Weekend in Big Sur

Our long weekend in Big Sur for our anniversary, plus an accidental iPhone 12 review

Even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, we don’t take enough advantage of the fact that we live in the most beautiful state in the country. I’ve been living in California for over 20 years, and I’ve still never been to Yosemite; cabins, hotels, and campsites are booked up so far in advance that it’s always easier just to go to Disneyland. A couple of months ago, we drove out to Muir Woods in Marin County for a few hours, and I’d forgotten what it was like to be outside and surrounded by trees that weren’t placed there by a level designer.

So for the tenth anniversary of our first date, my fiance and I decided to escape the house with the safest vacation we could think of: driving south to Big Sur for a couple of nights in a secluded hotel, then down to Paso Robles to see a big outdoor art installation.

We’d originally looked into renting an RV to maximize social distancing, but neither of us felt comfortable with the idea of driving a big vehicle down the winding cliffside roads of CA-1. In retrospect, I’m very glad we didn’t try it, for exactly that reason. We’ll try the RV if we ever decide to travel somewhere more flat.

In case anyone’s planning a similar trip: we stayed at the Big Sur River Inn, and I’d recommend it. The riverside rooms are pretty nice, splitting the difference between a moderate hotel and a cabin by the woods. The staff was friendly, the breakfast burritos from the general store were surprisingly good, and there were several nice touches like deck chairs set out by the river for picnic lunches. My only complaints were that you don’t get a private balcony, and the walls aren’t particularly soundproof, as we discovered when a gaggle of women arrived on our last night for a colossally ill-advised pandemic bachelorette party.

The art installation was the Field of Light by Bruce Munro, which was definitely worth the trip. It’s huge, and it was really beautiful to see. The lights are somewhat alien-looking bulbs on stalks, which very slowly change colors.

We spent some of the weekend just driving up and down CA-1 to see the highlights. Most of the state parks were closed, so we instead stopped at a few turn-outs and vista points to take some photos. I’d brought my fancier camera (for the record: a Panasonic GH5) with the intention of taking some photos and video of the scenery, using my phone’s camera only when it was more convenient. But my iPhone 12 Pro arrived right before the weekend, so I was able to take it out for a test run.

I was surprised by how much I preferred the photos and video from the phone over my dedicated camera. I’d planned to transfer everything off of the camera, then go through with Photoshop or Final Cut to crop and stabilize everything and bump up the color, but I haven’t even bothered yet. I’ve liked almost everything that came off the iPhone camera, immediately. I remember thinking that the camera would never be able to capture the color of the water on the coast, but it’s right there in the photos, without my touching any sliders or doing any edits. And I remember thinking that my hands were way too shaky for any of the video to be usable, but the stabilization is so smooth and natural that I have to be watching it on a larger monitor to notice it’s moving at all.

One thing I did notice only after the fact: taking video in very bright daylight seems to result in crazy lens flares that JJ Abrams would consider too over-the-top. But the image quality is so good that I wonder if an after-market of lens hoods for a smart phone camera is going to develop.

Micro-four-thirds cameras like the GH5 are notoriously bad in low light, so I had zero expectations of getting anything usable from the night at the Field of Light. (I took it anyway, and my expectations were immediately confirmed). I tried several photos with the iPhone in night mode, handheld, and was startled by how well it did. Even handheld for 10 seconds, the worst it got was blurring in the details, but everything was perfectly usable.

And most surprising to me: it didn’t simply blow up the exposure or sharpness, like I’ve usually seen with attempts to dress up too-dark images. That usually results in a David Lynchian effect of a blown-out spotlight surrounded by darkness, or an interesting-but-alien day-for-night effect where everything looks unnaturally lit. Instead, these shots look like I remember the light from the moment: lights in the foreground perfectly sharp, while distant details are in silhouette. I was really impressed, and it’s made me eager to go out and try more night photography with the phone and a small tripod.

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, but it’s also made me realize how much I need to get outdoors. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in that I haven’t been too affected by the pandemic and have been able to live comfortably. But it should’ve been a clear warning sign when everybody had to go on lockdown and I didn’t notice much change in my day-to-day routine.