Topsail Island, Part 1

· Reading Time: 21 minutes

Part 1:  Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Part 2:  Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Part 3:  Thursday, July 18, 2019

For those who have been following me for any amount of time, you know that coastal photography isn’t something that I do a lot of.  The main reason for that is that I live about 4 hours away from the coast and it is a very long and boring drive to get out there.  The mountains keep me awake much better, and most places can be accessed at half of that time which makes for better day trips.  I also understand the mountains better than the ocean when it comes to compositions.  That is not to say that I don’t appreciate the beauty of the coast.  Far from it actually!  I marvel at what I see whenever I go to the beach since it is a different world than I am used to.  That also creates some issues when it comes to photography.  Compositions are usually quite a bit different with the flatter landscape, and there are some different techniques that are utilized between the two subjects.  It is always a challenge for me to photograph the beach, and I just don’t do it nearly enough.

Toni and I had gone to Carolina Beach earlier this year while it was still winter time.  I tried some new techniques with some fine art goals in mind and came back with some really nice images.  I’m still contemplating doing some prints of the black and white pier shots for my own collection.  It was a very good trip, and one where I was pretty happy with all of the images that I came back with.  Hoping to continue on with that momentum, Toni and I planned a family vacation to Topsail Island with Sierra, and that other kid we picked up the last time we went to Topsail a year ago.

Ahh, the energy of youth

As with the last time, we left on Monday and came back home on Friday.  That gave us a full week to enjoy the beach and for me to get some pictures along the way.  Since this is such a large scale outing for me, I am going to do like I did last time with the blog entries and do one for each day there were photos captured.  This will keep it easier to organize in my head and will make for faster reading for you.  Something that I had a lot of fun doing on the last set of entries was keeping score with the adults vs the kids for who was awake and enjoying the beach.  Why not continue that with this set of entries as well.  Times have changed though, both of the curtain climbers have grown up into young ladies and are starting to drive.  So, it no longer feels right to call them crumb snatchers, or kids for that matter anymore.  They are more like Thelma and Louise these days.  I was still confident that Toni and I would come out of this week ahead of the Bobbsey Twins like last time.  That was pretty impressive considering that Toni was sick the entire week last year.

We set off after testing at the DMV for Frick and Frack, and within no time at all I looked in the mirror to see them already knocked out.  I’m calling it…Adults 2, the snoring sisters…0.  We were already off to a great start for the week!  Hey, at least there was no “are we there yet” choruses to be heard…except for the track stuck on repeat in my own head.  The beach is a long trip when I’m used to a couple of hours and being at my destination.  I was hopeful since the weather reports were looking rather favorable with partly cloudy skies each day and the chance for thunderstorms in the evenings.  Other than being really hot, this was my kind of forecast.  We were even going to get there in time to get settled, get food, and be back in time to get a few pictures made before the first official day came to close.

I know, I know, something isn’t adding up here.  I said that we left on Monday, but yet part 1 of this series is a Tuesday.  I’m not trying to slip one past you, not at all.  I’m not confused either, although it is getting a little late and I’m starting to get sleepy.  Here is what happened.  We got to the beach, got settled in the room, and went out for some dinner after a very involved search for all you can eat crab legs.  We called all the restaurants in the area to see who had them.  The short answer was nobody had all you can eat crab legs.  The long answer….well, actually the short one summed it up very well.  We did end up going to the Crab Pot just inside of Surf City where nobody ate crab legs at all.  It was a good dinner at any rate and we headed back to the room.  When we got inside, I could see the full moon above the ocean and the clouds were all around it.  It looked fantastic, and I wanted to try and capture it.  Keep in mind that I have never had great luck shooting the moon, but I was dead set to try it tonight.

I grabbed my Lowepro Bag and Manfrotto Tripod and went out to the deck.  I quickly mounted the 16-35mm lens onto the 5D Mk3 and started to figure out a composition.  I quickly found out just how humid it was outside and had to battle condensation on the lens element.  I finally got that under control and got a few compositions in mind.  I wanted to smooth out the ocean so I slowed the shutter speed for some long exposures.  The motion in the clouds looked really good on the LCD review and I thought that I was getting some great images.  I shot about a 10 or frames with different compositions.  It was a great start to the week, or so I thought.

As it turned out, when I started to edit the images, I looked at all of them with a very critical eye and decided that the ocean looked great, but the clouds were right in the gray area of too much motion, or not enough motion.  They just looked blurry to me.  I tried to work on a couple of the images, but I couldn’t make myself like any of them at all.  In the end, I trashed the entire evening’s set of photos.  My track record with the moon was still standing, and that made me really mad, but I had all week still in front of me.


Lets get started with the images!

I got things packed back up in the bag and left the entire kit outside on the deck to acclimate to the humidity overnight while I slept.  The clock rang at 4am which was really early considering I didn’t have any real traveling to do before sunrise at 6:10am.  I was up, everyone else was asleep.  I wasn’t really sure where I was going to be shooting this morning since the forecast wasn’t all that spectacular for a sunrise.  There were going to be very little clouds in the sky, and most of them were going to be lower altitude ones.  My go to at the beach is to head out to the sand and find dunes.  I didn’t want to do that yet again because I was seeing myself getting into a rut with coastal photography.  Also, there were no more dunes to speak of after the hurricanes last year.  In fact, there was really nothing of interest in a foreground down on the beach.  A quick check of the sky showed that there were no clouds above, so I decided to go for a little walk on the other side of the island near the inlet.  I hadn’t spent any time over there, but hoped to find some points of interest to shoot.

I set out on foot to the other side of the island, three short blocks away.  It took no time at all, but in that short amount of time, I had been bitten by approximately 1,500 mosquitoes and sand flies.  I was actually bleeding through my socks!  I started to check out the different areas by the water and found some compositions that might work out when the sun came up in a little while, but I wanted to find something that I could shoot before the sun actually came over the horizon while there were still some vibrant pre-dawn colors in the sky.  I continued walking South towards Serenity Point where the moon was setting.  If nothing else, I wanted to find something to put under the moon and give that another try.

I kept walking and walking, until I finally reached the Southern tip of the island.  I was back at the beach again, but there were no waves, just calm water lapping up on the shore.  Those damn bugs love the calm water, and they were buzzing all around me by this point.  There were also a bunch of sand crabs scurrying across the beach which made for some interesting visuals in the dark.  I found a composition that I liked with the moon between two small clouds with the shore making a lazy “S-curve” to the moon.  I set the camera up with the 24-70mm lens and got the composition framed in the camera.  I shot several images of the moon, and even an HDR series.  I was getting excited about this moon image as well.

Side note:  I shot about 10 images of the setting moon and found them all to be less than engaging as photographs.  I tried to work one of them out and just couldn’t make it something that I liked.  The moon was kicking my butt!  In fact, looking back on this week, I had now shot two separate scenes and had nothing at all to show for it.  I tell you what, sitting here at the computer going through the images was getting a bit depressing.  20 images in, and nothing worth keeping.  Was this going to be how the week went?  Gosh I hope not!

I had stumbled across an old pier right at the access point to the inlet beach that I was looking forward to capturing when the light started to hit the sky.  As the moon dropped into the haze, I turned my attention to the old pier.  I saw great promise here, and started to find the composition that I wanted to shoot.  I swapped out my lens for the 70-200mm telephoto to get the reach that I wanted.  I was aiming for a minimalist approach to the pilings and got the camera positioned so that the horizontal boards that remained covered the horizon to simplify the image.  I wanted to keep a nice long exposure, so I added my Lee Filters Foundation Kit just in case I needed any of my Singh-Ray filters to make the image work.

Looking back on the video, I could tell that I wasn’t all that happy with the moon pictures.  I called it “interesting” not good.  I was excited about the shots that I was setting up for here, and that was apparent.  I had posted this video when I got back to the room before I even knew what I had captured.  I guess you could say that I had a lot of faith in myself to get a good image from this.  My goal was to go for deeply saturated colors, high contrast with a minimal composition.  I had some color to work with in the sky and that was all I needed for the image.  I shot a few different compositions over and over during the course of the final 30 minutes of night.  The video happened toward the end of that time as I was waiting to see if the sun would catch the clouds.  It actually didn’t, but the pre-dawn colors turned out absolutely fantastic, and I finally get to post my first picture for this blog entry which is of my third scene of the trek.  I was happy to see these as I started to work the images at home because I was really questioning whether or not I was going to have any keepers at all from the week.

Sound of Silence“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

The resulting image actually turned out really well and very close to how I previsualized it.  Yes, there was some saturation work with the image, but the colors are accurate to the scene.  I just really like the simplicity of the image and I went with the rule of odds for the composition.  For those that don’t know, the rule of odds is a broader term for the rule of threes where compositions that include three elements are more interesting than one or two.  It can be extended to say that compositions that include an odd number of elements are more interesting than even numbers.  Here we have 7 vertical elements with a single horizontal element.  The smoothed out water helps to accentuate the reflections of the posts and keeps the textures at bay.  As the sky continued to get more interesting, I tried some different compositions including a vertical one, and one that captured the entire set of vertical pilings.

Greeting the DayCanon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I’m not sure which I prefer, but I know that they both say completely different things to me.  The colors are just fantastic and I hit these at the right moment.  I was pretty excited about how these were coming which led me to shoot the video.  There is just something about these posts in the water that has always fascinated me.  They make for great silhouettes with no need for any detail to show at all.  The ruins of a pier have bits and pieces that help to tell the story of what you are looking at which is something I am always trying to do with my photography.

I was looking over to East to see what the sun was doing as it was coming up.  To my surprise, the sunrise was actually looking like it was going to be a good one.  I wasn’t in the position to be able to take advantage of it though.  I had to remain content to stay right where I was, which wasn’t a bad thing at all.  In fact, the sky was doing all sorts of crazy cool things while I was sitting at this one place.  The more light that came into the sky, the more interest I took in the house on the shore with a lone palm tree in the back yard.  There was just enough light to give a little detail to the property, but I was still able to get the stark contrast of the palm tree against the brightening sky.  I panned the camera over and started to work on a composition of the tree more than anything.

Summer at the Palms“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

In my old age, I am starting to really appreciate the soft light of sunrise when not pointed directly at the sun.  This was one of those times that proved to me why all directions are possible to shoot in when it comes to sunrise and sunset.  In fact, you are often rewarded by avoiding the straight on shot as I was with this series of images.  Sadly, the sun never did catch the clouds like I wanted it to, so I didn’t get a completely different feel for these compositions, but looking back at them now, I don’t think there could have been an improvement in the quality of light.  Each of these came out just as I had hoped when I was composing them.  The soft, saturated light of morning just suited these subjects so well.  It didn’t matter that I had messed up the moon pictures so badly before these.  I felt a lot better after getting these processed, that was for sure!

It was time to pack up and either go back to the room, or find something else to shoot.  I began walking back through the neighborhoods and along the remains of the dunes on the ocean side of the island.  The clouds were looking good on this side with some warm hues to them.  I was looking at the sea oats above me and felt that there might be a composition there as well.  I found a section that had some separation going on and I pulled out my camera and fitted the 70-200mm lens on it once again.  I started to work the scene to find a composition that I liked.  I was still very much in the minimalist state of mind for this set of images as well.  I just wanted to get the sea oats with the sky behind them.  It was a very simple concept for sure, but one that was hard to work out.  I was quite fortunate that the wind was pretty much still, so I didn’t have to struggle too much with my shutter speed.

Sea Oat Silhouette“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

I finally found the composition that I wanted and it was a fairly straightforward shot to make.  The wisps of clouds set the image off since they seemed to be flowing in the same direction as the sea oats.  For me, this is one of the more characteristic scenes of the beach.  It is not my favorite image, but it is one that I think works well.  I had originally planned on processing it as a monochrome because the main subject was largely in the shadows, but I couldn’t get it to look right in black and white so I started it back over and did it as a color image.  That worked out better, so that is how it remained.  It also restored my earlier excitement about being able to capture some more images around the tip of the island since the clouds were holding color better than I had anticipated.  I packed up the gear and continued on my stroll through the island.  I decided to go back to a location that I had spotted earlier in the morning with a boat stored on a lift by a dock.  It was just interesting enough to catch my eye, and I thought that the light would probably be pretty good on it by now.

It didn’t take me long to get over to the boat and I found that the warm morning light was hitting it just like I was expecting it to.  Unfortunately though, the clouds above the boat were rather bland and not all that exciting.  I had to figure out something to do in order to capture this boat before the warm light went away.  I struggled at first with the composition.  I tried very hard to bring order to the scene by cutting out things that didn’t matter to the story that I was trying to tell.  I ended up framing the image with the flag and the boat while using the sky and the water to give the subject some breathing room.  For this composition, I used my 70-200mm lens which was much better suited than the 24-70mm I started with.

I fired off a few shots and found that it was still too busy with the textures in the water.  I knew that I needed to slow the exposure, so I slipped in my Singh-Ray 5-Stop, Mor-Slo ND filter into the Lee Filters Foundation Kit which I had already put on just in case.  This got my exposure down to a few seconds, but still not enough to get the effect that I wanted.  I figured that I would see if the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer might have a positive effect to the image, so I added that to the 105mm adapter ring on the filter holder.  The water took on a nice deep appearance with the polarizer attached, and I was now getting 10-20 seconds worth of exposure which was just what I was wanting.

High and Dry“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, and 5-Stop Mor-Slo ND Filter

This was my favorite of the set from this boat. The light was perfect on the boat and the 20 seconds worth of exposure took the texture right out of the water while not blurring the clouds above.  The times before I had seen boats on the lifts like this, I didn’t really want to shoot them, but I have found that this is the best way to do long exposures with boats since they don’t move when they are on the lift.  Even with no wind, a boat will drift and bob around so that a long exposure is difficult if not impossible.  This one hit just that right balance, and even the flag is reasonably still with just a bit of blur at the bottom which is totally acceptable when looking at the water.  There is a lot going on with this image, but I still see it as going along with the minimal theme from the morning.  I think it is an excellent illustration for finding an “OK” subject in really interesting light that turns into a really great image.  I’m quite happy with how this one turned out, and it is likely one of my favorites from the day, although I have several favorites from this day already.

By this time in the morning, I was getting hungry and ready for breakfast.  Of course, that might be because the flies and mosquitoes had been draining my blood for about two hours.  It was time to head back and see how things were going in the room.  Well, I was actually rather impressed, while the wonder twins had redeemed themselves by being awake well before lunch time, they were still in the bed.  Toni was still in the bed as well and awake.  I’m not sure how to count this, so I am going to go for half credit on both of sides, so the score for the morning is Adults 1 1/2 to the teenybopper’s collective 1.  They are doing pretty good at this point.  I’ll even give them a bonus point for carrying on a conversation before lunch time.  That puts them in the lead by a half point for the day.

This was the day that we spent most of the morning at the beach and got a bit waterlogged in the ocean.  The trunk monkeys both got sunburned after many hours in the water, but this is to be expected and is a right of passage at the beach I think.  I managed to just get a little pink and fortunately didn’t burn at all.  We did eventually head in and get cleaned up and made our plans for the rest of the day.  these plans involved crab legs once again.  Toni, not being one to give in, figured out a way to get her crab legs.  She went to Publix and had them steam up a few pounds of them which we brought back to the room.  Toni and the hitchhiker had a challenge going as to who could eat the most legs.  It actually turned into a tie.  Sierra and I opted out of the challenge and split a pizza for dinner.  No points were awarded for this event though.

After dinner, I started to look at the sky outside and realized that there were some interesting things happening.  I went ahead and grabbed the camera and stepped out on the porch to see if I could get anything from the sunset.  This is a new thing for me shooting in the opposite directions for the rising and setting sun it would seem.  I just wanted to get the interesting soft light on the clouds as the sun dropped to the rear of the motel.  Having shot from this location the night before, I kind of knew what compositions I was wanting to use.  I opted for the 24-70mm lens which would give me a little more flexibility depending on what the clouds were doing.  I started out with a Singh-Ray 5-Stop Mor-Slo ND Filter and Color Combo Polarizer attached, but as the light fell, I shed the 5-Stop filter in order to keep around a 2 second exposure to soften the ocean a bit.

As the Waves Crash“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

As I progressed thorough the stages of the clouds, I became very impressed with the design of them when they started to clear right over the boardwalk allowing some of the warm tones to shine through framed by the cooler low clouds.  The natural elements seemed to be framing the boardwalk which was a very nice surprise.  The ocean was soft and not quite as full of texture as I have shot it before.  I managed to time several of the shots at the moments when the waves were hitting the beach which was what I was wanting to accomplish.  This was only possible thanks to the remote shutter release that I was using to avoid the 2 second delay that I normally utilize to avoid camera shake.


Considering the slow start to the week photographically, I was finally on the board with a half dozen keepers from the first full day at Topsail Island.  I was hoping that this would set the tone for the rest of the days here, but I had no idea what the next few days would hold for me.  As of right now, I have only even looked at the images up to this point.  I have no idea what the remainder of the images will yield.  I have taken a total of 361 exposures for the week though, so I have a lot more images to go through.  Since it is after 1am, I will have to wait until tomorrow afternoon to pick up where I left off.  I hope that you will continue to join me as I complete the next few chapters of this saga.  I just hope that pier pictures turn out well that I shot Wednesday Morning.  I have high hopes for them.

Until next time….

Hang on, not so fast!  I’m not quite done with part 1 yet.  Well, I am, but Toni wasn’t quite finished.  She wanted to see the moon images that I had shot since they didn’t end up being posted here.  I absolutely refuse to show the ones from the first evening since they actually make me a bit nauseous to look at with the motion in the clouds.  However, I had done some work on one of the shots from Tuesday Morning and it wasn’t terrible.  That was the one that I showed her after it was about 70% processed.  She loved it and wanted me to add it into the collection.  I balked, but remembered that when she likes one of the images that I don’t it usually goes over really well on Social Media.  I don’t think that this is a great candidate for printing, but it isn’t terrible to view online.  I went ahead and finished the processing and got her seal of approval on it.  Now I am going to post it to this entry, and we will see how it goes from there.  Her track record has been pretty phenomenal, so I figure it will do pretty well.

Looking Into the Morning“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, No filters

Now, I am going to work on the next installment of the beach trip where I have some more images that are a little out of my norm to share with you.

See you again soon!
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