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Patience, a photographer’s ally

I went to the beach on Sunday evening to try for some nice shots of the Huntington Beach pier at sunset. Shooting sunsets is always a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes you get beautiful, jaw-dropping colors and patterns in the sky. And sometimes it just gets dark. Around here this time of year it’s especially random because of the change in the weather. So I packed my D90 and tripod and took my chances.

Approaching the shore I could tell it was going to be a difficult day. The fog was rolling in and it was so thick I could barely see the water from Pacific Coast Highway. I almost turned around and headed home. It was disappointing. But I was already there and I know some good spots for free parking. I decided to walk down and see what I could see. I’d arrived about 45 minutes ahead of the sunset so I had some time to scope out possible compositions and exposure settings. I went through the motions.

I saw at least four groups shooting family photos that day. Two groups were doing the “white shirt and blue jeans” thing. It was so dark, every photographer was flashing like crazy. At least, I thought, I didn’t pay to have my photo taken on a day like today. I’d been reading Practical HDRI by Jack Howard that morning and I’d planned to try my hand at capturing some HDR images anyway. Fog or no fog, at least it would be good practice. Couples and families were packing their towels and chairs and toys to go home as I worked.

But I kept glancing at the sky, hoping for a change, and I noticed a funny thing. Every once in a while, a hole in the cloud cover would float by. As it got darker, I’d see brief flashes of color reflecting on the clouds. The sunset was still happening out there beyond the fog. Maybe if I got lucky, a hole would drift by in the right spot at the right time… I quickly moved to the spot I’d scoped out earlier for my sunset shot and set up. It was cold and getting dark fast.

The families taking photos on the beach were winding down and leaving. I caught the eye of one of the photographers walking off the beach. She shrugged and smiled. And I stood alone on the beach, pointing my camera at the horizon, hands in my pockets, checking and re-checking exposure settings, hoping for light. And then…

Holes in the cloud cover drifted by slowly. I shot 52 photos before the sun disappeared for the night. But this was the keeper. It wasn’t the sunset I was expecting, but then, it never is. My spirits lifted, I decided to stay and wait for the lamps to come on and got another nice shot of the pier at night.

All in all, it turned out to be a pretty good day. I’m tempted to think I was just lucky. Maybe luck had something to do with it. But I also know that the harder I try, the luckier I am. Patience was a key factor that day. I didn’t go hunting for these shots… I waited for them to come to me. And those HDR shots? They turned out alright, too.

John Watson

John is the original founder of Photodoto, but after running it for 4 years he had to focus on different things. If you’re interested in what John has been up to recently, you can check is personal blog or browse his photo blog.

  • I find this inspiring – patience is a virtue, one that I do not have nearly enough of. Love the “money” shot that made all the waiting worth it.

    – Kelly Anne

  • Great read. I had a similar photo outing the other week:

    http://davidnaylor.org/blog/2008/11/kpmangatan.html

  • Al

    I just received my first DSLR (Sony Alpha 200) yesterday and have been snapping like crazy all day. Out of curiosity, what settings did you use for the two pier shots above?

  • The sunset shot was 3 seconds @ f/22. The night shot was 30 seconds @ f/22.

  • I had a similar experience at Santa Monica on Saturday, but the marine layer didn’t completely cover the horizon. We were fortunate.

    P.S. Those photos are fantastic!

  • Al, If you are referring to the last two shots posted int he article, I guess those are HDRs from the shots shown as small thumbnails in the middle of the article. John should be able to confirm the same.

    John, the keeper sunset shot is amazing. How much PP was done to it, if at all?

  • Thanks, Sandeep. I did some post processing but I can’t remember all of the steps… It was mostly curves adjustments to bring out the color. I think one locally for the sky which needed more contrast and then a red adjustment overall. I think I’ll do an “anatomy of a photo edit” post about that one with more details.

  • Nice HDR shots John!

    And having lived near the Atlantic for much of my life, I know exactly what you’re talking about with the patience and ever-changing light along the edge of land and water.

    Have fun, keep shooting, and thanks for the shoutout!

    –Jack

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  • I looked at the first two shots and thought, well this is going to be boring, then whammie!! Nice shots, and yes, without patience, you will never be a photographer.

    I have driven to the North Georgia mountains in the pre-dawn hours of the Fall (90-120 minutes drive) more than once only to be disappointed.

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  • This was an amazing tutorial. Thanks so much. I was also wondering if you could take me through how you edited the pier with the lights. How did you get the lights to glow, etc. Do you remember what your shutter speed and aperture were? Please do tell. Thanks so much!

  • Thanks, Brittany. You can see a screencast of editing that pier photo here: http://photodoto.com/screencast-editing-huntington-beach-pier-sunset/

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