Luis Ortega is a San Diego based photographer and film photographer. Follow Luis on Instagram for more beautiful images of Southern California life.
Six-tenths of a mile. The vast majority of what I shoot happens in this small yet magical stretch of Pacific coastline. There are other beaches. There are other surf breaks. But this particular one is home. I went to middle school not too far away, I swam competitively down the street (something I hated in the moment but can now appreciate), and I can’t stop coming back.
Summer might offer up the rare south swell, a surfer's delight, but I mainly go during this time of year to people watch, for a handful of reasons.
For one, the combination of open sand and miniature cliffs leads people to set up differently every time. Some groups may choose to tuck in between rock formations, others prefer to soak up the sun on top. It lets the same spots present themselves in fresh ways every day.
There are also a few choice sandbars that allow an excellent shorebreak to womp in. I grew up playing in the waves and love seeing other kids have the same sort of fun I had. There's also the simple reality that there’s only a single, overused porta-potty and no parking lot. Maybe it’s mean, but it keeps the beach from ever getting too crowded.
"It’s weird to treat photography like a sport you train for, but there’s something to keeping your "muscles" sharp so that when the moment arrives, you’re ready."
In the summer I try to shoot a roll every week. I usually accomplish this by walking up and down the stretch a few times. Sometimes the results are nothing to write home about, but now and then a gem comes from this. It’s weird to treat photography like a sport you train for, but there’s something to keeping your "muscles" sharp so that when the moment arrives, you’re ready.
Winter is the main attraction here though. These reefs pick up north swells consistently and become one of the go-to surf spots in southern California. Having been shooting here for a few years now, I've come to understand how different swell directions interact with the reefs below the surface, but the most interesting thing to shoot are the surfers.
Some are pro, semi-pro, or should-be pro. Regardless they charge fearlessly into danger with a combination of style, bravery, and skill. Even if you’re watching for the first time, you can instantly pick out who the most talented people are. What good is it to survive a gigantic wave that’s crashing into sharp rocks a few feet below the surface if you’re not doing it in style?
Shooting these waves doesn’t provide the same kind of thrill as riding them. It is exciting, though, and comes with its dangers. I’ve been caught in rip currents that drain your energy so quickly you sometimes just give in and surrender to it. There have been cuts and bruises from getting smashed into rocks during high tide. I once swallowed a few gallons of seawater, which left me sick for days. A couple of flooded housings and ruined cameras.
But I always want to come back for more, and I know I’m lucky to live here and be able to document this little strand of coast in such detail. I have a front-row seat to the best sport in town (and I get to walk away with a photo, not just a memory).