The Perfect Wave

Clearing Storm — Corolla Beach, NC © jj raia

There were so many photo opportunities each morning on this trip, and what made each one even better was that I didn’t have to travel anywhere except the one morning I drove no more than 5-minutes to the end of the paved road on the north end of the Outer Banks. Otherwise, the hardest part was getting up, putting on a pair of waders, and walking across the dunes to the ocean. There were clouds every morning, and even if they didn’t light up as they did on Sunday and Thursday mornings, they definitely were interesting none the less. The only problem the clouds presented was that, for the most part, they were always moving at a pretty good clip, so when some clouds had some real drama and were properly balanced within the frame, they didn’t stay put for long.

There was never any concern for placement of the horizon because as a general “rule” (mine), if the star of the shot is the sky, it deserves most of the real estate within the frame. If nothing is happening in the sky, then it may only be a sliver at the top of the frame. On most of these mornings, things were happening in both the sky and surf, so ignoring the rule of not putting the horizon close to the center in the frame didn’t bother me at all. If the sky was dramatic, then as much of it as possible certainly deserved to be included.

For getting some good movement of the surf within the frame, generally a good place to plop a tripod is midway between where the waves closest to shore make their final, small break, and the furthest up the beach the runoff reaches. Being there will allow for the surf to streak from the bottom of the frame toward the horizon adding depth, so you have to be standing in the surf. If a weaker wave stops short of your position, trip the shutter just as it begins to return back away from you. That will create a clean line of foam for a leading line (center frame above) into the frame. Another way to capture a leading line is to trip the shutter just as the returning surf meets the next incoming surge and their forces are balanced, creating a momentary stationary line of foam. This will also contain some long streaking within the returning surf (above left).

The main objective for any image that contains the sky, is to create a pleasing and balanced design of all the elements within the frame, both above and below the horizon. With wave action continually changing, and clouds moving rapidly, it can prove difficult, if not impossible, to have both the surf and the sky formed into complimentary shapes. But with the ability to mix and match the elements above and below the horizon as discussed in a recent post, we have the technical ability to combine the best of each from a sequence of similar frames. However, if you take enough frames at the time, chances are better that you might be successful in a single frame.

For the examples above, the sky remains constant with differing surf. Since that tiny blip of pink on the horizon only lasted about 30-seconds, with about another 45-seconds on either side of a paler pink, there were continued attempts to get some better examples of surf to be combined with the frame having the most intense pink. As it turned out, I did like the original single frame, but did combine some other frames of differing surf I also liked.

It’s a simple process to switch out the sky (if the camera remains on an unmoved tripod), by sending the two frames into Photoshop as two separate layers, and with a layer mask, using a fairly hard edged brush at nearly 100% opacity, click on one side of the horizon, then move the brush to the horizon on the opposite side of the frame, and while holding down the Shift Key, click again. The two spots will then be automatically connected in a perfectly straight line along the horizon. No need for a steady hand dragging the brush across the frame with inevitable mistakes. Then simply brush in the remainder of the sky. Or the same thing can be done changing the surf of the sky you prefer. It’s the same process either way.

But the ultimate purpose in all this is to squeeze out every possibility from the shoot, to come away with the absolute best possible image from the time you spent there during this fleeting moment. If our purpose is to only trip the shutter, and as a famous photographer mentioned in a recent presentation I watched, never spend more than 5-10 seconds post processing an image, and to get it all in camera, we may be missing out on the possibilities that the moment possesses. Yes, it’s important do get as much information as you can in a single frame, as I try to do by using split ND filters here and other times when needed, that other photographers may not use, or using multiple frames merged into a single final frame. But don’t let the taking of the frame be the basic end of the process. As photographers, we are not just an extension of the camera that trips the shutter… we should make purposeful decisions and act on those decisions, whether they are camera settings, when to trip the shutter, or what will be necessary in post-processing, to get the best image possible. Eventually, all these elements and thoughts will come together intuitively and the mental and mechanical will mesh seamlessly.


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