Landscape Photography Location

California Landscape Photography

In this interview, landscape photographer Sam Folsom shares his personal photographic story and the pros and cons of living in California in terms of landscape photography. It first featured in Issue 41 of Light & Landscape Magazine.

What sparked your passion for landscape photography?

My interest in photography dates to my teenage years when I shot black & white film and learned darkroom processing and printing in school. I lived in the Rocky Mountains and have always been an avid outdoorsman, although my photography was sporadic and without much serious intent. Five or six years ago, I decided I wanted to capture some of the beautiful landscapes of California, where I live, in a moreå meaningful way, beyond simple snapshots. I took a couple of workshops and dedicated myself to shooting regularly, studying the works of accomplished landscape photographers and trying to improve my technique and style.

Morning at
Cataract Falls, Fairfax, California - Photo by landscape photographer Sam Folsom.

What are the pros and cons of California landscape photography?

Pros: The San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California have some of the most striking landscapes in the world, from the rugged coastline with crashing surf to sandy, wind-swept beaches; from the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to majestic redwood groves, stunning waterfalls and Napa Valley vineyard vistas; from iconic, man-made landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge to the natural grandeur of Yosemite National Park.

Northern California also enjoys a variety of weather patterns that appeal to photographers. Abundant sunshine provides magical light at sunrise and sunset. Summer fog can make compelling compositions in certain locations. And winter storms in the mountains blanket the landscape with snow.

A landscape photograph of
Garrapata Beach, Big Sur, California - Photo by Sam Folsom

Cons: Many people would be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with living in California in terms of landscape photography, but I’ll put a couple out there for conversation. While our abundant sunshine is certainly an advantage for photographers, it also has its limitations. When out shooting, I regularly find myself wishing for a cloud formation to make a cloudless landscape more interesting.

Another disadvantage is our large population – around 7 million people live in the San Francisco Bay Area. While I enjoy meeting other photographers, it can be a little disheartening to arrive at a site only to find that dozens of others had the same idea. Yes, I’m looking at you, Tunnel View (Yosemite), Pfeiffer Keyhole Arch (Big Sur) and Golden Gate Bridge! In truth, there are endless wonderful landscape photography opportunities in Northern California and very little not to like.

A sunset landscape photograph of Keyhole Arch, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, California.

It must be awesome having such a photographically iconic structure as the Golden Gate Bridge on your doorstep?

Awesome, indeed! The Golden Gate Bridge and other icons in Northern California are huge draws for photographers (and everyone else) and have tremendous visual appeal. More often, however, I’m drawn to less popular landscape scenes that are underappreciated. Having lived in the area a long time, I’m more interested in trying to make an engaging image of something less well-known and in shooting at locations where there isn’t a crowd.

Dawn at
Marshall’s Beach, San Francisco, California - landscape photograph by Sam Folsom

I recently went to a beach I enjoy near the Golden Gate Bridge when it looked like a spectacular sunset was shaping up. At the bottom of the trail to the beach, most other photographers were going right, toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I decided to go left and found not just a beautiful composition of waves on the sand and rocks, but a spectacular, near-perfect alignment of the sunlit cloud formation that you would not see if you looked right toward the bridge. Did I make a world-class photo? Hardly. But I was pleased with a number of my shots and very glad I didn’t follow the crowd.

Half Dome, Merced River, Yosemite Valley, California.

While I have certainly shot the Golden Gate Bridge and other iconic landscapes many times, when I do, I try to look for something that makes my composition unique. It could be a companion visual element such as a wave or a distinctive foreground or background. I approach these shots with the idea that I want to capture the scene in a way that may not have been seen before.

That can be a challenge, however. There are many very accomplished photographers in the area who approach these iconic landscapes looking for a unique composition, so it’s hard to find something different. That’s why I’m much more often shooting in places that are less well known.

Yosemite Natinal Park, California - landscape photography by Sam Folsom

What is your personal approach to landscape photography?

First and foremost, I think about light conditions and the potential for interesting compositions. I use various apps to get a read on things like sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, tides and weather, including cloud cover, fog and wind, to help select a location. I often have at least one shot in mind, and I almost always arrive early to scout the conditions and other subjects.

I usually find myself looking for reflections, water flow motions, interesting rock shapes, engaging lines and patterns, and beautiful colors rather than a grand, imposing scenic element. I’m looking down more than I’m looking up. While I don’t do it with every photo, I try to focus on capturing foreground, middle ground and background. This creates a sense of depth that I enjoy and makes for more engaging images.

I like to find complementary elements, for example when bushes or rocks mimic a similar line to the mountains behind them or when a wave complements a similar cloud shape. When possible, I like to incorporate something extra in an image that makes you say “wow!” – sort of the cherry on top. It could be the moon, a sun star, a striking wave pattern in the sand or a crashing wave on a rock. I don’t always find it, but I enjoy that extra dimension of excitement.

Rodeo Beach, Marin County, California - landscape photography by Sam Folsom

What is your approach to post-processing your images?

I enjoy processing my images but am very conscious to avoid overprocessing. It’s a fine line that is easily crossed! I’m looking for a faithful representation of the light, colors and contrast I saw in a scene, with perhaps slight accents to highlight a focal point or the main visual element. I start in Lightroom where I adjust white balance and make tweaks to the crop and level the horizon if needed. I rarely blend exposures, so I use Lightroom as the first step in balancing the exposure luminosity for images with high dynamic range, carefully bringing down highlights and opening shadows. I also do some initial color balancing if needed.

Valley View (aka Gates of the Valley), Yosemite National Park, California - Photo by Sam Folsom

From Lightroom, I frequently take the image into Photoshop where I start with a careful examination for distracting elements or blemishes that need to be repaired or removed. To refine the exposure and color balance, I work with luminosity masks using the Tony Kuyper Actions Panel (TK Actions) in Photoshop, which is an invaluable tool.

I also do dodging and burning on many images using layers created by TK Actions. For black and white processing, I use Silver Efex Pro by Nik Collection. I sharpen my images either with TK Actions, which is quick and easy or in Lightroom where I carefully monitor for over-sharpening and use the masking function to avoid sharpening clouds and water.

Soberanes Point, Big Sur, California.

What aspirations do you have for both your work and yourself as a photographer?

At this point, my only aspiration is to get better. I want to improve my technique and my eye for compositions, and I would like to take my post-processing skills to a higher level. I also want to expand the types of landscapes I shoot. Because I live close to the ocean and have had a life-long fascination with water motion and waves, most of my images are seascapes. I will always be interested in seascapes, but I’d like to do more photography focused on mountains, hills, flora and fauna.

Bio- Sam Folsom

I am a landscape and nature photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Water is a common theme in my photography and I can often be found exploring the California coast, rivers and mountains. I have never included my own feet in a photo.

A bio photo of landscape photographer Sam Folsom.