Thursday, April 20, 2017

Alone in the Wilderness

Standing in my solo canoe.

I was reading an article by photographer Erin Babnick titled, "Is it better to photograph nature alone"? Erin points out the advantages of shooting with other photographers, not the least of which is safety in numbers. And for those starting out, going out with more experienced photographers can be a powerful learning experience. I know this firsthand. In addition, other photographers may give us inspiration, opportunities to learn new tricks, or guide us to unfamiliar locations or wildlife.

Heavy fog created a dark mood one morning on Biscayne Bay. I launched my canoe in pitch darkness, guided only by the shadowy mangroves along the shoreline to get to this location. Alone, I was surrounded by ghosts.

But with all those advantages, I prefer going it alone. Don't get me wrong, shooting with other photographers has been a positive experience and a necessary part of my growth as a photographer. But it is my alone time when there are no distractions that has greatly nurtured my growth and development, especially in the creative realm. But probably more the case is that I have been a solitary photographer out of necessity because I mostly photograph from my solo canoe.

The only way to get this shot was by paddling a mile or so and launching the canoe in the dark.
Whether or not I am in the canoe, I can focus my attention on my surroundings without the distraction of others. I can stray off the path and discover nooks and crannies, unfettered. I can spend way more time than necessary observing a tree or bird, or I can meander aimlessly. In this manner, I have created some of my best photographs and have gained inspiration for many more. Believe me, I draw inspiration from other photographer's art, but when alone in the wilderness, it is intrinsically derived and unique to the situation. The canoe has given me this luxury, but I would do it by foot just as often.

On this particular morning, I wasn't expecting to photograph spider webs. But there they were.
Because I go out alone, what holds me back is usually the weather.  If I had to go to a location with another person each time, I would miss way too many opportunities. And while I relish in discovering new places, old familiar places are my biggest draw. The familiarity offers comfort but also allows me to dig in and pull out that inspiration. I am not sure if I could find another photographer willing to go to these locations as often as I do.

There is nothing I enjoy more than being alone on Biscayne Bay. Sometimes, I find only my boat to photograph, but it is always worth it to me to go there.
I paddle 1.5 miles one way to the bird rookery, have been doing that for the past 9 years, at least 5 to 6 times per year. I am always alone with the birds.
Going it alone may not be for you, especially if it is fear for safety. I challenge you to over come some of your fears. Take it in steps, go to a location with others before you venture out alone. Do your research on areas ahead of time. Stick to areas where you know you will have a phone signal. Don't go in the dark. If you are hiking, get use to carrying extra weight like a first-aid kit, extra water. Dress appropriately and know the weather forecast. Always let someone know where you are going and how long you intend to be gone.

Bottomline, don't let fear keep you from photographing.

I love discovering mangrove tunnels, you never know what you'll find around the turn.
Occasionally, I camp alone in the Ten Thousand Islands. It took years of camping experience with others to get the nerve to do it!

As far as I know, I am the only person crazy enough to navigate the Chokoloskee Bay oyster beds in the dark to get to this location in the middle of the bay to photograph.


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Just Follow the Light

A slow shutter speed blurs the white ibis wings, giving this well-lit scene an abstract quality.

Most of the time, I go out to photograph something specific; birds, waterscapes, spiders. But sometimes, I have no specific subject in mind. Recently, I spent a morning chasing only the light, with no particular subject in mind. I began the morning on Biscayne Bay, minutes before sunrise. The sky was mostly cloudy, dampening the sun light. Not exactly the colors I was hoping for, but there was an appealing subtlety to it. Using long exposures (greater than 30 sec), I attempted to capture the moody scene with some details in the clouds and foreground rocks. I pointed the lens to the left of the sun instead of directly toward it. In this way, the available side light added dramatic textures to the clouds and their reflections.

With enough angled sun light, clouds can appear dramatic; the reflections are a bonus.

It can be argued that light is the most important element in photography. This makes sense to me because the way I approach photography is by seeking out the "best" light in my subject. I am not sure how to define best light, except to say that I know it when I see it. On this particular morning, I wasn't focused on any one subject, although with Biscayne Bay spread out in front of me, it commanded the morning. But then at one point, the light behind me grabbed my attention. As the sun rose over the water to the east, behind me was a scene of brilliance that otherwise would not have gotten a second glance. The clouds broke just enough to allow a warm glow to bath the palm trees. I turned my back on the water and examined the trees through the viewfinder and began composing. Seconds later, clouds covered the sun and the brilliant light was no more. I turned back to the water.

These cabbage palms just light up with the warm glow of the morning sun.

In the meantime, white ibises were flying across the cloud-covered sky, punctuating the whiteness with their flight formations. Using a relatively slow shutter speed (1/60), I captured them with some blur on the wings. By that time, the combination of sun light and clouds offered pastel colors to add to the fanciful flight of the ibis (top photo).

Soon, the birds were gone and I had worn out my welcome at Biscayne Bay. I headed to another location with an idea of recapturing black vulture silhouettes in the Australian pine trees. I wanted to create more images similar to this one, but with a variety of bird poses, including some spread out wings.

If only that bird had spread its wings.
Unfortunately, the vultures were not there that morning, but something else presented itself. A few killdeer were in the water-covered parking lot. Trees reflected on the water and this looked beautiful. No one was there, just me standing in an empty parking lot with a few small shorebirds. It was an easy scene to ignore or disregard. The skittish tiny birds were too far away from me to fill the frame. But, the light on the water was attractive and I didn't care that it was on a parking lot. I stayed with the unassuming killdeer long enough to witness a few fly in, such as this one.

Glad to have captured some action on the water, but I probably would not have tried without the beautiful reflections appearing on the water.

I drove out of the park toward the main entrance. Before leaving, something distracted me. It was just a tri-colored heron standing next to a small pond, but it looked so beautiful in the morning light. I parked the car and walked to the pond. I stood on the ground that was slightly higher than where the bird stood next to the water. I saw an opportunity and got on my belly. I wanted to isolate the bird's profile by adding out-of-focus grasses to the foreground. I waited for the bird to move it's head so that the sun light captured its red eye. I have captured so many heron profiles over the years, so seeking out another one is not a priority. But when I have a well-lit profile against a natural background and foreground, I don't mind adding another to the list.

I love to isolate a bird and the out-of-focus grasses help to emphasize the bird's profile.

Later, I came home and while downloading the morning shots, I stepped outside and noticed something rather interesting. Hundreds of tiny tadpoles were swimming in the pond behind my house. It was irresistible. The sun was high and at an angle. I attached a polarizer filter to the macro lens and set out to capture the tadpoles. Totally unexpected, I spent about 30 minutes or so composing various scenes of an unlikely subject.

Chasing these tadpoles through the messiness of a pond was challenging.
I think what impressed me most about that morning is how most of the shots taken were unexpected and varied. But they all had one thing in common; the best light.

Workshops available

Monday, January 16, 2017

Creating a Photography Project

While attempting to keep the focus on a fast moving beetle, I could capture the beautiful patterns created by their movement.

You hear it often; giving yourself a project is an effective way to learn and grow as a photographer. Projects are such individual things that there are infinite examples of what a project might be for someone. Not only that, projects come in all sizes. Sometimes, a project comes as an attempt to get out of a creative rut or to learn a new skill. In my experience, most projects are found unexpectedly.

I was drawn to the abstract patterns created in the water.
Almost always, it begins with a first or an unusual encounter with an animal. Examples are the goldensilk orbweaver spider and the cassiopeia (upside down) jellyfish.  A couple days ago, I paddled on the East River in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve to photograph birds. The last thing I would have considered doing was photographing a water bug. But, ten minutes on the water and my attention turned to a strange but beautiful scene. Birds stood in the trees or flew overhead in the morning light, but I did not pay attention to them. Instead, I was mesmerized with what was happening on the surface of the water.

By isolating a single bug, I attempted to use negative space to compose an image.
These bugs are known as whirly bugs. In a small area of the river, hundreds of beetles whirled around.  There was something about the way the light was capturing them that caught my attention. The water disturbed by their whirling motions played with the light and it was just so beautiful to see. Not having anything to lose, I gave it a whirl (pun intended). With my telephoto lens, I watched the bugs through the viewfinder. Soon, I was seeing abstract compositions of varying lighting situations. I attempted to single out one or two bugs and capture their wake as they glided speedily away from me.

Back light on these tiny beetles make the water surrounding them glow in the dark reflections of the trees.
Sometimes, I had the sun facing me, sometimes behind me. Sometimes trees reflected, sometimes the blue sky reflected. And sometimes, I purposely created ripples in the water to play with the bugs and their movements. The challenge was focusing on a bug that is about 1 inch in length. Tracking one was very difficult with their unpredictable and extremely fast movements.

I converted this one to black & white for some reason.
I stayed with the bugs for a couple hours. As with any first encounter, I download all the images and begin to analyze and think about what to do differently the next time. And it is for this reason that I now have a new project, the "whirly" project, to add to my list. Why bother? At the very least, I can practice my tracking focus skills. But really, it just gives me another excuse to photograph water movement.

This is what I was going after, the beautiful curves created by the water movement.
Get out there and find your next project!

Frequently, dozens of beetles would become active causing the water to boil with activity.
Workshops available

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Simplicity of Wilderness

I love simple compositions filled with negative space. Good thing, because quite often as I paddle my canoe in large waters, I am surrounded by negative space. I say this after recently returning from a 6-day paddle trip through the Ten Thousand Islands. As always the case, these multi-day trips are characterized by a variety of things; but this particular trip will always be remembered by the hours of paddling through endless calm blue waters joined to an endless blue, cloudless sky.

Nothing but blue.

And I loved it for what it was; calm waters that provided an opportunity to photograph from a steady canoe, gentle and playful ripples that created tones and textures, a cloudless sky that seamlessly consulted with the water interrupted only by something of my choosing. Wide angle lens or telephoto, the possibilities for simple compositions revealed themselves as both panoramic and vertical designs.

Use of a polarizer filter is essential in these shots. It reduces the glare on the water, thus revealing its intimate patterns. It gives the sky a richer blue, but it only works if the sun is at a 90 degree angle from the lens. In other words, the sun should be to your left or your right, and it should be relatively high in the sky. If you have that, you have endless possibilities.

If you are going to go simple, composition is key, because that's usually all you have to work with. Rule of thirds is a good rule for these images. Lines and patterns become key elements. Compose thoughtfully, play with the water and take many shots of varying compositions. But ultimately, create an image to invite the viewer into the scene and to feel the calmness of having infinite space surround them.

The hypnotic and calming rhythm of nature is what I feel when I am in my canoe and what I wish to convey in my images. Learn to photograph what you feel when you are in the wilderness.

Workshops available

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Piece of the Sky

Florida has big sky. When it is painted with clouds and color, it can be breathtaking. Behold an expanse of colorful abstract art as wide as the eyes can see. There are no mountains or trees to disrupt it. Add a distant storm to the scene and it becomes that well known Florida skyscape we all love. For this reason, one may consider a wide angle lens to be the best choice when photographing a Florida skyscape. But I suggest that Florida skies can look more interesting if we zoom in on a piece of the sky.

I wrote a blog a few months ago on my strategy for capturing marsh scenes along the Tamiami Trail. Instead of a wide angle, I used a 70-400 telephoto lens and shot most of my images at focal lengths between 100-150mm. The image at the top was shot at 100mm. Because my camera has a 1.5x cropped sensor, it is really 150mm. More recently, I was on Chokoloskee Bay in my canoe, having got on the water before sunrise. Chokoloskee Bay is a wide expanse of water separated from the sky by only a thin line of mangroves. I typically stand in the middle of the bay where I have a 360 degree view. As usual, there were clouds but before the sun peaked above the horizon, it was uncertain how it would play out. Would there be color or just another lackluster cloud-covered sunrise? I found a location where I could steady my boat with feet touching ground and I waited to see what might happen.

I had a 16-50mm lens attached and decided to handhold it while sitting in the boat. Soon the sun light started to brighten the sky and within seconds, broad strokes of magical colors began to fill the eastern horizon. While handholding the camera, I bumped up the ISO enough to allow a fast enough shutter speed (1/80 to 1/100).

The sky was a confusing mix of dullness and brilliant blazes of reds and yellows, depending on the direction I looked. Rather than go wide and capture a scene of combined dullness and brilliance, I zoomed in on the brilliance. Using 35 to 50mm focal length (53mm to 75mm), I framed the sky in abstract formations of color and shapes. The big sky with its beautiful and bold palette became pieces of abstract paintings as I turned the camera horizontal to vertical and back, playing with all kinds of compositions. After only ten minutes of photographing, I put the camera away as the colors faded.

By all means, go wide when it compels you. But also look more closely at the pieces of sky and the infinite ways they can be framed. Instead of one big shot, you may find several small, but brilliant shots.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Attracts You in the First Place

I am a nature and wildlife photographer. This means that I go to the wilderness to photograph. There are many different ways a nature photographer approaches and interacts with her subject; but for me, it is all about the place. It is not a specific scene or type of bird that I look to photograph, rather it is the soul of that place that I attempt to capture. This takes time and lots of visits to that place.

When I go to a place, usually in my canoe, I spend much time examining my surroundings without using the camera. I get attracted to something and approach it from different angles to study the variations of lighting that alter the appearance. I stop and look at something for a very long time and try to figure out what it is about this view that attracts me. I drift along in my canoe and pay attention to how the sun light interacts with the plants and the water. I look for both intimate and wide scenes.

One day, I was paddling east along a water trail as the sun began to rise over the horizon ahead of me. Disturbing the water were hundreds of tiny yellow flowers, blooms of the bladderwort plant that takes root in the water. The flowers stood above the water like tiny little skaters performing on ice as the water was very calm. I was immediately attracted to them and wanted to capture the scene. But how? I paddled around them, looking at front lit and back lit figures. I tried to find a cluster of isolated flowers and create a negative space composition. Finally, I staked out the canoe and settled in to the scene. I gently rocked the boat and added ripples to the water just to see what might happen. Here's what happened.

Behind me, the warm glow of the sun cast upon the mangroves that lined the creek. Their red roots were brilliantly lit and irresistible. With a long lens, I filled the frame with the luscious mangroves and their reflections.

I continued paddling and enjoyed the beautiful morning light on the grasses standing tall in the water. A cluster of them caught my eye as the light bathed them in a warm glow. Several of the grass shoots were bent, creating triangular shapes. The sharp geometry of the organic material appealed to me. I set up the tripod in the water, attached the long lens and composed several images.

As the morning wore on, the mood of the place changed. The sun became harsher; but at last, there were clouds in the sky. What a brilliant day! Thick periphyton covered the water completely and this seemed so amazing to me under the wide sky. How can one place have so many interesting characteristics? Chase the light and you will find them.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Seeing the Ordinary in Your Own Way

The wetland prairies are wide open spaces, but they can be intimately explored.
"Photography is (a means by which we)...learn to see the ordinary." David Bailey

I love that quote. When I first read it recently, it made me reflect on something that has been foremost in my conscious for awhile now. I hope to retire in three years and travel around the U.S. as a full time photographer. Nature photographers enjoy our national parks, evident from so many iconic landscape scenes. We all recognize these scenes (i.e. El Capitan or Delicate Arch) and have viewed hundreds of photographs of each. And we are compelled to go there and "Get the Shot". At last, I will have the freedom to get out there.

The small red mangroves on Biscayne Bay are among my favorite subjects to photograph.
I have to admit, standing on an overlook to photograph Horseshoe Bend or hiking to Delicate Arch while negotiating the crowds are not in my travel plans. I honestly do not have a great desire to capture an iconic scene along side so many others doing the same. The reason being is simple, I am spoiled. 99% of my photography is done in solitude and most of the locations where I photograph are not visited normally by other photographers. I have made images from locations that are as far from iconic as anything can be. Crowds of picture takers are not clambering to get to these places.

The unassuming little blue heron allows me to observe its quiet hunting ritual.
While some may find that to be a limitation, I see it as the opposite. I see it as opportunity to learn your unique creativity. By getting to know a location or subject so well without the distraction of others, I have learned to see the ordinary in my own way. In my opinion, uniqueness is the most important ingredient (above talent and hard work) for creating art. For me, it is the perseverance in going back to the same place and insisting that I have yet to capture it well. This is what nourishes my creativity; I keep trying. It is about creating an image that reflects my personal connection to the subject.

With subtle landscapes, water is essential to my photographs .
So while traveling from one iconic location to the next appeals to me in some ways, it is the unique connection to a new place that I look most forward to. But, in the meantime the Everglades and Biscayne Bay are calling me back, again and again.

Water has so many characteristics and behaviors. How can one not want to photograph it?