6 Attempts at the San Diego Skyline

In addition to going to the zoo and the safari park while in San Diego, I really wanted to get a good image of the San Diego skyline.

I know, I know, it’s been done a million times before, but it’s the most beautiful skyline and I really wanted one of my own. Call me silly, but I like iconic shots.

I did my research and found out that the perfect place to stand to make an image of the San Diego skyline is Centennial Park on Coronado Island.

I got there about an hour before sunset so I would have plenty of time to enjoy the park and scout out a good location for the sunset/twilight shoot.

San Diego Skyline
Please click any of the images to view larger versions.

The image below is one of the first locations I found. The foreground is a little messy though and I wasn’t sure I was on the right angle to capture the skyline at it’s best so I kept looking.

San Diego Skyline

While I was waiting for sunset I decided to try out my new 10 stop solid neutral density filter to see if I could capture the clouds moving across the sky in daytime.

There are two types of solid neutral density filters you can buy. The kind that fits into a holder and simply drops into place or the kind that screws in. All my other neutral density filters are the drop in kind but I read a lot of reviews that said the drop in 10 stop ND filter leaks light in the sides.

The screw in kind doesn’t leak light, but it’s draw back is that it takes longer to put in place and it’s much less convenient if you want to change your composition because often you cannot see through the viewfinder at all because the filter is so dark. You have to unscrew it, change your composition, and screw it back on again.

The drawbacks of both kinds didn’t sound good. But I figure if I am doing long exposure landscapes I usually have lots of time so I went with the less expensive screw on kind.

This is the one:

It was a bright sunny afternoon and I actually could still see through my viewfinder with the filter on. I had my head down and my tunnel vision on concentrating on what I was doing when through the viewfinder I saw the bow of the coast guard cutter.

Crap! I didn’t see it coming!

Luckily I know where all my buttons and dials are so I quickly turned off my mirror lock-up, turned off my 2 second timer, turned my auto focus on and my image stabilization on and removed the camera from the tripod. But I knew I wouldn’t have time to unscrew the filter so I no choice but to pump up the ISO to 2000 if I wanted a shot of the city with the cutter in front. I was going to need a decent shutter speed because the cutter was moving.

Bringing the ISO up to 2000 gave me a 1/4s shutter speed. Still the ship is not quite sharp, but this is what I got.

San Diego Skyline

By the time I turned my ISO up even higher, it was too late. Feeling slightly defeated, I decided to move on and find a better location with some good foreground for sunset.

The lighting didn’t change the way I hoped it would for sunset. Some cloud cover came and it simply got darker. But I found an interesting location with a rock and some rippled sand in the foreground.

San Diego Skyline

I almost gave up at this point because the prospects weren’t looking good. Also, dogs weren’t allowed on the beach so Ray and our beagle Angie were patiently waiting in the parking lot. But the light wasn’t gone, it just wasn’t good, so I decided to wait a little longer and see what would happen.

Well, you know, I am used to the ocean and tides and stuff, but I wasn’t expecting the tide to come in quite so fast. I made the image below 15 minutes after the image above. The light was getting better, but my foreground was gone.

San Diego Skyline

That’s the same rock poking out of the water in the foreground! A passing boat caused a wave which appears as a dark blue line in this 15 second exposure.

I wasn’t having much luck with foreground but the light was continuing to get better so decided to wait some more.

Finally, another 15 minutes later I made my favourite image of the series.

San Diego Skyline, California

This is an 80 second exposure which shows the movement of the clouds overhead.

It was a great location but I hope I get the chance to go back one day to try to try again for some foreground.

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  1. says

    I like those skyline shots but actually prefer the earlier one that still shows a bit of your foreground rock. I’ve had that happen with tides at Stanley Park too.

    I also have a screw on ND filter, though it is only a 6 stop. I suspect the susceptibility of the drop ins to side light leaks might be more about the kind of holder they are in than the type of filter itself?
    Michael Russell recently posted..Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)My Profile

    • says

      Hi Michael, I really like the one with the foreground rock too but I really wanted the foreground AND the light. I know, I want it all :) But the one with the foreground is certainly a more unique image.

      About the ND filter, yes I think you are right. I believe the comments I read about light leak were not about the Lee Big Stopper (which is never in stock anyway) but about the Hitech filter that fits into the Cokin P holders. I have the Cokin P holders but I use Singh-Ray filters in the them. I have a 4 stop solid Singh-Ray that drops into the Cokin P holder and I haven’t noticed any light leak with that but maybe it’s a bigger problem with the darker filter, not sure.

      How do you find working with the 4 stop screw on filter? Is it a hassle? I haven’t had very many opportunities to use mine yet. I’ve been away from the ocean quite a bit and there are no clouds in California :)

      • says

        I have the cokin P holders as well, and also with Singh-Ray nad Lee filters. 90% of the time I hand hold those filters anyway but I haven’t noticed any light leaks when I have mounted them.

        The 6 stop screw in filter is not something I have used a lot of. It can be a bit of a pain to use, especially if I’m having to take off a polarizer as well. I don’t think its necessarily a tougher thing to use than a filter holder though, as I’d have to screw in the filter holder too, and often thats tougher than an actual screw in filter.
        Michael Russell recently posted..Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)My Profile

        • Gordon says


          The last image is beautiful and the equal of any I have seen of this scene.
          Thanks for posting details of your journey to the final shot, an excellent learning experience for me as I can see how you progressed from the early shots to the final. The discussion on ND filters is also much appreciated as I am considering purchasing a “big” ND filter and have been searching for this kind of information.

          • says

            Hi Gordon, If you are referring to the Lee “big stopper” I have been wanting one of those for a long time but they are hard to come by. Always out of stock. I ended up buying the BW version but haven’t had much opportunity to try it out. You might want to try something like a 4 stop ND first. I use my 4 stop quite a bit. The big stopper is a 10 stop. I also use my graduated ND filters alot. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for your comments!

          • Gordon says


            Thanks for the reply, I have virtually given up hope of ever getting the Lee 10 stop ND. I have a B&W 3 stop but have found that very inadequate in the intense Australian summer sun. Maybe it will be better as we descend into cooler weather and I can experiment with different slow shutter speeds then decide how “big” I really need.
            Keep up your travels and thanks for sharing your inspirational images.

  2. says

    I also have the B&W 10-Stop screw on filter. If you haven’t heard of them already, check out Xume Adapters. I have a set myself and am so glad I have them. Perfect for the 10-Stop. LE worked out pretty well with the cityscape. Great movement within the clouds.

    • says

      Jason, that is AWESOME!!! Thank you so much for recommending Xume. I’m probably going to have to wait until I’m back home to order them because I’m moving around all the time, but I can’t wait to try that out. It’s going to be great for polarizers too. Much appreciated!

  3. Chris says

    I have a lee filter system which is the drop-in kind. The most important thing is you put the filter in the slot closest to the lens, otherwise it can leak some light. The only problem with this particular filter is waiting to get it :)

    • says

      Hi Chris, I know, I’ve read great things about the Lee Big Stopper but there is never one in stock. Plus they cost twice as much. But people say it’s worth it. Thanks for the feedback. I believe the comments I read about the light leak referred to the Hitech filter on the Cokin P holder system.

  4. carlos says

    I love the “San Diego series”. I lived there for 4 years (not long ago) and these brought me a lot of memories. Wild animal park, zoo (glad to see that the oldest oraguntan is alive and kicking!), Balboa Park, the skyline from coronado…. shigh…those shoots are amazing!!(I have my own, but not even comparable…

    • says

      Hey Carlos, thank you so much for the kind compliment :) I only got a few days in San Diego itself. We were camping about an hour out of town so we only went in a few times. One of those times was for Balboa Park and that will be coming up on the blog soon.

    • says

      Thank you so much Len! I was determined to find a unique composition after seeing so many images of the skyline. I found the unique composition but then lost it and ended up with the same image everyone else gets. But I’ll take it!!

  5. says

    I’m impressed with your fast response on the Coast Guard cutter, Anne – wow! I would have missed the shot completely. And I’m also amazed at how fast that tide came in! These are all interesting shots; even the ones you weren’t so happy with, I think have some really interesting features – I’m not sure which one I like best.
    Laurie MacBride, Eye on Environment recently posted..A Visit from Ms. MerganserMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Laurie, that is the benefit of really knowing your camera. It is very worth while to practice changing your ISO, metering, focus, shutter speed etc. so that when you need to make these changes quickly you don’t have to think about where the buttons are. Thanks for your comments!

  6. Edith Levy says

    Fantastic shots Anne especially the last one. I have the BW 10 stop and I really love that filter. For the price it does an amazing job.

  7. Roger Dennis says

    I really appreciate a “Pro” showing progressive shots towards the perfect result and explaining the thought process along the way. I learn more from this than in any other way. Great!

    • says

      Hi Roger, thank you very much for the feedback. Especially the part about how you learn more from this type of post than any other way. I think I’ll start doing more posts like this!

  8. says

    That is the challenge of photography and it means going back to the same place many times to try and get the photo you want. Persistence will eventually pay off.
    Ron recently posted..2013My Profile

    • says

      True, true. It’s hard when you’re travelling though and sometimes you only have a few days to get the shots you want. The trick then is to know how to make the best of any type of conditions. There is a lot of waiting involved in photography! Thanks for your comments Ron.

    • says

      Hey Toad, thank you so much!! People seem to be enjoying this series of how I got to the last shot so I might try doing more posts like this in the future. Because almost every photo shoot is like this! Most of them time they start of with something cliche, get a little more creative but still kind of “meh” and then finally the best shot at the end. That’s how it usually works for me anyway.

  9. says

    Hi Anne,
    Great post and beautiful photographs! Love the photo of the Coast Guard Cutter as well as the night photos! But I’m a little partial to ships in the night:)

    An app that helps me with my ship photography is called “MarineTraffic Ship Position”. It shows you where all the marine traffic is in a port, where it is going, what kind of ship it is etc. Really helps in planning and getting ready for your shooting. There is a free iOS and Android version available as well as a paid version with no ads. Just a handy app to have in your tool bag!

    What I found easier to do with the Lee system is to leave the filters in place and take the holder on and off your lens. I comes off very quickly by just pulling the lock pin.

    Thanks for sharing your journeys and beatiful photography with us!
    Lance Cunningham recently posted..Warp Speed….Tug StyleMy Profile

    • says

      Ah, ships in the night :) Thanks so much for the tip about the marine ship position app! That is totally awesome! I think I’m going to enjoy using that on the boat too, but especially for photography knowing when the ship passing is valuable information. Thanks again!! About the filters, I have the Cokin P holder and I can just remove the square filter and I don’t even bother removing the filter holder unless I need to screw in some other filter. But I sure liked the idea of the Xume that another reader posted. Snap on snap off, how handy!

  10. says

    Love seeing your process, Anne!
    I’m visiting SD in April and I suspect I may not be able to resist taking my own version of the skyline ;) Though I have to travel really light and it isn’t a photo trip, so I don’t know if I can justify bringing a tripod. Hmm.

  11. Nubia says

    The drama of the sky, clouds, reflections and skyline and the added softness of the long exposure make the last two photos specially captivating and beautiful, particularly the last one that appears to have been taken when it was already dark. Night photography and reflections are some of my favorites, and you created two great images here, Anne. The others are very good as well, light very different. It’s all about the light….

  12. says

    Hi Anne.
    Nice shots and thanks for sharing it all with us. Can I ask a question. Why are you playing around with the N/D filter anyway. Like what are we trying to achieve in the first place that the camera is failing to do with the usual adjustments.
    It would be interesting to see the same photo taken at a similar time with and without the N/D filter.

    Maybe I should introduce myself first …. Hello Anne my name is Allen and I am from Australia. I am 63 years old and retired last year. I have just purchased a “Caravan” which you would call a trailer and am going off to become what we call a “Grey Nomad” which is a term given to an older retired person who just wanders around our country and does exactly what he or she pleases when he or she pleases.
    I have an entry level Canon 1100d and an Olympus E520 so no real fancy stuff there with just a couple of lenses for each camera including a 50 mm for the Canon.
    I have attended a couple of camera classes and there always seems to be people that attend these classes who have just bought a wheelbarrow full of expensive camera gear without a clue as to what it does or why they would ever need some of these gadgets.

    One guy had at least four of the famous Canon “L” series lenses including a great big long one and he had forgotten how to switch the camera on. Next he had dust on his sensor because he had put the camera body away without a lens attached to it and no cap either. He told us that he bought all this gear because he was a farmer and could get a tax concession if he told “Them” that he was going to use the camera to photograph his cows.

    So how would I know when to use a N/D filter and what exactly does it do or what could I do instead if I don’t have one of these gadgets.

    Great work Anne and I hope to hear so much more from you as time goes by …. Ciao.

    • says

      Hi Allen, welcome to the blog! I totally know what you mean about all the people with tons of gear and don’t know how to use it. They think the gear is going to get them good photos, but it’s not the gear that does it, it’s the photographer’s skills.

      That’s funny about the cows. Gee all that time I worked in software I could have used my camera to photograph my computer and write it off! :)

      About the neutral density filters, I really should write a post about that. A solid neutral density filter is just like a dark piece of glass you put in front of your lens that blocks the light which means that you can take a longer exposure. Great for making water misty or getting that effect of the movement of the clouds. You cannot do that in post processing.

      I really like to use graduated neutral density filters. They are dark on the top and gradually fade to clear mid-frame. Those are great for darkening the sky when the sky is much brighter than the foreground. Now it is possible to do that in post-processing, but I find that it is never quite as good as doing it in camera.

      Then there are also reverse neutral density filters. Those have a dark band mid frame and graduatually fade towards the top. Those work great when the sun is right on the horizon. I did write a post about those once and you can read it here:

      I hope that helps explain things. Thank you very much for your questions and comments.


  1. […] 6 Attempts at the San Diego Skyline – what a great presentation, shared here by Anne McKinnell.  Anne works hard over a period of time to capture that special shot she was looking for.  As the evening began to set, Anne kept taking pictures and here she shares the incremental changes and versions of what she was shooting for.  The end picture in the set is jaw-droppingly awesome, well worth the time to see. […]

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