Friday, October 5, 2012

Chasing Light

It seems lately that I have mainly been shooting or assisting with portrait sessions. While I love my clients and photographing people, it is nice to take a break every now and then to create fine art landscapes. There is something about being alone in a dark, deserted location with only a camera, tripod, and your thoughts that is somewhat cathartic to the crazy hustle and bustle of everyday life. With the Stockley Gardens Fall Art Festival coming up in a few weeks, I took a weekend off and headed to the Outer Banks to find a few more images for the show.

I left late Friday afternoon with no real destination, no hotel reservations, or concrete plans. I just started driving while keeping an eye out for great light. It is not often that you get the opportunity to just let the light dictate where you will land. Client shoots are generally timeboxed and though you try to schedule when the best light is available, you usually find yourself having to attempt to mold whatever conditions are present to get a good image. It is anything but natural - reflectors, strobes, assistants, dreadfully boring skies, gale force winds, etc. leading to more mechanical photography. It is a fun challenge to overcome but it is work. The benefit is that when executed correctly, the images are incredibly satisfying; however, the effort involved is sometimes draining.

Being able to hit the unknown road and leaving it up to it mother nature to drive the scene is refreshing. You just let your mind explore whatever is presented to you. Sure there are technical details that you need to consider when you actually setup the photo but for the most part you are the passenger on a delightful journey. When I arrived in Nags Head, the sun was still fairly high over the horizon. I kept driving, passing the hotel where I usually stay when in the OBX. I found myself wondering past Oregon Inlet and over the Bonner Bridge. My initial intentions where actually to go north up to Duck; however, the light kept pulling me further south. Just north of Salvo I stopped at the refuge visitor's center drawn by a thin strip of clouds stretching across the sound. The light changed dramatically, bathing the marsh in a brilliant golden glow. It only lasted for a few minutes before fading to darkness but a few clicks of the shutter captured its brilliance forever. It would have been entirely missed had I forced a location.

Because I was already halfway to Buxton, I figured I would continue heading south. This is the nice thing about being free to travel randomly. Would there be a room available when I got there? I didn't know nor did I really care. If there wasn't I'd either head back north or sleep a few hours in my truck. Luckily the Island Inn had rooms and as a bonus, they were running a special discount for drop-ins. While walking back to my room after grabbing a quick bite at Diamond Shoals Restaurant (one of my favorites!!!), I noticed the glowing light of the 3/4 moon radiating through the clouds. I looked at the direction and immediately thought of the lighthouse. It is funny that the Cape Hatteras Light has always been one of my most desired subjects yet every time I have been in the area, the conditions never materialized for a really good photo of it; either the light was wrong or the sky lacked the drama needed for something different than every other shot taken of it. Back when it was located closer to shoreline, the ocean provided a great backdrop but in its current location, it is difficult to capture esthetically. Standing in that parking lot, it hit me that I had an opportunity for which I have been waiting for years.

I raced back to the hotel room, grabbed my camera bag and a flashlight. Passing several deer on the entrance road to the light, I pulled into a very dark, very deserted parking lot. The only light was that from the moon itself and the only sound was that of the waves crashing on the other side of dunes. The moon's trajectory was perfect. As it descended toward the horizon, it was moving on a path that would intersect the lighthouse at its midpoint. Most people do not realize how fast the moon, or any of the celestial bodies, move or, technically, how fast the Earth spins. There is not a lot of time to setup and get the capture right before the image is gone. This is especially challenging in the dark. I set the camera up for a portrait composition. The exposure and focus were set for the moon, the brightest part of the scene. A second longer exposure was taken as well. Later in Photoshop I merged the two to bring out some detail in the lighthouse without blowing out the moon. That all belongs to the technical side. The real message is that I ended up here by simply following the light that was available, a glow from the heavens as seen from a nondescript parking lot. The result was an image of the famed Hatteras Light that I have never seen anywhere else.

Another oddity about adventures like this is that the normal concept of sleep and time seem to naturally shift. Although I tend not to sleep a lot, I am horrible when I am at home at getting up early enough to make the drive down to the oceanfront for a good sunrise shoot. On the road, though, is a different story. I returned to my hotel room around midnight and was easily back up at 4:00 a.m.  With the moon long having set, the beach was beyond dark. Having scouted the location before, I knew the basic area where I wanted to shoot. Care has to taken when setting up because it is hard to judge how far water will push in on a large breaking wave. I set up my outfit on the edge of the highest watermark I could determine but always kept one hand ready to grab the tripod in the event that I heard a loud rush of water pouring toward me.

What seems like total darkness is never total darkness. There is always light even when undetectable to the eye. This is my favorite time to shoot. There are a lot of technical fundamentals combined with an equal amount of guesswork. Because exposures can range from 10 - 30 minutes or even longer, you only get so many tries before you have to plan a return trip. The good thing is that using modern technology like the Photographer's Ephemeris application, you know where the sun will be rising. This is also the spot where there will be the most light leakage on the horizon. By making a long exposure, your camera sensor collects the available light and some amazing colors that you will never see by eye. What is black to you renders in burst of yellows, greens, and magentas when recorded. The water turns ethereal as waves repeatedly wash over the beach. It is an incredible experience to stand in darkness and look down at an LCD image that looks unworldly. Again, it is all about the light and its location, intensity, and quality. I could have tried something similar elsewhere on the island and came up with nothing worth viewing.

I hung around a little while to get the classic sunrise shot before packing up to drive north to shoot some photos of the Eastern Surfing Association Championships finals. The wonderful thing about trips like this is that you seldom really know what you got until you get home and see them on your monitor.  So take weekend and set off on your own unplanned adventure just following the light and see what you end up capturing. I think that you will find that you end up with something amazing. Happy adventures...