Saturday, May 28, 2016

Working the Flats

For the past year, I've paddled my canoe out to Chokoloskee Bay many times to photograph near sunrise or sunset as one or the other can be viewed widely from the oyster flats. I go out to the bay when the tide is low enough to reveal its numerous oyster beds that have formed serpentine-like shapes with the ebb and flow of the tides. I get out of the canoe and set up the tripod and camera on an oyster bed. Sometimes, I arrive with an outgoing tide and watch the oyster flats below my feet steadily increase in size as the water levels recede. Other times it is an incoming tide and the flats gradually disappear and become covered with a shallow layer of water that makes ripples of intricate patterns caused by the millions of oyster shells.

I walk on these muddy sharp shells with my tripod and camera  in hand. With every step, I think about vibrio vulnificus, known in these parts as the flesh-eating bacteria. I think about falling and how attempting to get up would be as painful as the first impact. I started wearing bicycle gloves to add some protection to the hands that would make first contact. After my first walkabout, I realized I needed better foot protection so I use crabber boots reinforced with a plastic insole made from a cutting board. I am on my second pair.

My canoe is vulnerable too. I use two stick-it pins to hold the boat in place so it cannot drift into the oyster shells while I am photographing. I have to be mindful of the tides. On an outgoing, I have to position the boat so it is not left high and dry as the water disappears. The sound of sharp shells scratching the gel coat of the boat's hull is a rude interruption when photographing. Once my boat is anchored, I get out and carry the tripod to the oyster flat and scope out the scene. I plant the three legs into the shell-ladened mud and then go back to the boat to get the camera and filters. The camera's cable release and filter holder are attached to the camera before I make the walk back to the tripod. Every step is executed thoughtfully.

I have known this bay intimately for years, but attempting to photograph it has been recent. What attracts me to the scene is the dynamic water flow around and over the oyster flats. For example, below is an image taken one late morning and with use of a circular polarizer filter. You can see the texture from the water disturbed by the oyster shells. I used the water movement from the shells to create a foreground and waited for some clouds to form in the sky to balance the image. Notice the darker areas on the water in the background; these are evidence of oyster bars that must be avoided when paddling through the bay.

The bay changes dramatically with the tides, making it an interesting subject. Quite often there are clouds and sky colors to work with, and there is always the water. The next two images were taken from the same location. In the first one, notice how the water texture reveals the curvature of the oyster flat. This was taken near sunrise, with the sun behind me. the second image was shot in the evening at dead low tide during sunset.

One evening, I found myself on a favorite oyster bed with a fast rising tide. I started photographing in an inch of water, but within an hour, I was wading in thigh deep water to get back to the canoe. The mangrove is the only proof that there is ground somewhere in that water.

I must be mad because I can't stop photographing Chokoloskee Bay. Summer is here, which means the sky can fill with storm clouds most any day. This is when I will attempt to go back out to the bay, carefully and slowly working the flats.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Tripod in the Canoe: I never thought I'd see the day

I have a new set up for photographing birds from the canoe. It is a 300mm Minolta f/2.8 lens attached to a 2.0 teleconverter. This is a 50% increase in focal length from my other lens (from 400mm to 600mm). The obvious advantage is that I can get close up shots of birds from a greater distance. This is particularly beneficial at the bird rookery where nesting birds can be easily disturbed if approached too closely. I also purchased a vertical grip. This provides me an ergonomic advantage when shooting vertical images.

But here is the issue, this new set up weighs 8.6 lb (this includes the weight of two batteries). This doesn't seem like a lot, but it can make it impossible to steadily handhold for long periods. It's difficult enough when firmly on ground; but in a canoe, the results can be unacceptable. It would be a shame to have such a powerful lens and not be able to use it to its full potential. But I have to be in the canoe if I want to photograph the rookery or wading birds on Biscayne Bay. So a new system was developed.

I need stability; therefore, I need a tripod. It's a simple matter of placing the tripod in front of me, with one leg pointed toward the bow and the other two legs straddling the pelican case that sits in front of me. There is yet another part to this. While a ballhead attachment works great for many things, I decided I needed a Gimbal head for added stability. The Gimbal head allows the camera to remain in place without the need to hold the camera. As long as the camera and lens are balanced properly on the head,  you can take a break from shooting and not worry about it falling over.

I recently had a couple chances to put it to the test. No doubt about it, the 50% increase in focal length is a great advantage, especially at the rookery. And it is a relieve to not have to hold the camera at all times. But, there are conditions that have to be met to make this work. First, the water must be very calm. Second, there must be a way to hold the boat in place. I use two stake out poles attached to the gunwales (see image below). While this works fantastic and keeps the boat from moving, it works only up to 4-41/2 ft of water depth.  In addition, once staked out, it is a pain in the a** to uproot and try to move to another position. So it is imperative that I get into an ideal spot where I can stay for a couple hours. This takes some patience as I scout out the rookery and figure out where I have the best photo opps within my field of view.

The real test are the images. No doubt, I can more easily fill the frame with birds with the 600mm focal length. And the rookery has been extremely busy lately with several active nests. The challenge has been to isolate an active nest from the surrounding activities. I may get a clear shot of an egret parent feeding her chicks, but quite often the scene is photobombed by another nesting bird or chick; which can be an egret, cormorant or brown pelican.

Nevertheless, the bird rookery is most inviting and I can't wait to get back there. I will continue to visit over the next couple months and hope to have more images to share as the young chicks begin to fledge. In the meantime, here are a few.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Challenges of Photographing from a Canoe: Part II

In the last post, I shared my method of using a tripod to capture waterscapes from the canoe. Since the focus of that entry was on a particular area, I'll continue with that and discuss the challenges of that place; namely, its lack of drama. But to its credit, where it lacks drama, it excels in tranquility. So, how does one photograph this area and make is appealing?

Landscape or waterscape images stand out if they contain the following (this is not definitive, just my take on it); dominating clouds, interesting foreground, leading lines or curves, dramatic light and/or colors (especially red and yellow). When all or some combination of these elements are present, it can make a landscape image very compelling and sometimes powerful. But the elements have to work well together to make that happen. On the other hand, an image can be subtle and still work if the elements come together in harmony and provide a mood. Look at the image below. Do you see any of those elements? Clouds? Inconsequential. Dramatic light or color? No. Interesting foreground? Sort of.  Leading lines? Kind of. The little mangrove serves as foreground and may be the most interesting part of the composition. But, by itself it doesn't balance the composition. That's where the grasses come in. In addition to balance, they do offer diagonal lines that help guide the eyes into the image. While this scene is neither dramatic or powerful, it does, in my mind, strike a calm mood.

If peace and tranquility are what I have to work with, I have no problem with that; after all that is what I feel when I am here. But the subtlety of this landscape makes this so challenging. To overcome this, I try to bring those elements into my images as much as possible. What comes to mind immediately is that you have to capitalize on the Florida sky, which can offer drama and color. Add some water to that with the reflections and now you got something. It doesn't always happen that way. Consider the next image. The fog filled the area during early dawn; consequently, there was no dramatic sky color. I had found a spot where the water trails curved through the scene and set up my tripod. Because of the heavy fog, the sun light was dampened, creating an interesting mood, which I found appealing. No drama here, but very tranquil.

Sunrises only last a few minutes, so I often find myself wandering this area under a bright, cloudless sky looking for something compelling to capture. One day, I noticed the reflections in the water from the ripples created by my boat. Wearing polarized glasses, I was immediately taken in by the golden hue created by the sun's reflection. I put the polarizer filter on the lens and started "playing" with water movement. At first, I used this to create abstract images, such as this one.

Then it occurred to me that maybe the water movement could add an element to an otherwise dull scene. The ripples emanating from my boat can become a foreground interest. So I rocked the canoe and came up with this scene. The grasses once again serve as leading lines, which also work well with the cloud formations.

For some reason, I find that vertical compositions work well. I see the scene in thirds, the sky at the top, the water ripples at the bottom, and the grasses and mangroves in between, like this scene.

The idea has potential. The sky is key to the scene, so there has to be clouds. Dramatic cumulus clouds were passing across the sky quickly, so I attempted to capture the scene as seen here.

Minutes later, the big clouds disappeared leaving behind the less dramatic wispy tails. Using fast ripples, I attempted to create symmetry with the sky, as seen in the image below.

My final thought on all this is that certain landscapes just stand out and take our breath away; but here in south Florida the landscape is understated in many places. Rather than jump out at us, it creeps up on us. It is not so much the 'wow' factor as much as it is the mood it strikes in us. The way I figure, if there is something that attracted you to a scene in the first place, why not learn how to create an image that best conveys that attraction? What better way to learn composition and hone your creativity. That's the lifelong journey I am on, by way of canoe.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Challenges of Photographing from a Canoe: Part 1

Wildlife, or more specifically bird photography has been my repertoire for over ten years. But, in the past couple years, landscape (waterscape) photography has become a greater focus. I've always used a wide angle camera while paddling the canoe; but what I mean by focusing more on landscape photography is that I am using the tripod more often. In some places, I can easily step out of my boat and stand in water with the tripod; Chokoloskee Bay and Biscayne Bay for example.

But there are some areas in south Florida where stepping out is impossible, unless you wish to sink up to your eyeballs in soft mud. I frequent a location where air boats once roamed and now the defunct trails serve as passages through a large marshland where I can paddle in shallow waters. I love this area and find the low profile intriguing, but very challenging to photograph (for one, I cannot step out of my boat). But, when I am there, alone, it is a place of peace. I want nothing more than to capture that sense of feeling. I wander around the maze of low lying mangroves and grasses searching for interesting compositions. I rely heavily on the sky and sometimes it delivers interesting cloud covers; but not always. Foreground subjects and leading lines can be elusive elements to a composition in this area. But, I keep trying; and here is how I do it, without getting out of my canoe.

Step 1. Explore. I typically launch my canoe in the darkness before sunrise. I arrive at my location after about 15 minutes of paddling just before sunrise. Then I search for the right location to stake out. Once I stake out, it is not easy to move to another spot (as you will see in a minute), so I have to choose well. Because of the low lying foliage, I don't have an ideal perspective from my sitting position, so I carefully stand up and look around. This gives me a wider view of the landscape and helps me decide on a location. I am also challenged by the changing light and must anticipate how the sky will appear over the landscape.

Step 2. Stake out. Once I know where to plant myself, I stake out the canoe. I have two looped ropes attached to the gunwales; one in the front on the right, one behind me on the left. I thread a stake out pole (Stick It Anchor Pin) through the loop and stick it into the ground. Each pole is against the boat so that very little movement is possible. The canoe now becomes a stable platform for me to stand.

Step 3. Set up the tripod and camera. I attach the ballhead to the tripod. I stand up, open the tripod legs and place them in the water. Two legs are planted against the side of the canoe so that I can get as close to the camera as possible once it is attached. I then sit back down and grab the camera from the pelican case. I attach the filter holder and cable release before attaching the camera to the ballhead. Holding camera, I stand up and carefully attach it, making sure that the plate and ballhead adjustments are tight. Now I am ready to shoot. Once I know which filter(s) to use, I attach them as needed.

Step 4. Taking the shot. Now I can stand up in the canoe and control my camera. I have an advantage with the Sony Alpha camera in that I can swivel the LCD panel out to see the image without looking through the viewfinder. I use Live View as this allows me to see the image as it will be exposed. I always have the histogram in view as well and rely on it for exposure settings.

The obvious disadvantage is I can't move easily from that spot. Ideally, you want to "work the scene" and move around to find the best composition. This is why it is so necessary to survey the area well before setting up. I've been here several times to know the place. Despite this, the light changes constantly, clouds continuously form, everything changes and you have to adapt and move. When I look at the scenes I captured, I often think about how it might have been improved had I been a few feet to the left or right or more forward or backward.

Obviously, this is not for everyone. But consider that in Florida, water is everywhere and sometimes you have to get in it to photograph it. A canoe is one way to do that and open up a world that few photographers have experienced. By sharing my method for photography from a canoe, I hope to get you thinking about the possibilities. Next entry will continue to focus on this particular area and how I use water movement to compose an image.