Monday, December 11, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 4

Nothing like drinking coffee with a morning view like this one.
I love being in the Ten Thousand Islands and am quite happy even when I don't come home with great images. Good thing, because most of the time, I'll be out there for days and don't "get the shot". Much of this is simply the nature of nature photography; we never have control over our natural environment. I go out there sometimes for up to 9 or 10 days and may get lucky during that time; but mostly I don't. Most of the time I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time, the lighting is not pleasing, the birds are absent, the water levels are too high or too low, the sky is cloudless or too cloudy or the winds are blowing too hard. And for this trip, I knew there would be significant changes from hurricane Irma.

For this fourth and final entry about my recent trip into the islands, I highlight the fact that you often have to try to make the best out of what is given to you when it comes to traveling and nature photography.

My final day in the islands began on Picnic Key and ended 11 miles later on Chokoloskee Island.

Our trip through the Ten Thousand Islands, a total of about 25 miles.
On the beach of Picnic Key, the sun rises behind the canopy of trees, so this is not a beach to view a sunrise. On the other hand, once the sun clears the canopies, there is about 20-30 minutes of sweet light on parts of the beach and the mangrove shoreline of nearby Tiger Key. On these trips, I have to go with the flow and the flow was pushing me off the island before 9 am. Meanwhile, I had to break camp and get everything loaded into the canoe. There was no time to do any serious photography this morning. You take what you can get.

Looking due west, composing an image from the beach can be challenging, but the clouds can help.
I had only about 30 minutes to photograph, so I took advantage of the beautiful light. I worked it as best as possible while hand-holding the camera. Because the backside of the beach was shadowed by trees, I aimed at the western horizon while including water, and worked with the clouds to compose some vertical (above) and horizontal (below) images.

Again, looking west, the trees off to the right are all shadowed as the sun rises behind a canopy of trees behind me. So capturing the shoreline with some foreground interest is not easy under these conditions. 
I walked along the shoreline and looked upon the extensive tree damage and wondered how I might capture the scene. Trees were mostly shadowed or sidelit, and it just did not look right. But then, the light changed. Clouds began to cover the sun; the effect was to even out the light (diffuse vs specular) over the trees so that more detail could be revealed, such as you see below.

Trees looked like they were bulldozed by hurricane Irma. Cloud cover allowed a diffuse light to capture the details of the damage and the new growth.
Soon, I had to put away the camera and get in my canoe for our journey back home. By that time, the sky was mostly cloudless and I spent the next few hours paddling into the relentless sun. I had one expectation for the paddle home and that was to photograph a lone mangrove tree that I discovered a year ago. We would be passing it today on our route. When I first discovered it, I was attracted to its character that I decided I would try to photograph it again, but under better conditions. Unfortunately today I would not have much time to spend with the tree and besides, I expected there would not be much left to it after the hurricane.

That's the way it goes out here. You take what you get and work with that.

I discovered this red mangrove last year and intended to come back to it when I could capture it in the evening or during early morning light.

And this is what is left of that beautiful red mangrove tree.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 3

I liked this piece of driftwood that stood out away from all the downed trees. Most of my compositions taken that evening included it in the foreground.
As often as I photograph in the Ten Thousand Islands, I never know what to expect when I get out there. On this recent trip, my second day was a serendipitous study in black and white on Panther Key (see previous blog). For the third day, I wanted color as I anticipated a sunset from Picnic Key. All I needed was a clear view of the sky, clouds and interesting foreground subjects. Unfortunately (or fortunately), Picnic Key is a complicated mixture of beach, storm debris, and tidal flats. You never know what your going to get on any given day.

Our 6-mile route from Panther Key (top left corner) to Picnic Key.

My rudimentary attempt to show the direction of the setting sun (red) and the rising sun (yellow) from where I stood on Picnic Key.
Clear view. Naturally in the gulf, you can observe sunsets every day. Picnic Key's beach is one of many that offers a clear view. But it comes with a caveat; it happens only a few months out of the year. That's because the setting and rising points of the sun change every day. Notice the big island to the left of Picnic Key in the above photo. That island blocks the view of the sunset from February to October. So if you want a clear view of a sunset from Picnic Key, you have to be there from November through February.

My one horizontal composition that at least shows some of the hurricane destruction. The sun was setting off to the right of the frame as I faced south. 
Clouds. After I arrived on the island, fluffy cumulus types speckled the sky but soon disappeared all together. A blank sky filled my view as I played the waiting game on the beach before sunset. It's those cloudless skies that I dread most. Without clouds at sunset, the sky will be a large blank space providing nothing more than a bright ball on the horizon. As luck would have it, about 2 hours before sunset, the sky became blanketed with stratocirrus clouds. Perfect.

Foreground Interest. I gathered my camera, tripod and filters and walked the beach about an hour before sunset. The beach had changed dramatically from hurricane Irma. Earlier, I had found an interesting driftwood that might serve well in the foreground. I also anticipated that the incoming tide would not be high enough to cover the beach, leaving me with interesting textures to place in the scene.

As I look over my photos from this trip, once again, Picnic Key appears differently than from previous visits, a shapeshifter if you will. And this is why I keep coming back.

As the sun set, the clouds darkened with a purple hue. There's that driftwood piece again.

For comparison, below are three images from the past, to give you a sense of change.

Picnic Key, November 2016. Liking the cloud formations, I captured this low tide scene midday with a polarizing filter on the lens.

November 2013, this was one of my first attempts at getting a long exposure image on Picnic Key. Low tide revealed significant debris from previous storm damage.

One afternoon in February 2009, heavy fog rolled in on Picnic Key. This interesting piece of driftwood has long since disappeared.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 2

The driftwood piece makes an interesting stand-alone foreground object, but without the clouds, there is little to work with. I added a sepia filter to soften the image. This is two images combined into one.

If you haven't yet, please check out Part 1 to get caught up, as I continue my story.

For my second day in the islands, I saw black and white. After capturing a few images in the morning light from our cramped campsite, I got in the canoe and paddled about 2/3 mile to the other end of Panther Key.

Red circle shows where we camped, yellow circle shows where I photographed.
I wasn't feeling inspired. It was after 9 am and the sweet morning light was long gone. If I was going to photograph anything, I would have to rely completely on composition. But I was in no rush, the light was not changing much like it does during early or late hours of the day. In a situation like this, I let go of all expectations. I grab the camera and simply walk around snapping photos. I look at scenes through the viewfinder and experiment with different compositions. After awhile, this is enough to give me some ideas and start preparing to put more effort into getting a shot.

As I continued the casual walkabout, I began to pay closer attention to details. Interesting driftwood lay about in various formations, cumulus clouds were forming in the sky and I began to see possibilities for interesting compositions. And I saw them in black and white. I went back to the boat and gathered up the tripod, filters and remote control.

Black and white (BW) photos are not my forte'. It's a tricky thing because any photo can be converted to BW with a click of a button. Despite this, I have so few BW images. At least in landscape photography, there is a very high standard set by Ansel Adams and then of course Florida's own, Clyde Butcher. Because of this, BW photography is, well... intimidating! Images look best in BW only under certain conditions. There are two elements that seem to really matter, lighting that adds contrasts and surfaces that have textures. I would also add that composition is key. So if you don't have any of that, a BW image really falls flat.

Some water mixed with the tidal flat added more texture to the scene. The top left corner cloud helps balance out the foreground driftwood. This is two images combined to make one.

There I was on the tidal flats of hurricane swept Panther Key and I had all the essential elements to work with; lots of contrast and shadows, interesting driftwood, and textures in the sand, wood and clouds. I would have to let go of that awful thought of being compared to other photographers and simply try to capture what it was I felt that morning. I walked among the dead left by hurricane Irma; and it felt like black and white to me. For the final one below, I offer you the color version just for kicks.

For the next blog, I move on to Picnic Key where I bring color back into the images; lots of color.

I liked the textured ripples in the sand and how they and the driftwood lead you into the scene.

A strong leading line for a vertical composition.

This one was captured on Picnic Key a couple days later. The clouds provided lots of texture to the scene.

I personally like the color version better, but I'm a sucker for blue.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Ten Thousand Islands Project - Part 1

There are a few Florida-based photographers that have captured the amazing qualities of the Ten Thousand Islands, the wilderness area of south Florida's gulf coast. Most well known is Clyde Butcher. If you haven't seen his work, please check it out. The Ten Thousand Islands are not easy to photograph for many reasons, not the least of which is you need a boat to access them. And you have to put up with a lot of other inconveniences as well (e.g., bugs, wind, tidal flats). But the islands draw you in with their pristine and very rugged beaches, and plenty of locations to capture sunsets (and quite often sunrises). Given that Florida is crazy with beaches (and has the keys as well), why bother going to one of these islands to photograph? Why bother, indeed.

Unlike most other photographers, I approach the Ten Thousand Islands from a canoe. For thirteen years, I have navigated my boat around the islands and have spent many days camping on rugged beaches, enduring heat and bugs. A long time ago, I fell in love with the Islands for their unforgiving wildness and desolate-looking beaches. And with my camera, I have tried to capture what I feel when I am out there. On the upside is the exhilarating sense of freedom and joy. On the other hand, the islands have been a severe test of my patience and resolve. Despite all the time and effort, I have yet to capture them in the way I envision. So every time I go out there, I tend to have a goal and I try to prepare accordingly. This last trip was no different.

The latest self-imposed project was to capture the island beaches recently decimated by hurricane Irma. Check out this photo, showing the eye of Irma directly over the south gulf coast, September 10.

The eye of Irma was off shore, about 33 miles from Chokoloskee Island. Chokoloskee is an inhabited island that sits in the middle of the Ten Thousand Islands. An 8-ft storm surge devastated the community and nearby Everglades City.
I expected to see broken trees strewn about the beaches. Surely, some beaches would be diminished significantly, while others would reap the benefits of a new layer of sand. Sand flats and oyster bars would be shifted dramatically, debris would litter the shallow waters. For a powerboat, it could be a navigational nightmare! From a canoe, not so much a problem.

I planned to camp on two of the islands where sunsets can be viewed conveniently from the beach, and with some intriguing hurricane-created driftwood, I might be able to capture an interesting scene or two. I had expectations, but also knew from experience, anything or nothing can happen.

A satellite image of a small portion of the Ten Thousand Islands. the red circle is our camp location for two nights.

On the first day, a fairly easy 8-mile paddle got us to our home for two nights, Panther Key (see photo above, red circle is camp location). Panther Key is a very large island that offers a vast beach and an optimal view of the sunset. With two nights, I anticipated lots of photography. Unfortunately, we also anticipated a violent storm late into the evening and early morning hours and consequently, did not want to camp out in the open as it blew through. So we chose to camp in a very secluded spot, where hurricane Irma downed trees and deposited enough sand and created enough open space for 4 small tents and 5 small boats. It was separated from the beach area that could not be accessed by foot and it was totally hidden from the evening's sun. High tide scheduled close to sunset would prevent me from photographing it.The video below gives you a glimpse of our home for two nights.

I was not happy being completely blocked from the beach with no way of accessing it unless I got in my canoe and paddled over to it. By afternoon, the winds kicked up to 20+ knots and I was in no mood to fight them just to get to the other side of the island for a sunset that likely would not provide much color or drama. Besides, the skies were darkened by the impending storm and we had already felt the rain drops. Basically, I was cramped in, surrounded by fallen dead trees. Frustrated that I would have no photography opportunities until the next day, I sulked. But then, it didn't take long for my mood to change and begin to enjoy the moment. I might have photography goals, but the joy of being in the Ten Thousand Islands goes beyond the camera.

My friends, at home on Panther Key
The storm blew through that night and before dawn, I got out of the tent and tended to the canoe that had filled with a few gallons of rain water. As I was bending over to bail out the water, I re-injured a recently injured back muscle and soon, I was laying in the tent with pain. OK, this would be another challenge, but with some patience and lots of Ibuprofen, I was determined. Soon the sun rose bringing a beautiful light and without much fanfare, the messiness of the dead trees looked amazing to me. I mustered up enough resolve to capture some scenes while hand-holding the camera.This is all it took to get my photography juices flowing again. My back would be a nagging annoyance for the remainder of this trip, but I could manage it. I had no choice.

Composing an image with all the messiness of tree debris is challenging, but that's when the warm light comes to the rescue. I added a warming filter to the lower portion of the scene to accentuate the warmness. If you notice anything, hopefully it is that there is new life evident among the dead.
 That's how it began, one day into the trip. Stay tuned and follow me on my photographic journey in trying to capture Florida's amazing Ten Thousand Islands.

Another handheld camera shot, this time, I adjusted the aperture to f20. Not ideal for sharpness, but it allows that sun burst to appear through the trees.