How To Predict a Colorful Sunset

Inspiration Point | Corona Del Mar, California

Inspiration Point | Corona Del Mar, California

I've been trying a free demo for a new service called Skyfire. It was recently added as a subscription service within the Photographer's Ephemeris app on iOS devices. Unfortunately, it hasn't been made available yet on the TPE app for Android devices, so I'm stuck having to use this service on my iPad. The idea is, your standard weather report can tell you basic information about how weather conditions will be but it doesn't predict how colorful the sunrise and sunset will be. That's where services such as Skyfire step in to fill that gap.

Before Skyfire, I would check the weather report for cloudy conditions and then head out to shoot photos with the hopes that the weather conditions would provide a beautiful sunset. As every landscape photographer knows and has experienced, a cloudy weather forecast is no guarantee for optimal conditions. A cloudy forecast could mean anything from being completely grey and overcast, to being clear skies with an occasional cloud. The only way to know for sure how conditions are is to take a leap of faith and drive to your destination, all while hoping for the best conditions along the way. Skyfire helps to alleviate the frustration of showing up to your destination only to find out that weather conditions will make for a very dull sunset.

How it works is, you search on the map within the TPE app for your destination and then tap sunrise or sunset. The TPE app will overlay color shading on the map surrounding your plot point. The color shading indicates how colorful the sunrise or sunset will likely be, relative to the plot point where you plan on shooting photos from. Red shading indicates a 90% or greater chance of there being a colorful sunset, yellow is a 75% chance, turquoise is 50% a chance, white is overcast, and clear indicates a clear sky with no clouds.

The concept is fantastic but it's not without its flaws. There's also a fairly big learning curve to be able to use it effectively. Sadly with all weather prediction services, you have to take it with a healthy sized grain of salt. In my experience using it, the forecast was accurate to a degree. The accuracy was limited to the exact area in the sky where the sun was setting, which is also what the TPE app helps you find, and is also the direction you will likely be photographing in if you're shooting landscape photos. There are some obvious exceptions to this. Often times you can turn your back to the sunset and experience even more beauty in the sky. However, if the sky is overcast, all hope is usually lost for experiencing a colorful sunset in any direction. This is the part that gets confusing because when I searched for Laguna Beach, the app shaded the entire region with yellow to indicate a 75% chance of a colorful sunset. In reality, I arrived in Laguna Beach to discover that the entire area was blanketed in dark grey clouds except for a small break where the sun was setting. This area in the sky was also being hidden by all the cliffs. I'm not entirely sure how Skyfire makes it's predictions but based on my experience, I suspect it takes into account what the local weather report predicts. On this particular date and time, the weather report was saying partly cloudy skies, which makes sense why Skyfire indicated a 75% chance for a colorful sunset. Case in point, Skyfire will only be as reliable as your local weather forecast.

Feeling frustrated, I got back in my car and headed North up Pacific Coast Highway to look for an unobstructed view of the sunset. By the time I got to Corona Del Mar I realized I had to stop driving and find a spot. The sun was setting quickly and I was almost out of time. I knew if I didn't stop right then, I would miss the opportunity to shoot photos completely.

I parked my car anyways a little further north than I usually do at Corona Del Mar and ran out to the railing against the edge of the cliff. Despite Skyfire telling me Corona Del Mar would have a colorful sunset, it too was blanketed in clouds. I couldn't believe it. I felt completely let down. I stood there against the railing and veered north while contemplating what to do. A small break in the clouds was began to form and the sunset started to look spectacular, just as Skyfire promised it would be. What I also discovered completely blew me away. There was a small look out point called Inspiration Point mid way down the cliff and a trail leading there. I couldn't believe how I had never discovered this before. I've been to Corona Del Mar more times than I can count and I never knew it was there. It was the absolute most perfect look out point overlooking Corona Del Mar and it was positioned right where the sun was setting. I ran down the trail to the look out point and stood there in pure bliss as the sun peaked itself through the clouds to light up the entire sky and the beach around me.


Somber Sky

Laguna Beach, CA

Laguna Beach, CA

I don't always find myself with an abundance of time in recent days. With work and family taking a priority in addition to hobby time being split between a classic Mustang and photography, evenings at the beach are a refreshing break from everyday life. What has made things more difficult is that I've been feeling a bit uninspired and discouraged lately. I knew I had to get out and shoot again though to get out of this funk. I didn't know where to go, nor did I even know what I wanted to photograph. I just knew I had to get myself out there and that I could count on Crescent Bay as a source of inspiration in a time of need. I've been visiting this spot for years, it is one of my many happy places. I know I've said this before but it's truly one of two places I can always go back to and never get sick of photographing.

Making the decision to get out of the house and do this, I got in my car feeling hopeful. I threw back the sun roof, put on my favorite Social Distortion playlist, and just started to drive. The feeling was quite liberating. The weather report promised me cloudy skies for what I imaged would be a vibrant sunset to spark some excitement within me. As soon as I hit highway 133 and saw the heavy marine layer, I knew conditions were not going to be what I had expected. When I arrived, I spent a few minutes wandering up and down the beach, wondering what to do, and contemplating the disappointment that was overwhelming me. June gloom was living up to its typical reputation but I still felt great just digging my toes into the sand, smelling the salty ocean air, listening to the waves crashing, and feeling the ocean mist. I dug my camera out of my bag for the first time in what felt like ages, attached my 16-35mm lens to the camera body, and enjoyed the beauty that was surrounding me.


Jumping Cholla

Joshua Tree, California

Joshua Tree, California

The experience of visiting Joshua Tree can be compared to the likes traveling several decades into the past. You'll want to put your smart phone away and any other internet connected device or Bluetooth device you rely on every day. You won't be needing any of that stuff. Where you'll be going, there is no internet or 4g. Heck there isn't even 1g or 1xRTT. When the park ranger asks if you need a map upon entry into the park, you best be saying yes because that's about all you're going to have to go off of, unless you were smart enough to come equipped with a hand held GPS. I almost forgot to mention, a ham radio will be your only ticket to the outside world for the duration of your stay. Oh come on, it's not that bad. Remember the days when your car broke down how you'd have to walk miles to find a pay phone to get help? Well if you're a millennial you've never had to do this, but the rest of us all had to go through this at some point in our lives before cell phones existed.

The Cholla Cactus Garden is a popular spot deep within Joshua Tree. The only sign of civilization near by is the road that gets you there and the small parking lot at the trailhead. The Cholla Cactus earned it's nickname as the Jumping Cholla due to how easily the needles detach if you rub up against one. It's as if they jumped out at you. I can certainly attest to this considering I still have part of a needle embedded in my thumb. I have accepted that this needle is now a permanent addition to my thumb. I could have stayed on trail like the signs suggested, but venturing off through a maze of jumping cholla ment capturing a much more interesting composition. I'd say its a small price to pay for a cool shot. It was all worth it in the end.


Every Day Is A Great Day To Shoot Photos

Swells | Corona Del Mar, California

Swells | Corona Del Mar, California

Being a landscape photographer in Southern California has been a bit of a challenge for me. I'm constantly battling crummy weather and not a whole lot of scenic landscapes that are easily accessible. Not to mention the fact that we're enclosed by several mountain ranges that keep tons of smog trapped over our cities.

As any landscape photographer can vouch for, we always go out hoping for cloudy skies and perfect sunsets, but it rarely works out that way. The evening I shot this, I left the house not even being able to see Mt. Baldy, due to all the smog. To give you a bit more perspective on this, Mt. Baldy is less than an hour drive from my house. By the time I got to the beach, the sky was so hazy that you couldn't even make out the sun. It was as if the sun was hiding behind a curtain of fog, except it was smog.

It has become a challenge of mine to continue shooting through all the dull and uninspiring days, like on the evening I shot this photo, and to break free from my dependence on perfect sunsets to be able to shoot great photos. I read once that a great photographer can shoot great photos regardless of the conditions they are shooting in, and that is what I strive to achieve every time I go out shooting.


Downtown Portland

Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon

My wife and I recently paid a visit to Portland Oregon for our wedding anniversary. If you have a weekend to kill, this city is the place to see. We love visiting new places and when we found out Portland is essentially known as Beervana, we got really excited. I'm not by any means what you'd consider a beer snob, but I do enjoy craft beers. My beer vocabulary doesn't typically include stuff like Coors or Michelob. When I found out my favorite brewery, Rogue, had a public ale house in the Pearl District not too far from my hotel, I was through the roof.

If you like pub crawling, a weekend in Portland is perfect. All within walking distance from each other is Rogue, 10 Barrel Brewing, Brew Cycle, Bridgeport, and several others. My favorite, unsurprisingly, was Rogue. They had an amazing selection of limited release beers, including an interesting concoction only available at the Flanders Street location called the Haze-O-Lantern. I was about to order my favorite Hazelnut Brown when the server told us about this new specialty brew, a mix of their Hazelnut Brown, Chocolate stout, and Pumpkin Patch ales. I skeptically and reluctantly deviated from what I really wanted, and gave this unfamiliar brew a try. I've never tasted anything like it before, it was pure happiness, a combination of three of my favorite types of beers in one pint. I wanted this in a case to go but sadly it was a concoction they had to mix right there on the spot. It was proof that good beer isn't required to have the three letter acronym IPA. Dear Rogue, if you want to do something completely awesome, package the Haze-O-Lantern in bottles and ship it out across the nation.

The rest of Portland was a lot of fun too. It's a unique little city with lots of character. Running into the large homeless population right by the Hawthorne bridge, where I shot this photo, was anything but exciting, but the view is great. All the locals jogging along the Eastbank Esplanade didn't seem the be phased by the homeless either.

If you have about an hour to kill, wait in line at Voodoo Doughnuts. One of the highlights of this trip was ordering a half dozen box of these crazy not-so-little diabetes inducing globs of goodness for my wife and I to share. I barely made it through one full donut, and then out of obligation and guilt, I forced myself to try the others. It's not that I didn't like them, oh no, just the opposite. I had consumed so much sugar that I started getting sick. I felt like I needed to get up and run a 10k. Seriously though, you've never tried donuts until you've tried these. They're pretty darn awesome.


Overcoming Setbacks

Laguna Beach, CA

The Last Stand | Laguna Beach, CA

Setbacks happen all the time. They're simply an inevitable fact of life. It's our response to these setbacks that pave our way for future success or failure. The truth is, each and every one of us could sit around and victimize ourselves about how some force beyond our control screwed us over and left us in a state of despair. We justify in our minds over again how we are not the ones at fault, as if some unfortunate tragedy was suddenly inflicted upon us against our will. What we seem to forget most though, is that actions have consequences, and consequences present with them new opportunities, if we choose to see them.

Falling Off The Figurative Horse
A couple of months ago I was shooting photos at Bluebird Canyon in downtown Laguna Beach. It was high tide and I made the mistake of leaving my camera bag on the ground behind me a ways back. The exact wave you see pictured above hit the shore and washed out my camera bag. It destroyed my Zeiss 21mm and Canon 16-35mm f4 lenses. It also claimed my phone, wallet, and car keys. Panic set in the second I realized what had happened. I spent an entire evening at a nearby hotel waiting to be rescued, with my water soaked gear in hand. As the dust started to settle, I began feeling hopeless. I spent years saving up for my Zeiss lens and had just purchased my 16-35mm lens not even two weeks prior. The salt water rendered my lenses completely useless. The financial significance of this loss left me screwed. I was contemplating selling off my remaining gear and walking away from photography. I couldn't understand how this had happened to me.

The Reality of the Situaton
With the support of my amazing wife and family, I was able to pull myself together. I realized I had to accept the reality of the situation. I could choose to be strong or give up and move on. I had to accept that I was responsible for the outcome of the situation and that I was responsible for overcoming the loss. I made a grave mistake that evening by leaving my camera gear unattended. I made another mistake by investing a significant amount of money in camera gear without protecting it with an insurance policy. As soon as I accepted responsibility and stopped being the victim, I was able to see the opportunities this situation had presented. I realized that all hope was not lost despite the difficulties I needed to face in my journey back to the top.

Setbacks will always be difficult to overcome. It's the reason we call it a setback. The most successful people did not become that way while while walking down a clear path. Thomas Edison, my childhood inspiration, once said "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time."

Moving Forward
It is true that we are only human, no body is perfect. Setbacks will always happen. That's ok though, it's a part of our learning process. They help us to grow stronger, smarter, and more determined. Life is a journey with many ups and just as many downs. To think we have control over everything that happens to us is nothing more than an illusion. My father once taught me three very important words from his years of experience in the military. Improvise, Assess, Overcome. Do not be so rigid in your plans that you cannot spontaneously adapt to the changing circumstances you encounter.


Capturing Wide Angle Perspectives with a Telephoto Lens

St Anne's Beach | Laguna Beach, CA

St Anne's Beach | Laguna Beach, CA

I love wide angle photography. My go to lens is my Zeiss 21mm Distagon T*. I recently purchased the new Canon 16-35mm f4 lens and fell in love with wide angle photography all over again. I don't like getting too complacent with my methods though. I'm constantly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone into situations where I'm forced to learn and grow. I captured this wide angle perspective of St. Anne's Beach with a 70-200mm telephoto lens. It's a concept I never really gave much thought to until that evening at St. Anne's Beach. I was feeling uninspired by everything. The sunset didn't appear to be that spectacular at first, the shoreline wasn't rocky or interesting, the surrounding cliffs that define Laguna's coast were seemingly far away from the perspective of a wide angle lens. Rather than pack my bags and head home, which was very tempting, I figured what the heck do I have to gain by calling it quits for the night. I started experimenting with the different lenses in my bag and compositions they could bring to the table. I needed to figure out a way to create a more impactful shot from an otherwise dull experience.

The difficulty I found myself trying to overcome was that I was shooting with my new Canon 16-35mm f/4 lens for the first time and I really wanted to bring home something amazing to show for it. I was very impressed with the performance of this new lens but I just wasn't feeling a sense of satisfaction with the composition that I was capturing with my wide angle lenses that night. It was a problem that even my Zeiss 21mm lens couldn't have resolved. I was capturing a wide sweeping perspective with tons of detail, but there was too much and it was all too small.

Wide angle lenses are known for being able to capture a lot of detail in a single frame. You can stand very close to the subject area of what you're photographing and bring in a lot of detail. There comes a point though where the details become too small to take notice because the lens is zoomed out too far. If you were to stand much further back and capture the same subject with a telephoto lens, the longer lens would have a way of magnifying the subject while still capturing a wide perspective. This is due to your physical position from the subject area being further back.

Moving your physical location to zoom in and out is a concept that prime lens shooters are all too familiar with. Zoom lenses are typically purchased by those who don't want to have to move their physical location to zoom in and out.

When I captured this photograph I started off with my 16-35mm lens. While looking at the results, I noticed that the hills and surrounding landscape were all too small to be able to make any significant impact in the photograph. Wide angles lenses simply do not magnify the subject in the way telephoto lenses do. To experiment with this concept, I walked to the far end of the beach, away from everything. I then swapped over to my 70-200 lens and captured the same scene. The hill and surrounding landcape in this photograph resulted in a much more impactful presence. You get a much better idea here of just how large the hills are in Laguna when standing on the beach. Now, scatter houses all over those hills and you have one heck of a view that people pay a fortune for. Some day, maybe!


Table Rock Beach

Table Rock Beach | Laguna Beach, CA

Table Rock Beach | Laguna Beach, CA

There have been a lot of changes going on with my normal routine lately. Since purchasing a house and moving out of a tiny apartment, I'm now living 45 minutes from the beach instead of 25 minutes. Regardless though, a little extra distance isn't enough to keep me away from something I love so much. California's coast is undoubtedly some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and I'm on a mission to photography it all, from San Diego on the south end to to Pelican State Beach below the Oregon border.

Before moving further from the beach, I crammed as many seascape sessions as I could onto my calendar because I knew it would take some time to get settled into the new place and my opportunities to get out to the beach would be inconvenient until my life settles back into what you could call a normal state.  On this evening I continued my trek into south Laguna to a little place called Table Rock Beach.  Some photographers guard their photo locations like it's the holy grail, which I think is freakin' absurd. I could care less about my secret spots getting "exposed".  This beach is located off of Table Rock Drive and Pacific Coast Highway. You won't find it on the map when searching for Table Rock Beach, but I assure you it's there and there are signs at its entrance to let you know you're in the right place. Don't bother trying to park on Table Rock Drive. You'll need to park on Coast Highway and walk.  Like many beaches throughout Laguna, there are a lot of steps you need to go down (and unfortunately back up) to get to it. Be sure you're in good shape before going because your legs are going to thank you for this, and by thank I mean scream what the heck were you thinking, by the time you get back up to your car. 

Surprisingly, this is the first shot I fired off that evening. After I loaded my photos from this session into lightroom, I briefly glanced at the others and rejected the whole rest of the set. This was supposed to be my initial test shot to see what settings I wanted to use and I nailed it on the first try. All I did was I mounted my reverse graduated neutral density filter onto my lens, set my aperture to f18 to capture the sun star, and fired off a shot at 1/60th of a second. Later that evening the cloud formations mostly disappeared making the available light and the sky look rather dull. Photography is so much about being in the right place at the right time that it makes the camera gear secondary. You can have the most expensive gear money can buy but if you don't put yourself in front of beautiful scenery, you're still going to capture dull photographs.


Laguna Swells

Laguna Beach, California

Shaw's Cove, Laguna Beach, California

The swells were unreal last night at Laguna.  I've never seen anything like it this far south in O.C.  We're talking 10 feet plus swells slamming the shore line with brute force. I was over at Cress Street checking out all the action.  For those that have never been to Cress Street beach, it's a tiny cove with lots of rocks. There's a small cliff to the right that you can climb up which waves slam into.  It's a fun spot to watch the surf from if you don't mind getting soaked. When it's high tide, like it was last night, stepping foot onto the beach can be dangerous from all the rocks that are hidden beneath the water.  I was able to time the sets and climb up onto the cliff when the water retreated a bit.  My camera spent most of the time being held high above my head to keep it dry, but I did manage to snap a couple shots of these swells when I could. I walked away soaked with some awesome big wave shots and it was totally worth it.  I'd say this round was a tie.  Me: 1, Ocean: 1

Camera Technique
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III
Lens: 70-200mm f/4L
Focal Length: 163mm
Shutter Speed: 1/200
Aperture: f/8
ISO: 800


Fire Sky

Fire Sky | Monterey Park, California

Fire Sky | Monterey Park, California

The sky looked like it was on fire one night after work while walking to my car. My team and I had just wrapped up a deployment we were working on and I was planning on hitting up DTLA to shoot some cityscapes. I was floored by how cool the sky looked. Thankfully I already had my camera on me. People love Southern California for its perfect weather all year round. Our weather is a little too perfect though. We never get a real autumn with leaves that turn colors or cloudy sunsets with vibrant colors swirling throughout the sky. We do get some cloudy sunsets but it doesn't happen a lot. I always have to have my camera with me for that one chance we might get a really sweet sunset. When we do get one, they are absolutely stunning.

Camera Technique:
The sky had taken me completely off guard when I was leaving. I had my camera on me but my tripod was still in the trunk of my car. With the sky literally changing every second, there was no time to grab my tripod. I had to think on the fly and try various options. I used my 70-200mm lens at 70mm as opposed to a wide angle lens to narrow the viewer's focus and eliminate distracting elements that a wide angle lens would've introduced. Since I had no tripod, I tried a big aperture (small F stop) to let more light in combined with a fast shutter speed to reduce camera shake from hand holding the camera. This setup's problem was that the big aperture combined with a telephoto lens gave me a very small depth of field and threw the trees out of focus.

My other option to get everything in focus was to use a small aperture (big F stop) with a fast shutter speed. To avoid underexposure with my new settings, I cranked the ISO up to 1000 to increase the camera's sensitivity to light as much as possible while still maintaining good image quality with little to no grain. A good rule of thumb when hand holding a camera is to use a shutter speed that is no slower than the focal length you are using. Since I was shooting at 70mm, I should have used 1/70th of a second or faster for my shutter speed but I was able to tuck my arms into my sides and hold the camera steady enough to still get a sharp shot at 1/40th of a second. The final result is this hand held image shot at 1/40th of a second at f/14 with ISO 1000.


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