Photographing an LA Icon: The Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, CA

Korean Friendship Bell HDR Composite

If you would like to have a very fun and engaging photography project, I recommend the Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, CA.  You will have a terrific subject in a great location with plenty of different shots.  Depending on the sky, you could also have a great opportunity for a beautiful sunset looking out toward the Palos Verdes Peninsula.  The Korean Friendship Bell is located at the end of Gaffey Street which is the main North/South road in San Pedro at the end of the 110 Freeway.  It sits in a 3 acre park with plenty of parking and restrooms.  You will find many people relaxing, picnicking, and flying kites.  It has a family friendly feeling.

For equipment, I used our Canon 17-40 lens for wide angle shots; our Canon 24-105 most of the time and for the sunset; and a Canon 70-200 for close-up work on the pavilion.  I also used a 2 stop ND grad filter and had my polarizer on most of the day.  You could probably hand hold before twilight, but I always recommend you have a tripod.  I did not bring a flash and I wish I had, to do some night shooting.  I also wish I had brought a flashlight to do some light painting on the bell and pavilion.  Layer up on clothing, because even though it was in the 70s, it was windy and when the sun went down it got really cold.

If you just have a point and shoot camera, this is still a great place to make images.  I still recommend a tripod of some kind.  I just bought two Joby GorillaPod tripods for Mary and I for day trips and for my Canon G12 and her Canon s90.  I highly recommend them, if you do not want or need a full-sized tripod.  Also, check your settings to see if your camera has an  HDR (High Dynamic Range) setting.  My G12 has an HDR scene setting and takes a 3-shot HDR composite.  Mary’s iPhone also will do an automatic HDR image using ProHDR app.

As for time of day, I really think this is a late afternoon shoot.  The peninsula is a south-facing beach, like many in Southern CA and the winter sun stays on top or slightly behind the pavilion looking south and west.  A sunrise shot probably would be good with side lighting coming from the East, but that’s it.  I do not think it shows all that well in bright light.  Also, if you do the afternoon, you also get a chance to do sunset, here, too.  I found the later afternoon sun with side lighting very attractive and the sunset behind the pavilion was a fun shot.

Pavilion with a nice foreground

The big problem is shadowing.  It was hard to get the pavilion, the bell, and the sky all well lit and exposed together, even in the late afternoon.  You have to decide what will be bright and what will be dark.  The usual composition is dark bell (lose most of the details), but bright pavilion and a properly exposed sky.  I used the ND Grad, and also made several High Dynamic Range composites.  If you are not familiar with HDR, it is a technique where you combine several (3-9) different images all taken at different exposures so that you can see the highlights and lowlights and combine them using several different software packages.  The two HDR composites are 5 images 1 stop apart (+2, +1, 0, -1, -2) and were processed with Nik HDR Effex Pro.

Korean Friendship Bell HDR Composite

One of things you will have to deal with is people.  In order to not have any people in your shot, you will have to be very patient, very direct (you will need to use, what Mary calls her “photographer’s voice”), and may need to clone them out of the photos later.  We did this shoot before our workshop in Tucson and I did not make any images with people.  I now regret that and wish I had some.  There was a Korean family in traditional dress having their portraits taken and I wish I had a few images with them in it.  Lesson learned – get some images with people and some without and you can pick the best ones later.  While Mary did close-ups of the bell and pavilion, I “people watched” and waited patiently for my few seconds to get the pavilion without any visitors.  I had a lot of fun watching the kids interact with the structure. You will also have to deal with the birds…same issue…in the photo or not based on your patience and aesthetic.

Details on the ceiling of the pavilion
Dragon on ceiling

One more big issue to deal with and think about is the ugly metal pipes and thick metal wire surrounding the bell to protect it from people, though I have to say more than a few kids and ADULTS, walked right under the wire and touched the bell ignoring the “do not touch” signs and the ugly protection system.  Unfortunately, (if you want to) you will need to spend some tme in Photoshop (PS) to remove the offending contraption if you want a really clean image.  I did my best to “hide the poles” in my composition, but there is no hiding the wire.  You will need to use the clone stamp, patch tool, and content aware fill in PS and your best eye and skills to clean this mess up.  It was painstaking work, but the results were worth it, for me, anyway.  There are thousands of images on Flickr, some good and some not so, where you get a good indication of the shooting conditions and the ugly wire and poles.

As with any shoot, I always recommends that you do not just walk up to the pavilion and plop down your tripod and start shooting.  Walk around the whole thing a few times and make sure you observe how the light hits it from different directions and angles.  Get down low and look up from ground level.  Get up high on the steps and look down; then look closely at the bell; and then the painted details on the ceiling.  Plan your shots and imagine what you want the finished images to look like.

Ceiling Abstract with texture

After shooting for two hours or so, Mary and I were done.  We were ready to go home.  However, the sky was so tempting.  I looked at Mary and said, “You know, it is going to be a spectacular sunset.” (See my post on shooting southwest sunsets).  She reluctantly agreed and we just sat down and looked at people and walked around some more for the next hour as the sun made its way west (or the earth moved east).  Finally, we were treated to one of the reddest sunsets I have ever seen.  The sky was beautiful, but the real treat was seeing it reflected in the Pacific.  We get some good sunsets in Azusa, but I never get to see reflected sky in water.  We were cold, exhilarated, and tired…a terrific end to a perfect day.  To see more of our photographs, go to

Korean Friendship Bell just after sunset
Red Sunset from San Pedro, CA
Red sky and water blend together

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