Santa Cruz California, the travel destination for thousands of monarch butterflies each winter. They come to soak up the sun, lay eggs, and maybe catch a few waves. Natural Bridges State Park is a prime destination for these butterflies and also very close to a wonderful stretch of beach that holds the parks namesake, a giant natural bridge. Although technically more of an arch than a bridge now because it doesn't connect anything, the rock is still an icon of the south bay and popular among photographers.
The Aperture Academy brings in a group of people several times a month during this mix of butterflies and beach to give students an opportunity to work on close up photography with the butterflies, and some beginning landscape photography using filters and long exposures on the beach.
A group of thirteen eager photographers met Professional Photographers Brian Rueb and Jean Day at Natural Bridges for a fun afternoon of photographing Butterflies and a beach sunset.
Weather conditions aren't something anyone can control as much as we try. When you live in the bay area for any given period of time you know overcast conditions can hit on any day at any time. It was no surprise for our class to see that our day together yielded grey skies.
The class begins with an orientation where Briand and Jean can find out more about the students, the gear they use, their experience level, and what they really want to come away with during the day. For many butterflies were the primary focus (pun intended) and they were ready to head out on the trail and see the mass of monarchs.
Monarchs are picky little bugs. Calling them bugs seems wrong, as they're quite elegant and not responsible for any of the buggy type behavior of their counterparts. When temperatures are above 55 degrees, they need to cool their body by flapping their wings and fluttering about. Below 55 degrees and they become sluggish and do their best dead leaf impersonation. Our group sauntered into the forest at a cool 52 degrees which meant the bugs were behaving in very clumpy-leaf-like ways. Thankfully a couple (literally two) butterflies felt pity for our group and came down to model for the class. If you've never seen 13 people try to photograph the same butterfly, you're missing out on a new level of comedy. Luckily Brian and Jean were able to find other interesting textures and abstractions in the bark of the eucalyptus trees to help keep the photographers spread out while everyone worked over the poor butterfly. Those with extreme telephoto lenses were able to get some close up shots of the clumps of monarchs, which when viewed from 400mm yielded color and detail in the butterflies' wings.
The temperature wasn't increasing and as the sun began to fall behind the grey skies the class moved from the grove to the beach to shoot what they hoped would be a fiery and intense sunset. The hope was more for style points. It was very obvious that there was going to be no color for the sunset. Even though we as photographers prefer those vibrant, colorful sunset it's a good lesson to learn how to shoot when the colors ARE NOT ideal. Very effective images can be made with less than ideal color. Black and White Photography was and is popular for this reason. Often the images we think look dull in color can be very nice when converted to monochrome.
Brian and Jean worked with the class, set them up in civil war firing line fashion, and helped them get the right settings to fire away and get some moody, dramatic, shots of the arch and the moving water.
The goal was to utilize the streaks of the waves as they pulled back. These streaks would act as a leading line to pull interest into the image and add extra ‘wow' factor. The waves were shallow, yet hard to predict. The class would shoot for a few minutes, build confidence, and then as a group walk forward closer to the water until eventually we were right where the waves stopped. Light faded and exposures lengthened creating more misty and mysterious looking images. For those who wanted to keep the exposure length around 4-5 seconds to preserve detail in the streaking waves were taught how and why to increase ISO in order to keep their exposure the way they wanted. Even though the conditions weren't ideal, they were PERFECT for learning, and the students all got some REALLY nice monochrome images, and had a lot of fun in the process!
From Brian, Jean and the rest of the ApCad crew, see you next time....
P.S. If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.