For more than four weeks, one of nature’s best playgrounds waited just a five minute walk from the front door. Beaches with tall, grassy dunes stretched toward oblivion to the north and south, while countless wooden walkways weathered by sun, wind, and hurricanes crossed those dunes from impressive beach houses on stilts.
My three young children played in the surf, the oldest two with boogie boards in hand. The toddler running away from the waves as they lapped the sand. I raised my Canon 6D, flash on top, and did my best to capture their movement and mirth.
I felt alive and cured with a camera in hand. Couldn’t remember how long it had been since creative fervor drove my eyes, arms, hands, fingers to create images and to do so with a goal of making something special.
Just that morning, the same inspiration compelled me to write a chapter of a book I’ve been wanting to do for so long.
I mentioned in a previous post how the pandemic stole our creative drive. Months into our isolated lives, I lost the drive to write and photograph. An emptiness settled in, resignation ruled. I might tap a few paragraphs at my basement desk or shoot a few images of my children playing the yard, but they were mediocre efforts.
And then came Corolla.
Prompted by my wife, who could no longer wrestle with an affliction of restlessness, we packed our things, rented an Airbnb, and headed to this quiet community in the northern stretch of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
We still isolated, ordered our groceries for delivery, avoided restaurants. But the change of scenery, trading our grassy yard for mostly empty beaches, it was better than any other stress relief.
The world felt new again. I’d never been to the Outer Banks, a collection of barrier islands and peninsulas lining the Atlantic. Mostly residential, quiet and serene, it’s what a good glass of Sauvignon Blanc is to Myrtle Beach’s shots of fireball.
Yet, while immersing ourselves into a different environment may have kickstarted my creative efforts, it also exposed how out-of-practice I’d become. I struggled to capture long exposure shots of the waves. I thought my photos of our children were mostly not worthy of publishing.
The point, though, wasn’t to achieve greatness. It was to achieve. Sometimes the point of photography is photography, and for me, that was the Outer Banks.
My favorite shots
My oldest son, Ryan, during our first day at the beach. I balanced the full sun with a flash and orange gel. I also wanted to use a wide angle lens to capture a sense of environment.
My boys Ryan and Liam, using the same technique mentioned above.
I learned during our time in the Outer Banks the value of black-and-white photos on the beach. This is especially true on days when the sun hits your subject full blast. I came to love these shots, like this one, of our toddler, Finn, playing in the sand. Expression matters so much when photographing people.
Like the brush strokes of a painter, waves coming in to shore.
The view near our front door in Corolla, N.C.
My son Liam plays with the sand of Jockey’s Ridge, a North Carolina state park encompassing the tallest sand dune on the Atlantic Coast (as tall as 60 feet).
Expression matters so much in photographing people. And it helps tell your story.
Here, my oldest son holds my youngest as the toddler screams in a fit over how much he disliked the ocean water that touched his feet. He eventually got used to it. But it took all four weeks.
If you crave those eye-popping long exposure shots of the beach, I do too. And most of the long exposure shots I took were done for practice, although I managed to land the pair you see above. When photographing beach scenes for long exposure, you’ll want a stationary object like a fishing pier to be in the shot.
I had that opportunity. There are plenty of piers in the Outer Banks. But to be honest, I didn’t go, simply because between working my job virtually, helping manage the kids, and so on, I couldn’t get going early enough in the morning to get that job done.
The Bodie Island Light Station in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. We arrived there in bright full son exposure, a less-than-ideal time to photograph a lighthouse like this one, beautifully striped and rising 54 feet above the marshes.
And yet, it can be done. I tried to place the sun behind the light box at the top of the tower and give it just enough exposure to see detail of the structure.
My oldest son Ryan spelling his name in the wet sand.
Another attempt at showing the motion of the waves in the morning.
The spiral staircase of the Currituck Light Station, the only lighthouse open for climbing to the top.
A black-and-white look at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.
Another look at the Bodie Island Light Station. The harsh mid-day sun provided the challenge, and a circular polarizer provided the solution.
One evening, we ventured back to the beach, and a remarkable sunset unleashed a color show unlike any other we saw that month. It came at low tide, too.
And so I went to work, capturing the above images with direct flash from my camera, balancing that light with the nature color of the sky and water.
Dave Pidgeon writes and photographs and works and parents and does all the things we can. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife, Alison, and their three sons.