Look. See. Imagine. Create: The Arch at Pfeiffer State Beach, CA

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The large arch at Pfeiffer beach in Big Sur is a very popular photography subject.  To get to the beach you follow a two mile narrow road that fords a creek and ends in a nice parking lot.  From there, it is a short walk to the beach and the large “haystack” with the arch.  Here is how to photograph it.


The best time to photograph the arch is at sunset, close to the winter solstice so as to get a low angle from the sun and a richer, more yellow glow.  We were able to photograph it on December 24th, just a few days after the solstice.  You also need a “cloudless” day so that the sun actually is out.  Clouds or fog on the horizon will prevent you from getting the sought after sun-beam shot.  I also like to use the Apps “Sun n Moon” and “LightTrac” to have the precise time for sunset and to know the exact angle of the sun.  These two apps are invaluable for photographers.

Scouting the day before during a rain storm
Scouting the day before during a rain storm


Now, decisions…decisions…do I set up on the right, the left, the middle, somewhere else?  Wide angle or telephoto?  Set up high or low?  Black and white or color?  If you go on the internet you will see thousands of photographs of this arch.  I have seen good ones from the left side and the right side.  I have also seen good ones with the sun setting in the arch and shooting it dead center.  Some of these decisions are preferences and some will be dictated by the conditions.

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The best advice is to walk around a bit and imagine what the finished product will look like. I was convinced that the left side was the best.  We would get a better glow; the foreground was more interesting; and I could compose with the arch on the left side of the photograph with the sun beam coming in left to right which is a more natural way for us Westerners to see a subject.  It was funny though, there were about ten photographers there and none of them were on the left side.  They were all on the right.  Mary even questioned me about it so we took a few shots on the right side.  I continue to conclude that the left side is the best side , but no one came over near us in 90 minutes of shooting.

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Mary would like to note that she is wearing three coats and multiple layers of clothing.


We experimented with composition as the sun continued to dive.  The best light occurred about 20 minutes before sunset and then all but disappeared.  There was a huge cloud and fog bank on the horizon, so we lost the sunbeam.  That notwithstanding, by the time we walk away from the arch there were a good 50 people on the beach and most of them crowded into the middle.

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One other good discovery for us was to use a fast shutter speed to capture the splash on the rocks.  In order to get the sun beam, you need mist in the air provided by the crashing waves.  The bigger the wave, the more mist, and the better splashes.  We also tried slow shutter speeds to smooth out the water, but these were not as good.  Finally we decided that a short telephoto provided the best composition.  These are at about 100 mm.

Our (Mary's) best shot
Our (Mary’s) best shot

Finally as the sun beam faded from the arch, Mary and I walked away from the growing crowd to find other things to photograph.  Sometimes, I need to remind myself to explore for new subjects and just enjoy the sunset.  It ended up being beautiful.  This is an awesome spot to see and photograph.

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To see more of photos, please go to www.pamphotography.com.


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