Behind the Image – Scripps Pier

This is Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California.  Twice per year the sun sets precisely in the opening of the pier.  This photograph includes a two minute exposure for the background, using a 10-stop neutral density filter (to allow motion to blur the ocean waves and the clouds) blended with another exposure for the pier and the sun.

Fortunately this La Jolla sunset was one of the few summer sunsets without fog (summer is brutal for fog).  I arrived at the beach about 40 minutes ahead of sunset, naively thinking there may be one or two people there but not really knowing what to expect.  There were a lot of cars alongside the road.  More than usual.  Hmmm.  Then I knew something was up when a gal got out of her car across the street with something that looked suspiciously like a tripod case…and then, after looking at me with my photography gear, sprinted across the street and started walking quickly.  Evidently our plans were the same.  There’s not a lot of room under the pier.  I was going to have to get a move-on if I wanted a good spot.  I’m a fast walker.  She had no chance once I picked up the pace.  Heh.

I reached the beach entrance after several minutes of fast walking .  I turned the corner to enter the beach and saw there were no less than 15 photographers already lined up.  All the prime spots were taken.  I was after a centered view, along with everyone else evidently!  Cameras and tripods were wedged next to each other.  People were crouched between tripods.  I was screwed.  Guess I’m not the only one that researches sunset positions!  What a fool I was for thinking I could go to an iconic photo spot in San Diego on one of the two prime days of the year and think I would have it to myself.  Sigh.  I had no choice but to make the best of it and started to rethink what the image would look like.


Ansel Adams had this thing called visualization.  The idea is to see a scene and then imagine what it is going to look like as a photograph and how it would be presented to the viewer as a representation of what the photographer saw and felt.  It’s a simple concept but it helps in coming up with creative compositions.  I “deleted” from my mind my original plan – the underside of the pier with the sun half-set on the horizon in the middle of the photograph.  But, I wasn’t about to move out from underneath the pier.  I love the “window” created by the pier’s opening, with its pylons creating the illusion of converging lines in the distance – funneling the viewer’s eye right to the sunset.*  THAT was the shot I visualized and I wasn’t going to completely abandon it.  At least not yet.

Choosing the Composition

I quickly came up with a new option – a photograph off-center to the right which would result in the pylons on the opposite side of the pier (the left side) creating a leading line from the left to the right side of the photograph.  I had enough room where I could choose from two versions of this photograph.  The first version would have the pylons stacked on the right side so that only one pylon was visible (the others hidden behind it).  The second version would show them slightly staggered, angling ever so slightly from right to left towards the opening of the pier.  I only had the opportunity to make one of those photographs.  There were too many people and all the space was filling up.  I chose the second version.  A staggered view of the right-side pylons will add depth to the image.

Now that I selected the main part of my composition, my next choice was how wide an image I should make.  I could zoom and fill the lower part of the composition with the ocean (similar to another image I had of Scripps Pier) or I could shoot wider, showing some of the beach.  The tide was out so I would have had to zoom in pretty far to eliminate the beach.  That would reduce the effect of the converging pylons.  I noticed that a channel of ocean drainage overflow from behind the beach had cut a shallow channel under the pier.  What I had initially thought was an inconvenience was going to become a major component of my photograph.  The sun was reflecting off the shallow sheet of water and the waves.  Beautiful.  There was my composition.  I set up with a wide angle lens.

Taking the Photograph

I like shooting at slow shutter speeds.  That smooths out ocean waves, turns water silky smooth and blurs moving clouds.  My 10 stop neutral density filter cut back so much light that it resulted in a two-minute exposure.  Unfortunately the sun is moving pretty fast, and such a slow shutter speed would blur the setting sun.  In fact, once the sun touches the horizon it takes about two minutes to fully set!  I wanted the sun to be tack sharp.  A two-minute exposure wasn’t going to work!

I hid the sun behind the pylons on the left side of the pier for the first of my two planned photographs.  A two minute exposure gave me my blurred clouds and smoothed out the water.  A slow shutter speed also had another benefit – it removed people that were milling around outside the pier, marring my composition.  Long exposures can remove moving people from a photograph, even stationary people provided they don’t remain stationary for too long.  I removed the filter after capturing the long exposure, and waited approximately eight minutes for the sun to position itself in the middle of the pier.  Click – a 1.3 second exposure and a perfectly sharp setting sun.

Post Processing

Back at home I blended both images together and removed a couple of “ghosts” in Photoshop (people that were stationary a little too long which resulted in the recording of a blurred outline).  The end result is the image as I visualized it, how I want to remember it and how I want the viewer to experience it.  This blending of two images and my manipulation of time (both shutter speed and the difference in time between images) is why I call my work photographic art.

I think the photograph turned out much better than the centered view would have.  It’s one of my favorite photographs.  Most importantly, in an age where it’s increasingly difficult to find unique photographs, I know none of the numerous photographers alongside me that evening came away with something that looks like it.

To order a print of this photograph please click here.

* Everyone has seen railroad tracks that look like they meet (converge) in the distance, at the horizon.  That ‘s called the “vanishing point.”  Our static field of view and the distance to the horizon create this illusion.  Imagine a tennis ball a couple of inches from your nose and then imagine it several feet from your nose.  You can see more of the scene when the ball is further from your nose.  Your field of view didn’t change – only the proximity of the subject did.  You can see more of the surrounding area the further the ball moves away from you.  It’s the same effect with the railroad tracks.  The tracks will eventually converge as they move further and further away from you.  This is called the Ponzo illusion, named after Italian psychologist Mario Ponzo. 

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