Patience in San Diego

La Jolla Cove, San Diego, California by Johnny Kerr

La Jolla Walkway © 2014 Johnny Kerr
5D Mk III & 24-70 mm f/2.8L II lens. 59 mm, ISO 100, f/22, 90 sec.

When my family decided to vacation for a few days in San Diego I knew that I wanted to take along my camera. I needed to create some new images. The problem, however, is that I’m bored with nature photography and didn’t really want to lug around 15 lbs of equipment to take pictures of the beach. My problem with landscape and seascape images is that you can only look at so many of them before they all start to look the same. By and large, there’s nothing incredibly special about most landscape photography; people go out to beautiful locations and take pictures of something that is already beautiful without really doing anything unique or expressive with it. When done well, they still just end up looking like every other postcard or motivational poster.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some wonderful landscape photographers out there creating stellar work. There certainly are. But that quality of work is usually the result of professionals scouting for remote locations that are mostly unseen and special, and visiting them in the right light during the right time of year and photographing them in a way that is expressive of their unique style and vision. That doesn’t typically happen when you’re casually vacationing in a densely populated recreational area with your wife and two-year-old in tow.

Mission Beach, San Diego, California by Johnny Kerr

Twenty-One, Mission Beach © 2014 Johnny Kerr
5D Mk III & 24-70 mm f/2.8L II lens. 35 mm, ISO 100, f/22, 90 sec.

So a few weeks before the trip I began asking myself questions like, “How do I create some meaningful images that won’t look like every other tourist’s Instagram snapshots from that weekend? How am I going to find interesting scenes to shoot that aren’t full of tourists without ditching my family? Is it going to be worth it to drag my equipment around the whole trip?” I found a possible solution to these questions in the form of a 3.0 (10-stop) neutral density filter.

A neutral density filter is a dark piece of glass that is mounted on the front of a camera lens to reduce the amount of light coming in. Essentially, it is equivalent to wearing sunglasses on a sunny day. The benefit of a neutral density filter is that it allows you to slow down the camera’s shutter, allowing any moving elements (such as water) to be blurred, without overexposing the image. The other benefit is that, when in a highly populated area, I can slow my shutter enough that moving objects (such as people) won’t be captured at all. For example, in the 21 Mission Beach image above, there were people walking around on the beach during my 1.5 minute exposure but since they kept moving the camera never “saw” them. The result is an image of a seemingly empty beach and the calm, peaceful water and clouds smoothed out by time.

Scripps Pier, San Diego, California by Johnny Kerr

Pier © 2014 Johnny Kerr
5D Mk III & 24-70 mm f/2.8L II lens. 50 mm, ISO 100, f/22, 60 sec.

Working with long exposure photography forces you to plan ahead and pre-visualize your shot. And it requires patience. This kind of approach is exactly what I needed at the time. Our trip to San Diego was a much needed getaway to release the stress from our highly demanding jobs as educators. We needed to slow down, reflect and re-energize. Creating a long exposure image forces you to slow down and be patient while light slowly gathers in the camera. It cannot be rushed. Since each exposure takes a minute or more to make, you have to make each one count. Poor planning results in a poor image and then several minutes have gone by and all the while the lighting and environmental conditions are changing. You need to have a sense of how the motion (in this case, moving water) in the scene is going to look when captured over a span of time in a single image.

Even though landscape (or seascape, in this case) photography isn’t really what I get excited about as a photographer, I still went out and created something. I may decide after the novelty wears off that these images don’t belong in my portfolio, or a few may remain. What I do know is that a huge part of my philosophy is to keep shooting and trying new things. If nothing else I’ve done that and gained experience, and perhaps an image or two that I can be proud of.

Crystal Pier, San Diego, California by Johnny Kerr

Crystal Pier © 2014 Johnny Kerr
5D Mk III & 24-70 mm f/2.8L II lens. 25 mm, ISO 100, f/22, 90 sec.