Golden Hour in the Golden State
One year on the West Coast, Part 2
When I decided to take a photo per week for my first year in California it seemed like a huge project, but time flies when you’re having fun and a quarter of the year is already behind me. With thirteen photos captured I’ve already learned more than I hoped to.
The first lesson is that composition is crucial. I used to judge everything by eye, and usually the results were half decent, but using my camera’s grid function and Photoshop’s smart crop tool have made a noticeable difference. Paying attention to the rule of thirds when I’m setting up the shot has led to more pleasing layouts and less effort in development.
Any photographer will tell you that an awareness of light conditions is essential when shooting landscapes. I knew this in theory and clearly it’s easier to take a photo when it’s bright, but the light in California is so dramatic, especially at dusk and dawn, I’ve been willing to chase it. It’s worth rising before the sun to watch the colors change over San Rafael Bay, and while the view from Mount Tamalpais is always impressive, when the sun is sinking behind an ocean of cloud it’s magnificent.
Previously many of my best shots benefited from some human interest, but … people don’t really interest me. That sounds terrible and I’d like to think I’m not a misanthrope — I certainly enjoy taking snaps of my family and friends — but I am introverted and the natural world holds more fascination. Every time we go hiking we see tiny lizards and I always try to take their photograph. It’s amazing when one sits still long enough for a portrait.
On the subject of photographing wildlife, however, it’s a skill that still largely evades me. My wife discovered there were a pair of Bald Eagles frequenting the beach near Jenner and three times we drove up there at six o’clock in the morning to see. Watching them fish, fight and fly was an amazing experience but even when I rented a 400mm lens I struggled to get a shot I was happy with. Due to the patience, timing and sheer luck involved the best I could do was a Peregrine Falcon hunting in a field nearby. I don’t like to blame my tools but until I can afford a seriously expensive lens I’ll most likely be disappointed with the results.
Finally, I’ve really enjoyed worked with long exposures. Sometimes that means shooting in darkness and sometimes using a neutral density filter. I’ve been using the Lee Big Stopper (a 10-stop ND filter) for many of these and I’m really happy with the results. Using a tripod, filters and manual focus has forced me to slow down and craft the shot. That doesn’t always mean it’s better but it always feels more rewarding. My natural reaction has been to shy away from overplaying this hand because it’s just one solution and a shot can’t rely on that alone, but given that I enjoy it and I want to find my own style it’s worth following that path to its conclusion.