Category Archives: Point Reyes

Photographing Waves

Waves are a fundamental form of the universe. Light and sound come in waves. Wave formation underlies much that we know, and don’t know, about the universe around us. As manifest in our earth’s ocean, with the forces of gravity, topography and tide made real, they are both orderly and chaotic. Waves have a certain regularity, but no two waves are alike.

Waves, South Beach, Pt Reyes © Harold Davis

Waves, South Beach, Pt Reyes © Harold Davis

I like to photograph waves because they are a fundamental form that underlies what we know as physical reality. A moving wave also gives the photographer the opportunity to exercise the important creative controls inherent in a camera: focus, aperture (depth-of-field), shutter speed (duration of the exposure) and sensitivity (ISO).

Sunset at Point Reyes Head © Harold Davis

Sunset at Point Reyes Head © Harold Davis

Since waves are constantly in motion, what first comes to mind in terms of the camera’s controls is shutter speed. Shutter speed is badly named, because it refers to a duration of time, not a speed: the length of the exposure, in other words how long the photosensitive medium (the sensor) is exposed to light.

A long shutter speed in minutes causes waves to blur and become completely smooth. A very fast shutter speed, measured as a fraction of a second, such as 1/1000 of second, captures an instant of time, and stops the wave in its tracks in all its foaming glory in the moment before it peaks and crashes.

Storm at Sea © Harold Davis

Storm at Sea © Harold Davis

In many ways the most interesting shutter speeds represent an intermediate duration of time:  long enough for the wave to blur so that its underlying shape becomes apparent, but short enough to register some of the details of the wave in its progress to the shore. The length of these shutter speeds depends upon the speed of the wave, but tend to be longer than 1/30 of a second and faster than ten seconds.

Seascape © Harold Davis

Seascape © Harold Davis

The wave images shown here were made on the great beach of Point Reyes, California, walking south from the South Beach parking lot in the late afternoon and at sunset, during a workshop I was giving about Photographing Waves.

My camera was on a tripod: even if the waves are in constant motion your camera doesn’t have to be. Each image is a “confection”: a composite, since I always bracket my exposures and capture every piece of an image that I think I might need. There’s always time enough when I am at my computer to figure out how to put the pieces together!

Playing with my boys on Point Reyes

On the Friday of the Thanksgiving weekend I drove out with my boys—Julian, Nicky and Mathew—to Point Reyes. Nicky’s friend Tamen came along too. It was a balmy, almost summer-like day. As I told people on my recent trip to Japan, we are lucky to live so near such a beautiful, spacious and wild park as Point Reyes National Seashore (many of them couldn’t believe my description in terms of the sheer amount of wild land with so few people near a major city like San Francisco).

Waves on Drakes Beach © Harold Davis

Waves on Drakes Beach © Harold Davis

We parked at Drake’s Bay, and walked along the beach under towering bluffs at extreme low tide until we reached the Drakes Estoro inlet to the Pacific. We rested a while, built a fort, and the boys splashed in the cold waters of the ocean.

On the way back, at sunset, I stopped to make the images of waves, camera on tripod for long, slow exposures. Meanwhile, I kept a weather eye out to make sure the boys didn’t kill themselves trying to climb the unstable cliffs, or whack each other too hard with driftwood from the beach.

In other words, a good time was had by all, each of us in our own way!

If you are interested in Point Reyes, you might like the Point Reyes category on my blog and Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands, my postcard book. The postcards in this book show scenes from Point Reyes, Drakes Bay, Mount Tamalpais, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate, and more.

Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands by Harold Davis

Swinging under the stars

The world’s best swing is under an old oak tree on the Bolinas plateau facing the Mount Tamalpais ridge line. It is shown here under the oak tree by starlight with the moon rising, in a six minute exposure.

Oak Tree Swing © Harold Davis

Oak Tree Swing © Harold Davis


On Duxbury Reef

A monster low tide occurred at the same time as the early winter sunset. Taking advantage of this conjunction, a friend and I wandered out on Duxbury Reef. Duxbury Reef, shown in the linked story from above, is one of the largest shale reefs in North America. It lies west of Bolinas in Marin County on California’s north central coast, and north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, within Point Reyes National Seashore.

On Duxbury Reef by Harold Davis

On Duxbury Reef © Harold Davis

Like Atlantis lost beneath the waves, the landscape you see in this image is usually far beneath the water. In fact, as sunset quickly turned to darkness we hurried off Duxbury Reef ahead of the massive oncoming tidal surge. Our route off the reef took us through arched tunnels normally hidden by the ocean, and past the feet of massive cliffs to the footpath at Agate Beach Park.

Exposure data: 35mm, four exposures at shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 2 minutes, each exposure at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Comment: I used the 2 second exposure to capture the sunset colors, and the 2 minute exposure to capture the much darker foreground of the reef. The exposures were combined using layers, a layer mask, and a gradient. The longer exposure also allowed me to create the attractive fog-like effect, derived from the action of the water in motion.


One of the most powerful tools we have as photographers is the ability to manipulate the viewer’s sense of scale. Why does this matter?

When the viewer first looks at an image they look to think they have have correctly assessed the contents. If, in fact, they realize they have not, or they sense ambiguity in the subject—as in, “What exactly am I looking at?”—the result is a double-take.

Low Tide at Drakes Beach by Harold Davis

Low Tide at Drakes Beach by Harold Davis—Click to view larger

This double-take leads directly to a clean slate. By misdirecting the viewer, we have given them the chance to view some portion of the world with new eyes. This means showing people something in a way they haven’t seen before—which is the goal of much photography.

Case in point: I shot the image above on a rock at low tide in the intertidal zone at Drakes Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, CA. For all the world it looks like a vast landscape from above, but as soon as the caption is noted the viewer will automatically adjust scale and visual expectations.

Harold Davis Postcard Books

We are very pleased to announce that Cameron + Company has released three postcard books of my work. Each of the three postcard books each contain twenty detachable postcards. They are high-quality productions on thick matte stock. These postcard books are sold through gift shops, card stores, and bookstores, and retail for $9.95 each.

Yosemite Dreaming: Postcards in this book show Yosemite in winter, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, the view from Inspiration Point, and more.

Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands: Postcards in this book show scenes from Point Reyes, Drakes Bay, Mount Tamalp;ais, the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate, and more.

Point Reyes and the Marin Headlands by Harold Davis

Classic California: The black and white postcards in this book show scenese from Big Sur, Joshua Tree National Park, Owens Valley, the Eastern Sierras, the San Francisco area, Yosemite, and more.

Classic California by Harold Davis


Sunset Koan

On Christmas Day I calculated that from the summit of Wildcat Peak the sun would set directly behind the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. This seemed like a great excuse for hiking off some excess holiday indulgence, so in the afternoon I grabbed Julian (my oldest son) and we made for the Inspiration Point trailhead my cameras and tripod in tow.

We had a jolly time on the trail, and there were lots of happy people out and about, mostly with dogs and extended families. But up on Wildcat Peak it seemed that the band of coastal clouds would prevail. The Golden Gate could not be seen.

Stubbornly, we waited for sunset on the off-chance that there would be a brief respite in the weather—preferably just when the sun was setting behind the bridge. One of Julian’s endearing traits, and one that serves him well, is that he is almost never willing to give up on anything, even against all odds.

But the shot I’d prepared for didn’t seem likely. The sun was still above the cloud bank, but it was going down without the bridge being visible.

So I started fooling around with my 70-300mm zoom lens.

Sun Koan by Harold Davis

Sun Koan © Harold Davis

If you’ve ever pointed a lens with telephoto focal lengths at the setting sun and rotated the manual focus ring, you’ll have observed that the closer you focus the more out-of-focus the sun gets—and (this is the interesting part) also the larger the sun gets. This optical phenomenon is particularly true when you are shooting wide open at the maximum aperture of the lens.

I was having fun making the sun into a big orange ball that filled the entire frame by focusing my 300mm to about ten feet when all of a sudden the thought struck me, why not put something in the foreground?

There was no time to be lost. The big round ball at the horizon was setting into the fog bank. I hurried to try to find something interesting and close, and focused on a patch of bare weeds. Then, before I knew it, the sun was gone and the world turned gray and colorless. 

The actual exposure settings for this image were, using my lens set to its maximum 300mm focal length, 1/8000 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 200, hand held.

Back home, when I showed Julian the finished image, he was perplexed: “You made that photo from that litttle, random weed?!!?” he asked. 

In life, often we go out looking for the dramatic sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridges in our lives. But it may be the little random weeds that really matter.

Somehow, in these days of renewal when the sun starts to come back from its long journey towards apparent oblivion, I find myself looking to photograph the sun, perhaps to assure myself that it is real.

Wave by Harold Davis

Wave © Harold Davis

It always helps to put something in the foreground like the waves shown crashing in their interference patterns at North Beach on Point Reyes, California.

Foregrounds, random weeds, and the return of the sun: the makings of a meditation.

Wave 2 by Harold Davis

Wave 2 © Harold Davis

Point Reyes Morning

Point Reyes Morning

Point Reyes Morning, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I set out for Chimney Rock in the dark before dawn, and turned back towards the Coastguard Boathouse in time for sunrise. From above, the scene was lit with a golden light. There was a stiff wind blowing, so I set my tripod up as close to the ground as possible for maximum stability.

The foreground was still in deep shadow and the rising sun was lighting the cliffs of Drakes Bay with a strong and golden light. This situation cried out for HDR.

I shot eight exposures, at shutter speeds between 1/2 a second and 1/60 of a second. All exposures were made at f/8 and ISO 200, with a 24mm focal length.

In Photoshop, I first processed the set of images to combine them using the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin. I wasn’t entirely happy with the results, so I proceeded to add detail to both the foreground and background by adding layers on top of the automated HDR version. Each of these layers was processed from the individual frames I had captured.

If you look closely, you can see a workshop participant with camera and tripod on the near side of the Coastguard Boathouse.

Related image: From Sunset to Sunrise.

Darkness and Light


Cleft, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Without darkness there is no light, and when things are darkest distant light seems brighter. Metaphor and solace, perhaps, for these troubled times—or at least my meditation on this “grab shot” from the bluffs above Drakes Bay in Point Reyes California.

I made this photo during my recent Photographing Waves workshop.

One doesn’t often think of landscape photography as requiring good reflexes and split-second timing, but sometimes it does, and this image is a case in point. Sunlight, filtered through a gap in the clouds, illuminated the cleft only very briefly. Blink and it was gone.

I underexposed to increase the contrast between the dark cliffs and the sunlight, and shot with the longest lens I had with me. Here’s the EXIF data: 200mm, 1/640 of a second at f/8 and ISO 200, hand held.

Photographing Waves

Winter Seascape

Winter Seascape, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

On Saturday I led a workshop on Point Reyes about photographing waves. For this workshop, waves are what Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin”—a fun red herring that lets you get slip the real subject matter in under the covers of the spurious narrative.

While the photography of waves is important to this workshop, so is photographic technique. Specifically, using wave photography as motivation, case study, and example works extremely well to demystify shutter speed, motion, how changing shutter speed impacts the rendering of motion—and also to examine the relationship of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

The workshop was full, with twenty people including two facilitators, and as I drove out to Point Reyes I became increasingly concerned about the foggy, wet weather. Later, after the classroom session, my fears seemed borne out. On Drakes Beach it was windy, cold, and raining—apparently no weather for photography of waves or anything else.

A few intrepid workshop particpants headed out to the beach with plastic bags over their cameras. Others beat a hasty retreat to the restaurant at the beach for hot chocolate, and photographed the rain from inside the windows. I’m afraid that one or two photographers had enough—and left to go home.

The hulking shapes of normally submerged rocks at low tide in the drizzle were fascinating, and some interesting photos were taken despite the moisture. Then the weather broke, and patches of blue began to appear. We continued with the workshop as planned, climbing up the Drakes Overlook, and then heading to South Beach for sunset.

South Beach faces the open Pacific. There was a strong wind, pounding surf, and dramatic lighting, as you can see in the shot at the beginning of this story, which was taken at 46mm, 1/125 of a second at f/29 and ISO 200, tripod mounted. Part of my strategy was to intentionally underexpose everything except the disk of the setting sun by at least several f-stops, then to restore the dark sections in the Photoshop Darkroom.

I think everyone in the workshop enjoyed the wild, anarchic surf—although one of our number got too close to the surf and needed a change of clothing (her camera was fine).

Thanks to everyone who particpated for their adventurous spirits and being willing to brave the elements. Despite what looked like a workshop disaster early on, it turned out to be truly great photography and communal fun. The experience also validated a trusim about landscape photography: if you are not out there when the weather is bad, then you won’t be there when the bad weather breaks—which is often when you find the best opportunities.

Related links: Poetry in Motion; Harold Davis workshops page; What participants say about Harold Davis workshops.

Stacking Waves

Wave Stack

Wave Stack, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I’ve been thinking about stacking as a technique to use for subjects besides with star trails. I’ve tried a spider busily spinning a web, but so far I haven’t found the right spider or background—and I also need to adjust the exposure interval. Another possibility: a crowded area full of rushing people. I’ll get there.

Yesterday evening I was with Mark at Sculptured Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore. The wind was gusting like crazy, so I positioned my camera and tripod low to the ground behind a sheltering rock.

This image is a stacked composite using 12 exposures. I shot each exposure with very little intervals at 1.6 seconds, f/22 and ISO 100. I used a Polarizer to further lengthen the exposures. Essentially, the point of stacking was to create an exposure where the sum of the the exposure time for the moving objects—the waves—was longer than could have been obtained (considering the light) in a single exposure. Stacking also meant that the exposure time on the static objects—rocks, cliffs, and sky—effectively stayed at the time of a single exposure.

Think about it: with the Polarizer, stopped all the way down, and using lowest ISO I could manage a 1.6 second exposure. Stacking the exposures, I have the equivalent of 1.6 X 12, or 18 seconds on the moving waves.

I used the Photoshop Statistics script with the Stack Mode set to Maximum to combine the individual images.

Star Trails over Drakes Bay

Star Trails over Drakes Bay

Star Trails over Drakes Bay, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I made this image as a demonstration of star stacking for a recent night photography workshop I gave on Point Reyes. Before I explain how I made this image, you might be interested in some general information about star stacking, my workshop schedule, and what participants have said about my workshops.

Here’s the back story: Usually, a highlight of the Point Reyes night photography workshop is a visit after dark to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Unfortunately, high winds forced the Park Service to close the stairs down to the lighthouse. I took the workshop group over to the platform above the Lighthouse, hoping that it might be relatively sheltered—but, no go. The platform was intolerably windy, and not conditions under which one could set up a tripod for stability.

So we went down to Drakes Beach, and sheltered on the leeward side of the bluffs, photographing moonlight on the waves. Fairly early—by night photography standards—we headed back to the historic Coastguard Boathouse, workshop central for the weekend.

From the Boathouse side of Drakes Bay, I noticed that things were fairly clear. There was also some shelter from the wind on one side of the building and a straight shot north. I dropped an extension tube out the window of my bedroom, attached a DC converter to run my camera, and positioned the camera in the corner of the building. I threw my 10.5mm digital fisheye lens on the camera to get as wide a field of view as possible, and also to maximize the star trails.

Workshop parrticipant and photographer Mark Lohman came outside to help me frame the image, but neither of us could really see anything in the dark. So I ran off a high ISO test shot at 30 seconds, f/4, and ISO 2,500.

The test exposure looked pretty good—maybe a little on the bright side—so I figured that 4 minutes at f/4 and ISO 200 would work fine for the real thing. This is about what I had expected, but it was nice to have it confirmed before firing off several hours worth of exposures—also, the test allowed me to confirm the composition. Note that I centered the composition on Polaris, the North Star, to get the most circular star trails.

Before making the exposures, I used my Bulb setting and my interval timer to make an exposure that I planned to use later for the foreground at 8 minutes (also at f/4 and ISO 200):

There was a small airplane fooling around in the sky (the swooping line) but this didn’t really matter as I was only going to use the exposure for the foreground.

Next, I used my interval timer to make 40 4 minute exposures. The interval timer settings were: no interval before exposures started; exposure length 4 minutes; interval between exposures 4 minutes and 1 second (unintuitively, on my timer this runs from the start of the previous exposure, not its conclusion); 40 repetitions.

Then I went to bed, listening to the wind howl outside and the waves crashing.

I woke some time in the middle of the night (I didn’t have a watch) and threw on the minimum of clothing. Outside, wind was still blowing, but camera and tripod still seemed to be in position. The 2 hours and 40 minutes of exposures had finished. I brought my camera back inside and went to bed.

Running through the captures in slide show mode was kind of like a “flip book”—because I could see the stars wheeling in the heavens around Polaris (the North Star). Here’s the way a pretty typical exposure looked when I viewed the set in Adobe Bridge:

Looking through the captures, I saw that the pier was lit a couple of times, once when a couple of workshop participants who’d stayed a little later at Drakes got home and the car headlights shone briefly on the pier, and once when someone was fooling around with light painting the pier. Here’s the headlight frame:

In the classroom, I made obeisance to the Photoshop Gods with the hope that the process would actually work. I opened the 40 images via Adobe Bridge, applying the same setting to eash one in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). Next, I showed how to open the Statistics Script (avaibale in the extended versions of CS3 and later).

I added the 40 open files in the Statistics dialog and chose the Maximum method for combining the images. Then the workshop had lunch while my laptop chugged its way through the massive processing this required. Here’s the background that resulted:

You can see in the background that the frame in the stack with headlights lightened the pier, but the rest of the foreground needed some work. I finished the image by layering in the 8 minute exposure to use as a foreground, adjusting the colors, and selectively sharpening—with the results shown at the top of this story and below.

Star Trails over Drakes Bay

Star Trails over Drakes Bay, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

Red Tail Hawk

Red Tail Hawk

Red Tail Hawk, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

One advantage to spending the night out at the end of Point Reyes is being there first thing in the morning. I got up by the light of early dawn and wandered the bluffs near the Chimney Rock Trail. This hawk was there to greet me, and let me get within about twenty feet—all the while perched with a view out over the ocean to the west.

Guiding Light

Guiding Light

Guiding Light, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse is one of my favorite night photography subjects. This was shot during a recent workshop I gave with Point Reyes Field Seminars. I’m lucky that each of my night photo workshops has been allowed down the steps to the lighthouse, although the weather hasn’t always been the greatest!

Here are a couple of my all time favorite Point Reyes Lighthouse images: Night at Point Reyes Lighthouse and Edge of Night.



Hill, photo by Harold Davis. View this image larger.

I’ve been thinking about lines in composition, and black & white. Here are two examples where both visual effects come into play.

Above: A fence divides the water utility (EBMUD) lands from the public park in East Bay, and a path follows the fence up the hill. You actually have to payan annual fee to hike on the EBMUD land, and they have their own private force policing this.

Below: How often do you see a sunset in black and white? It’s like seeing flowers in monochrome.

Watching this sunset fron the end of Point Reyes, I was surprised how contrast increased as the sunset progressed, and I realized there really is a simple compositional story here.


View this image larger.