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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.

On Location Photography: Cleveland National Forest, Orange County

View on YouTube for full HD version

In the Cleveland National Forest of Orange County, CA you'll find something interesting along the Trabuco Canyon trail (adjacent to the more well-known Holy Jim Falls trail). Just a few minutes into the hike is an old car mangled and broken from decades of decay. How it got there I cannot imagine. The trail is narrow enough to only accommodate a single person and there are no roads within a reasonable distance. My guess is that the hiking trail was once wide enough for a car. Someone drove this car out on the treacherous road, got stuck, and ditched it. Or perhaps the story was much more interesting than that involving a cache of stolen goods, a bag of lye, and a Tommy gun. Whatever the case, this thing is just begging to be photographed in its rusted state.

Orange County, like California, offers a diverse range of landscapes. When you think "OC" you probably imagine sandy beaches and real housewives. But the Cleveland National Forest blanketing the Santa Ana Mountains offers some decidedly "un-Orange County" scenery with plenty of spruce trees, a babbling brook, and even the occasional snowfall. This area is as rural as Orange County gets and it's also where you'll find some of the best hiking in the county.

A little while back I decided to venture out to this area of "rural Orang County" looking for a short escape from the crowds and I was itching to photograph that car I'd photographed several times before. Having been there previously with my 35mm film camera in 2003 and years later with my Canon 5D DSLR in 2011, my goal was to get a new take on it, create some new compositions, and try an overall different approach. That's why I planned to do some black and white photography (which I'd never done there before) and some color landscape photography a little less vibrant and saturated than my usual stuff.

Here are the 2 shots I'd taken previously at this location. The first is my 35mm film image from 2003 and the second is from my DSLR in 2011:

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Rusted Car in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, CA

Upon arrival, I realized quickly that this photo trip wasn't going to go like I planned. The verdant forest surrounding the car that I remembered from my previous trips wasn't so green this time around. Everything was brown, dead, and dry. Even the creek bed was empty. We've had a terribly dry winter here in Southern California - one of the driest on record - and the vegetation in Orange County has been feeling the effects.

Without rich greens surrounding the rusting car, there was really no visual separation between my main subject and the background. It just blended in with everything else. The black and white photos came out so-so in my opinion and the color shots were absolutely abysmal. It was one of those shoots that just didn't go as well as I hoped. But as I say in the video, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour, so although I didn't get any great shots, at least it'll create a deeper sense of appreciation the next time things do work out.

Click any image below to enlarge:

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Rusted Car in Orange County, CA - Cleveland National Forest

Video From Death Valley Trip

If you're a regular here at my blog, you may remember this post from back in November detailing my trip to The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park. Well during that trip, my friend documented our journey using a GoPro HD Camera and compiled the footage into an awesome short film. Check it out!

[vimeo width="550" height="309"]http://vimeo.com/39350321[/vimeo]