Monday, February 28, 2011

Green Waves

Green Waves and Spruce Trees, Northwest Territories

Auroras are unpredictable creatures.  They can be brash and lively,
shimmering and ethereal, or they be gentle and graceful. The latter
is what we had last night. We had clear skies, happily, and despite
the -25 C. temps. there was little wind, so it was vastly more
comfortable being outside than the night before.
The lights began about 9 pm, and seemed to come in waves –
half an hour of activity and then fading away, repeating all night
long. It was not a dazzling display, but a lovely green wave that
morphed in unpredictable ways.  The hint of red was not visible to
 the eye, but camera found it just on the fringes of the wave.
I was shooting 30 second exposures, which is longer than I
like since this allows even crisp shapes to blur into a smear. But
these lights were pale : brighter aurora allow much shorter
exposures and sharper detail. That’s still what we’re hoping for!
Sunny again today, so we’re hopeful for tonight. The aurora
forecast is for quiet activity again tonight, but suggesting more
action on Tuesday night.  We just have to hope this glorious
weather holds – I can’t tell you how many times great 
aurora happens above a solid deck of clouds, maddeningly
invisible to those of us trapped on the ground.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm lens  ISO 1000 at 2.8

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Finding Your Own Icons

Sandstone Shapes, Coyote Buttes, Arizona

So what is a hardcore wildlife shooter like myself doing shooting 
Red Rock country in the desert southwest?  Simple, I find these 
landscapes as irresistible as every other photographer who makes 
the pilgrimage to this “shrine of color.”  We are blessed in this 
country with some of the most extraordinary landforms on the 
planet, and it is no surprise that photographers are drawn here : 
where else can you find reds like this outside of a glowing sunset?
The challenge, of course, for anyone on one of these pilgrimages 
is to see beyond the icons. We have all seen hundreds of images 
of the classics : the sunburst through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, 
the beams of light in Antelope Canyon, the Wave at Coyote Buttes.  
Great places all, and well worth a visit. But how can we, as 
photographers, see them in a new way?  Almost invariably, 
you find yourself trying to re-shoot the identical image as a 
thousand other photographers before you. I, for one, get zero 
satisfaction from that.  If you’re going to shoot an icon, make 
it your own – look for a new take, an unexpected angle, a unique 
I have made several trips to Arizona’s spectacular Coyote Buttes 
area over the years, and I will almost certainly go again. But does
 the world need any more pictures of the Wave? Probably not. But 
there are a thousand treasures all around it, all worthy of a look, 
and a picture. I took the picture above not more than 100 feet 
from the Wave, but I like it much more than the visual retreads 
I shot at the more famous site. It was a picture I found myself, 
spent time sorting out, and finally captured in the late afternoon 
light. It may not be the most breathtaking spot in an area filled 
with heart-stopping views, but it is a picture all my own – and it 
gives me more satisfaction than any of those I shot from the 
usual angles.
Next time I go, I’m going to intentionally take a wrong turn somewhere – 
and see what else is out there.

Nikon F100, 17-35mm lens

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shameless Promotion Dept.

I have been a professional photographer for more than 20 years....and I have to admit that I still get a thrill seeing one of my pictures in print. Maybe it's the same as an artist seeing their work in a gallery, or a writer meeting someone reading their book; it is a confirmation that what we do is noticed, appreciated, or useful.

So I was happy to see my polar bear image make it onto the cover of this National Geographic / Lindblad brochure for their 2011 cruises to the Arctic. I was a lecturer on one of their voyages to Svalbard last summer, and took this picture of a rather coy polar bear from the bow of the ship. There are a lot of polar bear pictures in the world to choose from, but I'll admit it...I get a kick out of seeing this shot get used.

For more info on these terrific arctic cruises take a look here.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Monday, February 7, 2011

"If You're Not Getting Dirty..."

Sri Lanka Junglefowl
I have written before about this bird, a wild relative of the domestic chicken that I photographed in the Sinharaja rain forest in Sri Lanka last month. (I'll say it again : if it didn't look so much like a chicken, it would be considered a pretty splashy bird.)  I spent quite a bit of time with this fellow, taking advantage of his curiosity to get some shots with a sense of personality. My motto in situations like this?  "If you're not getting dirty, you're not getting the picture." Animal portraits are invariably improved by getting down to your subject's level, even if means getting your clothes dirty or (as in this case) being feasted on by leeches.  So there I was, lying on the ground, plucking leeches off my neck, and trying to shoot sideways at a bird that never stopped moving, all the while trying to keep my autofocus on his eyes - which are off-center. 
It is essential for a wildlife image that the subject's eyes be sharp, since that is the first thing we look at, just as we do with portraits of people. If the eyes are unsharp, the entire picture seems out-of-focus, even if every feather is sharp as a tack.  And with this fellow zigzagging all over the place, I was having a devil of a time getting anything at all.  In the end, I took over a hundred frames, of which approximately 90% had to be thrown away: the eyes were soft.  But happily, there was one or two where I managed to get what I wanted - and you know what?  One is all you need. 
Packing up my gear, and picking off the last of the leeches, I apologized to me guide, Saman, for all the foul language that came out of my mouth that day. "No problem," Saman said. "Wildlife photographers always talk that way when they're shooting!"  Who knew?

Nikon D3, 70-200mm lens

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bats at Home

Honduran White Tent Bats, Costa Rica

Photography can sometimes border on obsession. I tired for years to find a daytime roost for these wonderful snow-white bats in the lowland rain forests of Costa Rica - without success. I consulted experts, hired guides, and checked hundreds, if not thousands, of likely-looking leaves in areas where I knew the bats were found. Nothing. 
Inevitably, that sort of failure rate can result in an almost pathological obsession to find them. I would not be denied. But it was probably 15 years before I stumbled onto this lovely group of bats under a low-hanging heliconia leaf. Instantly I discovered where I had gone wrong all these years.  First of all, these bats are SMALL. A full-grown Tent Bat is smaller than my wife's fist - e.g. just four inches long. This entire cluster of bats (12?  I'm not sure) could fit in both hands. I had, for all those years, been looking for something much bigger.
I had also, it turns out, been looking too high.  This leaf, believe it or not, is hanging just over a foot above the ground, barely high enough (you would think) for the bats to safely fly in and out.  To get this picture, therefore, I had to lie flat on my back looking straight up, using an ultra-wide-angle lens.  It was all a VERY tight squeeze.
So... Am I satisfied?  Has my obsession abated?  I'm happy with the picture...and yet... This, then,  is the true nature of obsession: I'd still like to find a roost with 20-25 bats... At least next time I will know where to look!

Nikon D3 with 14-24mm lens