Thursday, April 23, 2015

Let the Ball Drop

"Buying a Nikon doesn't make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner." Author Unknown

As photographers, we are always looking to improve and capture a better image. To do this, you need clear goals and objectives, and you need to go out there and collect data. And learn to juggle. Say what?

First, goals and objectives are the foundation of what I do as a scientist and teacher. Data collection, interpretation and dissemination are all part of the process. This sounds mundanely academic (and it is) but fortunately, these useful skills have spilled over into my photography. While the term "data collection" appears as far removed from art as a statistics textbook, it is an essential part of the artistic process and does not require formal training. Artists, like scientists collect data in the process of learning their craft. Having clear direction or goals serves to help the artist achieve his or her artistic vision.

We can have a goal in mind; for instance, become a better landscape photographer. But to achieve the goal, we need data. Data collection is information gathering and experimentation, and then successfully making order out of the chaotic pieces of information and experience. This is, for all intents and purposes, the act of learning. From chaos comes order or a higher level of understanding and new skills (our goal). And then we apply all these to our art and create a better landscape image. But, the most important aspect to all of this is that we stay committed and continually set new goals. What this means is that we have to frequently put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of failure and make mistakes. 

"We adore chaos because we love to produce order". M. C. Escher

So what does all this have to do with juggling? Twenty years ago, I read a book titled "Lessons From the Art of Juggling" by Michael J, Gelb and Tony Buzan. Not only did I learn to juggle, but I learned to teach myself how to juggle. Perhaps the most poignant tip from the book was simply, "let the ball drop". Rather than lunging toward it, let it fall to the ground was the first lesson. In short time, I learned to throw the ball with one hand so that it landed perfectly into the motionless waiting hand. Can you see how this becomes a metaphor to photography?

"You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over." Richard Branson

When I began photographing the wilderness in earnest over a decade ago, I knew practically nothing about photography. I would go out there with the camera not knowing what I was doing and just shoot, shoot, shoot. Taking pictures was like juggling. Many times, I lunged at the poorly thrown ball. This may be a metaphor for taking a bad image and trying to "photoshop" it into something better. I realized quickly that I had to improve my use of the camera. In other words, I had to improve how I threw the ball.  

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" Albert Einstein

So I plunged into research and experimentation and approached photography like a scientist. I put myself out there for criticism. I began communicating with experts and taking workshops. And as often as I could, I photographed for the sake of photographing. Sometimes, I got very frustrated and had feelings of inadequacy that came and went frequently. One day, I would proudly display an image that looked exciting and bold, and the next day it appeared dull and flat. And there was always another photographer that made it look so easy, who seemingly never failed.

"I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it". Pablo Picasso

I go further into this year with two clear goals and have developed specific objectives to help me achieve them. Neither goal is directly related to winning contests, getting into an art festival, or selling more prints. Instead, my goals are to improve my craft and my art. Have you considered your photography goals? I challenge you to leap out of your comfort zone and learn a new camera skill, experiment with a new genre, study up on digital camera sensor technology, post an image on a critique forum, ask questions, just try something new and challenging. And don't be afraid to let the ball drop.

"I'm still learning". Michelangelo

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

What type of photographer are you?

“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment. ” Ansel Adams

Birds get much of my attention and have for a long time. Long past are those 10,000 first photographs. With that, I think I can accurately refer to myself as a "bird photographer". I am very comfortable with bird photography. Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement. Always. This can be a single minded effort, and I applaud those geniuses that can focus on one thing and remain on point throughout a lifetime. There are bird photographers that truly fit that description.

Lately, my attention has moved away from birds somewhat and more toward landscape (land and water) photography. Naturally, water-scape images are a significant part of the Everglades. In the beginning for me, these images were nothing more than snapshots from the canoe taken with the sole purpose of a visual journal of our trips in the glades. But now it is much different than that.

Landscape photography has become weighted down as I pay closer attention to detail and attempt to acquire skills used by landscape photographers. This also means I carry more equipment, literally weighing me down. I spend more time now seeking out a landscape composition, typically while standing in the shallow flats of Biscayne Bay or on a beach somewhere in the Everglades. I've gotten bold and placed the tripod in the water as I sit in the canoe inside a mangrove tunnel or stand up in the canoe to get level with the camera while on an old airboat trail that runs through a grass prairie.

In the meantime, landscape photography is causing me much consternation. I make lots of mistakes and I fumble around a lot. With bird photography, the only clumsiness I really experience is on those rare occasions when I attach an external flash and better beamer and try to convince myself that I can take a better image by adding this additional weight and volume to my camera.  I guess I still have to master the camera's tracking focus feature, and no matter how many frames per second I can rifle off, the great white egret is always faster than me. So there is always something that needs to be improved upon. But all-in-all, I can approach bird photography with some confidence and certain amount of finesse that comes with hundreds of hours and thousands of images (most of which have been deleted).

In walks landscape photography. Extremely seductive, especially given all the amazing images from the masters that inspire, landscape photography has hooked me. I am trying to figure it out, and I am attempting this in an environment that does not easily lend itself to powerful images. And I feel like a total klutz. Maybe its because of the tripod I have to carry around or the filters I have to attach to the lens. Photography is, after all, a physical thing as well as a mental thing; and to this end, it could be compared to a sport. Training is the ultimate ergogenic aid. With landscape photography, its all about timing and getting to the right place at the right time and then adapting quickly to the constantly changing light and color. Dodge and weave, dodge and weave.

So I will continue to fumble until I get it right; walking the long beach before realizing I forgot my remote control, clumsily attaching the filter holder as the colors of the sun began to fade, forgetting to turn off the steady shot, failing to get a straight horizon, taking way too long to focus and set up a shot and missing the right moment as a result, overexposing, underexposing, etc, etc. And then when success happens, only to find the image is lacking something. I have a ways to go before I reach that 10,000th image, and then some.

Here's to the photographers that can truly call themselves landscape photographers and I don't just refer to those silhouettes of mountain climbing, tripod-toting dudes. I include all those that are in love with a wilderness place and only want to capture it as best as possible and will do anything to make that happen.

"I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I've never been." Diane Arbus 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


If I had a nickel for every shorebird I've seen in the Everglades, I would retire and live on the edge of the Everglades. If I had a nickel for every shorebird I've seen in the Everglades that I had a difficult time identifying, I would retire and well, live on the edge of the Everglades. And I would spend more time researching these small to moderate sized birds.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of spending a couple days on one of the beautiful Ten Thousand Islands, Pavilion Key. Given the time of year, I didn't expect much in the way of bird photographs. I figured there would be shorebirds, as usual. But nothing to write home about. There are probably two reasons shorebirds have not been my target; they tend to be drab in color (gray, white and black about sums it up), and secondly and because they are drab in color, they are difficult for me to identify. When I do photograph a shorebird, I often do not know what species I am photographing. I estimate that I spend twice as much time researching shorebirds as I do photographing them. Sometimes, after looking at several images online, I am still confused.

After having spent two days photographing anything that was not a bird, I turned my attention to the shoreline near our campsite. In the warm afternoon light, dozens of gray, white and black small shorebirds were busy feeding along the water's edge. Nervous little things, they moved quickly and rarely stopped. What did I have to lose to get out the telephoto lens, lay prone on the sand and edge my way toward the birds. Within twelve feet of the action, I proceeded to observe them.

After about an hour, the birds flew off and spread out to areas farther away. Happy with my time spent, I couldn't wait to get home and confirm what species I just photographed. Because there was only one type of bird in all my images, it took only a few hits on the ibird app to identify it as the Sanderling. And with a bit more research, to determine they were all juveniles. Bingo!

When photographing feeding birds, it is always a good idea to observe them first, then shoot. Inevitably, you will find a pattern in their movements which then allows you to anticipate a shot. What these birds do is they chase the waves.  As soon as a wave recedes, the little bird is there poking at the sand that has been softened by the water. As soon as another wave comes back, the bird skitters away and finds another receding wave. And they are very fast, so a very fast shutter speed is required.

This past weekend was my last camping weekend until November. All the gear gets extra clean and dry and packed away. For a few days, my house looks like a hurricane hit it with everything that must be washed and left out to dry. My pelican cases and camera equipment get a thorough cleaning. For a couple days, it is a flurry of activity. But amidst all the activity, I found a calm relief in sitting down to research my little bird, the sanderling. After reading about it, I have a new respect for it. I lovingly looked over my images and picked out my favorites. I began to think about the next time I may have the opportunity to photograph this one-of-many shorebirds and how I might present it more skillfully and with more care.

Until then, I have here some images to share of the juvenile sanderling. And here are some interesting facts about the bird that will surely add interest.
  • The sanderling belongs to the Sandpiper family. So if you accidentally call it a sandpiper, that's OK, you are still correct.
  • The sanderling nests as far north as the artic tundra.
  • Since the 1970s, the sanderling population is estimated to have dropped 80% in the Americas.
  • The juveniles, or non-breeding sanderlings such as the ones I photographed, do not make the long migration north; instead they stay in their wintering grounds.
  • Because of their obsessive wave-chasing feeding style, sanderlings can be distinguished from other shorebirds such as sandpipers and willets.