Friday, February 27, 2015

Two Nights in the Everglades: Picnic Key

A few months ago, I wrote an article titled"Where the Canoe Takes Me" in the photography magazine Extraordinary Vision. The gist of the story was that I spend much time and energy exploring the Everglades with the intention of photographing in areas that are not easy to get to and return to the same locations with varying conditions. The reason being is that one specific place can appear so different from year to year, day to day, and hour to hour. Tides, water, storms, time, all of these cause things to change out there. And one specific location where I have been able to witness this consistently is the beach of Picnic Key.

Recently, I took advantage of the low wind forecast and decided to head out to Picnic Key. Picnic was the first island I camped on in the Everglades over 11 years ago. Since then, I have spent 14 nights in total on that island. It is also one of the most popular campsites and day-visit sites in the park. Why do I keep going back to it? Mostly, to photograph it. Each time I come to the island, it is new to me. My photography has evolved over the years and each time I go to Picnic Key, I come with new skills and knowledge, sometimes new equipment, and a fresh view of things. That, coupled with the fact that Picnic Key has also changed makes each visit a first.

To illustrate how quickly things change in the islands, I show here some images taken on the day I paddled to Picnic Key, from 8 am to 6:30 pm. To begin the eight mile journey to Picnic, I launched from Eveglades City and was greeted with this scene at about 8 am.

The haze was coming from the prescribed burn in the nearby Big Cypress preserve. At the same time, fog began to form out of the southeast. It did not take long before the entire sky was filled with smoke and fog. As the fog formed, I paddled across Indian Key pass and this interesting rainbow-shaped display of light appeared. It was 8:30.

By the time I reached the bird rookery islands, the fog lay heavily in the sky and visibility dropped to less than 1/4 mile. And it was dead calm. I stayed in the general area of the tiny islands in the bay and attempted to photograph the surreal scene, such as this one taken at about 8:45.

Within an hour, the fog began to lift and this scene greeted me at 9:15.

At last, I was heading to Picnic, riding the remaining tide out to the gulf. I paddled through a small creek that leads into one of the large bays. As I rounded a sharp corner, I looked up to the sky that had some remaining smoke clouds and was amazed at a very large flock of white pelicans soaring on the thermals. By then, it was 10:30. I got out the camera and captured as many images as possible. I positioned the camera vertically to try to capture the extent of their soaring height. An amazing bird with a wing span over nine feet, the white pelican is a favorite winter bird in the Everglades. They are now preparing to make their migration journey north in the next month. I can tell as many of them are already touting the large bump on the beak that is a sign that mating season will begin soon.

By the time I reached Picnic Key, the skies were mostly clear, as shown here. This was taken at about 12:00 pm. Notice the low tide conditions.

After a couple hours of resting in the shade, I observed a strange display of clouds beginning to form and spread out over the sky. The sun was now covered in a veil of clouds. Here is one view of this, at about 1:30. Also notice the incoming tide.

The sun remained covered for a few hours. With the reduced light, I decided to get out the filters and attempt some slow shutter speed images. Here is one that was taken at about 2:00.

Picnic Key beach contains leftover driftwood from various storms, particularly hurricane Wilma that caused extensive damage to the mangrove shoreline. Consequently, the rugged beach can be an interesting scene at sunset, but is also quite challenging with tidal effects. I have been attempting to photograph this beach for years and have yet to capture "the right moment". On this day, as dusk approached, the skies cleared. This was disappointing as I was counting on the clouds to offer some interesting light. Here is how the day ended on Picnic Key, images taken between 5:30-6:30 pm.

Happy with how the day rolled out, I spent a peaceful night camping under clear skies, listening to the breaking waves as another high tide would greet me in the early morning. The next day, I would take my time getting off Picnic and then paddle a very short distance to nearby Tiger Key where I had a mission to fulfill. And on that day, things changed even more dramatically. Part 2 of "Two Nights in the Everglades" coming soon.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Bird Photographer in Downtown Miami

If there is one thing that I have learned about improving one's photography it is that getting out of the comfort zone is essential. Take bird photography for instance. As with any learning process, you go through a period when you climb the steep learning curve and see dramatic improvements in your bird images. Maybe there are one or two specific locations where you spend most of your time, allowing you to perfect your technical skills without having to learn a new location and where you get to know intimately certain birds species.

But what happens when you reach a plateau? How much more can you improve by simply doing the same thing over and over again? Of course, there is always room for improvement under any circumstance, but the learning curve is more horizontal than vertical. You can spend many hours reading about bird photography, studying other bird photographer's images, watching YouTube videos on how to photograph birds and so on. These are all useful tasks. My suggestion is to step out of your photography comfort zone and try something completely different. Think of this as playtime and nothing more; no pressure.

Recently, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and attempt to photograph the buildings of downtown Miami. Keep in mind that I spend most of my leisure time in remote wilderness areas like the Everglades. To me, downtown Miami is much scarier and intimidating.  I had certain doubts as to my ability to walk around taking images without drawing attention.

It wasn't only the discomfort of being in a vibrant urban setting, but it was not knowing anything about architecture photography that blew me away. I could have read up on architecture photography techniques and studied images from those that have mastered it before I ventured out. Instead, I wanted to go into this little experiment as unbiased as possible. I highly recommend this approach when you attempt something new; a different lens, a new location, artificial lighting, macro photography, etc.

So what did I learn from my few hours spent walking around Miami? It really became clear that before taking the shot, visualizing a scene and paying close attention to how the frame interacts with the objects are necessities to good architecture photography. There are so many possibilities in compositions with repeating patterns, strong lines and distorted shapes in the reflections. Upon examining the images closer on the computer monitor, the direction of the lines became more noticeable and it was a task to determine how they should be positioned relative to the frame. Here are a couple images to illustrate my naive attempt. these were cropped to come up with what I thought were the best compositions.

The color blue dominated as the mostly clear sky reflected on the windows. One thing I attempted to do in some of the images was demonstrate a juxtaposition between the unnatural and the natural, commonplace in Miami. Here are a couple images to illustrate this attempt.

One other thing came out of this exercise and that is architecture photography seems to work best in the extreme ends of focal lengths. Here are a couple images where a telephoto lens might come in handy in order to emphasize detail or fill the frame with repeating patterns.

The lens I used is a 16-50mm; however, it is attached to a 1.4X cropped sensor camera. Therefore, my longest focal length appears like 70mm. But, even at 70mm, I still had to crop some of the images to fill the frame, such as this one below.

On the other end, a wider angled lens would be perfect to capture an entire building or dramatize the height of the building. Here's an example where I think a wider angle would have worked better.

Although the color blue dominated, I looked for contrasting colors. The red construction cranes worked nicely for that, as seen above. Here's another image where green and blue complement each other.

I said that visualizing the scene first is essential to architecture photography. But of course, it is essential to all good photography. I just think that architecture has some unique challenges that force you to look at how the frame interacts with objects that are within the frame. Getting use to doing this will only improve your bird photography or whatever the photography subject may be. I doubt very much that I will dedicate myself to architecture photography, but after going into this experience cold, I will spend some time studying it, go back and try it again with an educated eye (or vision) and maybe a different lens. And what I learn will go with me when I photograph birds from my canoe.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My old nemesis: The Reddish Egret

I refer to the reddish egret as my nemesis only because it is one bird that has evaded me too often. I believe the reddish egret to be among the most popular and sought after wading birds to photograph. Why? It displays a crazy collection of running, jumping, weaving, head tilting, feather ruffling, wing spreading and so forth. All of this can be observed within a few seconds as this bird can be extremely hyperactive while it hunts small marine animals. Many photographers have captured very well the antics of this audacious wading bird, but not me.

In 2007, I purchased my first DSLR, Sony alpha100 and attached a relatively inexpensive telephoto lens (55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DT) to it. Two days following that purchase, I took a workshop from award winning bird photographer, Jack Rogers. We spent one of our two days at Fort DeSoto and it was here that I photographed my first reddish egret, a white morph. I was amazed at the bird's speed. Not having any experience with continuous focus and shooting more than 1 frame per second, I clumsily attempted to capture the action. Although the experience resulted in some average looking images (being totally intimidated by my camera, I shot in jpeg rather than RAW), I did not realize how privileged I was to have had that opportunity. I was close enough to the bird (along side a half dozen other photographer) that it required only 250mm of focal length to frame it. The bird offered full frontal wing spread and probably caught a fish every 10 seconds or so. Here are two images, unadulterated, out of the camera.

From that day on, I figured I would have more opportunities to capture this bird with all the following -  better camera equipment, cleaner surroundings, excellent lighting conditions and a full frontal wing spread. I was wrong (except for the better camera equipment). I can count on two hands the number of times I have been able to photograph the reddish egret from my canoe; a few times on Biscayne Bay and a few times on Florida Bay. And each time has been an exercise in futility. The dang bird is quick. It runs in and out of good light faster than you can hit the shutter button. It doesn't mind that the surroundings are messy, nor does it care if it spreads its wings facing the opposite direction to the camera. No, it just keeps dancing around, while I attempt to maneuver my boat while focusing on the bird. The excellent shot has eluded me.

The other day, I had a rare opportunity to photograph a reddish egret while I stood (eventually sat) on mud next to the water. I did not have to move as the bird was about 50-60 feet away and stayed within good range. But, once again, the light was not ideal as the bird was often shadowed as it continuously moved around. The strong wind was a negative factor making the water difficult to work with, and it appeared that the bird mostly faced into the wind when it spread its wings; so consequently it faced away from me much of the time. And it is just so fast!

It is not enough to simply snap, snap snap away as the bird does its thing. Rather, I want that catch light in its eye, I don't want to see shadows on the wings and I would love to see its prey in its beak before it consumes it. Oh yes, water action is good too, I want to capture as much of that as possible. The moral of the story is that the reddish egret is one beautiful bird, but to capture it beautifully is very difficult. Many have and I admire them for that. But, it takes practice, it takes getting to know the bird, and it requires you to not settle for less than optimal conditions.

A tribute to my nemesis, the reddish egret. I will hunt you down and one day...