Rochelle and I love our Roadtrek Agile, because we can pick up and go at little notice, with only the barest preparations. The last two weekends we threw our cameras, a change of clothes and a bag of groceries into Charley and headed off to some of our favorite California shooting locations.
If you’ve driven up or down California, you have surely seen our major highways, and you probably stopped at one of the numerous rest stops that show up every hundred miles or so. But what you might not know is California is home to another, completely different highway. One that offers some of the most picturesque rest stops you’ve ever seen. Of course, this highway is for the birds.
And no, I don’t mean it’s full of potholes and run-down truck stops. I mean it is “literally” for the birds. It’s called the Pacific Flyway, and every year hundreds of thousands of birds make their winter migration up and down it through the State of California. And being welcoming hosts, we’ve set aside vast tracks of land in the middle of the State for our feathered friends to sit back, rest up and grab a bite to eat.
Recently, we visited a half dozen of these “fowl” resorts, and I wish I could say I came home with dozens of perfectly focused, perfectly exposed photographs of the geese, the cranes and the herons we saw as we slowly drove through each wildlife refuge, but I can’t. I can’t because photographing moving birds is a skill I haven’t yet mastered. Oh sure, I got a few. But I think they were more from luck than competence. It’s really hard.
It seems like every subject I’ve tried to photograph the last couple of weeks was moving at the speed of light. So while I’m normally a “set up the tripod and drink a cup of coffee” type of photographer, this month’s photo challenges kept me on my toes. And birds top the list when it comes to “Challenging”.
Why is it so tough? Well, to start with, the birds tend to shy away from the road and since you’re not allowed to get out and hike in most places, they are pretty far away.
Second, if the birds happen to be, from some amazing stroke of luck, fairly close to the road, they’re going to take off as soon as they see our ten-foot-tall van coming at them. Charley is a lot of things, but inconspicuous is not one of them.
Third, when the birds see you coming they don’t just get out of the way. They get out of the way in a big, fat hurry. And when birds are in a hurry, they flap their little wings like crazy. Honestly, I think you’d have to shoot at 1/4000 of a second to have a chance at getting the little devils in focus. (and if you’re a photographer, you know how hard it is to get a 1/4000 second shutter speed when you’re using a f/5.6 400mm lens on a foggy morning. If you’re thinking “impossible”, you’re thinking correctly.)
And fourthly (Don’t you just love the way the word “fourthly looks? It’s one of those words that would be more comfortable in an Elizabethan novel than my silly little blog.)
Anyway, fourthly, the Central California valleys are home to farms, some more farms and a couple of more farms and finally, fog. And while the farms don’t really get into your photographs, the fog sure does. Not only does it block out much of the light, it turns everything in your shots gray. Gray sky. Gray birds. Gray trees. Gray grass. I mean it, it’s all gray.
When you download your photographs, your first thought is you accidently shot everything through a gray dish towel… Be prepared to spend some major time hacking around in Lightroom or Photoshop fixing up your shots. Hint – first thing you should do is move your black point to the left. Far, far to the left. That’ll help a bit.
So why go to so much trouble? Well, to begin with, seeing and hearing thousands of pure white snow geese take to the sky is something everybody should experience at least once in their lives. And then, there’s the challenge and the hope that if you continue to try, you’ll eventually succeed.
So, I’ll be reading some blogs and downloading some eBooks on wildlife photography before our next outing and I’ll continue to practice the craft as well. Hopefully, the results will improve over time.
Of course, if you’ve ever read one of my blog posts before, you know there is more to this story. I may be a lot of things, but succinct ain’t one of them.
I’ve been heading over to the Monterey area since I was a kid and I’ve always loved it. I’d live there if I could stand paying close to a million dollars for an average house on a crowded street with no garage. I guess lots of people really; really want to live there too. And even more want to visit. That’s why I was so surprised when we showed up at the Laguna Seca Raceway campgrounds (just minutes outside of Monterey). It was a Friday night and the place was nearly empty.
There are three separate camping areas, two of them with electric and water hookups and one without much of anything. We chose the one without hookups because it was cheaper ($32 vs $37 a night) and it was at the top of a hill with a gorgeous view. This is one of those campgrounds that I loved, but would hesitate to recommend. The campgrounds are there for the racetrack, and I have the feeling a busy race weekend would be resemble hell on earth for us quiet loving Roadtrekers. But the folks at Mazda Raceway are kind enough to post their schedule on their website so it’s easy enough to avoid the fans.
But even on a quite January weekend, the track doesn’t go to waste. We got to see some cart racers eating up the track. And we got to photograph them too, but only through a rather large and intimidating fence. I tried a few panning shots and I think the fence actually enhanced the feeling of speed, so I wasn’t disappointed. (I told you everything we’ve been photographing has been moving, right?)
The weekend was bright and sunny and warm. This should be exceptionally weird for California in January, but unfortunately, because of our four-year-old drought, it isn’t as uncommon as you would think. Or like. The sun was beating down like a 1000 watt light bulb and photography of just about any kind was out of the question during the middle of the day. So, Rochelle and I tooled around in Charley, exploring Moss Landing and the Carmel Valley. Nothing much to report either photographically or gastronomically, but it was a pleasant way to spend the day.
We did check out Veteran’s Memorial Park in Monterey because I’ve read they have some RV camping and I thought that would be wonderful because it’s so close to the Wharf and Pacific Grove. Alas, we didn’t like the looks of it at all. The spaces are small, crowded and mostly on a slant. And from the rules, it appeared you risked losing your site if you went off exploring during the day. It really wasn’t bad, but with the wide open spaces available at Laguna Seca, the Veterans’ park just didn’t cut it.
We wanted to go to our favorite Monterey-area location, Point Lobos, but we knew better than to try it before 3:00 PM on a sunny weekend afternoon. But that worked out well for us. People were leaving in droves when we arrived, so there was plenty of parking and a lot less folks to get in our pictures. Once again, we were happy to have our Roadtrek Agile because RV’s are strictly forbidden from the park. It’s so nice to have a vehicle that can be a van or an RV depending on the situation.
Our reason for heading to Point Lobos, besides it being one of the most beautiful spots on the coast, was for the waves. I saw in the news the coast was experiencing some super-sized wave action, and we wanted a chance to shoot some of that frothy goodness. But of course, like everything else lately, the waves would simply not sit still and let me take their picture. They had the gall to roar by with hardly a wink or a wave (ha, ha, get it) while I fumbled around with my settings. I tried shooting fast to freeze the action, but I actually ending up preferring to slow my shutter down just a bit to capture the “feeling” of the wave as it crashed against the rocks.
Rochelle of course, color-hound that she is, found the inside light as the setting sun showed through the body of a massive wave. She too slowed down the shutter, and in her case, she came away with a photograph that has both abstract and painterly qualities.
I was a bit jealous so I said “to heck with it” and pulled out my iPhone. I was itching to try the high-frame-rate Slo-Mo video mode. What a blast. The little iPhone did a great job of capturing every detail of the wave’s approach and crash landing, and the combination of the iPhone 6 Plus’ optical image stabilization and high speed shooting kept everything nice and steady. I can hardly wait to try this feature again.
It was a great day and a great weekend of shooting and it was capped off by a surprisingly good Yelp find in Monterey. It’s no secret the entire Monterey Peninsula is home to some very good eats, but they don’t often come cheap. So we were thrilled to find a little place at the Monterey Mall (right off Hwy 1) called Dametra Fresh Mediterranean. Great food, great prices and unfortunately a line out the door. Like I said before, there are lots of people in the world who like the Monterey area just as much as we do. And sometimes, you just have to share.
So there you have it. Another perfectly good afternoon wasted reading about our photographic wanderings. Thanks so much for your time. I know your time is important, and I hope I didn’t waste any of it.
Let me know if you’d like any details on the places I write about in this blog. I’d be happy to give you as much of an inside scoop as I can.