Finding Joy in the Path Less Photographed

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

From Point Lobos to McWay Falls, the Big Sur stretch of the California coast is filled with famous places to photograph. Monastery Beach is NOT one of them. Nicknamed "Mortuary Beach", it’s more known for its dangerous drop-offs and deadly undertows than for its killer views. Last year, a 57-year-old woman was walking along the sand when a wave knocked her down, dragged her into the ocean and drowned her.

So why would a sane photographer come to this little spot when the magnificent Point Lobos is just around the bend?

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Joy #1: No Closing Time

Point Lobos State Reserve has limited visiting hours, making it difficult to shoot early morning or near sunset when the light can be most sublime. Monastery Beach has no such restrictions. I was free to set up my tripod and stay as long as I wanted.

(Speaking of long times: Many people assume that's fog in the photo above. No. It's a long exposure time, which allows the waves to wash back and forth over the rocks, creating a dreamlike view.)

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Joy #2: Open Accessibility

At Point Lobos, many areas are roped off and you’re required to stay on the paths -- preventing you from getting the shots you really want. But at Monastery Beach, you can roam and climb wherever you like. Of course, you’ll want to be mindful of the waves and undertow. Staying alive makes a photo session much more enjoyable.

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Joy #3: No Crowds

Unlike the more famous destinations along Big Sur, Monastery Beach is not crawling with tourists and photographers. There were a few painters with easels up on the hills, but even they were gone by sunset. I had the area to myself, providing an unspoiled view and a quiet, meditative photography experience. The only voice heard was my cry of "OH SH*T!" when I slipped on some wet rocks and banged my arms trying to keep my camera out of the water.

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Joy #4: Interesting stuff

Just because a place is smaller and less popular doesn't mean it’s lacking in visual opportunities. As I told my photography students, interesting photos can be found anywhere – all we have to do is open our eyes. After I captured the "big picture" views at Monastery Beach, I looked down and discovered a world of details in the little rocks and branches at my feet.

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Joy #5: Gratitude

I’d like to thank my friend Barbara Bullock-Wilson, the daughter of legendary photographer Wynn Bullock, for calling this little beach to my attention. When my wife and I visited Barbara in Carmel, she took us on a hike along the hills above Monastery Beach. Barbara saw my face light up and she said, “I knew you’d love this place.” Thank you, Barbara. When I came back to photograph here, I felt Wynn’s spirit was with me.

Want to see more of Monastery Beach?

Click on this gallery to see more images, both color and black & white, from my morning and evening photo sessions here.

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