Tag Archives: outer banks

Going Coastal

As a landscape and nature photographer, there are few experiences that compare to walking out on the beach in the dawn’s faint light, examining the sky, the clouds, the mood of the surf, and anticipating what the next hour might bring.

What is it, exactly, that unceasingly beckons the photographer back to the edge of terra firma time after time? Is it some visceral, primal urge to “go back from whence we came,” as John F. Kennedy once speculated about the kinship of human beings and the sea? Or is the seemingly boundless ocean a visual metaphor for the infinite photo possibilities offered the photographer? How about the local seaside tiki bar that serves up a kaleidoscopic array of boat drinks with miniature umbrellas during the idle light of midday?

Whatever the reason or excuse, coastal landscapes are a favorite subject for many nature photographers, including myself. So with spring soon turning to summer and the unofficial start of beach season, here are a few tips for better coastal landscape photography in any season.

Find a Point of Interest

Beaches are often nondescript, featureless expanses of sand and endless water without any apparent focal point. With no obvious visual fixture, the scene might leave a photographer confused and viewer of the image bored. Locating a conspicuous geological feature, rock, tree, tidal creek, piece of driftwood, or serendipitous conch shell in the foreground can provide a visual anchor that makes for a more compelling image.

Small iceberg on teh black sand beach at Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Experiment with Shutter Speeds

The ocean is a dynamic body of water, heaving and churning with the ebb and flow of each and every wave. Photography is an interpretative art form, so the shutter speed you choose will greatly vary both the look and feel of the scene to potential viewers.

For example, a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second or faster can freeze the water’s motion, projecting a feeling of power or urgency. Any shutter speed of one second or slower can tame even the most furious ocean swells and ascribe a certain grace or fragility to the sea. A range of 1/20 to ½ of a second with an advancing or receding wave or foam is a good compromise, giving water the illusion of motion yet retaining important detail as well.

The focal length, physical distance, and water’s velocity will all vary the visual effect of the wave’s movement for each shutter speed, so the examples cited above are merely rough guidelines. I think it’s important to experiment with a variety of speeds before ultimately deciding on what you prefer for each situation.

Sunset at Hunters Beach Cove, Acadia National Park, Maine USA

Look For Reflections

As mentioned earlier, beaches can seem featureless with little “working material” to assist in assembling a composition. Reflections in wet sand and tidal pools, however, can add some interest and depth to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Tidal pools and puddles can reflect the sky or clouds like a mirror if there’s little or no wind and the thin film of water left on the sand by a receding wave produces reflections that are impressionistic and expressive.

Look for Patterns and Textures

Wind and water can conceive captivating dunes, mini dunes, ripples, ridges, and basins in the sand. These features can be used as a component of a larger, expansive scene or they can become the primary subject themselves. Look for conditions created by low-angled, directional lighting where the verge of light and shadow add yet more compositional elements with which to work.

These conditions can be difficult to visualize under flat or direct midday light. But as the angle of the sun becomes more oblique, textures, patterns, and lines will soon reveal themselves. Work quickly, as the light and shadows will be fleeting.

Tree stump reflected in tidal pool at sunrise, Hunting Island, South Carolina

 Arrive Early – Stay Late

This advice should be mandatory for any landscape photographer – coastal or otherwise. But does the world really need yet another photograph of the sun setting or rising over the ocean? My short answer would be, “Sure, why not?”

I prefer to bracket and blend exposures in post-processing for sunrise or sunset scenes that need usable detail in both the sky and foreground, but the level, unobstructed horizons are ideal graduated neutral density filters as well.

But if beauty for beauty’s sake is too banal for your tastes, you still have the twilight wedge, dawn or dusk’s glow, and low-angled, warm sunlight during the golden hours to compliment the landscape. Snobbery is no excuse for sleeping in.

Protect Your Gear

The best advice I can offer with regard to keeping your gear looking and working like new: Take someone else’s camera to the beach.

Seriously, the saltwater, sand, and wind can run roughshod on your camera gear. Even if the camera is not dropped in the drink, saltwater spray and mist from the pounding surf can do damage over time. I always wipe down my camera and lenses with a damp, freshwater towel and let dry.

Tripods can become corroded and completely inoperable if the legs are submerged in saltwater. Since I cannot resist getting into the water, I carry an old, backup tripod on my coastal excursions and go for it. It’s still a good idea to rinse off the sand and saltwater off the tripod legs when you are finished shooting to extend its life as much as possible.

Dunes with Snow Dusting, Hatteras Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

Get Wet

Despite the previous point of advice, it often helps to get your feet and tripod wet in order get an interesting perspective. Wading into the water and getting a low angle to onrushing waves can provide a unique viewpoint while vicariously injecting the viewer into the scene.

Waves can move the sand and tripod during long exposures, resulting in soft images. For this reason, I push the tripod legs as deep into the sand as possible before an incoming wave arrives. This usually stabilizes the tripod and camera sufficiently.

Research Tide Information

Your favorite coastal photo locale has many different faces and characteristics, which all depend upon the height of the tide. Knowing when high and low tides occur and how they correspond to sunrise and sunset is vital to both your approach and your planning for a future photography trip.

Tidal information can be found online. For the United States, http://www.saltwatertides.com/pickpred.html is a good place to start. A quick Google search for “tidal chart” and your area will produce several results.

An excellent iPhone application is Tide Graph, which gives tidal information for hundreds of coastal locations, which can then be quickly accessed and deciphered.

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Featured Workshop: The Outer Banks Experience, March 8 – 10, 2013

It’s that time of year to begin planning my workshop schedule for next year. The 2013 workshop schedule is almost complete except for the additions of Saint Augustine, Florida in May, Acadia National Park, Maine in October and another great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee workshop in late October as well. There might be a few surprises thrown in at the last minute but, for the most part, that just about does it.

The featured workshop this month is the Outer Banks Experience on March 8 – 10, 2013. There is a good reason why I come back to the Outer Banks of North Carolina year after year: It’s an amazing place to photograph with sand, water, and sky in almost every direction, four lighthouses, and prolific pelagic wildlife.

If you have ever wanted to come to the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina for photography, this is the time to do it. If you register before January 1, 2013 and mention this blog post when you register, you will receive a 10% discount on the tuition. You can get more information and register here.

Here are some images from past workshops in the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Enjoy!

Friendly Pelicans

Currituck Lighthouse Staircase

Currituck Sound Sunset

Snow on the Dunes!

Light and Sand

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with Star Trails

The Lonely Shore

Frisco Pier

“Banker Horse” on the Dunes

The Guardian

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Black and White Dunes

I have always believed that photography is not necessarily about capturing what you see, but rather what you feel: an emotional connection, a sense of place, an experience. There is no better example of this than black and white photography. Black and white photography is a form of visual expression that looks nothing like what the photographer actually saw, yet it’s readily accepted by the general public as being “real” or “real photography.” Some photographers actually believe and espouse the notion that black and white photography is the only real form of photography. There’s that word again. What rubbish.

I don’t practice many black and white interpretations because to me, color is a big part of my experiences in nature – not always, but it’s usually the case. Sometimes, however, a black and white interpretation does a better job of emphasizing the elements that were important to me. This is one of those instances.

Technical details:

Hatteras Island, Outer Banks of North Carolina; Canon EOS 5d Mk2, Canon 17-40L @ 20mm, 1/30 second @ f20 ISO 160

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Timeless Light

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse near Buxton, North Carolina. This image was created during a recent photography workshop in the Outer Banks of coastal North Carolina as I demonstrated nighttime photography and star trail techniques.

Technical details:

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Buxton, North Carolina; Canon EOS  5D Mk2, Canon 17-40L @ 20mm, 21 minutes at f4 ISO 200

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Interpretation

From now on, I refuse to use the words manipulation or alteration or futzin’ or any other pejorative words photographers (and critics) want to come up with to describe digital processing. I’ll use interpretation because that’s what it really is!

Haterras Island, Outer Banks of North Carolina

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