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TOP CALIFORNIA LANDSCAPE LOCATIONS

27TH JAN '2210 MIN READ

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Photograph a variety of different landscapes in a short period of time.

California is the best state in America for landscape photography by far, in my opinion. Just look what it has to offer; majestic mountains, deserts with seemingly endless sand dunes and a variety of cacti, rugged coastlines and nine national parks, more than any other state. As a landscape photographer, I never get tired of photographing this beautiful state.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I did a road trip covering four different landscape environments over a relatively short period of five days. I would normally spend more time exploring, but I knew these locations well and wanted to re-visit some of my old haunts before I had to fly back to the UK. First, I headed 3 hours east of LA to Joshua Tree National Park where I was eager to try a focus stack technique in the Cholla Cactus Garden. On previous visits, I had nothing but blue skies, so I was glad to have some clouds for sunrise. I placed my Nikon D850 mounted with a 16-35mm f/4 lens within inches of the sharp spiny cactus needles to fill the foreground. The rest of the frame occupied the dawn clouds, which were lighting up nicely. I let the autofocus shift feature of the D850 make 10 exposures, which I combined in post using Zerene Stacker. As the sun rose above the valley and broke through the clouds, I switched lenses to the Nikon 24mm 1.8 prime lens, which produces a fantastic sunburst effect. Even though I did a focus stack on this image as well, I used an aperture of f/16 to create the sunburst.

Only 3 hours south of Joshua Tree is the Algondones Dunes or Imperial Sand Dune Recreation Area. There are plenty of places to stay just over the border in Yuma Arizona. These dunes stretch for miles over the Mexican border and several times I had to wait for the border patrol helicopter to fly out of my shot as he kept making passes over me, probably wondering if I was an illegal visitor. I think the tripod set his mind to rest. After capturing the pre-dawn glow, it seem to take ages for the sun to break the horizon to give me the contrast I needed to bring out the patterns in the sand. I was surprised how cold it was even in the desert, but after all, it is January. It was so quiet and peaceful after the border patrol flew away. I was happy with my compositions using the 16-35mm lens coming in close to emphasise the patterns.

After cleaning the sand out of my boots, I drove 2 1/2 hours to the coast. La Jolla is a wonderful little artist community just north of San Diego with rugged bluffs and a beautiful coastline. La Jolla is famous for its resident seals and sea lions that bask all along the coast there. Some of the best locations to photograph them up close is Boomer Beach and La Jolla Cove. With sunset approaching, I walked down to a section of the coastline called The Tide Pools. It’s a great place to see tide pool life such as anemones and hermit crabs, but I came for the unusual patterns that have been eroded by the ocean. You need to coordinate the low tide with sunset so you can access these patterns along the coast. The water left in the depressions reflected the sky and I was hoping for a dramatic sky filled with colourful clouds to reflect in the water, but unfortunately, there were hardly any clouds to light up. I used my Nikon 24mm 1.8 prime lens and created three exposures with a 2-stop differential then combined these in Lightroom using the HDR feature.

For a complete contrast of environment, I drove 7 hours north to Yosemite National Park where there was still the remnants of the heavy snowfall that hit over the New Year. Driving long distances in California is like a Sunday drive out in the countryside in the UK, but much easier! Californians think nothing about doing a long drive like this for just a weekend, especially when you have a destination as grand as Yosemite National Park. I enjoy photographing Yosemite Valley during the winter months as there are far fewer tourists. There are iconic photo locations such as Tunnel View overlooking the valley where you will have to arrive early before sunrise to claim your space along the wall even in the winter. This is only about a 20-foot section that is clear of trees for an unobstructed view. As the conditions were forecasted for clear skies and no mist, there wasn’t any point going. Besides I had a location in mind that I discovered years ago where surprisingly hardly anyone goes. The Merced River winds its way through the valley and there are places where the water is still enough for mirror reflections of El Capitan. As I walked along the bank through the snow I watched as the first light hit El Capitan. There wasn’t any rush to get the first light as I knew from previous experience that I had about half an hour before the light would be just how I wanted it.

I reached the bend in the river and the scene before me was absolutely jaw-dropping! I set the camera up with the 16-35mm lens as I watched the shadow move down the face of this incredible monolith. This was the lighting that I was after where the silhouette of the trees sit against the lit face of El Capitan. My natural inclination was to photograph a vertical composition, which worked perfectly, but the scene was too grand for a horizontal composition. The way around this is to photograph a vertical orientation panorama and crop a horizontal out of it. Looking at this scene, a panorama was screaming out to be made. The exposure range was quite extensive so I chose to make an HDR by shooting 3 exposures of each section with a 2 stop differential. In the end, I combined 33 exposures to complete the final image.

Further up the river, I found a different composition where the silhouette of the pine trees frame El Capitan. I used the curve of the snowy bank to lead into the frame. The fallen tree in the river helped to create a subtle S-shape in the composition. I decided to use a long exposure to make whispy lines from the moving water. The foreground was quite dark so it required a 3-minute exposure, then I selectively increased the foreground exposure in Lightroom.

After a couple of days in the valley, I was happy with the images I made and headed back to LA to catch my flight back to the UK. In the end, it was a great trip being able to photograph deserts, coastline and finally the crowning glory of Yosemite National Park all in only 5 days.

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