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Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail...Snow in Orange County!
Click any image to enlarge

First off, HAPPY NEW YEAR! It's hard to believe 2014 has come to an end and we're staring into the face of 2015. It's the future, man! If Back to the Future II has taught me anything, I know the next 12 months will bring us hover boards, instant-dry jackets, and Nike Air Mags. I can't wait.

2014 ended with a bang here in Orange County with a pretty impressive winter storm that dumped several inches of snow in unlikely places like Temecula and Rancho Santa Margarita. We didn't get any down here in Tustin, but the nearby Santa Ana Mountains with its centerpiece Saddleback Mountain were blanketed in a glorious sheet of white. That's right, Orange County in snow- it can happen.

New Years day brought with it clear skies, calm wind, and cold temperatures - the perfect conditions to go exploring one of my favorite Southern California hiking trails: the Trabuco Canyon Trail in the Cleveland National Forest. I've shown pictures and video from this trail before (check it out here). The Trabuco Canyon Trail doesn't scream Orange County at any time of year with its densely forested hillsides and abundant spruce trees, but it was especially out of character on this day with at least 8 inches of snow in most parts.

My girlfriend, my brother, and I set out to explore the area and see it in this unique state on the morning of January 1st. Thought it would be a perfect way to start 2015. Unfortunately, half of Orange County had the same thought. The trail, luckily, was empty, but the traffic jam leaving the mountains would have made east-coasters double over in laughter. It's ridiculous how terrible southern California drivers are at negotiating icy roads. If the thermometer drops below 40, all hell breaks loose. The dirt-road drive that normally takes 15 minutes stretched to over an hour with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But aside from that little hiccup, this hike treated us to some of the most unique and stunning scenery I've ever seen. It's not often you get to see prickly pear cactus and giant oak trees poking out from deep snow. I didn't bring my "serious" camera equipment to document this unique sight because I didn't want to slow my group down and I just didn't feel like carrying the weight. Instead, I travelled with my pocket-sized Canon s100 point-and-shoot camera. The pictures aren't my best (ugly lighting, limited equipment, other dumb excuses), but they captured the Trabuco Canyon Trail in a way most people will never see.

Navigating the trail in this weather was tricky at best. And I don't mean it was difficult to find the trail on account of the snow cover (it was) but the trail was just littered with massive branches and bent over trees. The forest service has a hell of a job ahead of them cleaning this trail up, that's for sure. I hope they have some good chainsaws. The storm that passed over must have been a hell of a sight. The winds had to be incredibly strong to cause the destruction we saw.

This picture is a cluttered mess, which is exactly why I'm sharing it with you. This is the kind of chaos that storm wrought. Plus, check out those massive Southern California oak trees covered in snow...you don't see that everyday.

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

But now on to the pretty pictures. I guess there's no need to explain them. Simply feast your eyes on the Trabuco Canyon Trail in snow. And for the folks in other parts of the country, I know this must seem comical to you getting this excited about a few inches of snow, but hey, it's big news when we finally get a shred of weather around here. And I mean, come on, it's snow in Orange County!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Nothing better than the smooth lines and reflected light you get with snow:

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Where's Waldo Drew?

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Snow and giant leaves? What the hell is going on?!

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

Trabuco Canyon Trail: Snow in Orange County

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.

Fun With Long Exposures in Laguna Beach

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposure at Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA
1 minute at f/32

I've been hooked on black and white photography lately. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older, but I think I'm just a little burned out on the whole "make an epic landscape bursting with more color than a box of Crayola crayons" approach to landscape photography. I dig photos that depart from reality a little bit - something that doesn't look like a facsimile of real life. For these same reasons, I've been experimenting with doing ultra-long exposures down at the local beaches.

When you get into the territory of super long exposures like 30 seconds and longer, the ocean takes on a surreal foggy look from all the motion of the waves. The result is a smoothed out water surface and a beautiful mist along the shore. With some good dark rocks in the foreground to break it up, the surrealism that results is addictive.

For this series of photos, I set up my tripod at a local stopping ground - Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, CA. I've photographed this beach more times than I can count. It's classic Orange County, CA with picturesque palm trees lining the sun-soaked cliffs and some excellent rock formations for this style of landscape photography.

The photos you see here were made on Ilford Delta 100 black and white film with a Mamiya RZ67 camera, but these effects are even easier to achieve with a digital SLR. The shutter speed in each photo here was 1 minute. In order to get that long of an exposure, I had to close my aperture down real small - f/32 - and use 6 stops of neutral density filter to cut back the light. Also, the fact that it was a little bit overcast helped, too. If you were doing this with a digital camera, you'd need to do the same things I did - small aperture, ND filter, and be sure to use a low ISO of 50 or 100. And since the shutter speed will be beyond 30 seconds, you'll need to switch your camera into "bulb" mode. Bulb mode is where the shutter will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter release. Best use a locking cable release so that you don't have to sit there with your finger on the shutter release. Use a stopwatch to time the shutter speed or just count "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi..." I also used a split ND filter here to darken up the sky a bit.

I'm sure I'll be taking many more long exposure pictures like this in the near future. I'm hooked.

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA

Long Exposures in Laguna Beach, CA