The Cape Hatteras Light Station on North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore (southern OBX) is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States at roughly two-hundred feet in height. Why so tall? It’s said that the original location of the light was so low and close to the sea that the height was necessary to project an adequate beam of light. Perhaps it was also a nod to the treacherous stretch of water the lighthouse was tasked to patrol. The collision of two directionally opposite currents (the Gulf and the Labrador), one cold and one warm, creates a web of sandy shoals off the Atlantic Coast known as the Diamond Shoals. These shoals have historically proven treacherous; dangerous enough to earn the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina’s barrier islands the infamous shorthand of being the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Over time, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has become a symbol of the state of North Carolina, with its iconic white and black diagonal stripes and red base. The distinctive paint pattern is known as a daymark, with unique daymarks adorning each of the light stations within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore—think black and white horizontal stripes for Bodie Island Lighthouse, red brick for Corolla Light, and solid white for Ocracoke. Along with the identifiable daymark, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse also has a unique, siren-like, spinning light pattern, known as a nightmark. The daymark and nightmark functioned together to allow mariners to distinguish their location based on unique identifiers.
In 1999 the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (and all of the adjacent buildings), threatened by a naturally encroaching sea, were moved almost three-thousand feet over the course of about a month to a new location that is roughly 1500 feet from the present-day sea (symbolically the same distance that the initial light was from the sea at the time of construction). The old lighthouse beach is still identifiable though, from the crumbling steel seawall that extends awkwardly into the Atlantic Ocean and the various other steel and concrete groins that were used as stopgap measures to slow beach erosion while funding was raised for the lighthouse to be moved. It’s important to note that hardened structures are banned from the North Carolina coast, so the conditions at this particular location are somewhat unique in the state of North Carolina.
After putting together a string of photographs from Bodie Island Lighthouse over the past couple years that have gained me some purchase with viewers and end users alike, it was commonplace to receive the logical follow-up question: “got any similar shots of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?” And I really hated saying no to those questions: absolutely hated when I had to give reasons (no matter good or bad) for not having a more robust portfolio of this lighthouse, because to my own ears it always just sounded like a pot of excuses. Some mumbling and some hawing and some hemming and eventually it always came down to the simple fact that I needed a better selection of photographs from this iconic symbol of North Carolina!
As a child and a teenager, long before I ever picked up a camera, I experienced the lighthouse from down on the beach and high-above on the tower platform. I was accustomed to its presence on the shore, sandbags and all. However, by the time I became a photographer, the light had been moved and the new location was, well, not very photogenic. The sea had all but been eliminated from the frame (unless you were standing high above on the platform of the soaring tower). A landlocked structure lacked appeal for me personally. I wanted viewers to easily associate the structure with the Atlantic Ocean and the sea it was historically tasked to protect. Situated within a neatly cropped field of green grass, the light is now surrounded by a number of other structures, each with connecting paths, and no matter my angle or creativity, I was never happy with the results. I managed to grab some average shots of the lighthouse when heavy rains pounded the thin strip of barrier islands and deposited temporary reflecting pools from the base of the structure all the way to the parking area. A portrait and a landscape, two photos with two different orientations, each with uninspired skies and reflecting in a rain puddle, were the two options that I could offer to prospective users for several years. And that wasn’t good enough—I could do better I was sure.
So, this year during a week-long visit in October I made it my mission to flip the script for myself and get some nice Cape Hatteras Lighthouse photographs. I should mention that I’ve been scouting and planning shots around the lighthouse now for several years, doing what amounts to reconnaissance work on each of my visits. Additionally, I picked up a handful of natural history books and touched up my knowledge on the immediate area, with the maritime forests of Buxton being of specific interest. The result of all the preparation was a desire for two broad types of shot: one involving the Atlantic Ocean and one involving the maritime forest. Each would place an essential locational element into the frame with the lighthouse, and provide context that otherwise would be completely absent. During my recent visit, I only had the time and opportunity to chase one composition—the lighthouse with the ocean—but, I’ve still got my eye on a few compositions that will complete my second desire as well in the future!
EXECUTING THE SHOTS:
The challenge with involving the ocean at Cape Hatteras Light Station is the physical distance between the sea and the new lighthouse location (1500 feet or so). Traditional unwritten rules dictate that the lighthouse should occupy a prominent position within the frame. Flip through printed materials and it’s clear that advertisers and viewers want the lighthouse to pop right off the page, easily recognizable and dominant in stature. This perceived power is provided for by photographers intentionally positioning themselves (and elements within their frames) in a fashion that makes the size of the structure larger than nearby elements. This can be accomplished by either moving closer with a wider lens or moving further away with a longer telephoto lens. Each of the aforementioned, however, eliminates the Atlantic Ocean from the composition. So, in order to accomplish my own desires to include the ocean as a prominent element, I had to selectively ignore tradition and purposefully choose to not follow the existing rubric for success. Not surprisingly, for those that know me and my style, I found the resulting wider compositions to feel more natural and meaningful in truthfully representing the place anyhow. A mariner at sea would not experience the lighthouse as overpowering in size or stature. Instead, the lighthouse would’ve been experienced as a small dot on the horizon, recognizable not through size but only through the extreme efforts of unique daymarks and nightmarks. And the light would be situated, from that vantage, within the much larger landscape of water, sand and sky that would literally dwarf the structure. Granted, it should be mentioned that this is not how a typical tourist (better to read potential buyer) would experience the lighthouse today, driving right up to its location and walking to the base. So, I guess you could surmise that my desire was to capture the lighthouse in a more experiential manner, from the perspective of the historical user (ship captain), instead of–or in place of–the more common perspective of the tourist or visitor. Probably not a great business choice, but something that I needed to execute to satisfy my own individual muse, as author and photographer David duChemin would say.
So, at this point I knew that I wanted a composition with both the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and I also realized that to do so would only be possible by de-emphasizing the size of the lighthouse and thereby decreasing its power as a subject within the frame. I was good with all of that. On to the fun part: executing the vision! Coastal photography often revolves around the tides: high and low, each with different and exciting opportunities behind the lens (toss in a storm and you really have a wildcard of conditions!). One of the keys to coastal shooting is often to line up your visit where the high and/or low tides occur around the magic hours of morning and/or evening. This will allow you the greatest opportunity to take advantage of multiple elements when they are at their most dynamic. For me, the sunrise (which would be occurring directly behind me in the composition) would be coinciding with high tide conditions at the old lighthouse beach around the last two days of the week I had planned on visiting. That gave me a couple of days to wander, scout, and prepare to execute a shot should things come together.
Mid-week onn WEDNESDAY morning I went for it. The morning light was shaking off its soft tones and transitioning to a deep shade of blue in a sky studded with white, puffy clouds. I rolled up the legs of my pants (bit of a chill even at the beach this time of year) and I walked out into the ocean, turned, placed my back to the breaking waves, adjusted the height of my tripod and began to work the scene. Despite the moved condition of the lighthouse, the old steel sea wall was still in place and performing its function. Sand was accreting on the high side (north) where the lighthouse had once been positioned and beach erosion was occurring on the low side (south). It was here, on the low side, that I found the ocean eating away at a wall of sand about two feet in height. On this morning the tide was not yet high, so I waited patiently for a rogue wave—something with enough force to reach the wall of sand so that I could understand how it would react. For some reason I remembered a surf movie or something mentioning that swells generally came in series of threes. Eventually I got a few, and I clicked the shutter in time to gather up the data. Back at the computer later that day, I took a long look at what I managed and made the decision to continue to pursue my efforts with the shot.
THURSDAY. The tide was high. The ocean was literally swelling over the steel revetment (versus pounding into it), perhaps aided not only by the tide but favorable wind conditions as well. Surfers pulled into the parking lot and walked gingerly to the breaks to study whether to partake; some needed less time than others to slip into their wetsuits and begin their dance with the waves. I decided to slip into my waders on this morning as well, having gotten soaked the past few mornings and noting that this morning things looked that much more lively. Into the ocean I went, back to the breakers, waiting for the favorable reflected light of morning and perhaps some wave activity in the foreground. And whoa did I get it! Water crashed around me and the tripod, knocking us further up onto shore multiple times, not allowing me to dig in and capture the interaction I was after. I adjusted, figured out how to get my tripod rooted into the shifting sands. Then I waited. When the rogue wave did finally come I was unprepared for the result. I knew that I could protect the camera from the sea by using my body to shield it from behind should a larger wave come up on me. What I didn’t anticipate was the quantity of water that would curl back over and come hurtling back toward my direction after the wave contacted the wall of sand and retreated back to sea. My camera was soaked! Dripping salt water off the lens and body housing! Not good! I make a living off this camera; I only have one. No camera, no production. Okay, that just happened. Up onto the bank I went, immediately using my dry shirt tail to spot the wetness off the equipment. For the most part, no damage. Thank you Nikon engineers for making a really well sealed piece of equipment! What to do now? Well, get right back in there!
FRIDAY. The highest tide yet. On this morning the waves were not as angry, but their momentum carried them not only crashing into the wall of sand, but up and over, pulling back into the sea like honey dripping off a spoon. I couldn’t help myself! I was back in the water, shooting pretty much the same scene, and once again, drenching my camera gear and myself in the heat of the action. My advice to anyone who is thinking of executing a similar shot: put aside about five thousand dollars for a new camera body and lens before you even get started because something is bound to happen! I’ve got a photographer friend who will willingly put his gear in harm’s way if he sees a shot that will return more value than the replacement cost of gear: a very business-like, cost-benefit analysis of the situation. I wish that were me. I knew this shot probably wouldn’t be popular with buyers. But I needed it anyhow, for myself. This one was going to be for me. Into the ocean I went, plenty of onlookers wondering what the heck was wrong with me. Meanwhile, nothing but joy on my end! Waves crashing my back, a scene that was second-by-second dynamic and changing—this was an action version of landscape photography and I was playing the game!
I would love to hear your feedback on the shots, and don’t be shy if you don’t care for them. This is a very different sort of photograph than those I took at Bodie Island Lighthouse over the past couple of years. And I expect those differences will be reflected in the overall response. However, I found a fulfilling satisfaction after the capture of these photos: the conditions were never epic in terms of light and color, but the amount of timing and planning and risk that went into these three were high. When that question is posed to me again (do you have any Cape Hatteras Lighthouse?), whether these three photos will fulfill the need of a prospective buyer or not, I can rest much easier knowing that I put forth the effort—that I put everything out there, essentially sold out myself and my gear—and that I created something that is truly unique from what I’ve seen on the market to-date (I apologize if someone has already nailed this composition before me and I’m unaware!). Oh, and I didn’t forget about my second composition either—keep an eye peeled in 2015 for a series of photographs involving the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the surrounding maritime forest! Instead of braving the sea on this one, it will be a battle with the hungry mosquitoes!
Find more images of North Carolina Lighthouses on Fine Art America here: North Carolina Lighthouse. Or find more imagery of the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Fine Art America here: Outer Banks North Carolina.
Lighthouse fans can find more photos of Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse on Fine Art America as well. Pardon the links; they help place my own photographs higher within the search databases!