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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.