I recently made a trip to Los Angeles for some meetings as part of my job as a water resources engineer. This was my first visit to L.A. proper, and when I realized I would have some extra time after my meetings, I immediately thought of photographing at Griffith Park. I have been a fan of Serge Ramelli for several years, and having seen many of his tutorials on capturing sunsets at Griffith Park, I knew this was where I wanted to go. But what scene did I want to capture, and where did I specifically need to go?
I did a search of Griffith Park images and quickly found the scene I wanted to try to capture. For the cover of his book on L.A., Serge used a twilight photo of downtown Los Angeles with the Griffith Observatory in the foreground. It is a truly spectacular scene and a fantastic image, so I decided my goal would be to try to get a similar shot. Knowing that the sun sets early in California in January and that my meeting downtown would not end before 3 o’clock, I would have limited time to get back to my hotel, change clothes and grab my photo gear, get a ride to the park, and hike to the right spot to get the view of the observatory positioned in front of the downtown skyline. I did some online research and checked the maps of the park, but I also decided to take a gamble and just ask Serge for some guidance. So I sent him an email, and to my surprise he responded a few minutes later with some instructions on how to find the right location. I went back to looking at online maps and quickly found to exact location on the trail.
As I was preparing for the trip, I decided to take only a single lens so that I could carry my camera in my work backpack and not have to carry a separate bag of camera gear. I used the Sony 18-105 G on my a6500. This lens is not my first choice for landscapes, but it is a good all-around performer with a versatile range of focal lengths. Although it is fairly large for an e-mount lens, I needed the extra reach over the Sony 16-50 mm kit lens or the Zeiss 24 mm f/1.8. From my review of images on Flickr, I was estimating I would need something in the range of 65 to 80 mm (on APS-C) to get the shot I had in mind. Other than the camera and lens, I also packed my filter sleeve with a circular polarizer and an extra battery in my backpack and stuffed the tripod in my suitcase.
The meeting was in downtown and ended right on time at 3:00. Traffic was light and I made it back to my hotel in Hollywood with time to spare. I called an Uber to take me to the observatory so that I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to park. The driver arrived quickly and we headed for the Hollywood hills. Unfortunately, the Uber navigation app was acting up and instead of directing us to the observatory parking lot, it took us into the neighborhood directly below the observatory. Ten minutes later, we were back on the main thoroughfare heading to the western entrance to Griffith Park, but once again we had to turn around because the rangers had set up a roadblock on the drive to the observatory. By this time, the sky was already turning yellow, and I was starting to fear I had missed my chance to get the shot. We took the road up Vermont Canyon and passed the Greek Theater into the park.
Traffic slowed down at the entrance to the observatory parking lot, so I jumped out at the western trailhead and took off up the trail. The Mount Hollywood trail is very steep at the beginning and I was gassed but made myself keep moving uphill as I glanced around at the late afternoon sky that was turning more orange by the minute. Fortunately, the trail levels out and it was only about 3/4 mile to the spot I had picked out. I arrived at the photo spot and was a little bit surprised to find myself alone overlooking a city of 4 million people.
Once I got the camera set up on the tripod, I had about 20 minutes to spare before the light show started. Over the following 45 minutes, I got to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. I had the observatory out in front and slightly to my left with downtown behind it, the streets of Hollywood directly in front, some lower mountains and more city skyline to my right, and higher mountains with the Hollywood sign behind me. As the sun got lower, the sky started glowing bright yellow until the sun suddenly dropped below the clouds on the horizon and put a spotlight on everything in front of me. This scene lasted for exactly 10 minutes until the sun set below the horizon, but that was when things started to get really amazing. I was constantly taking photos but changing the composition all the time. With amazing views all around and the light getting more and more incredible every minute, I could not capture what I was seeing fast enough. I wanted the close zoomed in shot of the observatory, the wide panorama of the city, and the crazy orange glow over the Hollywood sign. And to top it off, there were 4 helicopters circling around overhead watching the city come to life as the night approached. It was an absolutely stunning experience for a photographer!
Despite having quite a lot of shots out of focus after I switched to manual then forgot to switch back when I changed to composition, I still managed to come away with the twilight shot of the observatory in front of the downtown skyline, a wonderful photo of the Hollywood sign under that crazy orange and yellow sky, and a blue hour night shot of the observatory all lit up. Definitely a productive evening of photography and well worth the effort to get there.