Are We There Yet? (Part 1)

Keyhole Arch | Beebower Productions

Finding the Key

The fabled Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California was proving to be illusive.  Dad and I had repeatedly cruised up and down Highway 1 looking for Sycamore Canyon Road and the little bakery my massage therapist had assured me would be near the turn-off.  No canyon road and no bakery.  No beach.  No Keyhole Arch.  No photography nirvana.

We returned home and scoured our resources looking for GPS coordinates, something we should have done from the start.   But who would have imagined such a famous spot would be so hard to find?

In April, my parents loaded up the Mouse House (my nickname for their very small Casita) and headed west from Dallas, Texas.  They drove really far west to Monterey, CA.  They spent two weeks with me exploring the coast before heading off for the second half of their really, really, really long road trip through California, Oregon and Washington.  (Did I mention it was a long trip?)  I’ll be giving you Dad’s West coast photo round up over the next three weeks.

During their time in Monterey, Dad and I spent a great deal of energy hunting down photographs of landscapes, marine life and birds.  Thus we found ourselves spinning our wheels looking for the illusive Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach.

So back to our story.  Armed with the said GPS coordinates, we finally found the road to the beach and photography nirvana.  Park, walk across the sand past a small stream and boom.  There sits Keyhole Arch.   It’s one of the easiest landscape photo sites I’ve ever been to with Dad (if you discount the three trips to Big Sur it took for us to locate the beach).

What’s so special about this illusive pile of rocks?  During a few days of the winter months, the sunsets directly behind this stalwart sea arch causing the “keyhole” to glow in an amazing way.  Considering it was May we were a bit late to catch this incredible phenomenon, but Dad didn’t give up in capturing a great image.

We photographed the arch in early morning light and then returned for the sunset that evening.  So did a lot of other photographers, including a herd of folks attending a photo workshop on the beach.

Not intimidated, Dad worked his way into position to capture the sunset and some waves that were crashing through the arch.  Everything went off without a hitch until a drone roared to life above the photogs, zipped out over the arch and zoomed down the beach.  Minor distraction, kind of a like an annoying mosquito.  But if the truth were told Dad was a bit envious of the shots the drone could capture.

Anyway, back at home Dad created a composite of the morning and sunset shots to illustrate his “take” on this well-known, if hard-to-find, spot.

Photo Lesson

Research and triple-check your research before setting out on a photo adventure.   GPS coordinates are always good too.  Things aren’t always as easy to find as you might think.  

By the way, you can find the incredibly sharp Pfeiffer Beach turn-off at 36 degrees 14’ 24” N, 121 degrees 46’ 38” W.  The road is not marked with a sign.  The entrance fee is $10.

Point Lobos State Park

Eye candy abounds at Point Lobos.  Need unusual rocks, a craggy coastline, smashing waves, windswept Monterey cypress trees, small islands adjacent to turquoise coves, seals, sea lions, sea otters or birds of all sizes and shapes?  Lobos has you covered.  

Dad and I both found plenty to work with at the park.  The really cool part of Lobos is following in the footsteps of legendary landscape photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.  If it was good enough for them, it certainly is good enough for us.

Good doesn’t mean easy, though.  A couple of things can create challenges:  it’s crowded, the weather can change at the drop of a hat and you need to know where to go so you don’t waste time.

Alien Rocks at Point Lobos | Beebower Productions

Our best advice:  arrive early and walk the trails.  If you drive from point to point, you’ll miss some of the fantastic spots such as the alien-like circles the waves carved into the rocks in Dad’s photo.  You can’t see them from the road.

Not only that, you might not find a parking spot.  Lobos is super popular with tourists and locals alike.  Park officials actually limit the number of cars allowed in the park at one time so you can guess that the parking spaces fill up quickly later in the day.

The weather can go from a bright and sunny day to foggy and freezing in a matter of minutes.  Really.  If you’ve got your heart set on a brilliant sunset, you might be disappointed.  But if you’re flexible you might get an amazing fog-shrouded, ghostly cypress tree photo.  So stay flexible and dress in layers.  That coat feels mighty nice in June.  Really.

Finally, you really need to look at your first trip to Lobos as a scouting mission.  There are so many possible photos scattered throughout the park, you’ll want to develop at plan of where to go and at what time of the day you should shoot.  That, of course, depends on the sun’s location.  Some shots are better with sunrise light and others demand evening light.

Nesting Brandt’s Cormorants | Beebower Productions

Despite the challenges Dad felt fortunate to capture several good images during his day at Lobos.  Besides the alien rocks, he photographed a large nesting colony of Brandt’s cormorants on Bird Island.

Photo Lesson

Give yourself a lot of time to explore a place and scout pictures.  Carry a compass to determine where the sun will rise and set in relationship to the image you want to capture.  Take copious notes about this so you’ll know how to plan your shooting days.

Point Lobos is open year-round.  Admission is $10 per vehicle.  Learn more at

Herring Gull | Beebower Productions

Whale Tails and Other Ocean Stuff

Dad and I took to the high seas for our next adventure.  Just off the coast of Moss Landing, CA lies the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.   The waters team with humpback whales, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, orcas, gray whales and lots of seabirds. 

We set sail on a gray, wet morning with Captain Mike and crew aboard the Sanctuary part of Sanctuary Cruises.  It was a three-hour tour, but unlike Gilligan and his ill-fated friends, we did return to Moss Landing as promised.  Along the way, we saw a lot of humpback whales.

Boats can really hone your shooting skills.  Not only do you need to be ready to compose and shoot at breakneck speed if a creature pops up, you also have to keep yourself firmly planted on the deck.  Doesn’t sound too complicated, does it?  Yeah.  For landlubbers like us, it was especially exciting when we reached the big swells.  And even with autofocus it’s challenging to get those little red sensors to focus on the right thing when you’re bobbing like a cork.

Captain Mike, though, went out of his way to help us out.  He showed us the best spots on the boat to brace ourselves and he was very helpful about getting the boat positioned with the best light on our subjects.  About halfway through my first cruise with him, I commented that I liked him because he thought like a photographer.  Turns out he was a pro for many years.  That explained it.

Whale Tail | Beebower Productions

While we did see a lot of whale tails, we didn’t get to see any breeching whales or leaping dolphins or the much-coveted orcas.  You see, they’re wild animals.  And as much as we’d like to think they’ll cooperate with our cruise times, they don’t, at least not every trip.

That brings me to my next point.  When shooting wildlife, you have to be determined and persistent.  Sometimes it takes 10 trips to capture that one amazing picture.  By definition wildlife is going to do its own thing.  You just have to keep hanging around until you get.

Captain Mike’s photos grace his website.  He got those amazing images by hitting the water several times a day.  The odds go up considerably if you spend the extra time persistently looking for the sea creatures on a regular basis.

Photo Lesson

If you go, get the motion-sickness relief band.  It was originally designed by NASA for airsick astronauts.  They really do work. Captain Mike rents the bands for $7 and they’re worth every penny.   You can’t take great photos if you’re vomiting the whole trip.  Nobody wants to stand next to that guy.

Visit Sanctuary’s website at to learn other seasickness and boat tips or book your own trip.

Join us next Wednesday for part two of the West coast travels when Dad moves on to Yosemite, Redwood National and State parks.

Extreme Shooting

Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

As he used a sheath knife to slowly and painfully claw his way back up the embankment above the cliff, Dad reconsidered the wisdom of riding at the back of the pack. No one saw the packhorse directly in front of him back up causing his horse to side step, lose its footing and roll down the embankment toward the cliff.

No one saw Dad, who managed to get off the horse before it rolled, slide down the same embankment toward the cliff. No one saw Dad ripping the hemlock tree right out of the ground as he tried to stop his pell-mell rush down to certain death. And no one saw the bigger tree Dad crashed into that brought everything to a sudden and painful stand still.

Nope. No one saw any of that. All they knew was that Hugh was there and then he wasn’t. And the kicker–somehow the horse made it back to the trail minus Dad. The back of the pack wasn’t all it cracked up to be.

Interesting Positions

Over the years, Dad has found himself in some, shall we say, interesting positions while trying to get photos. You might even say they were extreme shooting situations. He’s dangled from a cliff, been suspended over a mostly frozen river, hung out under a moving stagecoach and dodged horses hooves as they ran over top of him.

All of that stuff just to get a picture. Some people might call Dad crazy. To Dad, it was another day at the office. OK. Maybe it was better than a day at the office. No collating or stapling.

Dad’s out-of-office Rocky Mountain trail adventure had started off great. He traveled to Sun Valley Ranch near Grand Junction, Colorado on a photo-scouting mission. Dad had a commercial advertising client that wanted to do a catalog shoot in the area. Dad’s friends Ken and Shawn Bruton assured him there were plenty of locations in the mountains near their home that would work.

So the trio set off on a weeklong packhorse trip. While they found plenty of amazing spots to shoot, the most memorable part of the trip would be the roll down the embankment toward the cliff.

Steel Tank used in the Horse Stampede | Beebower Productions

A couple of years after the packhorse disaster, Dad found himself buried underground in a steel water tank waiting for a herd of about 50 horses to stampede over the top of him. Dad’s idea was to capture a unique angle from below the horses. He knew this would be challenging to pull off safely. He turned to his friend Red Wolverton, who knew lots about movie magic and even more about horses.

The plan revolved around a steel tank with slits cut in the sides for cameras (see photo at right). The tank would be buried inside Red’s corral with Dad and his crew inside. The slits would allow Dad to be at eye-level with the horses’ hooves and still have a degree of safety.

On the day of the shoot, they could feel the ground vibrating before they saw the horses. Then things happened fast and furiously. Dust. Stones. Dust. Hooves. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.

No one knew exactly what the horses would do, but Dad got his winning shot on the first run. The horses’ hooves came within six inches of the camera lenses and about 10 inches from Dad’s face. (You can read the full story of the horse stampede on my earlier blog post.) It was a close call, but a successful shoot.

Red, over the years, has helped Dad pull off many extreme shoots at his ranch. One of the most unusual, though, was the stagecoach.

Dad got an unusual idea from an episode of “Gunsmoke” where the camera showed Doc driving his buckboard along a road. Suddenly the camera cut out from the road shot and you were under the buckboard looking at the horses’ hooves as they flew down the road.

Dad thought this technique would be really cool under a stagecoach using a motion picture camera as opposed to still cameras. Red improvised a sling made of horse harnesses and canvas under the coach to hold Dad and his camera gear. You can see in the photo (at right) there wasn’t much room between the ground and Dad.

Everything was working perfectly. Dad was excited about the footage he was capturing. The speed was perfect and there was minimal dust. Then Red ran over some sagebrush that in turn smashed Dad into the bottom of the coach and gave him a bloody nose. Minor detail. The camera, housed in a “crash box”, was fine. That’s all that mattered.

Beyond the Desert

Dad’s adventures weren’t limited to the desert. A commercial advertising client wanted a photo with snow-capped mountains and a stream with rushing waters as a backdrop for his product. Dad already had the mountains and part of the river from an area in British Columbia. But the river needed a few more sections to be complete. Unfortunately his Canadian location was snowed in, so Dad had to look in Colorado to finish the photo illustration.

Canadian Mountain Wilderness | Beebower Productions

He did find the perfect spot near a campground in the Rockies. The stream had cut down into the rocks, so it was about a six-foot drop into the riverbed and down to the waterfall. The stream was really rushing because it had rained and snowed the night before. It was bitterly cold and there were sheets of ice along the edges that made moving treacherous.

No problem. Dad donned a homemade rope harness and the art director, a buff man with great upper body strength, held (yes, held) Dad above the river. Dad’s assistant Chris held on to the art director.

Dad shot like crazy. It began snowing. The river was spitting water all over him. It didn’t take long for the cold to really seep into his coat and boots and pretty much everything. He shot three magazines of film and the group tore out down the mountain. Dad had a happy art director, a really nice photo and he managed to avoid hypothermia.

One Crazy Horse

But that shoot paled in comparison to Old Mescal Bronc. One crazy horse equals a lot of danger. On the other hand, Dad did ask for the craziest horse in Arizona. One of Red’s cowboy acquaintances knew just the one.

The plan: The crazy horse would be flanked by wranglers. The rider would approach the crazy horse on another horse and slide on to the back of the crazy horse. The wranglers would remain on either side but out of the picture frame to ensure the crazy horse moved in the right direction.

Old Mescal Bronc | Beebower Productions

The horses were in place. Dad’s assistants blew dust in the background. Meanwhile Dad hunkered down behind some hay bales with a hulcher sequence camera that could shoot 20 frames a second. He was ready. Action!

As soon as the cowboy slid onto the crazy horse, it went from calm to insane. The horse launched straight up in the air and began bucking its way down the dusty street and through a mesquite thicket near Dad. (You know that horse was crazy because mesquite trees have some really nasty stickers on them. The horse wasn’t phased at all.) Dad was shooting as fast as he could.

After the horse cleared the mesquites Dad began to wonder if it would stop before trampling him. Dad bailed left and the horse went right. The horses’ hooves were about three feet from his face.

The cowboy realized the shoot was over and managed to slide onto another horse. The crazy horse immediately stopped bucking. He suddenly looked as docile as a kitten.

Dad’s assistants came running to make sure he was still alive. One of them commented, “Damn! That was really bad!” And that was probably the closest call, except for sliding off the cliff, that Dad had in 35 years of shooting.

Dad’s got some great photo adventure stories, but he really was very careful when planning these unusual shoots. He knew no shot was worth his life. He had a few bumps and bruises but no one was ever seriously hurt on his photo shoots.

He said, “I thought about the difficulties we might have and you don’t want anybody to get hurt. That was always running through my mind.
The people themselves were a big reason no one got hurt. I didn’t pick just anyone to do this stuff. They had to really know what they were doing from being a photo assistant to a horse wrangler.”

When it came to planning the shots, the folks who knew how to do movie special effects really helped Dad pull off some of these extreme shoots. They shared tips and tricks with Dad that brought the risk factor way down.

“I never had a limit if I could figure out a safe way to do it and still get the shot. That’s why you work with guys like Red Wolverton. Movie people really have this figured out,” Dad said.

And just like the end of a great Western movie, Dad gets to ride off into the sunset. Wait. Wouldn’t that shot be better with an outlaw chasing him, guns blazing while Dad’s horse sails over the gully with the sun sinking into the horizon? Too extreme? Naw…they do it in the movies all the time.

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