The Story Behind "Last Light on Ruby Beach"


Knowing the back story of an image often adds more character to the piece; and, the stories can vary greatly.  Some beautiful images may have rather bland, uninteresting stories while the story behind others is unforgettable.  As photographers, we often don't pay much attention to events leading up to a shot.  We make mental notes of some of the technical details, but beyond that the stories behind them often get lost - even if others may find those stories captivating.  As a professional nature and landscape photographer, I often forget how lucky I am to be able to travel and shoot these splendid locations.  Some people never get to see these locations, let alone experience some of the events that are involved in shooting them.  What may be an annoying series of events leading up to the image capture may be something someone else will never get to experience.  These are not necessarily earth-shattering events, but certainly something that brings further meaning to the final image.  I hope to do a series of these "The Story Behind . . . " posts to add a little more character to some of the images on my website.

Last Light on Ruby Beach

"Last Light on Ruby Beach"  Hasselblad H4D, 35mm, 14s @ f/22, ISO 50

My wife (also a professional photographer) was traveling to Seattle, WA for a workshop and I decided to tag along.  We decided to go a few days early and spend some time sight-seeing.  I packed my camera gear and flew from Chicago to Seattle to meet up with her.  One of the places we both wanted to see was Olympic National Park, just a few hours from Seattle.  So, we rented a car proceeded to find the park.  We were enjoying the sunny weather, but the locals were particularly enjoying it since sunshine at that time of year was rather rare.  

We had no real idea where we were going.  We knew we wanted to go to the park but beyond that didn't know anything about exactly what we wanted to do since neither of us researched it.  In the early afternoon we drove along the Pacific Coast Hwy 101 enjoying the scenery.  Finally, we came upon a sign for "Ruby Beach" and figured it would be a great place to stop for a while and shoot some pictures.

We parked and got our camera gear together so we could walk down to the beach.  My wife only took her camera; but I took out my tripod and mounted my camera on it.  The camera was a Hasselblad H4D medium format camera with a 35mm Hasselblad lens - total value:  close to $50K.  It was a normal landscape set up for me and I'd carried it everywhere.  We walked down the beach about 1/2 mile taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful weather.  With giant pieces of driftwood littering the beach, tall sea stacks, cliffs, crashing waves, and a bald eagle roosting in a dead tree, it was a magnificent environment.  As the light became just right, I began some serious shooting.  I moved as fast as possible to make sure I captured everything I could before the sun went below the horizon, moving around the sea stacks, and backing up and dodging waves (which seemed to be a lot closer than they were before.)  I was totally oblivious to the events going on around me.  Finally the sun went below the horizon and clouds moved in to block any good sky that might have been left.  It was time to go; but I was happy because I knew I got some good shots.

I looked behind me and my wife was at the base of a huge cliff shooting something.  I remember the cliffs but I didn't remember them being so close to the water.  I looked down the beach where we had come from and didn't recognize anything familiar along our path.  In fact, where was our path?  And then it hit both of us:  the tide is moving in and our path down the beach was submerged in about 3' of water and getting deeper.  We quickly made our way back along the base of the cliffs as the water got higher and higher.  And then we saw a deep pool of water blocking our path.  As the waves moved in and out, the pool drained slightly and then filled again.  The only way around it was to climb the cliffs, which we couldn't do.  The only choice we had was to go through the pool.  By now the water in the pool was about 5' deep but drained to less than that after the wave went out.  We had to time it just right and go through the pool when the water was lowest, but we had to act quickly because the tide was getting higher and higher.  Deb handed me her camera and went first.  She managed to get through it at it's lowest point.  I was next but I had her camera and my large awkward camera set up.  The water was rising and the lowest level of water in the pool was now well over 4'.  I set my tripod in the sand, grabbed her camera and went into the pool with the camera over my head.  About 1/2 way through I tossed the camera to her and luckily she caught it.  Right about then a wave came in nearly submerged me.  I managed to get out and picked up my camera/tripod, held it above my head, and went back into the pool.  I left the tripod legs extended and about halfway across the pool, now with chest high water, spun the legs around and handed it to Deb.  I watched my $50K camera leave my hands while Deb was able to grab it and take it safely away from the pool.  I struggled to get out of the pool where by now I was just a head floating in the water.  Luckily I was able to pull myself out.

Neither of us could believe what just happened.  The area I was standing in just a few minutes before was now completely submerged in water - and it was still rising.  Needless to say we got out of there fast and made it to an observation platform just below the parking lot.  It was nearly dark by then, but as I turned around for one last look at the beach through the pines, the clouds had cleared and revealed a beautiful deep blue, pink, and red sky across the choppy ocean.  I quickly set up my tripod and made a 25s exposure of the scene in front of me.

"The Final Look"  Hasselblad H4D, 35mm, 25s @ f/22, ISO 50

Both of us were completely soaked.  We had left our bags back at the hotel so we had no dry clothes.  We decided to keep driving toward the park and eventually found a beautiful little hotel buried in the woods.  Luckily, they had a vacancy.  As we dried off, we recounted our little adventure and realized that had we not been paying closer attention, it could have turned out much worse.  

The next day, upon talking with some of the locals and relaying our story to them, we learned that we weren't alone.  Many visiting people get caught in high tide on Ruby Beach - some with not so positive outcomes.  Looking back on it now, it seems kind of amusing - and I did get some great shots.  We were lucky.  The cost of those shots could have been more than just wet clothes.

If you'd like to see more images from Ruby Beach and Olympic National Park, visit the Northwest gallery here.