How to photograph Carmel by the Sea

Carmel River State Beach

Carmel River State Beach

The attractive community of Carmel by the Sea retained its small town charm in spite of a booming real estate bubble. It encompasses two of the finest beaches in Northern California and the most expensive housing market outside Malibu, turning Carmel into a playground for the rich and very rich.

Upscale Carmel also attracts affluent tourists, who pamper themselves in the expensive cottages and spend their days shopping in boutique stores.

Despite the public show of status and prosperity, Carmel still offers a lot of value for photography, even if it is mostly recreational. Carmel hosts many famous artists. Local photographers clearly have the advantage of being able to time their shots for perfect weather conditions and they have the advantage of possessing the location knowledge.

How to get there

Carmel Map

Carmel area map

Carmel is located just south of Monterey along scenic Highway 1. Take Ocean Avenue from the west and follow it to the beach. Consider parking along Ocean Avenue for a few photographs of the city, its boutiques, and inns. Parking at the beach is limited, but you can always walk a few blocks, and take photographs along the way.

Take Scenic Road south, from Ocean Avenue near the beach. It winds along the coast and ends at the Carmel River State Beach (image above).

GPS position

How to photograph Carmel by the Sea

Carmel Tea House

Carmel Tea House

When you come to Carmel, you should consider visiting the very photogenic Carmel Mission first. The Mission is a pleasure to photograph and without doubt the best subject in Carmel.

Carmel is also a popular star hideout, but the days when Clint Eastwood was Mayor and Hollywood stars invested in the rising real estate bubble are gone. Leave your Paparazzi gear and focus on the city instead.

The attention to detail that storeowners use to decorate and advertise their businesses stand out in this city. Keep an open mind and walk with your eyes wide open. I often find it hard to see these little details when I have my mind already set on a certain type of photograph. Carmel demands your full mindfulness.

Stairs at Carmel Plaza

Stairs at Carmel Plaza

Carmel Plaza (above) impressively demonstrates a shopping experience that you can find only here. Countless seating with leather upholstery keeps your feet happy and wallets in spending mood. The decoration and planting is tasteful and the architecture pleasant to photograph.

Since this is a mall and therefore private property, I recommend that you try to blend in. Most people do not mind a quiet photographer.

Carmel Door

Carmel Door

You can find good compositions along Ocean Avenue and a few blocks to either side of it. Narrow, flower-lined passages, flowerbeds, and beautifully maintained gardens add an astonishing amount of color to this city. Fairytale houses, like the Tuck Box, located on Dolores Street, south of the Ocean Avenue intersection, define the cityscape of Carmel.

Despite the very rich amount of intimate details, Carmel still offers grand scenic vistas of rugged cliffs and white sandy beaches, drawing crowds in summer.

Carmel Beach

Carmel Beach

Take the short drive along Scenic Road, south of Ocean Avenue, to get a glimpse of the long Carmel Beach. It is nearly impossible to park here during weekends, when countless surfers occupy the spots. You may have better chances a few blocks away.

Initially, the road is a one-way road, but it turns into a two-way road toward the end of the beach. Watch out for oncoming traffic!

Keep following the road until you get to a very sharp left turn with the cliff on the right side and no view of oncoming traffic. Just after the turn, you will get to Carmel River Beach, where I took the photograph shown at the start of the article and the alternative view shown below.

Carmel River SB

Carmel River SB

The gentle curve of the beach leads toward the mountains of Point Lobos Ranch in the background. I took both pictures on this page with a very short focal length (wide-angle lens), crouching close to the ground. Alternatively, you can emphasize the mountains and the beach more by using a longer focal length and by photographing from the road instead, which gives you a higher point of view. Both perspectives work well.

If you have a couple of hours to spare, I recommend that you park your car either at the side street to your left or at the Carmel River State Beach parking area a couple of turns later. Take a walk south on the beach, toward the mountains until you get to Monastery Beach, at the foot of the Carmelite Monastery, another exceptional sand beach. Along the way, you will encounter different perspectives of this superb stretch of beach.

In case you have trouble finding a parking spot, I recommend to get back to Highway 1 and to turn south. After a few hundred meters, you will see Monastery Beach on your right, with a large turnout area where you can safely pull over. Simply hike in the opposite direction toward Carmel River Beach.

Best Time of the Day and Best Season

The weather in Carmel can be unpredictable. The unique weather conditions along the Northern California shore often create fog during the late afternoon hours, which can result in good pictures if the fog is dense with openings.

The winter is often rainy. I prefer spring and fall due to the lower angle of the sun compared to summer.

Time required

The drive takes about 30 minutes. You can photograph both beaches in about 45 minutes and the rest of the city and malls in about 1.5 hours. You should plan some additional time for a relaxing beach stroll.


  • Wide-angle lens
  • CP Filter
  • Zoom lens

Close Locations

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  1. Posted 2010/08/20 at 23:43 | Permalink

    Carmel, another place I’ve never been and have wanted to go since discovering Edward Weston, et al. Beautiful.

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