Sunday, October 30, 2011

Birds in the Landscape

The other day I was on my favorite beach, at the lighthouse on Sanibel Island. It was after first light but still well before sunrise. The sky was teasing me with a prospect of glory.  I walked along the beach to the point, an ephemeral little spit of sand, Point Ybel, the easternmost tip of Sanibel. I couldn't stay long. I had an appointment to keep. My go-to wide angle zoom, the 17-40mm f4, was mounted on the camera. I set the tripod as low as I could without kneeling – didn't want sandy wet knees on my office-casual slacks. The sky was nice; the clouds had good form, converging lines.   Now I could see that the color would not explode; the sunrise wouldn't be spectacular – but nice. I exposed a couple of frames. Time was running short. Just as I was about to pick up the tripod, in flew a great blue heron. So, I stayed. My first exposures upon arriving had been 20 to 30 seconds or so, but now, as the approaching sunrise brightens the sky, exposure time has dropped to less than 2 seconds. The heron is actively hunting, moving about in front of me, but he does hold still for a second or two from time to time. He is relatively small in the frame, but still, a small enhancement, a kernel of interest to an otherwise unexceptional skyscape. So I give it a shot. Mirror lock-up is enabled, so it takes two clicks to open the shutter, then a second or two later another click as the shutter closes. I shoot rapidly, every time he stops, hoping to catch him in one of his motionless pauses. Click-click, click. Click-click, click. Click-click, click. Finally, I grab the tripod and hurry back along the beach towards the car, “For I have promises to keep, and miles to go...” before the sun rises.

Birds are usually photographed with telephoto lenses. Wide angle lenses are usually used for landscapes. To make a landscape with a wide angle lens with a bird in the foreground means that one must be rather close to the bird for it to show as more than a speck. Occasionally the birds tolerate a stealthy close approach. Usually not. In the photograph above, a flock of gulls casually fled in twos and threes as I crept closer, little by little, to make the composition I wanted.  Then one of the remaining pair raised its wings just for me. Although the sunbeams I had hoped to capture beyond the pier were fading, my patience was rewarded with one of my favorite photos.


Sometimes I compose a photograph around a bird or sometimes the birds just happen to be in the scene or are just passing through.  Sometimes the birds are just a little garnish and sometimes they appear serendipitously, like an unexpected cherry on whipped cream.

Often, in the low light of early morning, the shutter speed simply is not fast enough to stop the motion of a moving bird, especially a bird in flight. We get an unidentifiable blob, a blurry dark streak against the sky. On occasion, a bird will stay still long enough for a longer exposure, a motionless silhouette against satin surf.  But mostly not.

No matter the circumstance, birds in the landscape are always just a little bit special.

Friday, October 14, 2011


For years I've had an image in my mind's eye of the sun rising under the Tampa Bay Skyway. On a recent business trip to St. Petersburg, I had my opportunity.   I checked out of my hotel at 6:00 a.m. and drove to Fort Desoto Park, arriving shortly after first light.   Just my luck – there was heavy cloud cover on the horizon.  It looked like I wouldn't be seeing the sun this morning.   Nevertheless, I used The Photographer's Ephemeris app on my iPhone to position myself in just the right location on the East Beach to see the sun clear the horizon directly behind the main span of the cable stayed bridge.   It was still fairly dark so I made some exposures of the bridge with its cable stays lit. (200mm, 30 seconds)  I hadn't even considered photographing the bridge at night.  My dark background is clouds, not a night sky.

As it grew lighter, the lights on the stays faded. There was some color in the sky. It was nice, but not spectacular.  I savored the morning and the solitude, photographically exploring the bridge and the sky as the light changed.  After a while, I strolled back to where I had left my car.  A man doing yoga on the beach was the only other person I saw. 

Once again, as usual, I didn't get what I went for.  The images I came back with aren't prize winners, but it certainly wasn't a wasted effort.  I do so enjoy the early morning.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Another Month, Another Moon

The moon in September is known by various names, the harvest moon, the corn moon – but nothing with the cool name appeal of the moon of August. A month after failing to catch the Sturgeon Moon setting over the Sanibel lighthouse, I was at it again. In my mind's eye, I see the lighthouse silhouetted against the orange face of the man in the moon. From the north end of Fort Myers Beach it only sets in the sweet spot a few times a year, near the equinoxes (equini?). When it happens on a weekend morning, there I am. 

Sunday morning, a little before six, I walk down the boardwalk to the beach.  In the dark distance I see bright lights down the beach.  It's an excavator working on the beach re-nourishment project.  It's predawn Sunday morning. They must be working twenty-four seven. They're way behind schedule.  I hope they aren't where I need to be, about half a mile south.   Lots of small clouds are moving fast in the sky, covering and uncovering the moon. I hope they don't cover the moon when I need for them not to. Walking fast, soon I come to the orange mesh fence around the work area. They've left a narrow pathway at the back of the beach. The clouds seem mostly to have moved away by the time I reach the far end of the orange fence, and this is the spot I need to be. I extend the legs of the tripod as I walk to the water's edge. I plunk the tripod down.

“Oh, no!” The bubble level is not in the hot shoe. It had just arrived on Monday, a replacement for the last one I had lost. I cursed. 

The moon was over the lighthouse. A long streak of moonlight reached from the lighthouse, three miles across the Gulf of Mexico, to the lazy little waves licking at my feet. Most of the light clouds in the sky had cleared but I could see a line of clouds on the western horizon, their tops awash in moonlight. I wouldn't be getting my shot this morning. It was now an hour before sunrise and the moon would set in less than 15 minutes. It would sink into the clouds well before that, and we would never know whether it actually set or not. I exposed one frame at 40mm and removed the camera from the tripod to mount the long lens. It was still dark as night. The bright full moon in such a dark sky would be a difficult exposure to reveal any detail on the far shore. I knew from experience that with the 300mm lens, an exposure of longer than five seconds would be spoiled by the movement of the moon. With an aperture of f8, I boosted the ISO to bring the time down to five seconds. I made a couple of exposures and then opened all the way up to f2.8 to reduce the exposure time even more. I later discovered that that was a mistake. The wide open aperture was unkind to the light of the lighthouse, turning it into a glowy little blob instead of a nice many-pointed star. Less than five minutes after my first exposure, the moon touched the clouds and then was gone. I began making plans for Monday morning; the moon would set later; it wouldn't be so dark. I could still be in the office by eight. 

I want to find my hot-shoe bubble level, but it's too dark to see. So I idly fidget, waiting for the sun to come up. As the dawn begins to make its presence known I kill some time playing with long exposures of a great blue heron, working the light surf, with the Fort Myers Beach Pier half a mile away as a backdrop.

Finally it was light enough to see and I began retracing my steps and scanning the sand for my little green cube and vowing to keep the next one in my vest and only to put it in the hot-shoe when I needed it. I missed a glorious red sky and sunburst behind the motels, beach houses, and condos. Rats and other four letter epithets! I found a pool of red rose petals that I hadn't seen before in the dark. Somebody got married last night. But my new bubble level is gone forever.

Monday morning. I'm on the pier. The moon set is just after sunrise. I’ll be making the picture almost an hour later than yesterday – completely different conditions. The sky was full of fast-moving clouds, but clearing. As the sky lightened, I put on the 300. Then added the 1.4x teleconverter as the moon fell closer to the lighthouse and grew paler in the haze. And then replaced the 1.4x with the 2x teleconverter for 600mm as the moon nestled into the clouds above the lighthouse. 

 Oh well, there's always next month, or next year.