Monday, August 9, 2010

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment