La Jolla Cove

by Carolyn E. Wright | November 1, 2011

© Carolyn E. WrightOn a chilly January day, it can be difficult to find the inspiration to get your camera out of its bag. That is, unless you head to La Jolla, California for some spectacular bird photography. There, pelicans are roosting in their beautiful breeding plumage just a few steps from your parking space. They have settled down in an area called La Jolla Cove, which includes a park, fine restaurants, expensive hotels, and a gorgeous view of the bay. It is paradise for both scenic views and for some of the best bird photography.

Pelicans, cormorants, and several species of gulls hang out on the cliffs in the area. All dressed and ready to mate, their fresh, colorful feathers are a joy to document. The birds roost on the cliffs at the northern end of the cove. They are so used to people that you can get within a few feet of them, and the stunning blue ocean provides a great background to offset their beautiful feathers.

Cove pelican flip © Carolyn E. Wright


The La Jolla Cove is serviced by a road that runs along the ocean. But to park closest to the area where most of the birds are accessible, you must approach the cove from the northern entrance. The southern entrance allows two-way traffic only to a certain point resulting in a long walk to the cliffs where the birds perch. The road is not gated, so you have 24 hour access and there are no entry fees.

Parking in the area is adequate, especially for photographers who arrive earlier than the tourists. A few spaces are within 50 feet of the bird location, and there are several more nearby. Get there early or avoid the weekends for the best access. Look for the steps to the right of the road next to a small parking lot to get to the area. Posted signs convey caution on the cliffs for several reasons. For one, since the ocean runs under this area, the cliffs will collapse one day. Watch your step, as well, because the mud slides have left deep crevasses. Further, there are no guard rails to keep you or your equipment from falling off of the cliffs.

Pelican portrait © Carolyn E. Wright

Tips to Capture the Best of the Birds

The best photography is during the morning light. Arrive around 6:45 to allow time to get ready. As the sun rises over the city, it bathes the birds with a warm glow. Be sure to set up so that the sun is behind you. Use the ocean as your background and isolate your subject. Also make sure the bird’s eye is in focus. Since the background is so far away, you can use a smaller aperture such as 6.7 or higher to make sure that the bird’s beak is sharp to its tip. This is made easier when the bird turns its head so that its beak is on the same plane as its eye. Be sure to record behavior shots, too.

Pelican preening © Carolyn E. Wright

Capturing the birds in flight is difficult, but is worth the effort. Lots of practice will increase your odds for the good shot. Use a ball head or a gimbal head with longer lenses for smooth panning. Following the birds as they fly parallel to you makes it easier to focus on them. The most dramatic shots are those where the birds are flying directly towards you.

The longer your lens, the more choices you’ll have for a variety of shots. But you can capture plenty with a telephoto or zoom lens in the 200mm to 300mm range. Either use a longer telephoto, or move closer to the birds for full head portraits. Effective flight shots will require a lens in the 400mm to 600mm range. Bring your tripod for steady, sharp images, and include a flash for the rare days that are cloudy or for fill flash to soften shadows. Lots of memory will enable you to shoot many photos of the birds in flight.

Pelican sleeping © Carolyn E. Wright

Additional Travel Information


You have your choice of restaurants with walking distance of the cliffs, including French, Indian and Italian food. For the more budget minded, walk a bit further to grab some good food at the Hard Rock Café or breakfast at the International House of Pancakes. Since the La Jolla Cove is just north of the main city, you can drive to find any type of food you want. There is a small café directly across from the cliff area for that cup of joe during your morning break.


For a room with a view, you can stay in one of the several hotels right in the Cove. But since access to the area is so easy, less expensive lodging can be found only a few miles away.


Wear footwear that will provide for the best traction on the cliffs. You will have to scramble over both rocky and dirt areas to get set up for the best shots. Using a photo buddy to hand equipment over the tricky areas helps, too.

Pelican flapping wings © Carolyn E. Wright

Other Necessities

Restrooms are available in the park, but are a long walk from the shooting area.

Other Local Areas of Interest

La Jolla and nearby San Diego offer a multitude of photographic opportunities. Just at the other end of the cove is an area called the “Children’s Pool” It is home to a harbor seal rookery, and you can take the steps down to the beach so that you are within 30 feet of sunbathing seals. The late afternoon light is best for these shots. Don’t cross the raked seaweed line to give the seals a comfortable safety zone.

Take a side trip to the San Diego Zoo, Sea World or the Wild Animal Park for even more animal photography. While you need longer lens, Bosa Chica, home to lots of ducks and birds, is about an hour away.

Cormorant portrait © Carolyn E. Wright

About the Author

Carolyn E. Wright is a full-time attorney whose practice is aimed squarely at the legal needs of photographers. Carolyn understands the special issues that confront both professional and amateur photographers alike.

A professional photographer herself, Carolyn has the legal credentials and the experience to protect your rights.Carolyn wrote the book, the "Photographer’s Legal Guide," which was released in 2006 and updated in 2010. Carolyn specializes in wildlife photography and also provides legal information for photographers for free at

Post a Comment

Logged in as Anonymous