OBX 2021 — Part One

Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station — Pea Island NWR, NC

This years annual off-season visit to North Carolina’s Outer Banks was preceded by a little research in hopes of discovering some old piers that have not already been overused by photographers in the past. Using Google Map’s Satellite View, I came across what you see below, and thought it was something that warranted further exploration. So on our drive to OBX, my son and I ventured off our direct route to the rental, and easily found what seemed like the remaining footings of some sort of pier extending out into the ocean. It was exactly what I’d hoped for to use as a possible foreground in a very long (30-seconds or longer) exposure of the surf; possibly at sunrise or on a cloudy day. I checked the tide chart to see what it was at that time to gauge when it might be best to photograph the spot, since on that scouting visit, the footings were mostly covered by the ocean, revealed only as the surf receded just before the next wave came in. It turned out I would revisit the spot twice during the week with totally different photographic outcomes. If I could come away with a decent shot of these footings, one of the goals of the trip would be satisfied. The other goal, which is always the same, is to witness at least one magnificent sunrise. But that was totally out of my hands and subject to the weather Gods.

Satellite View – Possible Old Pier

On a day around mid-afternoon later in the week, with a fair amount of clouds, I headed south to the spot and made several attempts using a 2-stop split ND filter to balance the brighter sky with the ocean water, along with a 10-stop ND filter to achieve a 30-second exposure. Even though it was closer to low tide, the ocean still covered the footings as the waves rolled in, so a blend of two frames would be needed to reveal most of the line into a single frame. Everything seemed to work out well; the surf and clouds were both blurred, but I came away unsatisfied with the results, feeling there was just too much of a good thing (blurred surf), and the sky did not have a very smooth look to it as I had hoped. It was somewhat splotchy, so I probably should have tried a much longer exposure for the sky, but just never did. I think another problem with the sky was the clouds were moving across the frame horizontally, where if they were moving either away from or toward the camera, they would have looked better. Overall, it seemed to lack a sense of depth even with the line of footings stretching out from the shore, that clouds moving in a different direction would more likely provide. And there was none of the energy exhibited by the relentless waves; they were just too smooth. Failure! But a few weeks later I took another whack at it in the digital darkroom to try to get a final image more to my liking.

Footings — First Attempt a Failure © jj raia

I didn’t want to give up on the photo even though it was the least favorite of the trio I ended up with from that site, so I gave it another shot in Photoshop to try to salvage it by taking out all the things that disturbed me. Since the main problem I had with it was the sky, it was hoped that the clone tool could be used to draw within the clouds and make them appear less mottled or disjointed. It seemed to look like some sort of cross-hatching of clouds, even though that’s the way they probably appeared, but photographically, to my taste, they were problematic. Twenty minutes of sketching with the clone tool later, I felt much better about the sky, and then tackled the next problem area: the water’s edge along the bottom. It just seemed fake, which is not a good thing for landscape photos. So the clone tool came to the rescue again to smooth out the edges a bit and bring the blurred surf down into the right corner. Once satisfied, a Motion Blur (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur) was added to the sky with a little dodging of the effect around the central clouds along the horizon. Back to Lightroom for a few more minor tweaks, and it was done… for now, anyway. Still not crazy about it, but the before and after below illustrate how subtle changes can make such a difference.

<< After — Before >>

Since the following morning would be the final sunrise of the week for shooting, I headed to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a favorite spot of mine over the years. It was mostly cloudy, but as long as it wasn’t raining or super windy, I figured I had to give the sunrise a shot even though it was an hour drive from where we were staying. It was definitely gloomy as I trudged through the sand to get to the ocean, and what started out as poor sunrise prospects, briefly turned out pretty good with some of the cloud cover grabbing a bit of color as the sun rose. A few shots of the surf and sheen, and even a couple looking back toward the dunes as the sun broke the horizon, will be the subject of an upcoming post. I didn’t linger long since I wanted to quickly get to where the footings were and give that shot another try using some shorter shutter speeds, but did stop for a moment to take a quick shot of the iconic Oregon Inlet Life Saving Station against the backdrop of those gloomy clouds (top).

Footings — Second Attempt © jj raia

When I got to the footings a few minutes later, the ocean was supposed to have been about an hour past low tide, exposing more of them, but there didn’t seem to be much difference from either of the two previous visits. Using the 50mm lens with a polarizer this time, it was completely covered with the dark half of the 2-stop split ND filter and the sky was darkened with the soft edge split ND. That combination allowed for an 8-second exposure, and with the rough ocean, it seemed to do the trick for the surf, blurred enough but still preserving some of its strength. The clouds on this occasion were more stormy in appearance as well, and not blurred much with the shorter 8-second exposure, so I was happier with them. However, two frames were still required to record the full run of the footings since the waves partially covered them as they came ashore, so a post-processing blend to correct that would be required.

The Second Attempt (above) better illustrated the rough ocean and stormy clouds as they were, and I had the option to combine any of the several frames taken to utilize those showing the best flow of water around the footings. The second attempt utilized three frames: two for the cleanest footings to uncover them all, and a third frame was used just for the single, sweeping flow of surf between the first and second footing. But this process of combining several frames to create the best possible combination for the final image I was after, is not new; it’s been used by many photographers seen on You Tube, and sure that others use this method as well. I was happy with that second attempt, but I still sought to produce something with a softer texture, yet not overly soft as in the First Attempt. That envisioned “Goldilocks” image had remained in the back of my mind throughout the entire week, and seemed it may not be realized.

Footings — Third Attempt © jj raia

It wasn’t until I viewed all the frames from the footings shoot that the third and final attempt was created. It began earlier in the week, after photographing a sunrise at Corolla Beach, looking northeast I noticed some clouds with the soft texture I was after for the long exposure image, yet were not blurred. There was even some brooding darker clouds dropping down from above that could be used for framing. So I ended up making a four panel panorama of the sky to recreate that stretch of clouds including the horizon, to make for easier blending in the future. The thought at that time was the pano sky might be substituted to create the softer image in Photoshop using a layer mask in case any of the skies during the days photographing the footings proved unsatisfactory. Once the frames for the surf were assembled, one of which was chosen because it showed the incoming surf edge with the sand at the bottom to provide the framing and balance opposite that of the top, its size was increased to match the width of the much longer panorama so they could be blended together into an appropriately sized rectangle. When all the pieces were together, the texture and color throughout the frame harmonized well, but I wanted a tiny punctuation added… something that would continue the line of footings into the sky. I found it in the form of a brown pelican in one of my shots from our visit the previous year, and chose it because it was not just a silhouette, but had some definition within the feathers on it’s body and wings. A lesson in the importance of keeping some of your less than stellar photos.

So that brings me back to the continuing struggle with “creating vs. taking” a photograph. The film photographer in me says only what the film/sensor records in a single frame should be used, which is why on many occasions in the past (and still do today), I spent time cleaning up cigarette butts and odd bits of trash from a scene before tripping the shutter. For one shot long ago, I went so far as to take off my boots and socks, roll up my pant legs, and waded into a lake to retrieve a car tire! Now, we have so many tools to repair or create a photograph, and in the extreme, without any concern with what is actually before us at the time. But in the landscape, if we are to combine photos, the minimum standard should be that the lighting in all the component parts match. The final product should not shout out its been put together like a Frankenstein monster if it is to be believable, unless that’s not something important to you. Just because something is possible, still means it should be filtered with our own sense of what is permissible, whatever that may be. But we all have personal responsibilities and standards of what is allowable when it comes to combining frames, and are guided by them, even if the standards of others do not align with our own.

But the one takeaway from this year’s visit, was the willingness on my part to search for frame combinations and/or “painting in” problem areas to help in correcting a flaw in an otherwise good frame, and saving it from the trash can. It’s important to have this concept as a tool while out photographing, and here’s a good example. You’re out on a breezy day photographing a stream or waterfall in the forest. You want to use a longer shutter speed to blur the ripples in the water, but that same shutter speed will cause the leaves of the surrounding foliage of bushes and trees to blur as well, since it’s breezy. By taking a second frame of the same exposure value and aperture (on a tripod of course), with a cranked up ISO and shutter speed to freeze the leaves, blending it into the frame with the longer shutter speed for the movement in the water, gets you the final image of silky water and crisp foliage. Problem solved.

I hope to go into some of these “repairs” in a bit more detail as I post more of the photos from this latest trip to the Outer Banks. As mentioned in a recent blog, photographers of the landscape cannot completely control all the elements of a scene, and at times, we need to lend a helping hand during post processing in our pursuit of a preconceived or “ideal” image.

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