Saturday, December 21, 2013

I love a close-up

Every once in awhile I get out of the canoe and head over to the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades. It is one of those rare times when I can get within inches of a bird due to their tame nature on the trail. Close up photography of certain birds, like the anhinga or cormorant is like a paradox to me. On one hand, the bird's head and beak shape make it difficult to capture an interesting composition. But on the other hand, having the ability to zoom in and out and shoot vertical or horizontal allows you to play with an infinite number of possible compositions. Not only that, the bird will pose in various ways so that the wings, along with eyes and beak become part of the composition. It is an effective way to practice composition.

My attention today is on the anhinga or darter. As the trail name suggests, there are many opportunities to photograph this interesting and beautiful bird (as seen with its breeding colors in the photo above). The anhinga is an amazing aquatic bird. Unlike the cormorant or other aquatic birds, the anhinga does not sit on the surface of the water before diving. Instead, it swims with only its head and neck sticking out of the water. Underwater, it sometimes will spread its wings, like a heron does on land, to create shade that will lure a fish. Once getting its prey, it surfaces and will toss it into the air, catch it head-first and swallow whole. And wow, it can swallow really large fish, like in this image taken several years ago at Shark Valley.

Capturing an anhinga capturing its prey is hit or miss because they dart around the water quickly. But if you hit it just right after the bird surfaces with its prey, you sometimes will have several more seconds before it swallows the fish, giving you time to capture several images at high speed. The anhinga trail is also the location for several anhinga nests, such as the one below shot a couple years ago. The challenge with these is that the nests are mostly out of good view or light and have lots of messy twigs and branches getting in the way. Somehow, I managed to get this shot using flash as the sunlight was off to the side. You might also get lucky and capture the male partner in flight with nest branches.

On my visit today, I concentrated on the close-up shots because, well, that was about the only photo opp available. For these close-ups, often the bird is standing on the wooden barrier that runs along the paved trail. I typically sit on the ground and point upward in order to remove the distracting background which might include the visitor center's roof and various vegetation. The other issue I had today is that the bird faced away from me. To capture good light on the eye, I had to wait for the bird to turn its head back toward the camera, often times when it preened its wings. I love the anhinga's wing feathers and often try to include them in the image.

I stayed with the bird for awhile, as dozens of tourists passed closely, sometimes disturbing the bird but not enough for it to move. I went back and forth between horizontal and vertical, attempting to capture various compositions with a clean background. I used my fill flash and kept the aperture at f10 or 11. With close ups, a greater depth of field is preferred so as to get the entire bird in focus. Flash helps in these situations.

If you want instant gratification with bird photography, the Anhinga Trail is the place to be. But, it comes with a few challenges. Number 1: the wooden barrier gets in the way often for those low perspective shots. Number 2: there is a lot of messy background to deal with and lighting is a bit tricky in places. Number 3: after about 8 am, there are lots of tourists. And last but not least,  the rubber-eating vultures. Right now, I am very agitated with the vultures for eating the rubber tubing that lines the rocker panels of my car. The little bastards were crazy in the parking lot at 7:30 am and going after exposed cars left and right. The park does provide tarps to cover your car, but they don't cover the rocker panels on my car. So I thought I would outsmart the birds and park on the roadway just before it enters the parking lot. Didn't work. But, I still enjoy photographing them, so here is one more image from the infamous Anhinga Trail.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bird Alone

I began an experiment a few years ago with an attempt to isolate a bird from its surroundings. While I do prefer the environment (especially early morning golden light on the mangroves and their reflections), I imagined that seeing only the bird and its reflection in the water with a complete black surrounding would make it "pop" out and provide a unique and interesting image. This began after one morning spent with a great white egret that was successfully catching fish along Biscayne Bay while the ripples in the wind-disturbed water reflected the blue sky, as seen below.

After that, I took it to another level and picked out a couple previous images of white birds and post-processed them to make the effect. This took lots of patience and some Photoshop savvy (trial and error & watching YouTube instructional videos). Mostly, the work was with the quick selection tool and refining the edges before inverting the selection and using curves to darken the surroundings. Despite the power of Photoshop,  I quickly learned that creating a successful image would begin in the field.

Consequently, when on Biscayne Bay, I would look for those opportunities that would make a "bird alone" image possible. This, of course, works best with white birds as I expose for the white feathers. causing most of the surroundings to darken. Darker birds are more difficult to work with as naturally the surroundings will be lighter upon exposure, making it more difficult to get rid of them during post-processing. But, with additional patience, it worked! I even managed to keep the water drops coming from the worm in the bird's mouth in the photo below.

Wading bird images with the bird in completely calm water are very appealing, but there is also an appeal to a reflection that is distorted by moving water. With the "bird alone" technique, I thought it added a fun dynamic to the image. I love the interaction of the water ripples and the colors of the bird's reflections. Reminds me of black light psychedelic posters from back in the 60s and 70s.

Water disturbed by the bird's motion is yet another element I attempt to isolate from the surroundings. Because of the light reflection, this makes the isolation from the undisturbed water easy.

If you like the effect of these, go back to some old images you might have of a wading bird and see what you can do with it. The key is to maintain the naturalness and avoid a cut-out look. And it doesn't always have to be black!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bird photography on long paddle trips through the glades

It's that time of year when we head into the Everglades for several days of paddling and camping. This year, we will be out there nine days. The long range forecast is looking favorable for our first choice route which will include the Cape, the Nightmare, and some hidden routes between Watsons River and Lane Bay. Very little of my photography during these trips is for birds as most of my bird images are "on the fly" and unplanned. Instead, I focus my attention of the wide range waterscapes and bring a tripod for campsite photography.

Bird photography for me is a study in behavior, light and environment. Consequently, I spend hours in one place, learning and observing while photographing my bird subjects. I can count on one hand the locations where I get 99% of my bird images. Why keep going back to the same place? The reason is with every image I take, there is one better that I strive for.

My canoe trips through the Everglades are quite different and mostly do not allow me to spend much time in one place. Because of this, I have to approach bird photography on these trips quite differently. While it might be frustrating to not have the luxury of sitting in one spot, waiting for the right moment to capture, it is amazing how many pleasant and unexpected surprises there are on the journey. This is why I always have my telephoto lens accessible while paddling, you never know what you will find. 

Because the Everglades never disappoints, I manage to capture birds on these long distance paddle trips and have accumulated a variety of bird images. In fact, I've captured images of species I rarely, if ever, have a chance to photograph on my day trips.

I got to thinking about all that and decided to pull out some of those images of birds that help illustrate the variety and beauty of the Everglades. Although I will use my tripod often on this trip, I know from the past that I will get the telephoto lens out and capture my favorite subjects along the way. Here are a few from past trips, enjoy.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Low Tide on Picnic Key

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I spent a few days in the Ten Thousand Islands, on Picnic Key to be exact. Picnic Key was the first campsite I stayed at in the Everglades National Park almost ten years ago. Since that time, I have visited the island several times and have witnessed its beach change over the years. The most significant change came from hurricane Wilma in 2005. The storm surge decimated the windward side of the islands, including Picnic. The white sandy beach was pushed further into the thick mangroves leaving several trees with only a trunk sticking out of the low tide sand. This made photographing the island very interesting and here is one shot from almost five years ago.

 This latest trip to the island would be quite different from all others as we stayed there for 3 nights. I have based camped two nights on several camp locations in the park, but this is the longest stay in one spot for me. The northeast winds were relentless, making it even easier for me to stay on ground and explore the beach, which is exactly what I wanted to do anyway. I brought three lenses (wide angle, telephoto and macro), two cameras, a tripod and various odds and ends including several Cokin filters. I've been wanting to take such a trip forever and looked forward to spending quality time on the island. I dabbled one morning with my macro lens. One intriguing scene was the water stream designs in the sand. I set the camera on the tripod, turned it vertical and pointed the lens down. Here is one of those images. By the way, macro photography is, in my opinion, the most difficult to master (compared to wildlife and landscape) and it intimidates me to no end. More on that later.
Where I wanted to spend most of my photographing was on the beach at sunrise and sunset, with my tripod set up. I wanted to practice shooting with filters. The challenge would be to find a scene with some appealing foreground. Fortunately, low tide on Picnic Key occurred near both sunrise and sunset every day, providing possible foreground subjects. On the other hand, low tide can look quite messy and now, the tree debris on the beach is not as prominent as it was five years ago. I hoped to find some scenes with a tree or two, or perhaps some tidal pools that would reflect the colorful evening sky.
All in all, I was pleased with the results. The low tide scene gave the images an "other-worldly look to them, sometimes appearing very stark.  And the clouds did not disappoint. Spending quality time on a beach in the Everglades, doesn't get much better than that. Enjoy these sunrise and sunset images.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Practice Bird

Northeast winds relentless at 10+ knots this morning; dark clouds dominated the sky and no birds on the bay. Or at least, no birds to photograph this morning, despite the low tide around 7:30 am. So I paddled around for a couple hours, through the creek and into the canal and back to the launch site by 9:30 am. Never once getting the camera out while on the water.

Back at the launch site, I walked my camera equipment back to the car which was in a parking lot half covered in rain water (Matheson Hammock). This is where a group of about 20 white ibises were hanging out. Sun out, the lighting on the birds was quite nice. I couldn't resist.

There are several reasons for photographing these birds at that moment. First, I haven't photographed a bird in a few weeks, so I needed a fix. Second, I really like white ibises, they are fun and can provide beautiful poses. Third, they were in undisturbed water which added a reflection, always irresistible to the camera lens. Fourth, no matter the conditions (noisy background, man-made structures, harsh light, etc), I can always use the opportunity to practice.

And so I practiced photographing wading birds for about 15 minutes. Getting low to the ground at eye level with the birds would not work today with the background (pavement and other man-made structures). So I broke a cardinal rule and stood up, pointing downward toward the birds and their reflections. From that perspective, I could isolate the bird from everything else, leaving only the water in the frame.

I have one goal and one goal only when I photograph birds and that is to highlight the bird's best features. I do this by attempting to capture them in a variety of poses, I look for clean surroundings so the bird is the main subject, I try to catch light in the eye, and always attempt to highlight the beautiful feathers.

Thanks to the common, urban white ibis for hanging out in a parking lot. Not exactly the Florida Birding Trail, but it will do.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Big Cypress

The Big Cypress Swamp is where I hike in south Florida. There are miles and miles of Florida trails in the Big C, which boasts a maximum elevation of 22 feet. It is the slight variation in elevation throughout the Big Cypress that provides so much variation in vegetation and makes hiking more interesting (even without the mountains!). Here is where the hardwood hammock (on high ground) meets the cypress swamp (low ground) from an unnoticeable difference in elevation, but with quite remarkable differences in appearance. Note the photo above was taken next to the scene below.

It's been several months since I've hiked in the Big Cypress. I am hoping to get back there soon, but my favorite area is currently inaccessible. There is a beautiful campsite north of I-75 called Carpenter Camp that is surrounded by cypress domes, hardwood hammocks, pinelands and marl prairies, all seen in one panoramic vista. Right now, the parking area is closed and there is no place to leave a car safely to access the trail and campsite. But the Big Cypress is, well big, so this might be a good reason to explore other areas.

I would like to find some prime locations to practice landscape photography, the opportunities to be creative are endless out there. For instance, during my last visit I wanted to work with black and white images, so I set the camera to black and white mode. this allowed me to see the results on the LCD for instant feedback. Back home, the downloaded RAW files appeared with their color (this works only in RAW, not JPEG) and it was just a matter of rendering them black and white again during post- processing.

Looks like this winter camping season is going to be filled with lots of wind activity. So this may be a Big Cypress year, more time on land might be a good thing. Here are a few images from previous hikes.