Monday, August 22, 2016

Some Highlights of Summer 2016

As Labor Day approaches, I would like to return to images from the summer of 2016 which have special meaning to me. A few comments will reveal why the photo is special. 

The summer began with a trip to a state forest where a nice stand of Pink Lady's-slippers survive.  We can thank the heavy deer hunting pressure for letting this population escape the destructive browsing most places experience.  I call this image the Two Sisters.  It is a portrait.

I always get excited when I see the sensuous orchid blooms.  Even more unusual and spectacular are the Showy Lady's-slippers found at a secret location. Again, heavy deer hunting from neighboring  farmers plays a role in their survival. This image is special to me because there are, at right and at far-left, seed pods from last year's flowers.  The two blooms show an unopened bud and a fully open bloom.  It was magical to find this all in one composition.

Next is an image that fulfills a quest I've had for three years. The Black Tern is an uncommon bird, and a bit unusual in that its habitat is fresh water marsh rather than seashore.  It's flight is rapid and erratic as it dips and dives close to the water catching emerging insects such as mosquitoes.  The dark gray color makes a proper exposure difficult.  The coloration suggests this is a newly fledged juvenile learning to hunt.

Along with the outings after natural images, there was a wonderful trip to Ireland that I've written about extensively.  There is one image that I will always like to see. Up so early in Kinvara that the night clerk in our hotel had to unlock the front door for me, I found a mirror calm harbor with delightfully warm sunlight.

Back  home, it still had not rained, and the streams and ponds were getting low. The wading birds, like this Great Blue Heron, were finding fish concentrated and vulnerable.  Of course, they had young in the nest that were utterly dependent on the adult's success to survive.

Just as an athlete practices to perfect the timing for a scoring shot or difficult catch, catching the decisive moment for a wild subject requires practice.  A trip to a nearby river to practice on Killdeer as they take flight is key to getting future shots with the wings in a good position. This shot was mixed in with a lot of near misses.  Consider that the bird rapidly reaches 20 miles per hour in a few feet. To get a sharp image, the photographer has to anticipate the launch, and must have a shutter  faster than 1/1000 second, with 1/1600 second being optimum. It's fast reaction plus fast shutter.

So, I am pretty happy when one of these works out.  Killdeer are only moderately shy.  Belted Kingfishers are extremely shy (as are Great Blue Heron).  You have to find a favored perch site, set up and be invisible. Then wait.  If fortune is on one's side, the sound of a Kingfisher's rattling call announces its approach.  The fun begins as it surveys the stream from the perch.

Sometimes it makes faces and seems to show off.  The tension builds with continued concentration on every twitch and shift.  When the bird becomes intent on a location, the first indication of flight is usually seen in the wingtips.  Then it explodes towards its prey down below.

Full disclosure:  Often the bird does not appear at the perch, or it gives no hint of flight before it launches, or it turns its back and the photo is an unflattering north side of a southbound bird. But when it happens just right, it is magical.

Then there are days when nothing goes right except for a single Common Starling that appears. That is what you come home with.  And you realize that if they weren't such pests, you'd probably try to photograph them.

There are also subjects that are cloaked in negative associations such that many fail to find them interesting or beautiful.  I'm within 1-1/2 hours of a rail-to-trail that goes through some habitat for Eastern Timber Rattlesnakes.  From the safety of a wide trail, one can see them without any stress on observer or subject. I find their markings beautiful.  Watching one slowly ease across a steep bank looking for crickets or other prey reveals how it thoroughly checks every feature for its next meal.  The challenge for me has been to find a subject with both head and rattles clearly visible and unobstructed by a twig or leaf.  On the third visit this summer, I hit my target with two different snakes. This one has ten rattles.  Maybe 48 inches long.

It's not just finding the subject, but also one in good position and uniform light. The same goes for flighty little birds.  This male American Goldfinch came along when I was looking for herons.  The image is special to me because the wispy thistle seed has escaped from the bird's beak.

It seems to me that there are three parts in the making of good photos.  Understanding the technical principles of good exposure,  putting your time into the process and stealing ideas from others.  The last one is why painters go to displays of paintings, musicians listen to other performers and actors watch movies and plays. Maybe my favorites of this summer offer some ideas to steal when photographing what you care about.

Paul Schmitt