Free Feature • Photographing Outer Banks

What is so intriguing and exciting about the Outer Banks of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, USA that makes it Mark VanDyke’s favorite of all time? Well, keep on reading…

What is your favorite place?
One of my favorite places is a long, narrow chain of barrier islands off the mainland of North Carolina, USA, known as the Outer Banks. Specifically, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a seventy-mile stretch of coast on Hatteras Island. As an outdoor photographer, the most intriguing places behind the camera are often those that are dynamic; places that change character from one state or condition to another frequently, often dramatically. The Outer Banks are that sort of place.

Formed on a shallow bed of sand, constantly influenced by the natural forces of wind and water, and always vulnerable to the overall moods of nature, the Outer Banks are both harsh and attractive to me. Just offshore, the warm southerly Gulf Current collides with the cold northern Labrador Current – two swift underwater rivers – creating dangerous offshore shoaling. To the west, in the saltwater marshes and estuaries, water from freshwater rivers pours into and mixes with saltwater from the sea via inlets and channels cut by storms. Along the narrow strip of land traversed by the two-lane NC 12, wind pushes sand relentlessly one way, then the other, shaping and building, forming and re-forming. Static real estate development struggles against the mobile nature of the barrier islands, and human conflict abounds as upstream land use policies and changing global climate patterns bring unforeseen consequences to local industries dependent upon natural cycles. Being squarely within such a dynamic environment as a photographer is very exciting and demands an engaged and active style of outdoor photography that is most intriguing to me.

What is the best time to visit?
I have found attractive conditions in each of the four seasons along the coast. However, the best time to visit and photograph the Outer Banks is during autumn. The tourist and real estate seasons wind down late summer as children return to school and the overall area enters a nice, relaxed transition. Summer heat gives way to cooler breezes. Marsh grasses take on a beautiful burnished coloring that is wonderfully complimented by low-angled light. Radiant fog is possible as air temperatures fall, creating mysterious atmosphere. And, it goes without saying, it’s still hurricane and tropical storm season: weather is always on the horizon. For me, late October is the perfect time to visit the Outer Banks.

How much time should you allow?
Time is totally dependent upon the scope of things you would like to see while visiting, and how patient you are with weather conditions at each individual location. There are roughly 100 miles between the town of Corolla to the north and Hatteras to the south via NC State Route 12 (the Outer Banks Scenic Byway). Historic structures and destinations occur along the entire route. Time of travel, without stops, is roughly two to two and half hours one-way. Additional time is required to ride the ferry south to Ocracoke and beyond.

Most visitors utilize rental properties during their visit to the Outer Banks, putting an ideal time of visit at seven days. I have found that a ten-day visit is most productive for my own work, generally allowing enough time to target a couple of locations with repeat visits over a duration at least long enough for one major weather shift to keep things interesting!

Where is the town of arrival?
Nags Head, North Carolina in Dare County is the most central town through which you can depart south to The Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the villages of Rodanthe, Buxton and Hatteras, or north to Duck and Corolla. Nags Head is a tangle of dense development once known for its massive sand dunes – the largest on the East Coast – which can still be seen in Jockey’s Ridge State Park.

What is your favorite location while visiting?
I prefer the wild conditions and vast emptiness along stretches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a run of coastline south of Whalebone Junction in Nags Head. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Buxton and Frisco points (geographic capes or elbows in the landscape), and Buxton Woods Coastal Preserve maritime forest are some of the highlights along this part of the coastline. The opportunities are diverse and the feel of being ‘away’ from everything is unique to eastern seaboard coastal destinations in my personal opinion.

How much physical activity is needed?
While there is very little elevation gain or loss along the coast, walking any distance in deep sand can be physically taxing. Sun and wind are real physical forces that should be respected and accounted for as well. Some of the neatest perspectives behind the lens are gained through climbing tall sand dunes, wading into chest-deep waters, or crouching low near incoming waves, all of which require a moderate degree of physical exertion.

What are the area’s favorite locations?
The Outer Banks are known for their historic lighthouses: Currituck, Bodie, Hatteras, and Ocracoke. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States at roughly 210 feet. The largest sand dune on the East Coast is located at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Cape Hatteras National Seashore – the nation’s first national seashore – provides miles of uninterrupted beachfront. Wildlife viewing is abundant at the Alligator River and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges, as well as several maritime forests including Nags Head Woods and Buxton Woods. Maritime history is on full display in Manteo with an open-air museum and replica lighthouse (Roanoke Marshes) along a beautiful waterfront boardwalk park. Wild horses can be found north of Corolla via four-wheel drive beach access.

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What is there to do besides photography?
Recreational fishing and watersports are perhaps the two biggest draws to the Outer Banks. Annual tournaments are held each year for both fishing and surfing events. Kite and wind surfing are also very popular. Hang-gliding at Jockey’s Ridge State Park honors the Wright Brothers’ historic attempts to be the first in flight. Miles of beachfront provide for traditional beach-going activities.

Any exciting discoveries?
Shipwrecks! The Outer Banks are historically known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ for the dangerous shoaling patterns created by their dueling warm and cold offshore currents. When conditions are right, historic shipwrecks are often uncovered along the shoreline. Sometimes, even modern-day ships get into trouble and wind up repeating history by beaching upon these dangerous shores.

What shouldn’t be missed?
Don’t miss the historic lighthouses of the Outer Banks. Each structure features a unique daymark (distinctive visual pattern) and nightmark (distinctive lighting sequence). Not only architectural safety beacons, lighthouses represent the maritime history of the Outer Banks and the unique natural forces that have shaped the land and people of this area throughout time.

What is your best advice?
Prepare yourself and your gear for the harsh conditions found along the coast so that focus can remain on beauty while visiting. Sand and saltwater can wreak havoc on tripods and cameras. Clean and maintain your gear frequently after use, and prevent exposure to harmful elements when possible with the use of storm jackets and lens filters. Prepare yourself, likewise, for sun, mosquitoes and environmental exposures through clothing and accessory choices.
Research and pay attention to the tide schedules and be aware of the moon cycles. Water is such a present element in coastal photography that knowing where it will or won’t be is critical to matching cloud and sky conditions to compose frames. Also, pay attention to wind direction and speed – the shifting and malleable ground of the Outer Banks will literally transform based upon these elements and provide opportunities behind the lens. Likewise, be attuned to the rare opportunities when the wind stops: reflections will be widely available in an environment where water is the primary element.

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