Behind The Shot: ‘Mystery Castle Sunset’ by Kevin McNeal – Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California

'Mystery Castle Sunset' by Kevin McNeal at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California
'Mystery Castle Sunset' by Kevin McNeal at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California

This is an image taken at Pfeiffer Beach along the Big Sur Californian coastline. For this particular scene I really liked the narrow channel that converges leading up to the subject. The first thing I wanted to do was compose the image so that the subject of the haystack was centered in the top third of the image. The vertical composition accentuated the repeating patterns of triangles in the image as well as the leading lines. I chose to go with a long exposure of thirty seconds to really give it an ethereal feel. Long exposures are a great way of combining mood with color. I knew that the longer exposure would also add some mystery to the image that would complement the unusual shape of the haystacks that reminded me of the landscapes in Iceland.

I shot the image at f/16 and ISO 200 to take advantage of the front-to-back sharpness I was trying to achieve. I often will use an aperture of f/16 to get a better depth of field but rarely go all the way to f/22 to avoid degradation in sharpness. In my experience an aperture of f/22 seems to degrade most in the corners. I used a sturdy tripod that I really dug into the sand to avoid movement during the thirty seconds of exposure. When it comes to color in an image I always look for both warmer and cooler tones in a scene to use together. The visual tension of the sunset colors against the cooler colors of the storm clouds really gave the image some impact. In this case, I also liked how the foreground rocks of warmer reds mixed nicely with the foreground water.

A vertical composition included just enough rock to lead the eye through the image as horizontal framing included too much of the rock on the side and detracted from my overall goal. I manually focused my wide angle 17-40mm L Canon lens to really get the rocks on the side in focus; the fine texture and detail in the rocks juxtaposes with the smooth calming mood of the water again contributing to the overall visual tension in the image.

In scenes like this, I will shoot multiple images bracketing and focusing for one image on the foreground, another in the middle, and lastly, the background. I will then combine the three images in post processing to maximize the front to back sharpness and get medium format-quality from a DSLR. When producing large prints the sharpness really stands out. The last thing I was concerned with was the timing of the image in terms of light, especially on the background haystack. I wanted to accentuate the shape of the haystack with sidelight. So I had to photograph the scene at just the last moment before the light diminished. A combination of mood, light, and color came together in the end for this image. - Kevin McNeal

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L, 30 seconds shutter at f/16 with ISO 200

You can find McNeal’s photography at and this image is available for sale as a print at this link. Stay updated on his work by following him at Flickr, 500px and Facebook.

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