Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Moonlight Magic on the Turner River

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On the night of the full moon, November 2010, John Moran and I set out to make this fantasy night time photograph on the Turner River in the Everglades.  John had been here years before and had dreamed about returning one night to make a dramatic photo like this.  I had been camping on this river with my dad when I was a boy and longed to return to explore.  Not the typical nature photograph either of us shoots, but fun and fantasy can share a place in our work and even portfolios. The two of us had been brainstorming about the mechanics of this photo for months.  We had borrowed the alligator skull from Gatorama in Palmdale, FL (a very cool old-fashioned gator farm and tourist attraction - website here).  Days earlier, we'd scouted the river to find this beautiful S-curve in a mangrove tunnel and tested the lighting rigs that we had devised.

The preparation had been an engineering challenge.  I had built a "5-flashlight sandwich" rigged to mount on the stern of my kayak (pictured lit in the portrait below).  TheLED flashlights fanned out to illuminate the mangrove canopy, while the plates shaded direct light from the camera and boat making the actual light source and kayak invisible in the photograph.  John had a powerful Q-beam lamp and a large clear drybag that we could submerge into the tannic water to paint light across the underwater bases of the mangrove prop roots and the river floor.  We spent a full afternoon cleaning, re-attaching teeth, and wiring the skull.  We needed to suspend the skull above the river bottom and wanted to be able to position it precisely, so we attached a plywood plate to the roof of the mouth to which we could mount a tripod.

The camera was mounted on a separate tripod and both tripods were heavily weighted and sunk deeply into the soft bottom to make them solid and still.  Once we'd composed the picture, we taped the lens focal and zoom rings to keep them from being able to move and attached a cable release.  Finally, time to begin!  We trembled with excitement - not to mention the cold water and November air, or the ever-present concern about flesh-and-blood alligators lurking around us in the dark.  John wore a knife strung around his neck.

We started making photographs of our scene just before dusk and continued until after 11 pm.  By then the full moon light was filtering down through the canopy providing the mottled light on the upper bromeliad and alligator skull. With the shutter open, I ever-so-slowly paddled the kayak through the tunnel dozens of times trying to get the right exposure and a smooth S-turn.  Once we tried walking the kayak through the tunnel -- both of us together -- it was just too creepy to do it alone.  We lit the skull in every imaginable way, lit all parts of the river bottom with the Q-beam.  Altogether we made 107 exposures, many of which were over a minute long.  Chilled, exhausted, but triumphant, we took the time to make this portrait of us, the skull, and our gear before leaving the scene.

The finished photo (top) is a composite of many layers of exposures of the exact same scene.  Nothing is photoshopped in or out (except to remove a few tiny wires and ties holding the skull.)  The building of the different light layers and processing of the photo took many hours -- even more than the shoot -- and ultimately the assistance of a superb photographer and friend, Jon Fletcher to fine tune the subtle shades and tones. Successful night shots walk a fine line between detail and darkness, even when not so complex as this. This fantasy photo is perhaps over-the-top for some... but I can tell you it was a grand adventure making it, and a learning experience, one I will always cherish.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Fakahatchee Strand

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I had the good fortune to spend two whole weeks adventuring with my friend, John Moran in mid-November -- destination: South Florida..  One of the highlights was the Fakahatchee Strand in the western Everglades.  Through a contact of John's, photographers Mac Stone, Paul Marcellini, John and I were able to stay in a rustic cabin on an in-holding in the Strand... so we could intimately experience the nightsounds - bellowing gators, hooting owls, and snoring roomates -- firsthand.

You might imagine a nocturnal encounter with a Florida Panther - this is, afterall, their home.  Or having a giant python fall onto you from a branch while slogging deep in the swamp.  Or maybe stepping on a big alligator while wading through a mangrove tunnel on the East River.  We did see a panther, but it was miles away at Gatorama near Palmdale.  Here he is as he might have been in the Strand, just as you imagined: in the fading lightbeam of your flashlight at 3 AM on your way to the outhouse.

And while John and I were wading around in the mangrove tunnels of the nearby Turner River late into the night -- two different nights no less -- we fortunately returned with all appendages intact and tripped over nary a gator.    We had with us a granddaddy gator skull that we used as a charm to ward off One-eyed Willie and the rest of his ilk that we had been warned about and also hoped to use it in a photo.  (More on this photo in a future post.)

There were plenty of pairs of glowing eyes watching us all along the way as we paddled back to the put-in at 11:30 PM.  Despite those shining red eyes, we couldn't help but stop to photograph the spectacular water lilies that had opened fully in the moonlight.  They were huge -- far more open and spectacular than by daylight.  We propped ol' Granddaddy up on the end of canoe (Beware, Willie!) and climbed back into the black water.  Here's why it was worth it.

As for the python, it never occurred to me that we might see one, but several family members commented on our foolhardiness given what we were doing. We never saw a python, but I did see a Florida Water Snake (pictured) on the East River (in the Strand) that somehow found itself in the prop roots of the red mangroves, more typically the habitat for Mangrove Salt Marsh Snakes.  No worries.  Neither poisonous.

Our forays into these west Everglades sloughs and creeks entailed a lot of slogging.  Even from our kayaks, we had to plough through dense grass, overhanging branches, and thick waterplants.  But mostly we paddled on beautiful winding trails along the East and Turner Rivers.  There were open lakes as well as completely canopied mangrove tunnels that could run for more than half a mile.  The graceful stilt roots reflected beautifully in the smooth dark water.

While incredibly beautiful to see, it was often difficult to create compositions from the tangle of busy trees and roots -- all at close range -- and come up with a photo that pleased the eye.  Here are some attempts from the mangroves creeks.

As we paddled back, hoping to find our way before darkness,  the sun fell into the horizon.  Mac and I pulled into a break in the sawgrass to see what we could in the western sky.  Mac scrambled up a tree at the edge of the grass for a better view.

The other slogging we did was on foot.  Paul had hiked into "The Cathedral" once before so he was annointed THE GUIDE.  (Plus he had an iPhone with Google Earth and his previous route marked on it -- so we figured we couldn't get too lost.)  Paul had warned us that the water could get chest-deep, so we struggled with what gear to bring and how to keep it dry.  Fortunately, the water was only sometimes waist-deep, and there were fallen trees and stumps that made small perches for setting packs and gear.  We had no camera-casualties during this trip. While we never made it to the heart of the Cathedral, we found some spectacular sloughs filled with Guzmania bromeliads and rare orchids. Once again, simplifying a composition in the thick of the swamp was challenging.  Paul had inspired us with samples of his dreamy steamy swampscapes (on his iPhone), so we knew there were photos to be found here.  Here are my attempts.

We started out before dawn to take advantage of the early light and avoid the added clutter of dappled shadows, but soon enough the sun was too high.  Not ready to leave the swamp, we resorted to macrophotography.  Mac found a baby treesnail that I spent far too long trying to photograph.

 On the last afternoon, with only John and I remaining, an old gator posed on a classic gator log near the end of the dock. What was meant to be naptime turned into a great shooting op.  The alligator mostly ignored us, so I had ample opportunity to experiment with all kinds of angles and lenses. The light was harsh and contrasty.  After awhile, we traded aiming a big reflector at the gator's face to get some front lighting - which helped in making the close up portrait.

We each turned into our bunkbeds that night, as exhausted as usual, satisfied with the day.  We were up at 4 AM (also as usual) to pack up, clean up the dear cabin, and leave the Fakahatchee.  This sunrise greeted us as we pulled out of the park entrance.  We headed east across the Glades.