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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.

New Landscape Photography: San Onofre Beach at Sunset


Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Sunset at San Onofre Beach
4" at f/25, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND + Lee 1-stop grad ND
Click Image for Larger View

Last month a friend of mine and I went for a sunset shoot at San Onofre Beach in Southern CA. I'm generally a "lone wolf" when it comes to doing landscape photography because I enjoy the solitude, but Eric and I are very much simpatico when it comes to style, methodology, and philosophy (check out Eric Bryan's amazing photography at ericbryan.net).

San Onofre Beach is unlike any other in Southern California. You won't find long stretches of white sandy beaches here. Much of the beach is riddled with smooth, round boulders the size of...uh, I dunno, like a volleyball but a little smaller. I clearly know nothing about sports...

But anyway, this beach is gorgeous and generally empty. Not exactly easy to navigate this rocky shore, but the views are unbeatable. And looking inland, the shore is flanked by some stately red-sand cliffs that are quite breathtaking under sunset light.

On this shoot, I opted for the wide 6x17 format using Fuji Velvia 50 film. Now I gotta be honest...the photos are a little too dark for my liking. It's partly that I just overestimated how dark I wanted it to be, but here's the thing about Velvia 50 film: it's rated at ISO 50, but it really isn't 50. Based on my experiments and analyzation, I need to rate it more like ISO 33 or 25 in order to get accurate metering. I did ISO 33 here. I should have done 25.

And here's the other thing: my Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens exhibits some serious light falloff at the edges. Every wide angle lens on 6x17 format does. And I didn't have a center ND filter for this evening's shoot. That meant the edges came out much darker than I anticipated. The center of the frame looks spot on in regards to exposure, but the edges came out too dark. And since Velvia 50 is so contrasty, that 1 to 1-1/3 stops of light falloff at the edges looks major.

Sunset at San Onofre Beach

Post-Sunset at San Onofre Beach
20" at f/22, Fuji Velvia 50, Lee 3-stop grad ND
Click Image for Larger View

I overestimated on my metering, I used a little too much split ND, I should have rated the film at ISO 25, I needed a center ND filter. Excuses excuses. Oh well. I'll do better next time. And I just picked myself up a sweet center ND filter off eBay to remedy the light falloff issue. It was a steal at $275. Center ND filters are ridiculously expensive. They usually run about $400-$500 used.

The composition could use some improvement, too. But it's time to stop flogging myself. The photos are actually pretty solid. I'm happy with them. It's just that inner photography teacher coming out of me.

The shot at top was made right as the sun dipped to the horizon. The second image was a little after sunset. Please click the images for larger views. These images are pointless unless you can see all the details.