It was a dark gloomy day, rain was threatening on the horizon. As the clouds full of moisture rolled into the area, it was apparent that a cool front was approaching. Sounds great, huh? What is one to do? Most sensible people would find shelter under the nearest rock and hide until it was all over. Then there is a group of people like me, called photographers. We grab our most expensive gear and head out as the light is nice and soft. What is the one thing that is going to save us from financial disaster, a $1 Zip Lock bag! OK, so what is the deal here? I had an appointment to meet a private client at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida. As Murphy would have it, the weather was on again off again. Checking the radar on the iPhone, it said we were safe. However, there was always that “50%” chance of rain. We decided to throw the dice and see what would happen. We loaded the car and off we went. Just as a side note, since we are going to photograph landscape and wildlife, I decided to take my 80mm-400mm telephoto lens. Not knowing what was in the area at the time, I figured at least I could get a few more alligator shots to add to my already overflowing library of “Florida Gators”. Photography is like playing the lottery, sometimes you hit it big with some great subjects and other times, well, you got some exercise in and came home with an empty camera card. Life Happens.
When we arrived, there was some blue sky showing so there was some hope. We met with up with the client in the parking lot and went over a few things. Then we decided to head up the road and make our first stop, on the main bridge to see what we could find. When we arrived at the bridge, it stared clouding up again. Looking around, there were some subjects to photograph so at least it wasn’t going to be a total loss. Anytime there is a group of people herded around like cattle and extending their index finger, you know something is going on. It was around the holidays so there are folks visiting the area. As I expected, these people hadn’t really seen an alligator out in the wild before. There were about four alligators lined up on the shore sunning themselves. Me being me, I couldn’t help myself, I said, “You know if you wave some raw chicken in front of them, they’ll come right to you and you can get some great shots.” I said this with a straight face and walked away. Some of them weren’t sure if I was serious or if I had just escaped from a maximum security loony bin. I was actually thinking that they should send down the screaming little kids, but I reserved myself.
The light was soft and I was grateful, no harsh shadows or highlights to deal with. I can always add contrast in post; however it can be a real challenge to even out the contrast in the field. When I’m photographing wildlife, I approach it as doing a portrait. I like to fill the frame as much as possible with the subjects head.
Since I had a long lens on and this alligator was eyeing me, probably because he would be full for a month if he got ahold of me, I was able to fill the frame with his head. Also, his body was submerged so that wasn’t going to add anything to the photo. As I have mentioned in the past, I like spot focus, where ever I put that dot, that’s what I’m going to get. Like I would with a human portrait, I put the dot on the gator’s eye. Anything with eyes, that is where the focus has to be. As humans this is what we look for. After getting a few alligator shots in the can it was time to search for a new subject. Off to one side of the river, we were in luck.
Out of the corner of my eye, there was a flash or pink. As most of you know, I’m not exactly a big bird photographer. This creature at least had some color and looks interesting with his special beak. My fellow photographer and I found a little path that lead part way down to the rivers bank. He too was using a long lens, a 100mm-400mm Canon. This was the perfect day for these guys since they were white on top. Also, I wanted to get as much detail from in between the feathers as possible. They were busy pruning and could care less about us. We rattled off a number of frames. When I looked at these on the computer I was amazed that there was even detail under his wings. There was a flock of Roseate’s, but the flock as a whole really didn’t do anything for me, singling out just one seemed to have greater impact.
As we were finishing up photographing the Roseate Spoonbills, a group of ducks floated into the scene. After thinking about it, I rarely see ducks in the park. Hum, I wonder if they are food for the alligators? Just as a swimming ballet, all at once they would flip upside down to get whatever was on the bottom. Yes, having a photo of a bunch of ducks bobbing around is nice, but to get a flock of duck butts in the air, now that’s something to frame! (I fear I just lost some of you!)
After a while the ducks moved on and as we panned the sides of the river, there were a few Wood Storks eating as well. These guys are white and black, never an easy task for a photographer. The overcast light was holding and this made it easy to get all of the dynamic range in the scene in one frame.
As we made our way up the road, we stopped by the “Canopy Walk”. This is a wooden structure that is built above the tree line so you can see for miles, pretty cool stuff. On our way down the dirt path, there is an old oak tree that is growing sideways, I happened to notice that in a sea of greens and browns that here was a patch of orange. Personally, I don’t like the taste of fungus; I know some of you will eat this stuff on your pizza. These mushrooms were different that they were flat and thin growing out of the side of the tree. I switched to my trusty 50mm f/1.4 lens as I would have had to be in the next county to focus on this subject. I tried shooting these at eye level, but it just wasn’t working for me. You couldn’t see the different levels of this plant. Then I decided to do some kind of downward dog yoga pose and get under it. This was much better. As I tell my students, want a better photo? Put your camera where there hasn’t been one before. In this case, that was under this beautiful specimen.
As we came upon the canopy walk, I noticed there was a series of cables and bolts holding the whole thing together. We made our way half way across and I decide to take a photo of one of the cables that is supporting me at the moment. Again, with my strange humor, I looked at the person that I was with and asked him if he noticed if there was a weight limit. At that moment, a bunch of young screaming kids (guess the alligator didn’t get them) started across and jumping up and down. My fellow photographer simply looked at me and said, “Let’s get moving.” Without hesitation I bolted across to the other side as if Krispy Kreme had a sign out, FREE DOUGNUTS! Since this looks like it has been around awhile and industrial, I saw this photo in black and white. I shot this at f/2.8 as I wanted to blur the background and make the cable pop off the background. I used Nik’s Silver Efex Pro to do the conversion. The total time in post for this photo, about three minutes.
At the end of the day, we won the lottery. We came home with cards full of photos with excellent lighting conditions. These types of conditions allow the photographer to get details that otherwise might be a challenge to wrangle in on a cloudless day. The next time the weather is threatening, grab your gear. However, just don’t forget the most important piece of equipment, a $1 Zip Lock bag to protect your $3,000 investment.
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean