Oh Man, Oman!

I recently spent two weeks in the Sultanate of Oman, a small Arab state on the Southeast coast of the Arabian peninsula. I admit to not knowing much about the place before being invited as part of an international group of photographers on a customized tour. As a young boy, I remember the country having the name Muscat and Oman on my world map but that’s about it.

So I could say that I was overwhelmed by the photo opportunities in Oman – the colorful, friendly people, the mountains (the only country on the Arabian Peninsula with this feature), beaches, and pristine sand deserts – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll let my images tell the story, with only a few editorial comments sprinkled in.

Parched, The Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The scene is extremely iconic and a photographic cliché, but would you turn away from the lucsious backlighting and elongated shadows on the rippled sand? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Hide and Seek, Ibra Market, Sultanate of Oman

Yes, this young boy was half heartedly hiding from me and my lens but it was obvious he wasn’t too distressed by the encounter. In fact, by the look of that winning smile of his, I’d say he was enjoying it! One of the best things about Oman was the simple curiosity and innocence of the people, unaccustomed as they are to tourists shoving cameras in their faces.

Circle of Life, Ras al-Jins Turtle Reserve, Sultanate of Oman

Just the two of us crawling around in the sand on our bellies – me grinning behind a wide-angle lens and this green sea turtle wearing a mask of strength and determination as she makes her way back to the waters of the Arabian Sea.

Man of Sur, Sultanate of Oman

This guy was one of my favorite photographic subjects and a new hero of mine. I mean, just look at him. He’s got that badass, I-don’t-give-a-crap aura about him and would you get a load of that beard? I shaved mine shortly thereafter out of shame and humiliation.

Diana’s Point, Jabal al Akhdar, Sultanate of Oman

The late Princess of Wales allegedly frequented this spot to get away from everything, hence the name given by the locals. Now I know all about the blown out sky in the upper right corner  of the image but I really don’t care. I found myself taking more of a photojournalistic approach on this trip and that gives me the excuse to just “let it be.” I feels pretty good, I must say.

The Corneche, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

My friend Sergio and I talked our way onto the roof of an old hotel in order to get this view of Muscat at twilight.

Of Men and Melons, Nizwa, Sultanate of Oman

Melons and men talking about melons, because that’s what men do – talk about melons.

Sidewinder, Wahiba Sands, Sultanate of Oman

The exquisitely sculpted dunes of the Wahiba Sands with low-angled, warm sunlight of early morning. And for just a few minutes, I was a fine-art landscape photographer again and it too felt good.

Ghosts of Mutrah Souq, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

The main souq (market) in downtown Muscat provided dozens of prime photo opportunities. For this image, I set up low on a tripod in the middle of the crowd and waited for men to walk by in their white robes, using a longish exposure to create an illusion of motion.

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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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