Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spider and I

Spider and I sit watching the sky
On a world without sound
We knit a web to catch one tiny fly
For our world without sound

We sleep in the morning
We dream of a ship that sails away
A thousand miles away
(Brian Eno)

I can't help but think of Brian Eno's haunting song "Spider and I", a flashback from decades ago. Now, I hear the song in my head when I paddle into the creeks of Biscayne Bay. If you paddle through any mangrove creek in the summer and look up every few seconds or so, you will see a golden silk (banana) spider and her very large orb web above you. So it is that one of my favorite past times is to get into the creeks and search for spiders and attempt to photograph these creatures.
It isn't easy and many would say, "Why bother?" when you can walk in a park and find the spiders at eye level. Indeed, why photograph an ibis from a canoe when you can find them in parks as well? It's quite simple why I bother with it. First and foremost, the challenge and learning to get better at it. But I think the primary reason I do it is simply because the spiders are as much a part of Biscayne Bay as the birds and sharks. So why not photograph them?

What goes into photographing this awesome spider involves several attempts at keeping the boat in the right place and minimizing movement. Noise and closeness are not a problem; the spider does not see, but rather senses vibration. As long as I do not disrupt the web, I can stay with a particular spider without it running away.

First, I look for a subject that I can capture with only the sky as a background. Lighting is important of course, but I am finding that with my flash, back light as well as side light can work quite well. I especially like the back light because it illuminates the spider's thin legs, giving them a bright yellow radiance. Before I anchor, I move my boat around a bit and find a good angle from which to shoot. I am often looking straight up and not paying attention to what is level with me and the boat (like branches or my paddle falling out of the boat because I absentmindedly layed it across the gunwales). Once I know where I want to be, I have to figure out how to anchor the boat so I will stay in that particular spot. This is difficult with any amount of current. The key is to anchor so the boat moves away from the anchor with the current. But most important, I need to face the spider. Sometimes, it takes a few attempts to figure out where the boat will end up once anchored.

Once anchored, I can meter the exposure, get the flash ready and start shooting. Taking several shots of the same composition is necessary. The boat is almost always moving, the worse condition for shooting close ups. If the spider is completely on one plane, I can get away with a wide aperture and thus, increase my shutter speed to a reasonable level to get a sharp image. But most of the time, the spider is not on the same plane, rather its head and front legs are facing me and its hind legs and abdomen are farther away. With the size of the spider, we are talking about a 3-4 inch distance between tip of back legs and front legs. And typically, I am no more than 5-7 feet away from the spider. Without a significant dof, I cannot get the spider in focus.

The other morning I experimented with a slow shutter speed, 1/200 and increased the dof with an aperture of f16. With the fill flash, I had an advantage. With lots of attempts, I was pleased to find a few sharp images, with spider in focus. Movement of the boat is inevitable, so I set the focus to automatic spot (not continuous) and aim at the head. As soon as the camera signals I have focus, I shoot instantly.
With practice, the images have improved. Now, my goal is to capture the spider in various lighting and positions, try to find something different each time. In the meantime, enjoy these photos of the golden silk spider. A couple are from 2 years ago, a few from last year and the remainder from this past week on Biscayne Bay.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shoot for Perfection

An amateur photographer that is serious about his or her work strives for that holy grail of photos; that one perfect image where all the necessary elements come together. Everyone wants a perfect image, but what is considered perfect is where photographers part ways. My idea of perfection has narrowed over the years as I have studied photography and joined critique forums where one learns quickly what works and what doesn't among experts. Of course, many preface the issue with the statement "All that matters is that you like it". Naturally. But what I found acceptable one or three years ago is not what I consider acceptable now. I have become formidable in my self-critiques and make decisions that inevitably lead to many more deletions or just not taking the shot.

Four years ago, I discovered a bird rookery on Biscayne Bay. During one summer three years ago, I visited that rookery several times over the course of 3 months or so. During that period I practiced flight shots persistently. It was an exciting game of tracking the incoming flying bird, and attempting to capture it as it grew larger in the frame. Loads of fun. I continue to practice when I visit the different rookeries I have discovered along the way. The birds are excellent teachers.

Exposure and lighting are critical for a perfect shot. The remaining elements depend on how well you take the photo (i.e., sharpness) and the subject (position of the bird, background and surroundings). Here are some photos from Saturday's trip to the rookery on the bay with a little self-critique included. Bottomline - I didn't get that perfect shot.

I like most everything about this photo; the bird is banking enough to receive sunlight on its underwings. The right wing is a bit shadowed, but that can be fixed with some dodging. The background is clean and the bird position within the frame is very good (no cropping needed). Even the head angle is acceptable. The problem - it isn't sharp. Normally, I would delete this photo, but because it has the other qualities, I am keeping it for record.

It's always a good thing to capture a bird with nesting branches in its beak, like this one. The photo is sharp (I always aim at the head) and the branch does not cover the bird's eye. The problem- wing position is not ideal, would prefer them to be pointing up; bird is angled away from me slightly, would like to see a slight head turn toward me. And I cropped this photo to give it relatively less room on the right because the bird was flying out of the frame rather than into it.

I like this photo for a few reasons. First, it is adequately sharp. Second, the bird is flying toward me and at an upward angle. And third, I love the background against the white bird. Problem: not close enough, would like more bird in the frame. And this photo was cropped about 20%.

This is a typical scene in the mangroves, a bird about to land. The bird is sharp, it isn't covered by a foreground leaf or branch and the wings are outstretched nicely. Would rather capture it above all the heavy foliage. The problem: the bird needs to be turned toward me, preferably full frontal. Lateral positions can be nice, but they are a dime a dozen so to speak. I can chalk this up to the wind direction. Birds land and take off into the wind.

I actually like the background on this one, it provides a contrast to the bird and it's part of the scene. Those are palm trees in the background and I was lucky to not have a part of a building in the scene. The bird is sharp and angled toward me. And the little branch is not covering or shadowing the face. The problem - the wing position is not ideal, would like to see more of them with the bird at a steeper angle. As they are, they are shadowed. And I would like a separation between the bird and the mangrove leaves.

And last, the photo at the top. Not a flight shot, but a very nice bird pose. The bird is sharp, the background and environment are clean, allowing full view of the bird, including its feet. The bird is slightly angled toward me providing a profile that allows us to see its breeding plumage. The lighting is excellent as well. For a still shot, it's acceptable, I like the leg position of the bird and that it is standing above the leaves. The problem - it isn't a flight shot!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The ibis: last to leave, first to come back

This morning on Biscayne Bay, the outgoing tide reached its low sometime around 10 am. The number of waders increased as the morning wore on and the water levels decreased. I had a new and improved stake out pole with me and it worked perfectly. And I had the entire bay to myself, just me and the great white egret, the white ibis, the little blue heron and the tricolor heron. As always on this bay, the birds have lots of space and keep a good amount of it between me and them. But, a few ibises let me approach them as they preened and posed nicely. So today, I am thinking about the white ibis, one of my favorite birds to photograph.

Word has it that the white ibis is the last to leave before a hurricane and the first to come back after the storm. It's show of bravery may also be related to the fact that the white ibis suffered the greatest death rate among all species in August 1992 as Hurricane Andrew paved its path of destruction through Biscayne Bay, Big Cypress and the Everglades; all roosting and nesting areas for the white ibis. I came to south Florida five years after that hurricane. My awakening to birds began soon after and I could not help finding great delight in seeing small groups of white ibises feeding on someone's front lawn as I drove through my neighborhood. And when they showed up one day on my lawn, I was thrilled. Yes, they do cluck like chickens and have been referred to as "Chokoloskee Chicken" by those gladesmen living on the island. They have a funny honking noise too, and when they turn their head a certain way, they remind me of the big nosed comedian, Jimmy Durante.

Amusing or not, the white ibis brings me joy. It is a constant reminder that I live in a metropolis that intermingles with one of the most beautiful and robust (yet fragile) wildernesses in this country. I am lucky to be here and glad that these common birds are as common as they are. Now, let's get through this hurricane season in one piece.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Finding magic on the bay

I had low expectations today; SSE winds were relatively strong. Not so bad for paddling, but far more than enough to stir up the water to make photographing from a boat difficult. Low tide was around 6:30 am and a fast rising incoming would be complimenting those winds enough that I really did not expect to take many photos. From the Deering launch, I watched the sun rise over Chicken Key. There were enough scattered clouds to give the sky some color. Here is how the day started.

About a half dozen long necked great whites were scattered around the shallows near the launch site while the rising sun cast a beautiful orange on the water. Silhouettes of these birds feeding in the water are quite beautiful with the warm morning light. But as can be seen here, the rough water was not going to let this work.

I paddled out to face the birds with a back light. The sun moved in and out of small clouds, pretty much the entire morning. Of course this challenges my metering. I noticed some smaller birds clustered over by the people's dock. When I got there, I attempted to stake out my new pole. If there was only one item I could bring aboard my boat along with the cameras it would have to be the stake out pole (OK two items, I am legally required to have a PFD). I cannot photograph from my canoe without a stake out pole. Hands down, it is my most important tool for photographing from a boat. Sometimes, the water is too deep for it, but not often. My tried and true stake out pole recently broke (the tip broke off). Vivian made another, about 1/2-in thick pole used for holding up plants. It's made of steel and is flexible. I stuck it in the water and it caught hard rock. I tried to stake out but no use. The pole bent and when I tried to bend it back in shape, it broke. Long story short, with a rising tide coming in, I had no stake out pole and there were birds feeding everywhere. Fortunately, the water was shallow enough that I could plant a foot on the ground.

After some time, I headed back over to where the great egrets were still feeding. One bird was relatively close to me. I scoped it out and quietly approached it. GWEs tend to not have patience with intruders as a rule. But sometimes, you come on to one that is being so successful with fishing that it doesn't take notice of much else. It's simply focusing on the fish. Today, the birds were feasting on pinfish. This bird appeared to catch a fish at a rate of about 1 per 1-2 minutes. Lots of photo opps with this guy. Using my foot, I followed the bird along the shoreline. It continued moving parallel to the shoreline, never attempting to get away from me. After some time, it started moving closer to my boat. I was soon shooting at less than 140 mm.

The bird gave me lots of opportunities for various lighting effects and a combination of vertical and horizontal shots. The sun continued moving in and out of cloud, but mostly out. I must have spent a good hour with this lone bird until it flew off toward the mangroves. Just as well, the water levels were rising enough that I would no longer be able to hold my boat still.

I paddled on and decided to go into a couple of the creeks to find the golden silk weavers. They usually start coming out in the summer months. This is when you can paddle down a mangrove tunnel and see a continuous row of female spiders above your head. Today, I found several and many of them with their mate. The male spider is about a fifth of the size of the female. Here are a couple shots. The first is a couple with what looks like a cluster of leftover meals. The second photo is a shot of a female gorging on a beetle. Her head is buried in the bug's thorax.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The seagrass bed of Biscayne Bay

The shallow bay grasses serve as a nursery to many marine species including crab and shrimp. As you paddle in the crystal clear water, you can see the grass covered sea floor quite clearly. Many living things hide in these grasses and often you see them. Occasionally, I come up on a southern or spotted stingray and I will watch it dart away gracefully. Recently, I watched a few infant bonnethead sharks swim around and follow our boats as we paddled north between Blackpoint and Chicken Key. Shark are a frequent siting here, much more often than dolphin and manatee. Last year's freeze killed many marine life. This year, things seem to be getting back to normal; I am noticing many more blue crab this year. This is good news for Biscayne Bay and all the life it supports.

Where there are shallow grass flats, there are birds. Today, I expected high easterly winds, but with the low tide at about 7 am, that would not pose a problem. The grass was exposed for an extended distance from the mangrove shoreline, meaning that the birds had lots and lots of space. This is more challenging for photography and sometimes, I wish I carried a 600mm lens on the boat (that would require a tripod). But then again, part of the fun is trying to see how close a bird or birds will let me get to them.

Today, there were a few cooperating birds, each very much involved with catching crab, shrimp, puffer fish and tiny bait fish. There were a handful of ibises at first, but then more began to congregate in an area near the shoreline and quite far away from me. Some yellowcrown nightherons (both immature and adults) were scattered about. One great white egret started my day as it fished at the edge of the low tide grass.

I focused in on a yellowcrown nightheron that has chased down a blue crab and caught it in its beak. For quite some time, the bird worked on the crab and would drop in in the grasses and then proceed to jab it with its sharp beak. Eventually, the bird had only the crab's body and soon would have it cracked open. I was not able to get close to the bird, maybe a 100 feet eventually (pushing my boat in very shallow water), and this photo below is cropped about 50%.

Almost camouflaged in the mangrove silhouetted waters was a green heron. It was working a small area and allowed me to come within 20 feet. I got as low as I could in the canoe and followed the little heron for about 30 minutes as it caught tiny bait fish.

One of the challenges with capturing birds in these shallow grass flats is to get a clean area surrounding the bird. As you can see in these photos, there are all kinds of grassy debris and mangrove sprouts interrupting the water. On the otherhand, the grasses can offer an interesting scene and after all, it is naturally where the birds are on this bay. I try to find a combination of clean and natural composition, one that illustrates the true Biscayne Bay. Enjoy these photos of Biscayne Bay grasses and the birds that thrive in them.