The last time I was in Berkeley, it was specifically to take photographs inside the famous Berkeley City Club. Designed by Julia Morgan (the architect of Hearst Castle) and built in 1929, this steel-reinforced concrete building dubbed “The Little Castle” began as a women’s only social club with 5,000 members and residence to now a club with both women and men and doubles as a historic hotel.
This time, we were here as hotel guests. Quaint and perhaps a little dated by today’s luxury hotel standards, it was the cozy, intimate, and throwback vibe that made it a perfect weekend stay location.
Shockingly, in the 3 days spent as a guest, this was the only composition made with the dSLR camera and only 2 shots were taken. There are times when it is better to enjoy the surroundings and the person you are there with than the need to capture every nook and cranny with a camera and a tripod.
There are times I lived closer to the San Francisco Bay Area, not that 2.5 hours is really that long of a drive time. Yet the area has so much to offer photographically. Each well-chosen location yields a handful of compositions and a handful more if you have the time and patience to revisit a location for the various atmospheric and weather conditions.
This day in the Headlands was not the usual photography exploring free-for-all (translation: finding slightly original compositions in overly shot locations) that I am used to. I usually pick one or two sunrise locations, leave the house extra early for the drive, shoot said locations, and explore for the rest of the day. This day was centered around the sunset hike workshop we were lucky enough to be chosen for with Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (web, Facebook) photographer Mason Cummings (web, Facebook). The two of us, two more lucky photogs, and Mason.
He contacted us a few days prior and asked what type of photography or locations we wanted to do or see. I had requested less seen compositions of familiar sights, a place to shoot panoramas, and maybe some macro-type shots using kit lenses. After scouting a few locations near Mt. Tam and the Headlands, he decided on a ridge above Fort Cronkhite and just below Hill 88. The location provided sweeping views of San Francisco and all the way up the coast, Mt. Tam, macro work, and the sunset dipping into the Pacific.
The conditions were a bit tough since we were mostly shooting perpendicular to the sun on a windy cloudless day. I had to be aware of lens flare from the sun, intended and unintended silhouetting of foreground objects, and just the overall high contrast of the scene. Of course, when given the opportunity to capture layered hills, I am all over it. While the brief 90 minute shooting time frame did not help a low-volume shooter like me, it was helpful to hear how Mason close the location (rock outcroppings forming leading lines to the sunset — that somehow none of us remembered to shoot). At least now I know of additional spots to shoot from. It is a matter of walking a few (thousand) extra steps, taking that trail, and finding that shot.
Continuing with attempts to not shoot the same compositions we frequently see, I have been focusing on smaller vignettes, particularly the details of structures or where are areas of light and shadows.
You may think I am against shooting the iconic shots. I am not. But there are mainly 3 non-mutually exclusive reasons to shoot “the shot” at a well-known locations. 1) It’s your first time there and how you shoot “the shot” helps you gauge your work against the photogs before you. 2) You sell your photographs as a stream of income. If you have “the shot” in your portfolio, there is a chance someone will buy it. This also applies to photogs that have been to a spot tens or even hundreds of times to hopefully capture those one or two rare moments. 3) Hmm, I’m sure I had a third reason that escapes me right now.
Yet, it is exercises like the image above that make you a better photographer. The ability to see beyond the obvious. The ability to search for compositions. While the beginning photographer or even a casual tourist/visitor snaps photographs in a documentary-style catalog of images, the more seasoned photog should have a different mindset.
The seasoned photog needs to evoke emotion, feelings, or thought from their images. That may mean taking a relatively bland midday scene, but seeing enough in the structure, light, and shadows to see a possible B&W/monochrome photograph in their head.
So when I visit the next iconic location, I will take “the shot”, but I will also try to remember to search for the smaller vignettes fewer photogs look for.
A closer view of a well-known scene. The Golden Gate Bridge has been photographed every which way over the years. Ultimately, this composition is probably no different from dozens of others. So the key is to process the image in a way to convey a specific mood and feel. In this case, a bit of a Christopher Nolan-esque gritty Gotham City look.
After a 3 week hiatus of shooting and blogging, I am slowly getting back into the flow. All it took was a 2-hour drive to Marin in the middle of the night! Thanks for bearing with me. I will continue to write posts with no photos on various topics every few days.
(Click thru the image for a slightly larger view)
As we know, landscape photographs tend to look rather horrid in the middle of the day. The bright sunlight washes out details, removes shadows and shading, and reminds me of bad vacation photos I have taken over the years. The documentary approach to taking a snapshot of everything I see so I can post on Instagram, Facebook, or whatnot results in hastily composed, the-ocean-is-tilted-and-draining-to-the-right, and way too many elements crammed into a photograph.
Yet there are times when we are saved from bad light. Sometimes there is fog in the distance providing beautifully layered hills. I do have it in my mind to re-crop this image or a similar horizontal I shot to include only the hills and sky and omit the white water entirely. Another edit for another day.
I recently had the realization that there are many, many panorama shots in my catalog I never had a chance to put together. I am not necessarily a fan of panoramas, but if the images are there, it is worth the minimal effort to stitch the images together. These 4 shots were taken with the point-and-shoot camera I had handy and it turned out ok.
A result of the quick walkabout in downtown Oakland’s Lakeside Apartments District after visiting the former Oakland YWCA 1 block over. Within this historic apartments district are historic luxury hotels, clubs, and apartment buildings, some in the Art Deco design, that sprung up due to the location’s proximity to the streetcar lines.
(click through the photo for 700px view)
Many of these historic apartments are now rent-controlled studio apartments standing next door to new market-priced luxury loft high rise buildings. The foreground Cliff Apartments were built in the 1920’s while the white Art Deco Hill Castle Apartments in the back was completed in 1930.