I photograph people and situations for a living. At my core, however, I am a landscape photographer. It is how I started as a teenager, bicycling around the back roads in south central Pennsylvania with a camera around my neck, getting up before dawn and seeking the early morning light. On vacation I can indulge this distinctly non-commercial, personal passion to be in the landscape and connect with it photographically.
Such was the moment last week when we ascended into the fog on Hwy 101, about 10 miles south of Crescent City, CA. I saw a pullout at the top of a hill, passed it by, then swung the car around when we started to descend below the fog.
I walked into a fog-shrouded, mature redwood forest. I was stunned, and hardly knew where to begin. Mostly I gazed and took it in, then went back to the car to interrupt Robin, who was deep in a book. "You have to get out in this. I've never been in such a magical place."
After ten minutes she announced, "I'm cold. I'm going back. Have fun."
I found some photos and started working the place. Rhododendrons hung over the bark covered path. Swordferns carpeted the forest floor. I had grabbed my panoramic rig when I went back, and I was constructing some sweeps of the forest with it. Then the light started to change.
It was brightening, slowly. The sun began to burn through the fog, and the magic level ramped up a few orders of magnitude. Beams of light sliced through the thick air. It was an otherworldly, stunned-into-holy-silence variety of light. A couple wandered up the path, gazing upwards, the woman trying to capture it with her phone. We whispered to each other and shared our amazement of this place. I found a spot to work, and shot consciously and slowly, trying to experience the moment and not lose myself in the dials.
I have been photographing the landscape for over 40 years in a serious fashion. I had never felt light as amazing or as magical as this.
In fifteen minutes it was over. There was still fog in the trees, but thinning rapidly. The forest was now a sunlit patchwork of brilliant spots and dark holes, becoming more ordinary by the minute.
The shot, above, is a High Dynamic Range composite of 7 separate images. Conditions such as this have a range of light values that far exceed the capacity of either film or digital to capture. There is a cult of extreme HDR photography that I eschew, mostly because it's pretty dreadful, but used judiciously it can be the only way to convey the intensity of a scene like this.