Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The myth of Cassiopeia

A couple years ago, I learned about the jellyfish known as the cassiopeia or upside down jellyfish. The name cassiopeia strikes up a vision of Greek mythology and lo and behold, Cassiopeia is not only a mythological queen that had terrible things happen to her (typical), but is a constellation. Back to earth, the cassiopeia jellyfish is common here in our warm south Florida waters. It particularly likes Biscayne Bay with its thick seagrasses and mud.

They are strange creatures because they don't appear like an animal at first. It is stunning to see hundreds of them laying on the seagrass floor in the shallow waters of the bay. They blend so well that if you didn't know what to look for, you might think they are grass. So why are they named after Cassiopeia? Apparently, Poseidon tied the queen to a chair that spins around in the heavens and half the time, Cassiopeia is upside down as she spins around. It all sounds ridiculous but it's intriguing that someone decided to name the jellyfish after the upside down queen. Indeed, when the jellyfish lays on the ground, it is upside down. To give you a visual, here is an image of one.

The jellyfish can often times be seen swimming at the surface of the water. With a few encounters, I've learned that they prefer sunlight or warmth when floating up to the surface. From my canoe, I have tried to capture them as they appear right side up and look like an alien space ship. It is very beautiful to see them move around the water and make ripples, such as with this one. But with the glare from the water, it is difficult to capture well.

 Ever since capturing the swimming cassiopeia, I have been wanting to take my 180mm macro lens with a polarizer filter attached to it out to the bay. The macro lens would allow me to get very close to the small jellyfish. And the polarizer filter would take the glare off the water. A couple mornings ago, I finally got that chance. I paddled a mile and half to an area where I knew the sea floor would be carpeted with the upside down jellyfish. How amazing to paddle over thousands of them; they completely covered the bottom! I wanted to stake out my boat in the shallow water and sit in one place while jellyfish surrounded me as they came up to the surface.

The area I staked out in was so shallow that the seagrasses stuck out of the water. This is where I found dozens of jellyfish at the surface of the water among the thick grasses. This was not exactly what I wanted as the grasses tend to look very messy. But with the macro lens, I could get inches away from a jellyfish and fill the frame. From about 7:30 am to about 10:30, I knelt in my canoe and faced downward toward the water with my camera and lens.

The jellyfish displayed very interesting shapes and colors, some more transluscent that others, some with bright white markings, some with blues and yellows. The translucence allowed light to pass through in beautiful ways, giving them an ethereal appearance. With the sun relatively high in the sky, the polarizer worked well. Moving into various positions, I adjusted the polarizer lens constantly. Without it, the bright translucence would have been missed.

I had so much fun photographing the jellyfish. The next best thing to an underwater camera set-up, the macro lens and polarizer filter did the job. Looking forward to another attempt at capturing the mysterious and striking cassiopeia jellyfish.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Strike A Pose

For many years, I have chased wading birds along the western shoreline of Biscayne Bay. In my attempts to capture them, I look for certain elements before I begin shooting. First, morning sunlight on the mangrove shoreline is the natural light I rely upon. The warm light on the green leaves and brown roots is exquisite and provides a beautiful environment for a bird. Often, I cannot get close enough to a bird to fill the frame, so the surroundings are what I look for in an image.

 Second, I hope for calm waters so that the reflections from the mangroves can leave a smooth impressionist painting on the surface.

Third, the water levels must be just right, sometimes high enough to provide undisturbed pools of water that surround the bird, allowing the mangrove reflections to take over.

And yet other times, the water is so low that the entire shoreline is a carpet of seagrass which can add color and texture to the composition.

And fourth, I want to capture the action of the bird, especially the egret or heron that strikes the water with exactness and amazing speed. Once I have found a particular bird to capture (based on above criteria), I stick with it as long as possible, attempting to capture it in the best light. The sun is typically over my left or right shoulder, never directly behind me. I want a little side light to highlight the details of the beautiful feathers of the bird.

Once the bird is in good light, I track it, keeping my focus on its eye as much as possible. I use a focal length that places the bird's entire body in the frame with more room in front of the bird than behind it and the head near the center. This works well with autofocus that is most sensitive in the center point.

When the bird is busy catching prey, I can keep my boat in one place as long as it does not react to my presence. Most of the time, the water is shallow enough that I can hold the boat in place with both feet in the water. Some birds, such as the reddish egret, cover a wider territory and this requires that I move my boat in order to stay with the bird. Once I am in position, I anticipate the bird's movement by a change in its posture. I try to relax and be as steady as possible, keeping my finger on the shutter release and moving only to maintain continuous focus on the bird's head. Some birds, such as the little blue heron will get its beak close to the water and move its neck back and forth a few times before striking. Then it lifts its head quickly before a downward strike.  As soon as I sense it is about to strike, I begin clicking away.

At home, I go through all the images, which can be hundreds (5-10 frames just from one strike) and remove those that are not adequately sharp or if the bird was turned away from the camera. I choose those that offer the most drama in terms of water splashes and/or the bird's prey in its beak. The surroundings will also factor into my decision to keep an image.

The best attribute for capturing wading birds in action is patience. It doesn't matter what kind of camera you own, it's about taking your time and observing the surroundings. With all these elements in mind, Biscayne Bay or other beautiful mangrove shorelines can provide endless opportunities to capture the awesome egret or heron that will strike a pose for you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Photographing Brown Pelicans in Flight: Part 2

"If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes." Charles Lindbergh

In the previous blog, the importance of knowing your bird and basic bird flight mechanics was discussed. The point to emphasize is that much time in the field and countless shots are necessary to improve your bird flight images. That latter statement probably goes without saying, but implied in the meaning is that this often requires you to sit (stand) in one place for long periods of time. In other words, you must learn to anticipate your shots and be patient. Even after going back to the same rookery dozens of times over several years, I still anticipate capturing a better shot than the previous.

Knowledge of your subject will help you get there; after that it's all about how you use your camera. First, the lens. I mentioned in the previous post that I can fill the frame with a flying pelican from a distance over 100 feet using a 400mm lens. Clearly, a telephoto lens is essential to photograph birds in a rookery. The distance between you and them will be necessarily great (there are exceptions of course). Recommending a specific brand or model of telephoto lens is not my place. But I can share with you my preferences. Since I am in a canoe, I prefer a handheld lens with a focal length of at least 400mm. And in the case of the bird rookery where sometimes I require less than 400mm, I prefer the flexibility of a zoom lens over a fixed prime lens.

At this particular rookery, I go back and forth photographing white-feathered egrets and brown pelicans. Because of the differences in feather color, I have to adjust the exposure constantly. On average (with some variation of course), adult brown pelicans require about 2/3 to 1 stop more light. For example, here are two images taken within about six minutes of each other. The exposures settings for the brown pelicans were aperture = f8, shutter speed = 1/1250 and ISO = 640. A few minutes later, I changes my settings to capture a snowy egret. To do this I increased the shutter speed to 1/2000, a reduction in light by 2/3 stop.

A few things about exposure. First, brown pelicans do have white feathers. Consequently, you run the risk of blowing out the whites when exposing for the brown feathers. As always with the camera, there is a compromise. It is often recommended that if you err in exposure, err on the side of overexposing. This is because it is easier to darken slightly overexposed white feathers than it is to lighten dark feathers that are too dark. Details in a slightly overexposed white feather can be saved with some selective burning (darken). On the other hand, if you underexpose dark or shadowed feathers, it is near impossible to get back any detail. The best way to figure this out on your camera is of course, trial and error. Most importantly, get use to referring to your histogram when you begin shooting and then make the correct adjustments before continuing.

Another point about exposure is that while I prefer manual mode, aperture priority mode might work as well in these conditions most of the time. The reason being is that when I change the exposure, I change shutter speed and keep the aperture constant. That is essentially what aperture priority mode does for you automatically. So why don't I use that? One reason is I prefer to be in total control over my exposure settings and depth of field. Sometimes, I need a greater depth of field to get an entire bird in focus or when there are more than one bird in the scene. To change depth of field, I must change the aperture setting. Here is an example where I would prefer a depth of field that is great enough to get the chicks and parent in focus.

The final point about exposure has to do with time. Typically I begin shooting at the rookery minutes following sunrise and continue shooting until about 10 am. As the sun rises higher, it offers a greater amount of light. Generally, I want to keep my shutter speeds at or above 1/500 (with a focal length of 400mm, the minimum speed should be 1/400) and prefer at least 1/1000. With aperture settings between f5.6 to f9.0, I need to begin the morning with relatively high ISO settings, beginning with 800 and eventually decreasing to 400 or less. Occasionally, I will go higher than 1000. Here is an image taken minutes after sunrise at an aperture of f5.6 and shutter speed of 1/500 and ISO at 800. Notice the bird has a foot missing.

In summary, exposure settings should include relatively fast shutter speeds (1/500 minimum, preferably 1/1000 to 1/2000), wide apertures with some depth of field (up to f9.0 works well for my camera) and be prepared to use high ISOs (above 400) especially during early morning light.

Once I have my images downloaded and sorted, I begin the post-processing stage for each image. Typically, it may be nothing more than simple dodging (lightening) of selective areas that are slightly underexposed. With birds in flight, it is almost inevitable that some portion of the bird will be shadowed. This is why early morning hours are best for flight shots as the sun lights up the underside of the wings and torso. Basically, the angle of sunlight will determine the location and amount of shadows on the bird.

Here is an example of a pelican captured during early morning. Notice that with this banking position, all the bird's feathers and torso are in good light; very little selective dodging was needed for this image.

You will see changes in your images throughout the morning as the angle of the sun increases. You can try to minimize the shadows by positioning yourself with the sun behind you and slightly to your left or right, and avoiding harsh overhead lighting that comes in late morning hours. The bird's position will also affect the outcome. As an example in the image below, the bird's body was turned enough toward the sun (which was to my right and slightly high) to illuminate the torso and most of the tail feathers and left scapular feathers. The primary and secondary wing feathers were in a horizontal flat position, which caused the underside of them to be shadowed.

Selective dodging of shadowed areas should lighten up the shadows enough to bring out the details. To illustrate how that might look, here are before and after images. Note the details in the shadowed torso are seen with some dodging to that area.

Here is another example where angle of the sun affected the shot. The sun was obviously to my left, but with correct exposure and selective dodging, details in the feathers were maintained.

Capturing a bird in flight is one of the most challenging tasks for a bird photographer, but for obvious reasons can be the most rewarding. The bottom line is, practice, practice, practice. At the very least, you'll have fun watching the birds.

"It's impossible to explain creativity. It's like asking a bird, 'How do you fly?' You just do it". Eric Jerome Dickey