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San Diego – For landscape photography, sometimes the weather works for you and sometimes…
My friend Lee Peterson is my go-to guy for anything about optics and especially the interesting and sometimes frustrating relationship optics has with the digital world. I always look forward to shooting with him and was delighted when he and I were able to take a short two-day photo jaunt up to the Morro Bay area. I just wanted to get out of town to shoot something…anything and had suggested a trip to the desert.
As a close follower of the weather coming from his long time connection with the sea as a sailor, surfer, underwater photographer and both maker and distributor of underwater gear and technical consultation to films and other needs, he noted that the full moon was supposed to be especially large and that the weather was supposed to be good on the coast so he suggested that instead of the desert, we go through some beautiful rolling hillsides with great trees and that vibrant spring green, a texture laden oil field area and ultimately hit the coast, spend the night at his place north of Morro Bay, and then drift back via routes he had been wanting to try. He was on a quest for textures and thought this would be a good area to to explore.
Though it was not my original plan, I did not want to miss a chance to spend some quality shooting time with Lee and be able to pick his brain on some optic-related questions I had. Besides, I had nothing specific in mind except getting away from town. So I agreed to that plan and it was settled.
I was out of my place by about 2:30 am, headed north to pick him up and we were off. The drive north on I-5 was uneventful with minimal traffic, a minor slow down in LA but soon we were through the valley, over the Grapevine, and turned off to head west through the oil fields around Maricopa and Taft. The day was just waking up, stretching in that one last yawn before the dawn strikes in full when Lee stopped for a shot of some power lines. They turned out great for him but it did not really resonate with me so I just watched. I was still sort of in “Nature” mode and this industrial giant astride the land was not on my visual radar at the moment.
We stopped and shot an old oil field supply building past Maricopa and headed towards Taft for a shot or two of the works there.
These towns, especially Taft, are nearly living ghost towns and would be fun to stop in and shoot on another trip. We drove through noting the sad but nearly ubiquitous “For Sale” signs on store and shops in the nearly deserted town. So many hopes but now so little future. It was sobering to think that without a major course correction this state and perhaps this country could all end up the same way.
But then we started climbing into the mountains. Now we were getting into stuff that should connect with me. I could hardly wait for the green blaze that we both expected.
But as we started to climb right away something was obviously wrong. The weather forecast was for light winds but it was REALLY blowing hard, so hard that facing it head on required you to lean into it. And that dropped the wind chill of the 41 degree temp into the noticeably chilly range. And it was also obvious that despite the moisture to the east in the Sierras, here on the coastal range it was incredibly dry and in desperate need of water.
As we headed west toward Atascadero the rolling hills that should have been vibrant in their special hues of spring green were dry and brown looking with only a hint of the color that should have been there. Scenes that would normally have screamed for a photo were dull and uninviting… so we drove on.
We had not been stopping to shoot as expected so we were a little ahead of schedule and took a detour into the Carrizo Plains and the great Soda Lake. This “lake” is a large basin, a remnant of an ancient inland sea, but now it was bone dry and the alkali covering turned it was all bleached bone white.
We hiked out to an overlook for a shot or two. It was a most interesting phenomenon and could have formed the basis of a great contrast between the bright white area and what should have been vibrant green hills around. But this time it was all fairly dull and desolate to the eye. The hills were dry brown and blue in the haze and the wind had blown dust out onto the alkali so it too was dulled down. But the sense of vastness of the substance that was a mainstay of western literature that was the stuff making for poisonous water for desperate travelers had to be at least documented.
So we headed back to the main road and on through Atascadero where the dry conditions continued and the wind seemed to actually pick up in strength.
We went to Lee’s house in Cayucos, off loaded our clothing and now down to shooting trim with camera gear, went to Morro Bay for lunch and started looking for some shots here if the forests and mountains were not going to cooperate.
The wind was HOWLING here. At a wonderful overlook at the Montane del Oro park in Los Ossos, the water was lashed by the wind and turned to chop, slush, and whitecaps as far out as one could see. This was no light 8-12 mph wind as was forecast; this was easily a base of 25-30 mph with gusts quite a bit higher. And coming off of the water it was REALLY cold.
Lee was determined to do a shot but the wind was blowing so hard he said it was shaking his tripod. In the shot to the right he is trying to put a filter on his lens while both he and the tripod and camera are being blown around by the incredible wind.
I confess that, perhaps because of my mountain roots, this scenery often fascinates me to watch and experience, but for some reasonit rarely resonates with me visually to inspire serious work. I was hoping shooting with Lee would help but the wind created other logistical issues and there was little time for reflection. He was focused in on the textures of it since the rest was old hat to him. I was a bit overwhelmed by the raw power of it and could not figure out how to infuse a shot with that feeling so was frustrated at walking away with what I knew was just another touristy shot.
We tried our best but like the mountains, the coast was not ready to be shot, at least not by me. The water was dark and angry, in the midst of a coniption fit and temper tantrum and in no mood to have some pretty picture taken of it. What did attract my attention as an abstract was the madly whipping grasses on the overlook and I did make a couple of exposures of it and have processed it to focus in on my sense of motion for it.
But though beaten up by the wind and discouraged by the dry countryside we were determined not to be skunked here. We also went to the Los Ossos Oaks State Reserve and there found the most incredible collection of ancient oak trees, gnarled and twisted by the winds, festooned with Spanish Moss, and begging to be photographed. Boy were we ready too. At last: a cooperative subject. And down in these mighty trees the wind was broken and offered less of an obstacle. Powerful as it was, these magnificent oaks stood their ground and made it go around.
What struck me was how the trees seemed to wrap around to encircle the visitor. Sometimes it gave a warm protective feel to it inviting you to go one in safety…
In others with a little imagination and a lighting change it was mysterious and a little creepy. Still others displayed a sense of ancient power as does this oak patriarch below.
On the way back to Cayucos we tried a little side road into farming country but the dry spell had also worked against its normally photogenic nature. It was a pleasant drive but the cameras stayed in their cases.
For the tourist this would have been fine and taking “I was there” shots would have been easy. But making images that carry their own weight, that convey the emotional response of the taker and elicit an intellectual engagement in the viewer, are often issues of lighting and, when applicable, color. Even in black and white, it is the color’s hue and shades that help determine the tonal values, that help to show off textures and form. But when they all match closely, there is little to work with.
Often the professional landscape photographer is at a wondrous place but at the wrong time and can but note it, estimate when the “right time” would be and plan on a return trip. But sometimes even those carefully laid plans can fall prey to the whims of nature. In our case, this was a great place and under normal circumstances this would have been the right time. But the dryness and the un-forecast wind worked against us.
It also worked against us in another way. The wind-blasted spring pollen attacked both of us. But it REALLY got to me and I had an epic allergy-based sinus attack that night. By morning, after only a couple of good hours of sleep, I was not in good shape.
So, as planned, we headed back the next morning. The wind had died down, the sky was crystal clear and it was quite beautiful out. Sometimes you never know what side of the curve you will be on. We headed south and east through the farming country and along the Panza Road were forced to stop at a delightful little scene. The irrigation systems were watering in the freezing temperatures and creating wonderful ice sculptures on a field of grapes. The first shot is the overall of a section of vinyard with the irrigation sprayers going. I included it so you can see the scene.
THe vinyard was huge and went on for quite a ways. But it was as we rounded a bend at just the right angle to the sun that we realized what we were seeing: the ices was forming on the vines and posts in a way that reminded me of the ice-storms from the midwest. Beautiful to see but deadly to be in.
And then we drove back through some new territory, some roads were dirt, some old pavement, some new, all certainly worth revisiting… but also all quite dull in color this time. Even the normal carpet of poppies along the Tejon Pass area were completely gone.
The upshot was that other than being wasted by the allergies and having my shoulder act up so that by the end of the first day I could no longer heft my main camera and settled for the back-up, I had a wonderful trip because of the company and the chance to see some new country I had never been through before and didn’t know existed. I was introduced to some sites for possible workshops, and, I think, maybe a a shot or two worth keeping came from it. Although most of the shots were more “documentary” some in the images taken in the oaks especially were worth the whole trip.
So lets add it up: good trip, good information, great discussions, and a couple of serious images… How bad can that be?
BTW: do check out Lee’s blog at www.photographyinparadise.com for some of his photos as well.