Monday, December 24, 2012

Living History Photo Shoots

Portrait of a Maid
I more or less accidentally discovered historical reenactments, often referred to as "living history." Here in Virginia there are plenty of reenactments depicting the Civil and Revolutionary Wars, and of course Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown are open year round. Other examples are "Military Through the Ages" and a variety of Renaissance fairs. All are populated by enthusiasts who spend big sums creating and maintaining authentic costumes, equipment and props, which can include horses, vehicles, portable structures like tents, musical instruments, furniture, weapons, anything that is historically accurate or authentic. Some presentations include reenactments of battles, complete with (blank) gunfire. Renaissance Fairs are the most lighthearted and colorful.

Perhaps as important as their appearance is the reenactors' interest in educating visitors. They will happily share incredible amounts of information and if possible, show you the items associated with their narrative. It is clear that these enthusiasts are well-read and deeply committed to understanding the era they represent, even as they enjoy sharing that knowledge and showing off a bit, which is right they have earned.

Walking Through a Meadow

For the photographer, these events are rich opportunities for capturing portraits of people in authentic costumes. For obvious reasons, these events are held outdoors, so having good shooting light isn't a problem. Ideally, bright overcast skies are best as they reduce the harsh shadows and squinting. 
 Because backgrounds are often busy and other visitors are walking through your frame, a relatively long zoom lens can get you in close and a wide open aperture can help isolate your subject, especially for headshots, which I favor. One benefit of shooting reenactors is that they're actors--they comfortably strike poses that are photographically appealing. It helps to be quick on the shutter---you probably won't have but a few seconds to frame and shoot, but with practice you can make some incredible captures.

Point Sur Light Station

The Point Sur Light Station is another landmark on the Cabrillo Highway, one that is not especially easy to photograph because it is only infrequently open for tours. However, I highly recommend that you take the time to visit it if at all possible. For more tour info, go to the Point Sur home page. The Station is inaccessible to the public except during these tours. There is plenty of time and flexibility to wander off and take photos of the Station and its various buildings.

The tour is three hours long and is conducted on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays on a first come-first served basis, with a maximum of 30 visitors. There were only a dozen visitors on the day I went. The two docents were informative and knowledgeable. The tour involves a climb up the access road. However, it is not particularly strenuous and they stop frequently to point out sights and to describe the fascinating history of the Station.

Of note, for once I chose to not carry a tripod and that worked out fine. There was plenty of light and there was no need for extra support. The Station does offer a moonlight tour that I'd like to take someday, and a tripod would be a must. Maybe next year!

The image to the left was taken at sunset from the road with a 300 mm lens.

Piedras Blancas Seal Rookery

I first visited the Piedras Blancas seal rookery in 2010 on my first visit to the Central Coast area. In December the seals are cheek-by-jowl, jostling for space and trying to catch the weak winter sun. Lest you think that this is a quiet, sanguine little beach, the seals are constantly snorting, barking, growling and making farting noises that will leave the 8 year-old in you snickering. Graceful only in the ocean, they shuffle, roll and collapse into scattered heaps of blubber. Their only captivating features are their eyes.

The main Piedras Blancas seal observation area is often busy, filled by tourists spilling out of buses and jostling each other for good spots to get photos of the seals. However, the seals are often too far away for really good shots unless you have a long telephoto. Even then, setting up a tripod will get you scowls and people are likely to trip over it, ruining your shot.  There's a wooden fence keeping visitors from encroaching on the seals' territory, and for good reason, given some folks' judgment. Bottom line, it's not easy to get a good shot here. But, there's a solution.

Head 1.3 miles south of the main observation area and you'll find a parking lot at the "Vista Point." (Look for the blue sign.) Park at the southernmost end of the lot and then take the path at the end of the lot about 100 yards further. You'll find yourself on the edge of a bank 10' or less from the seals, where you can get as many shots as you want. The two times I've visited this spot I've had it to myself.

The seals are either curious, napping or preoccupied with their battles for territory. There is no fence, but of course you absolutely should not climb down the bank. There's really no reason to--you can get all the shots you want with little effort. Respect the seals and leave them to their little corner of the coast.

Big Sur: The Bixby Bridge Revisited

Anyone who has driven down Highway 1 in Big Sur has crossed the Bixby Bridge, which is just 12 miles south of Carmel. Built in only 14 months and completed in 1932, it has an elegance of style and function you don't see in contemporary bridge architecture. It may be the most identifiable and iconic scenes on the Cabrillo Highway. I suppose that's why so many travelers stop and take photos of the bridge or just take in the vista of the Pacific coast from that vantage point. The location, along the rocky coast and surrounded by the hills of Big Sur, makes it one of my favorite spots.

Getting good shots of the bridge can be tricky unless you use a wide angle lens.  I like to capture the sweep of the bridge's lines from both ends. The parking area at the northern end of the bridge can get busy, so I like to get right up to the end of the bridge so I can capture some of the coastline. 

Shots from the southern end requires crossing the bridge and then parking in the tiny turnout just past the end of the bridge. Climb up the narrow path and you'll find yourself with a sweeping view of the bridge. With a wide angle lens you can capture the entire bridge, as well as some foreground and coastline. (The shot above was taken with a 12 mm lens on an APS-C sensor, equivalent to about a 20 mm full-frame lens.)

One unwelcome development this year: one evening two women set up portable speakers and were playing guitars and singing. Sorry, but this was just noise pollution in a beautiful setting.