Pacific Coast Highway Part 1 – Arroyo Grande to Carmel

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One of the greatest drives in the world is the one I’ve just completed, PCH 1, the coast road that snakes along the western edge of the USA and for many, is the visual embodiment of the state of California. Sun, surf, beaches, perilous cliffs and stunning rock formations, PCH1 has it all and does not disappoint.
Although I’ve started this section from Arroyo Grande, PCH1 really starts from LA and includes Pismo and Avilo beaches which I covered in my previous posting. These sections, though are just the warm up to the death-defying twists, turns and the sheer scale of beauty that awaits you.

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And for a photographer, it’s heaven but I should make a point about this particular section of road-trip right from the outset. No photographs, not mine, nor anyone else’s can do this part of the world justice. It is something you have to actually come here and do. It is not simply something to be seen, it is an experience to have, one for the bucket list, whatever. The majesty of the landscape takes the breath away; you round a corner to a view which stuns and excites in equal measure. It is a genuine must-see and an experience you should, if possible, treat yourself to at some point in your life.
Okay, that’s my bit for the Californian State Tourist Board over and done with. Let’s get back to the subjects of travel and photography. Travelling alone is a luxury and if you’ve never done it but always found the idea quite appealing – or even terrifying – then wait no more, just do it. With no one else to consider you stop when you want, eat when you want, do what you want. The mind wanders wherever it likes. You don’t get lonely, people are friendly enough the world over if you open your mouth and talk to them. I speak to my loved ones back home every day via Skype, too. It’s the ultimate down time, where thoughts that have been lingering, unresolved for an age get the time to come out, unfold and get laid to rest. One of the thoughts that occupied me on this stretch of highway was how digital cameras have changed what we think a ‘normal’ photograph looks like.

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I’ve been taking photographs for three decades now, on and off. I’ve run a media design business, taught software and photography, written software, built PCs and networks. Technology likes me and holds no fears for me. I understand it. My pet hates are the types of TV commercial that show a man in his fifties (like me) walking up to his son with his tablet/phone/laptop and saying something like:
‘Son, I’m too stupid to get this to work. I can build a barn, milk a cow, plaster a wall, paper a room and build a Bhuddist temple from any type of wood imaginable but when it comes to these new-fangled gizmos that need e-lec-tricity to power them, I’m just a goddammed jackass. Help me boy.’
Son then rolls eyes, stares at father benevolently and pushes two buttons on a screen that make his father exclaim with joy that he’s raised a genius who’ll go far and be a pride to both himself and his mother who ran off with that IT nerd half her age… maybe that’s a little too much embellishment but you get the point. Go Mom, I say.
However, as I stated above, there are technological changes in photography which the digital age has brought which, to me, actually change the nature of what photography is. No, not Photoshop, that’s a good thing. I’m talking about the changes that have been made in cameras themselves meant, in theory, to give you a better picture.

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I often state in the presentations that I make for work and in the lessons I give, that photography is the control of light. This isn’t an original statement by any means and I’m not tring to claim it is. What I’ve noticed when using digital cameras, however, is that this control is taken away from the user. Now, I’m not talking about using the ‘fully auto’ setting on your camera, when it does everthing for you. I’m talking about the settings in CSCs and SLRs that, by default, add things called Active D-Lighting, Dynamic Range Optimisation, Shadow Adjustment, Auto Lighting Optimiser, etc. These are features that are switched on by default, even on fully manual settings. That’s where the problem lies.
What these features claim to do is reproduce an image more akin to how your eye sees it. They do this by brightening shadow areas to expose more detail and reducing light in overblown areas (so you see the clouds in a sky rather than not, for example). What they actually do is bring the entire tonal range of a photo towards it’s mid point. There are no extremes of bright and dark. Tonally, the picture is rendered neutrally.
Let’s say you were shooting a person standing on a beach at sunset. The sensor would read light from the whole image and the person would be silhouetted. The settings above would seek to correct that automatically. Some take two photos, one exposed for light, one for dark and knit them together. Others analyse the single image and brighten darker areas. Now, I want to make the point again that I’m not talking about the camera doing this when you have it set on Auto. This is when you are using manual settings. What it means, is that you are not controlling the light. I realised this when I was carefully setting the aperture on my shots, seeing the image I wanted in the viewfinder but as soon as I had taken the shot seeing the camera apply this optimisation to my image.
It’s manual, Jim, but not as we know it.
So turn it off. Because if you don’t, you’ll never have full control of what you’re shooting. 

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To finish on another note, you’ll see that I’ve reproduced some of the photos here twice, once in colour and once in black and white. Why?
In a way, it’s to prove what difference the above argument makes. If you remove colour, the whole point of the image is composition and light – this is why many photographers favour black and white over colour. When you do that you also change what to emphasise in the darkroom. And here’s an important point: a blanket fix of light levels is not the same as a photographer deciding to emphasise with light or darkness by dodging and burning in the chemical or digital darkroom. There’s a shot below of a bridge which, in the black and white version, I decided to make ‘stand out’ more than I did in the colour version. Why? To emphasise the structure itself, its position within the composition and also have its brightness work as a reference point for the tonal range within the rest of the frame. To make it stand out in the colour shot would have ruined the balance there because colour adds a whole different element. But that’s another story…

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Take a look at more of my work at www.billblack.co.uk

2 thoughts on “Pacific Coast Highway Part 1 – Arroyo Grande to Carmel

    • It can on day to day use but when you take a landscape it shows when parts you know should be dark, for instance, are not. I was looking at a photographer’s pictures in a gallery in Carmel where HDR had been used in conjunction with instense oversaturation and high contrast. There wasn’t a thing you coud not see, no shadows without detail and the whole thing had an even- if bright- light right across the range. That isn’t how your eye sees things and use of the technique removes a key photographer’s tool – shaping with light.
      Like I say, I do agree with you that it has its uses but it is a tool that removes a key photographic skill. It’s also the fact that it is on by default, even in manual settings, that bugged me. Most people don’t even know it’s there.

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