I knew I was onto something when local residents began finding me on Instagram, asking if I was that crazy guy they had seen photographing in the deep, surging waves at one of the beaches in my neighborhood. Friends asked what was going on when they realized that my phone was off from 4:00 to 5:30 every afternoon. The carpets in my car were filled with sand and grit. And at the root of it all was a creative endeavor that had me excited to pick up my camera again. Compared to some of the other places I’ve traveled throughout my life, heading “down to the beach” felt anticlimactic. And yet, it was anything but.
Grounded both physically and creatively due to COVID restrictions, I had an empty travel schedule and a subsequent void in my creativity. From traveling in my native Australia to the U.S. and everywhere in between, I have adventure in my blood—and I’m never more comfortable exploring a place than with a camera in my hand. But I rarely photograph close to home; my preference is always for somewhere farther. Somewhat daring. Something bigger.
Months of quarantining in place left me restless for a photographic adventure, so I packed my camera bag, determined to find something to put at the end of my lens. For the first time in years, I could no longer use the excuse that I didn’t have enough time to investigate new ways of seeing. I was committed to breaking my creative slump.
My initial question wasn’t so much “what” as “where?” I scouted around for a couple of weeks and found myself drawn to a rocky beach not far from my house in Pacific Grove, California. It had easy access and didn’t require anything from me other than to show up.
Living on the coast, I knew my obvious subject seemed to be sunsets. But all sunset photos look like, well, sunsets. Not a ton of variety. The whole idea felt somewhat uninspired. So, I kept digging.
My initial thought to shoot sunsets led me to examine the deeper concept of what the light does during those final moments of the day. When the December sun cooperates, Northern California produces glorious skies. The more I photographed, the more I became intrigued with the way the light interacted with the water. Every single evening was a new combination of light and tides. Zooming in to check the detail, I saw tiny landscapes of mountains, clouds and trees.
With these mini landscapes in mind, I began experimenting. I waded into the water and pushed in close to the rocks with wide-angle lenses and used telephoto lenses when shooting from the beach. I tried slow and fast shutter speeds. Photographs that included the horizon. Photographs that excluded the horizon. More than anything else, this experimentation was not only the most fun part of the process, but it helped me understand the aesthetic effect of what my lens choice could do to a scene. Much more than zooming in and out, testing different focal lengths allowed me to play with compression (where all the elements of the image stacked on top of each other) versus distortion (where foreground elements are much larger and visually distinct from the background).
Framing The Concept
After I fired off countless shots, the fuzzy concept behind all those frames came into focus: to photograph the ocean rocks near the shore in such a way that they appeared to be mountains in the mist. Experience has taught me that I do my best work when I set creative constraints for myself. For this project, I removed all visual references to horizon lines and shorelines to make the “mountains” as believable as possible. To create the true feeling of a mountain range, I used a long focal length (200mm equivalent) for compression. My vision for these misty mountain scenes included the dreamy feeling of clouds, so I used neutral density filters to achieve long exposures that frequently exceeded two minutes.
Given my self-imposed constraints, I honestly didn’t know if I would get more than one photograph for this project. And, surprisingly, rather than being an unsettling thought, it was very freeing. I fully embraced my willingness to explore something new because I had zero expectations for the outcome.
Once the idea for the project fully materialized, I set my plan and went to the beach at 4 p.m. every day for six weeks. This gave me enough time prior to sunset to watch the tides and choose my composition before the light arrived. (I say “arrived” because that’s exactly how it felt). I selected a composition and made a few test shots to check the depth of field and exposure length before the color came roaring onto the scene. Depending on the day and the clouds, the colors ranged from brilliant blue to molten gold, and they were always spectacular.
The Giant Paintbrush
This project forced me to embrace and understand light in ways I never had before. Previously, I would wait for the golden hour, see where the light was interesting, and then go photograph. By creating a project that required that I return to the same scene every day, I could work with the behavior of the light and better predict what it might do within the frame of the story I wanted to tell.
I used light like a giant paintbrush, making many of the same decisions a painter might when stepping up to the canvas. What did I want to add to the image? Was it big, bold strokes? Small, subtle touches? Contrast? Hardness? Softness? I thoroughly enjoyed this new aspect of my creative process.
The only thing over which I had no control was the color of the light; it was determined by the sun, the clouds and whatever else was present in the atmosphere that day. Every other photographic element was an intentional choice I made.
My main consideration was always the direction of the light. If I shot almost directly into the sun, I could create strong graphic lines with high contrast. If I shot at a 90-degree angle toward the sun, the result would be more impressionistic, with the light gently sweeping across the water.
Because I now had a clear idea of what I wanted the end result to be, I knew a longer shutter speed was necessary, but how long is long enough? A six-second exposure left texture on the water and retained the structure of the light. At 36 seconds, the results offered more of a painterly feel. At three minutes, the image had an otherworldly sense of “wetness.”
The variable ND filters were instrumental in getting the results I was after. Instead of changing the aperture (depth of field) and ISO (image quality) to get the correct shutter speed, I dialed the number of stops on the variable ND up and down until I got what I wanted.
Seeing The Light
The word “photography” is derived from the Greek “photo,” meaning light, and “graph,” meaning drawing. Photography is therefore “drawing with light.” Keeping this concept in mind helped me to create images of scenes that I may have never noticed before, let alone photographed.
I’ve made some of my favorite images in Antarctica, Kenya, Ladakh, the Great Bear Rainforest and other incredible locations around the world, and while I long to return to so many of the places that have captured my heart, discovering these miniature mountains unexpectedly reignited my love for landscape photography. In the six weeks it took to complete this project, I graduated from “trying to find a composition that has good light” to “creating a composition using available light,” and it changed my ways of seeing. I finally understand how important light is as a tool, just like so many other things in my photographic toolkit.
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.” Embracing the “what if” behind an idea allowed me to let go of any expectations I may have had just to see what would happen, and it was one of the best things I’ve done for my creativity. Whether I’m across the globe or down the street, the possibilities for future projects are endless—and I’m ready to see where the next “what if” leads me.
See more of Jon McCormack’s work at jonmccormack.com.