Monday, April 28, 2008

A Better Day

I bundled up in my warm layers and set out from my car with my 600mm lens resting firmly over my shoulder. The snow from the day before had melted and frozen into a hard crust which my feet broke through. It was only ankle deep today but somehow the addition of breaking through a crusty surface made the hike to the blind more difficult than the knee high snow had the day before. I kept my pace slow and steady - a friends voice in my mind saying "the Sherpa shuffle". One step at a time, slowly and surely, just keep moving forward. Even though it was an hour before civil twilight would begin, there was plenty of moonlight to guide me along the path, no artificial light was needed to see the way. By the time I reached the blind I was beginning to sweat and needed to strip off a few layers to avoid getting too warm only to have the warmth drained as I sat still in the blind for the next three hours. I regreted not bringing my snow boots as my toes began to feel as if someone had filled my hiking boots with hundreds of tiny pins.

Now that I was installed in my blind, the camera set up, the flaps open and the prairie spread out before me I had nothing to do but wait. The cold began to seep into me and I added my layers back on. My wicking shirt did it's job and kept me nice and dry. My thermal held in my body heat and my amazing Nomar Polar Fleece from Homer, Alaska did the rest. I wrapped my down jacket around my lap like a blanket and was almost comfortable... except my feet. With nothing in the viewfinder I had nothing to do but focus on how uncomfortable I was GOING to be when my feet got REALLY cold.

As twilight began I became aware of a heavy, deep buzzing noise, growing in intesity... I heard wing flaps and suddenly from every direction chickens began to gather and strut their stuff. I was set up on iso 1600 again at f/5.6, as wide as I could get with the 1.4 teleconvertor attached. It wasn't wide enough. I watched helpless to capture as the chickens began to inflate their bright orange neck patches. My 8 second exposure was just too slow. Seconds dragged by into minutes. I fired a few test shots to see just how much speed I needed to capture just a sliver of the scene that was unfolding in front of my eyes. FINALLY I was able to get my shutter speed up to 1/80th s and drop my iso to 1000. My camera rattled frame after frame of images as the light steadily increased, I focused on increasing the shutter speed and decreasing the iso until finally I hit a respectable combination. Of course at that precise moment the entire lek exploded into the air and flew away. My heart lurched and I felt crushed. What had spooked them? I'd seen no movement from the blind opposite me and I hadn't moved at all. A northern harrier hawk glided over the snow crust in the distance... perhaps that was the cause... luckily for me they all came back and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. The light got better and better and more and more chickens arrived, playing their games of "made you flinch".

With the grey overcast sky I never got quite enough light to capture the amazingly fast wing flaps of these birds but I came away with many beautiful portraits of these colorful birds. Now that I am completely hooked on these comical birds I know where to come next year and I know I'll need at least four days just in case the weather decides not to coorporate. The there will be the lesser prairie chickens, the Attwater... not to mention the grouse.... every discovery opens the door to ten more things to be discovered. For now I am satisfied and ready to move on to some warm weather shooting. Next week: Arizona's Hummingbirds.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Frozen Chicken

I arrived in Minnesota with hopes of photographing the Greater Prairie Chicken lek and immediately knew I would be needing all the layers I brought with me. 30 degrees Fahrenheit isn't too bad when you are dressed for it but in jeans and a t-shirt I was under dressed. I picked up the rental car and headed out to the Blue Stem Prairie to explore the blind site. I wanted to be certain I could find the site in the dark the next morning. The grasses around the lek site were golden and I visualized the images I wanted to capture.

The temperature seemed to drop as I headed back to the car. By the time I reached my hotel room the snow had begun to fall in earnest. I listened to the reports of road closures and accidents before heading to sleep.

I headed out at 4am, very skeptical that I would come away with any photographs - they would definitely be very different than those I visualized the day before. The snow was knee deep as I hiked the path I had explored the afternoon before. I made it to the blind, kicked off the snow and settled in to wait for the sun to rise. When it finally did the chickens began to arrive on the lek site.

They tried their best to proudly display and boom but even they were cowed by the driving snow. I kicked the iso up to 1600 and did my best to focus through the snow. By 7:00 the chickens gave up and so did I. I managed a few images and it was incredibly fun to see these impressive birds. I'm hoping for better luck tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


It’s contest time again and once again I am sorting through images, pulling my best and getting sad that none of my work seems good enough. I know intellectually that contests are all subjective and that every judge sees differently and is looking for a different connection. An image may be 100% technically perfect, tack sharp and beautifully exposed with an inspired composition but if it doesn’t speak to the individual judge – it isn’t going to win. That in no way diminishes the value of the image. I have to remind myself of this every year… just because the judges liked someone else’s work better doesn’t mean that mine is any less wonderful.

You can see the eye of different judges by following and comparing winning images from different competitions. Two of the largest and most coveted competitions in the Nature community are the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best Magazine.

The first year I was aware of the Shell competition I was shocked that an almost unidentifiable image would win such a prestigious competition. It was an image of a Walrus feeding in the muddy bottom of the ocean, the swirls of dirt he was kicking up almost obscured him completely and one could barely make out the eye and whiskers. This past year the overall winner was a relatively close up of an elephant bathing in muddy water, the splash frozen in time, water droplets flung far and wide, the image cuts straight through the elephants eye.

I have strived to capture nature as I see it, as it is… get that eye sharp, show depth in the fur or feathers, show the environment and focus on what is special about the animal, unique to it alone such as a bobcat’s ear tufts or a wolves golden yellow eyes. All of that fits Nature’s Best. Browsing their winners year after year I see clean backgrounds, striking color and sharp detailed images.

Which do I prefer? When I started shooting I was strictly Nature’s Best. I wanted perfection. As I have grown and developed my work I am finding more and more that I enjoy the not so perfect images that tell so much of their story through texture rather than in your face perfection. The beauty of art is that you can change your style, you can grow and learn and come to appreciate things you didn’t in the past. Who knows what the future will bring, I know that each competition drives me and inspires me to try new techniques, to improve upon what I know and to seek out new creatures and environments. Even if I don’t win anything, it is fun to try and maybe this year I’ll make that elusive connection with a judge.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mean People Suck

I'm getting ready to leave Utah today after many amazing moments with the lovely cats (and two wolves) from Animals of Montana. I manged to capture some unique views of these wonderful animals actors and am very pleased with the photographic side of the trip.

I was foiled in my intentions to capture some landscapes shots between the animal sessions by a rather inconsiderate thief. Didn't he know that I had plans? I had work to do? Apparently not. The second morning of the trip I went to my car to head out for the first light and noticed broken glass on the ground beside my car. My heart sank as I rounded the side and found my drivers side window smashed to pieces and the window frame bent from repeated attempts to pry loose the door lock. I expected the worst, that all of my photo gear was gone and I'd lost everything.

Apparently the thief was either interrupted or just didn't bother to lift the blanket in the back of the car to see the camera lenses resting there. All they took was my iPod. So, I am faced with a very quiet ride home but I've got all of my images and all of my camera gear so I can't help but feel extremely lucky. A local glass place was able to replace the window so I won't have to listen to the rattle of plastic all the way to San Francisco.

I can't imagine what the thief must be thinking as they look through my play lists of bird calls and Michael Bubble, Fiest and Fine Frenzy. Lesson learned, no matter how many trips it takes, no matter how tired you are, no matter how small and homey a town is, no matter how many resident leave the keys in their cars and doors to their homes unlocked... Bring everything into the hotel with you and park in the very front under the biggest camera you can find... and don't forget to have some fun.

And now for the long drive back to San Francisco.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sea Food Lovers

Took a quick trip down to Moss Landing with my friend Jim this past Wednesday. We rented a boat and went in search of Sea Otters. We didn't have to look for very long at all, barely out of the marina and we were surrounded by adorable fuzzy faces.

I'm looking forward to going back earlier in the morning for better light on these guys. Before I can do that I am in Moab, Utah on a photo shoot. Sea to desert in three days. =)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Looking Around at History

It's easy to forget that there are amazing things to photograph right near home when you travel as much as I do. Sometimes it seems as if all of my time between trips is taken up sorting and cataloging images from the last trip and then packing for the next.

So today I went out exploring in my own back yard and I found a wonderful place to poke around. A 15 minute drive (plus or minus 5 minutes for the tunnel stop light) out of San Francisco is the Marin Headlands. The area has beautiful rolling hills, bobcats, deer, bunnies and coyotes, a gorgeous beach with sea stacks off the coast, wildflowers and a lagoon... as the Nature and Wildlife photographer that I pride myself in being... I photographed Battery Mendel.

The headlands area is littered with old military sites including a restored Nike missile base. The particular battery that I visited today was completed in 1905 and was in active service until 1943. Wandering the ruins and looking at the rust you could almost feel the history of this area. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been stationed in such a beautiful location. I climbed the stairs to the top to take full advantage of the view and was hit by a blast of cold ocean air. I decided that being stationed in such a beautiful location most likely had it's downside as well. Adding the fog to that cold blast would have chilled me to the bone.

I'll be going back since there is so much more to explore but next time I'll bring a heavier coat!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Orton Imagery

Thursday night I went to my camera club, Photochrome, and as always, I enjoyed viewing and was inspired by a wide range of photographic talent and styles. ChrisK displayed a lovely example of Orton Imagery that provoked a good deal of discussion within the group. Orton Imagery is a technique pioneered by Michael Orton for slide film. Two images are taken of the same scene, the first in focus, tack sharp and over exposed by 2 stops. The second image is out of focus and overexposed by 1 stop. By sandwiching these two image in the same slide mount the final image appears properly exposed with a dreamy, painterly quality.

If you shoot digital don't fear, this look can easily be recreated in Photoshop. Once you have opened your image in Photoshop select Image --> Apply Image. In the dialog box which appears change the Blending Mode to Screen and leave the percentage at 100%. This will give you the properly over-exposed sharp base image. Next, in the Layers menu, right-click on the background layer and select Duplicate Layer. Apply a blur to this duplicate layer by selecting Filter --> Blur --> Gaussian Blur. Experiment with the pixel radius between 2 - 50 pixels depending upon your taste. I usually settle somewhere in the 30 pixel range. Change the blending mode of this layer to Multiply and the lovely impressionistic image will be revealed. Flatten the image and you are ready to debut your new work of art.

Orton Imagery is typically thought of as a landscape technique I have used it on some of my wildlife photos to varied levels of success. The main trouble with using it on wildlife is that the eye needs to be sharp and bright or the resulting image looks more like the product of a taxidermist than a living breathing creature. I solve this by cutting the eye onto a separate layer above the blurred layer.