A Symphony of Barking Rocks
A few days earlier, I visited this spot in Malibu, California and was woefully underprepared for the rich scenery: near the summit of Point Dume, the crashing waves muted the barking of seals lounging on the rocky outcrops far below.
Hiking along the edge of a treacherous cliff on a narrow sandy trail, I noticed that the thick brush would clear every so often to reveal a dramatic line-up of rocks thrusting out into the surf. The cerulean water contrasted beautifully with the white froth as waves pounded the boulders. Crowding seals basked in the sunlight and were cooled by the ocean’s spray.
When I attempted to do photographic justice to the scene, I found that I failed to capture the essence of this historic place, that was once the home of Chumash Indians. Upon reviewing my images, I saw that the quick snapshots may have documented my immediate experience, but they lacked the time and patience that every landscape deserves. In the above image, I noted that the foreground shrubbery was excessively busy and consumed too much of the image, the line of rocks curved away from the natural flow of the scene, and the sea beyond seemed chopped off at an arbitrary angle. In a generation of iPhone photography, I reminded myself to slow down and give nature the proper respect it warrants. With my own advice in mind, I resolved to venture out to this location again once properly prepared.
Weighted down by my backpack full of the necessary camera gear, I returned to my location in the middle of the day. To those knowledgeable about photography, this may seem like an odd time to venture out. To those who have no idea what I am talking about, I would emphasize: many landscape photographers will shoot photos only at sunrise and sunset for the ethereal orange glow that occurs when the sun kisses the sea. In my case, however, I would be shooting down a cliff, which meant I wanted bright lighting with a lot of contrast.
Setting up my camera on the precarious path, I squeezed my body against the rock face behind me to let the plagues of tourists pass, stop for a minute to admire the view, take their phone out for a quick selfie, and then move on. Anticipating the remarkable difference between my carefully planned and executed shot and their touristy, point-and-shoot shots from the scene, I could not wait to begin shooting. Cringing every time that a stray foot seemed tempted to knock my tripod over and subsequently ruin my exposure, I resorted to standing protectively, as a motherly shield, by my camera’s side.
Many micro-adjustments to my composition later, I had the shot perfectly lined up to focus the eye on the prominent rock structures dotted with seals. Beyond these rocks protruding from the cliff face below, a distant kelp forest textured the clear azure water.
Cognizant of the immeasurable time nature spent crafting this viewpoint, I opted for the photographic technique called “long exposure” to give the scene eight minutes of my time! Allowing the camera to slowly let in light from the scene for eight minutes of exposure time is an extreme amount of time even for “long exposure” photography. This meant that I needed to use very dark ND (neutral density) filters in front of my camera. These glass filters, pictured above attached to the front of my lens, allow the camera to capture small amounts of light over a long period of time in order to properly expose the image and achieve the smoothed out effect.
In contrast, in a phone picture, the exposure is a minuscule fraction of a second. I chose the “long exposure” effect to smooth out the thundering sets and capture the calm feeling within when observing this marvel of nature. In general, “long exposure” gives scenes with moving water or dispersing clouds a pattern of blurred movement that creates a dreamy, peaceful photograph. While many see the ocean as an ever-changing chaotic beast, I see it as a predictable, gentle entity that has strived for eons to create the “perfect” wave without success. I held my breath for eight minutes that felt as if Time itself was staving off the mid-afternoon sun’s descent for hours. Painfully aware that the final image would be ruined if the camera moved at all while the sensor was taking in light, once the shot was complete, I breathed a long-awaited sigh of relief and basked in the glorious seascape image on the back of my camera screen.
As is always the case, an image transforms in character when imported from the camera to the computer. After allowing time to mull over how wonderful the actual landscape was, I was ready to look at it critically and examine its imperfections under the microscope of my big computer screen. Right away, I noticed that elements along the bottom edge of the frame were distracting to the eye and diverted from the purpose of the image. In addition, as with most images straight out of camera, the files appear washed out, 2D, and not as lifelike as I experienced the scene.
When I realized that I had neglected to consider the effect of the “long exposure” on the seals on the rocks, I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. If luck was not on my side, the movement of the seals over the eight minutes of exposure would create a mess of blur, effectively ruining the image. This would occur because “long exposure” times average out any moving elements over the exposure time. Thus, the more time something is stationary in the frame, the more defined it will appear in the final image. Since resting seals may hold their position for a maximum of several minutes at a time, the clarity of the seals depended on mitigating their movement as much as possible. Unfortunately, I do not have the power to control seals. Fortunately for me, however, these seals were incredibly lazy! In fact, the seal on the forefront of one the rocks didn’t move at all and caught the light perfectly on his pelt. This small detail makes the image stand out upon closer inspection, because it provides a central, dramatic focal point for the viewer to admire. That one seal gives the image an almost heroic quality. This animal seems to embody an essential human trait as it looks out into the untamed ocean, entertaining visions of nature-defying power.
With in-depth analysis in mind, my editing process begins. Editing is a crucial step in the photography process and should not be discounted. In fact, whenever people take pictures with their phone, they don’t realize that the phone’s software edits the photographs before they pop up in the photos application. If people saw the RAW images, meaning the images without any processing, that came out of your phone, they would be shocked. Since most of us have only seen the “edited” pictures, these RAW images would lack contrast, vibrancy, and true-to-life colors. An unedited snapshot of your dog chasing a ball would likely look washed out and lacking detail; You would not be able to make out the fine texture of the dog’s coat and the vibrant red ball would appear to be a light pinkish shade. In short, the average person would be very disappointed with the results. The processing corrects for the deficiency of all cameras. Human eyes see so much more color and detail than a digital sensor can resolve and a screen is capable of showing. Thus, when I edit my images, I keep the often-paradoxical forces of reality and creative liberty in mind. Artistically improving an image from its RAW format out of the camera, my goal is to make it look as life-like as possible.
For this photograph, I corrected the exposure to brighten the image up, added clarity and contrast, and cropped the frame to better showcase the main focus points and perspective of the image. Noise and small hotspots (white pixels) can be introduced when shooting “long exposure,” so I corrected them using noise reduction and the spot heal tool. Additionally, I tweaked the colors of the ocean to make it more vibrant and true-to-life. With proper editing, an image can come to life and transport the viewer to a place they might never be capable of visiting. In this case, I hope that you, the viewer and de facto art connoisseur, feel the misting ocean spray, hear the faded cacophony below, smell the crisp sea breeze, and absorb the tranquility of the Pacific Ocean.