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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Return to Flamingo

It has been over two years since I photographed on Florida Bay, near Flamingo. So I was happy to finally get back to the vast low tide mudflat that spreads across the bay in front of the marina. The Everglades comes alive in the winter and this weekend felt like the first day of the dry season with cooler temperatures and skies clear of rain clouds. Instead, what replaced the bold cumulus clouds were the wispy cirrus clouds, the leading end of a front.

On the water by 7:30 am, I had no expectations as low tide would not be reached until after 2 pm. I paddled in 1-2 feet of water across the flat that would later be covered with wading birds. The photo above shows how the day started. I and my fishing companions paddled east into the sun toward Snake Bight (recently, the park made this a no motor zone). Here are a couple scenes as we approached. The brown pelicans were busy diving. In the second photo, the bird is standing on the "no motor zone" sign. The dark specks are dragonflies which were in great number.

Osprey are plentiful on Florida Bay and their nests are often easily photographed, by land and by water. Today, I watched several of them criss crossing the sky on their fishing expeditions. Here's one with a pinfish.

Within a few hours, the mudflat near the marina channel was exposed and several birds had begun to congregate. First, it was primarily laughing gulls, willets and a few royal terns. One of the challenges of photographing at this mudflat is to avoid the background noise which is the park's very large visitor center and the channel markers. But, I have learned that sometimes, the buildings can offer colorful reflections in the water, such as in this photo.

Later, egrets and herons flew in and joined the mudflat party. Among them were some osprey that had landed in the water. It appeared they were preening or simply cooling off. Here's one of them that was shrieking at another bird.

I approached the mudflat knowing that I would not be able to stay in one spot for long as the water levels declined. This is not where you want to be stuck without water. The mud here is like wet cement. With my canoe, I can glide through 1 inch of water, but I do not want to do that over a great distance. At one point, a reddish egret appeared, quite close to my boat. This is the only location in the Everglades where I have been able to photograph reddish egrets. Every once in a blue moon I see one on a paddling trip, but rarely to photograph.

Now, I concentrated on the dancing egret, but continued to be mindful of the declining water level. This bird is a joy to photograph (but challenging), offering endless poses with its theatrical fishing technique. At one point, the bird came within 15 feet of me. Here's a few photos of this fanciful egret. It has a needlenose fish in one of the photos.

It was getting hot and the sun was fully exposed. Not wanting this day to end, I paddled over to the east side of the tiny island near the marina channel. The birds had almost completely surrounded this island that sits in the middle of the flat. I paddled around in the deeper portion and began facing the west toward the island were a willet was foraging. Several egrets were wandering around but at this point, I was very limited as to where I coul go with the boat. I concentrated on the willet, a dullish type bird. But what attracted me was the light on the water, showing again the red reflection of the building. The pastel blue and red was attractive, even though the bird was not so colorful. Here is one image.

I paddled back to the channel opening. There, a young great blue heron greeted me with a classic flasher pose as it cools off.

What started with low expectations ended several hours later with a stack of excellent photo opportunities. Not included in these photos are the black skimmers, shark tails, jumping mullet and the best of all, the season's first siting of a flock of white pelicans. Yes, winter is definitely here!