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