PDN Photo of the Day

Tidal Abstractions

Like many who have looked out the window of a plane landing in San Francisco, Colin McRae was struck by the unreal colors of the commercial salt ponds at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. For the past eight years, McRae has been photographing the edges of the Bay from above—his images frame the intense colors of the ponds as well other places where the Bay meets the shore. The rainbow hues are the result of orange-pink of brine shrimp and red and green algae that flourish at changing salt levels in the evaporation ponds. As McRae writes in a statement, these areas are like the “edges of a sink left with residue after it has drained. Currents are seen creating channels of water rushing in different directions running side by side, the incoming one color the outgoing another. As the water recedes, streams, rivulets, mud, rock, scars and debris become visible along the shoreline with unusual light reflections and color changes.”

McRae shoots from a helicopter, at heights ranging from 500 to 5,000 feet. The results are “far superior to fixed wing aircraft because helicopters are so much more maneuverable,” he tells PDN by email. “They allow you to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time. Drones are out of the question for most of the areas I cover, due to height restrictions [and] area restrictions,” since the tidelands are near airports. “And, yes, it is much more fun to be up in the air than down on the ground fiddling with joysticks.”

McRae began the project shooting with Canon film cameras, but says “I soon moved to digital with Canon 1Ds cameras, and then Canon 1Ds Mark III cameras, always using the Canon 24-105 f4 lens. I now shoot with the Sony a7R II and Sony a6000 cameras using the Sony 24-70 f4 and 18-200 f3.5-6.3 lenses respectively, both with polarizing filters.”

While shooting the series, “weather is a big factor in my approach and frequency,” McRae reports. “I prefer a clear day, but over the years our climate has changed, and clear days are few and far between. I have been up at the beginning of storms (and forced back), at the end of storms, on clear days with high winds (and been forced back), and also on days where I have taken off in clear skies and had dense fog roll in within fifteen minutes.” But he adds, “Even when I have a bad weather day, there is something to photograph.”

Related Stories:
Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge
Aerial Views of the Hidden West
David Maisel’s Spanish Landscapes

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  1. Dear PDN, an article such as this really ought to refer back to the work of William Garnett on the same subject. He set the bar pretty high.

    • I agree. His work is amazing. I studied with him at UC Berkeley in the early 70’s and came to respect his professionalism as well as artistry.

  2. Beautiful photographs! Thanks for complying with the height and area restrictions. Many of the tidal marshes in south San Francisco Bay are part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and flying lower than 500 feet would disturb the birds we are protecting.

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