With wildflowers reaching up from every creek and meadow, Springtime is in full swing on California's central Pacific coast. Lush green hills and valleys terminate in a rugged and rocky tumble opposing the primal energies of the Pacific. So it was fitting on this gorgeous Spring day, Paul Porter and Scott Donschikowski met an ardent group of Aperture Academy students anticipating a day of hands-on learning and shooting on California’s iconic Big Sur coast.
First on the agenda and one of the most important parts of the day, our Carmel orientation provides the opportunity for Scott and Paul to talk about the days goals and to spend a little time getting to know each another a little, with students disclosing the technical or creative aspects they want to work on during the day. Comfortable working with people from all levels of experience and gear we encourage everyone to take more control of their cameras, emphasizing working in manual settings; getting familiar with the balance between aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Then after reviewing the days itinerary we jumped in the Aperture Academy van for our first destination.
To get primed for the Big Sur coast, we made our first stop just a few minutes from our Carmel rendezvous. Founded by Don Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra in 1770, San San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission (Carmel Mission) is the culmination of a 1768 land and sea expedition by Fr. Serra and his missionaries accompanied by Don Portola and his soldiers. While a busy successful mission until the 1830's, it eventually lapsed into disrepair through neglect and vandalism. Once California became a US Territory, the government returned the Mission to the Catholic Church in 1859. In ruins for many years afterwards, its restoration started in 1884, and continues to this day. Sir Harry Downie was put in charge of the project in 1933 to gradually renew the original luster and beauty of the mission compound, including its catenary ceilings, thirty foot reredos and 5 foot thick walls. Split up into two groups, Scott and Paul worked our way through this beautifully restored mission compound, priming students with using manual camera settings, beginning with white balance and scene composition and then drilling them through exposure settings of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, while emphasizing the use of their mid-range zooms. It was encouraging to see many of the students break out on their own, looking for some photo magic, while we circulated, answering questions about tricky exposure balancing and fun teaching moments in the high contrast lighting conditions. As we finished up at the Mission, some students were starting to understand how exposure settings are related.
With so many shooting opportunities, from intimate floral and architectural details to wider views of the missions unique features, students found it hard to leave, but we had a busy itinerary of more great locations, so it was back into the ApCab for a trip down California 1 and the luminous Big Sure coastline.
Dragged north along with the Pacific Plate some 29 million years ago from what is now Mexico, Big Sur boasts perhaps the most striking stretch of Pacific coastline in the Untied States. Coastal mountains leap immediately from the shore, soaring above the ocean, some to over 5000 feet in the Santa Lucia range. As these peaks tumble to the Pacific, the combination of tough, hard-to-erode rocks and rapid tectonic uplift has turned Big Sur into one of the most strikingly dramatic coastlines in the world, much of which seems to glow from cerulean waters mixed with its dramatic surf. It’s so hard not to to stop at dozens of places along the coast, as Scott and Paul called out locations for our eager students to come back to. While we snaked down Highway 1, everyone was anticipating the coming shoots of the day.
This gorgeous day continued as we reached our next iconic destination. One of many ambitious large engineering projects of the thirties, Bixby Creek Bridge was engineered by engineer C.H. Purcell and bridge engineer and designer F.W. Panhorst and spans a graceful 714 feet at an airy 280 feet above Bixby Creek and the beach below. Once called the Rainbow Bridge, construction of it's soaring arch was finished in a little over a year. With the bright skies and surf's reflections below and marine mists licking the hills above, it was the perfect opportunity to work with students on the use of polarizers and neutral density (ND) filters on their wide-angel lenses. Taking in various scenes we again worked with students about approaching their desired compositions, then setting their aperture and shutter speed. So much fun the time was flying by and it was time to rally students back to the van, heading further down the coast to one of Big Sur's most beautiful locations.
Once in a while, we humans are treated to geological events which define the shape of our world. These events can be both dramatically beautiful and equally terrible, perhaps a treat to witness or enjoy the outcome of, as long it we don't ourselves get caught up in the actual physical drama of the event. One of these huge events took place along the Big Sur coast, in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in 1983, as many millions of cubic yards of hillside tumbled down on Highway 1 and onto the beaches below. It took almost a year for engineers to shove all that debris down the cliff and into the sea so they could begin the work to stabilize and repair the highway. In response to this extra debris on the beach below, the Pacific’s wave action redistributed some of that debris as sand into nearby coves which previously had none. One of the outcomes of these complimentary events is perhaps the most picturesque cove graced with that new sand; the cove at McWay Falls.
McWay Falls adorns the new sands with a silver stream of angel hair leaping from a hanging valley over this reshaped cove. It’s known as one of only two California waterfalls that leap directly to the sea, and one of only a few in the world. With a thin atmospheric haze developing, conditions for the right exposure became a little more challenging. The glare of the sun from the ocean necessitated polarizers, while the brightly diffused light from the haze above demanded ND filters to darken the skies a bit while allowing for a perfectly exposed foreground. The trail and catwalks that hug the north edge of the cove provide a perfect place for numerous compositions, wide angles to take it all in and medium zooms to fill the frame with McWay’s thin silver veil as it spreads gracefully across the sands below. Some of our students, never having had an opportunity to shoot the Big Sur coastline were delighted to have been able to capture this jewel of the central coast. Yet our sunset shooting location was waiting, it was soon time to head back north along the coast for our last shoot of the day.
A favorite last shoot of the workshop is usually the hole in the rock at Pfeiffer Beach, but by this time of year, the magic sunset light beams aren’t quite lined up with this locations unique feature, a seemingly perfectly excavated tunnel though a wide roughly hewn sea mount that at the lowest tides might be considered to be part of the beach instead of rising from the ocean floor just off the coast. Its a little like nature’s Stonehenge, when the winter solstice sunset aligns almost perfectly to generate a beam of liquid orange light illuminating the breaking surf accelerating through the tunnel and crashing on the rocks just before you. While late March is not the ideal time to shoot the Pfeiffer's hole in the rock, Big Sur has many other gorgeous spot to shoot sunset, so we set off for other shores.
For an alternate yet equally alluring part of the coast, we headed up the Highway 1 for a sunset shoot at a lush little valley dropping out of the Carmel Highlands into Garrapata State Beach. Hundreds of Calla Lillies carpet the compact valley floor in a dense wild garden of chest high blooms, some up to 10 inches wide, offering infinite compositions as the setting sun bathes the little valley in rich golden light. A popular location even on the weekdays, this lush little paradise was packed with 20 or 30 photographers all wanting that magic capture of white blooms tumbling toward the sea. So after getting our traditional lively and goofy group shot, our students, not willing to back down to the challenge, worked the angles they could find, using mid range and telephoto zooms for close ups and their wide angles to take it all in. Then as the sun kissed the horizon, we all wandered down to the beach to shoot the last rays of sunlight dancing on the waves, shooting longer and longer exposures on into blue hour.
Its hard to leave when your having so much fun, but it was time to conclude a gorgeous day’s shooting and learning. Piling back into the ApCab we rode back to Carmel as evening descended upon Big Sur, while students quietly reviewed an awesome day and chimped photos on there LCD’s. It was such a pleasure working with the students on this workshop and we hope to see you all again soon. Remember, the learning doesn’t stop at the end of the workshop. Scott and I look forward to hearing from you as your photography questions arise, whether creative or technical.
Until Next Time,
Scott, Paul and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.