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Sunstar and Portal, Pfeiffer Beach Arch, Big Sur

Posted by
Don Smith (California, United States) on 19 December 2010 in Landscape & Rural.


Winter Big Sur Photo Workshop - Magic Light and The Pfeiffer Beach Arch - January 11-14, 2011 (Workshop Sold Out)
Northern Arizona Photo Workshop - Grand Canyon, Upper Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Sedona - March 16-20, 2011
(Workshop Sold Out)
Spring Big Sur Workshop - 4th Annual Wildflowers and Color - April 17-20, 2011 (space available)
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Summer Big Sur - 3rd Annual Mystical Fog and Colorful Headlands Photo Workshop - August 23-26, 2011 (space available)
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Over the years, Big Sur's iconic Pfeiffer Beach Arch has been a pilgrimage for landscape photographers from around the world. Thanks to constant exposure via the internet, the number of photographers in quest of photographing the magic light through the arch's portal has grown. In fact, I have reinstated my Winter Big Sur Workshop this January to take advantage of this phenomenon before the sun moves too far north and the magic light disappears for the year. The Workshop sold out rather quickly this year!

On a recent visit to Pfeiffer, I challenged myself to find something a bit different than what I had done on my past visits over the years (not an easy feat). One of the interesting elements, at least to me, is how the small kelp, which is attached to the rocks in front of the arch, tends to glow from backlighting as the sun lowers towards the opening of the portal.

I decided to take a low perspective with my 16-35 mmL lens and feature this rim light and glow. I tried to not let any of the tips of the rocks merge with the base of the sandstone. This allowed for the creation of depth. One rock on the far right did but it crossed over to base of the sandstone enough to not give the appearance of merging.

Luckily my position allowed for the sun to catch to top right edge of the portal and at f/16, I was able to capture a sun star - an extra bonus! There was absolutely no way to hold detail through the portal as the contrast range was close to 13 stops of light. Even using an HDR program would have made the blend look unnatural, so I let wash out.

Recently I was sent an image where the photographer captured the entire range of light but tried to pass it off as a single frame (with reflected light illuminating the sandstone). Problem was, the sun was setting so I questioned what light was reflecting? It was a fantastic processing job and a cool image nonetheless.

For this image, I did process the RAW file twice to allow a bit more exposure on the foreground rocks. Upon reflection, I'm not sure if I made enough of a different image from what I have done before but then again, no two images are ever the same.

I'll return to Pfeiffer next month with my workshop students. It will be fun helping them find their own unique perspective of this amazing scene!

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Maria Draper from California, United States

Wow, Don, I knew I would put myself in your shadow! :)
Absolutely gorgeous, I could not wait for 9 pm to see your image...
It seems you had a low tide...which makes your image different and unique, of course...
When I visited there, the tide was relatively high...
I am looking forward to more from this beautiful location...
Have a wonderful evening and Sunday

19 Dec 2010 5:10am

@Maria Draper: Hi Maria, yes, we did have a low tide which is typical for this time of year near sunset, surprised you had a higher tide. With all the rain and clouds, who knows when we will get another sunny day, but I am sure there are more to come. Thanks as always for your kind comments.

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

I really love this! It is a unique and really beautiful view of this, I agree- I love the glowing kelp bits!!!

19 Dec 2010 4:12pm

@Tracy: Hi Tracy, they tend to have a reddish hue to them and that was what drew my eye. I know you have photographed this arch numerous times and it gets more and more difficult to find a different take. Hope you are staying dry today!

Candais from Lisieux, Canada


19 Dec 2010 4:33pm

@Candais: Hi Candais, enough said! BTW - welcome to my blog.

guillaume from Paris, France

Magic shot ! Wonderful ! *****

19 Dec 2010 4:58pm

@guillaume: Thank you Guillaume.

Marc from Chardonne, Switzerland

amazing picture Don !

19 Dec 2010 5:07pm

@Marc: I appreciate it Marc.

Magda from Vancouver, Canada

Breathtaking! Magical light

19 Dec 2010 6:04pm

@Magda: It only lasts for about a two month period at best Magda, then one has to be lucky enough to catch a clear day. Everything just came together for this image. Thanks for writing.

Richard from Montferland, Netherlands

Beautiful Don!! Like the composition of the photo and the sunlight through the gate! Also the textures in this shot are beautiful!!

19 Dec 2010 7:17pm

@Richard: One of my basic premises of landscape photography is to work as close to 90-degrees off-axis to the sun. This little guideline seems simple but yields huge results, especially in allowing for textures to be captured as you mention.

James Guillory Photography from Garner, United States

I've been out there a bunch, and it is hard to come up with something different. Just being out there when the light starts to come through. Its a pretty unique little place. You couldn't have placed that sun star and better. Very nice image Smith....

19 Dec 2010 8:41pm

@James Guillory Photography: I keep saying I'm not going back and then every year I find myself there once again. It's kind of like chasing Horsetail Falls in Yosemite, it just has a certain lure and you have the hopes of seeing it just a bit different from the last time.

Richard from Duns, United Kingdom

This is simply amazing!

19 Dec 2010 8:46pm

@Richard: Thanks Richard.

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

In fact this is , when the Conquistadore Don Miguel Juan Carlos just reach the big Atayahualpa Maya temple...Just when he finally had open the big secret door...

19 Dec 2010 9:16pm

@KriKridesign: I love that line, thanks for sending it!

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

Well I have read everyone's comment... I usually don't do that, so I can just let it flow - but I did it here. And I have to agree with everyone about the magical and amazing nature of this image. As you noted, there are plenty of folks, pro and amateur of any level - who venture here to capture some magic. But the challenge, in my view, goes beyond catching the light nicely which would definitely be cool. But when in the presence of a magnificent scene like the light shining through the arch, the challenge becomes how can one go beyond that magnificence and present the scene to in such a way that is truly unique.

Well, this is stunning. And the costar (the kelp) has, arguably, come very close to stealing the show. At the very least, the kelp and your perspective have provided that stunning magnificence...that uniqueness, that makes this image so awesome. That red glow is just magnetic and all I could say was "OH" when I saw it all over the edges of the rocks. The sunstar and the glow and lighting throughout just work so well to make this one a true winner . Just a masterful, masterful image, Don. I love it!

19 Dec 2010 9:36pm

@Denny Jump Photo: I think part of the success of this image is that one's eye is drawn immediately to the opening of the arch (obviously the brightest area of the scene) but then has time to brach out and explore the rest of the image. As I said in the narrative, I'm not so sure I just haven't re-created what has been done before. The rain is still coming down out here Denny but it looks like it will be starting to dry up beginning Thursday. Here's wishing you safe travels.

Judy aka L@dybug from Brooksville, Florida, United States

I love this Pfeiffer 'window' and you captured it beautifully. The sunstar and the beautifully backlit kelp are the icing on the cake!

20 Dec 2010 12:05am

@Judy aka L@dybug: Thank you Judy, as it turned out, we haven't had a clear enough day since I have captured this image to see this light again. We have been getting drenched with a steady stream of tropical moisture as the jet stream seems to have parked itself right over the top of us. It would be nice to have a bit of your Florida sunshine!

Stefan from Thiersee, Austria


20 Dec 2010 1:15am

@Stefan: Thanks Stefan!

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

superb control on the light in this scene! it is very nicely balanced all around and even if there are a few darker areas then it can work to emphasise the shapes of the rocks and the contrast! i like the starburst effect - it gives this extra focal point in the scene and just in the right place too - right where the light is "born" in the arch - fantastic work!

20 Dec 2010 3:11am

@DarkElf: I always appreciate your well-articulated responses DarkElf, hope you are having a great day.

Maria Draper from California, United States

Don, thanks for your lovely usual, you are very generous and kind. Hope next time (which I really hope it will be this current "season") to do better...
As a general rule, I never come up with something good enough the first time I shoot, or do anything (for that matter)...just like trying out a new recipe...though those I get right sometimes the first time :)
Truly now, for me...I must know something, or some place really well, to do well enough for my own expectations.
Yes...I love the backlit kelp here, too...always love backlit vegetation or anything, it's the best treat light can give us, in my opinion
Have a wonderful evening and a great new week!

20 Dec 2010 3:30am

@Maria Draper: I know it is more difficult to photograph iconic scenes because our minds are cluttered by the vast array of images we have seen. I thought you image was beautiful but I know what you mean about finding something unique. Tough to do with a scene that has limited access such as this arch. I look forward to seeing more of your attempts. You could do a book (and a very unique book) on Pt. Lobos!

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Magical !!! What a spectacular capture... I love it Don ! Have a lovely day :)

21 Dec 2010 9:40am

@Tamara: You also Tamara :}

Scott F. Schilling from San Martin, United States

I like this composition work and I appreciate your use of the foreground rocks in this scene. It definitely gives me the feeling of being right there! The sunstar adds a great touch to the scene! I think I have finally recovered from the 3 am wake up and I'm ready to go again.

22 Dec 2010 12:25am

@Scott F. Schilling: Let's keep an eye on the next storm and I will let you know.

steve loos from hollister, United States

Nice catch the sun burst Don! Thanks for the pointer on keeping the tops of foreground rocks off the base of the cliff; this does help with depth of field.

22 Dec 2010 4:05am

@steve loos: Hi Steve, thanks for writing. I'm not so sure it helps with the depth-of-field as much as creating the illusion of depth, but I believe that is what you meant. I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas!

Mici from Toronto, Canada

The sun star is amazing, the whole shot is as well, very nice POV

26 Dec 2010 3:17am

Helma from Tehran, Iran

wow ... another graet shot !!!
wonderful !!

29 Dec 2010 6:29am