The Pelicans of La Jolla

by Phillip Colla | February 28, 2007

© Phillip CollaPhotographers come from throughout the country to train their lenses on the seabirds among La Jolla’s cliffs and the scenic California coastline for good reason: seabird photographs are easily achieved here, to the extent that shooters like myself with modest bird photography skills can have really productive sessions and, in a single visit, can generate a variety of strong images to add to their collections.

I photograph primarily ocean subjects, including coastal birds. Among seabirds I find the California race of the Brown Pelican particularly attractive and fun to watch, so when I am in La Jolla shooting, it is the pelican that gets most of my attention.

The best time to visit La Jolla cliffs is during the winter months, sunrise through mid-morning. The California Brown Pelican displays its most colorful plumage from late December through February, punctuated by a dramatic red throat pouch. Typically, winter mornings in the San Diego area offer clear skies and good sunlight conditions for photography, and if you are fortunate, the wind will also be in your favor (i.e., offshore) when you are there. If you can manage to time your visit during the week you will probably share the small cliff-top area with fewer people than if you visit on the weekend. The fewer photographers occupying the limited space on the cliffs, the better. Upon arriving you may not find many pelicans on the cliffs, or none at all, or a whole crowd of them. Irregardless, move slowly so the birds that are there can become used to your presence and are not shocked into taking flight. Pelicans that are on the cliffs are there to rest, and if they are flushed, they will likely settle down on another cliff and not return for quite a while, if at all.

Pelican up close © Phillip Colla

The waxing light before sunrise can offer pleasing backgrounds against which to frame gulls and pelicans. I often see photographers combining pastel-colored ambient light with a bit of strobe fill. This is a delicate balance of light and is made difficult by the need for high ISO (e.g., 400) to freeze the wings with shutter speed with birds in flight.

Direct sun will reach the cliffs and birds about 30 minutes after sunrise proper, being blocked for a while by La Jolla’s Mount Soledad behind you. Resting and preening pelicans that are standing on the cliff edges can be framed with attractive front lighting – the type of lighting I prefer – by ensuring that your shadow is pointed directly at the birds. As in portrait photography, front lighting with a long lens serves to flatten and simplify the subject in a flattering way. Pelicans are contrasty, with coloration ranging from pure white and hot yellow and red to deep gray and black.

Framing individual birds against a distant, out of focus, pleasing blue or green ocean backdrop is easy here. The key to creating a defocused background is to place a relatively uncomplicated background at a great distance relative to the subject and use somewhat longer focal lengths. In La Jolla, the pelicans are 15-50′ (5-15m) from you while the background cliffs, waves or blue ocean range from a hundred yards to a mile away or more. With distance ratios like that it is possible to stop down to f/8 or f/11 to hold depth of field on the subject with a 500mm lens and still achieve a defocused background, making the subject’s edges appear especially sharp. Before the sun climbs too high it is possible to get a catchlight from the sun in your pelican’s eye, or to maximize the visibility of droplets on a pelican that has just returned from the water. This is best achieved with the sun is behind you and low. If the shadow of your lens lies just to the side of your subject, you are in the right spot.

The eye of an animal, especially in a portrait composition, can be an anchor for the viewer. For this reason I like my subjects’ eyes to be tack sharp and well-placed. I then use what depth of field is available (given the available light and choice of shutter speed and ISO) to try for sharp chest, head and neck details, knowing that depth of field with super-telephotos is notoriously small and that some near or far detail may be a bit soft.

For best flight shots I hope for a clear horizon and offshore morning breezes, so that the pelicans approach the cliffs upwind and are front-lit as they fly directly toward the lens. Their faces and undersides are then illuminated as they spread those huge wings to soar and land. It is tempting to shoot frames as they fly past, and I have certainly shot my share of those. But back at the editing table I find that in nearly every case side lighting produces an image that is too harsh and gets tossed. Often upon approach to the cliffs the pelicans will wheel and make a second pass before deciding where to set down, especially if the cliff is already crowded with pelicans or people. Take advantage of these loops to obtain the angle you need.

Pelicans in flight © Phillip Colla

Pelicans brake dramatically as they land, comically so. If you are standing back on the top of the cliffs and hoping to get a shot of a pelican with wings spread wide coming straight at you, you may want to consider stepping forward a bit and aim for the lower cliffs. I find the vantage point shooting down at the lower cliffs works better, since the pelicans landing there are rising up off the water at an angle that takes them straight at you and with undersides well illuminated. Also, compared to the pelicans that just suddenly appear from below the edge of the top cliffs, those landing on the lower cliffs are easier to track and focus as they approach over the water.

I have had a few mornings where the light is terrible – overcast, spotty, drab. This is more typical of San Diego coastal mornings in May, June and July, and it does happen in winter, too, but it shouldn’t spoil your shooting. This light can be suitable for tight portraits even well into the morning as the harsh shadows are not there. Dropping the ISO and setting an aperture of f/16 or f/22 can produce pan-blurs; although the keeper rate on these is low, the few good results can be worth it.

Head throws, where your pelican stretches its throat and lifts it bill straight up in the air, are among the most distinctive and amusing behaviors of these birds. It seems that most of the photographers I’ve talked with at the cliffs are keen to get a good shot of a pelican’s head throw. It’s not too hard; you’ll get it if you are willing to put in some time and stand ready. Any pelican that is standing and has its eyes open is a candidate to throw its head back. I’ve seen a single individual do it five or six times in the course of just a few minutes. And head throws seem as contagious as sneezes among a group of pelicans. If you see one do it, be ready for its neighbor to do it, too. One pitfall to avoid is not having the right focal length or composition to capture the action – it’ll need to be wide enough to contain about twice the height of a standing pelican to include the entire bird when it is tossing its bill up.

Pelican portrait © Phillip Colla

The cliffs are increasingly crowded with photographers (and visitors) each winter. When I would visit the cliffs after swimming the cove in the 80’s, I never saw another photographer there. In the 90’s there would be a few, and now it seems photographers, alone or in groups, are there most weekend mornings December through March. This is probably a good thing, as these birds are deserving of our appreciation, and for the most part the behavior of photographers alongside whom I have shot at the cliffs has been exemplary and respectful of these special birds. However, if the birds are disturbed and fly off, the photo opportunities for everyone are lessened (not to mention the disruption that the birds experience). I’ve seen a few people flush the entire flock, only to watch as all the departing birds settled on another cliff for the rest of the morning. If you flush the flock you are certain to raise the ire of the others sharing the cliff with you!

Keep in mind that if there are onshore breezes and surf, you may get some spray on your gear even while you are well atop the cliffs. Consider bringing a towel in your hip sack just in case. Since I often shoot around surf I carry a full-length Aquatech spray cover for my camera and lens.

Had enough after a few hours at the cliffs? I should mention that in addition to Brown Pelicans I have photographed Gray Whales, several species of cormorant, gull and tern, at least one Osprey and a few Great Blue Herons at the La Jolla cliffs. If you have seen enough of them too and you are ready to move on, there are a few fun places nearby you might want to consider. If there are waves, walking down the hill to the large grass park at La Jolla Cove may give you opportunities to shoot pelicans at water level flying above and in front of the waves, a composition that would be difficult to line up at the cliffs. (Try shooting from the sidewalk at the edge of the park, on the low bluff just above the waves.) The Children’s Pool (a pocket cove with seawall) is only a half-mile south, just a two-minute drive, and a longer lens is perfect to photograph the Harbor Seals there. The sun reaches the seals at the Children’s Pool later in the morning than it does the pelicans at the cliffs, so you can generally shoot both spots in good light in winter months. To the north, close enough that you can see both from the cliffs, lies Stephen Birch SIO Aquarium (10 minutes) and Torrey Pines State Reserve (20 minutes).

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About the Author

Phillip Colla is a natural history photographer and writer. He focuses on wild marine mammals, the California kelp forest, inhabitants of remote eastern Pacific islands, national parks of the American West and, most recently, waves and surfing. His natural history photography has appeared in the pages of BBC Wildlife, National Wildlife, Ocean Realm, Ranger Rick, Reader's Digest, Skin Diver, National Geographic publications, in various advertising and publicity campaigns, and in aquaria and museums. His photographic plan is to shoot it all. Visit his site at

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