Monday, January 26, 2015

Importance of background

"It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds." Aesop's Fables

I think about that quote as I consider why many of us love to photograph and look at birds; it's the feathers, right? When I photograph, I attempt to capture intimately those fine feathers, with good lighting and detail as best as possible. And I pay attention to the background. It is so easy to concentrate solely on the subject that we ignore everything else. You may have an image of a beautiful bird, but the remainder of the composition is busily cluttered with various shapes and colors. This kills the image sometimes.

Not only with birds, but with any animal I photograph, I pay just as much attention to the animal's surroundings as I do the animal. Many times, a photograph is bypassed because the background is too messy or noisy. Once you get use to paying attention to these things, you will be amazed at the results. Sometimes, the background can make an otherwise common image, uncommon.

Several months ago, I wrote about how man-made objects can offer some interesting background colors. Taking this idea further, here are some tips on getting a complementary background to go with your subject. Imagine that you have come upon a beautiful lizard with bright orange head (like the male agama, commonly seen at Fairchild Tropical Garden). It is sitting on a rock surrounded by several types of cacti and other trees. From your vantage point, the image of the lizard comes out well, but it is surrounded by various tones and textures that distract away from the lizard. Farther in the background to the left of the lizard is a wall of bright red bougainvillea. You think, "Wow, wouldn't that look cool?" You slowly move slightly to the right to get the red colors behind the lizard. There it is, the lizard completely surrounded by red. You wait until it moves it head toward you and snap, you got it!

The red is definitely a nice addition and makes this image pop. Another example using the orange agama is the use of complementary primary colors. Guess what color complements orange? It is green, opposite to orange on the color wheel. Using the same method as described above, you find a nice green background to complement the lizard. In this case, the green is out of focus grass that provides a subtle display of even tones and textures where nothing stands out to take the attention away from the main subject.

I just gave you two tips, move yourself around to get the nicest background and look for complementary colors. The other consideration is a bit more technical, but important. Out of focus backgrounds work best to minimize visual noise. Because we typically photograph animals with telephoto lens, the out of focus background is much easier to achieve. This is because when shooting with a high focal length, such as 400mm, the depth of the image is compressed. In other words, the depth of field is low. The aperture also affects depth of field, the wider it is (i.e., f5.6), the more out of focus the background will be. This allows the attention to fall on the subject that will be in sharp and in focus.

The other consideration is the distance of the background from the subject, the farther away it is, the more out of focus it will be. A greater distance will help even out the colors and textures, making the background less distracting. Consider the image of the blue land crab below. In the background is a busy display of colorful flowers and other types of flora. I attempted to get into a position so that the background was as consistent as possible. As you can see, there are octagon shaped patterns of tones throughout. Photographers call this effect bokeh and it is largely determined by the lens. The bright colors are rather noisy, but I was able to overcome much of this for two reason; a telephoto lens (image was taken at 330mm) and the colorful objects were at least 40 feet away from the crab.

Here in south Florida, the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park is a popular location for bird photography, especially for close ups. It is not unusual to photograph a bird from 10 feet or less. The problem with the Anhinga Trail is the noisy background; buildings, flora, other birds, fence posts, pavement, and yes, people. Two things that almost always make a nice background no matter what, are water and sky. Here is an image of a cormorant at the Anhinga Trail with the water behind it. With some patience, you can avoid all the other messy stuff and get a nice clean background like this one behind your bird portrait.

Likewise, at the Anhinga Trail, there is lots of sawgrass. In the morning light, this can make a beautiful background, giving one a good excuse to photograph the less photogenic black vulture!

Another example of making sure I have a nice background is when I photograph the goldensilk orbweaver in the creeks of Biscayne Bay. Imagine, I am in my canoe and pointing the lens upward in a creek that is mostly covered in mangrove canopy. I discuss my technique in an earlier post, but for this blog, I only want to mention that almost always, I avoid getting mangrove leaves and branches in the composition. This is mainly because the spider is very close to them and it is impossible to avoid shadows and highlights that compete with the semi-dark spider. With lots of patience, I can position myself to capture clean backgrounds. The first image below uses the sky as a background. In the next one, the mangroves are far enough away to provide an even toned background.

If you really want a challenge, try capturing butterflies. At Fairchild Tropical Garden, the butterfly display is amazing but the subjects are the most difficult to capture because they never stop moving! Therefore, getting a nice even background is next to impossible. Once again, I look for the sky. Some of the flowering plants are high enough that with a little effort and patience, I was able to get into a position to avoid a noisy background and capture these two beauties.

Enjoy these images and get out there and shoot for the best. Remember the three most important elements; lighting, background, subject (not necessarily in that order).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mangrove Abyss

Today I planned to go out on Biscayne Bay given the forecast; partly cloudy, NW winds no more than 5 mph, mild temperatures, low tide scheduled about 10:30 am. My intention was to be on the water at least 45 minutes before sunrise and set up to capture some early light on the mangroves. I wanted to re-create the image below with other trees and variations of roots and leaves. After that, I would hang out with the birds. Given the forecast and the tidal conditions, this was going to be perfect morning.

As any photographer knows, things never happen perfectly as intended. I woke up around 4 am and immediately opened the Intellicast app to look at the weather conditions. A weather alert icon was flashing. I clicked on it and it tells me there is severe dense fog in the area. Cool! I imagined the bay mangroves in the fog looking like ghosts. This would be interesting and new for me.

I drove in the foggy darkness to Matheson Hammock. The closer I got to the entrance, the darker and lonelier the streets became. I entered the park where the guard was not yet on duty. I drove over the canal bridge and continued on the pot-holed road that leads you through a tunnel of buttonwood and mangrove trees. It is completely dark. I arrive at the turn-around where I launch my boat. The view of the bay through the mangrove trees was completely gray and the lights of Miami were invisible. There were no sounds coming from boats, only the sound of a heron flustered that I intruded upon its area.

I loaded the boat and pulled it through 2-ft deep grasses that had been blown into the shoreline. After about 30 feet of pulling, I was in the canoe paddling through calm waters. There was no sound other than the paddle rustling up the water. The shoreline on my right consisted of two or three shades of dark gray, guiding me along. I paddled a short distance and found myself in a familiar spot where mangroves march into the water one by one.

I paddled around composing images in my head. Finally, I found a group of mangroves that looked good to me, so I step out of the boat into one foot of water and sunk to my ankles in soft mud and grass. I set up the tripod and attached the camera and began to play. This would be fun!

These particular mangroves have been photographed by me hundreds of times. But what keeps me coming back is that I try to find a new way of visualizing them. For instance, I experimented with intentional camera movement, as shown here.

Another attempt was to incorporate negative space to highlight the intriguing forms of the trees.

Sometimes, it was the reflections of the trees that captured my attention.

Of course the clouds can make the mangrove scene more interesting.

And yet, I used the mangroves to frame a bird.

So today, the fog gave me yet another opportunity to try something different with old familiar subjects. I was in the water for over two hours as the morning became lighter and the details of the trees became more evident. The photo at the top was one of the first images of the morning. I used neutral density filters to allow me to use slow shutter speeds and I added a GND filter as the sky was at least 1 stop lighter than the water. I honestly did not know what to expect but as soon as I started shooting, the possibilities became clear.

No matter how familiar a place or subject is, it never gets boring to me. There is always something new to capture. Sometimes, you just have get out in the darkness and wade through the mud to find it.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

And yet another tribute to the osprey

A couple years ago, I wrote a blog titled "A tribute to the osprey". I feel it is time to pay tribute again, to this wonderful bird. While spending several days in the Everglades recently, the osprey was a constant companion. Often, I hear the osprey before I see it. It's high pitched call sounds melancholy, as if the bird is worried. But then I see it dive to the water with speed and precision unlike any other, and capture a fish in its powerful claws. Not worried at all, it is an amazing predator and does a great job passing its skills on to its young. Consequently, the osprey is one of the Everglades success stories.

On my last trip through the Everglades, I sited over 20 osprey nests. On one day, I spotted over five nests. Keep in mind, I am not out looking for osprey nest, I am just passing by in my canoe. Given my record, it is likely that for every one I spotted, another one was missed.

The one nest that got my attention most was for the obvious reason that it was located a short walk from one of my campsites where I spent three nights. I was able to walk around the island toward the nest when tidal conditions allowed me to do so. The nest was built high on a dead mangrove tree, among many. The first time I came upon it, I noticed the male osprey parent first. He was guarding the nest while perched on a nearby branch. That's when I noticed the nest with the female osprey in it, about 20 feet away from the male.

I quietly and slowly approached, but immediately he spotted me and took off sounding his high pitched call. Shortly after, the female left the nest; now both in flight and soon out of sight. I stood in place for awhile, only to spot one of the birds fly over one time. Soon after, I left and walked back to camp, resolved to come back with my telephoto lens.

I returned in the afternoon with the sun to my back which provided a nice front light on the birds and nest. I attempted to walk a further distance away to hide behind the driftwood that littered the low tide shoreline. The male was again on sentry duty. Despite my stealth (yeah, right) he immediately saw me and took off. Who am I to think I can hide from an osprey, the same bird that can spot a fish in the water from a 100 feet above.

In the meantime, I noticed both parents were in flight, going in and out of sight. I crouched low behind some driftwood and waited. A couple minutes later, one of them returned with a nice sized branch. I tracked the bird as it flew towards the nest. Shooting continuously, I captured the scene as the bird assumed a landing pose.

But, instead of staying in the nest to deposit the branch, it flew out with the branch and continued flying around. It made one or two landing attempts, but did the same thing each time. Not knowing where the other osprey parent was at the time, I quickly surmised that the birds were disturbed by my presence despite my being hidden (or so I thought I was).

It would have been easy to have continued staying there waiting for the bird to come back to the nest. But I believed that as long as I was there, they would not. I have photographed osprey nests from many locations, mostly while in my canoe. I have seen this behavior only one other time. Despite being a hundred feet or more away from the nest, my presence had an obvious affect. Why it wasn't on many other occasions is unknown to me.

Upon realizing that the birds would not act right until I was gone, I left them and never returned.

Enjoy these images, including some from other locations, of the noble osprey.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Photo Equipment Care in the Everglades

Two days ago, I got back from a 10-day paddle through the Everglades. I've spent the past two days at home cleaning and drying out all the equipment and gear, including the cameras. Most paddlers in the Everglades bring a camera, but very few bring two DSLRs, one telephoto lens, one wide angle lens, an external flash with better beamer, several filters, 10 spare batteries and a tripod. I bring all these. And during those ten days, the cameras and lenses were continually exposed to the heat, humidity, sand and salt water.

Why risk it? After all, a powerboat ride to some of these areas would get me there and back safely in a short period of time. And there are beautiful areas of the Everglades that are accessible by foot. Indeed, this is the way many photographers get into the Everglades. But where is the fun in that? The challenge of getting to areas accessible only by boat and being totally at the mercy of the weather and tides for several days at a time is what gives me the greatest satisfaction when I photograph. For me, my experiences in the Everglades as a paddler have been the impetus for my photography and has propelled it to a level I never thought possible when I first came out here ten years ago with nothing more than a palm-sized waterproof camera.

I challenge other photographers that wish to explore the Everglades to try it by canoe (or kayak if you insist). To nudge this along, I offer some information on how to keep your equipment safe from the elements. Keep in mind that some of these tips may not work for you, particularly if you are in a kayak. I work from a canoe, which is quite different in terms of storage and accessibility.

The picture below shows all the equipment taken on this trip.

Everything (except for a few accessories and the tripod) is stored in the pelican cases.The large (size 1500) case holds two cameras, one attached to the telephoto (70-400mm) and one attached to the wide angle (16-55mm) lens as shown on the left in the image below. It also holds a plastic container for extra batteries, memory cards, and spare lens cloths. The orange case (size 1300) contains several filters, filter holder, ballhead, remote control, and a few odds and ends such as a spare battery for remote. The small black case on the right (size 1200) contains the external flash, better beamer, flash cable and several lithium AA batteries.

The large case with the cameras sets in front of me in the canoe so that I can access a camera at any time, as shown below. In a fully loaded boat, the other two pelican cases are not accessible when I am paddling from one campsite to another. Please note, you may consider dry bags to store your equipment (particularly if you are in a kayak). This works well for a day or two. But truth be told, dry bags do not keep the equipment fully dry, humidity does get inside. In my experience, nothing beats a pelican case.

The tripod is wrapped in a sealed hefty plastic bag and placed inside a nylon bag. I use it only on land at the campsites. Other accessories not in the pelican cases are several spare camera batteries, an air blower, a brush and extra lens cloths. These are stored in sealed plastic bags inside a dry bag.

Cleaning the camera and lenses is essential of course, but should be done only inside the tent. I have a lens cloth, air blower and brush dedicated to cleaning the lens in the tent at night. None of these cleaning accessories see the light of day.

There are two significant threats to the camera and lens out in the Everglades, salt water and sand. The pelican cases do a great job protecting from these elements, but of course when you are using the camera, they will be exposed. Clean lens cloths are absolutely necessary; I bring several with me. Once a lens cloth has been exposed to salt water, I replace it. Also, daily cleaning in the tent helps minimize the risks.

However, understand that humidity is a constant in the Everglades. Nothing ever really dries out there. To help protect the contents of the pelican cases (which are opened often), I place a couple silica gel packs inside.

At the campsite, which is often a sandy beach, I place the pelican case in a wind protected location before I open it to grab a camera (disclaimer: sand gets into everything no matter how careful you are). Usually, when I want to photograph with the tripod, I have to walk a distance along the beach. Along with the tripod and camera, I bring my orange pelican case that holds my filters and ballhead. Once I get to my location, I can open the case to access what I need.

A few tips for when shooting from the boat; keep the pelican case locked, avoid shooting when water conditions are rough and use a lens hood to shield from salt water spray.

 After I get back home, I give the camera and lenses a good cleaning. The tripod is washed in soap and water and after it dries I spray Corrosion Stop into the metal hinges. I do the same with the hinges located on the ballhead. In addition to caring for the cameras, you need to also care for what protects those cameras. I clean my pelican cases inside and out. The foam padding gets shaken to remove sand and dirt. I remove the o-rings and wipe them to rid them of sand and dirt. I allow the pelican cases to dry thoroughly before placing everything back inside.

Camera skills and eye for composition are important to photographing the Everglades, but just as important is keeping your equipment safe from harm. I hope that I have given you some useful information for your next Everglades paddling adventure. With your boat and camera, experience the best of the Everglades, help protect this amazing wilderness by showing the world its beauty, as seen from a canoe.