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White Water, Garrapta, Big Sur

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 5 February 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


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With he posting of today's image I pose the question: "How far does one push the limits of safety to get an image?" This may look somewhat calm but I assure you, my radar was up as I was standing on a rock shelf basically surrounded by ocean.

I had been working below the Whale's Back in Garrapata State Park near sunset when my originally desired composition (at an entirely different location) was simply not going to work. I told Mike Hall (Scott Schilling was also with us) that because I was in doubt, I was going to shoot towards the light (a formula that has proven successful in the past). The light, in this case, was where the sun was setting to the west. But shooting towards the light, in and of itself, is not a recipe for success unless some interesting element of the landscape is incorporated.

What was interesting on this evening were the large waves, leftover swells from six straight days of pounding Pacific storms, which had battered California. Huge waves would form literally a couple hundred yards in front of me without warning and come pouring across this rough shelf. That peaked my interest, but was it safe? Could I make it to higher land if a mistimed waved suddenly formed?

I watched some of the largest waves and determined I could stand at the top of this one shelf where this image was captured. Though the white water makes this seem relatively shallow, I can assure you that the shelf drops off up to 20 feet on either side of me. Keeping a close eye on the size of the new waves, I would cautiously make my image, then prepare for the next set. Soon after this wave broke, which produced this dazzling white water rushing seemingly to my feet, a new wave formed that was much larger than what I had been witnessing.

My alert radar kicked into high gear and I scrambled off my perch, down the backside (where water had been enveloping) and rapidly up to high ground. After the waves began to recede a bit, I felt comfortable enough to return to my original position, but by then, the color on the horizon was fading and the show was about over.

Once returning to the headland, Mike showed me some images he had made which really showed off the height of the waves in relation to my position. Scott also told a story of a woman hiker who had been swept away off a trail by a large wave a week prior. These rocks are extremely jagged and could shred a person to bits if caught in a turbulance of water. I questioned myself on the drive home and later that night (as my wife reminded me that we had teenagers to raise) if I had taken too big of a risk.

Dynamic images take some active involvement on behalf of the photographer. I could not show the force of this ocean with a wide-angle lens standing back on the headlands. But after seeing Mike's images, I saw he did just that with a medium telephoto. Was this image worth the risk? It's nice, but it won't win an award. I'm not even sure if Getty will accept it, only time will tell. I will file this experience away and think twice the next time I want to get a little too close to an angry sea.

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III 1/4 second F/16.0 ISO 200 24 mm

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