The Gentle Giants

Earlier this month, I traveled to Crystal River, Florida to capture the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatees) with underwater photo gear – essentially a underwater housing for my Canon 5D Mark III.  Following are a few of the photographic results from the trip plus some interesting manatee facts. Enjoy!

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #1: Sailors once believed these animals to be sirens from the deep, mythical mermaids coming to call. This certainly says less about the manatee’s obvious sex appeal (they are pretty cute, aren’t they?) and more about – well, how do I put this politely –  the sailors’ loneliness and desperation for companionship after being at sea too long.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/320 second @ f/8, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #2: Manatees cannot survive for long in water colder than 60 degrees F (15C). For this reason, they seek out warm water springs in to seek refuge from the frigid Gulf of Mexico during the winter months.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/30 second @ f/11, ISO 800

Manatee Fact #3: The manatee’s closest living relative is the elephant. By their appearance alone, I thought this to be a somewhat obvious fact but apparently it has something to do with the number of fingernails both species possess.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III in AquaTech underwater housing, Canon 14mm f/2.8, 1/125 second @ f/11 ISO 800

Manatee Fact #4: Manatees have no natural predators. The biggest hazard they encounter are the props from motor boats which has lead to them being included on the endangered species list.

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2013 in Retrospect #2

Me and my Shadow, Monument Valley, Arizona, USA. November 10, 2013

As with any good retrospective, it’s often therapeutic to cleanse oneself of the forgettable and embarrassing episodes from the previous year while embracing and carrying forward all that was good and true and hopeful. And while that’s true personally, the same can also be said of our society and culture in general. For example, in 2013 we can and should easily forget the painful and unnecessary government shutdown, the Sydney Leathers and Carlos Danger saga, twerking, the Harlem Shake dance craze, and Justin Beiber’s monkey, among many others. We can only hope these are mere one-hit wonders and not prone to unwelcome resurrections in the near future.

One fad that gained traction in 2013 and shows little sign of going away is the selfie. Unlike the refuse listed above, however, this one hits a little closer to home. Forget the inherent shallow narcissism involved, a selfie is still a form of photographic expression after all.

Selfie was named “Word of the Year” by the Oxford Dictionary which then goes on to define the word as (n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website. Yes, that’s the same Oxford as in the great university of England, not the town in Mississippi.

So you might be wondering, what’s the harm? Why, as a photographer, am I so down on the selflie? Well for one, if you have to take your own portrait, it could mean that you don’t have any friends to do it for you. So it could be that the selfie is actually a symptom of a larger personal problem. Then there’s the frequency issue. If you are taking and posting more than one per week, it could also be a manifestation of yet another issue that needs addressing. It should go without saying that selfies in your birthday suit broadcast to complete strangers on the Internet is, at a minimum, in poor taste. More for some than others.

Aside from those objections, I guess it’s harmless enough – maybe even a little fun. So here’s my selfie for 2013, just to show that I’m not entirely hostile to the idea. Just don’t expect an encore for at least another 12 months. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 28mm, 1/30 second @ f14, ISO 100.

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A Passion Driven Life: Inspiration for Would-Be Photographers

You cannot change what you are, only what you do. – Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.

“Llama Land” Machu Picchu, Peru. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105 f/4 @ 28mm, 1/125 second @ f/11, ISO 100

So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003 – eleven years ago to this very day – which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time – not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bimonthly paycheck.

This was new to me. I was a rationally thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wilderness and wild places were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees – I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.

“Wall Street” Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17-40mm f/4 @ 21mm, 2.5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 400

Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up, get a haircut, and buy a weed wacker.

“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” some would say. “You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.”

“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”

You see, I never considered being nature photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.

Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a nature photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.

So after eleven years of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success ten years ago.

But if living an inspired, passion driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do – while managing to live financially comfortable as well – is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

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2013 in Retrospect #1

Oryx on the Pan, Deadvlei, Namibia. May 23, 2013

Sometime around January 1 of each year, I would post my top 10 or 11 or 12 images from the previous twelve months here on the Earth and Light Blog. For 2012, for example, I posted a 12 for ’12: The Year’s Best. For this past year, however, I decided to do something a bit different.  Instead of just listing my favorite images, I instead wanted to share some insights into how some of these were made – not necessarily my favorites – and what was going on at the time. Some short stories, in other words.

Oryx on the Pan

After a 20-minute hike over loose, unstable sand, Ian Plant and I crested the last dune and looked down upon the bright clay pan known as Deadvlei, home to surreal landscapes of barren earth, red dunes, and dead camelthorn trees. This is one of the most iconic photo locations in Namibia and a must stop during our two-week scouting tour in this country. When we descended to the pan, I spied a lone oryx – also known locally as a gemsbok – slowly walking across the hard clay surface. I thought there might be the possibility for a compelling shot here. What animal is crazy enough to live and survive in this harsh environment? It seemed wildly odd yet captivating. But by the time I retrieved the camera from the pack and mounted the telephoto lens, the oryx took off running. This is not a shock. It’s a well known but little understood natural law to which photographers are frequent victims.

Leaving my pack and tripod behind, I shadowed the oryx while running at full speed, with the hope of getting a chance. I wasn’t chasing, but rather moving parallel with it’s direction from 80 yards out, hoping for more than just a photo of it’s rear end. I could see the composition coming together as I ran- strong sidelight on the oryx and pan, diagonal shadow on the dunes, screaming color – all I needed was for this little guy to stop for 5 seconds – FIVE LOUSY SECONDS!

And of course (you guessed right) it did – for about five seconds – just a few meters before it would have been lost to the deep shadows on the right side of the image frame. I managed not to screw up the fleeting opportunity and I was pleased with the 3 frames I recorded, one of which you see above. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 100-400mm @ 400mm, 1/800 second @ f8, ISO 320.

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Flashback: A Day in the Life, December 12, 2012

"Midnight's Children" Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

“Midnight’s Children” Trollaskagi Peninsula, Iceland. Canon EOS 5D MarkIII, Canon 24-105mm f/4 @ 24mm, 30 seconds @ f/4, ISO 1250

Ed. Note: Portions of the post were published in December 2012 on the Earth and Light Blog

Often I’m asked what a typical day is like for a professional nature photographer.  I do my best to explain that it’s nearly impossible for me to answer since each day is unlike any that preceded it. In other words, there are no typical days. If I’m in the right mood, I might attempt to outline what I do and how my time is actually spent, which is usually met with disappointment and disillusionment by the questioner. It’s shocking to know what percentage of my time is spent actually creating images, in addition to how spectacularly unglamorous this whole business really is.

So here is a glimpse into my world, if for only a day (and it’s one of the better ones) and which also happens to be exactly one year ago today. The place?  Cold, snowy, dark, northern Iceland in mid winter.

December 12, 2012. Akureyri, Iceland  

9:10 am:  Just waking up and getting out of bed. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know 9 am is embarrassingly late for a nature photographer but please consider the circumstances. First, my body and circadian rhythms are still attuned to Eastern Standard Time. So if you subtract the 5-hour time difference, I’m really getting up at a much more respectable 4:10. Does that make you feel better? Besides it’s still dark outside so I’m not exactly missing out on much.

10:00 am:   After a shower and a few returned emails, I am out the door and looking for a quick lunch in town. There’s an intense red glow on the southeast horizon but the sun still has quite a way to go before it makes a proper appearance. I scarf down soup and salad at the Greifinn and drive toward Vatnsskarth Pass for some photos ops. It’s uncharacteristically cloud free. No clouds? This is new.

12:17 pm:  I can now finally see visible sunlight as the snowy mountaintops are bathed in a beautiful pink glow. But without any clouds in the sky, I’m just not jazzed about anything. I take a few obligatory images and shrug. Well I am here so what the hell?

12:50 pm:  I slip on my snow boots and a down jacket to hike and scout some locations for the evening. I find some rare open water for possible aurora reflections but I’m not entirely crazy about the composition. Yet at night with the aurora overhead, it might not be terrible. I make a mental note of some nearby landmarks so I can find the place later in the dark.

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

The Long Silence, Vatnsskarth Pass, Iceland

3:05 pm:  Back at the car and I’m changing back into my regular shoes after nearly backing the car into a deep ditch. The huge, clunky snow boots I was wearing wouldn’t allow me to step on the gas pedal without also catching the brake. And when I try to depress the brake, I also get the gas pedal or clutch. That almost cost me a hefty towing bill. It’s already nearly dark.

3:44 pm:  At the apartment again and it’s time for a nap. What is it about these short days that make me want to sleep so much?

6:25 pm:  Sitting on the sofa in my underwear looking over my images from Godafoss yesterday. They don’t suck too bad so I’m somewhat pleased. Next I check the weather and aurora forecast for tonight. Promising. The world news? Wish I hadn’t even looked. I’m bored. I’m hungry.

7:40 pm:  Dinner at a downtown Akureyri restaurant. Worst lasagna ever. Not surprisingly, Icelanders don’t do Italian food very well.

8:55 pm:  I slip into a nearby bar (Sorry I didn’t remember or write it down) for some local color and a cold Viking brew. The bartender tells me that over half the people here on the island believe in elves. This is my fourth trip to Iceland and it’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I nod knowingly.

9:31 pm:  After belting out an inspired rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on karaoke, I bask in the polite applause of the two German tourists in a dark corner. I’m so outta here.

10:10 pm:  Driving out of town and scanning the sky for any sign of the aurora when I am startled by the brightest, most brilliant shooting star that falls slowly toward the northern horizon. It’s so bright and brilliant, in fact, that I reflexively duck my head. This is only one of several dozen I would see tonight as I am to find out later that the Geminid meteor shower is just starting.

10:46 pm Back at Vatnsskarth Pass and it’s really cold and really dark. There’s no moon and the aurora is looking spectacular –  intertwined ribbons of light stretching across the sky from east to west, horizon to horizon. Sometimes the large ribbons morph into smaller strands that slowly dance side to side, intensify, fade, before returning again stronger than ever. It’s easily the best display I’ve seen since arriving here in Iceland last week. The problem, however, is that the aurora has moved further south than the previous nights and the composition I scouted earlier in the day just won’t work. Back to square one.

11:40 pm:  Driving north along the Eyjafjordur toward the coastal town of Olafsfjordur when the aurora forces me to pull the car over. I turn off all the lights and begin taking a series of continuous 30-second exposures with the pale, eerie green lights over the mountains. Its not the type of image I had envisioned, but this is the big aurora display I had come here for. I spend the next two hours talking and shouting to myself (I tend to do that when I’m out alone). “Holy #%&@! This is #^&@ insane! I can’t feel my #%&@# fingers!” You know, that sort of stuff.

I mentioned earlier how little of our time as nature photographers is actually spent behind the camera creating images, as a percentage of our time as a whole. But for all the long silences – the travel, sitting around airports, driving, scouting, hiking, waiting out bad weather, just waiting in general, getting skunked, cold, wet, stuck or lost – the punctuated moments of pure magic like these are what we live for. Literally.

3:25 am:  Back at the apartment. I drop everything in the middle of the floor and stagger toward the bedroom, zombified. I’m sleeping in, damn it.

If you’re interested in seeing and photographing Iceland in more favorable conditions (think summer), I’m taking a group of lucky photographers there in July and there’s still a few spots left. Epic Iceland with Richard Bernabe

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