“Beauty”

First, I have a quick request to make.. it’ll take about a minute of your time. I entered into some contest, where if I win I could get $50,000 to photograph a crazy idea I’ve had for a while. What do you need to do? Go here: crazy idea, read about my idea and if you choose to support it (I need to be in the top 20 to be considered) vote for me by hitting the yellow ‘pic it’ button. That’s it! Thanks!! And of course, if you want to be really helpful, send your friends over there too. I’m counting on your help for this, and should I win, you’ll get to hear all the stories first hand right here!

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Since I don’t like spam, and I suppose you don’t either, here’s what you usually come here for: a combination of pretty photographs, adventures, and a few insights into photography. So, this past weekend I finally made it out to the glorious California coast. I must confess, I don’t like photographing the coast as much as many people seem to. The trouble is, you can’t just set up you composition, ponder it for an hour as the light changes, and finally, when everything’s right, trip the shutter. The tides change, waves are always moving, people get in the way, your gear gets wet, etc. Of course, that’s what makes it exciting too.. so I wouldn’t say I don’t have fun, it’s just not nearly as relaxing as a sunset in the mountains. Also, photos from the coast often end up being too stereotypical, they all end up looking the same in one way or another – after all, a large part of the picture is the ocean, and the other part is the sky. That of course means the success of the image will largely depend on the atmospheric conditions you find.

I’d heard about this somewhat secluded beach called El Matador some time ago (as secluded as a beach about 30 min from LA can be), and without looking at the tide charts or anything, my girlfriend Ali and I decided to just go out there and check it out. I did of course make sure it was going to be partly cloudy and during a change of weather systems: a recipe for potentially good light. But overall, contrary to my normal style where I’ve already got the image planned out, I just went and rolled with the waves.


“Ocean’s Sentinel” ~ El Matador Beach, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DII, 16-35mm mkII @ 16mm, tripod, polarizer, 3-stop ND, 2-stop hard GND
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 13 sec
Note: When you combine lots of neutral density, the pinks and purples, particularly in the sky, really get enhanced. But often this results in the reds, like that on the sea stacks, to be too intense. I actually took a shot with and without all the neutral density and blended some natural color back into the sea stack to keep it just a little more natural looking.

It turned out the tide was low, which is usually a good thing when it comes to coastal photography. As the sun started to set, the tide slowly began to rise again, giving me exactly the kind of waves I wanted. The sun peaked out under some hazy clouds and produced a beautiful glow on the rocks scattered about the beach. Soon those hazy clouds started to catch the sunlight, and the magic started to happen. I’d already picked out a spot for this part of the evening’s show, so fortunately I could concentrate on that rather than run around trying to find something to go with the beautiful evolving colors!


“Salty Watercolors” ~ El Matador Beach, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DII, 16-35mm mkII @17mm, 2-stop hard GND, polarizer, tripod
Exposure 1: iso 200, f/16, 2.5 sec
Exposure 2: iso 200, f/16, 8 sec
Processing: I used the second exposure to bring some detail back into the dark sea stacks, while keeping them dark enough for the scene to stay realistic.

Given the success of this trip, I worked hard over the weekend to give myself enough time to get out once more. To give you some insight into where my interest in complex compositions and sensual abstract curves comes from.. here’s an example of what I do when I’m not out photographing (that would be being a grad student at Caltech). Here’s a movie of the ‘flow map’ of a time dependent pendulum. It’s rather complicated to explain, so to most of you it might just be a jumble of pretty swirling colors, which is fine, that’s kind of what it is. But among those colors are some really neat structures called Lagrangian Coherent Structures, which are important features in the ‘flow’. Essentially things that start inside the red shape stay inside, and things that start outside, stay outside as time evolves. If I’ve peaked your interest, and you’re brave enough to try to understand what I just said, you can take a look at this: LCS. Anyways, I successfully made the below movie, which meant I could get out to the beach once again.


Lagrangian Coherent Structures in a time dependent pendulum, pretty colors for most of you. I tried to embed a video, but it wouldn’t let me make it automatically repeat, and without that it doesn’t really work, but you can still see it here.

Rather than head to the same beach, I went to Corona del Mar this time, which is a little less secluded. In fact, there were tons of people, too many people really (especially for the 1st of March!). Anyways, after exploring the area I stumbled across some amazing rocks left out by the low tide. The light hazy cloud cover provided some lovely soft glow. Now, it might become clear why I like things like this given the movie you just saw above.


“Tidal Forms” ~ Rocks at Corona del Mar, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DII, 16-35mm mkII @ 35mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1.6 sec

As the sun continued down the horizon, I found this neat little cove. It’s hard to find interesting mid-grounds along the coast here, compared to the giant tree studded sea stacks you can find along the Oregon and Washington coastlines. But, if you look hard enough, there’s some neat castle like formations. While the sunset wasn’t nearly as brilliant as the last one, I find the subtlety in the colors lets you appreciate and explore the interesting foreground more easily.


“Sea Castle” ~ Corona del Mar, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DII, 16-35mm mkII @ 20mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure 1: iso 400, f/18, 20 sec
Exposure 2: iso 400, f/18, 3.2 sec
Processing: carefully blended the two exposures.

This last point, that about subtlety vs. amazing sunset colors brings up an interesting topic actually. One that I think deserves some thought. It seems that these days with the internet playing such a large role in image dissemination, certain types of images get more attention than others. The fast paced and small format of computer based viewing naturally favors simple compositions with vivid and brilliant colors – those are the images that grab you immediately and work at a small size. But what about 10 minutes later, or a few days later? Would you still be enthralled by something that relies solely on the magic of color? I would argue that you wouldn’t. It’s like candy – eye candy. You feed your eyes some sugar, they get all excited, but eventually they lose interest and move on to the next one. The images that will have a longer lasting impact, in my opinion, are those with more subtle features, complicated and thoughtful compositions (yet still approachable), images that make you think about something or take you to some other place or memory, or ones that evoke a strong emotion other than ‘wow!’. So this is a reminder to me, and to everyone else, to take the time to give these kinds of images the appreciation they deserve, albeit hard to do when we’re presented with such a tiny web format image. And above all, look for these scenes. They are much more difficult to photograph, yet the result, if successful, can be much more rewarding than a beautiful sunset over an iconic location. This doesn’t mean the two can’t be combined, but generally the colors will overpower the delicate details, which are then lost upon the viewer.


“Angry Sands” ~ Death Valley National Park, CA
The Tech: Canon 5DII, 16-35mm mkII @ 23mm, polarizer (for protection), tripod, lots of sand
Exposure: iso 800, f/16, 1/30th
Notes: This is from my trip to death valley last time, you may recognize it.. I decided it was worth working the image to get the full experience out of it.
Processing: I needed a lot of curves adjustments to pull this much texture out of the gray sky, but I find it gives the mood of what it was really like standing there getting pelted by sand. To increase the separation between sand and sky I also painted in some of the appropriate sand color into the blowing sand (the texture was there, the color had been washed out).

Here is an example of such an image, one I took back in December in Owen’s Valley during a snow storm. I did everything ‘wrong’ in taking this image from a technical standpoint, but it’s quickly growing on me, and I think I might soon hang it on my own wall. It doesn’t have the brilliant colors of a once in a lifetime sunset or sunrise, but there’s a deeper kind of beauty here, one that will have me continually exploring the image. Just something to think about as you view or take pictures.


“Cotton Dreams” ~ Cottonwoods in Owen’s Valley, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 24-105mm IS @ 105mm, handheld
Exposure: iso 3200, f/11, 1/60th
Notes: At the time I didn’t think this would really work out, otherwise I would have shot it on the tripod. I would have used the same exposure settings, however. I needed to freeze the snow to get the effect I was after, so light was a limiting factor. Given that the image is very flat and I exposed it all the way ‘to the right’, there is hardly any noise – I should be able to print this guy very big! Please click on the image to see a much bigger version to appreciate the details!

I know several of you will be unhappy that there are no birds here.. please blame that on the beautiful Cooper’s Hawk I ran into the other day, he just didn’t feel like sitting still. Or that little hummingbird… sometimes they just don’t cooperate, sorry!! Glad everyone seems to be enjoying these stories. If you ever have any questions or requests let me know! And if you got too excited to see the pictures and put off clicking the link to my crazy idea above, don’t forget to do that, thanks!!

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2 Responses to “Beauty”

  1. A says:

    Awesome photographs…thanks for all the tips! The one I liked the most is Angry Sands!

  2. Kent Mearig says:

    I really really like “Tidal Forms”. The structure of the rock is sensational, and the light is near to perfect. Maybe if the warm light extended just a little further down…but…whatever. Very awesome!

    With regards to LCS, as a lowly HS math teacher, I have only the vaguest idea of what you’re talking about. I would love it if you had time to drop me an email that just briefly describes the application of your studies. I’m wondering if it could catch the attention of some young minds.

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