Photography Bucket List - Big Sur

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 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!

Some Older Comments

  • Jeffrey May 31, 2013 02:17 am

    I believe anyone could spend weeks photographing Big Sur area. 10 stars out of 5!
    James, in fairness to you, you did mention camping among the towering redwood trees on the Big Sur River.
    One of the jewels of the world.

  • Gerald Hynan February 16, 2013 07:38 am

    Big Sur is definitly awesome. However this article completely misses the point. There is no mention of what really makes Big Sur an incredibly beautiful area is the coastal Redwood trees that populate the area and only grow along the west coast

    Coast redwoods occupy a narrow strip of land approximately 470 miles in length and 5–47 miles in width along the Pacific coast of North America; the most southerly grove is in Monterey County, California, and the most northerly groves are in extreme southwestern Oregon

    It is an evergreen, long-lived,living 1200–1800 years or more.[2] This species includes the tallest trees on Earth, reaching up to 379 feet in height and up to 26 feet in diameter .

    In addition there numerous medicinal hot springs available in the greater Big Sur area with a little hiking.
    Also Esalan Institute (south of Big Sur) has their Hot Springs open to the public. Check their Web Site

    Photographing these trees and coastal settings is very challenging so be sure to do some homework before setting out to take that perfect photo

  • Michael Morris February 15, 2013 01:23 pm

    I have taken pictures in Big Sur and at Pfieffer Point. The scenery is great. Mine don't look as good as yours, but I like them.

  • James Brandon February 15, 2013 11:47 am

    Great tip Yonatan, I will be picking up that guide for sure!

    Rachel, Big Sur was just one place we recently stopped at on our road trip. We did San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, San Francisco, Mono Lake, Death Valley, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon. Keep a look out here and on my blog ( for more images and reviews of the places we went. Mono Lake was incredible. Go there.

    As far as Hwy 1 there are TONS of places to go between LA and SF. My favorites are Santa Barbara, Los Osos, Morro Bay, San Simeon, Big Sur (duh) and Monterrey. South of LA is incredible as well. Completely different scenery for the most part. North is more wilderness, south of LA is more of your typical beach and palm tree kind of shots.

  • Rachel February 15, 2013 10:16 am

    Thank you so much for this! I'm heading to Big Sur from Australia in late March/early April and I can't wait!

    Yonatan, thanks for that link, I'm downloading the Don Smith guide now!

    Anyone else got any tips on Highway One from SF to LA? Or Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon NP, Grand Canyon or Monument Valley.... i'm road trippin'!

  • nancy boothe February 15, 2013 07:54 am

    Thank you for this series. I love the added maps and suggestions of places to stay. It just lengthens my bucket list...

  • Yonatan February 14, 2013 11:58 pm

    Nice piece. Don Smith is a professional photographer who shares a lot of his knowledge with fellow photographers on Aminus3. He has a great Ebook dedicated to photographing the Big Sur available for $9.99.

    I'm heading out to the Big Sur for the first time in a few months and will be using his guide. It has great descriptions accompanied by GPS coordinates for locations. Here is the address to the book, definitely worth a look if you are planning on photographing the Big Sur.

  • raghavendra February 14, 2013 12:34 pm

    This is the first time I'm hearing a place called 'Big sur' it is truly a bucket list. You gave the ultimate package for like how much it will cost. Thanks a lot :)

  • Rosalie Valvo February 14, 2013 07:03 am

    I love reading about places close to my home. But I have a nit to pick. The Pacific Coast Highway is in Southern California. The Big Sur stretch, as well as the one around my home (Morro Bay) is called the Cabrillo Highway. Every time someone refers to it as the PCH, I cringe, thinking that Southern California (read "Los Angeles") is making further inroads into non-urban California. You can also refer to it simply as "Highway One" or "One", but, please, not "The One".

  • Ed Frazier February 14, 2013 02:23 am

    I have been to Keyhole Arch twice and both times it was amazing..there are a few hiking trails around that provide excellent views for photography as well.

    Another great item that is not too far from the Arch is Pebble Beach where you can get some shots of the Lone Cypress Tree! For a real treat is the Hearst Castle!

    All the way around driving up/down PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) is a photographers dream of locations to shoot!

  • James Brandon February 14, 2013 02:02 am

    Jay - For some reason Carmel keeps evading me. I meant to go the first time I visited Big Sur. Then this last time we were short on time and had to hop onto the 101 to get to San Francisco in time. Some day I will see Carmel :-)

    Juan - It will be well worth it!

    Jens - Great images! Everyone reading should check out her website. Great collection of Big Sur imagery :-)

  • James Brandon February 14, 2013 02:00 am

    Danny - Couldn't have said it better myself :-) I also had that same speechless moment at Mono Lake a few weeks ago. The sun was rising on a completely calm, crisp morning morning with the snow Sierra's in the background and the incredible scenery of Mono Lake right in front of me. I didn't want to ever leave.

  • Danny February 13, 2013 11:41 pm

    Great article on Big Sur. I have been to hundreds of beautiful places in my life, but the most gorgeous place I have ever been is Big Sur. It is so breathtaking, that upon arriving, I stopped the car, got out and was speechless. I just stared at the natural wonder that God has created for us. I am looking forward to returning there, hopefully soon.

  • GadgetComa February 13, 2013 10:05 pm

    I've been to Big Sur many times, even though it's on the opposite side of the country. The hiking is amazing. Last year, I hiked a combination of three trails: Ridge to Panorama to Coastal. This started at the entrance to Andrew Molera State Park, traveled along the ridge to the edge of the park, then down to the coast to loop back. Talk about seeing it all. Another great meal option is Nepenthe. Built on the edge of the cliffs on the same spot where Orson Welles built a cabin for Rita Hayworth, Nepenthe has a deck in back with a counter you sit at to face the ocean while you're eating. It's a fine way to end a day of hiking. Be sure to try the Ambrosia burger!

  • Jay February 13, 2013 03:08 pm

    Yes Big Sur is amazing. Not too far away is beautiful Carmel - another photography paradise.

  • Jeremy Edmonds February 13, 2013 02:38 pm

    I enjoyed this post so much. My wife and I were engaged on Pfeiffer Beach at sunset (of course!) back in 2005. For that and many other reasons it is one of my favorite spots on earth. If I could retire there I would. Do you know about Paddington Cove???

  • Juan February 13, 2013 09:28 am

    Nice place to visit when I get to the States (some day that will be).

  • Jens February 13, 2013 07:16 am

    Big Sur is one of the greatest places in California. I really enjoyed travelling there in 2009 and was impressed by both - landscape and animals. Loved it also as a photo spot like I have shown here: Big Sur