Friday, December 23, 2011

A holiday on the Anhinga Trail

For several weeks now, I have had so little opportunity to get out with the camera as I anxiously wait for our yearly holiday Everglades adventure. At last, today I took time away from my busy preparations and headed out to the Anhinga Trail. I try to visit the trail 2 or 3 times during the winter months, but it had been almost 12 months since my last visit. I had no expectations.

I arrived shortly after 7:30 am and was the only one on the boardwalk. The sun was coming out from behind clouds and soon, it lit up the water and grasses. Anhingas, both male and female were resting in trees, but I did not see one nest. Photographing the birds as they rest is difficult with the busy background of the trees and grasses. With the anhinga birds, they will almost always face away from you because you are generally shooting with the sun behind. The bird fans out its wings to warm and dry itself, so you get a beautiful view of the anhinga feathers. As they preen I like to capture the bird with its head slightly turned toward the camera. As these birds can be relatively close, you can play around with many compositions. The anhinga, as a result, is one of the most photographed birds in southern Florida. With a wide enough aperture, the background is blurred out of focus enough to provide a nice bokeh. For the photograph below, I cropped out the top to exploit the panoramic position of the bird. Next, I applied a gaussian blur to the background, in attempt to give the bird more definition.

The large pond was very calm this morning, perfect for photographing a gator or water bird. The thing I like most about alligators is how they appear in the water. Their presence commands attention as they quietly move with a serpetine movement of their tail. One of my best times photographing gators was in Fisheating Creek several years ago. I paddled on to an area that was crazy with sunning gators. As soon I approached, they all disappeared into the water. I sat quietly, not moving and waited. Within a couple minutes, they appeared again with their binocular eyes sticking out of the water. Awesome to capture them like that.

In calm and debris-free water, a single gator stands out, with its leathery skin and dramatic textures. Because of this, I am compelled to photograph them with a lot of negative space surrounding them, whether it is only their binocular eyes sticking out of the water, or their head spaced a short distance from the back, which is separated from the tail. I like back or side light because of the contrast of light on the gator's skin. This first photograph of the big reptile is pretty much as shot, except I lightened the water and converted to grayscale. I really like the spiny tail above the bulky body.

For this next one, I played a bit more with it. This time, I lightened the water, but not enough to remove the ripples in the foreground. I converted to grayscale, and because I liked the pattern in the water, I added warming filter to the scene, while masking the gator.

The next one is also converted to grayscale, except this time, I added a diffuse glow filter to it.

And last, I liked the contrast of the sidelit gator against the reflections in the water. Nothing was done to this photo, except a bit of cropping.

After the gator, I found a purple galinule, which is probably one of the most difficult birds to photograph, at least on this Anhinga Trail. They are rather shy and with the messy surroundings, difficult to capture isolated. Nevertheless, the bird allowed several of us to look on from only a 10-ft distance. I always try to capture this bird with its magnificent feet showing, but this bird did not cooperate much in that regard. Here is one attempt at capturing it as it captures its food.
If you have anything against photographing vultures because you think they are ugly and disgusting, than you will be disappointed on a grand scale here at the Anhinga Trail. Today, there were a few hundred black vultures, literally on the trail. Many in the trees and flying overhead, but dozens of them at your feet. With that, they are irresistible to photograph. I do like the vulture; it has a certain charm and twinkle in its eye. For these guys, I get down at eye level and attempt to capture a portrait with a nice background. For this one, the water and grass served that purpose. Then I wait for that shot where the bird is turned toward the camera. As I am approximately 6-10 feet away from it, I close the aperture (f10 or 11).

Along the canal, I tried to capture a fishing anhinga, but she was almost always behind the grasses, where she seemed to be successful at capturing small fish. A few cormorants were swimming, but I never saw one capture a fish. Usually, the cormorants are good for photographing, but not today. I was there for only 3 hours, a short dose of the Everglades was just what I needed. Now, I will get back to preparing for our trip. Next blog will hopefully be about that trip. I will have the new camera and will be experimenting for the first time with neutral density filters while camping on the gulf beaches. Until then, happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where the canoe takes you

I have always said that the canoe came first and the camera followed. The canoe takes me to these beautiful places where I see fantastic animals. The camera followed because I wanted to preserve those moments; it's since evolved into more than that. This all got me thinking about the idea of feeling in control. I think one can go through life believing they are in control. But step outside of that reality and explore the wilderness and it becomes apparent immediately that absolutely nothing is in your control (I believe this is why so many people do not enjoy being in the wilderness). Out there, the weather, the tides, the water, the animals we try to photograph, none of those things do we have control over.

Out there, you are only an observer. Once you accept that fact, many gifts start coming your way. These gifts are often not easy to come by; they require experience, perseverance and patience, innovation and problem solving, and sometimes just plain luck. As you attempt the challenges, you allow yourself to let some things go, but while one door closes another may open as you become a better paddler, a better navigator, a better photographer. You study the animals and learn their behaviors. You realize that you can photograph the beautiful Everglades, but only on their terms. Negotiate the terms and you will accumulate the many gifts it has to offer. Here are a few gifts from over the years as I explored and learned.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The new Sony a77

Ever since Sony released the a900 (24 mp and full size sensor), I have been waiting patiently for the release of a Sony camera with 24 mp, cropped sensor and shooting speed greater than 5 fps. Finally, Sony has done it with the a77. Today was my first time using the camera in the boat. The location for breaking in the camera was the oyster-laden Chokoloskee Bay. And with 10-15 knot winds and a 96% moon outgoing tide, both the camera and I would be challenged.

I am happy to say, the camera met the challenge and then some. I fought the current and the lighting became difficult; but all told, it was a super day on the water with the sony a77.

The a77 comes with some new features, one of which is the "live view" and the fact that the viewfinder and LCD provide you the same view. Live view provides you a look at the image as it is exposed. This took some getting use to. For instance, once exposed for a white ibis, I turned my attention toward the sky where a brown pelican was flying by. As soon as I focused in on the darker bird, the viewfinder became darkened, showing me the live view of the underexposed image. I don't feel the need for the live view, but it does provide instant feedback and validation.

The live view was a dramatic change, but perhaps the most dramatic was the 8 fps. Wow. It got where I actually set it at the lower speed of 3 fps because I would rifle off several shots with minimal intention of doing so. But, knowing that it has that capability is a good feeling and I know it will be used to its full capacity.

Quite happy with the new camera, most of my attention today was on the ibises that were in great number along the oyster beds. Pelicans were busy diving, and the gulls were swarming. As the morning worn on and the oyster beds became more revealed, it appeared the ibises began catching small fish rather than crabs. It was at this time that the laughing gulls ganged up on the ibises that worked so hard to capture a fish only to have 3 or 4 gulls attack it. With all the action, it was at this point that I realized how well the camera tracked in continuous focus. Images appeared sharper than expected, despite the low light (cloud cover) conditions that prevailed in the latter part of the morning. The true test was seeing the images on the computer. With the 24 mp, the resolution was outstanding and I took advantage of it with some significant crops. The first one below is about 50% of the original.

Bottomline, the a77 delivers.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

River of Grass

The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass. Marjory Stoneman Douglas

I was invited to paddle through the grass and mangrove prairie with some living gladesmen. I and 12 others met somewhere near Mahogany Hammock, dropped our boats into the shallow water at about 7 am, and proceeded to paddle through a vast area of the Everglades never seen before by most of the people on this trip. We started our trip at a hardwood hammock and proceeded through the grasses.

This area is where you find red mangroves of short stature, likely due to the low salinity of the water.The roots of these trees grow horizontally for several feet, branching off to continue the march onward. The mangrove landscape is very different from the tidal region where the trees grow to be several dozen feet high and the hanging roots can be just as long. On this trip, we paddled around mangroves that likely originated from hurricanes Donna and Betsy (1960s) that blew the seedlings inland into the freshwater marl marshes.

The day was perfect in terms of weather, not too hot or windy. We had a window of opportunity that was preceded by storms and ended the same way. For much of the day, the sky looked like a typical winter Everglades scene, an indication that a front was near.

It was a long day of paddling, but the reward was being out there in the company of experienced Everglades paddlers. One can get lost forever in these parts, and we could only imagine the life of the original gladesmen that knew this area like the back of their hands.

Morning turned into noon, and eventually late evening as we returned to our launch site before 7 pm. The sky had already grown dark and thunderstorms loomed near by. While paddling, the rain was barely enough to justify wearing a poncho. The cloud covered sky offered a new view of the mangrove prairie, as the diffuse light intensified the greens. As always, a beautiful time to be in the glades.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. Loran Eisley, The Immense Journey, 1957

Birds and their reflections in the water are one of my favorite subjects. So appealing are images of a bird (or other animal) in calm water that is interrupted only by the animal's actions. Absence of distractions is a necessary component of success. This requirement applies to the water. Therefore, no distractions means no water ripples or waves. As a result, we try to shoot with the right conditions.

So what to do on a windy day when photographing on the water? Realizing the wheel has already been invented, it probably goes without saying that water is dynamic and it reflects light, which is the primary reason photographers love to capture it. Ripples in the water can create a striking and dynamic play of colors from the light of the sky and objects reflecting. In itself, this can provide a beautiful display of abstraction that is the subject of the image. But if you are attempting to photograph an object or animal in disturbed water, the challenge is to avoid having the ripples detract the eyes away from the object. Rather, you might try to use the ripples to frame the object or provide balance to the composition.

I first became aware of the power of water reflections caused by its movement on Biscayne Bay. At first, it was to see what happened when I added ripples with my paddles. I thought it would provide texture to a reflection made by a lone mangrove and therefore, would add quality to the composition. Here is one result of that experiment.

More recently, while photographing a great white egret, I was challenged by the winds that were strong enough to create a constant ripple. The sky was clear blue and reflected on the indentations made by the water movement. All of a sudden, I realized the benefits of this. The dynamic interplay of reflected sky and dark water became part of the composition. Here is one result from that day. You can see the bold blues balanced well with the bold white bird.

When light reflecting from objects are seen in the water, this can add interesting patterns and colors. Here is one I took several years ago. I took several images of this portuguese man-o-war in relatively rough water. Unexpectedly, Vivian passed close by in her boat and the reflections offered a beautiful contrast to the man-o-war.

This weekend, I stayed off the water. With the cooler temperatures and drier conditions, I enjoyed being home where I have access to a small pond that attracts wildlife. The winds were brisk and the water was rippling continuously. In the afternoon sunlight, the colors from the buildings, sky and trees intermingled on the water. So irresistible was the light that I got out the camera and began attempting to photograph the only subject available at the time, the resident muscovy ducks. Yes, they are ugly, but they are plentiful. Is it possible to make an image of muscovy duck appealing enough that maybe someone will enjoy it and look twice? I had fun trying. Here are a couple attempts.

In a boat, I am surrounded by water, so water is a significant component of my photography. It sometimes can keep me from photographing, but more often than not, it is the main attraction. As with my attempt to learn birds and their behaviors, I also try to learn the behavior of water. After all, it holds the beauty of light.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What to do in 15-20 knot winds

Not a good weekend to photograph wading birds on Biscayne Bay. With a southerly front moving north toward south Florida, the winds have been high and the sky quite cloudy. I headed to Biscayne Bay despite all that. The low was scheduled at about 7 am, but when there are northeast winds, there is no such thing as low tide.

The shallow waters that covered the wading bird grasses moved quickly, reminding me of those cold winter days when the wind blows the snow dust across an icy plain. Today, the wind simply blew me toward the opening of the creek, where I could get into some calmer conditions. No birds foraging the grasses, I had not taken the camera out and did not expect to inside the creek. The sky was gray, which diffuses the light within the mangrove forest, perfect conditions when set up with a tripod.

But, as usual, I find something to photograph and today, it became one of my favorite subjects, the golden silk spider. I wrote about my photography techniques for spiders on July 30, 2011. I talk about the challenges of capturing these small creatures from a boat. Today was particularly challenging and the challenge increased as the winds strengthened and the slack tide became a fast moving incoming. But the good side of this was that the water levels were very high, getting me closer to my spider subject.

I found one that was very close, no more than a foot above my head. I had a lot of difficult managing the boat with only the stick it pin, so I rigged up the anchor and used both. This took several attempts and once settled into a position, I still had to twist myself around to get the spider in the best frame. Most of my attempts were vertical, making it a bit more awkward.

The diffuse sunlight was perfect and fill flash would be in order. The ISO was set at 640 and the aperture at 5.6. These choices were an attempt to increase shutter speed to at least 1/400. Once I had the spider in the frame with only white sky, I compensated the meter to +1. This provided a shutter speed between 1/400 and 1/800. I set the fill flash meter at 0 and I was good to go with that.

Soon, the spider became quite dynamic and appeared to be eating small insects before it began moving across its web, from one branch to another. I believe it was trying to renovate the web. The web was low enough that it was not getting the brunt of the wind. It is difficult to photograph the spiders from a boat and minimizing movement takes practice and good luck. But when you add the effects of the wind on the spider's web, photographing becomes impossible from a boat. Today, I was lucky with this particular spider. As it roamed around its web, I attempted several shots of it. This was very difficult with the spider in continual motion, but I kept at it, knowing that my success to failure ratio for sharpness would be low. This was further accentuated by the various background as the spider moved in front of heavy mangrove foliage, pure white sky and everything in between.

I attempt to capture the spider doing something and if it is motionless, try to capture it with a clear background. Pure sky is always nice, especially today as it was white from the clouds. Here is one of those images from today where it is only the spider and surrounding white. Believe it or not, these photos are straight out of the camera. For this particular image, I cropped it slightly and that's it. Note also the abdomen on this one, wider than the other spider.

Regarding the spider that was busy working on its web, I attempted to capture it with various backgounds, but nice even tones. Spider photos with busy backgrounds do not work for me; the spider should pop out of the frame and the background should enhance rather than distract from the main subject. The open aperture today provided a low dof, giving the background leaves a nice bokeh. Normally, I prefer to close the aperture a bit more (f8 to f16) with these spiders, in order to get their legs and body in focus. But today, it was too challenging to attempt these shots with a slower shutter speed and I do not like to go higher than 640 with the ISO. Here are a couple different backgrounds. Enjoy these images of the beautiful golden silk spider.