It may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating that if you want to be a great photographer, the first step is to photograph great things. It’s not a new idea, and it’s been said many times by legendary photographers throughout the years. I repeat it not just to attach myself to their sentiment, but to offer some perspective on how to find an image that will stay in your collection for years to come.
The flip side of this coin is that a great photographer can photograph anything and make a good image from it, but to some degree, I disagree. We’re photographers of the outdoors, of the natural world, and of the experiences that can be had while in these places. There have been many times when I’ve shouldered my camera and hiked off into the wilderness only to return with nothing of substance, nothing worth putting out into the world. That’s why for me, I like to work people into the images that I’m taking outdoors. A person can add story to an image that might not have the makings of a great image on its own. That story can make the image stand out when the landscape alone isn’t enough.
I find I have the most success when I plan ahead and seek out those images in advance. Making sure that whatever happens, I’ll come home with something I’m excited about. I bring people with me who I know are going to be doing exciting things in those places, who I simply shadow to get great images.
This year, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on Southern Baja and the Cabo area working with ACCESS Collective to tell stories of adventure in the outdoors. It’s a place with a binary reputation. On the one hand, Cabo is considered to be a party spot, with too many fancy all-inclusive resorts to count. On the other hand, it’s where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez, and pelagic sea life congregates in the waters just offshore in droves. Adventure is easy, to find with the vast majority of people staying close to town the natural world around Cabo feels empty and ready for the motivated photographer to take advantage of.
Here’s a look at a few of the images I collected on this last trip to Cabo and a few details about how I captured them so that maybe next time you’re looking to put together a photography adventure you too can optimize the chances of capturing something worth putting out to the world.
The Cabo Arch
Sunrise always hits the Cabo Arch with spectacular light. It’s also the best time to get out there without other people around. After 10 am, the arch is surrounded by sightseeing boats. It’s only a short paddle, and if you have a dry bag or waterproof case like I have from SKB, it’s no problem getting a camera out there. You can get paddleboards from CaboSUP as early as you like if you let them know the day before. This day though, my girlfriend Amber Arbucci was on a sailboat, and she was jumping into the water from the bow of the boat. As I was paddling around, I snapped this image. I posted the image to the Nat Geo Travel Instagram, and it was subsequently taken down by the editors because it looked fabricated. I suppose when everything goes right, it can be mistaken for fabricated.
I was looking to photograph some wildlife, so I went out with a local friend and photographer Oscar Ortiz who also has a dive company called Cabo Expeditions. We were in search of whale sharks. This huge animal seems like it should be easy to find, but once you start looking it becomes apparent that even a school bus sized creature is camouflaged by the vastness of the ocean. Oscar knew right where to take us though, and all we had to do was wait. The sharks were cruising through shallower water where the plankton that they feed on was abundant. That same plankton can make the water seem murky in sections, but as the sharks passed through the area they would travel through clearer water. They were on the move, so hard to keep up with, but occasionally one would simply stop and check us out for a while before moving on.
Clear Water at Dawn
The water in front of the Sur Beach House is incredibly clear and warm. Like the rest of the bay, it’s absolutely empty before 10 am. One of my favorite things to shoot is sunrise underwater with someone who’s comfortable swimming and diving. I had brought a model with me named Lily Cristal who I knew would be game to get out and take some early morning shots in the ocean. Now, we’re all told that the best time to shoot underwater is at high noon, to maximize the amount of light that’s coming through the water. But when you’re shooting on the surface like this, the colors are really amazing at dawn, and the low angle of the sun creates the beautiful rays of light like you see in this image. This was only a 2-minute walk from my hotel the Bahia where I’d recommend anyone stay rather than at one of the mega resorts.
Getting away from town
Storytelling is one of the most important parts of photography. Most surf photographers spend a huge portion of their time trying to capture the most intense moments, like when a surfer is inside of a barreling wave. I like those shots too, but I find that the moments before and after often have more emotional impact. We went to find waves one morning, and as the sun was coming up we arrived at the break. This image was taken as my friends were walking along the road that accesses the remote waves of the east cape looking for the best spot to get in the water. To me, it has more story than a typical surf shot.
When it all comes together and you aren’t there…
I’d spent a few weeks in Cabo over two trips and had learned a lot about photographing the area. There was one shot that I’d totally missed, but was only a 10-minute paddle from the hotel. My friend Lizzy opened my eyes to a potential shot along the peninsula where the water was shallow and rocky, creating a really beautiful landscape for a paddle boarding photo. We planned to meet at 6 am to get the sunrise, and I had lined up boards from CaboSup for a drone shot. I woke up incredibly sick, probably as a result of only sleeping a few hours a night for the last week. In my stupor, I handed my drone to my friend Lizzy who isn’t a photographer but had recently gotten (and crashed) her own drone. I had no idea what would come of it but was sick enough that I didn’t care. Lo and behold, she captured one of my favorite images from the trip. Not to take away from Lizzy’s great work getting this image, but it’s proof that being in the right place, with the right people, and putting in a little bit of effort can lead to amazing things.