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Photography Bucket List – Big Sur

As a photographer, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel around to some great locations in the United States and abroad. It’s hard to tell which places are worth going to and which really aren’t that great or worth the time investment. Some places in general are worth going to but certain places within that said place should be avoided. So I thought I’d start a series of blog posts here on DPS reviewing some of the places I’ve been in hopes that it will help out other photographers with travel plans in the future. In the future, I’ll also bring in guest writers to review places they’ve been as well. So I hope you will enjoy this new series and it will help you solidify some of the places you’d like to visit, or help you skip over some as well!

Big Sur, California – United States

The first location I’ll be reviewing is Big Sur. I’ve been to Big Sur twice now and I can tell you with complete confidence that I will be back some day soon. Big Sur is a low populated area of wilderness along the central coast of California about two hours north of San Luis Obispo and about 4 hours south of San Francisco. I think a lot of photographers are attracted to this region because there aren’t many places in the U.S. where you can get huge mountains and an ocean in a single shot. Big Sur has the largest coastal mountain in the U.S. (Cone Peak) at just over 5,000 feet. The Pacific Coast Highway (Hwy 1) hugs the coastline the majority of the way through Big Sur. Couple that with it’s hairpin turns, scenic bridges and jaw dropping views with sprawling mountains on one side of the road and straight drops down to the ocean on the other side…and I can comfortably call it the most beautiful stretch of road I’ve driven on in the U.S. (note I haven’t driven the Road To Hana in Hawaii yet although I have driven the entire coast line of the Big Island).  The photographic opportunities here are endless and I feel as though I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Where To Stay

There are a few hotels to stay at if camping isn’t really your thing, but I’d suggest making reservations in advance because some of them fill up quick and you’re not going to find a La Quinta Inne or Hilton. This is the wilderness and most areas don’t even have cell phone reception. My suggestion is to camp and I can’t think of a better place than the Fernwood Resort right on the Big Sur River. In the offseason it costs around $35 a night but I think the normal rate is around $45-$50. That’s cheaper than any hotel you’ll find there! At Fernwood you get to camp in a tent surrounded by towering redwood trees along the banks of the Big Sur River. Sleeping at night with the sound of the river rushing by is about as peaceful as it gets. Here’s a shot from right outside my tent in the morning.


Where To Eat

There are plenty of restaurants scattered throughout Big Sur. When I was there with my friend Cliff Baise we ate at the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant. Their wood fired bread board with butter and sea salt is a great appetizer, the wood fire pizzas are incredible and the local brews on the menu are a must. All things considered this place was a little on the pricey side but it was worth every penny. I think together we spent around $50 on the meal.

Where To Shoot

Now the important part: Shooting. Or, erm, photographing. No guns in Big Sur kids. Like I said before, the photographic opportunities in Big Sur are endless and I haven’t even begun to hit all the good spots. The first spot that I’d suggest going to for any photographer is Pfeiffer Beach. I only found out about this beach by asking a local where some good photo ops were. He gave me directions to go up the road from where I was and look for a sharp turn off on the right. I think I only found what he was talking about by luck but I made it and I couldn’t have been happier. When you turn off the PCH you have to travel down a two mile, single lane road to get down to the beach. Make sure you have cash on you because once you get down it costs around $8 to get onto the beach. From the parking lot you’ll have a quick hike to the beach. Here’s a map…



The main attraction at this beach is a rock formation called Keyhole Arch. It’s a cave the goes straight through a huge rock in the water and waves come crashing through it every few seconds. If you come during the winter you can even catch the sun setting right through the cave making for some great photo ops. I believe the perfect time for this is around December 23rd or something like that but I’ve heard the beach is filled with photographers during that time. I was just there on January 30th and got the shot below. Even then there was one photographer there who perched up on the spot looking through the arch and wouldn’t budge. He must have taken the same photo 1,000 times that night. I was there with Cliff and eventually he just walked right in front of the guy to take some pictures from the same location. A little etiquette tip: when you are at cool place where people have to travel long distances for certain shots, be sure to share the compositions. Don’t just post up at one spot and hog it. Get your shot and move along :-).



Here’s another shot from the same location that Cliff took. There’s a stream running right through the middle of the beach so he got down low to take advantage of the reflections in the smooth water.


Another great thing to photograph in Big Sur are the bridges. You can’t really miss these if you drive through on the PCH. Both of the two big bridges have turn off areas right at one end so finding a place to from is easy. If you can shoot them at night or sunrise/sunset I highly suggest it! This was shot at night between the transition from nautical twilight to astro twilight. I waiting for a car to start crossing the bridge and then started a 30 second exposure.



Drive to north end of Big Sur (getting closer to Carmel, past the Bixby Bridge) and you’ll find a nature reserve with a bunch of hiking trails leading the ocean. There’s plenty of photo ops here as well. I shot this in broad daylight with no clouds in the sky. This a great time for an ND filter. In this case I used a Lee Big Stopper, a 10 stop ND filter that allowed me to get a 90 second exposure in direct sunlight. This creates smooth water and a more ethereal feel to a scene like this.



Big Sur gets 5 out of 5 stars in my book. I can’t recommend it highly enough as a photography destination. The big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego are nice but Big Sur is a whole other world. Whether you’re a mountain kind of person or a beach kind of person, you can have your cake and eat it too at Big Sur.

Cliff Baise and I just got back from an epic road trip where we hit Big Sur, San Francisco, Mono Lake, Death Valley, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon on our way back to Texas. To see more images from this trip be sure to check out Cliff’s website at The Creative Gap and mine at James Brandon Photography.

You can also follow us on Instagram for behind the scenes stuff as well: @jamesdbrandon @cliffbaise

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James Brandon
James Brandon

is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code “DPS25” for an exclusive discount!

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