The Perfect Beach Day

Solitary God Beam — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Is it possible to have an obsession seeking a specific combination of atmospheric conditions during a narrow timeframe in the year, at a specific location, to make the ideal photograph there? Depending on who you ask, I may or may not be obsessed, but I certainly do have a specific image in mind at a specific spot at Jordan Lake that has eluded me for several years, and will probably continue to do so.

I’ve been going to Jordan Lake ever since 2012 when the switch was made from film to digital because it is nearby and offers something resembling “wilderness” in one of the fastest growing areas of suburban sprawl in the country. There always seems to be something new to discover, or different conditions to encounter at familiar locations, and have benefitted from so many of the visits there. I’ve come to know a few spots around this huge lake to go to for sunrise or sunset, and keep an eye out for weather conditions conducive for an interesting sky or the possibility of fog. The persistence over the years, from time to time, has resulted in being at the right place at just the right time, but those occasions have been few and far between. If you try often enough, I suppose the odds are more likely to swing in your favor at some point, rather than if you never drag yourself out of bed in the morning. But there has been one location where all the elements just never came together, at least when I was actually there. “When a tree falls in the forest…”

Any long list of specific circumstances cobbled together to meet the demands of a photo scoring a “perfect 10”, probably stems from one list my friends and I came up with concerning a day spent on the beach, which we did an awful lot throughout the 1970’s. In order for any particular “beach day” to score a “ten”, several variables all needed to come together in order to receive the ultimate score. A cloudless day, cooler temperatures with (most importantly) very low humidity, perfectly strong waves for body surfing, low tide in the late afternoon to throw frisbees along the sandbars and dive to catch them into the stranded deep pools left by the outgoing tide, with super warm water temperatures that made getting wet pure joy rather than slow torture, which meant it probably had to occur in late August or early September, when the ocean was at its warmest, plenty of ice cold beer in the cooler, and lots of baby oil to keep the tan from fading. Obviously, it was a rarity for a day to get the perfect score, and maybe there just never were any more after that very first one. As judges, we were pretty tough and a single cloud would drop it to a 9.9.

As photographers, we strive for that “perfect ten” every time we trip the shutter; to capture Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment“, when everything comes together precisely as the photo is taken. For landscape photography, most of the elements that need to coalesce involve the weather. Sometimes those elements last only a few seconds as they did last fall at the Outer Banks (below) when a small patch along the horizon momentarily bloomed pink against a mostly stormy cloud-filled sky. To read about that morning, click here.

Storm Surf No.3 — Corolla Beach, NC © jj raia

But on a recent Sunday morning, almost all the elements came together for nearly 10-minutes!! Although this sunrise had all the markings of a possible disappointment, with a lot of clouds along the horizon where the sun would rise, it did manage to beautifully light up the clouds in a magical way. But to add an exclamation point to the morning, a single God Beam shot straight up to punctuate what was already one of the more colorful sunrises I’ve experienced in recent memory. And for all of that to last for almost ten minutes was also a blessing giving me time to change lenses twice and record a few bracketing sequences and some panoramas. Normally a two-stop split ND filter would be used, but there was no time to do that initially because the thin area of ground that the line of trees grew from running across the frame, could be used to easily blend frames of differing exposures; and I wanted to change lenses and not risk missing the shot altogether fumbling around with all that would be required to put the ND on one lens, take it off and put it back on the next lens using step up rings, etc.

Solitary God Beam — Initial Shot © jj raia

One of the more important lessons I’ve learned over the years is when something unique is happening, just get a shot first and worry about the “perfect” later if there is time, because whatever is happening may disappear in an instant. That’s why a quick series of bracketed exposures was taken when the beam first appeared (above) with the 17-35mm lens, knowing the beam would be very small in the frame, but that was the lens on the camera at the time when most of the clouds remained a steel blue/gray. So even at 35mm, about half the frame was cropped out from the top in the image above. There was no guarantee the color would expand any further, so to get in closer to the color and eliminate the uninteresting clouds above, I immediately switched to the 70-300mm lens, first just to “get the shot” again, bracketing the exposure, and then necessitating an additional frame for some additional sky as more and more clouds lit up. Once that was done, I had the luxury of more time to spend a few seconds changing to the 50mm lens, and rattle off the five panels for the panorama (below), shooting vertically to allow much more of the sky to be recorded since by then, most of the clouds had grabbed some color. And then it all faded, and it was over. There were some momentary flashes of great side-lighting as the sun peeked in and out of the clouds, but there didn’t seem to be anything to shoot , though I frantically searched for something… anything. It was over.

For the image at the top, three frames of differing exposures were blended together using layers in Photoshop, and then a slice at the top was added from a fourth frame since I was already at the minimum 70mm end of the zoom. That was done because the long pink cloud just above the beam was too close to the top of the frame needing some breathing room. So another frame was made to include that area and the canvas was enlarged in Photoshop to accommodate the additional sky. It probably would have been easier to have the additional frame be of the water at the bottom as it would be easier to piece together. But the star of the show was the sky. I guess it was technically a panorama.

Getting back to the perfect ten, these photographs had all of the elements I’d hoped for concerning the weather, since it produced such a colorful sky and calm water for reflections. But two important things were missing from achieving the perfect score: higher water so the land on which the line of trees grow would be submerged, and the trees being leafless, revealing their bare skeletons. However, what most likely makes the combination of every element unattainable is the fact that when the trees are leafless, the sun rises much further south (to the right of the frame), making any central focal point of an impending sunrise almost out of the frame, or at least behind the higher line of trees. And the high water occurs only after a recent heavy rainfall; so that is simply a matter of luck.

Solitary God Beam — Jordan Lake, NC Pano © jj raia

Above is the panorama using a 50mm lens held vertically, taken five minutes later than the image at the top. Five panels were taken as the near water smoothed even more, revealing the reflected clouds in the sky. But it wasn’t long afterward (two minutes) that the beam began to fade along with the color in the clouds. The reflection of the beam in the image at the top is more centered within the gap between the two trees, not because the tripod was moved, but just the slight movement of the beam as the sun was rising. (I should have noticed and moved the tripod slightly).

Combining the five panels, produced an almost perfect 5:4 ratio, with any additional frames on either side deemed unnecessary having almost nothing but solid black where the trees were, especially on the left side. Any more of the scene at the bottom would have included bushes that were very close and would have created a post-processing nightmare having to focus stack that area, and blend two separate panoramas. Too much work for too little gain! As it was, a few stray branches intruding into the frame at the bottom had to be cloned out.

(On second thought, and the second mistake, after shooting the frames for the panorama, I could have turned the camera horizontally, focused on the closer bushes, and used that frame spliced onto the bottom of the vertical frames. It would have added another layer to the scene to increase the notion of depth, and provide a dark base for all the color to rest on. Maybe next time when there is a truly perfect ten!).

The realization has finally set in that the perfect ten at this location is pretty much unattainable because of the calendar and the lay of the land. But getting this close was an unexpected surprise and another photo blessing bestowed upon me this year. I can count at least three in total since the New Year; each one unexpected and each completely different in what occurred. You can read about one of the other two here.

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