Big Sur, California is one of my favorite locations in Northern California. It offers photographers breathtaking views along Highway 1, rocky seascapes and of course the famous McWay Falls. One of my favorite all time photos comes from McWay Falls during the golden hour near sunset. This article covers my work behind the lens capturing this photograph. The three tips behind the lens on this photo cover: (1) Lighting, (2) Equipment, and (3) Camera Settings.
While exploring the Big Sur area my first tip for you behind the lens is to set aside at least one night and one to two full days for the region. Take a few hours and drive along Highway 1, taking in the beautiful seascapes. Driving along Highway 1 you will find endless rocky seascapes, with jagged cliffs zig zagging along the ocean. One of the iconic stretches along Highway 1 is the Bixby Creek Bridge. This bridge can be photographed in the evening for dramatic light, or even after the sun has gone down to add in car light trails. Be sure to also check out Pfeiffer Burns State Park, offering fantastic landscape views.
The Photograph: Behind the Lens
(1) Timing. Setting up for a perfect McWay Falls picture you should first plan for optimum timing for this scene. The photo above was shot just after sunset during the golden hour. You will need to plan ahead and get to the scene well ahead of your optimum time, at least one hour ahead. Starting approximately 30-45 minutes before sunset photographers will begin gathering at McWay Falls - all looking for the dramatic sunset shot. The tip for this photograph is to WAIT...I shot away what seemed like over a hundred photos as the sun set this day, all resulting in an uninteresting - undramatic sunset. Photographers packed up their gear and headed in...I waited. After the sun dropped below the horizon and the photographers had left, I was able to take my time, compose this shot and come away with the perfect McWay Falls picture.
(2) Equipment. This photograph is impossible to capture without the right equipment. Due to this scene you will need a longer lens, preferably longer than 50 mm. But the single most important piece of equipment to create an amazing photo is to make sure you have a tripod. Even after all of my articles covering the need for a tripod - I still see too many photographers hand holding, or propping their camera on a bench or even a fence. While propping it is better than nothing - in the end you cannot get tack sharp landscape photos without a tripod. Outside of your camera body and your #1 camera lens, a good tripod should be your next investment. In the end, spending $500-750 on a tripod will save you the time and money you wasted taking landscape photos handheld or with a cheap alternative.
(3) Camera Settings. Know your camera. Working behind the lens alongside other photographers I always quiz these photographers on how well they know their camera settings. You don't need to know every detail - but the basics you should know will drastically improve your pictures. First, make sure you shoot in RAW format, not JPEG. Yes, it has happened to me in the past - I could have sworn I was in RAW format, after 60% of my trip I realized my settings had reset accidentally and I was actually shooting in JPEG. Also, be sure to set your camera on a 2-3 second shutter delay. Subtle vibrations while pushing your shutter button can be settled using a shutter delay - a common feature in most DSLR's. If your camera does not have a shutter delay feature - you can work around this using the camera in self-timer mode. Finally, be sure to shoot in the proper white balance setting. In a perfect world you would carry a grey card - shoot a test shot, then continue to shoot in the same white balance setting (hopefully auto) - then in Photoshop or Lightroom adjust your white balance to make sure your grey photo is in fact grey. I often hear of photographers accidentally shooting in different white balance modes and struggling later to get the accurate color, easy to fix if you take the time!