Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009

E-mail: info@visionarywild.com    •    Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 6pm, EST).    •    Justin Black’s iPhone: 1-202-302-9030

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

LIGHTROOM AND TRAVEL

by John Shaw

20120120-_JBX4007-2_300How does one coordinate Lightroom used on a laptop when traveling, with a master Lightroom catalog back in the office?  I’ve written about this before, but the topic keeps coming up at workshops and on tours, so….

I have one main master Lightroom catalog for all my images, which resides on my desktop computer in my office.  That master catalog is on an internal drive (a different drive than the internal SSD drive I use for all my programs).  A backup copy of this master catalog is made to another internal drive (automatically done by Lightroom when I exit the program), and a third copy of the catalog is on a small external USB drive.  Yes, I’m a bit paranoid about loosing all that data.

I have another Lightroom catalog named Travel on my laptop.  When I’m on the road, I download images using Lightroom, in the exact same format structure I use for the image files back in my office.  As the files are downloaded, Lightroom automatically renames the files and adds my copyright information, using templates I’ve created in Lightroom.  My naming template is a YYMMDD_camera-generated-file-name-and-numberformat, so individual files appear along the lines of 150624_D4S_4752.  Nikon lets you set camera names in the menu system to a three character code, so my cameras are named D4S and D8T.  Yeah, real original thinking there.  Image files are always downloaded into a  _Photos folder (the underscore makes it the topmost folder in my laptop’s directory), into a subfolder named by month and location of shoot.  06 Namibia would by a June trip to Namibia while 09 Denali would be a September shoot in Denali.  Each day’s images are automatically sorted as Lightroom reads the file metadata, makes YYYY-MM-DD folders as needed inside the month-shoot folder (the 06 Namibia or 09 Denali folders), and puts the correct images into the correct folders (I always have my cameras set to the local time, which in turn means all images will be correctly sorted by date).  Once all these parameters are checked in Lightroom they remain as set, so the only thing I ever have to change is the name of the month-shoot folder.  I flag any images I work on in Lightroom, highlight those images, and save all metadata to file by doing Ctrl/Command + S.

While on the road I copy every day’s take to two small external USB powered hard drives, so that by the end of the trip I have three duplicate copies of all my images.  Since the files are already in the organization I use in my office, all I have to do once I get home is to copy the image files to their correct location on my master hard drives, and to add the trip catalog to my master catalog.  I open the Travel catalog on my laptop, select the folder with the trip images, and do File > Export as Catalog, saving the exported catalog on one of the small USB drives.  I make sure to include the image previews.  Since the image files on the USB drive are all current with the correct metadata saved to them, there is no reason for me to do what Lightroom calls Export negative files (“negative files” is Adobe-speak for the actual images).

Back in the office I plug this drive into a USB port on my desktop computer, and use my operating system to copy the image shoot folder, which has all the photos, over to the correct date location on my main hard drive array.  Then I open my master Lightroom catalog, and do File > Import from Another Catalog, and select the catalog on the USB drive.  When this is finished working, I disconnect the small USB drive, at which time Lightroom want to know where the files are located since the imported catalog still thinks they are back on my laptop.  I point Lightroom to the correct image folder I’ve copied over, the 06 Namibia folder or whatever it is, and I’m done.  The backup software on my desktop computer automatically kicks in, and backs up my new images.

When I’m positive that all is well with my desktop system, I remove all the photos from the Travel catalog on my laptop, so that I can reuse the catalog shell again with all my preferences still set.  I reformat the USB drives, reset the time in my cameras, and I’m good-to-go on my next adventure.

Getting Lucky on Safari

By Justin Black

For Outdoor Photographer, October 2014

One of my most important photographic mentors, Galen Rowell, grew accustomed to being told how lucky he was to capture the stunning natural events that he photographed. He would chuckle politely, and respond that he tried to be prepared to receive luck. In other words, he went to great lengths to be in the right place at the right time, well-practiced with his tools and technique, familiar with his subjects and surroundings, and able to anticipate and account for as many variables and technical challenges as he could. Galen knew that if he stacked the deck in his favor making pictures would be easy.

Each year, tens of thousands go on safari in Africa, hoping to bring home wildlife photos that capture the drama and beauty they’ve seen in the pages of National Geographic. Too often, though, the deck seems stacked against them. A photographer’s first African safari always comes with a steep learning curve. Even with the benefit of a good guide and abundant wildlife, it takes a while to get a feel for the place and animal behaviors. For many, it’s their first time with a big telephoto, introducing a range of technical challenges that they may not even have the opportunity to identify, much less overcome, during their trip of a lifetime. It’s no surprise when many people leave Africa disappointed with their photographs, wondering what they did wrong, or thinking they were plain unlucky.

The good news is that with a little preparation, awareness of the situation you’re going into, and practice of a few techniques in advance of your trip, you can radically improve your chances of “getting lucky” on safari.

Shutter Speed: If your goal is to make sharp, detailed wildlife action images with a long telephoto on a high-resolution DSLR, the common advice to use a shutter speed that is the reciprocal of focal length (i.e. 1/500 of second with a 500mm lens) isn’t going to cut it when things are in motion. Instead, try to use shutter speeds around three times the reciprocal of the focal length. For instance, with the 500mm f/4 and 1.4x teleconverter (a 700mm combo) that I commonly find myself using for wildlife, I know from experience that I’ll often need at least 1/2000 sec to truly freeze the motion of the animal, the safari vehicle, wind, my adrenalin-driven heartbeat, and so on. At the other end of the scale, you could instead choose to embrace creative blur of animals in motion, panning with them at slow shutter speeds in the range of 1/30th to 1/2 second.

ISO: It’s often said that low ISOs maximize the quality of the digital image data, but what about maximizing the photograph itself? Photographs sink or swim based on qualities other than a little noise or compressed dynamic range, so don’t be afraid of using higher ISOs if you need them. With wildlife, using a low ISO could result in too slow a shutter speed or too little depth of field, and hence a lousy photograph (though a noise-free one to be sure). I consider ISOs in the range from 800 to 1600 as “normal” for fast-moving wildlife. It is of course preferable to use lower ISOs if you can still achieve the shutter speed and depth of field that best serve your photograph, but don’t limit yourself with the notion that low ISOs are the only way to make a quality picture.

Setting Proper Exposure: It’s very easy to overexpose highlight detail in animals with light-toned fur or feathers, so make sure that you are properly evaluating your exposure for the highlights. You can do this by playing back a test image with the RGB histogram displayed on the camera-back LCD, and then magnify the image to display the brightest highlights in which you want good texture and tone. The histogram you see will be derived only from the portion of the image displayed, so you’ll be able to see whether or not your highlights are clipping. In some circumstances, such as when photographing a sun-lit bird against a dark background, you may find that you need to dial in as much as -2.0 stops of exposure compensation to avoid blowing out whites. Keep in mind that today’s RAW conversion software gives you more highlight “headroom,” so a highlight that looks mildly blown out on the camera’s histogram may be just fine in Lightroom.

Exposure Mode: Just as with my landscape work, I use either Aperture Priority or Manual modes for wildlife. You might also consider using manual exposure mode to select the specific shutter speed and aperture you need to freeze motion and achieve the depth of field you want, and then use your camera’s Auto ISO feature to adjust exposure value. This is a very powerful technique that puts tremendous creative control in the photographer’s hands.

Controlling the focus point: Virtually all DSLR cameras these days have multi-point autofocus to help you track moving subjects, but it’s important to understand how they work so you can judge when and how to use their various modes. For instance, Nikon’s 21-point Dynamic continuous focus mode makes it easy to track a flying bird, but be aware that the camera won’t necessarily find focus on the focus point that you have highlighted in the viewfinder. Let’s say you position the highlighted focus point over the bird’s eye as you follow it through the air. The camera will focus on the eye, right? Not necessarily. If the far wingtip of the bird is the area of greatest contrast falling under one of the 21 active sensors, the camera may focus there. In this case, to better control the actual point of focus, you might do better switching to single-point mode, or at least the tighter pattern of the 9-point Dynamic mode. I don’t mean to pick on Nikon either. An AF system that can read your mind to select point of focus has yet to be invented.

Depth of Field:  As always, you’ll want to consider what aperture you need to stop down to if you wish to keep the subject sharp from front to back. If we imagine the bird flying by us from the previous example, let’s say we want it sharp from wingtip to wingtip. One wingtip is toward us, and the other is behind the bird’s body, so they are in different planes of focus. The priority for sharpest focus is typically the bird’s head, so that’s what you’ll probably choose to focus on. In this scenario it isn’t uncommon to need fairly small apertures to keep everything sharp. For example, if the bird in this example has a three-foot wingspan, is sixty feet away, and you’re photographing it with a 600mm lens on a full-frame DSLR, you would need to use f/16 to keep it sharp from tip to tip. This is one of the reasons those higher ISOs are so handy.

Also, when making head-on animal portraits, try focusing in front of the eyes and just behind the tip of the nose, and then stop the aperture down so depth of field covers the tip of the nose back to the eyes and ears. If you focus precisely on the eyes, the nose of the animal could be disturbingly soft.

Camera Control and Setup: The ability to react quickly is critical for wildlife photography, so you’ll want to set up your controls and presets for efficiency, and then you’ll want to spend time familiarizing yourself with them. For instance, for landscape work I focus using my camera’s thumb-operated AF button and deactivate autofocus activation on my camera’s shutter release so it won’t re-focus when pressed. For wildlife, however, I turn shutter-release AF back on, because I can simultaneously focus track a subject and change AF point or aperture with my thumb via the controls on the back of the camera. I’ve learned that my favorite AF modes – single-point, 21-point, and “auto” – are all three clicks of the dial apart so I can set them by feel. Special features that you like to use frequently can often be assigned to function buttons for instant access, such as your camera’s crop mode, which gives you greater magnification and faster frame rate on some cameras. It’s a good idea to use your cameras’ personal menu features to provide quick access to menus that you access most frequently.

Attentiveness: I have real difficulty following baseball games at the ballpark. The action is so intermittent that I end up chatting with friends rather than paying attention to the game, so I always miss the peak moments. Some people find wildlife photography challenging for the same reason. If you want great wildlife photographs on safari, you’ve got to pay attention to animal behavior, be aware of what is going on around you, and be ready to react quickly and decisively. Peak action sometimes comes on fast and with little warning, but often, the attentive and perceptive photographer can improve their changes by anticipating opportunities and staying ahead of the game. It goes without saying that it is a lot easier to get a great shot of the bird in flight or the sprinting impala stretched flat-out in mid air if you saw it coming toward you ten seconds ago, as opposed to trying to catch up with it when you notice only as it zips by.

Tracking the Subject: Speaking of zipping by, the ability to pan a fast-moving animal with a long tele while keeping it where you want it in the frame is not one that most people are born with. Photographers who are good at this make it look effortless, but it takes a lot of practice. For the first time safari photographer, I recommend going out with your longest lens to find subjects that you can use to practice panning, even if its just pigeons in flight or dogs playing at a local park. The goal is to decide where you want the subject in frame, lock tracking focus on it, and try to keep it sharp and in the right position as you fire off a series of frames. It may not be easy at first, but after some practice it will become child’s play, and your safari images will be much better for it.

Predicting Animal Behavior: Studying up on the behavior of the animals you’ll be photographing will help you anticipate what an animal might do in a particular situation, but if your local safari guides are knowledgeable and experienced in the area you visit (as they ought to be), you should be able to rely on them to advise you about wildlife activity and the position the vehicle properly to take advantage of the opportunities you encounter. The selection of local guides is tremendously important, since few first time visitors will be able to adequately anticipate animal behaviors and habits.

Safari vehicle photo setup: The arrangements for photography in your safari vehicle significantly influence the quality of a photo safari experience. A safari operator who understands the needs of serious photographers will limit the number of photographers per vehicle to provide plenty of space for you to maneuver with a big telephoto and work unobstructed. The bar has recently been raised, however, in the form of state-of-the-art safari vehicles (both 4WD land vehicles and boats) with a small number of customized swiveling photographer’s chairs positioned along the centerline for maximum visibility and stability. Each incorporates an integral 360-degree revolving camera mount that is height-adjustable with a gas-assist lift, and mounted with a Wimberley head to balance a long telephoto for effortless handling for hours on end. This setup delivers smooth and stable panning of fast moving animals, quick repositioning, and an incredibly stable and user-friendly camera platform. I’ve found that vehicles equipped this way absolutely revolutionize the experience, enabling even relative novices to take home a surprising number of great images. The traditional camera mount solutions for safari vehicles – bean bags, window brackets, or clamp-on mounts – may provide decent stability, but in general they can’t compete in terms of capability, flexibility, and performance.

When to go? Now!

Finally, you’ll want to give some thought to the timing of your safari, and I’m not simply referring to the month or the season. The sad reality is that wildlife in Africa is facing tremendous pressures and is experiencing a startling decline. Anyone with an urge to see African wildlife in a diversity and abundance that we associate with “wild Africa” ought to do so sooner rather than later.

Lions, for example, are 95% gone. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the early 20th century, over the last century they have been decimated – as few as 15,000 may still remain in only 14 of the 49 African nations that were once their home. The fundamental cause of this crisis is the rapid growth of human populations in Africa, along with the accompanying pressures on wildlife: expansion of agricultural land and fragmentation of habitat, persecution of lions by herders, hunting of both lions and their prey species, and more. Since they need expansive territories, large predators like lions are “canaries in the coalmine” of habitat loss. They are also essential to maintaining healthy balance in the ecosystems they inhabit. As go the lions, so goes wild Africa.

Despite the challenges, there are credible efforts being made to protect lion populations and habitats that are also depended upon by countless other species. The international non-profit organization Panthera is at the vanguard of coordinating conservation of important big cat habitats, and numerous other conservation NGOs are working tirelessly to make the connection between sustainability of biodiversity and the sustainability of human societies.

Responsible eco-tourism is critically important to this equation, as nature-loving tourists (and many readers of this magazine) convey a compelling economic value on healthy ecosystems and sustainable wildlife populations. Visitors to Africa can vote with their dollars by giving preference to nations, communities, safari operators, parks, and preserves that are doing the most for sustainable resource management, protection of biodiversity, and the well-being of local communities that benefit more from protecting the resource than from destroying it.

I remain optimistic despite the challenges. Years from now, perhaps others will look at the pictures from our latest African safari and tell us how lucky we have been to capture them. Hopefully we’ll be able chuckle like Galen, amused in the knowledge that an abundance of wildlife served up endless photo opportunities ripe for the taking. If so, the trick will have been two-fold: we were prepared to receive luck, and did what it took to ensure that there was still luck to receive.

 

Safari Update

Sikio, Morani, and Scarface (from left to right). Photo by Justin Black (Nikon D4, 400mm f/2.8 AF-S)

 

On our recent safari in east Africa’s Maasai Mara / Serengeti ecosystem, we encountered three very special lions – Sikio, Morani, and Scarface (as viewed left to right above). These powerful brothers are the leaders of the Marsh Pride, made famous in BBC’s Big Cat Diary documentaries. They had crossed the Mara River to follow the bounty of the wildebeest herds, and made most of their foray into “foreign” territory by mating with the lionesses of the Oloololo Pride.

One morning, we spotted Morani returning to a tree they seemed to use as a rallying point, carrying a young wildebeest that had likely been taken down by one of three lionesses that followed close behind him.

Morani struts and scent marks after stealing a wildebeest from the lioness in the background.

 

After setting his stolen prize in the shade of the tree, Morani strutted, scent-marking the tree with an expression on his face that gave the impression of immense self-approval. One of the lionesses used this moment of apparent distraction to sneak in and attempt to snatch the kill away, but Morani chased her off. While the big male continued carrying on, she sat across a small ravine, glaring at him.

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To watch this drama unfold just a few meters away was a tremendous honor.

In June 2015, Visionary Wild returns to this incredible savannah ecosystem for Serengeti: A Dream of Wild Africa – an all-inclusive luxury photo safari led by Roy Toft and Justin Black. We hope you can join us! 
All photos © 2014 Justin Black, made with Nikon D810 and D4 cameras, Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 and 70-200/4 lenses

Special Trips: High Sierra and Africa

Moonset at sunrise over Moonlight Lake and Picture Peak, High Sierra, California, by Justin Black

On occasion, we offer special photo expeditions outside of the “regularly scheduled programming” listed in the Workshops section of this website.

High Sierra Mule Pack Trip

This September 20-26, we are offering a photo trip into the beautiful alpine High Sierra backcountry west of Bishop, California, for a small group of nine participants. The instructors on this trip are renowned Sierra Nevada landscape photographer Jim Stimson, and Visionary Wild’s Justin Black. Our good friends Mike and Tess Anne Morgan of Bishop Pack Outfitters will support the trip with expert mule packing service to carry all our gear into and out of the mountains, and guided riding mules to carry us! Our expert backcountry chef and camp manager will take care of meals so we can focus on photography. CLICK HERE for more information from our online newsletter.

“The Sierra Nevada has been my backyard and playground for over 35 years. There are few landscapes on the planet that are so gloriously appointed with soaring granite spires, crystal clear lakes, vibrant green meadows, rich beds of flowers, and autumn splashes of color, so I consider myself very fortunate to call the Range of Light my home. I enjoy the inspiring challenge of photographing the grand landscape or the intimate details at my feet. It’s one of the best places I can think of for an adventure with a camera.” –Jim Stimson

African Safari: Etosha – Chobe – Victoria Falls

June 3-20, 2013, we are offering a wildlife-oriented African Safari led by Justin Black for an even more intimate group of five photographers to visit Etosha National Park in Namibia, Chobe National Park in Botswana, Victoria Falls, and cheetah and white rhino preserves in South Africa. As of June 30th, 2012, only two spaces remain available. Our group will work with some of the best guides in the business and will use new, heavily customized safari vehicles at Etosha, and a highly specialized six-seat photo boat on the Chobe River. These platforms offer the best photographer positions available anywhere in Africa, with each photographer having his or her own 360-degree rotating photo chair with 360-degree revolving camera mounts that make working with big lenses a breeze. To top it off, we’re providing loan of big glass through Nikon South Africa, so you don’t have to lug it to Africa with you. CLICK HERE for more information.

Expedition Report: Arizona Overland

Around the campfire, Visionary Wild Arizona Overland Expedition. © Justin Black

 There is nothing like exploring sublime landscapes with a group of friends who share a love for photography and wide open spaces. Immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday, Jack Dykinga, Jeff Foott, and I led a week-long overland photo expedition with nine other passionate photographers, visiting some stunning backcountry areas in northern Arizona. As the guest of a gracious Navajo elder, we first explored and photographed a very special location characterized by dramatic red rock sandstone hoodoos and dinosaur footprints 200 million years old. We then traversed over twenty miles of sandy 4WD jeep trails to one of our very favorite Colorado Plateau locations, a photographer’s paradise of swirling petrified sand dunes, intimate abstract designs, and grand vistas overlooking the Grand Staircase leading down to the Grand Canyon. Our merry band was joined by Chris Collard, Editor-in-Chief of Overland Journal magazine, Laurie Rubin of Nik Software, and Tom Hanagan of Four Wheel Campers.

Visionary Wild photographers, Arizona Overland Expedition. © Chris Collard

 The days were so full of photographic opportunities that many of us had to force ourselves to take a break in order to get some food and a nap, and the photography didn’t end at dusk. Working by the light of our headlamps, we set up Nikons with MC-36 intervalometers to shoot five-hour multi-exposure star trail images, the results of which can be seen in Jack Dykinga’s stunning image in the gallery below.  After a week of intense photography and fulfilling camaraderie, we exchanged hugs, said our farewells, and set off toward home.

The Arizona Overland Expedition was a prototype, testing a model for more overland adventures to come. Stay tuned for exciting overland trips in 2012.

–Justin Black

Here are some highlights submitted by the group.

Evening light on hoodoo garden, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Julie Furber

Colorado Plateau, northern Arizona. © Sean Stuchen

© Sean Stuchen

© Ed Kenney

"The Beast." © Laurie Rubin

© Wally Reichert

Teamwork while photographing 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. © Chris Collard

Dilophosaurus dinosaur tracks, 200 million years old. © Jack Dykinga

Hoodoos beneath the Milky Way. © Jack Dykinga

Colorado Plateau details. © Jack Dykinga

Petrified sand dune sculpture, Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

Morning on the Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

 

Hoodoos in last light, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Justin Black

Moon over hoodoos, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Justin Black

Sandstone sculpture, Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

Petrified sand dune detail, Colorado Plateau. © Jeff Foott

Eroded sandstone "fins," Colorado Plateau. © Jeff Foott

Visionary Wild Arizona Overland Expedition. © Chris Collard

Iceland Expedition Video

Visionary Wild instructor, Polar explorer Chris Linder produced this stunning video featuring his photographs from his latest expedition to Iceland this past August with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute researchers. Chris and landscape photographer Justin Black will lead a photo expedition for nine passionate photographers August 12-19, 2012, which will visit Iceland’s puffin colonies, coastal landscapes, glaciers, iceberg-filled bays, and dramatic volcanic interior. Click here for more information about this exciting expedition!

Jack Dykinga Interview Slideshow

Jack Dykinga on Mark Godfrey Selects

Nature Conservancy Director of Photography Mark Godfrey recently interviewed Visionary Wild instructor Jack Dykinga for this multimedia slideshow featuring some of Jack’s best work.

Iceland: Expedition Scouting


Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) at Laetrabjarg in the Westfjords

Polar explorer and photographer Chris Linder traveled to Iceland In mid-August with a group of fellow Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute associates, in part to scout locations for next year’s Visionary Wild expedition, tentatively scheduled for August 19 – 26, 2012. In the following report from the field, Chris has kindly shared his thoughts and a few images from the trip. Watch for details about the 2012 Iceland Expedition in the coming weeks.

Misty mountains in Snaefellssnes National Park

Scouting Iceland

or… In the land of Gore-Tex and Speedos

by Chris Linder

As I lounged in a geothermally heated river watching the last rays of sunlight play across tan and maroon rhyolite hills in the Icelandic highlands, I pondered how to characterize a workshop here without resorting to the “fire and ice” cliché.  Even after multiple visits to Iceland’s most photogenic destinations over the last ten years, I was about to concede defeat: the cliché has its merits.

Rhyolite hills at Landmannalaugar

Iceland sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart.  This causes the “fire”—geothermally active areas comprise nearly a third of Iceland’s land area (including the soothing pool I was relaxing in).  This geothermal activity, manifested in steaming fumaroles, spurting geysers, and bubbling mudpots, is one reason why the Icelandic landscape has such an otherworldly beauty.  Couple this heat with the “ice”—sprawling glaciers like Vatnajökull (the largest ice cap in Europe) and iceberg-filled lagoons, and there you have it…  In my humble opinion, one of the most photogenic countries in the world.

Crevassed glacier ice at Kverkfjall

This scouting trip was an intensive journey through nearly all of Iceland’s landscapes, from puffin-encrusted cliffs in the Westfjords to the remote and rugged Highlands.  With our trusty Jeep Cherokee, my companions and I drove many kilometers of two-track and forded more rivers than I can count – most routes through the Highlands are not bridged.

Crossing a river on the way to Landmannalaugar

14,000 photographs later, I’m ready to plan out an adventure in August 2012 for a select group of photographers to my favorite places in Iceland.  Stay tuned to the Visionary Wild site for more details.

Lake Öskjuvatn in the Askja caldera

So what to do about the cliché?  As I watched bathers scamper across the boardwalk to the hot spring under a spattering of cold rain, a thought came to mind: land of Gore-Tex and Speedos?  I think I’ll have to keep working on it….

Bioluminescence on the Sonoma Coast, by Jerry Dodrill

Bioluminescence

For years I’ve heard unbelievable stories about people’s surreal night time experiences in the ocean with glowing plankton blooms, but until recently I’d never seen it myself. The tip off came from Ellen Cruz, a friend from Bodega Bay who sent a note about an experience she’d just had on the Sonoma County coast:

…the ocean was illuminated as if under a black light…so awesome, cannot describe in words…no need to drop acid on this one…every white particle of wave was iridescent, florescent, glowing like you can’t believe…step on the sand and your footprint glows and sparkles… there were banks of waves coming in, white caps in the distance just glowed, and when the waves connected it was elongated strips of fluorescent green stripes across the water… whew…

This strange oceanic occurrence is likely the root of ghost stories told by early sailors who saw the mysterious green fire in the water but failed to comprehend what they were seeing. Documented as far back as 500 B.C., most bioluminescent light occurs in tiny plants called dinoflagellates which live in the sea and gain energy from the photosynthesis of sunlight. In darkness they emit a blue light in response to movement within the water. The intensity of the light peaks about two hours after dark and is simply amazing to watch. During the day they turn red and can be the source of the neurotoxin that poisons shell fish during Red Tides.

After receiving Ellen’s note, and being somewhat fascinated by natural optical phenomena, my mind immediately began pre-visualizing how I could make an interesting photograph. I often try to imagine best-case situations that might occur in nature. The trick is to carefully consider the conditions which would be necessary for a scenario to occur and then consciously reverse engineer it and attempt to put yourself on location at just the right time while being prepared to capture the moment. Something magical often ends up happening, even if it is somewhat different than what you had imagined.

As I pondered the complexity of making an evocative image of the psychedelic tides I felt that the images would look very alien if there wasn’t an earthly land form with which the viewer can easily identify. I started piecing together two ideas that I thought I could achieve in the same night. I’d seen the first sliver of a moon the night before, just after sunset, and knew that the next day it would be about fifty minutes higher in the sky. So I wanted to first make an image of the crescent moon setting at twilight above the breakers and Arched Rock near Jenner. The second image I was visualizing was a long exposure at the cusp of night where I would have just enough light to see the arch, and enough darkness for the dinoflagellates to show up in the water.

I checked the wunderground.com weather satellite which showed crystal clear skies, then double checked the angle of the moon relative to the arch by using a very useful software for such things called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. All the elements seemed to align and it looked like a promising evening.

I pulled up at Goat Rock Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park right about sunset, (which-oops!- is when the Park closes), geared up in rubber boots and wind gear and headed south down Blind Beach in gorgeous light that I would normally have been shooting. This time I was on a mission for something more mysterious than a sunset but at one point I did stop and made a few exposures of boney rocks protruding from the sand with crazy beams of light coming over the horizon. This was an early and unexpected bonus shot. As the light diminished I came to where the convergence of the setting moon and the sea arch were just perfect.

The first set of images were exactly what I expected. In years past I’d made similar images here with the full moon setting at sunrise into the Earth’s shadow. What I didn’t expect this time is that my camera’s sensor was picking up the Milky Way directly above the Arch! This added a layer of intrigue to the image that was far beyond what I’d imagined. Soon the starry night was fully visible to the naked eye.

If the moon had been larger or higher I believe its light would have polluted the clear, cold night sky and blown out the reflection in the water. But it was just slight enough that the relative contrast between the starlight and reflections fell into a range which could be handled if I was careful. But it was the bioluminescence that was most incredible. Each waved rolled in looking like a million neon glow sticks had been dumped into them. The blue-green light shot across the breakers as they crashed, the more wave energy released, the more light emitted. The backwash on the beach left momentary trails of light which resembled a million little galaxies.

I was in “the zone” watching wave sets, adjusting exposures as it got darker and darker, moving south down the beach as the moon traversed to the north, trying to keep my juxtaposition with Arched Rock in alignment. It was a bit ridiculous to realize a shot like this had come together: crescent moon shining through the arch under the Milky Way with the glowing ocean. Then as if in a nod to affirm all was okay in the universe, I watched in awe as a brilliant shooting star streaked across the sky above the arch while I had the shutter open. All the while I was very aware that I should not have parked my car in the heavily patrolled parking lot.

The moon was finally setting so I packed and hiked across the beach toward the car, arriving just as two park rangers stepped out of their cruiser with spot lights on. “Hello!” I called out of the darkness in attempt to not get myself Tazed as I stepped into the blinding beams with a big tripod on my shoulder. I received the full lecture from them (the park closes at sunset…we don’t want to have to come looking for you…) and apologized sheepishly. They wanted to know what I was doing out there. Still buzzing from an incredible experience, I pulled out the camera and offered to show them. The three of us huddled in the wind with our heads close to the back of my Nikon’s LCD and looked through the entire image set frame by frame while dispatch ran my plates and ID. The officers have one of the best office views in the state out their front windshield and were excited to see my photographic interpretation of what they see every day. As it turns out we share mutual friends and a deep connection for preserving California’s wild coast. I didn’t get a ticket that night. Instead I walked away with a couple of new friends, some images with which I’m really happy, and the good info on where to park the car for my next outing.

-Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA

Visionary Wild instructor Jerry Dodrill will co-lead two workshops on the California coast with Jeff Foott in 2015, among the northern Redwood Coast in June and on the Sonoma Coast in September. We hope you can join us.

http://www.jerrydodrill.com

More info:

Bioluminescence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioluminescence

Sonoma Coast State Park: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=451

 

On Assignment: The Dragon Run

by Justin Black

 

The Dragon rippled as I slid the kayak out into the swamp’s caramel-brown water. The still quiet of pre-dawn was broken only by the song of a prothonotary warbler, a croaking bullfrog, the sudden splash of a jumping sunfish. Gliding along on the glassy surface past lush swamp plants – arrow arum, water lilies, swamp rose, the lovely purple poker-like blooms of pickerelweed – and under the spreading branches of bald cypress, their conical “knees” emerging from the water in rows like the Dragon’s teeth, I felt completely removed from the Tidewater Virginia farmland that encircled me beyond the forest. Entering this place was like time-travel.

View Full Record

The other México

In January 2012, Jack Dykinga, Alfredo Medina, and I will lead a Visionary Wild expedition for a small group of six photographers that will focus on photography of the cenotes of the Yucatán peninsula. These water-filled caverns and sinkholes are tremendously beautiful and mysterious, and exploring them is a mind-blowing adventure. We will also visit the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal, and spend two days among the flamingo colonies, mangroves, and white sand beach at Celestún. You can read more about the workshop here: Yucatan Expedition

The Mexican state of Yucatán is distinct in many ways from the rest of the country. For those who are turned off by the over-development and tourist kitsch of Cancún in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo, Yucatán is authentic, safe, and welcoming. The horror stories in the media about crime and violence south of the U.S. border are not at all the case here (nor is it the case in many other parts of Mexico for that matter). The Yucatecan capital of Merida is a charming and historic city full of friendly people who are happy to help visitors, and the Maya people who inhabit the countryside are among the most hospitable and gracious folk you’ll ever meet.

Anecdotally, while I was attending the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Merida in November 2009, I accidentally left my wallet in a taxi. A pair of state police nearby noticed as I frantically searched my pockets and shoulder bag to no avail, and asked what had happened. The police immediately initiated a city-wide search for our cabbie. Back at our hotel, a crowd of police, cab drivers, and hotel staff on radios and cell phones were trying to track the guy down. About fifteen minutes later, he returned to the hotel. A passenger had found my wallet in the back seat and notified the driver. He was only too happy to return it, cash intact, and he wouldn’t accept a reward.

I look forward to going back to the Yucatán, and I hope that you will join us. – Justin Black