We’ve had some fog here on the Monterey Bay coast over the last few days which got me thinking about our California lighthouses. Pigeon Point Lighthouse is one of my favorite, located about halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on the West Coast at 115 feet high. It was built in 1871 with a first order Fresnel lens that, believe it or not, burned lard. The lamp was later converted to burn mineral oil and it wasn’t until 1926 that an electric lamp was installed. An aerobeacon was installed in 1972 thus ending the use of the Fresnel lens.
There is usually a story behind the names of places here on the coast. Pigeon Point was named after an American built clipper ship, the Carrier Pigeon, launched in Maine in 1852. Her life was short. On 6 June 1853, during her maiden voyage, the ship sailed past Santa Cruz on her way to San Francisco, got caught in the fog at night and tore a hole in her hull. The wreck occurred only 500 feet from shore and all of the crew made it to safety. Unfortunately, though, the ship was a total loss. Nineteen years later the new lighthouse was named after the Carrier Pigeon.
It was a rainy, foggy day when I first saw the lighthouse in 1985. I greatly enjoy photographing in fog, haze and even smoke because they diffuse light and can create a silvery and unearthly glow. The light that day was perfect for making an image of a lonely, old lighthouse. To add to the ambiance, it was cold and a little blustery. The rain, wind and cold all combined to make finding a good spot to set up my tripod a bit challenging. I didn’t really want to fall off of the cliff so I took my time getting set up. The spot where I decided to work was at the very edge of the cliff and not too stable, to say the least. In the end, the image was worth it although I may have shortened my lifespan by 10 years.
Come to the coast on a foggy day, explore and visit Pigeon Point, the tallest lighthouse in the west. As an added bonus, remember that you are seeing not only the tallest lighthouse but the only one named after a pigeon.
Living on the Monterey Bay provides me with a wonderful opportunity to capture images of many migrating animals from monarch butterflies to elephant seals. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with both these species and several others.
This is the season of the northern elephant seal. They began arriving at the colony locations ranging from Southern California to Northern California in December and now we are at the tail end of the breeding season. The males will be leaving soon to begin their journey north and the weaners will stick around for another couple of months. It’s a good time to see and photograph them. My favorite location is San Simeon on the Central Coast, not too far from San Luis Obispo.
The adult males are rather odd looking with that big proboscis that they develop. They look fat and lazy when on the beach but don’t kid yourself. Although the males can get as big as 15 feet long and 5000 lbs., they can still outrun a human for a short burst. The alphas will protect their harems by fighting and those fights are violent. Don’t press your luck by approaching them. Besides being dangerous, they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Stay at least 100 yards away.
Photographing them presents a challenge. Use a tripod and a long lens on a stable surface. Viewing platforms are often wood and will vibrate substantially. Use an ISO 400 or faster film or set your ISO speed on a digital camera 400 up to 1250. Be sure to check for noise at the higher ISO settings.
Then it’s nap time for both you and the elephant seal.
The Mono Basin will be a recurring topic in this blog throughout the year. It is my favorite place in the world. My first visit was with a photography workshop in October 1984 led by Al Weber and was an experience unto itself. We camped at Lundy Canyon and the overnight temperature dropped to 16 degrees. We froze, cameras froze, film froze and cars wouldn’t start but it was a great introduction to a place that has since become my true home.
What I experienced, besides the cold was a beauty like I had never seen. Sunrises and sunsets beyond belief with colors that were unsurpassed even in the Arizona desert from which I had just moved. The aspens ranged from red to gold and the sky was a deep blue.
I was in the Mono Basin again this past weekend having planned to spend several days snowshoeing and photographing. There was no snow and at first I was really disappointed. My brand new snowshoes remained in their package with all of the tags still on. Instead, it was warm and the light was superb. All of the conditions were right for image making. It was a perfect opportunity to hike around the rim of Panum Crater, a rhyolitic volcano that erupted just 600 years ago, the newest volcano in the Mono Craters, the youngest mountain range in North America. The rim of the caldera has a narrow trail and the core is a plug consisting mostly of obsidian and pumice.
As I almost always do, I used a tripod. A long lens was required from where I made the photograph making the tripod extremely important for stability. I opted to use black and white because of the texture and varying tonalities of the crater. Color would have added nothing.
If you visit the Mono Basin, bring your hiking boots, camera and a tripod and experience the newest volcano in a place like no other.
The California coast is an amazing place with many species of birds. As I walk along the beaches by my house I often see cormorants, grebes, plovers, willets, marbled godwits, sandpipers. I run into several species of gulls and, of course, the California Gull, many of which breed at my favorite place in the world, the magical Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra. My favorite of all, though, is the brown pelican. These beautiful birds can be found on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. I’ve been fascinated by them my whole life.
A few interesting facts are that their only breeding sites in the United States are on West Anacapa Island and Santa Barbara Island, they can dive from as high as 60 feet above the water, they can live to be about 40 years old and they can hold two gallons of water in their pouch.
What interests me the most, though, is the way they fly. They are incredibly graceful in the air. They glide inches above the water’s surface and can fly “nap of the earth” (actually, nap of the water) unlike any aircraft. They see their target, aim and dive fast and true.
Pelicans can be hard to photograph. Seeing flocks of them in the air is beautiful. However, flocks don’t ordinarily make an interesting photograph. Making a good wildlife image requires that you get close to your subject, have a long lens or both. So the question is: how do you get close to a flying pelican? The answer is simple… climb a bluff. Of course, the easier option is to go where you can walk onto a bluff high enough above the ocean to be at eye-level with a pelican. Either way, you have to be careful and a fear of heights doesn’t help. The California coast has hundreds of places that allow the necessary access. I use a tripod with a ball head that provides me with stability and the ability to pan through a scene. It doesn’t matter if you use film or digital. I use both. Give it a try. The risk is worth it.
Night lends itself to images that are almost otherworldly. Colors appear differently and can be totally unexpected. Details may look surreal. Sometimes, things appear in your photographs that you never saw. For example, when I shot the image above I didn’t see anything that would cause the wide trail.
Night photography can be done anywhere; the mountains, the desert, in your city or even your backyard. My favorite place to photograph at night, though, is in the desert. The stars and the night animals are my company. The only sounds are the yipping of the coyotes. It’s quiet, peaceful and beautiful.
To photograph at night, you need the willingness to begin shooting late (sometimes very late) when there is no hint of sunlight, a bright moon for illumination, the ability to withstand cold (particularly if you photograph in the winter like I do) and good night vision. A tripod and cable release are absolutely necessary as is patience; some of your exposures may be 30 minutes or more.
The image this week is of the night sky above the Dana Plateau and Mt. Gibbs in the eastern Sierra. You’ll notice a wide star trail. What is it? A planet, satellite, meteor or something else? What do you think it could be?
The Eastern Sierra displays a range of beauty that is arguably unmatched anywhere. I find it to be both incredibly fun yet challenging to photograph due to cold temperatures, snow, ice and inaccessibility of many places. However, if you carry a tripod and are willing to ski or snowshoe your way into the backcountry you are rewarded with unmatched scenery and photographic visions. Just remember to be open to what you see, carry extra batteries and show patience. You will be rewarded with peace, serenity and amazing images. The image of Rush Creek the day after Christmas 2012 is an example of the beauty of an Eastern Sierra winter.
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