I was fortunate in many ways for a visit this year to North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX). First and foremost was just being able to make the trip, and second, was having some family join us there after we all “quarantined and tested” prior. It had been nearly a year since we had seen them, and it was a joyful time to spend together despite the mostly inclement weather.
Photographically, although there were plenty of clouds and wind, along with a storm or two (feeling the effects of a hurricane), photo opportunities were plentiful. We were blessed with two beautiful sunrises with one actually being on the spectacular scale, a decent sunset, and some time spent among the dunes and estuarial forests searching for sand pattern abstracts and details. There was even some fog! So there were plenty of clouds and a wide variety in the atmospherics to add drama to many of the photos that might otherwise have been on the dull side.
The first morning there, as I looked out over the ocean, things looked pretty grim, with plenty of clouds and poor prospects. Fully prepared, with waders on, and the tripod firmly planted in the surf, I began taking shots just to get into the rhythm of the waves, gradually lowering the ISO as the sky lightened to keep the shutter speed reasonably long to drag the movement of the surf through the frame. Too long a shutter speed just creates blobs of white surf, while too short a speed eliminates any of the surf streaks I was after. A polarizer is always on the lens to help keep the shutter speeds long enough later as the sky brightens even more, and have some control over the reflections and the appearance of the sky if needed. And as is usually the case, to keep the sky and surf in better tonal alignment, a two-stop, hard-edged, split ND filter was used as well. As the time approached for the actual sunrise, lower clouds that hung along the horizon, drifted off revealing higher level clouds that began to brighten with the sun’s glow. The curtain of clouds can be seen in the image above on the right side of the frame as they drifted off. Just imagine the image at the top with a cloudless sky; probably dull enough to leave the camera in the bag, or even sleep in!!
Another morning looked promising as I trotted out to see what might be in store. As the morning progressed, it started out producing some great color and thought about the good fortune to have witnessed two good sunrises within the week. But pretty quickly, some beams of color appeared and spread out across the sky producing reflections seemingly everywhere. The sunrise went from good to spectacular! There was so much to shoot, it seemed I was continuously taking frame after frame for what seemed like one of the longest displays of color I had ever witnessed! When I felt I had several frames with some good surf, I changed to a somewhat abstract view along the shoreline of the pastel pink/orange/yellow reflections in the sheen left by the retreating surf. It was a frantic few minutes of rapid fire frames going strictly on instinct; verticals, horizontals and changing focal lengths. It was one of the most exhilarating sunrise shoots I can remember. It was a gift to witness…as is every sunrise.
As things lightened even more, the sky and reflections lost their dark mood, took on brighter pastel tones, and the shooting continued until most of the saturated color burned off. It seemed, just as with post processing, we sometimes don’t know when an image is finished, it was difficult determining when, photographically, the morning had given all it had to give. There have been many times, even during the film days, when perseveration took hold, and images were unnecessarily retaken. But with the ocean surf, every wave is distinct, and you keep thinking maybe, just maybe, the next one will be the “perfect wave”.
Every surge of surf is unique, and the approaching waves behind never seem to break in the same spot consistently. So trying to capture a pleasing flow of surf along with breaking waves properly positioned within the frame, all during those few fleeting moments of maximum color in the sky, is nearly impossible. A method that seems to work well is to try to get two of those elements right, by first getting the proper exposure for the sky, and by not moving the camera on the tripod, you can then concentrate on getting some interesting movement in the surf. Since the color in the water would be similar due to reflected light from the sky, the best frame of the sky can then be combined with the best frame of the surf later in Photoshop. And hopefully, the waves in the middle distance will cooperate and appear in a balanced position as well. This increases the odds of coming away with the best possible final image.
The two spectacular sunrises during the week at the Outer Banks were truly unusual for any 7-day period, even more when you are actually set up and ready for them! The first one occurred on the very first morning there, it began at 653am and continued on until 739am!! The duration of the incredible sky and surf lasted so long that I clicked off nearly 150 frames trying to capture some of the best in the way of surf movement, reflections, and differing exposures to compensate for the brighter sky or sun, while trying to keep the shutter speed long enough to streak the movements of the water as it rushed in and out. So below is a short sequence of images from the first morning as the God Beams began to appear and spread across the sky and some lower clouds moved in, until the sun actually rose above the horizon. I was truly fortunate to have such wonderful conditions for photography on this trip; but can’t say as much for relaxing under sunshine and cooler temperatures.
Click on any individual image above to view at full size.