Tips For Shooting El Matador Beach

ElMatador16.9.4.7It was only a few months ago that I finally made the dirve up to El Matador Beach which is arguably the most photogenic beach in Southern California. Located just a few miles North of the glamourous movie star-riddled enclave of Malibu, El Matador boasts several hundred yards of sea stacks, hidden coves and small caves. If you are thinking about heading out there to take advantage of this gorgeous stretch of coastline, here are a few things that you should keep in mind:

1) Plan for traffic of biblical proportions. The traffic in and around this area, from any direction is horrendous. Although the beach is amazing at sunset, it is also a wonderful sunrise location in the Winter Months as the sun is far enough South to be visible from certain spots along the beach which actually face a bit toward the East.  But unless you are planning on arriving very early, you can count on some serious traffic from almost any direction.  The 405 has the airport traffic, the 10 is horrendous at almost any time of day, and even if you try to cut across from the 101, the side streets can back up for miles.   All of that said, unless you live near Malibu, count on an additional hour of traffic from almost any direction and you should be OK.


2) Check the tide before making your trip.  The caves and sea stacks are spectacular at El Matador, but the beach itself is not very wide, which means that if you arrive during high tide, there IS no beach.  The waves will run right up to the cliff and most of the preferred photography locations will be under several feet of water.  One of the best apps for checking the tide is Surfline, which will give you the high and low tide times for virtually all of the beaches along the California coast and beyond.   During high tide, it probably wouldn’t be worth your time, so definitely check before heading out there.

El Matador16.7.2.6

3) Keep an eye on the weather.  One of the apps that I have been using for the past year or so is Skyfire, which is a plugin available for The Photographer’s Ephemeris.  It has done a fairly good job of alerting me to potential sunrise and sunset locations, but it definitely isn’t 100% accurate.  On the day that I took the photos in this post, it registered only a weak 40% potential of a decent sunset, but I double checked the Satellite view on the NWS website and saw that there looked like a slight break in the cloud ceiling off to the West and decided to go for it.   The clouds were very heavy when I arrived and I was about to give up when I noticed that there was, in fact, a little break in the clouds off to the West and sure enough, it was just enough for the sun to burst through as it set.



























4) The beach doesn’t end at the second staircase. As you arrive at the bottom of the first staircase and head Northwest up the beach, you will first notice the small seacaves underneath an enormous rock.  While these caves are very cool and can be great to shoot from, this is NOT where I took my cave shots from.  Most people notice how the beach just seems to end in this corner and assume that this is all there is to El Matador Beach.  In reality, once you make it around that corner (which might involve getting very wet) you will arrive at arguably the best spot on El Matador Beach.  In order to make it around this corner, you will have to choose one of two options: 1) Wait until the tide is low enough and simply walk around, trying to dodge the incoming waves, or 2) Crawl through the small sea cave, again, dodging waves that might still be coming up the beach.   On my second trip out to the beach, I wasn’t wearing shorts as we had just come down from shooting in Yosemite, and I chose not to make the attempt.  But my friends Tom and Mark did, and both got pretty soaked for their trouble.  But they did manage to grab some great shots from a nearly deserted area of the beach on a very crowded day!

5) Speaking of crowds, try to head down there on a work day, in the middle of the week, if possible.  Mark, Tom and I made the mistake of heading down on Valentine’s Day as we were just passing by on our way to drop Mark off at the airport.  It turned out to be an incredibly bad idea as Valentine’s day fell on a weekend on one of the warmest February days that we have ever had.  The beach was SWARMING with couples and our shooting options were suddenly very limited. Just a few weeks prior I had headed down on a weekday, and while the traffic was predictably horrible, there was only a film crew and a handful of other people enjoying the beach, most of which were photographers.


6.  Keep an eye on the waves…and your tripod.   If the sky does light up while you are shooting down there, keep an eye on the tide, even if it is supposed to be heading out instead of in.  You definitely don’t want to be in one of those caves when a freakishly huge wave comes in or it will be very bad news for you…AND your camera.   Secondly, if the sky DOES light up while you are down there, keep in mind that the sand you are shooting on is NOT stable, especially when wet.  I had just run back to my camera bag for a second and as soon as I turned my head, one of the tripod legs began to sink through the sand and my 14-24 2.8 Nikkor lens took a faceplant in the sand.  After I dug it out and tried my best to clean off the sand, I tried to turn it and it sounded like a pepper grinder.  I did a ton of work on it after I got home and manage to get all of the sand out, but I promised myself that I will ALWAYS stay within an arm’s reach of my tripod when shooting in the sand from now on.

7.  Don’t forget to bring an ND filter if you are interested in shooting some longer exposures.You probably won’t need an ND filter if you are shooting well after the sun has gone down, but it would be good to have with you just in case you want to blur the waves while color is still in the sky.


8.  Don’t pack up too early!  I noticed several photographers had already packed up and left before the show was truly over.  Be sure to stick around well into the blue hour as the embers of the sky can continue to smolder well into the blue hour.


9.  Don’t forget to share the beach with other photographers as this is a very popular beach to shoot.  If you happen to make it into the cave just as the sun is beginning to set, take a bracket and then give the other person a chance to shoot.  Chances are, they might be from out of state and that might be their only opportunity to get that shot, so try to take turns whenever possible.  On my particular night, I ran into a photographer who happened to be shooting a swimsuit model at the cave, but he noticed my tripod and was very cool about moving around and trying different spots.  And instead of yelling at him and telling him to clear off, I, in turn, continued to shoot around both of them knowing that I would be able to clone both of them out later.

10.  Parking is very limited, so you might have to park on the street.  It took us about 15 minutes to find a spot on Valentine’s Day and we had to walk quite a ways back on Pacific Coast Highway.  There is also a fee involved if you wish to use the parking lot which I believe was around $10 when I was there, but it may be more as the parking prices along the coast seem to go up almost every month.   If you do decide to park on the street, please be very careful as the cars traveling on PCH are moving VERY quickly and there are no crosswalks in the area.


El Matador is an incredibly gorgeous beach, but between the  traffic, crowds and weather conditions, it can be a less than ideal situation for a photographer making his or her first trip to shoot there.

As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know in the comments section below.


8 thoughts on “Tips For Shooting El Matador Beach

  1. Thank you for this! Exactly the info I was looking for.

    Going to try to grab some milky way shots tonight. Tide is lowest at 5am, driving from 2 hours north, so will leave home around 12:30am and do an all nighter. Hope I can suss out the caves in the dark!

    • William McIntosh

      Thanks Jesse! I hope you had good luck with the Milky Way! It can be very foggy during this time of year, so I’m hoping you had clear skies.

  2. Miguel A Matos

    Greetings Jesse & William I trust that you are doing well gentlemen. First of all I like to congratulate you gentlemen for an amazing images you created behind the camera. It’s a Masterpiece!!! I’ll be traveling to California in mid October and I be cruising to Mailbu and El Mator beach is a place that I always want it to photograph. I know how to get to the beach but actually don’t know how to get to the cave. I watched YouTube videos but it wasn’t helpful. My goal is to go the cave at night create amazing images hopefully the whether will be ok. Gentlemen since you know exactly where’s the cave I would appreciate very much if you can draw me map so I would know exactly where is the cave? Jesse I appreciate the tips. My email Thank you very much and Be Bless!


    • William McIntosh

      Hi Miguel – Thank you for the kind words! When you get to El Matador, I don’t think you will need a map to get to the cave. When you head down the stairs from the parking area, you’ll see a small cave underneath one of the large rocks on the beach just in front of the stairs, but that’s not the spot you are looking for. You will want to head North up the beach and continue past the rocks into the next cove. If you walk across that cove you should see the cave at the end of that beach…on the North side of that next little beach area. I’d say it was no more than 1/2 mile from the stairs.

      But here’s the tricky part: If the TIDE is too high, you won’t be able to get out there without swimming so be sure to check the TIDE LEVELS first before heading down there, otherwise you might not be able to shoot anything. El Matador is completely under water during high tide, so keep that in mind before making the trip down there.

      Good luck! I’d love to see your shots when you get back!

  3. Miguel A Matos

    Thanks William I appreciate your help.

  4. Nicole Xu

    Hi William, great article about El Matador. My question is when I will be there low tide is at 2:20pm and high tide at 8:30pm. Sunset for me would be around around 4:50pm. Is that still worth going or do you think since it’s not exactly low tide there is no point. Thanks

    • William McIntosh

      Hi Nicole! Thanks for your question. With tide levels, there are a couple of other factors to look at before heading down. For El Matador, if low tide is around -3 feet, I think you’d be fine showing up two hours later, but if low tide is +2 and high tide is something like 7, you might be out of luck. Also if the tide is on it’s way back in, it will be very tempting to stay out there and keep shooting if the sky lights up, but you need to keep in mind that the cave I was shooting in collects water in a big hurry when the tide is coming back in. I was pretty wet when I left that night because I would let the water come in and splash around and then set my tripod on a rock and take a few more brackets before the next set of waves came in. I also lost a Nikkor 14-24 at that beach when I turned my head just for a second and the tripod went over in the sand. I wish I had specifics to give you, but off the top of my head, I would say if the tide is over 3+ feet it would be very tricky to get out there and the caves will probably be filling up. It it it 6+feet you might not even have a beach to shoot as there simply isn’t a lot of room out there. In addition to the tide levels, if it’s a stormy day, there could be a storm surge or the waves could be coming in a bit taller than usual and that could also affect how much of the beach is available for shooting. Just be sure to check again before heading down. If you do arrive and you don’t have access to the beach due to wave height, a good back up is Leo Carrillo further North where you can get some amazing shots from up above. Either way…be careful out there. 🙂 I would hate to be in one of those caves with my gear and a BIG wave sneaks up without me seeing it.

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