Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Wild is Essential

When I am in the Everglades or Biscayne Bay, I think about those individuals that made it possible. For instance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who was more inclined to meet friends for cocktails to watch a Miami sunset than to wonder into the 'glades (and did not mind admitting to it), saved the Everglades almost single-handedly. I think about the politicians who cared enough to allow bill after bill to be passed until one day, Everglades National Park was created and several decades later on another day, Biscayne National Park began its life.

And so here we are in the middle of a metropolis that constantly struggles between consumption and growth, and preservation of precious wilderness. The bay that casually shoulders up to Miami teeters on the fence, potentially falling one way into destruction. Ignoring the bay and those that know it well because of its sea grasses and the wildlife it supports will be just the nudge needed to push it over the edge. Thank you Lloyd Miller, Juanita Greene and Lancelot Jones for saving Biscayne Bay from doom and making it the only aqautic national park in our country. Thank you Ernest Coe, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and George Melendez Wright for giving us Everglades National Park, the first to be created for the sole sake of saving its diverse wildlife.

Thank you to all those individuals that dedicate themselves to the preservation of our wilderness. Thank you for Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, South Florida National Parks Trust,and Love the Everglades Movement just to name a few.

What got me thinking about all this is what happened this morning on Biscayne Bay. I was paddling along the western shoreline and the low tide was allowing the birds to scatter over a wide range of seagrass. About 1/4 mile away, I noticed two white birds, most likely great white egrets so I thought. Then one took off and flew towards me and landed about 100 feet in front of my boat. It was not a great white egret, it was my albino yellowcrown nightheron.

On May 26, 2012, I discovered the albino bird. I contacted David Sibley who confirmed that it was indeed an albino yellowcrown nightheron. I contacted Biscayne National Park to let them know and that's when I met Ranger Gary Bremen who later allowed me to exhibit my work at the Dante Fascell visitor center earlier this year.

The albino appeared to me after that first encounter, the last time was in June 2013. Since then, I wondered if the bird was still alive. I worried about it, hunting at night with its obvious white feathers. I wondered if it would have the opportunity to reproduce.

When I saw it today, I was so happy it brought tears to my eyes. The albino appears to be healthy and doing well. It's home is the aquatic wilderness of Biscayne Bay, never taken for granted.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Playing with multiple exposures

Out of my normal routine, this summer has been a blur of non-photography activities occasionally interrupted with mornings on Biscayne Bay, paddling around Chokoloskee or visiting Fairchild Gardens. Otherwise, I have been holed up at home which has given me lots of time to research, gather inspiration from other artists, and hatch new ideas.

Feeling antsy after the Biscayne Bay exhibit, I wanted something new in my photography and this has led me to using the tripod more often. That and the fact that I am suffering from carpel tunnel syndrome and trigger thumb (which has now evolved to trigger thumb and finger). It's my own fault. I tried using a monopod in the boat especially during those long hours of sitting in front of birds, but it is cumbersome and rendered useless with vertical shots. Having put up with on-again off-again numbness and discomfort in the hands and wrist, I need a new game plan. For the birds, I am going back to using the monopod (probably upgrade it to allow more leverage). But lately, I have been using the tripod on land more often. I am officially on another steep learning curve.

One of the techniques I have been exploring is multiple imaging, which basically requires use of a tripod. So far, multiple imaging for me comes in two versions. One version is the well known technique of stitching horizontally or vertically aligned images into one. Professionals that create these types of images rely on important (and expensive) hardware to get the job done right. But with my limited resources (a typical ballhead on the tripod), I can stitch some images together without noticeable parallax distortion. Here are a couple waterscapes, the first using the tripod (3 images) while out of the canoe and the second one handheld while in the canoe (2 images).

I've also tried the panoromic stitching with a common iguana. This reptile is a perfect multiple-image subject because it is long and stands still for long periods. The first shot is a horizontal pano of 3 images and the second one consists of 2 images stitched vertically.

The other multiple image technique that I am experimenting with is blending multiple focus points. This is something that macro photographers do quite well. However, it requires more work in the post-processing steps. I tried this out yesterday at Fairchild Gardens on a couple lubber grasshoppers (with their large size, they are great subjects for this practice!). I was using my 70-400mm lens and I shot at 250mm for one image and 400mm for another (the greater the focal length, the lower the DOF). I set the aperture at f11 as this offers good sharpness. Because of the nearness of the subject and the aperture chosen, the DOF would be limited to less than an inch at 400mm and about 2 inches at 250mm. This meant that when I spot focused on one part of the grasshopper, much of  the remaining grasshopper would remain out of focus.

To get the entire grasshopper in focus, I took two images to combine into one. Use of the tripod is essential because the images must be identical to the nth degree. In Photoshop, I used a layer mask to blend the two images by layering the sharpest portion of one image onto the other image. For instance, for the first image below, I focused on the top lubber's face for one image and the bottom lubber's midthigh on the other. With the layer mask, I layered the top lubber's head and upper thorax into the other image. It appeared to have worked!

There are plenty of tutorials from the experts on this method and I really could not recommend one specific one (I seem to go from one to another and pick out bits of information that work best for me), but here is one example.

Another use for multiple images includes a combination of multiple exposures and multiple focus points. Practicing indoors where you have natural light coming in through a window is great for this technique, as seen below. When I exposed and set my focus point for the inside, the outside area was overexposed and slightly out of focus. For the second image, I set the exposure for the outside (2 stops down with the shutter speed from 1/3 to 1/13 sec) and focused on the tree. In Photoshop, I used the layer masking technique above to blend the outside with the inside. The window frame serves as a rigid barrier, making the blending much easier.

I don't know where all this will go, but I am having fun so it does not matter. At the very least, I hope it inspires another photographer to try some new things. The possibilities are limitless.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Favorite Places

In south Florida, there are special places where I love to photograph. Although exploring the vast world is very appealing, I believe that photographing in one place again and again for many years is an opportunity for growth. It reminds me of an old story that stuck in my head for years (I read it in grade school). The title of the story is "The student, the fish and Agassiz", where basically the student is tasked with examining a dead fish specimen for several days until he learns the details of the fish adequately according to his mentor. Observe, study, learn.

It's interesting that this process includes how we view and experience familiar places. As we become more skilled in photography, we also become more skilled at seeing things. I am not a world traveler, but every time I venture into the Everglades, the Big Cypress forest, Biscayne Bay waters, I see new things and I see old things differently, through the camera lens.

The other part of this is seeing the same thing but under different lighting or tidal conditions. This is where being in one place for 24-hr at a time or returning to the same place at different times of the day (or night) can be useful.

Here are some images from my favorite places where I have been many times. It is in these places where I wish to spend long hours as the sun passes from one side of the sky to the other and as the tides ebb and flow. With excitement, I look forward to another visit to each place, coming with new camera skills and ideas, trying new techniques or lenses. It's like experiencing a place for the first time, every time.

There is a specific hardwood hammock in Big Cypress located on one of the side trails of the Florida Trail where I want to hang my hammock and spend the night to photograph all day and into the night.

Deep within the Ten Thousand Islands, there is a magical location where hurricanes have done damage and where fresh water meets salt water. It is a place where I have seen the most birds concentrated in one area. To spend quality time here requires at least one day of paddling to get there and optimal coordination of tides and sunlight direction.

Along the western shoreline of Biscayne Bay, mangroves prevail. There is a specific location where it is, in my view, the most beautiful. I come here many times each year and always, I am mesmerized with the scene.

Mangrove creeks are so inviting but photographing them has always been a challenge for me. There is a particular creek in the Everglades that has captivated my attention and I look forward to spending quality time exploring it from sunrise to sundown.

I love camping in the Ten Thousand Islands, although typically I stay in one place for only one night at a time (moving from campsite to campsite). Base camping (two or more nights) at one location has become more frequent in my camping trips so that I can spend quality time photographing from one location.

Chokoloskee Bay would not be considered a great location for photographing with its close proximity to the island of same name, the numerous boat channels and most of all, the inhospitable oyster flats. But it has been a productive area for bird photography. There is a labyrinth of mangrove islands that border the bay. When I am not photographing birds,I explore this area for hours at a time, alone. Now, I wish to explore it with the use of a tripod and wide angle lens.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Birds in Black and White

Creating black and white images are rare for me. I suppose this is because my eyes are trained to see color and when I view a stunning black and white image, my right brain goes into meltdown trying to figure out how a scene in color can look so much better in black and white. I believe the photographer that created the image must have seen it in black and white and used his or her skills and artistic eye to capitalize on that vision. I would like to be able to do that because I really like black and white images.

I suppose another reason I have not considered black and white is that I photograph a lot of birds. Naturally, with their pretty colors, birds are photographed in color. But color is not the only appealing quality of a bird. Birds have beautiful shapes and forms, and sometimes interesting patterns and textures. Are these not the important elements for a black and white image? In other words, birds have several characteristics that might lend to black and white.

I spent a good amount of time searching for black and white images of birds for inspiration and what do you suppose I came across mostly? Photos of black birds, mostly images with several black birds on power lines or in flight. Interestingly, I also ran across a blog from 2007 written by photographer Mark Graf. He too was pondering this idea about why bird images are rarely black and white? I guess I don't need to re-invent the wheel, but it seems that in 2014, black and white images of birds remain very uncommon. Are we overlooking something or is it that black and white images of colorful birds simply do not work?

For me, black and white images have a strong appeal. Many landscape photographers are masterful at black and white and present powerful images such that when you view one, you cannot imagine seeing it in color because that would only diminish its impact. Can this sort of thing be done in bird photography? Why not, the necessary elements are there.

So I thought I would go down that path that many other photographers surely have been. I needed to find out for myself. Cruising through several images of birds, I picked out several that might work in black and white. I threw out some and found that what seemed to work is when the bird comprised only a small portion of the frame and the remaining portion consisted of repeating patterns or shapes. Clouds worked well too. I also found certain close ups of birds interesting when there was a wide spectrum of tones and textures to work with.

My final thought on black and white images is that the outcome should be more appealing than the color version. That's just one way to approach it. Here are a few examples where I found the black and white version to be more appealing for some reason or another.  

The BW version of the brown pelican places greater emphasis on its eye, and the textures and tones from the beak and head make the bird appear old and ragged.

The BW version of the great white egret gives it a dark mood, the branches and clouds look sinister and the bird looks ghostly. Not sure why that is more appealing to me, but it just is.

I'm not sure why I like the BW version better of the nesting osprey, but it definitely has something to do with the trees and nest, and not so much the bird.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Storm Clouds and Mangroves

It was one of those typical summer mornings, calm waters with virtually no wind and the sky was thick with clouds of various forms and gray tones. Storms were forming all around but never reaching my area. The mangrove shoreline of Biscayne Bay was not glowing as it does when the early sun casts a brilliant warmth. Instead the diffuse sunlight removed the contrasts among the shadowy browns and greens of the mangroves. In short, it was a perfect day to set up the tripod and see what might happen.

I staked out the boat and stepped into the water. The ground is quite soft in Biscayne's shallow grass meadow, so while I sank several inches into it, it was perfect for the tripod legs that would be buried and set firmly.  There were no birds in sight as it was three hours before low tide. I wanted to focus on the mangroves and sky today and took all my photos from the 16-50 mm lens. At first, I looked for a photogenic mangrove or two as I faced the shoreline. After setting up the tripod and camera (and giving the lens plenty of time to defog), I attempted some shots with the intention of stitching 2 or 3 images into one. The image below was created from two images stacked vertically and the panoramic image above is from three horizontally stacked images.

Stepping out of my comfort zone, I am using the tripod more often, particularly focusing on mangroves. With that, I have become obsessed with getting the sharpest possible images. Unlike bird photography where continuous automatic focus is the name of the game, I shoot totally with manual focus when using the tripod. A very cool feature of many new SLR cameras is Live View and I am loving my camera's live view for two reasons, peaking and magnified focus. As you compose the image before shooting, peaking creates red (or another color if you want) blinkies where the image is in focus providing you feedback. Combining the peaking with the focus magnifier allows you to see precisely the focus on specific parts of the image where you want sharpness. While viewing through the magnifier, I can adjust the focus.

After awhile, I turned my direction toward the eastern horizon and saw a beautiful scene. One mangrove stood out among the others about 50 ft in front of me. The clouds reflected on the water and next to the silhouetted tree, they offered some intriguing compositions. I was seeing the scene in black and white and once at home, I converted them.

While photographing the tree, Vivian was off in the distance fishing. The tiny boat was framed by clouds in the sky above and their reflections in the water below. As the boat drifted slowly, I magnified and focused on it quickly to take a shot.

My images from today are very different from most of my photos; but hopefully, this is the beginning of a new way to present the beauty of Biscayne Bay as I see it.