Sunday, December 12, 2010

Miami has Biscayne Bay

I can't say it enough, but every time I am on the bay I feel so lucky to live in Miami. I curse the daily commute to and from work with the constant highway construction, the second worse airport in the country and the high cost of living. But at 7:30 am on a Saturday morning, I can't think of any other place in the USA I want to be as I paddle the bay waters under clear skies, and cool but calm breezes. And the bonus, I live only 20 minutes away. From Deering launch site I paddled out as the incoming tide begun. A few egrets were wading, but mostly I saw gulls and pelicans flying about. The sun was well over the horizon by the time we were on the water, but the coolness of the air made this a very pleasant morning on the water.

I wasn't sure what to expect, I rarely get out on Biscayne Bay in the winter, maybe once or twice. Two years ago in December, I captured photos of woodstorks and a portuguese man-o-war. I wondered what I would see today. I hoped to find the gulls concentrated at the sponge farm sticks, always a fun photo opp. But as I paddled past Deering Estate, the northwesterly winds became more evident. This meant that if birds were landing and taking off from the sticks, it would be in a direction away from me, at least for frontlighting.

I paddled along and noticed several wading birds near the shoreline that runs past the estate. A tricolor heron and great white egrets were scattered about, but none would let me close enough. I continued on and headed toward the sponge farms. There seemed to be many more wading birds taking advantage of the low tide near the channel that passes Chicken Key. Once there, many cormorants were seen flying and swimming. On the other side of the channel was a large flat that contained probably 10-15 great white egrets and about as third as many great blue herons. The area is large enough that no two birds had less than 100 feet between them.

By now the northwest winds were stiff. This is a problem for several reasons today. First, it makes staying still very difficult. I paddled as close to one bird as possible and once staked out, I had to allow my boat to move with the wind, often with bad results. Second, the wind was strong enough that the water was disrupted with ripples, giving the background and foreground too much noise. And third, given the direction of the winds, any bird taking off or landing would be doing so with its back feathers toward me. Case in point, see next photo. For all intents and purposes, this is a successful shot, good exposure, good sharpness and dof, and the background is fine. But, I don't want tail feathers, I want eye contact!

When I started photographing animals, I learned almost immediately that there are 3 requirements of a good photo: clean background, good lighting and interesting subject. A good or excellent photo should have all three of these; perhaps not in equal proportions, but each should be evident. What does Biscayne Bay have to offer regarding these 3 qualities?

Background. The mangrove leaves and roots are an excellent background to white birds, hands down. Where it gets difficult is when the water is so low that grass covers the surface or when the winds, like today, stir up the water. I look for areas close to the shoreline where the wind may have less effect and where calm waters reflecting the mangrove colors offers a beautiful setting. Today, I had messy waters to work with, lots of grass and wind-created ripples. I attempted to overcome that limitation by taking advantage of the pastel-colored reflections of the condominium buildings (I'd much rather they were not there). I waited for a white egret to wade into the reflection. I almost managed it as seen here.

Good lighting. This time of year, light between 7-8 am is optimal, 8-9 am is quite nice, 9-10 am is adequate. After 10 am, not so good, at least for frontlit shots. That's when I try to get creative and go for the backlit or high key shots. The sponge farm sticks have been an interesting subject for this. I played around with that scene where many cormorants were congregating. Very few gulls were around, but that was fine because the cormorants are good subjects most of the time. I set the aperture at f22 and went for it. Here is one result where I converted the end product to grayscale and added an artistic filter. For this type of shot, I would want all the birds to be displayed against the sky and more interesting posing such as wing spreads. I would also want that empty log in the middle out of the photo. Unfortunately, the birds often do not cooperate with us.

Interesting subject. This is the primary reason for me having fewer and fewer "keepers" among my photo collection. At the beginning, every shot was a keeper because every shot was new to me. Now a days, I limit my keepers to those shots that have a certain interest to them, something different perhaps. Birds in a wing spread pose, catching or eating a prey, or interacting with other birds are sought after photos. But even these shots can be most unattractive with cluttered background (other birds interfering, out of focus branches in the foreground, man made structures, etc) or bad lighting. Thus, I attempt all three qualities at the very least. Today, I found a couple little blue herons that were fairly cooperative by letting me get close enough for a short period of time when I had good lighting. I like these birds in the mangrove reflections and I've been successful with some good shots of them. Here are 3 taken today. I like the first one with both birds in the frame and both in relatively good focus because they are at about the same focus plane. Having 2 birds in the frame adds some quality to the photo. Also, the background is not bad and provides balance to the composition. The second one has some interest with the wings spread, but the face appears a bit dark. I would prefer the bird had turned its head slightly to its right. The third is a classic pose, one I have captured many times. However, there is no bait fish in beak, rendering this photo as one among many (every bird has a common pose). But, I still like it and didn't mind the ripples in the water as it seemed to add some dynamics to the photo.

As far as photos taken today, none was considered a "keeper", meaning I will not delete these, but will likely not use them for any thing else (prints, contests). Here's an egret with a lizard fish. I cropped out a significant amount to give it a cleaner appearance. Such is photography from a canoe.

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