Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Finding Chokoloskee Bay

I have an advantage during the summer months here on Chokoloskee Island. With fewer boats and people around, I own the bay and can indulge my desire to photograph it in a way that few have bothered to try. After all, the bay surrounds an inhabited island where large Florida-style houses, 40-ft trailer homes and marina docks clutter up the island's edge. Not only that, the bay is riddled with ugly oyster shells, all muddy and sharp. Nothing attractive about that. Or is there?

The beauty of the bay is that you can situate yourself south of the island and have a 300-degree view of the Ten Thousand Islands (all within the national park) while observing a sunrise or sunset. The sky dominates over the thin line of mangrove shorelines, so it is in summer when you really want to be here. I look for those mornings or evenings when the tide is low enough that I can paddle to a revealed oyster bar and set up the tripod. I bought boots to wear so I can walk over the sharp shells without mutilating my feet and ankles. My boat is at risk to, so I brace it between two stake-out poles. That way it cannot move in the shallow waters where sharp shells lay in waiting to scratch the gel coat.

Not only do you have the oyster bars to contend with, composing an image on Chokoloskee Bay comes with some creativity challenges. Forget interesting foreground, except for a moderate size mangrove sticking out of the muddy oyster shells. If you want any kind of focal point, you got to work with the oyster bars. What makes them interesting is that they form long curvy narrow paths that seem to lead the eye toward the sky. My mission was to capitalize on this and capture some summer storm clouds over Chokoloskee Bay during low tide.

The other challenge is the weather, a catch-22 of sorts. If you want beautiful clouds to photograph, you got to have storms. And if you are photographing from a canoe, you got to out-paddle those storms. The last morning I was on the bay, I got to an oyster bar to set up before sunrise as a southerly storm approached. The winds were already a steady 10-12 knots, which thwarted my idea of using a lone mangrove for foreground interest. With a long exposure, the leaves would be blurred to no end and I really did not want to deal with multiple exposures to try to overcome that with a fast shutter speed.

Because the water levels were too high to reveal the oyster bars, I had only the water and sky to work with. But the sky was amazing, and at one point, a moderate-sized rainbow appeared, although somewhat covered by low-lying dark clouds. By 7:30, the storm was nearing the bay, so I put away the gear and paddled back with a brisk 20+ knot wind pushing me along. Here's the scene as shown on the radar at about that time.

Because the clouds were the main interest, I used long enough exposures to smooth out the water and overexpose it somewhat. For some images, I set the white balance to a blue temperature. And, I experimented with black and white compositions during post-processing. All in all, I think I am beginning to reveal Chokoloskee Bay as I experience it. I love that bay.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flying Flowers

Butterflies are self propelled flowers.  R.H. Heinlein

Naturally, the butterfly is an appealing subject to photograph and here in Florida, there are many locations and opportunities to try out your butterfly-photo skills. Until recently, I rarely attempted to seek out butterflies to photograph. When visiting a garden, such as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (FTBG), I overlooked the butterfly and focused on other subjects such as lizards, spiders or birds. This was primarily because I figured a successful butterfly photograph would only be the result of an earnest pursuit that would demand time and attention at the expense of another subject. I did not want to take "just another shot"of a butterfly. 

Other than birds, one of my favorite animals to photograph is the goldensilk orbweaver spider. It is the only "macro" subject I have photographed consistently. From my encounters with the spider, I have learned many things that have helped me improve my images. Basically, there are three important things to consider when composing an image; background, lighting and depth of field (DOF). If you don't get those three things right, it is a deal breaker as far as I am concerned. In this regard, macro photography has always been intimidating to me. 

But now, there's a new game to play. A couple years ago FTBG created a butterfly conservatory that they describe as a "World of Fluttering Color".  From a photography perspective you have the advantage of thousands of subjects within a relatively small space. You can't spit without hitting a butterfly! On the other hand, it is extremely challenging to capture a successful image of a butterfly despite the fact they are everywhere you look. What a perfect location for practicing high speed photography!

With several visits, I have learned many things. But the most important thing I have learned is to find a suitable landing location first and then wait. Inside the conservatory, I am not allowed to use flash (because of the hummingbirds), so I must rely on natural light. This is extremely tricky in this small space that is full of plants of all shapes and sizes. So I look for a landing location where there are no contrasty leaves in the immediate background. I like to keep the background at a distance from the flower so that any dark or shadowy objects will be out of focus. Often, the background will appear completely dark or can be rendered in such a way with a little post-processing.

The other obvious challenge is the speed and unpredictability of the butterfly. They flit in and out and don't stay in one spot for too long. To get a fast shutter speed, I need to increase my ISO, typically 1250 to 1600. I like to have some depth of field, so I use an aperture of f8.0 typically. If I stop down too much (say to f11), I have to compromise my shutter speed, which I like to keep at least 1/1000.

I focus in on the butterfly's head most of the time. Although an open wing is quite beautiful, I like the profile images where the entire underside of one wing is in full view and you can see the butterfly's probocis and legs. This is also an advantage as the entire butterfly will be in focus if the wing and body are on the same plane.

With time and patience, waiting pays off. After a few visits, I have been able to anticipate certain shots, including flight shots of the butterfly taking off from the flower. Colors are always a given, so I try to capture them in the light and enhance them with some post-processing.

While my time in the conservatory has paid off with some nice images of butterflies, it's what I have learned that is priceless. At the very least, I've gained some practice time with my tracking focus, a useful skill for any type of wildlife photography. Enjoy these images of the butterfly.