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Photographing The Central California Coast
By Scott Bourne

I love the ocean and there is plenty of it to access from the Southern Central California Coast. Whether you want to photograph monarch butterflies, sea otters, elephant seals, sand dunes, sunsets or coastal mountains, this area is perfect.

Before I go any further one word of warning is required. The Coast Highway also known as Highway One can be slow and congested on weekends and in the summer. Plan accordingly. It is also prone to landslides so be sure to call ahead and check with the California Highway Patrol before you commit to any expensive expedition in the area. The CHP number for road conditions is toll free at 1-800-427-7623.

GETTING THERE: You can fly to San Francisco and take the beautiful drive down the Coast Highway 1 and reach Pismo Beach in three to four hours depending on traffic. If you want to get much closer, fly to San Louis Obispo and rent a car. The beaches are only 15 minutes south of the SLO airport. You can also take a train to SLO or to Grover Beach which is actually right in the heart of the Five Cities Area.

DATES: Any of year you will find something to photograph in this area but I advise going in the Winter months when there are fewer crowds and hotel rates are much more reasonable. In winter you also have the chance to photograph the elephant seals and monarch butterflies. January through March will give the best opportunities. If you go later in spring you will see more flowers but also more people. Summers are packed and it is very hard to find affordable accommodations.

TIMES: As with most places, the early mornings and late afternoons provide the best opportunities. Since the California coast faces the Pacific Ocean, you will get your best opportunities in late afternoon and of course at sunset. Early mornings find the elephant seals at their liveliest and the butterflies can be photographed all day since they rest in the shade of the eucalyptus trees.

PLACES: On my last trip, I used Shell Beach as a home base. It is only 15 minutes from San Louis Obispo. This gives me the chance to go north about 30 miles to Hearst Castle or south about 50 miles to Santa Barbara.

Elephant Seals- The elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas is 7,500 strong. The seals descend on the coast just 4.4 miles north of San Simeon on Highway One. There is a large parking lot that will lead you to the seals. If you park on the south side of the lot and then hike about one eighth of a mile you will find yourself a mere 15 yards from mothers and their pups.

If you come in the early morning, the sun sill be behind you and will make the water appear more blue.

Beaches- You have your choice of several of California's best beaches in this area.

Incredible photographic vistas are possible from Shell Beach. This beach is about a half mile west of the main drag, Beach Drive. You can shoot from up on the bluff or climb some stairs down to the actual beach which puts you right in the middle of some great rock formations which happen to be full of pelicans this time of year.

Dunes- Just south of Pismo Beach you will find the Oceano Dunes. You can drive right on the beach in Pismo (4-wheel drive recommended) and onto the northern end of the eight miles of sand dunes. Ansel Adams himself worked this area because it is possible to hike a short distance and make dune photographs that look like they were taken in Africa. Go right after a storm or early to get sand without tracks.

Butterflies- Further south just a few miles is Grover Beach, another great location in winter if you like butterflies. This is also the southern entrance to the dunes. In the state park just off 101 near Pier Avenue, hundreds of thousands of western Monarch butterflies winter in the eucalyptus grove.

Morro Bay / Los Osos - Distinctive Morro Rock, a bird sanctuary and numerous pristine wilderness preserves are available to shoot in this area north of Pismo. Spectacular Montana de Oro State Park is my favorite here-I know you must be thinking that I am going to run out of places to describe here but really, it is an embarrassment of photographic riches. Montana de Oro is filled with rolling hills, forests, rocky coastline, trails, natural bays and of course more beach with lots of rocks and rock outcroppings. This one spot is worth two or three days on any serious photo trip. It is also next door to George Lepp's beautiful gallery in Los Osos, CA. Take the Los Osos exit from the freeway and follow the signs.

EQUIPMENT: The sky is the limit here. If you want to photograph wildlife, I always suggest a 35mm with at least a 300 or 400 mm lens. For the land and seascape you can use anything from view cameras to panoramic cameras and get great results. Since the weather can be unpredictable, you may want to bring rain gear and rain hoods for your lenses. Also bring plastic bags to cover your cameras and lenses if you go out on the beach or the sand dunes. The sand can penetrate everywhere and fast. For fine art types, I suggest your favorite black & white films. I use Agfa 25. For color you can't beat Fuji Velvia in this rich environment. Of course, I always suggest a sturdy tripod. I use several but in the field it is tough to beat the Reis H600 for sturdiness and convenience. I can set it up every time in less than 60 seconds. When doing the beach and sand dune work I use a photographer's vest instead of a bag since anything you sit down on the ground at a sandy beach or dune will instantly be full of sand, whether you have it zipped closed or not.

TECHNIQUE: In this environment there are three types of photography to consider; One would be travel shots. There are simply so many things that tourists will find appealing here I can't help but think a travel piece will always have a market. Secondly, you can do lots of stock stuff here. Shoot the sunsets and ocean views using both horizontal and vertical views. Lastly, as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams proved, there is abundant fine art opportunity here.

WHERE TO STAY: There are a number of inexpensive hotels in Pismo and Shell Beach. Last year, I found the hotel value of a lifetime there. The Best Western Shelter Cove Lodge is located right on the ocean at 2651 Price Street, Pismo Beach, CA 93449, 805-773-3511. Their web site is This is a resort more than a hotel but in the winter months of 2001 it charged only $90 a night. Every room has an ocean view (ask for a second floor room to get the best view) and there is a private beach, gazebo, pool and spa. The rooms were as nice as many I have stayed in at world-class resorts and the location is perfect for photographers. I got several great photos while on the hotel property. Rates go up significantly in the summer but even then the place is a bargain considering what they have to offer.

Another great place to stay is the Shell Beach Motel. On this year's trip right after New Year's, my wife and I got a nice room for $54.00! It was just four miles from Pismo Beach and Shell Beach is smaller and quieter. While there are no hotel rooms right on Shell Beach, they are a one minute drive or a ten minute walk away. Their address is 635 Shell Beach Road, Shell Beach, CA 93449, 800-548-4727. The website is

GOTCHAS: Traffic can always be a problem in this area so allow plenty of time to move up and down the coast. Be sure to photograph the sand dunes early in the morning before they are full of tracks from the all-terrain vehicles and tourists that are attracted to the dunes area. Also be sure to protect your equipment from the elements.

Article Copyright 2005, Scott Bourne - Photofocus Magazine


Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.

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