor, 120 film

Entities: Carmel, San Simeon, Monterey, Toronto, San Francisco, Canon, Carmel Highlands, Point Lobos State Park, Bixby Creek Bridge, Village Inn, Ventana Inn, Highlands Inn, Pacific Coast, Monument Valley, Pacific ocean, Pebble Beach, vista, Sea Lions, Sea Otters, Michael Reichmann, a very expensive place, Point Lobos, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Lobos Heron, frame, Steve Kossack, Steve, Scheimflug, Lee, Edward, Brett Weston, Andre Molera, Cole, golf, California, CA, EOS 1Ds, Photoshop

Tags: Big Sur, Point Lobos, state park, medium format, zoom lenses, landscape work, image, medium format film, coast, landscape photography, warm light, primes, Carmel Highlands, Ansel Adams, California coastline, Edward Weston, White Heron, soft light, vista points, equipment test, San Simeon, pacific coast, photography galleries, early morning, large print, late february, camera, digital blending, Big Sur area, top-of-the line lenses, Coast Road, Canon EOS 1Ds, quality zoom lenses, lovely warm light, golf course, Carmel Valley Road, image quality, Carmel house prices, Point Lobos landscape, manual focus lens