Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Photographing the Bill Ashley Jungles: Part 2

Back in the day when skiffers would explore these areas, the jungle could get very dense, making small waterways impassable. One way to clear out areas was to burn. Burning small areas for a few minutes to a few hours accomplished several things; it cleared the area for passing, provided a landmark for navigational purposes, improved the nutrients necessary for animals and normal growth of flora (think prescribed burning), and it gave the hunters a greater advantage (for better or worse). So in a way, before the park service, the gladesmen were the wildlife managers.

The gladesmen learned this amazing landscape without the benefit of GPS. Before GPS, few people would wander into the convoluted areas, except for a few fishermen such as Herman Lucerne. Now, with a satellite image and GPS (yes, even an iphone will do the trick!), one can navigate their way through the maze of mangroves and water, without a prescribed burn. It is still a bit unnerving to take yourself off the chart so to speak because this landscape is as monotonous as monotony can get. It is terribly easy to get turned around in there; you must be 100% confident that your GPS will get you in and out. Or at the least, be 100% confident in your paper satellite map and compass reading skills.

After paddling through the Hells Bay Trail, you enter into an area that is more open. Large and small bays intermingle with narrow waterways that randomly wander in and around mangrove islands. If you look at a satellite image, it may remind you of a doily pattern, except without a pattern. Some may find the monotony of the area offputting, but for the explorer, it is an amazing place. From a photography perspective, it just taunts you to try and capture its subtle beauty. And so this past weekend, I tried to do just that.

Once off the trail and into the open, I immediately noticed how the waters were exceptionally low. In certain parts, this revealed clumps of tangled and thick seagrasses, as you can see below. I immediately noticed an opportunity to include some interesting foreground to balance out the thick clouds in the sky. You see, in these parts, foreground matter is hard to come by. It's only water and sky separated only by a thin line of mangroves.

With a circular polarizer on my lens, I anchored in the thick seagrass which kept my boat from moving. The wind was blowing across the water, making it near impossible to avoid water ripples, as you can see here. While the polarizer filter does a great job during midday hours, I was not totally happy with the water disturbed by the wind. I much prefer a smoothing effect that comes with a long shutter speed.

After setting up camp on the chickee, I headed out to explore some areas. I wanted to experiment with something. As it was midday, the sun was high above; not ideal for waterscape photography. However, I thought I could defy that and go about my business of photographing despite the challenging light. After all, I saw great potential with the clouds and the grasses.

I looked for some scenes that might work with an interesting foreground. I noticed a small meadow of widgeon grass (my best guess) that was lit up nicely by the high sun. I anchored my boat using two stick it anchor pins. On the front and back thwarts, I attached two small ropes each with a loop only big enough to allow the stick it pin through. Each one was only long enough to allow the loop to hang over the gunwale. One was placed behind me on the left side and the other in front on the right side.  By doing this, the stick it pins were solid against the boat, making it unmovable. Next, I set the tripod in the water along side the canoe and locked the camera in place. Two of the tripod legs were flush with the canoe, allowing me to be as close to the camera as possible. I am always extra careful to make sure the tripod legs are as deep in the mud as they will go.

I then played with horizontal and vertical compositions and found a good exposure to capture the entire scene (with slightly blown out clouds) without the need to bracket and later, blend multiple exposures. I used the lowest ISO setting and set the aperture at f11. Next, I added the neutral density filters (not graduated) for a total of 6 stops. This slowed the shutter speed to 1 to 1.6 seconds, enough to smooth out the water that was disturbed by the wind. Here is one image, taken around 1 pm.

What I liked best about the image was the blurred effect on the grasses (although the angled one in the left bottom corner is a bit obstrusive). My experiment appeared to be going well. I continued exploring and found a small mangrove island that reminded me of a space ship. It's symmetrical contours appealed to me as the clouds and their reflections surrounded it. The trick was positioning my boat so I could isolate the island from other nearby trees. Once I got in place, I set up the tripod again. This time, I tried bracketing exposures and also paid closer attention to the cloud formations.  Here is one result.

By the time I finished with the island, it was about 2:30. I had been on the water since 8 am. The temperature was in the mid to high 80s and I was feeling the fatigue of it. As I headed back to the shade of the chickee, I checked out some places very close to camp. I wanted to get back out on the water near sunset and try my experiment again, this time with some sky color. Here's one more image, taken with the polarizer filter and no tripod. I actually like the ripples in the water on this one. Note the osprey photobomber in the middle between two clouds.

Well, I did not go back out that evening, but instead, waited until morning to see what the sky had to offer. From the chickee, the sun rises almost directly to the left. However, with enough clouds, this can provide a beautiful scene with the side light and colors on the clouds reflecting on the large bay. Here's a couple images taken before I broke camp. During the paddle back, I began strategizing my next visit to the Bill Ashley jungles with a renewed interest. Once again, the Everglades is all new to me.

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