Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All

Winter Wonderland, Canada

No, it doesn't look like this in Seattle right now - we're getting rains similar to California - but a person can always dream of a white Christmas... (Old habits die hard). 

But wherever you are, whatever your faith, I wish you the best of the season and a happy, successful 2011.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The "Wrong" Lens

Red-eyed Tree Frog, Costa Rica 
I am often asked what lenses to take for a particular journey.  My standard answer?  All of them.  Seriously... I find that I need everything in my arsenal nearly everywhere I go, which explains why my backpack is so unbelievably heavy.  In almost every shooting situation, you can be sure that whatever lens you leave behind will be the one you need.

The truth is, however, that not having the "right" lens can force you to get pictures you might not otherwise have seen.  Consider, for example, my red-eyed tree frog (taken, by the way, on Kodachrome -  more than 25 years ago).  When I found this frog, sitting on a palm frond, I didn't have any of my macro gear with me.  In fact, all I had a was a telephoto lens, without any macro capability.  Although I wanted to a close-up, the lens simply did not focus any closer....and the picture above is the result. Instead of an in-your-face portrait (of which I have hundreds already) I was forced by my equipment to create a composition with what I had on hand.

I liked the design, of course;  the balance between the off-center frog and the black areas on the left. It worked for me, despite the fact that it was not the picture I wanted to take at the time. But less than a year later, it was published as a wrap-around cover on Audubon Magazine -  a picture I only took because my equipment forced me to look beyond my initial instincts.

The lesson? No, it's probably not a good idea to intentionally leave a useful lens behind as a way to force you to see differently.  But it is worth trying a different lens that you might not  use normally, one that changes your perspective and allows you to see a picture you might not see otherwise.

Then there is our obsession with big glass. In the Arctic this summer, I shot polar bears next to a guy who had a 600mm lens on his Canon  - all the time. By contrast, I went back and forth between my 300mm 2.8 and a 70-200mm, occasionbally throwing on a TC1.4 when needed.  Did I lose some great close-ups when the bear was a long way away? You bet I did.   But the shorter lenses forced me to get something BESIDES a close-up - like this environmental shot of a bear on a vast sheet of drifting ice. Like the frog picture, the "wrong" lens gave me access to a picture I would never have taken if I'd been using a mega-telephoto.

Polar Bear on Pack Ice,  Svalbard 
But when the bear came closer to the ship, as I knew it would, I was ready - and got some of the best pictures of the trip.

Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 lens

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Terrible News

Wild Beach Cassowary,  Queensland
I have been home from Australia for less than a week now,  but have been in touch with friends there nearly every day since I left.   News reached me last night that one of the Cassowaries I photographed on a small Queensland beach was hit by a car and killed shortly after I left.  The news has hit me hard.   I came to love these remarkable birds while I was there, but am realistic enough to know that the gravest threat to their survival is their uneasy relationship with people.

There are probably fewer than 1500 Cassowaries left in Australia and as many as a dozen are killed every year on roads and highways. Animals like these, which have grown dangerously casual around people are particularly at risk since they have lost the natural fear of humans that can serve to protect them. 

I don't know exactly what happened yet, but the idea of one of these great birds that I came to know so well has been killed because of human interaction has been wrenching. Statistics are abstract; this was personal. 

Cassowary and Beach Scene

Monday, December 13, 2010

Palm Pilgrimage

Licuala Fan Palm (Licuala ramsayi), Australia
Many years ago, I saw a picture of Australia's remarkable round-leaved Licuala Palm, which grows in a very restricted part of the Queensland rainforest.  I was so struck by their marvelous shape, and the stunning patterns of light and shadow they create that I stuck a picture up on the wall - it sat there for a decade or more before I actually had a chance to see these trees myself.

On my recent Cassowary trip to Australia, I snuck off for a day or two at the end to make a pilgrimage to the Licuala forest near Mission Beach and wandered through one of the loveliest forests I have ever seen.

What the pictures don't tell you, however, is that this was also a beastly hot, humid, and mosquito-ridden swamp.  Oh yeah, and there are leeches.

So as delighted as I was to see these trees, I was just as happy to leave them behind... Still, I'm glad I made the effort... And when the bites stop itching, I'll be even happier!

Nikon D3  17-35 lens

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Face in the Forest

Forest Dragon, Atherton Tablelands, Australia
I set out yesterday morning to photograph a tree - a massive strangler fig in the Queensland rain forest. But as is so often the case, I found a better picture on my way there. Walking alone on a remote trail, I stumbled onto this Forest Dragon clinging to a treetrunk, just a few feet off the path. I expected him to run away, especially when I had to drop my pack, change lenses and extend the tripod legs. (No, I wasn't expecting, or prepared, to photograph a lizard that morning...) But he apparently thought I couldn't see him, which gave me the luxury of getting set up...

In the end, I got only a handful of shots before he skittered away, faster than I would have imagined possible. Too bad, because I still wanted to try some wide-angle images.  But this simple portrait was not bad for a completely unexpected opportunity. Better, in fact, than my picture of the tree!

Just after I took this picture, I hopped on the first of a series of airplanes to bring me home. It was a remarkable, and productive trip to Australia - one of my favorites of all time.

Next on the agenda?  After Christmas and New Year's, we leave for a month in Sri Lanka, chasing endangered primates. But for now, I'm just happy to be home.

Nikon  D3,  70-200mm lens

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Forget the Habitat

Native Palms along Lacie Creek, Queensland
Every now and then I have to stop trying to get pictures of animals and take a few shots of the places they live. I have some very nice shots of Cassowaries in the rainforest, but I also wanted to try and get some pure landscapes.  That worked out perfectly today... since I didn't manage to see any Cassowaries in the forest at all (although lots of their unforgettable droppings!)

For me, photographing in the tropical forest is a kind of treasure hunt. I set off walking, hoping to find some sense of order in the midst of what is usually visual chaos. I walked for several hours in the forest today, and found only a handful of pictures. Someone else would have found entirely different images, I suspect.  In this scene, I was drawn by the repetitive nature of these wild palm trunks along a small creek. Nothing earth-shaking, but a nice pattern of vertical lines.

I was also pleased with one other picture today - of what look like fossil dinosaur tracks from the Jurassic but were left in the sand today by a very modern Cassowary. A simple picture, but one I'm happy to have.

Nikon D3  24-70mm lens

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Dancing Dinosaur

Wild Cassowary on the Beach

After two weeks of chasing these giant birds through the dense tropical 
rainforest, I moved today to a new location – a place where, I was told, 
wild Cassowaries walk the beach.  It seemed like a long shot, but I 
gave it a try, and set up a vigil on the beach in the late afternoon – 
not feeling very optimistic.  But little over an hour after I arrived a 
Cassowary emerged from the forest lining the beach and walked right 
past me. 
I was so stunned, I dropped all my camera gear into the sand out of 
my unzipped backpack. A few choice words were spoken – as you 
can imagine – and then I took off down the beach.
It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park: a giant primitive bird 
walking along a narrow beach backed by dense rainforest. I couldn’t 
believe my luck. I tried a variety of angles, backgrounds, lenses, 
close-ups and more environmental shots – anything I could think of, 
knowing my time with him could be brief.
This is only one of my favorites from an exhilarating hour spent with a 
feathered dinosaur. I’ll be back there at sunrise tomorrow!
Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dangerous Ground

This is not a spectacular picture, but it's one I tried for days to get. This Cassowary male and chicks probably crosses this road several times a day, but it took me a week to figure out their regular route and where their usual crossing point was. Why is this important?  First of all, the most important cause of mortality for this endangered species is by car impact. So this is a picture I felt was important to have: crossing any road - and this one is surprisingly busy - can be life-threatening for an adult Cassowary, not to mention it's three small, inexperienced and unpredictable chicks.

 In fact, this was the best-behaved I have ever seen these chicks - they almost NEVER go in line behind their Dad - usually one or the other is wandering off on his own distracted.  Is it possible that he's taught them the importance of staying together when crossing the road?  I hope so.

And yes, I would have loved to have arranged for a car to come around the bend right then - like the picture below it would have told a more compelling visual story - but I would never have forgiven myself if something had happened to one of these birds. Over my two weeks here, I have grown very attached to these gentle and confiding birds, and I wish them well in a challenging world. Simply said, I am grateful that they have allowed me into their lives;  I hope I can use these pictures to do something positive for their future.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens

In Fine Company

I have spent the past two weeks in the company of what the Guinness Book of World Records has listed as the "Most Dangerous Bird in the World." Poppycock. Yes, they have massive and powerful feet, tipped with dagger-like claws - but for cassowaries, as for most animals, violence is a last option. I have found them attentive parents, gentle companions and for the most part entirely unaggressive. This does not mean I don't have to be careful, however, especially with young chicks present. The male Cassowary has all the responsibility for the chicks from egg to fledging, and he doesn't like people messing with them.  In this image, however, he's not threatening to eat me; on the contrary he was giving a big yawn....before  promptly falling asleep...
So what's with the horn?  The "casque" as it's called, is something both sexes have, so it is not a male-only appendage used for fighting (in fact, his mate's casque is bigger than his!).  Instead, it may be employed to bash fruiting trees to drop their fruit, or to more easily navigate the dense forest understory that is so common here.
I can personally testify to how difficult that can be : I have tried many times to follow wild cassowaries through the forest, and typically get only a few yards before I'm stopped by a multitude of spines, and a particularly cruel vine palm with fronds like razorwire.  No wonder, the Cassowary has a thick coast of coarse feathers - it's as tough as chain mail.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nighttime Diversion

Waterfall Frog in Spray
In the tropics, the sun doesn't linger at the horizon at the end of the day : it plunges down as if in a hurry for tomorrow. It's dark by 7, and inside the forest, much earlier than that. So what is a wildlife photographer to do for the next 12 hours until dawn?  Well, last night I went in search of a mythical, and endangered, frog - the Waterfall Frog.  OK, the official name is the Torrent Treefrog (Litoria nannotis) but that seems to suggest that this frog has something to do with trees.  No, this little fellow lives only in waterfalls in small streams and only in Northern Queensland Australia.  Happily there was a location just a few miles from where I am, so I thought it might make a pleasant way to spend an evening.

When I say these guys live in waterfalls, I mean that quite literally; they're not in the rocks and riffles along the way - they live in cracks alongside, behind and in actual falling water. Oh yeah, and they're only active at night.

In the end, we found them, right where they were supposed to be, and with waist-deep water, leeches, rain, spray and a very active frog - let me just say it was not dull.  I'll let you know if it was worth it when - and if - I can dry out my camera, strobes etc.

Nikon D300 with 60mm Macro lens

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unexpected Gifts

Emerald Dove  
When I am in the field, I typically have a mental list of pictures that I hope to get -- but on any given day I rarely get what I expect. Nature is unpredictable that way, and that is an essential part of its gift, the ability to offer surprises.

I spent a lot of time waiting today while the tropical rain came down in buckets.  In fact, I spent a full 10 hours waiting for the Cassowaries to return after an early morning visit. But I wasn't idle : I amused myself with shooting pictures of other birds that were feeding around the camp. This little Emerald Dove, the size of a chubby robin, was feeding on the forest floor and I found that if I held quite still, he would come close. Because it was so dark under the clouds and canopy, I had to use a flash. But every time I did, the little dove would be startled enough to put his wings out as if to fly away. The amazing thing was that his reaction time was so fast that he reacted to the flash before the shutter opened - and I got a picture of his wings already extended. Talk about fast reflexes!

Then, at the end of the day, I was photographing a Cassowary feeding on the road - when a car came around the corner and into my picture. My first reaction was annoyance - but then I realized that this was also a gift: neatly illustrating the fact that Cassowaries are killed every year on roads like this. This was a shot on my list, but one I figured would be hard to get. In the end, it just happened... Sometimes it just works like that. 

And finally, just a nice shot of a common bird, the Australian Brush Turkey.  Not bad for a soggy day in the forest. And I have NO idea what I'll find tomorrow.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm (top and bottom) and 24-70 (middle)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Heading West...and Down Under

Temperate Rainforest, Australia

Since my Antarctica trip has suddenly been cancelled, and I have been given a clean bill of health, I have radically changed my plans. I leave Friday for Australia - a trip that I had thought to do later in the year, but suddenly have time to do now.  My specific goal is a bit hush-hush, but I am continuing work with several endangered species and have heard about a rare opportunity I can't pass up.  Is that tantalizing enough?

For the past few years, I have been concentrating on little-known, or rarely-photographed endangered animals, hoping to tell their stories and make a difference in their survival.  As it turns out, this requires a great deal of research, time spent digging around the internet trying to find animals of interest that have been largely ignored by photographers. However, I have a couple of essential sources:

ARKIVE:  I have probably mentioned this website before, but it aims to be a digital encyclopedia of life on earth, with particular emphasis on endangered plants and animals. For me, this searchable website is a godsend : providing information on conservation status, locations and with references to scientists working in the field. Because I applaud what they are doing, I have - from the very start - contributed pictures to their archive at no cost. (I have to be somewhat sparing with my gifts of photography: I have to stay in business to be able to continue doing what I do, and am bombarded with requests for free images every day.  But Arkive is different : I give them anything they want...)

IUCN Redlist:  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature maintains the "Red List," a carefully researched database of endangered species.  Want information on an obscure fish?  Chances are you'll find it here - or on Arkive.  Both websites are invaluable to me.  And together they produce a special "Species of the Day" page, featuring details on a different animal (or plant) every day of the year.  Check it out - and learn about an animal you never knew existed.

Anyhow, I hope to come back from Australia in early December with some new additions for the Arkive collection - and hopefully, a story worth telling.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Best Laid Plans...

Not flying south THIS year...
Well, so much for my Polar Plans for this year...  The night before I was supposed to leave for Antarctica, I ended up in the hospital ER with terrible chest pains. After two days of nonstop tests - and canceling my trip on doctor's orders - I was given a clean bill of health and sent home, with no idea what caused my symptoms. Weird - and disappointing. But better to be home than having heart problems on a ship in the far reaches of the Southern Ocean.

There are plenty of things I'm sorry to be missing on this trip, not the least of which was the chance to do a penguin blog for my grand-daughter's first grade class. The kids were full of questions and enthusiasm ; I really hate to be letting them down.

So now I have to look at my schedule and decide how best to use this sudden change. Stay tuned...

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ice in Black and White

Iceberg and Cliffs, Antarctica
As I mentioned in my last post, I am leaving tomorrow for 3 weeks in Antarctica. One reason I am excited about the trip - and there are many - is the opportunity to shoot landscapes in black and white. My last trip to the Antarctic Peninsula was eight years ago when digital was relatively new. At the time, I made the bone-headed decision to use the trip to "learn about" my first digital camera. My advice?
Never do this...

What it meant in practice was that I didn't really understand about digital exposure or histograms...and here I was, plunked into a world where exposure was both complicated and critical. On the upside, I also discovered digital black-and-white conversions on that trip - and loved their ease and power. When the light was anything less than optimal for color: I was free to shoot in black and white in an environment that was more than willing to meet me halfway!  I was delighted from the results of that trip and now look forward to shooting much more, and on a much better camera -- and with much better skills.

I will try to blog during the trip, so stay tuned.

Nikon D100, 80-200mm lens

Sunday, October 31, 2010

European Visions...and Antarctica

King Penguin surrounded by Chicks, South Georgia Island
If you suspect the penguins in this photo are  probably not in Europe, you would be right. But I am...just heading home today from a meeting of the GDT, The Society of German Nature Photography, where I gave a talk on my work documenting endangered species.  As always, it was an inspiring event: I find the Europeans have - and this is admittedly a gross generalization - a refined, even poetic, photographic style.  Some of the best work I saw was also the most deceptively simple, with elegant compositions of flowers, grasses and insects.  Simply said, the "euro-style" tends to ignore our obsession with sharpness and detail in favor of light, composition and...mystery.  Yes, they tend to prefer everything blurry which, in itself, is a kind of obsession, but one that views photography as an interpretive form rather than simply a documentary one.

Anyhow, I came away inspired to broaden my own visual vocabulary, and that's a gift. I suggest you have a look at some of the work here:  GDT - they should be posting the results soon for their 2010 "European Photographer of the Year" competition.

Meanwhile, back to the penguins. This shot, of an adult penguin lost in a sea of furry chicks, is one I took on South Georgia a couple of years ago. Happily, I have a chance to go back next week, as the NatGeo lecturer on the NG Explorer. Maybe this time, I will try this shot again, only blurry!

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Wild Wonders of Europe

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
I leave tomorrow for a quick trip to Germany where I will give a talk to the GDT (German Nature Photography Association...I think) on my work with endangered species. I will bring a camera, of course, but may only be shooting some cityscapes in Amsterdam, or some German beerhalls...

This visit to Europe, however,  gives me an excuse to plug the Wild Wonders of Europe project which, if you don't know about it, engaged a host of photographers to document wildlife and landscapes all across the continent - resulting in a stunning collection of images, exhibits, a book, and a greater awareness of the natural treasures of a part of the world people typically dismiss as overrun with people.  It was bold, creative, and enormously successful - and can serve as a model for "big idea" photographic projects worldwide. To learn more, go to their website:

To honor my European colleagues, I am posting this shot of columnar basalt I took last year at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wild Otters of CHILE

Endangered Marine Otters (Lontra felina) Chile

I spent 6 weeks in South America this past winter, getting the first-ever in-depth coverage of the smallest marine mammal in the world : the Marine Otter.  No larger than a housecat, this little otter is found along the cold water coasts of southern Peru and Chile, and is endangered due to a long history of fur-hunting and competition with fishermen.

This was a difficult project, to say the least. When I could even find the animals, I had to shoot them from a moving boat - which was typically getting hammered (along with the photographer) by the rough seas. In fact, I lost my primary telephoto lens (the Nikon 200-400) to a rogue wave, on the first day of the shoot.  (Happily, FEDEX was able to get me another lens within a week..)

To be honest, some key parts of the story never came together : I was unable to get pictures of these fast-moving otters underwater, and camera traps gave me only a handful of fleeting portraits.  But if I didn't get everything I wanted, I have the satisfaction of knowing I got more pictures of this little-known animal than have ever been taken - pictures that will help tell their important story.  Pictures can be powerful advocates, and I have made these pictures available to those working to save this wonderful, but threatened, animal.

Nikon D3, 500mm lens

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chasing Monkeys in the Andes

Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey, Eastern Andes, PERU

A simple picture of a desperately rare animal.  This Peruvian monkey is one of the 25 most endangered primates on Earth, found only in a few scraps of habitat in the highland forests of the Andes. I spent the last week following them through the roughest terrain I have ever encountered, struggling to get a vantage point that gave me something other than  silhouettes shot straight up against a white sky.  If this picture works, it is because I managed to scramble up the steep mountainsides to get a level shot of the animal as he scampered across a moss-covered branch.

There are very few pictures of this species taken in the wild, and perhaps I could have taken better if I had stayed another week... and gotten lucky. As it was, I really only had a day and a half in their company - not nearly enough for in-depth coverage, but sufficient time to get a handful of nice shots of a spectacular animal still clinging to its vanishing habitat.

Nikon D3, 300mm f2.8 lens and 1.4X teleconverter

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Vision in Blue

Chinstrap Penguins on Blue Iceberg
It was the color of this iceberg that drew our attention from miles away. "Why not head over and take a look at that one?" I asked the captain.  With plenty of time, and a ship dedicated to photography, we did just that - changing course to put us closer to this stunning blue iceberg.

Truly blue icebergs are not the norm in Antarctica; they are typically made up of old dense ice with no layer of reflective snow.  This one had the added benefit of having rolled over several times -- the smooth contours and slightly pocked surface are sure signs of a berg that has flipped upside down, possibly more than once.

It was only when we got within a few hundred yards that we realized that there was a small group of molting Chinstraps resting on top. Every year, at the end of the breeding season, penguins must discard their old, worn feathers for a new batch. This process requires that they stay dry for a week or more until the molt is complete, their feathery insulation restored.

My question was this - how did they get onto this particular sheer-sided iceberg?  Maybe it was less steep on the backside, but...?

Nikon F100 and 80-200mm lens, Fuji Velvia  (ca. 1998!)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Sea of Birds

Fisherman in middle of Feeding Frenzy, Pucusana, Peru

I am off to Peru again next week, working on an endangered primate and some rare birds in a remote part of the Andes. I should have some interesting pictures soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share this image of a massive seabird congregation from Peru earlier this year. The Humboldt Current - the cold current that bathes the west coast of South America - is one of the most productive on Earth. That productivity becomes obvious when you see thousands of birds crashing into the water in a frenzy such as the one I witnessed here. 
Surprisingly, I was on land when I took this picture, so this massive pelican flock was diving into the water right in front of me, VERY close to shore.  A few minutes later, the prey had moved away from the coast, and so had the birds.
The great irony about the vast numbers of seabirds all along the Peruvian coast is the fact that current seabird numbers are only a fraction of what they were a generation ago.

Nikon D3 with 24-70mm lens

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tundra Teaching

Arctic Cotton Grass, Edgeoya Island, Svalbard

On my last day in Svalbard this summer, we landed in an autumn garden. Already turning gold, the landscape was one of the loveliest I've ever seen in the north, with a rich assortment of tundra flowers and dramatic mountain scenery. The photographic challenge was, as ever, to distill this 360 degree panorama into a single, compelling photograph.  This loose patch of cotton grass provided the best foreground I could muster, and knowing that I would want to use this handsome butte as a backdrop, I set up shop on this spot. 
But the picture required my widest lens, and a prone position: anything less on either front and the picture would not have been possible. (Even still, I would have liked to have made the foreground grass-heads bigger, but equipment and depth-of-field constraints made it impossible)
In the end, I took a few shots, describing to the "students" who accompanied me that getting horizontal is often essential in finding a dramatic point-of-view for a picture. I started to walk away, but not before I turned around and saw that several people had taken me at my word:

I think, in the end, I like this picture even better than the first one!

Nikon D3, 14-24mm lens

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Victoria BC

Coast Salish Mask: Susan Point, Artist

I spent the last two days at an International Seabird conference in Victoria BC, celebrating beautiful fall weather in a windowless auditorium... Worth it, though,  to connect with old friends - seabirds - with whom I started my career thirty years ago. 

Not many photo opportunities, though. However, I was taken by this ornamental mask done by Coast Salish artist Susan Point, which decorates the Victoria Convention Centre, where our meeting was held. It is a terrific piece of art, enhanced by some pretty nifty lighting, so I have to say - I couldn't resist.

In the meantime, I head out to do some real field photography this weekend, whatever the weather.

Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens and some spiffy ambient light.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Top of South Georgia

Helicopter and 9629' summit of Mt. Paget

I am often asked which is my favorite place in the world. Ignoring the fact that this is like asking a parent which child they prefer, I would have to say the island of South Georgia. Physically, it is an astonishing place - as rugged and imposing a mountain landscape as any on Earth - but this is all just a backdrop to one of the greatest gatherings of wildlife on the planet. All in all, an amazing place.

I had the very good fortune a few years ago to travel to South Georgia with the UK Royal Navy research vessel Endurance. One of the highlights of that 3-week journey was the chance to fly over most of the island in one of their helicopters. Particularly memorable was our landing on the icy summit of the island's highest peak, Mt. Paget, on a stunning clear day when the entire island was visible.

In this picture, taken as we approached the summit, you can see another helicopter having just taken off, amid the swirling wind and snow. The image has never been published before, but it brings back some incredible memories.

I will be back on South Georgia later this year (although not at this altitude!) serving as the National Geographic photo lecturer aboard the "National Geographic Explorer". For more information about the trip, click HERE. Or feel free to write to me with any questions you might have.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Taking Chances

Harebells in Wind, Lofoten islands, Norway

One of the great gifts of digital photography has been its
encouragement of experimentation. With film, I would shoot
a roll of film of a low-percentage shot (think wind-blown
flowers) and then quit – just to save film. It was a 
total crap shoot whether you actually got something or not!
Now, by contrast, you can shoot all day on a 16 gb card:
and check your work along the way.
I haven’t made up my mind about this shot yet – and that’s
just fine. I took it on a sunny arctic mid-day when there simply
weren’t any other decent pictures to be made – too bright,
too windy, too whatever. The kind of day, in fact,  
when I should probably have put the camera down and literally
stopped to smell the flowers. Fair enough…but I couldn’t resist
these dancing harebells. So, I braced the camera on a rock
and shot a pile of them at various slow speeds, quite literally
painting with color. Most of the resulting images are 
junk – and maybe this one is, too – but it was a fun, spontaneous
And for that, and for a picture I could have easily walked past,
I am grateful.
Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens  1/8 sec


Fogbow and Pack Ice, 80 degrees N.

We were hunting for polar bears - a distinct challenge in the intermittent fog.  But the mist did give us one unexpected gift: a fogbow. Caused by the same phenomena that cause rainbows, fogbows are more diffused, and are typically colorless.  
A wide-angle lens captured the fogbow, but I struggled to find a foreground to complete the composition.  There were images where the ice was better "arranged", but on those the fogbow was broken or less pronounced. In the end, I settled on this one, which shows the arc beautifully, even if the ice is a little scraggly.  Nature rarely performs precisely on cue.

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens

Monday, August 30, 2010

Patience, Luck...and Crawling

Harbor Seal, Svalbard

As I came ashore on a remote beach in Leifdefjorden, a single harbor seal was resting on an offshore rock. I was convinced that he would abandon his spot as soon as I started towards him, so I took a half dozen shots from 100 yards away. As other people came ashore, I was convinced that he wouldn't stand for all the disturbance, and moved on.  But to my astonishment, he stayed where he was, periodically lifting his head to check on the intrusion, but refusing to budge. A little while later, I carefully tried to get closer (not wanting to be the guy that scared him off).  He never moved. I got a few more shots, better ones. Then I started off exploring the tundra, while others took their turn.

Half an hour later I was back at the shore again, and the seal was still there! Only now the tide had risen, and the rock he was lying on had disappeared: it looked as though he was resting on the surface of the water.  This time, I crawled closer until I was lying right at the water's edge, my camera resting on a rock only a couple of inches above the ground. (I was so low, in fact, that I had to compose while looking sideways through the viewfinder...try that sometime..!)  The seal lifted its head for just a moment - and I got this image. Satisfied, I backed away.

There is no joy in pressing an animal for a picture until it leaves in fear or annoyance. As a wildlife photographer, I consider it a success when I can leave my subject right where I first saw it, undisturbed. As I returned to the ship, the seal was still there...albeit a bit wetter.

Nikon D300, 300mm f2.8 lens

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Lofoten Dawn

Sunrise on Lofoten Islands, Reine, Arctic Norway

OK, I'll admit it.  I'm on a black and white kick. But since color is so sparse at these latitudes - where the world is largely one of rock, water and sky - many of my images looked frankly better in B&W than they did in color. The beauty is that you can have it both ways, by shooting in color and then comparing the results to a desaturated version.  
In this instance, there was literally no color in the stark granite crags of the islands, and precious little color in the sky. This is still far north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun remains above the horizon for 24 hours. This means no sunsets or sunrises, and none of the saturated color effects that gladden the hearts of photographers. Black and white, on the other hand, reduces the landscape to its essentials.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens, Polarizer

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rediscovering my B&W roots

Waterfall, Tromso, Norway
As a former assistant to Galen Rowell, I have spent a career chasing
the light – staying up late and getting up early for untold sunrises
and sunsets. (As photographers, we seem to have an obsession with
the color red, as in sunsets and slickrock) So it is a bit of a revelation
to suddenly fall back in love with black and white – it’s sculptural
forms and visual grace. And now, with digital, it is all so much easier
than the days of Tri-X and Agfa paper, fixer and stop bath. I applaud
those photographers still working with these classic media, but I am
re-discovering my roots through the new media.
I shot this small waterfall this morning in arctic Norway, drawn by
the counterpoint of rock and water.  I shot it in color, of course, but
 have now made a habit of looking at nearly every image with the
saturation dialed back to zero. Many are not improved (icebergs,
I have discovered, are still a rapturous blue – not a color  you really
 want to discard). But some pictures simply beg for black-and-white.
This was one of them…
Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Heading South again

Female Walrus and Calf, Svalbard

I have never had an opportunity to photograph wild walrus in the water like this, and it was challenging: the boat was bobbing around in the surf, and the walruses popped their heads up unpredictably - and briefly. This was the only shot out of many that made eye contact, was sharp - and had a level horizon!  Walrus were exterminated from Svalbard a century ago, but are returning now in ever-greater numbers thanks to legal protection and strict visitor guidelines.  Seeing them like this was a treat.

We are now sailing south towards Norway - and the darkness. It has been one continuous sunlit day for nearly three weeks now. The change will be a relief.

Nikon D300 with 300 f2.8 lens and 1.4x teleconverter

Sunday, August 15, 2010

From the Far North

Polar Bear on Ice, ca. 81 degrees North, Svalbard

I am mid-way through a trip through Arctic Svalbard, and this is the only chance I’ve had to log on at this latitude.  Fascinating trip – and shocking. The sea ice that normally cloaks this archipelago is at the lowest extent for August that I have seen in 25 years, an ominous sign for polar bears like the one we encountered yesterday (above). Most bears here now have been forced ashore by the retreating ice, onto land that offers them nothing in terms of nourishment.  I will write more when I get a chance.

Nikon D3, 300mm f2.8 lens and TC1.4

Friday, August 6, 2010

Heading North

I leave tomorrow for three weeks in Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, 
serving as lecturer aboard the National Geographic Explorer.  Word has 
it that they have been seeing large numbers of polar bears on the ice 
this year, despite the dramatic reduction of icepack throughout the 
Arctic ecosystem. It will be great to see bears again, and to better 
understand how they are adapting to changing conditions.
I will try and post pictures and comments from the field, but – 
surprise, surprise –  internet access is apparently pretty challenging 
at 80 degrees north. (Maybe that’s a good thing…)  In any case, 
I will certainly post whenever I can, or else I will save my comments 
until I reach more hospitable latitudes. Stay cool.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Back to the Elwha

Goblin's Gate, Elwha River

I spent the day today on the Elwha River, hiking in to this spectacular gorge, which lies less than a mile upstream from one of the two lakes - and dams - slated for removal next year, restoring the river to something like its natural state.  Dam removal will take three years to complete - and untold years to evolve after that.  I hope I live to see the river reborn - and salmon once again moving upstream for the first time in 100 years.

In the meantime, I'm off tomorrow for the high Arctic and will likely not be able to post anything for up to three weeks. Hopefully, I'll have a few pictures to share when I get home, however...

Nikon D3, 17-35mm lens

Monday, August 2, 2010

Chasing Jaguars

Jaguar female resting. Pantanal, Brazil

Five years ago, I took a gamble and went to Brazil's Pantanal to try and photograph wild jaguars. I had only seen one once, in Peru, over a decade before - but that time had not managed to get a picture. Suffice it to say, therefore, that in the intervening years this had become a bit of an obsession with me. This time, I chartered a small boat, hired a local guide, and spent nine days in the sweltering heat following small jungle rivers in search of these secretive cats. By the end of the 9 days, I had seen nine different jaguars - including an astonishing five in one day. I got a handful of OK photos, like the one above;  at the time, one of very few shots of wild jaguars ever taken.  
Now, of course, the location has been discovered,  and photographers like Tom Mangelsen and Steve Winter have spent weeks there. Some amazing pictures have emerged already, and I'm sure there are more on the way, helped by a full-time tourism operation on the site run by legendary biologist Charlie Munn.
I will probably not be back, preferring to find other, less-well-known subjects, but for anyone with a love of big cats, rarely seen or photographed anywhere else - this is a great opportunity.  Have a look at :

Also, look at the Pantanal trip offered by Terra Incognita Tours here.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Having Fun

Pictures are everywhere…even in parking lots.  I was in California
this past week, learning to cook Thai food (even photographers 
need a hobby) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t bring a camera along. 
Here, in the middle of the city, I still found myself looking for natural
subjects and one evening stumbled onto these palm trees lit by a 
streetlight just at dusk. The contrast of the golden light and the blues 
of the dusk sky were irresistible. Natural or artificial?  Who cares? 
Photography is about light, and discovery, and occasionally, just 
pure visual fun.  I will spare you the pictures of my Tamarind Prawns, 
even though they came out great.

Nikon D700, 35-70mm lens, Gitzo tripod

Environmental Milestone

Glines Canyon Dam, Elwha River

In June of 2011, work will begin on the largest dam removal and river restoration project in US history on Washington's Elwha River. The goal: to remove two obsolete but ecologically catastrophic dams and return this 72 km long river to something approximating its natural state. Ultimately the goal will be to restore what were once huge salmon runs, destroyed when the dams were built in the early 20th century. The majority of the Elwha watershed lies within Olympic National Park, making it possible to protect the river, and the salmon, forever.
Federal authorization for this project, which we actively supported, was passed in 1992, so it has taken nearly two decades just for the work to begin. The removal is expected to take 3 years. How long the river will require to heal itself - and to flush out the vast amounts of impounded sediment - is anyone's guess.  
This project may seem small and local, but it is anything but insignificant; it represents a major re-thinking of our relationship with rivers... and quite possibly the planet. It will certainly help guide future dam removals all over the world.
I hope to devote considerable time to documenting the river and its restoration over the next few years. Stay tuned.

For more information on this story, go to Elwha

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Summer on the Cool Coast

 Elephant Rock, Washington    
I feel a little guilty. The rest of the country is sweltering and I’ve been sitting in the fog, wrapped in fleece. Seattle is having very unfamiliar 80-plus temperatures all this week, but just two hours away, on the outer coast, it’s freezing. I got up well before dawn this morning to be in position for sunrise on this handsome rock off the Olympic Peninsula, with dreams of warm, dawn light. Not a chance. Four hours later, I was still fog-bound. Nice to be there, of course, and yes, there is a certain mystery to fog. But the flat, colorless sky was not what I had been hoping for. Weather is always a crapshoot: the sun was out all day just up the coast. Guess I’ll have to try this puppy again; someday I’ll get the picture I’m after...! 
Meanwhile, take a good look at the spectacular cover story on underwater caves in this month’s National Geographic. There are some stunning pictures there – and some terrifying ones – a fine piece of work by Wes Skiles, a man who dedicated himself to documenting, and protecting these unique environments. Look at the pictures, and then reflect on the man: Skiles was killed just this week in a diving accident. It is a terrible, and untimely loss.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens, 15 second exposure

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Roadside Attractions

Glacial Erratic, Columbia Plateau
I have often said that I find some of my most interesting pictures on the way to somewhere else. Case in point: a few days ago I was rushing to get to the Grand Coulee Dam in time to scout out locations for sunset, and was barreling across the Columbia Plateau, deep into a book-on-tape. It was all wheat fields and dirt for as far as the eye could see. Fine, no distractions...
Then I saw this thing. A quick look in the rear view mirror, and I slammed on the brakes, pulling onto a narrow, sloping shoulder. So what is this big rock in the middle of a farmer's wheatfield?  It stands about 25 feet tall, so it's obviously a little hard to move; Instead the farmer just drives his harvester around it when the time comes.
This chunk of basalt is a glacial erratic, a piece of rock carried to this spot and then dumped by a retreating glacier some 10-15,000 years ago. I studied Northwest geology in college and had read about these, and have seen them elsewhere, but this was a monster. It can literally be seen for miles in the middle of this endless, undulating landscape.
It was the middle of the day, so the light was nothing special. (A polarizer helped cut the haze) Happily, there were a few clouds in the sky so I was able to balance rock and clouds to create just the slightest bit of visual interest. But in the end, this simple picture is less about technique than about story: a vivid reminder of the effect glaciers hand on the Northwest landscape.  Works for me.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens, Polarizing Filter

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Not exactly wildlife...

Laser Light Show, Grand Coulee Dam

Seattle has been buried in fog this past week, so to get my dose of Vitamin D, I took advantage of the local "rain shadow" effect, and went to the east side of the Cascades where the sun is predictably hot.  I shot some desert landscapes, some wheat fields, and a rather mediocre sunrise on Mt. Rainier. Along the way, I also stopped at the legendary Grand Coulee Dam, where, in summer, they put on a "laser light show" every evening.  With a hokey narrative and cartoon-like visuals, it was a colossal waste of technology,  squandering what may be the world's greatest IMAX screen on dopey 1970's graphics. On a whim, I tried photographing the show, though the constantly shifting images wreaked havoc with my six-second ISO 1000 exposure.s..  This is one of the few that worked - and actually makes the show look better than it was!  
What you can't see, however, are the mosquitos. To keep the grass lush and green in the middle of the desert, the Bureau of Reclamation has sprinklers on constantly... guaranteeing clouds of blood-sucking insects during the evening show.  Nice... 

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens, 6-second exposures, ISO 1000

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Gift of Light

Waterfall on beach, Oregon Coast

It was supposed to rain last night, but on a whim I staked out a spot on the coast where a small seasonal waterfall drops directly onto a cobble beach. It was a place that I had always wanted to photograph, but had never been nearby in the right weather, or at the brief time of year when the water flows. Happily, the clouds opened up briefly in the last afternoon and I got a couple hours of increasingly warm light until the weather arrived in earnest.

Even still, I'm not wild about anything I got here, to be honest.  Nice light, nice little cascade, but overall, an awkward setting. The fact is, not every natural landscape makes for a terrific picture. It may have all the elements, but still not lend itself to a compelling composition.

I may try this spot again some time to see if a different angle, tide or weather can make something happen. Either way, it was still a lovely evening in a beautiful place.

Nikon D700, 17-35mm lens