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2014 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

The 2014 Bald Head Island Photography workshop was a great success. We had a wonderful group of nine photographers who sustained their enthusiasm through a grueling schedule and the inevitable sleep deprivation that comes from working with natural light over several days.

I was very impressed by the progress everyone made over the course of the weekend. Most participants  began the workshop only able to use their camera in automatic mode, and during the workshop they were able, for the first time, to create some great images using manual exposure control. I also really appreciated the way the more advanced members of the group were so willing to share their knowledge and help those just getting started.

The workshop began with a social and orientation on Friday evening just after sunset. I advised the participants that if they arrived on the island early it would be a great opportunity to photograph the nearby lighthouse in the late evening light while I was setting up our classroom.

Maggie Zwilling made one of the best images of the workshop before we had even officially started. Kim Hawks photographed Maggie as she was working with the rapidly shifting late day light on the door of the lighthouse. Kim's image on the left shows Maggie while she was hard at work exploring the subject, but also shows how the door appears in a literal sense. Maggie's lovely image on the right shows a recognition of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. In other words, Maggie found a composition not bound by the logic of a door.

Maggie Zwilling made one of the best images of the workshop before we had even officially started. Kim Hawks photographed Maggie as she was working with the rapidly shifting late day light on the door of the lighthouse. Kim’s image on the left shows Maggie while she was hard at work exploring the subject, but also shows how the door appears in a literal sense. Maggie’s lovely image on the right shows a recognition of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. In other words, Maggie found a composition not bound by the logic of a door.

The next morning we all met in the dark before the first light of dawn to prepare for our morning field session in the salt marsh. I knew this was going to be a tough session since almost everyone was about to start shooting for the first time in manual mode. Learning to do this the first time is challenging enough without having to learn how to do it in the dark. But manual exposure skills are necessary for making good images in the rapidly changing, complex light of dawn. We gathered under a porch light so we could see our cameras, and I divided the group into Canon and Nikon users. Then, each group went about making all the necessary settings to their cameras for shooting low pre-dawn light. Fortunately, there were people in both the Canon and Nikon groups that knew how to make these adjustments and could help me get everyone ready to go. Once we were all set, I turned them loose into the marsh.

Making a great image can be difficult if your mind is focused on the technical aspects of photography, like setting a manual exposure for the first time. Despite this challenge most people made some very nice images. I particularly liked this composition by Linda Phillips created in the soft pastel light before sunrise, and one of her first manual exposures.

Making a great image can be difficult if your mind is focused on the technical aspects of photography, like setting a manual exposure for the first time. Despite this challenge most people made some very nice images. I particularly liked this composition by Linda Phillips created in the soft pastel light before sunrise, and one of her first manual exposures.

 

Robin Prak created this image from near the same place Linda created the previous image. The difference is Robin used a long telephoto lens after the sun had passed above the horizon. This morning was also Robin's first experience with manual exposures.

Robin Prak created this image from near the same place Linda created the previous image. The difference is Robin used a long telephoto lens after the sun had passed above the horizon. This morning was also Robin’s first experience with manual exposures.

You can probably tell by now that Maggie has a very recognizable style, black and white, high contrast, and simply elegant compositions. Like her lighthouse door image, this one shows an appreciation of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. Yes, this is a salt marsh, but the image is not bound by the logic of a salt marsh. Her style is so recognizable I probably don't even need to point out that she also shot the next image.

You can probably tell by now that Maggie has a very recognizable style, black and white, high contrast, and simply elegant compositions. Like her lighthouse door image, this one shows an appreciation of shape, texture, and light, independent of the meaning of the object. Yes, this is a salt marsh, but the image is not bound by the logic of a salt marsh. Her style is so recognizable I probably don’t even need to point out that she also shot the next image.

Guess who shot this view of the marsh.

Guess who shot this view of the marsh.

There were a few wildlife photographers in the group. Wildlife photography is a difficult subject to learn if you are also just learning the technical side of operating your camera. You have to not only learn how to operate the camera, but you have to learn to operate it fast enough to keep up with your subjects.

Kim made an image of me advising Robin about photographing small birds. Robin is a very fast learner and made several great wildlife images during the workshop.

Kim made an image of me advising Robin about photographing small birds. Robin is a very fast learner and made several great wildlife images during the workshop.

I led a nature walk for the Bald Head Island Conservancy the morning before the workshop that dealt with how to be more present and aware in nature so you can be observant enough to find interesting subjects. Since Robin attended that walk and was interested in wildlife photography, I also included how being fully present can help you create wildlife images. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny, fast birds that don't give you much opportunity to even point a camera at them, much less set exposure and focus. Over about half an hour I showed Robin how observing wildlife can result in noticing a repeating behavior pattern. This allowed Robin to create this excellent image by waiting for the kinglet to come to her, rather than a futile attempt to chase after the bird.

I led a nature walk for the Bald Head Island Conservancy the morning before the workshop that dealt with how to be more present and aware in nature so you can be observant enough to find interesting subjects. Since Robin attended that walk and was interested in wildlife photography, I also included how being fully present can help you create wildlife images. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are tiny, fast birds that don’t give you much opportunity to even point a camera at them, much less set exposure and focus. Over about half an hour I showed Robin how observing wildlife can result in noticing a repeating behavior pattern. This allowed Robin to create this excellent image by waiting for the kinglet to come to her, rather than a futile attempt to chase after the bird.

After the mid-day indoor image review session, we all met on the beach for a one mile hike north into the Bald Head Island Natural Area. The hike is well worth the effort to reach a place far from houses and roads, where you can find a great example of a wild maritime grassland habitat. I advised everyone not to be distracted by the sun as it approached the horizon, there are already plenty of photographs of that. Instead, I asked them to pay attention to what that low angle sunlight was doing to the foreground and make that the focus of their compositions. This was not an easy assignment; the maritime grassland has a subtle beauty.

Just as the sun was at the horizon it cast a soft warm glow on everything. Kim captured that glow here by including both the warm sunlit sand and the cool sand in the shadows. These contrasting warm and cool tones are fleeting and easily overlooked. In a simple way, this composition is saying this light is beautiful, important, and worthy of attention.

Just as the sun was at the horizon it cast a soft warm glow on everything. Kim captured that glow here by including both the warm sunlit sand and the cool sand in the shadows. These contrasting warm and cool tones are fleeting and easily overlooked. In a simple way, this composition is saying this light is beautiful, important, and worthy of attention.

Many beginning nature photographers stop too soon and pack up once the sun has gone down. We kept working as the sun disappeared and the light became soft and pastel. Linda created this image after the sun dropped below the horizon, casting the Earth's blue shadow into the pink sky.

Many beginning nature photographers stop too soon and pack up once the sun has gone down. We kept working as the sun disappeared and the light became soft and pastel. Linda created this image after the sun dropped below the horizon, casting the Earth’s blue shadow into the pink sky.

Kim used the soft pastel light after sunset to great effect with this patch of muhly grass. The soft light made the feathery tops of the muhly grass that much softer, and the pastel magenta colors of the sky brought out the magenta tones in the grass.

Kim used the soft pastel light after sunset to great effect with this patch of muhly grass. The soft light made the feathery tops of the muhly grass that much softer, and the pastel magenta colors of the sky brought out the magenta tones in the grass.

We squeezed every last bit of light we could out of that day. Robin demonstrated mastery of manual exposure skills when she was able to capture this image as we were wrapping up in the twilight. By increasing her ISO she was able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the people with what little light was left.

We squeezed every last bit of light we could out of that day. Robin demonstrated mastery of manual exposure skills when she was able to capture this image as we were wrapping up in the twilight. By increasing her ISO she was able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the people with what little light was left.

The last light of the sun had completely faded by the time we finished the mile hike back down the beach. I decided to offer a bonus astrophotography session since it was a new moon and the Milky Way was high in the sky just after sunset. The night skies can be very impressive on Bald Head Island since it is far enough away from the light pollution of the cities on the mainland. Everyone was able to make images of the Milky Way, which is a subject that requires manual exposure skills. Kim shared this image where she not only capture the light of our own galaxy, but also the light of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor. You can see the bright glow of Andromeda's central core and the faint spiral arms by looking along the top edge of the photograph, right of center.

The last light of the sun had completely faded by the time we finished the mile hike back down the beach. I decided to offer a bonus astrophotography session since it was a new moon and the Milky Way was high in the sky. The night skies can be very impressive on Bald Head Island since it is far enough away from the light pollution of the cities on the mainland. Everyone was able to make images of the Milky Way, which is a subject that requires manual exposure skills. Kim shared this image where she not only captured the light of our own galaxy, but also the light of the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor. You can see the bright glow of Andromeda’s central core and the faint spiral arms by looking along the top edge of the photograph, right of center.

After a late night photographing the Milky Way, there was not enough sleep before we had to get up for the sunrise shoot on the beach at Cape Fear for our last field session. This time I wanted to put their manual exposure skills to the test. In the darkness just before dawn we reviewed setting a camera up for manual low light photography, then I gave everyone the assignment of photographing the crashing surf as the sky brightened from twilight to sunrise. I asked everyone to try many different shutter speeds until they found one that renders the waves in a pleasing way. There is no right answer, everyone has their own preference, but this assignment demonstrates one of the creative advantages of manual exposure. You can choose the shutter speed you like best and get that result every time. With a camera on automatic you have no say in the matter.

Robin made this image with a slow shutter speed during the soft pastel light before dawn. Slow shutter speeds render moving waves with a painterly effect.

Robin made this image with a slow shutter speed during the soft pastel light before dawn. Slow shutter speeds render moving waves with a painterly effect.

Audrey Dyer made this image of sunlight shining through a crashing wave with a fast shutter speed. A fast enough shutter speed will freeze motion to reveal the beauty of the order within the chaos.

Audrey Dyer made this image of sunlight shining through a crashing wave with a fast shutter speed. A fast enough shutter speed will freeze motion to reveal the beauty of the order within the chaos.

This workshop was made even better by the generous support of the Bald Head Island Association who provided a room and AV equipment for our indoor image review sessions. I am very grateful to them and the participants who agreed to share a few of their photos for this blog post. I have little time for my own photography while teaching so it is great to have a record of what we did, and to be able to share it with those who were not able to join us. Thanks again to everyone that participated and helped make this weekend a success.

2013 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

 

Some great images were created during the photography workshop on Bald Head Island last month. Bald Head Island is a wonderful location for nature photography, and each participant brought their own perspective to the subjects we covered.

DAY 1:

I like to begin photography workshops with difficult subjects where the image ideas are not immediately obvious. The lessons learned in the struggle to make an image in these situations help later when trying to find a unique approach to more obvious subjects. Also, observing the struggles of participants and talking with them about it helps me get a sense of how I can best help them with their photography.

I started the workshop by challenging the participants to photograph palmetto leaves. The sabal palmetto tree is rare in North Carolina and reaches the northern limit of its range just north of Bald Head Island. To me, the striking visual design of a palmetto leaf is an iconic symbol of Bald Head Island. We all struggled with this subject for over an hour. After a while I made an image to demonstrate how I approach a subject like this. 

Focusing a composition on one simple idea, such as the radiating lines of a palmetto leaf, make it easy for the viewer to understand and appreciate the image. Direct sunlight shining through a leaf gives it a spectacular glow and highlights the internal structure. Finding a leaf where you can see its simple visual design without distracting elements in interesting light is the first step. Once you find an interesting leaf in good light, making a good image is much easier. - David Blevins

Focusing a composition on one simple idea, such as the radiating lines of a palmetto leaf, make it easy for the viewer to understand and appreciate the image. Direct sunlight shining through a leaf gives it a spectacular glow and highlights the internal structure. Finding a leaf where you can see its simple visual design without distracting elements in interesting light is the first step. Once you find an interesting leaf in good light, making a good image is much easier.
- David Blevins

I mentioned that I was going to look for animals on the palmetto leaves because I thought it would be great to use the light shining through a leaf to create a silhouette of the animal, giving an additional element of interest to the composition. I did not find one, but Kim did!

David made this suggestion in one of our discussions of an image he was hoping to find. A few minutes later, there it was, an insect silhouetted against a leaf. Lesson learned: sometimes the obvious photo opportunity is not obvious even though it is right there in front of us.
- Kim Hawks

I noticed one of the participants was not making images so I asked her what she was thinking about. She said she was not very excited about leaves and was having trouble with this subject. I asked her what she was excited about photographing and she said, “the ocean.” I thought about it for a moment and suggested she could try to see an ocean wave in the shapes and patterns of a palmetto leaf. I made this image to demonstrate the idea.

Sabal Palmetto

An ocean wave in a palmetto leaf. Learning to see objects without their labels is an important skill to develop to free you from the prison of a left-brained and verbal way of seeing.
- David Blevins

After struggling with palmetto leaves, we headed to Cape Fear Point to work in the rapidly improving afternoon light. We spent a lot of time talking about how to take manual control of exposure to achieve effects like motion blur from a long shutter speed. As the sun set and the light faded, we were able to make some interesting images using long exposures of the moving surf.

I’d taken the obvious shots I had in my head and decided to shoot the waves in slow motion. Lesson learned: Slow motion waves really show motion/movement well! Lesson learned again: When you’ve made all the photographs you can imagine, there are still images to be imagined, seen and created.   - Kim Hawks

I’d taken the obvious shots I had in my head and decided to shoot the waves in slow motion. Lesson learned: Slow motion waves really show motion/movement well! Lesson learned again: When you’ve made all the photographs you can imagine, there are still images to be imagined, seen and created.   – Kim Hawks

While most of us were focused on the ocean, Maggie worked on the view in the opposite direction, where the sun was setting and the sky was most colorful. 

Sea oats at sunset.   - Maggie Zwilling

Sea oats at sunset.   – Maggie Zwilling

We worked well into dusk experimenting with long exposures. After dark, as we were hiking back up the beach, I noticed the light from the full moon reflected in the surf as it curved toward the horizon. Kim was walking beside me, and I knew she was interested in trying some photography at night, so I pointed out the opportunity to her, and she did a great job.

We were on our way back to the house; it was getting late. We were all marveling at the magic of the full moon. David told me to turn around and look. Lesson learned: when you think you’re done, there’s always another angle to consider.    – Kim Hawks

DAY 2:

Nights are short this time of year so no one had time for a full night’s sleep before we met at 5:30am for the sunrise shoot. I told everyone the night before that I was hoping for something special this morning. My friends at the Bald Head Island Conservancy agreed to let me know if the nightly sea turtle patrol found any sea turtle tracks on the beach. Right at 5:30am I received a text with great news; there were tracks on East Beach, not far from an access point. We sped off and made it to the location while the predawn light was still soft. 

Workshop participants photographing sea turtle tracks at dawn.   - David Blevins

Workshop participants photographing sea turtle tracks at dawn.   – David Blevins

The light was spectacular. We had everything from soft pastel light while the sun was still below the horizon, to soft and warm light while the sun was behind clouds, to hard warm light when the sun peaked out from the clouds. 

Kim photographing sea turtle tracks in the soft pastel light before dawn.   - David Blevins

Kim photographing sea turtle tracks in the soft pastel light before dawn.   – David Blevins

Kim made this image of the sea turtle tracks in the soft and warm light while the sun was behind a cloud. She used a long shutter speed to render the surf in a soft painterly way.

Sea turtle tracks.   - Kim Hawks

Sea turtle tracks.   – Kim Hawks

Janet photographed the sea turtle tracks in cooler light with a long telephoto lens to compress distance. 

Sea Turtle Tracks.   - Janet Hilton

Sea Turtle Tracks.   – Janet Hilton

Sydney made this image of the tracks using the warm hard light after the sun came out from behind the clouds to give the tracks more contrast. 

Sea Turtle Tracks - Sydney Cass

Sea Turtle Tracks.   – Sydney Cass

As the sun rose higher, the quality of the light began to change. Sydney made this lovely seascape that shows a rain shower on the horizon as the sun began to peak out of the clouds.

Morning rain.   - Sydney Cass

Morning rain.   – Sydney Cass

If you look carefully at the waves in Sydney’s shot above you can see what I was noticing at this moment; the sunlight was shining through the crashing waves, giving them a wonderful glow. I switched to a long telephoto lens and captured one of these glowing waves.

Sunlight shining through a crashing wave.   - David Blevins

Sunlight shining through a crashing wave.   – David Blevins

While I was using a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the waves, Kim was using the slow shutter speed techniques we covered the previous evening to create some interesting effects with the crashing waves. 

The sun was high & bright and not the best for landscape shots.  A few of us sat down with  David and began zooming in on the waves right in front of us.  Lesson learned: When the light is lousy, there is still something to photograph.   - Kim Hawks

The sun was high and bright and not the best for landscape shots. A few of us sat down with David and began zooming in on the waves right in front of us. Lesson learned: When the light is lousy, there is still something to photograph.   – Kim Hawks

One of my favorite images from the workshop was made by Janet while most of us were focused on turtle tracks. It just goes to show how important it is to not become so fixated on what you are working on that you miss the unexpected. 

Clouds.   - Janet Hilton

Clouds.   – Janet Hilton

When Janet showed us all her image I said, “it looks like when you die and go to heaven.” Sydney’s wry response was, “how do you know what that looks like?” I laughed and thought about it for a moment, “Hollywood” was all I could say.

2012 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

I thought I would share some of the images I made during the Bald Head Island photography workshop last week. When we arrived at Cape Fear Point just after 4pm the sun was too high to make dramatic landscape light but it was making interesting shadows with the sand fences.

Sand Fence

I’m not happy with this image but it is the best I was able to do under the circumstances. I would have preferred to find a perspective without any grass so I could make a more abstract image of just the fence and the shadows on the sand.

As the sun moved closer to the horizon it started to light the sand in interesting ways, especially near the point where the tide had sculpted repeating patterns in the shore. Eyes are naturally drawn to the sun as it sets but it is important to look around you at what the light is doing.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

I made this image to demonstrate how the setting sun was causing the sand to glow and to show the colorful effects of mixing the warm light of the sun with the cool light of the shadows lit only by the blue sky.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

The moment the sun dropped below the horizon I swung the camera around and started shooting in the opposite direction of the sunset. Here the sky is often lit by a range of pastel colors. Water and wet sand easily pick up this color.

Some participants did not have tripods and as the sun dropped below the horizon it became more difficult for them to hold their camera steady enough in the fading light. Rather than fight the slow shutter speeds I suggested they use it to their advantage and make intentionally blurred images.

Abstract Seashore

I made this image to demonstrate for the workshop participants the effect of panning the camera horizontally with a slow shutter speed to create an abstract painterly effect.

The next morning we returned to Cape Fear Point before dawn to photograph the sunrise. There were a lot more pelicans, terns, and gulls to photograph during the morning session.

Three of the participants at the Bald Head Island photography workshop photographing the sunrise from Cape Fear Point.

Sunrise over Cape Fear Point

I liked the curve of the shore and the sun reflected in the wet sand but not quite enough to make an image. When the pelicans flew through the scene it added some additional interest.

One of the participants photographing birds in flight.

Brown Pelicans

Brown pelicans and terns over Frying Pan Shoals.

But the coolest images I made were at night. I invited all the workshop participants to join me at Cape Fear Point for a bonus free session to photograph the peak of the Orionid meteor shower from 3 to 6 am. No one took me up on that offer so I had the beach to myself, except for a fox that hung out with me for a while. Somehow, in the light of the milky way, I noticed the silhouette of a fox trotting down the beach. I watched it trot to within about 30 feet of me where it sat down as if this was the exact spot it had been determined to reach. We sat there together for about 5 minutes, looking south toward the milky way, but the fox evidently had a busy night and could not stay long.

Orionid Meteor Shower

The Peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower from Cape Fear Point. This is a composite image of 34 minutes of exposure time resulting in 29 captured meteors. Some of the more faint meteors are not visible in this low resolution jpeg.

After making the meteor image I noticed the planet Venus rising within the almost vertical band of zodiacal light. It is difficult to describe the feeling of standing on the edge of the sea, bathed in starlight, with the universe wheeling overhead, but I think this last image captures something of that feeling.

Venus Rising in Zodiacal Light

Venus rising in zodiacal light. Click the image to see a larger version.

The beach is very different at night

I was reminded how different my experience is from most of the visitors to wild places while waiting for the passenger ferry to take me to Hammocks Beach State Park. Several families were also waiting for the ferry. I could tell from the coolers, lawn chairs, and swimming clothes that they were going over for the day to frolic on the beach. They could tell from my backpack, tripod, wide-brimmed hat, long sleeved shirt, long pants, and hiking boots that I was not. One man asked me if I was going camping. I said “yes.” Then he asked his young son if he would like to go camping sometime. The son said, without hesitation, “no!” The father asked, “why not?” The son said, “There are spooky things at night!”

I had forgotten about that feeling of being afraid to go into wild places at night. I love wild places, and the night can sometimes be most impressive. When the sun is high at the beach, I struggle. The sun takes a lot out of you, especially when you have fair skin. My favorite time at the beach is when the sun is near the horizon or at night.

When the sun is near the horizon, it highlights the patterns formed by the wind on the sand. I have always been fascinated by these patterns. The same shape line will repeat over and over again but with slight variations.

Sand Pattern #1

Sand Pattern

The beach is very different at night. It becomes a soft and gentle place. Soft starlight is bright enough to see by when it is clear, and if you are far enough from city lights, the stars can be spectacular.

Beach by Starlight

Beach by Starlight

Hurricane Hanna

I recently returned from a backpacking trip to Panthertown Valley in the Nantahala National Forest. I almost cancelled this trip because Hurricane Hanna was forecast to pass right over the area while I was there. I realized several years ago there is always a reason to cancel a trip. If I am going to make photographs, I just have to go anyway. So I went, and the hurricane ended up arriving later and passing more to the east than forecast. I actually had beautiful weather the whole time.

On the last day as I was driving home, I stopped on the Blue Ridge Parkway to watch the sunset. I was amazed to see that I was right on the edge of the hurricane. Huge curving clouds from the spiral arms of the hurricane filled the eastern sky and caught the light from the setting sun. Being on top of a mountain is an exhilarating experience but to be on the edge of all that power was sublime.

The edge of Hurricane Hanna

The edge of Hurricane Hanna

I have always admired time-lapse photography but never gave it a try. This seemed like a good time to start. When photographing a sunset, I always make photographs over a period of time as the light changes. There is no way to know if the photograph you just made is going to be the best one or if the light will improve in a few minutes. This time I decided to make a photograph at exactly 30 second intervals so I could combine them together into a time-lapse movie. The movie compresses 20 minutes into 6 seconds. I think it came out okay for my first try.

Hurricane Hanna Time-Lapse