La Jolla Beach Sunset, Where to Set the Horizon

La Jolla Beach Sunset

Beach Sunset – La Jolla, California (Emphasizing the Beach)

La Jolla Beach Sunset

Beach Sunset – La Jolla, California (Emphasizing the Sky)

I was really happy that I was able to squeeze in a session of sunset photography at the beach on my recent trip to Southern California. The family vacation centered around the amusement parks and since sunset is at around 5pm, the schedule did not accommodate a drive to the coast. Luckily we finished our visit to the San Diego Zoo earlier than expected and I was able to zip to the beach in time to get a few photographs. Not familiar with the area, I asked my wife to find a park or beach near La Jolla. I’m sure there are more scenic locations, but I’m happy with the image I got on our quick trip to the beach. The timing was perfect and the sunset looked wonderful. It would be a shame to be in Southern California and not get a least a few beach photographs, right? After taking a few family photos with the sunset as the backdrop, I turned my attention to landscape photography and spent a few minutes capturing the optimum color just after sunset.

My first challenge was to have an interesting foreground element for my landscape. Unfortunately I did not see any structures or rocks, just a wide open beach. There was a pier about a 1/2 mile away but I didn’t have the time to get down to that location. The beach had really fine, hard and compacted sand. The water had created interesting ripple patterns in the sand that I decided to use as more foreground interest. I adjusted my tripod to its lowest setting and attempted to catch the color and reflections of the rippled sand.

My next decision was where to put the horizon in the frame. The general rule of thumb suggestion says not to place the horizon dead center. So do you have more sky or more ground? Of course it depends on the scene. If there are wonderful cloud formations or a majestic mountain range, I would frame the horizon lower to capture the interest above the horizon. However, if there is a lot of beautiful details on the ground such as a lake or a curved path, you might consider keeping very little sky and emphasizing the ground. In this case, I did not see an obvious placement of the horizon. I started by keeping the horizon lower and showing more of the sky. Then I realized that more interesting element might be the ripples in the sand. After looking at both photographs, I’m not sure which one I like better — they both have their advantages. I might be leaning a bit more to the first photograph that shows the sand ripples. In retrospect, If I was less rushed during these few minutes, I should have taken some shots with mostly the sand ripples and very little sky. Then I would have more options to choose from. Something to keep in mind the next time I’m at the beach. Ultimately, like many things in photography, there is no right answer and its a matter of choice.

So which of the two photographs do you like better? Please click on the images to see a larger view.

My Thought Process

Something that I learned in my short time doing landscapes is the importance of having a foreground element. Ideally having something interesting in the foreground, middle and background leads the eye though the photograph. This is especially important using wide lenses since these lenses tend to add distortion which increases the distance between near to far. I explained above that absent of any obvious objects, I decided to use the sand ripples on the beach as my foreground interest. While I used my super-wide lens, I actually zoomed in to 18mm for these photographs. I wanted show the ripples larger in the frame. The ripples were not large enough to anchor the image if I had set my lens to the widest 10mm setting. I also placed the brightest part of the scene about 1/3 from the left side of the frame. This was going to be my main subject and I did not want to place it in the middle. The silhouettes of the trees and building to the left are somewhat balanced by the shadow and darkness on the right side.

I originally planned to do HDRs of the scene and took a bunch of images with my usual group of 3 bracketed frames. As the light continued to fade, the colors became more intense and I realized that a single image would be more than enough to capture the range of light. The two photographs above were some of the last I shot that night. I didn’t bother with HDRs since the color and light from these single frames more than adequately captured the beautiful scene.

[Note: Click on the images for a larger version]

Image Details

The RAW images were taken with a Canon 7D with the Sigma 10-20mm lens. I did some minor post processing in Aperture 3. I increased the color saturation slightly and reduced the shadow details and brightened the image. I also did my usual image sharpening.

Image 1: f14, 2 seconds, -1/3 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 18mm
Image 2: f14, 1.6 seconds, -1/3 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 18mm

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