The Battered Strand: North Carolina’s Outer Banks

North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a land both infinitely brutal and beautiful. For 125 miles, this narrow ribbon of barrier islands stretches from the Virginia state line south to Ocracoke Island, giving protection to the mainland from the raging Atlantic. In return for this natural amenity, the islands are the recipient of a safe harbor as well, by way of the establishment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, America’s first such designation.

The most extensive stretch of undeveloped beach on the eastern seaboard, this wild and untamed verge of tidal forces and nomadic sand is at the mercy of nature’s primal forces – wind and water. When viewed on a map or from above, these islands display a stunning composition of coastal geography, boldly protruding into the Atlantic like the chin of a cocky prizefighter, daring each passing storm to give it their best punch. Its best defense is clever passivity, dodging and weaving, bending yet never quite breaking to the will of nature. This reality is a boon to the landscape photographer, as each new visit reveals yet a new wrinkle to the landscape. It’s never the same place twice.

(Above left) Surf fisherman gather at Cape Point under stormy skies. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm lens, 1/13 second @ f/13, 320 ISO. (Above right) “Moonrise at Rodanthe” A touch of snow on the dunes as a full moon rises over the Atlantic at dusk. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm lens, 1/5 second @ f/11, ISO 100.

Cape Point at Hatteras Island is the physical confluence of several divergent ocean currents, creating a nutrient-rich habitat for sea life and a haven for pelagic birds and mammals. It’s also responsible for the infamous Diamond Shoals, also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” for the many dozens of shipwrecks in this area. Dramatic seascapes, particularly at sunrise, are well worth the mile-long drive over the beach to photograph. This drive, however, should only be attempted with a 4WD vehicle with plenty of clearance.

Standing guard is the iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse with its distinctive “barber pole” design. Compositions with both the lighthouse and the Atlantic Ocean are no longer possible since the structure was moved 3000 feet inland in 1999, but dramatic landscapes with the wild dunes are still possible at both sunrise and sunset.

“The Guardian” The famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina. At a staggering 208 feet in height, it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the world and one of the most recognizable symbols of the Outer Banks.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm lens, 30 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100

It should be noted that the raw elements that helped shape the Outer Banks can also wreak havoc on your camera equipment and tripod. Wind, water, sand, and salt spray are ever-present realities of nature on these islands and great care should be taken to protect your equipment. Clean your camera and lenses after each day of shooting and wipe down your tripod with fresh water. These same destructive elements make the Outer Banks brutally beautiful and a must-visit location for all landscape photographers.

For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.