Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Nature photography can be hazardous to your health

Definition of overuse injury: Tissue trauma and chronic inflammation induced by repeated minor trauma (e.g. induced by repetition of same actions, or persistent overload of muscles).

The blog title may conjure up images of photographers climbing rocks, traversing treacherous white waters or getting too close to a wild animal to get that shot. While I am sure there are a number of wilderness-related injuries that come with glory or bragging rights, I bet most do not. I speak of chronic, overuse injuries and the inevitable age-related decline in physical robustness.

I write this using one hand as I recover from carpal tunnel surgery. The surgery took place almost four weeks ago and it has been a long and slow recovery. I have had to place all things relating to my canoe and camera on hold as my hand recovers from the trauma of a 3-pronged surgery.

Years ago I was visiting one of my students interning at a physical therapy clinic. I spoke with a patient, an elderly woman who was receiving ongoing shoulder therapy. She had been a professional photographer in the fashion industry and her shoulder ailments came from years of carrying heavy equipment. How many others have suffered this occupational hazard? Sure, cameras and accessories are lighter and maybe fewer in number compared to the previous photographer's time; but still.

A wildlife photographer requires a big lens. Some of them (i.e., 100-400mm, or 300mm prime with teleconverter) weigh less than  4 lb. With camera, battery, external flash, and 300mm telephoto lens + 1.4x teleconverter, I hold approximately 6 lb. This seems small and falls well below my maximum weight capacity. But, put this into context. Review the image below and note the position of my left hand.

To photograph wildlife, you have to be ready to press the shutter button in an instant, holding the viewfinder to your eye for long periods as you track your animal. When the photo above was taken by my friend Bob Quirk, I was somewhere in the Everglades photographing a flock of 16 flamingos and I treated it like a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. I wanted to capture the interactions of these beautiful and wild birds. I sat there in my canoe for at least 3 hours, pretty much in that position.

I also spend considerable time photographing bird rookeries from my canoe. When I do, I normally sit 3 to 4 hours at a time. The image below was taken at one of those rookeries. Looks like I was attempting to stretch my legs after sitting for a long period. Again, check out the position of my left hand.

After doing this for a year or so, I bought a monopod to support the camera and take the weight off my shoulders, wrists, and fingers. I don't really like to use it as it makes it difficult to maneuver into low positions. After awhile, I left the monopod at home and continued my old ways, carefree and lens holding. On top of all that, I paddle a canoe, requiring many hours of repetitive arm motion and wrist flexion.

So add all that up, hundreds of hours holding 5-6 lb in one position and hundreds of miles of paddling a canoe. Over the past five years, I experienced off and on nighttime numbness in my hands, usually brought on after a long day of photographing birds or paddling. I mostly ignored it. More recently, I received cortisone shots for trigger thumb, two years in a row. All of this in my left hand (see hand positions above). A couple months ago, the nightime numbness came nightly, turned into pain and was not easy to alleviate.  I lost sleep, so I faced it and took my doctor's advice to have the surgery.

Google search "Photography overuse injury" and you will come up dry. Am I the only one? Are you like me and simply ignore the aches and pains and think that its nothing that a couple ibuprofens and a glass of wine can't fix? That's what I use to think. Once I heal, I have new strategies to prevent a repeat and other potential issues. For one, I will begin using a vertical grip on the camera. I will write about that in the future. And oh yes, I will be using my monopod.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Sign of Winter

It is that time of year when I look forward to the arrival of my favorite snowbird; you know the large white one with a rotund torso supported by very short legs, black tipped wings and a long orange beak. Finally, a cold front hit south Florida, breaking the abnormal period of summer-like temperatures, and with it came the white pelicans. The cold front brought high winds, keeping me on land all weekend. But it was when I was standing on Chokoloskee Island that I looked up at the cloud covered sky to see my first flock of white pelicans of the season. At last! As I watched a flock of twenty soar over me, I momentarily forgot the el Nino forecast of a wet and windy camping season. My first siting of the pellies is a turning point as I begin to anticipate another season of paddling and camping in the Everglades.

If the dolphin pods slicing through the gulf waters symbolize the water experience of the Everglades, the white pelicans with their high wing aspect ratio (wing length squared divided by wing surface area) and ability to soar for hours symbolize everything above the Everglades water. If you spend any time in the gulf waters of the Ten Thousand Islands, the very large back country bays or Florida Bay, you know that the Everglades equals sky plus water, and not much in between the two. Study the water and you will observe marine life of all sorts, tarpon, spotted rays, loggerhead turtles, cormorants, manatee and so on. But look up and you will observe the white pelican, massive with its 10-ft wing spread and even more impressive when you see hundreds of them swirling on the air thermals. They move through the sky by flying in circles, and appear as quickly as they disappear into the vastness of the sky.

White pelicans love to roost on the flats. If you see one, you see dozens. It is sheer delight especially when you spot the crowd a mile away. Their white lumbering bodies provide a brilliant background for the bright orange beaks and legs. I love filling the frame with white pelicans!

Rarely have I encountered a single white pelican but it has happened twice, once on Biscayne Bay and another time on Chokoloskee Bay. Both encounters occurred in the ripeness of summer. The Biscayne Bay bird may have been a juvenile, too young to fly north and mate. On Chokoloskee Bay, the lone bird appeared sick, or perhaps it was just old age and not worth the trouble to fly north. Instead, the bird spent its summer on the bay with the active roseate spoonbills, biding its time. I titled this image "Life Goes On".

Soon, I will be packing my tent and gear to head out camping in the Everglades. I hope to take many trips during the next few months and see hundreds more white pelicans. There are many good reasons to be in the Everglades in the summer (and just as many reasons not to be!), but it is during the winter that it seems full of vigor after several groggy months of heat. This is when I love to be out there paddling for hours on end. The water sparkles from a cloudless sky that is active with birds and it never gets old. Words cannot express the feeling of ending the day under an Everglades sky, and to wake up and watch it greet you again with beautiful wings flying across the horizon the next day. The winter Everglades sky belongs to the white pelicans and they are back.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Return of the Flying Flowers

Over the summer, I spend a good amount of time at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. A typical morning at the garden would include two or three hours inside the butterfly conservatory, a relatively small space filled with exotic butterflies. I wrote about my learning experiences with the butterflies a few months ago and you can read it here.

During my time with the butterflies, I took hundreds of shots in my attempt to learn and experiment. Of course, 90% of my images got tossed out. But from those shooting experiences, I became more successful at capturing my vision of a butterfly. And so it was that during a recent visit to Fairchild, I limited my shots to a couple specific locations where I thought I might get the most interesting image of a butterfly. I paid attention to the background, and checked the DOF preview before shooting; and I avoided dark shadows and blow out highlights. Consequently, I took fewer shots and spent most of my time watching and waiting.

The image above was the shot I was looking for. I love the palm leaf and its dynamic pattern filling the entire background. To go with the complementary red and green colors, I just needed a colorful butterfly to land within the frame. So I waited and kept my focus on the plant, and set up for a vertical shot while resting the lens on a monopod. Finally, a golden birdwing landed and click, click, click.

Compositionally, I love this image. But unfortunately, it isn't sharp. C'est la vie. In fact, I think I may have captured one acceptable image from the entire morning (see image below). After a few more attempts, I left the butterflies feeling humbled once again. But I also left there with thoughts of new strategies and how I would one day, get that shot.

That's what it's all about; photographing for the shear joy of it, but at the same time, challenging ourselves. And doing it with a vision because it is that vision that keeps us coming back to the same location again and again.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Nature as our Muse

One of the arguments that photography is NOT art is that anyone can take a photograph. But this argument could be countered with "anyone can pick up a pencil and draw a picture". Then you have the discussion of how much time and effort it takes to paint or draw and the skill and craft alone (creativity aside) takes hours, days, even years to perfect; whereas a photographer pushes a button in an instant and voila', has created a picture!

The image below was created on Biscayne Bay, at approximately 8:25 am on February 9, 2015. It took 2 seconds to capture the shot, but it took years of work to lead up to that moment. After months of trial and error, scouting out specific locations, experimenting and learning to use various camera equipment, learning to be more observant, and simply getting use to standing in the water with a tripod, I came to Biscayne on the morning of Feb 9, 2015 with a vision.

Before that date, I had paddled my way around Biscayne Bay with my camera equipment over 150 times with the sole intent of photographing. I figure each visit averaged three hours. So almost 500 hours were spent photographing just on Biscayne Bay alone, before the image above was taken. As I became more intimately familiar with the bay, it became more beautiful to me and I wanted so much to have the skills to capture it through my camera. I wanted to use the bay as a palette from which I could create art. I worked hard over the years to try to figure all this out.

After I took the shot and came home, I went through the tedious process of examining and evaluating all the images I shot that morning. I chose this one among several for various reasons. IT came about as close as can be to my vision of Biscayne Bay as I had been viewing it in my mind. At last, I had it before me. My work continued; I needed to transform the RAW image into my creation. This took a few hours or more. After some work, I put it away for a day or so and then went back to it, seeing it another way. This went on for awhile, and finally, the image became what I wanted it to be. Several hundred hours later.

Lately, I have spent much time in another area I love, Chokoloskee Bay. I have become very close to the bay this summer when I visited with my tripod a dozen times or more. With each visit, the bay revealed more layers and I attempted to capture each of them. My vision of the bay became more complex over time. The palette was growing wider and more colorful.

But my work on Chokoloskee Bay has only just begun. I approach bird photography much the same way. The bird image below is one of my favorite birds, the reddish egret. I have had relatively few opportunities to photograph this bird. As with Chokoloskee Bay, my vision of the reddish egret has yet to be captured through my camera's lens. I have more skills and experience to pick up along the way before I get there.

Art is a commitment and photography is my art. Biscayne Bay, The Everglades, birds; they are my Muses.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Painting with Water

From the canoe, it is natural that water has a significant place in my photography. I watch water constantly and I love how the paddle and canoe play with it. Droplets from the paddle create expanding circles on the water surface. The canoe gently slices through the water leaving a playful wake behind it. As the sky spreads out over the water, so do its reflections. Through my polarizer sunglasses, it is like viewing art.

One day, I decided to work with my canoe to create something different. Using the movements from the boat, I played with the water and composed images that incorporated the ripples made by the canoe. Using a polarizing filter on the lens, I experimented with various scenes. Always, the reflections are a draw. Once I found a scene that I liked, I set up the canoe perpendicularly and staked out. I set up for the shot and then gently rocked the canoe. This created horizontal waves that appeared at the bottom of the frame and continued moving toward the top.

In a way, I see this as "painting" with water. By doing so, water becomes a strong foreground or it may form repeating patterns. On a larger scale, when I photograph wide angle waterscapes, I see water disturbed by the oyster bars forming shapes that give the otherwise undisturbed water surface character. The shallow water interacts with the sky and clouds, but it also interacts with the ground. On Biscayne Bay, it is the seagrasses; on Chokoloskee Bay, it is the oyster bars.

I photograph in a watery playground that is forever changing and challenges me to create. The canoe has an essential place in that process.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Positive Side of Negative Space

Sometimes as photographers, we try to put so much into an image, color, shapes, lines, patterns, etc. With so much inside a frame, everything is in competition for the viewer's eyes. The result is opposite of our intention which was to draw the viewer in. In walks negative space, not to be confused with negativity.

I have discovered lately that people really, really like negative space images. They are bold in their simplicity and can really draw the viewer in. Below is an example of an image that uses negative space. Like every image, it begins with the photographer and what attracted her to the scene in the first place. Why did I take the shot? Without trying to psychoanalyze my decision, my first instinct is that there is a rhythm to the silhouettes that is pleasing to the eyes. Indeed, a couple people have told me this image made them think of music.

What is most intriguing about this image is when I think about it from an opposite perspective. Instead of facing the scene toward the sun, what if I had the sun to my back? Knowing the location, I would have had a background of mangroves and certainly, the sticks and birds would no longer be silhouettes. The scene would not have grabbed my attention because the shapes would not have been first and foremost in the scene. I get a similar reaction to the image below. The negative space and how the delicate shapes of the sticks and the lone cormorant interact with it makes this image. It isn't an image of sticks and a bird, it is an image of space.

When photographing silhouettes, the shapes become the dominant element in the scene. If birds are the subject, the composition possibilities are limitless. For example, at the top is an image of cormorants resting in shallow water. I believe that what makes this image work is the horizontal line of the birds that allows the eyes to easily move from one bird to the next. It is not the individual shapes so much but rather how they work with each other. What makes this composition fun for me is the imagined interaction between the birds. You can conjure up all kinds of little scenarios, like the bird on the far left giving a lecture to a class of students.

Below is another image using bird shapes. These birds were captured on the shallow flats of Flamingo Bay. Except for a couple birds that were relocated, this is the scene as it was in reality. The lack of pattern, contrary to the previous images gives this one a playful feel; kind of a garden of watery delights. The eyes can wander around and enjoy the variations. The birds' reflections and the scattering of various sized birds maintains the reality of the scene with its depth.

High key images do not require silhouettes. Viewing the shape as the key element, I was drawn to a lone mangrove on Biscayne Bay. The sunlight was to the left, providing a strong contrast of light and shadows on the mangrove leaves. I created ripples in the water to give the reflection its own identity rather than it being a mirror of the tree. The ripples also reminds us that the negative space surrounding the tree is water, adding some context to the image.
This next image is one that fills the frame with repeating shapes that are contrasted against white, lots of white. The pattern is organic, far from perfect. But this is what makes it interesting as the eyes can begin to view individual pelicans rather than simply seeing elongated orange shapes and small black dots.

And yet another area of photography where I have experimented with negative space is macro. Here, the subject comes close to filling the frame. This is not the type of composition for a silhouette as much as it is one where you want to present the details or patterns of the subject without its surroundings distracting the viewer. When I photograph butterflies in the butterfly conservatory, I look for those subjects that are above me, using the glass ceiling as the surroundings, as seen here with the two paper kites. With a white background, the dark outline and patterns of the butterflies wings are prominent.

Similarly, when I photograph the goldensilk orbweaver, I point upward using the sky as background.  As with birds, I am initially attracted to the spider's shape. It's long legs speak for themselves. While it is possible to make an image of a silhouetted spider, I believe the details of the spider are worth a serious look. Once you really look at the spider, you begin to see details that should not be discarded by using backlighting to get a silhouette effect. Instead, I use the empty surroundings to give the spider's form impact and I use fill flash to allow the viewer to see the subject in all her glory. Imagine the image below as a silhouette. It would not be the same image by any stretch.

Nature has many simple and elegant ways of presenting itself. Challenge yourself to use negative space in your images to highlight that elegance. At the very least, it may force you to pay close attention to shapes and space. And that will carry over to every aspect of your photography.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Finding Chokoloskee Bay

I have an advantage during the summer months here on Chokoloskee Island. With fewer boats and people around, I own the bay and can indulge my desire to photograph it in a way that few have bothered to try. After all, the bay surrounds an inhabited island where large Florida-style houses, 40-ft trailer homes and marina docks clutter up the island's edge. Not only that, the bay is riddled with ugly oyster shells, all muddy and sharp. Nothing attractive about that. Or is there?

The beauty of the bay is that you can situate yourself south of the island and have a 300-degree view of the Ten Thousand Islands (all within the national park) while observing a sunrise or sunset. The sky dominates over the thin line of mangrove shorelines, so it is in summer when you really want to be here. I look for those mornings or evenings when the tide is low enough that I can paddle to a revealed oyster bar and set up the tripod. I bought boots to wear so I can walk over the sharp shells without mutilating my feet and ankles. My boat is at risk to, so I brace it between two stake-out poles. That way it cannot move in the shallow waters where sharp shells lay in waiting to scratch the gel coat.

Not only do you have the oyster bars to contend with, composing an image on Chokoloskee Bay comes with some creativity challenges. Forget interesting foreground, except for a moderate size mangrove sticking out of the muddy oyster shells. If you want any kind of focal point, you got to work with the oyster bars. What makes them interesting is that they form long curvy narrow paths that seem to lead the eye toward the sky. My mission was to capitalize on this and capture some summer storm clouds over Chokoloskee Bay during low tide.

The other challenge is the weather, a catch-22 of sorts. If you want beautiful clouds to photograph, you got to have storms. And if you are photographing from a canoe, you got to out-paddle those storms. The last morning I was on the bay, I got to an oyster bar to set up before sunrise as a southerly storm approached. The winds were already a steady 10-12 knots, which thwarted my idea of using a lone mangrove for foreground interest. With a long exposure, the leaves would be blurred to no end and I really did not want to deal with multiple exposures to try to overcome that with a fast shutter speed.

Because the water levels were too high to reveal the oyster bars, I had only the water and sky to work with. But the sky was amazing, and at one point, a moderate-sized rainbow appeared, although somewhat covered by low-lying dark clouds. By 7:30, the storm was nearing the bay, so I put away the gear and paddled back with a brisk 20+ knot wind pushing me along. Here's the scene as shown on the radar at about that time.

Because the clouds were the main interest, I used long enough exposures to smooth out the water and overexpose it somewhat. For some images, I set the white balance to a blue temperature. And, I experimented with black and white compositions during post-processing. All in all, I think I am beginning to reveal Chokoloskee Bay as I experience it. I love that bay.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flying Flowers

Butterflies are self propelled flowers.  R.H. Heinlein

Naturally, the butterfly is an appealing subject to photograph and here in Florida, there are many locations and opportunities to try out your butterfly-photo skills. Until recently, I rarely attempted to seek out butterflies to photograph. When visiting a garden, such as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG), I overlooked the butterfly and focused on other subjects such as lizards, spiders or birds. This was primarily because I figured a successful butterfly photograph would only be the result of an earnest pursuit that would demand time and attention at the expense of another subject. I did not want to take "just another shot"of a butterfly. 

Other than birds, one of my favorite animals to photograph is the goldensilk orbweaver spider. It is the only "macro" subject I have photographed consistently. From my encounters with the spider, I have learned many things that have helped me improve my images. Basically, there are three important things to consider when composing an image; background, lighting and depth of field (DOF). If you don't get those three things right, it is a deal breaker as far as I am concerned. In this regard, macro photography has always been intimidating to me. 

But now, there's a new game to play. A couple years ago FTBG created a butterfly conservatory that they describe as a "World of Fluttering Color".  From a photography perspective you have the advantage of thousands of subjects within a relatively small space. You can't spit without hitting a butterfly! On the other hand, it is extremely challenging to capture a successful image of a butterfly despite the fact they are everywhere you look. What a perfect location for practicing high speed photography!

With several visits, I have learned many things. But the most important thing I have learned is to find a suitable landing location first and then wait. Inside the conservatory, I am not allowed to use flash (because of the hummingbirds), so I must rely on natural light. This is extremely tricky in this small space that is full of plants of all shapes and sizes. So I look for a landing location where there are no contrasty leaves in the immediate background. I like to keep the background at a distance from the flower so that any dark or shadowy objects will be out of focus. Often, the background will appear completely dark or can be rendered in such a way with a little post-processing.

The other obvious challenge is the speed and unpredictability of the butterfly. They flit in and out and don't stay in one spot for too long. To get a fast shutter speed, I need to increase my ISO, typically 1250 to 1600. I like to have some depth of field, so I use an aperture of f8.0 typically. If I stop down too much (say to f11), I have to compromise my shutter speed, which I like to keep at least 1/1000.

I focus in on the butterfly's head most of the time. Although an open wing is quite beautiful, I like the profile images where the entire underside of one wing is in full view and you can see the butterfly's probocis and legs. This is also an advantage as the entire butterfly will be in focus if the wing and body are on the same plane.

With time and patience, waiting pays off. After a few visits, I have been able to anticipate certain shots, including flight shots of the butterfly taking off from the flower. Colors are always a given, so I try to capture them in the light and enhance them with some post-processing.

While my time in the conservatory has paid off with some nice images of butterflies, it's what I have learned that is priceless. At the very least, I've gained some practice time with my tracking focus, a useful skill for any type of wildlife photography. Enjoy these images of the butterfly.