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Photography On Location: Laguna Beach Palm Trees

Photography On Location Video: Laguna Beach Palm Trees at Heisler Park
View on YouTube to see this video in HD

I'm no stranger to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've taken more pictures there than I can count and I've worked with more students there than I can remember. It's one of those postcard-type parks - the kind of scenery that hotels want front and center on their website. And it's a tourist spot for good reason. The views are stunning, the beach is sheltered, and - my favorite part - the palm trees dotting the landscape are classic Southern California.

On a recent visit there, I came across 3 palm trees that I've photographed a dozen times before. They reach high above the Pacific Ocean right on the edge of a cliff where benches and coin-op binoculars give visitors an excuse to soak in the scenery. From the right vantage point, the crystal blue waters provide a perfect backdrop for these 3 palm trees.

In search of a different photo near the palms, I envisioned a composition that immediately had me wanting for a different camera. I had my medium format 6x7 camera with me at the time but the composition I visualized required my 6x17 panoramic. Oh well, I'd have an excuse to revisit this gorgeous park again - bummer. And I thought it would be a good opportunity to create another on-location video for your enjoyment. So with my panoramic gear and my video gear packed up, I ventured to my spot.

I normally shoot at sunset to get the best color and contrast for my Laguna Beach landscape photos, but this shot was going to be different. I actually needed to shoot at high noon with the sun directly overhead. The reason for this was two-fold. First, I needed the sky to be evenly illuminated behind the palms. In late afternoon or at sunset, the sky would be much brighter off to the right side of the image as the sun descended in the west. And secondly, I planned to use a circular polarizer to minimize the glare off the water. This would also darken the sky (which I was fine with), but only at high noon would the darkening effect be even across the whole panorama. Again, with the sun low in the west, the polarizer would have darkened the left-hand side of the photo much more than the right, further exaggerating the unevenly lit sky.

Shooting at high noon brings some challenges, though. For one, the color isn't as vibrant compared to sunset. No problem, I planned to shoot black and white anyway (Ilford Delta 100). The midday sun would also bring excessively high contrast. But again, no problem. I wanted the high-contrast look. The composition I envisioned consisted of a medium-dark ocean, medium-light sky, and nearly black palm trees. The midday sun coupled with my polarizer provided that perfectly.

The last challenge of shooting midday was the lens flare. I have no lens hood for this camera, so I had to shade the lens with my hand instead. As you can see in the video, it wasn't the most comfortable way to shoot. Keeping my hand over the lens for 2 and a half minutes at a time for 4 separate exposures got a little old...

I also used a Lee 10-stop BigStopper filter to get my exposure way down to 2 and a half minutes. I wanted a slow shutter so as to smooth out the ocean waves, turning the Pacific into a nice flat surface, and to let the palm tree fronds "fuzz out" in the breeze. The name of the game for this composition was simplicity. I wanted just the palm trees in the center with a lot of negative space to the left and right. I didn't want clouds or waves or anything else in the background to distract from the palm trees. The slow shutter smoothed everything out for me and created a great ethereal fuzziness around the palm trees.

Palm Trees at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA

Three Palm Trees - Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Click Image to Enlarge

Normally when shooting panoramas this wide, it's wise to use a center ND filter. This is a filter that is dark in the center, but clear around the outside edge. See, a wide angle lens on such a wide piece of film creates a major vignette at the edges of the frame. The center ND filter darkens the center of the image to match the natural vignetting and, thus, even out the exposure. But for this shot, I deliberately avoided the center ND filter. I wanted the natural vignette. I wanted those dark edges because I knew it would create a mood to match what I envisioned. I didn't want a bright, evenly exposed Peter Lik scenic (we got enough of those). I wanted an artist representation of these palm trees - a photo that incited a mood in the viewer, not just a snapshot of a tourist destination.

To put it simply without sounding arrogant, I'm really pleased with how this shot turned out. It's nearly identical to what I envisioned and it works as well on film as it did in my head. And this, by the way, is the reward of good training and experience - whatever you envision, you can make happen. So if you're a novice reading this, hang in there and keep working at becoming a better photographer. Eventually you'll have the tools to realize your visions on film (or digitally), whatever those visions may be.