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.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

High wing loads and the diving cormorant

Back in 2008, I spent several hours over the summer at a double-crested cormorant rookery to photograph and observe the birds. In my attempts to photograph them, I immediately learned three things about cormorants; they are terrible at taking off, they fly very, very fast, and their only means of obtaining food is through diving.

I have a very strict rule for photography and that is "know your subject" and use whatever means and resources you have to learn. Of course, time in the field is the best way to learn. When I sat for hours at the rookery photographing, I had lots of opportunities to practice flight shots and learn flight patterns so that I could anticipate some shots. However, I also believe it does not hurt to spend time reading. Through observations and following up these observations with internet and book research on bird physiology and behavior, my bird photography technique has improved. That's not the only reason for my research, I also love physiology and birds just fascinate me to no end.

Most recently, I was reading up on flight dynamics of birds in the The Sibley Guide. From this reading, I had one of those "AHA!" moments, and it was about the cormorant. I finally put 2 and 2 together and realized the connection between the cormorants flight speed and the fact it must dive for food. Here is my best explanation, and that is cormorants have relatively high wing loads.

Wing load is the ratio of the birds body weight to the area of its wings. For a bird, the cormorant is relatively heavy and although its wings can spread 3-4 feet, the wings are not large enough to overcome its heavy body. What this means is that the cormorant performs poorly in flight. Unlike the white pelican that has a relatively low wing load and can therefore soar for periods of time without flapping, the cormorant must overcome its high wing load with great speeds (which provide greater lift) and continuous flapping. It's also interesting to watch them take off and land. A cormorant taking off looks desperate as it violently flaps and uses its webbed feet to push off the water. The landing looks just as desperate as the bird must slow down from very high speeds and do so quickly by using its feet to skid across the water.

There is another reason for the cormorants poor flight abilities and it is the fact that its feathers are easily water-logged, unlike many other birds that have waterproof feathers. It has to do with the fact that the cormorant is a diving bird that captures it's prey in the water, and can dive to depths of 20-25 feet. In this regard, buoyancy is not a good thing, so the heavier body and water-logged feathers provides the cormorant the means to dive efficiently and quickly. This is also why they spend lots of time perched with wings spread out to dry the feathers.

And that's it! High flight speed and terrible take-offs and landings are characteristics of a successful diving bird. So if you want to practice flight shots, challenge yourself and look for the cormorant.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flamingos sited in Everglades City

One of my images of a flock of flamingos is being exhibited at the Museum of the Everglades through the month of November. Here is a iphone shot of the exhibit that includes the flamingo image hanging on the wall.

The Friends of the Museum put on an artist reception for me on Saturday and I was pleasantly surprised by the turn out. Interestingly, the photo above includes three people that are very intimate with the Everglades; John Kalafarski (park ranger and tour guide) on the right, and Bill Leonard standing next to him. That's my friend Jimmy on the far left, he is an experienced Everglades fishermen. One can only imagine what Bill and John were discussing, but Bill has been paddling in the Everglades for decades (which is an understatement). He helped to build the chickees back when the Wilderness Waterway was new to the park.

Back to the flamingos. One of the best parts of the opening were the questions I received about the images because that gave me permission to talk about the Everglades and Biscayne Bay. My favorite question was "Where did you get that shot of the flamingos?". Someone even asked if I took it somewhere in Miami. Not exactly in Miami.

If was a typical month-of-June day, and it began in Flamingo, Everglades National Park.

At the Flamingo marina I met a friend, Bob Quirk(one of the swamp ape volunteers that recently cleared out some overgrown paddle routes in the park) that would paddle with me back into the area where he had seen the birds earlier that month. In the pre-dawn hour, I drove my car about 1 mile through a pot-hole infested dirt road that led us into the deep, mosquito-infested forest. Before getting out of my concealed, air-conditioned sanctuary, I put a frozen Camelbak bladder into a small backpack and put that on, then I put my bug jacket on over my wide brimmed hat and long sleeve cotton shirt. I velcroed my pant leg openings around my wool socks and put on a pair of thick cotton gloves. Instead of wearing my light weight polyester camp pants that would not provide sufficient protection, I wore heavier canvas pants for this day.

Completely sealed and protected from harm, I stepped out of my car to be immediately greeted with the loudest most incessant high pitched sound I have ever heard. It was a mosquito festival and I was crashing their party. Once I got over that shock and realized that they were only buzzing and could not penetrate my barrier, I went about my business of getting the boat with camera gear into the water.

We had a 3-mile paddle before arriving at the area the flamingos were seen. Once in that area, the morning sun was out and the temperature was steadily rising. I never removed my bug jacket, but it was not so bad with the frozen Camelbak to keep me cool. It did not take long before I was able to drink from it.

The birds were not in the spot Bob had seen them. The space was empty of pink color, but I was kind of happy because it did not provide good lighting. We continued to paddle and just when my heart began to sink with disappointment, I spotted a large pinkish aberration several hundred yards away that stood out significantly against the greens and browns of the mangrove shoreline. There they were, 16 of them, and they were in perfect light. I approached them very quietly and staked out my boat at a distance of about 100 feet or so from the birds. It was perfection. The large birds were feeding along the grass and mud and so much interaction between them was observed. It was mesmerizing to watch them.

Long story short, I stayed with them for a good 3 hours. The sun blazed hot, but I never felt an ounce of discomfort. It was one of my best experiences in the Everglades.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Working with negative space

I've experimented for several years with images that include lots of negative space surrounding the birds. I started this on Biscayne Bay when the sponge farm sticks were planted in the water (they are gone now) and gulls, terns and cormorants would roost on them. I had lots of fun photographing the scenes on a calm day when the water and sky appeared as one big white space and the birds and sticks became silhouettes.

Now, I look for these opportunities more often. On Florida Bay near Snake Bight is a large flat where hundreds of birds spread out over the open water. In the morning, it is very difficult to paddle into a position where the bird are front lit. So sometimes, I do the opposite and paddle on the west side of the mud flat so that I am facing the sun. With this scene, all the wading birds are silhouetted. With lots of birds spread out, I adjust the aperture so that I get a long depth of field, f16-f22. Then, I increase the ISO and/or reduce the shutter speed to brighten up the water as much as possible without blowing out the dark birds.

For post-processing, I adjust the water and sky to become completely white, and adjust the dark birds so they are completely black.  Then, I add or reduce the space around the birds to get the composition I want.

There is something very appealing about images that have lots of negative space and are monochromatic. For me, it is the simplicity that is very calming and doesn't challenge me so much. I get enough stress and challenges throughout my workday, so this type of image just makes life simpler, that's all. On top of all that, I love the form of a bird and I like it's interactions with the water. Sometimes, these simple images become dynamic, but soothing at the same time.

Whatever it is, it works for me, hope it does for you too.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Firmly on Terra Firma

Occasionally, I photograph without a boat. In fact, I use to do that a lot. Years ago, I spent many hours at Crandon Gardens in Key Biscayne learning how to photograph birds and other animals (iguanas, for instance) on land. I did the same at Fairchild Gardens where I also learned to use a macro lens and flash. On occasion, I would head out to the Anhinga Trail, also where I learned to photograph birds (up close and personal, which never happens when I am in a boat) and spent time doing so with other photographers that taught me many things.

Recently, I have been going back on old images and some of them have been overlooked primarily because I didn't photograph them from a canoe. In keeping with the theme, I passed over many images and am now considering another category of images to display, those that were taken while the canoe was taking a break and resting at home.

The small collection of images comes from my visits to the Anhinga Trail and the nearby Royal Palm camp area. I examine these photos with the intention of spending more time photographing out of the canoe; but of course, the canoe will always come first.