Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dealing with the dang winds

Concerning the winds, I look at them with two views; one as someone photographing from a canoe and the other as a paddler going on a long trip through the Everglades. As a winter season paddler, my range of wind tolerance goes as high as 25 mph. At 20-25 mph, I can paddle a headwind with much effort and my boat stays reasonably dry (side and back winds are a different story). Anything below 15 mph is acceptable, even on long trips.

For photography, winds take on a different meaning. 0-5 mph is preferred. 5-10 mph is OK but slightly annoying when attempting to anchor and stake out. Anything over 10 mph is unacceptable. And today, I had 10-15 mph on the bay, east winds no less.

Launched from the Mattheson cannel and came out to the bay through the marina. It was low tide at about that time, so there would be birds regardless of the stiff wind pushing against the shoreline where they would be wading in the grassy low tide shallows. The sky was a combination of rising cumulus clouds mixed with lighter cirrus clouds. The sun didn't have much chance for showing through, but somehow managed to eventually. Once on the bay, I had a moderate chop coming and waited until I got relatively close to the creek entrance before pulling out the camera and attaching the flash and beamer.

A flock of ibises flew in and I noticed a few other characters, little blues and tricolors. Laughing gulls were flying past in great numbers and this continued all morning. Several hundred of them flew in a southerly direction to where I had no idea. I watched a few brown pelicans fly by and spotted one or two diving near by. Same with cormorants.

I came up on the entrance of the creek. The birds were feeding but not in great number. The water was too restless and it was only in those areas where the water was too shallow to be affected by the wind that it took on a glassy smooth appearance. For instance, a tricolor heron was catching breakfast along some calm water but just above its head the water was running through a slightly deeper channel and appeared rough and noisy. In other words, not a clean background.

There are only a few deep enough narrow "channels" to move the canoe in closer to the shoreline. In one of them, I watched something relatively large move quickly in the water. Bait fish promptly jumped in attempt to flee the predator. Then I spotted something odd in the water, something I have never seen on this bay. It was the recognizable back of a gator, or more likely, a crocodile. The tail appeared above the water and near it were the large eyes and snout. Not a large croc, maybe only 5 feet in length, it disappeared under water. My first bay croc! Soon, I noticed its head on my right, a silhouette in the grassy water. Very cool, and I figured this was a smart croc. It's location made it easy for it to ambush bait fish and other marine animals that had been trapped in the shallows at slack tide. As is the case with the birds, lots of opportunity to feed on all kinds of marine life in this area. The photo above shows the head of the croc and you can see the water conditions as well.

The wind at my back, I pulled in as close to the ibises as I could get. Eventually, a couple young snowy egrets came in. A couple little blue herons got relatively close and a tricolor heron came in for a short period. When I shoot wading birds, I get my boat into a position that provides the best lighting within a "window". I figure it's about a 45 degree span, maybe a bit more when using the flash as a light filler. So when I see birds, I first figure out where I need to be in order to place them in the center of the window of opportunity and then began my approach very slowly.

In these shallow grasses, the boat hull slides across the grassy mud and it is noticeable. I moved slowly, stopping when the birds appear alert and wait for them to resume their business. Eventually I found an acceptable spot and stayed there. Birds flew in and out but mostly, the ibises did not move much. Even in very shallow water when the boat is firm on ground, the 10-15 mph winds will move my light boat. I used my foot as an anchor and that worked well. The ibises were in great location, the water was calm and the mangrove reflections were like an impressionist painting. My favorite bay scene.

The east winds continued to blow the water in and soon, the grasses disappeared as the water levels rose. All the birds flew away into hidden mangrove forests, except for a couple great white egrets that were still feeding on some shallow areas behind me. I attempted to capture some backlit scenes of one of them. The winds never stopped and at this point, there was no reason to stay out here. I put away the better beamer and headed into creeks to find my golden silk spiders.

Lovely spiders, the female golden silk weaver, I found a couple of them in good location. In the creeks, these spiders conveniently place their webs across the creek but in locations high enough that you don't run into them. Some are too far up and not photographable, but many are close. I found one that became animated and quickly moved onto a recently caught fly in the web. That's what I try to capture with these spiders. I have a million photos of them pretty much in the same position, but one that is moving offers some unique qualities. Also, background is everything. Today was perfect with several clouds in the sky. The mixture of blue and white in the sky is a great background for these spiders. I worked on one of them for about an hour, going between backlit and frontlit positions. The current was relatively strong and anchoring was very tricky. Without the anchor, I just let the current move the boat, attempting to slow it down with mangrove branches. With this situation, I simply have to take several photos in between moving the boat back in place, and hope one of 10 or so is sharp enough.

My neck sore from looking up continuously, I left the spiders and paddled back to the canal. Another beautiful day on the bay, despite the wind.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bonefish wishing on Biscayne

I had more opportunities to photograph fisherman than I did birds today. The biggest challenge this morning was the lighting. First, I was on the water before sunrise, about 6:30 am. The tide was still rolling out reaching its low a few hours later. Word was out that the best time to spot the elusive bonefish was just before sun up. So I was there, with those kayak/canoe fishermen who are as obsessed with catching a bonefish as I am with capturing a sharp image of a heron catching a fish.

In the dark, we paddled out the creek. The cloud cover in the sky would dampen the sunrise and it remained quite dark for awhile. There was a hint of light on the calm bay water, and the cloud covered sunlight gave out some nice orange hues, but far from brilliant. it was that type of sunrise that looked to be covered in parafilm. Still beautiful, I watched the silhouettes of the fishermen scattering about the bay, searching for those tails.

I paddled out into the open bay as the sun tried to come up. Eventually, it appeared above the clouds and finally, the mangrove shoreline was lit up. Before it got light, I had seen a couple juvy yellowcrown nightherons flitting around the shoreline. A couple tricolor herons and great blue herons flew over. Only one or two cormorants did I see today, an unusual thing. I heard the melancholy appeal of the osprey, but never did see it. Noisy kingfishers were seen and heard but to photograph one of those jet birds is near impossible, at least when you are on the water.

I finally noticed the yellowcrowns feeding along the mangrove roots. With nice lighting, I was able to get relatively close to one before it realized I was too close and flew off to a near by spot, not so well lit. Since these guys were not cooperating with the light, I zoomed in on the distant shoreline that was lit up by the sun to search for a moving target. I spotted a white bird and started to paddle over to it. It was about 1/3 mile away and in the meantime, the sky hazed over with a thin veil of clouds. I took out the flash and kept my eye on the bird. A noisy boat behind the jetty got the bird's attention. With me approaching and the noise, it flew to another spot nearby.

While paddling toward the bird, I couldn't help but notice the water sparkles where the sun was now casting its light strongly behind me. The fishermen were in the distance where the most light appeared on the water. I decided to try out my new trick that I had learned from Denise Ippolito's photography blog. I set the aperture to 22 to get a great depth of field and stopped down with the shutter speed. The sun light was a bit diffuse, so I didn' stop down too much, I think about 1/3. I captured some vertical shots of Vivian in her canoe and David in his kayak. I enjoy photographing each of them, Vivian's canoe is so beautiful and David looks great when he is standing in his boat fly fishing. Earlier, I had a decent shot at bonefish whisperer as he poled along looking for tails. The only problem is with me photographing fishermen is that my camera and/or lens scares the fish away. Consequently, I rarely get a photo of someone actually fishing!

The tide was continuing to roll out and finally, more birds began to appear along the shoreline. That's when I came up on a little blue heron that was eagerly catching worms and shrimp that it hardly noticed me as I attempted to capture him in the act. A green heron appeared out of the shadows but was not as animated as the little blue. With a little time spent with these two birds, I decided it was time to leave.

Next weekend, I will be attending a macro photo workshop with Roman Kurywczak. Going to be learning about diffusers and reflectors, not that I will be using those tools in the canoe (well, maybe in the creeks???). But, since Roman is also a landscape photo expert, I plan to sneak in some questions about that. If I am lucky, may get out on the bay again this week before I begin the semester. Maybe Deering next time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chokoloskee and those storm clouds: part III

Never ceasing to be beautiful and amazingly alive are the summer storm clouds that make any day on the water interesting and sometimes precarious. Despite all the clouds and rain, I didn't see one lightning bolt until I was in my car heading toward Miami. Saturday's storms never came into the bay area and simply skirted around from the south and the west side. Running parallel with the large darkness above, I paddled some after leaving the roseates and putting away the large lens. While paddling, the sun light came in, brightening the mangroves with the angry clouds hovering above. It's irresistable to me, the contrasting mangrove reflections.

The next morning was just as beautiful but in a way that allowed me to photograph the white terns and juvy pelicans at the pilings. Even with the bit of rain I got while paddling (which was a relief from the heat), there was not much wind, an unusual thing when storms come through. This was another enjoyable summer morning on Choko bay when I know my time on the water is limited.

Lovely to me, mangroves will never get tiring or boring. They, like the fauna on the water, present unique photo challenges. But you really can't photograph mangroves well enough without those clouds. Clyde Butcher understands that better than anyone. I listened to him tell of how he would go out to the Ten Thousand Islands with a boat captain and would find that the captain paid no attention at all to the clouds. It was as if Butcher had opened the captain's eyes to the Everglades. Butcher watches clouds and can read their story and never knows what the ending will be until he gets to it. He simply watches and studies, and knows that the clouds are as much a part of the mystery of the Everglades as the mangrove roots that walk on the water. He knows that those clouds are formed by the very same water and trees he photographs. He understands the necessity of those clouds and better than most, can capture what looks like a common Everglades scene and turn it into something spectacular and unique, in black and white.

Maybe color is not a bad alternative, maybe there is a way to photograph these scenes and present them in a way that makes even the most remote character pay attention. I doubt that my little photos will fascinate very many beyond myself and the few who basically feel the same way I do about the Everglades, but nevertheless, I continue to capture them, over and over and over again.

Chokoloskee and the tern wars: part II

Two days on Choko Bay. I knew I would have to contend with possible storms, skittish birds, oyster bars and a fast rising tide. So what's new on this bay, one of the most challenging places to photograph birds. After realizing that roseates would not be photographed, I had to look for something else. the storm clouds can often be great subjects if the ligting is right, and it was much of the time (I'll post those on the next blog). I also had to get over the fact that while my gunwales were silenced (see previous post for the meaning behind this), it was the screeching of my boat hull against oyster shells that alerted the birds to my presence. Which is why I decided that Biscayne Bay was the better choice for my stealth strategy. But anyway...

I was hoping that one of my favorite chokoloskee bird subjects would be available this weekend, although I had thoughts that early August might be too early. For the past several years, I have found that the sandwich terns and few herring gulls appear in September after having been absent for some time. With an incoming tide, they turn up near the marina where there are several pilings. The sandwich terns are in great number consequently are continually competing with each other for precious piling space. Sometimes, they clash with a large brown pelican. This is where the fun begins. I was so happy to find that the sandwich terns were back, in full force.

Here's the part I like about photographing the terns in this spot. First, I can set up easily with good light (sun behind me). I am near the marina and in an area where there is no boat traffic, so I have lots of choices for spots to hang out and anchor or stake out if the tide is low enough. Fights ensue constantly as one bird bullies another off a piling. On a few occasions, a pelican will fly in and knock a tern out of the way. In fact, I photographed a scene where this happened, and when I looked at one of the photos, the pelican's foot was clearly planted on the poor little tern that was attempting to get out of the way. Ouch!

By the time I arrived on Saturday, the sun was uncovered but it was high, not a good set up for flying birds. I looked for banking shots but the birds were too fast and often the pilings got in the way. The wind was such that birds were not landing toward me, so getting a good light on the wings was near impossible. I didn't bother with the flash because I was ready to get off the water and I knew I would be back the next day. BTW, it was painfully hot and humid on the water this weekend, lots of no see ums as well.

On Sunday, I got back to the marina much earlier than the day before. The storms were more threatening and were coming closer to the area. I wasn't sure how much time I would have, so I got there as early as possible. I spent about an hour and a half with the terns using my flash. For about half that time, the lighting was exquisite. What made it so were the very dark clouds in the background. The only problem was that it would be down pouring soon and I needed to get off the water before that happened. I still needed to load up the gear and boats and wasn't keen on doing that in driving rain. Soon, even the sun was covered in dark clouds, so no point in continuing.

I managed a few decent shots of the terns, but found it difficult to capture them in flight. The best shots did not come out sharp enough and were promptly deleted. Another issue that popped up on several photos was the ugly piling (notice the one above with the pelican, and that one is relatively attractive compare to others). The two photos below are keepers but keeping to my theme of the week, there are issues with each. The first one was shot on Saturday at high sun. Note the shadows riddling the scene. The second was shot during one of those exquisite lighting moments and the bird's wings are nicely displayed. But, its head is down and its right leg blends with the beak. More separation of the foot and beak and a slight head turn would have made this a better shot. These shortcomings simply keep me coming back, to try, try and try again.

Chokoloskee and learning: part I

So much to learn, so little time. So many errors, so many uncorrected. No one is perfect, but dang, it seems that every photo I consider at the top among a batch has some defect, missing element or something not right! Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking for sympathy, accolades or any form of reaction from anyone. But can the reader relate to this? If you identify your photography pasttime as anything more than a whimsy, I think you can.

While coming to terms with the fact that shooting from a canoe has several limitations and special challenges, it occurs to me that taking a hobby and seeing it evolve into a passion is wrought with cyclical highs and lows. It is during those low periods that one is closest to dropping out. I don't know why but for whatever reason, I recognize these low periods that are characterized by extreme amounts of self doubt and criticism as opportunities to achieve a higher level of sophistication. These periods are chaotic. But with the proper amount of resolve, chaos becomes order. And from order comes better photos, or at least that is what I hope for. Bring it on.

From a low period, I realized I needed to make a change to my boat. My approach toward wildlife is quiet, but sometimes that is interrupted by unintended noise coming from my boat. Because of how and where I am photographing, approaching wildlife is very difficult. My Kevlar Wenonah has aluminum gunwales and while they are practical, they are noisy. I have two serious noise issues when attempting to approach wildlife. One is from the paddle which I can set down across the aluminum gunwales/thwarts or place it on the floor with the paddle end at the bow of the boat. The other noise is from the metal carabiner that attaches the stake out pole or the anchor to the boat. When the line is pulled from the water, the carabiner is pulled out over the gunwales, which makes noise.

Finally, I came to the realization that I cannot be as astutely aware of these potential noisemakers to avoid them as I would like to be. I needed to foolproof my boat so that I would not have to think about it. I went to Home Depot and got some pipe insulation, cut them to size and attached them to the gunwales between me and the bow. I placed one on the front thwart and the bow deck thwart and got 4 T-shaped insulators for where the thwart in front of me and behind me attach to the gunwales (see photo above). Those four points are where the carabiners contact the gunwales. With the gunwales covered, I can lay the paddle across them without concern for noise. I also placed a foam pad right at the bow where the paddle is set on the floor. Finally, I have a noise-proof boat! I tested it this weekend on Chokoloskee, a notoriously difficult place to photograph birds.

There is one other learning experience I have had. To shoot acceptably sharp photos of birds, especially those in motion, I needed some light power. To get it, I have turned to two different strategies. The first is the external flash. I know a wildlife photographer who never shoots without a flash, regardless of time of day. I'm not quite at that point when it comes to flash photography, but I am seeing more uses for it. The second strategy has to do with overcoming my fear of high ISO settings. Sony is not known for low noise at high ISO, so I avoid it as much as possible, typically not going higher than 400 (on the a700 400 is fine, but with the a100, it is not). I know of another photographer (sony user) who never goes higher than 200. OK, well, let's see how far I can push the limits of this Sony camera. To my surprise, I can jump it up to 800 and not have unreasonable amount of noise. In fact, I rarely shoot under 400 now a days and often sit at 640. With the higher ISO settings, early morning shooting is much more productive and I can use faster shutter speeds without compromising light. With the flash, high sunlight or cloud cover no longer mean putting away the camera.

I had two mornings in a row on Chokoloskee Bay. Low tide was at about 7 am but with the new moon, the incoming would not take long after that to completely cover the bay. I have found that while paddling on the rivers in the backcountry and out toward the gulf, there is always a slack tide between shifts. Not on Choko Bay. Instead, water is either rushing out or rushing in, no in between. It would not take long for the tide to come up this morning, which is why I wanted on the water before sunrise.

From a canoe, I can't expect much in the way of photos at such an early phase of the sunrise. It's dark, I cannot use a tripod, and flash might work sporadically with close birds, but unlikely since the birds don't let you get that close. The sky was significantly covered in thick dark storm clouds, mostly to the west and north. It was clear where the sun would be rising, which met good lighting with interesting background, especially if white birds were involved.

And they were. I let the lens defog as I made the southerly paddle toward the bird area. The two mangrove islands butting up against the channel looked as if they were covered in snow from a distance. Of course they were white birds, primarily ibises. By the hundreds, these birds roost in concentration throught the night and promptly on cue, begin to fly off as the sun begins to rise. By 7:30 am, the trees are completely empty of birds. Today, I was sitting pretty much under their flight paths. Eventually there was enough light to try the flight shots. I sat and watched and listened. I love to hear their beating wings as they fly over so close that you could spit up and hit one. They do it with such single minded instinct that their dark brown (juvy's) or brilliant blue (adults) eyes stare straight ahead to some distant point that will serve as a landing spot for their continual quest to stop hunger.

Many of them landed among the nearby oyster bars. There are concentrated areas where many birds are snowy egrets, another area where many birds are tricolor herons and still other areas that are mostly roseate spoonbill territory. Among all of these clans are the ibises, so well numbered they are. From what I could see from the flight of birds, there must be at least a few hundred birds in those two small islands. More power to them, those Chokoloskee chickens. By the way, in great number, they do sound a lot like chickens clucking.

Anyway, I wanted to try out my new and improved stealth technique. On only one occasion each morning did I have a chance to try it. On both occasions, it was more the sight of me than the sound that kept these birds on their toes, so to speak. They lost patience with me after about 15 min or so. They would not let me approach closer than 50-60 ft before flying away. I suppose the quiet gunwales did work and bought me a little more time with these birds, but I think that the true test will be on Biscayne Bay. Biscayne birds seems less inclined to fly away to a far distance. There are too many hidden places in near Choko for these birds to go, Biscayne doesn't have that as much with 'civilization' right up against it.

Here are a couple of lucky shots of ibises in flight. Both were among several others, but I rarely have luck shooting several birds in one frame, at least to where it is worth posting. The gray background and the sweet morning light on the birds make these shots special. They are both relatively sharp. The one of the juvy will not go beyond this post because the bird is flying away from me, although I love those juvy feathers and am glad I got a shot showing most of them. The other shot is quite good, although cropped more significantly than I like, so the noise level is a bit high. Using ISO at 800 allowed me to shoot both of these at 1/800, the lowest shutter speed I can go when shooting birds in flight.

For the next post, I talk about my fun time with the sandwich terns, one of my favorite Choko subjects.