Photo Excursion to North Topsail Beach, NC

Heron in the Soundside Park
Shutter: 1/60, Aperture: f/13.0, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

My photo mentor/friend Paul had won a few nights at a beach house in North Carolina last month. His intent was to go down, relax, drink some beer, and just take pictures of everything and anything. I was happy to tag along. We packed up my car with every piece of gear we owned, loaded up Waze on the phone and drove seven hours to North Topsail Beach. It was wonderfully secluded, and full of stuff to shoot. One of the days we were driving around looking for a sandwich, we happend upon Soundside Park nature reserve. We caught this postcard-esque scene of a great heron looking for lunch of his own. We shot the Milky Way, pelicans, fishermen, even a swimsuit model in the surf. Click below for tons more.

Moonrise Kingdom
Shutter: 30 seconds, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 15mm, ISO: 2500

As you know, I love shooting the stars. When I was in Las Vegas last, I rented a car and drove 30 minutes north of the city to shoot the Milky Way. Here in North Carolina, there was even less light pollution, so instead of just a strong band of stars, we also got the multi-colored clouds of the Milky Way that I’ve always been looking for. As you can see from my exif data, you want the aperture as wide as you can get, and your shutter at 30 seconds. You can go longer than thirty seconds, but then you’ll start to get star trails. There’s a great video tutorial I watched a year ago that goes into more depth on what to look for in shooting night skies like this. One of the things they point out in the video is that on some Canon lenses, focus to infinity and then crank it back just a hair. I also recommend a remote trigger. When you have a super long exposure, you can slightly shake the camera just by depressing the shutter, a remote can help as you don’t touch the camera body at all. If you don’t have a remote, you can put your shutter on 2 second timer, so press the button, let go, and two seconds later, it’ll take the picture. We got really lucky with these photos, in that the moon was rising after we already got some great pics of the Milky Way. The moon was mostly full, so as it got higher in the sky, it would be too bright to get the richness that we got in these photos.

Milky Way self portrait
Shutter: 30 seconds, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 15mm, ISO: 1600

After we got some great shots, we started playing around and got this self portrait. Basically, the settings are almost the same (notice I cranked down to 1600 ISO as we would be painting light much closer to the camera). I would stand in the spot I desired, Paul would pop the shutter, then use his cellphone to illuminate me (by “painting” around my body, instead of one full blast) for about 10 seconds, then I would dodge out of the way quickly as to not cause trails. We experimented a bit to get the right timing, and it was fun doing something different because, why not. I did rip up my foot running out of the way on the last attempt as I tripped on a rock. So make sure all things are out of your way before running in the dark. In the thumbnail gallery below, you can see I did another flaming steel wool fireball, standing in the water. It came out cool, but I didn’t really learn anything new.

Grackle taking off
Shutter: 1/1600, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

This is my favorite wildlife shot from the week. I got lucky in nailing the slim focus, especially in this grackle’s feet and yellow eyes. I had the aperture as low as I could, which isn’t always necessary or recommended when shooting in the middle of the day’s harsh sunlight. To compensate, I saw the bird, and cranked my shutter to 1/1600. I really wanted the subject to pop, and being zoomed-in all the way would help with that as well, but I like the extra oomph in the f/2.8. Look how only about 6″ of the railing is in focus. I love how the background is very blurry, but its still perfectly recognizable.

Cannonball Jellyfish
Shutter: 1/640, Aperture: f/4.0, Lens: 200mm, ISO: 100

Here is another wildlife shot I really like. In the gallery below, you can see I shot a few pics of this Cannonball Jellyfish (thanks to the /r/Species subreddit for identifying this in about 30 minutes of posting!) in the water, but then the next day we happened upon this beached specimen. Even though my aperture was f/4.0, I could still get that dreamy depth of field with the angle in which I held the camera pointing at the sand. In RAW, I cranked the Clarity a bit to give the sand that is in focus some more definition, and tweaked the Vibrance just a hair to bring out those blue veins in the bell of the jellyfish.

Cleaning the fish
Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 100

But at the end of the day, I prefer photographing people. I used a low depth of field to really pick out the old man cleaning his catch. In the gallery below, you can see a tighter shot where I focus on just the hands. While I enjoy that shot, I prefer the additional storytelling you get with the inclusion of the man’s face and posture. I love how he’s a bit worn. This is work, it’s exhausting, but he enjoys it. This is recreation, not a chore. This is a photo I could pop into black and white, to highlight the subject and the grit a bit more, but I really enjoyed the colors. I feel the colors work with the shadows to prove it was right in the middle of the day, the sun at it’s highest. I wanted to subconsciously make the viewer aware of that heat, and I needed color to do so in this photo.

Here is a gallery of the rest of my shots from the beach, but scroll down past the thumbnails, I haven’t told you about the swimsuit model we met.

Shutter: 1/320, Aperture: f/9.0, Lens: 50mm, ISO: 100

Paul put out the call for a model before we left. Frankly, who could turn down the opportunity of getting some new photos for their modeling portfolio from two (top notch) out-of-town photographers, loaded up with gear and nowhere to go? Erika ended up living just a short distance from our beachhouse and was happy to show us some great shooting locations and let us play with Paul’s studio gear. I happen to like this shot here, a lot. I know it’s not exactly what you’re supposed to do, a better shot would be exposed better for the background, but I really like how this looks like studio lighting in the outdoors. The only way to get lighting like this is to hold $1000 worth of gear knee-deep in the surf. And that’s what we were doing. Paul and I took turns holding the rig while the other shot. On a light stand we had Paul’s Einstein 640 with his brand new Paul Buff PLM dish attached (this thing is like 4 feet wide). We also had a battery in tow. We would take turns with the Cyber Commander to activate the flash. Erika was very patient as we tried out different looks, shooting against the sun, with the sun, in the water, out of the water, etc.

Shutter: 1/200, Aperture: f/7.1, Lens: 50mm, ISO: 100

This is one of my favorites, and I didn’t use the studio light. This was right in the middle of the golden hour, right before the sun sets. The temperature was dropping and we were trying to keep Erika in good spirits as it got colder. Erika was a natural to work with and took direction very well, but I feel this spontaneous laugh is my best shot. It’s amazing the stark contrast between the first shot and this one. Considering the top pose, looking at the camera, and specific lighting, versus the natural lighting and the impromptu pose/expression.

Erika in the surf
Shutter: 1/160, Aperture: f/6.3, Lens: 50mm, ISO: 100

Here is another shot that would require a lot of studio lighting. With the sun directly behind the subject, she should be largely a shadow. We had some reflectors with us, but we found that the Einstein did the job a lot cleaner, and without blinding Erika in the process. In the gallery below, you can see a shot we did on a small pier with the golden side of my 4ft wide reflector. The gold light is great, however we found for the most part that there is a fine line between fully illuminating your subject, and blinding her. With the wind turning the reflector into a sail, the Einstein was the clear choice for shots like this. I like how the background is slathered in golden sunlight, but you get details and clarity on Erika’s dress. I was specifically aiming to get the edge lighting going down her neck and shoulders, and I found I got the best shots when I asked her to start out further away from me and start walking into the water. I’d fire consistently while she walked and pick the shot that had the best stance. Bonus: you can see my “job well done” beer propped in the sand in the background. If this were a commercial shoot, I could remove it easily, but hey, job well done.

Sand Pool 2
Shutter: 1/640, Aperture: f/9.0, Lens: 28-135mm, ISO: 100

This is my attempt at humor. The area where we were staying had been heavily hit by a hurricane a few years ago, and in their rebuilding and conservation efforts, they filled up this old pool with sand. I thought it would be funny to get a raft, and have Erika lay on the raft, as if she were floating in the pool. Commercially, I think this shot could work on souvenir postcards where you put “Having Fun in Ocean City!” or whatever vacation spot in the corner. The blue raft and yellow bikini worked well against each other, and with the color of the sand and skin. There were several patches of grass and debris that I ‘shopped out. I used the content aware deletion and it worked great and effortlessly. Erika had always heard that you always put your extended leg closer to the camera, to appear taller/longer, however I prefered the shots where her leg closer to the camera was bent. The angle of her back connecting into her bent leg and then down to her foot had more motion to me, and having less swimsuit visible was more dynamic. I mean the opposite of what that sounds like, I thought it was a bit more modest with that knee up. I used my 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6. This is not a terrible lens, but I rarely use it. I don’t like how my aperture is dependent on the focal length, and while zoomed in, can only go to f/5.6 at its widest. However, we were shooting very close to the middle of the day, this pool was between two buildings, and I didn’t want any shadow in the frame. So I was shooting at f/9.0 anyway, and I wanted to quickly change between close and pulled back, without switching lenses. It was getting really hot, and I wanted to keep the comfort of the model in mind the whole time. I got a couple of shots from our balcony, but this angle put the remains of the pool markings and edge into the frame, and thus gives it a bit more weight against a pretty girl posing in a bikini.

I didn’t need to use this too much, Erika had great skin. But I found a quick and dirty video tutorial on smoothing out tanlines in Photoshop for some of my shots where they were a little more visible. I don’t think I used it all in this photo.

So in three nights the two of us got tons of pictures. I liked that since photography was our only objective, we could choose to stay up late and shoot the Milky Way, or drive around looking for birds during prime lay-on-the-beach time. It was great loading up the car with as much gear as we could squeeze in there and just see where the day took us.

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