Photographing a Roadtrip through Big Sur

Big Sur is one of my favorite summer road trips.
Nadya has the unique experience of looking down on a sunset in Big Sur.
Nadya has the unique experience of looking down on a sunset in Big Sur.

Big Sur is one of my favorite summer road trips.  A two lane road framed by sea cliffs and redwood blanketed mountains winds it’s way up the coastline. Unmarked trails lead to hidden coves, empty surf, and waterfalls tucked away under a canopy of giant trees. With your eyes focused on the winding road ahead, it’s easy to miss the trails and discreet roads that lead back up into the mountains.

It’s a landscape that I thought I knew inside and out, but every time I go back I end up discovering something totally new.  I’m now convinced that I don’t really know it at all. For the next 4 days I’d be there shooting a story for Tepui, Surftech, and Eagle Creek.  The goal was not to take commercial, or advertorial images, but to take photos that tell a story. To have a real adventure, and show how the gear that we choose can elevated our experience.

These are the kinds of shoots that I do a lot of, and it’s easy to default to a few shots that I know I can get, to revisit the same coves and trails as before, but that wouldn’t really be an adventure, and I wouldn’t really feel like I was doing what I came to do.

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Nick and Nadya paddle out into one of many hidden coves in Big Sur on Surftech SUP boards. The trick to photographing product authentically is to actually use them and focus on photographing the experience.
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Our home away from home in Big Sur.  A Tepui tent that mounts to the top of my truck adds comfort and allows me to spend longer in the field than if I was sleeping on the ground.

As hard as it is, sometimes the most important thing to do when shooting a trip like this is to wait.  My first impulse is to start shooting, even when there’s nothing interesting happening.  When I try to force images, it never fails that I look back on what I’ve shot and want to format the card.   What I thought I’d been doing was creating, but the truth is I’ve only been building momentum for when things actually start to happen.

To counter that feeling, I’ve learned to get everything set up beforehand, and to plan activities where the things that I want to shoot will be useful, and they will naturally become a part of the scenes that are in front of my camera.   Adventure is a mind set.  It’s getting out of your comfort zone and seeking something undefined.  It’s not knowing where you’ll end up.  Adventure doesn’t always have to be extreme, it just has to be out of the ordinary.

When we arrived, the landscape was overcast and gray, nothing I was shooting would be used for my story, and I was beginning to wonder if a 4 day shoot in Big Sur was the best choice based on the unpredictable weather.   The sun, barely filtering through the cloud cover, was starting to set, so we set out to find a campsite, hoping we would wake up to clear skies.

As we followed the dirt road 2000 feet in elevation gain up the mountain, we popped right out of the top of the clouds, suddenly looking down on a sunset that was invisible from below.  All I had to do was hand Nadya a backpack, and say, “let’s go explore”.  In the hour or so that we wandered those hills, I knew that I had photos in the bag.

Adventure photography is about rare experiences, and unique vantages.  It’s about telling the story of a person in relation to the environment.  Forcing an image can make for a good photo, but the magic happens unexpectedly, and being ready to capitalize on it when it happens.

I passed up a number of photos that day that I thought I’d have 4 days to shoot.  One that I had been planning on was an image of someone hiking through the redwoods in the fog, which I was convinced would be there all week.  The next day, we woke up to clear skies, and it stayed that way.

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Sometimes the best way to explore a place is to just wander. And the best way to photograph it is to just step back and follow the experience.

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