Behind the Photo- Santa Monica & Death Valley

Santa Monica

Under the Pier

Nikon N80, 28mm, Tri-x 400

No Filter


F 7.1 @ 1/30 sec

The beach was full, people everywhere, another beautiful day in Southern California. My brilliant idea to shoot a long exposure on the Santa Monica pier using my “Big Stopper” seemed to be a great success, but little did I know it was quite the opposite. Something happened with my filters and all of my long exposures came out with a bright white stripe right down the middle of frame. But I didn’t know this at the time, because I shoot film, and with film you just have to trust your instincts.

Luckily I did not stop after shooting on the pier, but decided to take a stroll on the beach. I took some shots on the beach, but after not getting anything that truly excited me, I decided to look around a bit. I saw some people hanging around under the pier, and noticed that many were walking through to the other side. I grabbed my Nikon N80, which had black-and-white film loaded at the time (Tri-X 400), and charged off into the darkness underneath the Santa Monica pier.

As I wandered around below the pier, I recalled that this was the place where legendary street photographer John Free was interviewed by Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography. I would encourage you to check out the video which is part of Ted’s YouTube series called “The Artist Series.” Ted’s work is inspiring, and features all sorts of legendary photographers.

Walking around under the Santa Monica pier, I started taking notice to the light. It was mid afternoon and the sun was high, but underneath the pier you could see the brightness just trying to creep in from all sides. The light was really interesting, but I was having a hard time figuring out what to shoot. I could shoot the pillars and try to make some sort of interesting pattern or perspective from them, but everything I tried wasn’t really doing it for me. I could shoot people as they walked through, but that really isn’t my thing, I feel really awkward and uncomfortable holding a camera up to strangers, especially without their permission. I know that is a big part of street photography and something that you just have to get over, but having never really done much street photography I can’t say that I’ve made it a priority.

I walked and walked and walked around until I found something, my own footprint in the sand. There it was, wait for me to include myself in the image without physically being in the image. I had made my mark in the sand, and now I was going to document it with my camera. I really liked this because by getting low, I could get really great detail in the sand, and great contrast throughout the image.

Probably the thing that I like best about this image is that it is mine. I walked around searching for an image, and came up with this idea just by being observant. It marks my existence, and my path leading to this exact spot under the Santa Monica Pier.

Death Valley

Devil’s Golfcourse

Nikon F100, 28mm, Acros 100

Lee Polarizer, Graduated Neutral Density Filter .6

Induro Tripod

F16 @ 1/125 sec

It was around 1pm when we made our way down into Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the US and one of the lowest in the world. The weather had been surprisingly pleasant, although temps slowly climbed the lower we got. At around 250 ft below sea level the thermometer registered 93 degrees F, which was a big jump from 40 degrees the night before. Sweat beaded down my face as I walked a seemingly endless distance out into the desert salt flats. Everything looked close, but distance is deceiving in the desert.

After shooting the hexagonal salt formations in Badwater, it was time to head out for the sunset shot. Just up the road 4 or 5 miles, the desert floor takes a completely different form. Jagged razor sharp salt deposits create an impassible landscape worthy of Mordor. Devil’s Golfcourse sits next to Badwater Basin and simply bakes in the sun day after day, further harshening its other worldly brittleness. While this type of landscape is unfriendly to adventurers, it is incredibly photogenic. What better way is there to get razor sharpness in your image than to shoot razor sharp subjects?

We drove right up to the location, and all I had to do was climb into the “Golfcourse” 10 or 15 feet. With every step was the sound of breaking crystal as shards of salt chipped under my weight and bounced down below. Soon enough I was seemingly immersed in the jagged landscape. I pulled out my tripod and started setting up, trying to avoid crouching too low and slicing my rear end. This was more difficult than expected, because there was literally no way to rest, and you could very easily cut yourself.

The sun started to set and created brilliant contrast between levels of salt deposits. The depth achieved by a backlit scene was everything I could have hoped for. I used a polarizer to darken the bright sky, and when that wasn’t enough, I slid in a .6 Lee graduated neutral density filter. The purpose of this filter is to darken the sky and bring the contrast of the image down. This lets me achieve the round white sun in a black sky rather than a completely blown out white sky. Add in the lens flare for an authentic feel, and this image is complete.


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