Smoke and Glass – Sean McLean Photography

By Julie Horner

7:00 a.m. December 29, 2014. The early sky above the Boulder Creek Coffee Roasting Company was cast in Easter egg hue, the morning sun still below the mountain. In a personal test of will and strength I had agreed to meet Boulder Creek photographer, Sean McLean, on location to experience what he does best. Sean said, “Given that my niche tends to be coastal AND the long range surf forecast looks promising, how about we drive together down to Steamer Lane?” Excited, I asked if we REALLY needed to meet so early. He said, “Oh my friend, I’m usually at the lane before the sun has risen…the light goes all to pieces by 9:00.”

As it turned out the weather was good for boating, fishing, and going to the beach, but not so promising for waves after all. We decided on Plan B: A bone-chilling stroll through the mist-shrouded redwoods at Henry Cowell State Park.

I met Sean last summer at the Santa Cruz Mountains Art & Wine Festival in Boulder Creek. He was photographing the local bands and the scene on the green, families and singles, diapers, dancing and dangly earrings as the end-of-summer revelers drank in the last of the hot days and whatever was on tap among the local brewers and vintners who had enthusiastically thrown down in support of the local vibe.

Between last summer and this winter Sean landed an excellent freelance position as a photojournalist with Santa Cruz Waves, the place to go online for local coast 411. I was curious. As we pulled into Henry Cowell on that frigid December morning, I asked Sean if he surfed. He laughed, “Oh God, badly. I surf like I dance, and nobody wants to see that!”

Sean loves people, and he loves to photograph them in action in landscapes where they’re doing what they love. He said, “I take photos that tell a story…that invite the viewer in to explore and connect.” Sean focuses on trying to capture what’s on a subject’s mind – the interaction with the world. He is attracted to magic and wonder and things that make you go, “Ooo!!”

A completely delicious image to Sean? “A glassy backlit wave with a surfer either riding it or in the act of dropping in. This provides a warm blue-green light inside the wave that often frames the surfer’s upper body. The spray at the top of the wave can emphasize the power of the ocean – or it can completely negate it. The water has texture too; bumps and ridges of light and blue…the sea is alive and it’s not just about the surfer in the water.”

Sean posts his photos on Santa Cruz Waves online gallery every Saturday morning. He says, “Usually that’s surf action around Steamer Lane but it’s pretty much up to me. This area is rich with landscape, coastal, sunsets, wildlife, and the occasional human being.” According to Sean, there’s beauty, adventure, and friends everywhere. “This is a hoot!” He’s just a really friendly guy out shooting surf.

He’s also a big-time planner, consulting weather and tide reports and calculating when and where to be with his equipment to seize that moment when something spectacular happens, for that shot that’s “off the hook.”

Back at Henry Cowell the sun had finally sent dazzling tentacles of warmth into the forest canopy and the trees were smoking. It was one of those off-the-hook moments. As I stood shivering, my breath suspended in puffs, Sean was showing me how to use my own camera, which I’d brought along in case I could scrape off a little of his magic frosting. Sean said, “It’s all about the lenses…basically picking the brush to paint with.” Sean is quick to strike up conversation with anyone who is curious about what he’s doing. A tourist couple approached us and Sean dove right in to telling them about all the amazing hiking they could do during their stay. “I love to share. I mean, this is Santa Cruz County!”

On the Web:

On Facebook:

On Santa Cruz Waves:

(c) 2015 Julie Horner – Originally published in the Santa Cruz Mountain Bulletin, February 2015

Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email:


SMC_2632-Redwoods and Sunbeams-4x6x300dpi

One thought on “Smoke and Glass – Sean McLean Photography

  1. the phrases with which you start each vignette are like doors opening onto breathtaking scenes. your descriptions paint such evocative pictures. you’re like the photographer. he has to wait for the perfect image and choose the right lens. you have to search your imagination for the perfect image and choose the right words to convey it. i love both describing the coast in haiku and photographing its many moods in my own amateurish way — and then spend hours editing. speaking of editing, do you still want me to critique your columns? this stopped me: > > whatever was on tap among the local brewers and vintners who had enthusiastically thrown down in support of the local vibe. >

    Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed.