Tips For Shooting Big Sur’s Pfeiffer Beach

Around this time last year I posted an article detailing the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of landscape photographers who have been making the drive up to Big Sur each December in an attempt to catch the magical light pouring through the keyhole arch.  My last attempt was in January of 2015 and I came back with mixed results.  The tide was much too low and I wondered if I came back on a day closer to the actual solitce if I would have better light.

With this in mind, I set off for Big Sur last Wednesday which was not only Winter Solstice but also promised a 3 foot high tide right at sunset.  “Optimal conditions” I told myself, so with a quick look at the satellite to make sure I would have some sun to work with when I arrived, I was off for Big Sur.

Several hours later my Prius was bouncing down Sycamore Canyon Road and I dutifully forked over my $10 when I got to the gate at the bottom.  Even though it was only 3 PM, I was lucky to get one of the last two parking spots.  I looked around and it seemed that everyone else was pulling out tripods and cameras.  Another photographer was unloading his gear next to me and we smiled at each other grimly.  “It’s going to be a bit crowded down there”  I offered before we set off down the trail to the beach.

Fast forward 90 minutes and there had to be upwards of 50 photographers clustered around the beach along with 2 drones all vying for position as the sun streamed through the Keyhole.  I shot for a while down in the crowd and then headed once again up the bluff behind the phalanx of photographers where I could see the angle of the sun in addition to the pathway of light and what I found surprised me.  There was still a good 10 minutes of sunlight left, but the stream of light coming through the keyhole was gone. When we shot the keyhole in 2015, the last light of the day was still making it’s way through the archway.  When I left to shoot the arch this year, I was assuming that high tide would be optimal for getting the spray to come through the archway and for getting the surf to wash up over the rocks in the foreground, but it seems that if the tide is TOO high, the waves cut off the last few minutes of orange sunlight that otherwise would be coming through the arch.

I made some other observations while I was up there shooting this year and thought I would share them with you, in addition to reiterating some of my tips from last year:

1)  Although the sunlight only makes its way through through the Keyhole arch a few weeks out of the year, Pfeiffer Beach is a great location to shoot year round, and is well worth the drive down from PCH if you are in the area.  I have seen some amazing sunset shots that were taken outside of the December-January window that still pulled some glow through the archway along with some very cool shots of the Milky Way at night.   I think many photographers try to get here during a 2 week window to get optimal sunlight, but they could be missing some amazing opportunities in Spring and Summer.  The Keyhole is NOT the only arch on the beach with sun streaming through in December and January.  While dozens of photographers were jockeying for position just a hundred yards away, a handful of us noticed the light streaming through another arch a bit further South.

2)  The view from up above was WAY more popular this year, but be careful to not get too close to the edge.

3)  Don’t assume that the first photographer on the beach knows where the “best spot” will be and camp out the whole time next to him or her.  The change in view from center to left to right is dramatic, so be sure to experiment during the 15-20 minutes when the light is the best.  If you want a sunburst shot, keep in mind that the light trail coming up the beach will eventually move.
If you shoot in January, you can expect that trail to move a bit to the South as the sun sets.

4)  The tide level is definitely an issue, so be sure to check the tide before making the trip up.  It might not be a deal breaker for you, but it will definitely impact your shot.  If the tide is too low, there won’t be enough water coming through the arch, and that is some seriously ugly coastline without the water, especially if it is one of those afternoons where the seaweed washes up and is covered in brownish foam.  On the other hand, if the tide is too high, the light disappears as the size of the waves and tide level eventually will block out the last 10 minutes or so of dramatic sunset light.  I watched that happen this year for the first time, and I am assuming that the light died at the end due to the high tide.

5)  Try not to be a jerk while you are shooting with what could be 50 other photographers.  If you have a good spot and you feel like you have nailed your composition, it might be a good idea to move around and look for another shot, giving your spot to someone who maybe had to walk down the 2 mile road and just arrived.  Some of these folks are on a tour or have traveled from halfway across the world to shoot PCH and Pfeiffer may have been very high on their list.  At the same time, be respectful of the unofficial perimeter that the group has set before you arrived.  I watched some idiot with a european accent a few years ago march in front of the entire group and set his tripod down 20 feet in front of the rest of the group, effectively ruining everyone else’s shot.  Don’t let this be you.  If you want to move the line up closer, ask around.  Otherwise, you might see World War III break out on Pfeiffer Beach with tripods swinging in all directions.

6)  Don’t be in such a hurry to leave after the sun goes down.  At least 80 percent of the photographers all left at once as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon.  I watched them move past me in one large migratory herd while only a couple of them broke off to shoot the reflection and color that was now to their South.  It was almost like they had blinders on.  In addition to grabbing a couple of shots of the sunset, I moved back down to the arch, which was now deserted.  I could now move way down the beach, into the surf with my fisheye without getting in anyone’s way.  Even through the sun was down, the light coming through the arch was still beautiful, and I wondered why everyone else was in such a hurry.  I knew I had a 6 hour drive back to Orange County, but I wasn’t about to take off if there were more opportunites on the beach.  When I finally limped back to the car in my soggy boots, there were only a couple of other cars left in the parking lot.

7)  As I mentioned last year, if you are planning a trip to Pfeiffer Beach during the December to January window, be sure to arrive early, especially if it is a clear afternoon on a weekend.  I arrived just before 3 PM on a Wednesday (Solstice) and I got one of the last two spots.  I think they closed the parking lot behind me as I was heading to the beach.  When I was driving out, I passed 20 to 30 hikers who were now toiling up the 2 mile Sycamore road back to PCH.  Some of them may have found some roadside spots to park on Sycamore, but the parking is almost non existent on that road as the pullouts are really reserved to let cars pass as it is a single lane road.  And that two miles back to the top is all uphill.

8)  It is also a good idea to check the road conditions before heading up there, especially if the 2 mile hike is not an option for you.  That one lane road is poorly maintained, and I believe the residents prefer to leave it that way.  As you get to the bottom a creek literally flows across the road, and water is almost flowing in it during the Winter months.  There are several spots where mud flows across the road during heavy Winter rains and it is not uncommon for the road to be covered in mud and debris in December and January.  From what I could see, most of the residents down there have 4 wheel drive or high clearance vehicles as they expect the road conditions to be bad.  If they do close the road, you can usually find updates at the park website at: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578

If you have any specific questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.  For more info on shooting the Keyhole Arch and Pfeiffer beach, including what to expect when driving down Sycamore Canyon Rd, please feel free to check out last year’s post at:

The Keyhole Arch At Pfeiffer Beach

 

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