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California Sunsets

When I'm photographing for my Liquid Abstracts series, I also document each day on the beach from sunrise to sunset. I can't often witness the actual sunrise because of the high cliffs beside the beach, but I'm there when the sun first peeks over the ridge at the ocean's edge. And in the late afternoon, I'll stay to finish the day by photographing the sunset, finding satisfaction in the silence and peace of completion as the tangerine orb slips into the sea.

That magical time of sunset draws people to the beach like a magnet. There are the everyday surfers bobbing like corks in the water, and on the beach, people sit alone in reverie, or join together to meditate, dance, do yoga, or snap pics of themselves with their iPhones aimed into the sun. Others have come for the chance to make out. I constantly walk along the tideline, catching in my camera the little treasures of light that appear and then vanish. I also keep track of the sun's path toward the west because the best shots sometimes happen before it actually sets.

One of the main algorithms determining the beauty of the sunset involves the clouds, so I carefully watch them forming, and notice their colors. Dark gray clouds can turn the water a lead gray, while light gray clouds can add pink highlights, and white clouds can turn the water golden, all within seconds. I never know what to expect next, and with each change, I react quickly and shoot fast.

One year, I experienced how a seasonal phenomenon can profoundly impact my shooting. During the previous El Niño, it seemed to me that everyday that mischievous rascal would scatter rocks onto beaches that normally didn't have any. Once, he placed three, almost identical 30-feet-wide piles of rocks, all having the same size and color, on a sandy surface that is normally smooth. Being about 20 feet apart, the placement of the rock piles was so precise, it looked as though it was planned, reminding me of the Italian Art Povera (Earth Art) movement of the early 1970s. Individually, the dark rocks looked like large chocolate chips, creating a unique surface for reflecting light off the normally smooth beach. It became impossible for me to photograph barefoot each day because of the rocks. Then days later, probably throwing another fit, that tempestuous little Niño removed the rocks in the middle of the night, and they haven't reappeared since.

Tides are another factor in the sunset algorithm because they determine the quality of beach reflection I can photograph — if there is any at all. When the high tide comes in, only a minimum of beach is exposed, so the rhythm and pattern of the waves determine my focal point, in conjunction with the setting sun. But if the tide is low, it creates a long section of glossy beach, and if a bank of active clouds overhead reflects sunlight onto the wet sand like a bounce umbrella, there is the potential for a "Nirvana Sunset ," one of those that will be remembered for years to come.

One of the more otherworldly sunsets I have witnessed here occurred last year when fires were raging all across California, with two of them burning close to the city of Oceanside, a dozen miles to the north. A heavy semi-opaque curtain of dark smoke blew out over the ocean, and hung close to the horizon. When the rays of the setting sun penetrated that smoky layer, they lit the ominously shaped clouds above, and the light bounced back onto the ocean. In true apocalyptic fashion, the waters turned red.

One May, during the annual "May gray" period of spring, there was a week of fog where the horizon line was completely obscured. A different week, I shot only gray clouds at sunset. During that time, my palette of muted colors became so finely tuned, the sunsets appeared in 50 shades of gray.

UPDATE: This Blog photo, "Nirvana Sunset," was chosen for the cover of latest Solana Beach magazine.

Text and Photos: © David Björkman — Solana Beach, California

Top Photo: "Impressionist Sunset,"

Photo  2: "King Tides Sky,"

Photo  3: "Welcome the Still,"

Photo  4: "Nirvana Sunset,"

Photo  5:  "Red Waters,"

Photo  6:   "Shades of Gray,"

The California Sunsets Collection: