Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Winter camping in the Everglades

It is in August when Vivian and I sit in our comfortable air-conditioned home when we began to plan our paddle trips through the Everglades, the longest one taken during the christmas/new year holidays. This is the trip we like to plan weeks in advance. Not that we have to, but because we are over the heat of the summer and so look forward to those cooler days of paddling and pleasant, bug-free (sometimes) evenings on a beach or in the backcountry. We have so much fun studying the tide charts and the maps and making our plans while the heat of the summer drags on.

Over the years, these trips have been the impetus for my photography. My inspiration comes from spending several days at a time exploring areas of the Everglades that only a handful of people have experienced in the same way. I have seen amazing things out there. There are special locations that take more than one day of paddling to get to where I have challenged myself to photograph as best I can knowing I may not return to that spot for a long time. The problem is that we often move every day, giving me little time to study a location and often times missing the best opportunities. Many times, I have to wait until the next year to get back to it and conditions may be very different. My paddling trip images are often taken "on the go", which is fine, because these images help me to remember my trips more easily.

But over the years, I have desired, no demanded to spend more time in one place. We call it base camping. Consequently, we have begun to include more base camping into our trips and even spend long weekends in one place. While I love paddling and covering the distance, it is during these base camping trips that I have been able to improve my photography of the Everglades because it gives me time to study the location under varying conditions.

This year, out of necessity (Vivian's recent back surgery) as well as desire, our long trips will include lots of base camping. Our trips will be lower mileage with fewer days of packing and unpacking. During our 10-day trip, we plan to visit only four or five campsites.

Part of my growth as a photographer is to experiment, learn from others, and try to see things in a fresh way as my skills improve. The Everglades is a great location for someone to learn photography because it could take more than a lifetime to see it all. This provides any photographer enough fodder to improve over the years. But having the luxury of going back to the same locations time and time again provides me a different kind of learning experience. Really? How many ways can one photograph the same lone mangrove or driftwood on the beach, or a bird for that matter? I aim to find out.

Maybe we've seen enough beach sunset images to last us forever, but the way I see it, if I am out there and I have to paddle several days to get there, I'll take an image of a beach sunset. But hopefully it won't look like the one I will take the next evening.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Birds Have Character

I can't think of any bird, other than the musgovy duck that rates as low as the laughing gull when it comes to respectable behavior. Not only that, it's so common. Everyone has their favorite or most sought after bird to photograph, the roseate spoonbill for instance. Oddly enough, one of my favorite birds to photograph is the laughing gull. The laughing gull (and gulls in general) has endearing qualities and characteristics that pique my interest. It may not be a noble bird like the osprey, but it is great fun to photograph.

If laughing gulls are photographed, it is mostly during their breeding season. In Florida, this occurs primarily in the Tampa region. Consequently, I rarely get to see them during this time. This is when the laughing gull stands out among other gulls with its black head and brilliant red beak. The mating behaviors are beautiful as well. Here's an image taken from Fort DeSoto in March of 2011. It's one of three or four that I have of laughing gulls exhibiting mating behavior (and it was a dull overcast day).

In south Florida, the time of year that I photograph laughing gulls is in the late summer and early fall months when the birds are not in breeding plumage. I see them by the hundreds on Biscayne Bay. I believe they migrate as their appearance dwindles with approaching winter. I first discovered the laughing gull while watching them roost on the sponge farm sticks located on the bay. Because the roosting space was minimal, the birds constantly fought each other, one bullying another off a stick. When I began noticing this behavior, I thought it would be fun attempting to capture them. And what a blast it was. First, gulls are quite beautiful in flight. Second, when they are screaming at each other, their faces are very expressive. Awesome subjects! And if you are lucky to have the wind blowing to your back, the birds will consequently face you as they attempt to land..

I also noticed that they liked to hang out in the seagrasses during low tide. This can also be lots of fun to photograph. It is here where I see the laughing gull intimidating other birds, primarily the white ibis. I've also seen them do this on Florida Bay chasing the snowy egrets. And of course, where you see diving brown pelicans, you will see laughing gulls. They are so obnoxious!

When it comes to bird photography, everyone has their favorites. Who can compete with the roseate spoonbill or American eagle? For me, the laughing gull beats a pair of spoonbills, most of time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Summer is Over

We all do our best creative work in our own way and in our own space. For some that space is mental space, and the need for chaos and noise."
David duChemin

For me, the years are measured by semesters, 15-week units of time. "Summer is Over" is a mantra of students and teachers. Professionally speaking, it is the beginning of a new year. But in the most meaningful way, this time of year is a transition period where mornings on Biscayne Bay become fewer and far between and time spent in the Everglades becomes frequent. Camping season is around the corner and its going to be an interesting one. But before moving on to that, I reflect on the summer.

In so many ways, this summer was extraordinary. But I think what sticks out most is the time spent learning and practicing new techniques. For years, my summer photography has revolved around birds. I love birds and will never stop photographing them. To me, they are the essence of Biscayne Bay where I do 90% of my photography during the summer months. But Biscayne Bay means so much more to me than birds and like a writer that has many thoughts and cannot get them on paper well enough to accurately present them, I have struggled to photograph the bay in the most accurate way possible. By "accurate", I refer to how well an image appears as it is experienced by the photographer. Is the image accurate to my vision? Most of the time, it is not because I am simply not that good of a photographer.

But here's the thing, I keep trying because I love Biscayne Bay in its entirety; this includes the messiness, the mud, pushing through the grasses to get closer to a bird, even the mosquitoes. And so this summer, I turned my attention away from the birds and discovered new ways to capture the bay. I got of the boat more often and set up the tripod in the water. I used filters to slow down the shutter speed and I looked to the sky where the summer clouds taunted me to photograph them, even at midday. At low tides, the wading birds came out, but I mostly ignored them. Instead, I studied the mangroves and how the clouds and the reflections might interact with them. Because this is what I experience on the bay all the time.

Enjoy this collection of images, illustrations of my short summer on Biscayne Bay.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Dreamy Paradise

"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."
Jack London

Always, I am on Biscayne Bay as early as possible. In the summer, that is typically before 6:30 am and I am normally off the water no later than 10:30 am. Over the years, this routine has provided me so much in the way of creative growth, but with primary emphasis on the birds. However, lately I have wanted to expand, not so much that birds have become boring, but simply because there is so much more out there waiting to be discovered in a creative sense.

Recently, I've experienced a rut. This all came to a head when two mornings in a row, the alarm that went off at 4 am failed to motivate me out of bed. All my canoe and camera gear were ready to go, but I just did not feel up to the trouble of getting the canoe on the water. Instead, I hung around the house drinking coffee, reading and enjoying the overcast sky leftover from the storms that passed through the night. But then something weird happened around 10 am on the second morning. Something clicked and I decided to head out to the bay. Maybe it was from reading the photographer David duChemin who wrote:

"Saying yes to chance happenings and seeing where they lead opens you to ideas and possibilities larger than yourself."

The sky was overcast completely and didn't look like it would change any time soon. What could possibly be photographed in these conditions? I was on the water before 11 am. I loved how the clouds played in the sky and the calm water. And it was amazingly beautiful. First thing I did was find a nice mangrove to work with and proceeded to set up the tripod. I decided that I could attach several filters and get the shutter speed somewhere between 1-2 sec. This would be enough to give the water a dreamy quality. I attempted lots of images, vertical and horizontal and was happy with one of them. With two shots, one metered and focused on the sky and one metered and focused on the tree, I created this image after blending the two.

That's all it took to get me excited about possibilities, despite the challenging lighting. Here's another image inspired by the clouds.

As the day wore on, the tide went out and the shoreline became a messy field of seagrass. This looked interesting to me. With the circular polarizer filter, I handheld the camera and shot several images. I attempted some abstract compositions with the natural colors of the grass and the shapes formed by the reflections from the sky.

At 2 pm, I got off the water, and the only reason I did is because of the impending storms coming in from the west. Finally, my creative juices began flowing again and I was stoked to have discovered another way to experience Biscayne Bay. A fresh photographic study of Biscayne Bay has begun.

"Creativity is the ability to see things in a new way, a way that combines existing things, viewpoints, elements, in a way that hasn't been done, or in a way that uniquely solves a problem. It is, in short, the power of "What if...?" David duChemin

Oh, and one last thing, I checked out a tree house that has been under construction for some time (I find them often on the bay). People have put a lot of work into this one. I don't think it is accessed from land and I have seen paddler boarders in there. How they get away with it is a mystery. If I could go in there and destroy it and haul all the material and trash out of there, I would. The bay has enough trouble as it is.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Uncommon interest in a common bird

Recently on Biscayne Bay, I had a couple early morning hours to photograph the waders along the western shoreline. As usual, the white ibis outnumbered all other birds. Which is why I have so many photographs of them. If you had a dollar for every image of an ibis you've seen that looks like this one below, you would be rich.

So how can I photograph a common bird so it doesn't look so common? One possibility is the juvenile white ibis. Most juvenile wading birds are largely indistinguishable from the adult. Out of the ordinary, the white ibis is one of those birds where the juvenile has brown plumage and over time, molts into its white plumage. This can take up to three years! By the way, I am not the only white ibis wonk out there, check this out. So over that length of time, a juvenile white ibis can appear with different patterns of white and brown feathers. Consequently, the juvenile is more beautiful to me than its adult counterpart.

One last piece of information from the ibis wonk, you see that the adult ibis has black wing tips. The juvenile has to grow into these as well. I read that the black tips of birds (i.e., white pelican, woodstork) can resist wear and tear better than white feathers. Since the wing tips experience the greatest stress, this is a brilliant adaptation. Great for those birds that fly long distances!

Enjoy these images of the common white ibis in its various stages of growth. And please check out my website when you get a chance.