The Central Coast of California offers diverse photographic opportunities: rugged cliffs, such as the Big Sur coastline; charming cities including Santa Barbara or Carmel; William Randolph Hearst’s estate, known as the Hearst Castle; picturesque vineyards stretching across the hillsides; and wildlife, particularly in late December and early January.

My friends and I decided to travel to California’s central coast over the New Year’s weekend. Our main goals were to photograph monarch butterflies in Pismo Beach, sea otters in Morro Bay and elephant seals on the beaches north of San Simeon.

My photography technique was the same throughout the weekend. I used my Fujinon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, on my Fuji X-T2 camera. The X-T2 has a 1.5 crop factor, so my maximum reach was 600 mm. My subjects were typically in constant motion, and depth of field was critical. I relied on high ISO’s to maintain a fast shutter speed and smaller f-stop. Except for the butterflies, I usually shot at 1/1000s with ISO’s between 1600 and 2000. I always used a tripod.

Monarch Butterflies

Pismo Beach was our first stop, about 3 hours north of Los Angeles. Every year, between late October and February, thousands of monarch butterflies migrate to Pismo Beach and cluster in a grove of eucalyptus trees located in Pismo Beach State Park. Last year’s count recorded 28,000 butterflies! Check the Monarch Butterfly website for current information.

Photography in the grove was tricky. The clusters of butterflies were located very high in the trees, under a canopy of leaves. A long lens was necessary to get close-up images. The butterflies were in the shadows since they were clustered under the leaves, and natural light was limited. I shot this image at F/8, ISO 2000, at 1/30s. I also shot several images using my flash with an extender.

Our second wildlife stop was Morro Bay, just north of Pismo Beach. The area is popular for birding, and the Morro Bay Bird Festival occurs every winter.

We came to photograph sea otters this visit, although taking time to photograph some of the shorebirds was tempting. The locals advised that otters are usually seen at the kelp beds near Morro Rock or inside the harbor area. We hit the jackpot. About 30 otters, including lots of mothers with pups, were hanging out at very close range at the north end of the Embarcadero, in the harbor area, opposite a parking lot and The Front Street Cafe.

The small crowd watching the sea otters with me all agreed. The otters were adorable, and interactions between family members fun to watch. To photograph the sea otters, and to bring these interactions closer-up into the frame,  I at times attached a 1.4 tele-extender to my 100-400mm lens.

Sea Otters

With so many otters to photograph, it was necessary to simplify my images and isolate single otters or groups of otters. Also depth of field was a challenge at times as I was shooting at a fast shutter speed and preferred not to exceed an ISO of 1600. Choosing a focus point was thus important. I always focused my camera on the eyes of the otter that was the focal point of my composition. This image was shot at F/7.2, ISO 1600, at 1/1000s.

We photographed the otters on two different days. On the second day pelicans dive-bombed into the water right in the middle of the otters, looking for fish. Indeed we were suddenly photographing birds. I quickly changed my shutter speed to 1/4000s as the birds were really moving fast.

Diving Pelican

Our last destination was the northern elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. The northern elephant seal is the largest seal in the northern hemisphere. Adult males weigh 4,000-5000 pounds. The seals live in open ocean much of the time, but come ashore in the winter to mate and pup, so January is an exciting time to visit. More information can be found at the Friends of the Elephant Seal website.

We found it best to photograph early in the morning just after sunrise. The afternoon light was harsh, with many shadows. Also, the viewing areas can get extremely crowded later in the day.

The elephant seals were rather busy during our morning visit. Males butted heads, pups nursed and lots of seals scooted here and there.

I was very fortunate and witnessed a birth. The baby seal popped out at around 70 pounds. The activity after the birth was amazing. One seal tried to steal the baby from the mother. Sea gulls congregated to eat the afterbirth. Mom and baby bonded.

elephant seal

Although we shot wildlife during our days, the coastline provides dramatic scenery for sunset photography. I suggest scouting locations during your drive between wildlife viewing areas. Shell Beach, near Pismo Beach, Moonstone Beach in Cambria and the stretch of coast between Morro Bay and San Simeon all have rocky, rugged coastal areas with easy access.

The central coast can be very windy, and winter days cool enough that a hat and gloves are always in my backpack, along with rain gear. The rocks on the beaches can be quite slick, and so consider wearing shoes with very good traction. For sunset shots, I recommend bringing a headlamp or flashlight as the beach becomes dark very quickly, and the rocks difficult to navigate in places.

Moonlight Beach

As you are climbing around the rocks looking for the perfect composition, look very carefully around you. You may find that your sunset location is also a wildlife location. One of my companions found a beautiful bright red starfish, laying on the very grey rocks.