New York-based photographer Noe DeWitt talks equipment, technique, and how to avoid the crowds in the British Virgin Islands.

By Hannah Walhout
January 17, 2019
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Noe DeWitt

Ideally, the cover of every issue of Travel + Leisure will spark a distinct feeling of dang, I wish I were there — and arguably, none do this more successfully than our February covers, which traditionally depict island destinations and other sunny climes. 

Why is this? Well, for many years, February has been the home of our annual Caribbean package, rounding up all the news and developments in everybody's favorite sun-drenched region. But maybe it's also a self-preservation thing: in the depths of cold, dark, seemingly endless February, we want to daydream about warmer places. 

Our February 2019 cover shows a popular national park in Virgin Gorda, one of the British Virgin Islands. "The Baths," as they are known, are a beachside geological formation located on the south end of the island near Spanish Town, one of Virgin Gorda's main enclaves. Here, granite boulders are seemingly piled up on each other, forming caves, tunnels, and secret pools perfect for wading.

It's a popular destination for travelers, but Noe DeWitt, who shot the cover, was able to capture its more peaceful side. DeWitt has worked with T+L several times before, shooting feature stories about other island destinations like Oahu and St. Kitts

Up next for him: the March 26 release of New York Design At Home from Abrams Books, photographed by DeWitt and written by Anthony Iannacci. The culmination of over three years of work, the book focuses on 27 different NYC homes, belonging to some of today's most influential interior designers and architects.

T+L recently spoke with the photographer about his trip to the BVIs, his tips for shooting at the beach, his favorite equipment, and how he got this stunning shot. You can read the cover story here.

Photo by Noe DeWitt

Travel + Leisure: Had you ever traveled to the British Virgin Islands before?

Noe DeWitt: "Yes, I had been there quite a few times (maybe four or five) for different fashion editorials, usually with a resort-y or summer concept. But I have never been to the BVIs for a personal vacation."  

What was your trip like? Impressions of the place and the subject matter?

"The BVIs is a playground for island hopping. This particular trip was all about its thriving boat culture. I had always stayed at resorts — and of course that is a great experience too — but staying out on the water, on a boat, is a super unique experience. I loved waking up and being exactly where I wanted to be, right on the water and with my camera in hand! I didn't have to leave a room, walk through a lobby, see other people, or trek to the beach with bags full of sun protection. All I had to do was open the door of the boat and I was topdeck, already in paradise.

We were usually moored or anchored in one of the many protected coves around the islands, making for a non-seasick trip. A 'tag-along' RIB [Rigid Inflatable Boat] would pull up behind our yacht, and could shuttle us quickly to land to find restaurants, bars, and trails. I could stay out on the water all day and night. Each sunset was better than the previous day. Not only the actual setting sun — the quality of the air, the sea breeze, and the gentle sound of water clapping on the boat's hull. 

The boat culture in the BVIs has inspired me to study and hopefully earn a Captain's License, so in the future I can rent a boat (skipper free) and bring the family along." 

We love this shot because it really feels like, as the viewer, you’re actually wading into the Baths. Where were you standing when you took it?

"Indeed, I did take the cover image standing in two feet of water. Camera held up high, carrying a backpack to keep everything dry, surrounded by giant boulders, large caverns, narrow pathways, with the echoes of crashing waves from the outside."

What time of day were you there, and what was the scene like? (Was it packed with tourists? And the weather?)

"We entered the National Park at 7 a.m. on a weekday. We worked closely with the BVIs tourism board, and they had informed me that Virgin Gorda (the island where the Baths are located) was expecting three large cruise ships that day — which meant roughly 6,000 to 8,000 people would be wandering the island. So, best to go early or much later in the day to avoid the crowds.

We were the first people to buy tickets to enter the park, at $3 per ticket. The sun was low in the sky, filtered by high, thin cloud coverage which provided a perfect soft light (less contrast) around the boulders. I would recommend going as early as you can, to avoid the high top-light from the sun (and of course, hundreds, if not thousands, of people entering the park). There is only one path through the boulder area, so it would definitely be a queue to get through (not fun).

However, when you are the first to go into the Baths, the sand is pristine, with the sound of only your footsteps and legs splashing though the water, and the crashing ocean hitting the outside walls. By the time we got back to the head of the trail, around 9 a.m., droves of buses pouring out tourists were lining up to enter the park. The sun was beating down and the heat was rising, which would make for a guaranteed sweaty experience."  

What type of equipment did you use?

"I used my trusty Canon 1 DX Mark II camera body with a few lens options. I shot the cover image with a Canon 24 - 70mm L series zoom lens.

My camera settings were: 4000 ISO / Aperture F.8.0, at 1/400 of a second shutter speed. The high dynamic range of the Canon's ISO allows for freedom of hand-holding in darker scenarios, and without generating digital noise. So, it was just me and my camera."  

Do you have any advice about getting a good shot at the beach or on the ocean? Are there any particular challenges in terms of photography?

"I think the biggest challenges in photography are usually around physical positioning, getting what you want conceptually, and trusting your inner aesthetic. Getting to where you want to be to take a photograph and observing the quality of light are very important. Over time, we become more aware of our 'personal light quality' — but there are many instances when you won't have it our way. So, the challenge is to get what you want when the conditions aren't quite right (or just all wrong).

There are many strategies to getting to a place that feels more attractive to you; being patient and waiting for the light to change is the simplest. On partly cloudy days, the conditions change quickly; on bright, cloudless days, you may have to wait for hours or come back later in the day to see a change. Early morning and end-of-the-day the light is typically the best. 'High noon' is typically the worst time to photograph, however, there are certain subjects that are best during high noon light. The color of the ocean around the BVIs, for instance, pops the brightest blue imaginable during high noon. So, you really have to choose your battles. 

The more photographs you take over time, the more you will discover, through editing, how a scenario changes the look and vibe of a photograph. The more experiences you have out in the field — check the results — you'll discover your own aesthetic. You'll know what to do when the light isn't quite right. Sometimes, you just need to hike a little farther up the hill to get the right perspective. The challenge is fun and very rewarding. It's almost like being a detective for your own aesthetic: 'Where can I find the right shot, and how do I get there?' Curiosity is key and determination will reward you with success." 

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