03 December 2011

A Day In The Life...Of A Nature Photographer

Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head... well that last part is not quite accurate. I'm currently sporting a hairstyle that does not require a comb or brush. But otherwise it is pretty accurate. I thought for today's post I might do a bit of a "making of" post. Give a glimpse of the glamorous life of the part-time, semi-pro, nature photographer and what goes into producing some of these images I feature on my site.

First the final products. I have a few more images that I liked with subtle variations of light or pattern, but I edited down to avoid too much repetition. Feel free to visit my website if you'd like to see all of them.

Coastal Plain VA Nov 25-26 - Images by Elijah Goodwin

I celebrated Black Friday by getting up at about 1:45am; no, not to head to the mall to get pepper sprayed or trampled in search of a bargain, but to catch the dawn twilight somewhere in Virginia Beach. I did see lots of shoppers out and about on my way down though. Perhaps you can explain this to me... Lots of people think I'm crazy for getting up so early to drive to spectacular places and enjoy them at their most beautiful; these folks were getting up early to go to Walmart. Now, who is crazy again, and why?

Anyways, I quickly got ready (having packed most of my gear and put my canoe on the car the evening of Thanksgiving, hence not getting to bed until almost 11pm) and hopped in the car. From my house, Virginia Beach is about a 4-4.5 hour drive and I wanted to arrive well before civil twilight. My plan was actually to catch dawn and the sunrise at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, a new location for me. I wasn't moving super fast and had to make a few inconvenient bathroom stops along the way, so by time I was nearing Virginia Beach on I-64, I knew I wasn't going to make it all the way to Mackay Island in time. I headed for the beachfront instead, in the hopes of catching the twilight and sunrise at the beach and incorporating the fishing pier into my images. I knew the morning was going to be essentially cloudless, so having an object in the frame to silhouette would make the scene more visually interesting. I arrived in time to park, walk to the beach, and start shooting just as the light peaked.

In this image, I composed to have the pier and horizon dissecting roughly the top 1/3 and bottom 2/3 of the frame. I knew I wanted a slow shutter speed to blur the waves and water and emphasize the silky glow that the twilight sky was imparting to the ocean. I also knew that wasn't going to be a problem given the light conditions and the fact that I wanted to shoot at a low ISO (100) and a fairly small aperture to hold my depth of field from front to back. I ended up shooting f/16 at 1 second of exposure. I zoomed the frame out (31mm X 1.6) to include the crashing waves, but made sure that the diagonal line of waves wasn't going to directly connect to the corner of the frame. I set the self-timer and mirror lock-up features and pressed the shutter button when the waves were coming in. Back at home in Adobe Lightroom 3, I added about a half a stop of exposure and some fill light to emphasize the brightness of the water and better reveal the detail in the sand. I then added a simulated graduated neutral density filter to the top portion of the frame to balance the sky better with the foreground and bring back some of the color that had washed out in the sky when I added exposure. Finally, I added some Clarity and Vibrance, then transferred the file to Photoshop for Lab Sharpening (Amount: 120, Radius 1.0, Threshold 3.0).

As the sun began to rise, I moved under the pier to try for some images of waves breaking underneath the pier and utilizing the graphic perspective of the pilings. Finally, the sun rose enough above the horizon to make the light pretty harsh and I decided to move on to my next spot. I headed to Mackay Island NWR, only to be reminded upon arriving why earlier the previous evening I had decided to go to Back Bay NWR instead. The refuge was closed for a hunt. Since I was there, I drove around the island to see what it looked like. It looks like a potentially promising location. There was lots of wildlife in the ditches along the road, including large flocks of American coot (Fulica americana), plus many herons and egrets. The one trouble is that the road was basically a highway with few places to stop, no cover to get close to the wildlife, and very little land between the road and the ditches. After thoroughly exploring the areas I could access, I decided to head for my ultimate destination, the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp is a huge southern swamp located on the Coastal Plain of Virginia and North Carolina. In the middle of this large wooded swamp (the National Wildlife Refuge alone is over 112,000 acres) is Lake Drummond, a 3,100 acre natural lake (one of only two natural lakes in VA). I had seen some images of Bald Cypress trees growing out in the lake and I always thought this location would be worth checking out. The trick is that in order to photograph these trees you have to access the lake by boat, and currently the only way to do that was to park at a put-in on the outskirts of the swamp and boat in the 3.5 miles to the lake. Wanting to photograph both dawn and dusk, camping out overnight seemed to be the only logical option.

I arrived at the put-in just before noon, repacked most of my camera and overnight gear into dry bags, took the canoe off the car, then ate a big lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers in the hopes that I wouldn't need much for dinner that night. Then I carried my two-man Wenonah canoe down the stairs to the dock on the Dismal Swamp Canal, loaded most of my gear in the front to counterbalance my weight in the back, and launched. By putting most of the weight in the front of the canoe and using a kayak paddle instead of a canoe paddle, I'm able to do a pretty good job of keeping the canoe tracking straight, even in the face of a decent breeze. If the winds get higher and I need more control, I can also kneel in the middle.

The paddle to the lake is ~3.5 miles up what is called the Feeder Ditch. The weather was glorious for the day after Thanksgiving and I stripped to just shorts and a long-sleeved shirt for the paddle. The ditch runs straight as an arrow the entire way and the water is black with tannin, so it almost perfectly reflects the trees lining the ditches of the bank and the sky. It was a glorious paddle, with lots of birds lining the edge of the ditch. On the way in I met one small fishing boat and one kayak coming out, the only people I saw the entire trip. The light wasn't great for photographs, but here is an image I took of the canoe on the Feeder Ditch coming back from the lake the following morning. It gives you a sense of the beauty of canoeing in this area.

Just before you get to the lake, you have to portage around a water control structure. At this dam, the Army Corps of Engineers maintains a rustic campground, which is the only spot in the swamp that you can camp. It is basically a small triangular grassy island surrounded by the canals on two sides and swamp on the third. They provide one rather "charmingly" rustic bathroom (but with running non-potable water), some picnic tables, and a couple of small screened pavilions. I stopped here to set up my tent and sleeping stuff for later in the evening and repack my camera gear for easier access. Then I finished portaging my canoe (for those unfamiliar with canoeing, you carry the canoe on your shoulders, although this was a very short carry) and paddled the final couple hundred yards to the lake.

The lake was absolutely breathtaking! It is very large and has a wilderness feel to it. On this day the wind was calm, so as far as the eye could see, the surface was smooth like glass. Dotted all along the shore were Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees growing (mostly individually) 20-30 ft and sometimes even 40-50 ft out from the shore in the middle of the lake. There was also a large flock of calling Tundra Swans out on the lake that just increased the beauty and wildness of the experience. As I canoed along the shore, I'd occasionally startle pairs of Wood Ducks.

The challenge for photography was that there really was no place to land the canoe. The shore was just swamp and any relatively dry patch was densely covered in undergrowth. There really were no useful camera angles from the shore anyways to isolate individual trees growing out on the lake. So I had to shoot out on the middle of the lake in anywhere from 4-6' of water on average. Yes, I could have shot handheld from the canoe, but there were two problems with that. One, I did not have image stabilization on any of my lenses and I was looking to get some good quality landscape images. Second, I planned on shooting both dusk and dawn civil twilight using very long exposures (up to 30 sec.), so handheld would not work that way either. I had read about a photographer using a large wooden tripod sunken in the water and shooting from his canoe. But I frankly was nervous about my ability to juggle my two-person canoe, tripod, and camera gear, particularly since I had not brought any anchors (next time...). So what I needed was to find a stable shooting platform out on the lake. I needed to find cypress that had enough knees growing around them that I could dock and climb out and set-up from there.

So, my procedure was to find a cypress that had knees I felt capable of climbing out onto and that had a good angle on another tree that I wanted to photograph. Then I would carefully move the canoe into position and very gently try to climb out onto the cypress knees without falling in or capsizing the canoe. Remember, even next to the trees, I was pretty much surrounded by water at least four, if not six or more, feet deep. Then I would take my tripod out of the canoe, find a good angle and place to position my body, then sink the tripod into the lake near the tree and play with the legs until it was level and stable. Then I'd climb back to the canoe and get my camera out of the dry bag, carefully climb back with the camera, and mount the camera on the tripod. Then came the hard part; usually only a small portion of the tripod was sticking out of the water, so I had to manage to position my body low enough on the knees to see through the viewfinder, without falling in. And when the light was rapidly changing, I had to be able to hold that position for a long time.

Here is an image of my tripod all set up for a shot. Yes, my legs and body are against the trunk of the tree, so that gives you some sense of how much working space I had.

Here is an image of my canoe tied to the cypress knees (my dock) on the other side of the trunk.

For the first part of the evening, I paddled around, scouted, and tried a few different spots, but I ended up coming back to one of the first spots that I had considered, to photograph sunset and twilight.

This image was taken near the very end of civil twilight at ~5:15pm. I used my EF-S 18-55mm lens as I was rather close to the subject and I wanted to be able to capture the reflection of the whole tree (I shot at 42mm x 1.6). As with all my long exposure landscape images, I used the self-timer and mirror lock-up to minimize camera vibration. This image was exposed at 0.3 seconds at f/11 and ISO 100. Back at home in Adobe Lightroom 3, I added about a quarter of a stop of exposure and some lens correction to lighten the vignetting around the tree in the dark sky. I increased the tone curve to strong contrast to heighten the effect of the silhouette. Finally, I added some Clarity and Vibrance, then transferred the file to Photoshop for Lab Sharpening (Amount: 120, Radius 1.0, Threshold 3.0).

Soon after this exposure was taken, I began to worry a bit about getting back to the campground safely in the dark, and honestly, the light didn't look to be getting any better. So I disassembled my gear in the near darkness, loaded into the canoe, and headed back for the Feeder Ditch. By the time I got into the Feeder Ditch, surrounded by woods, it was pretty much pitch dark. I had forgotten my headlamp at home (but I need a new one as it has gotten quite dim even with fresh batteries, so I'm not sure it would have been a tremendous help). Luckily, the ditch is straight, the dam is loud, and there weren't many strainers in the way on the way back to the campground, so I made it fine. I startled one large animal (deer?, bear?) at the edge of the ditch, that went crashing noisily through the underbrush. When I got back, the campground was as empty as I had left it, and very dark. By the way, I should have mentioned, the whole entire glorious evening, I had that huge lake all to myself. Not another human soul for miles. Just a chorus of Tundra Swans.

I grabbed a few snacks for supper; as hoped, I wasn't hungry enough to need to start the stove. The overhead light on the timer in the bathroom was a welcome taste of civilization and temporarily made it feel a little less lonely (but unfortunately the bulb burned out soon after). I was zippered into my sleeping bag and ready for bed by about 7-7:30pm. Which was just as well, since I was working on four hours of sleep and I planned to wake at 4:30am and canoe out before dawn. The night was very cold (despite the unseasonably warm day) and I awoke several times during the night because my decent mummy sleeping bag, long underwear, and fleece hat weren't quite cutting it.

When my alarm went off at 4:30am, it was quite dark and cold. There was lots of condensation from my breath inside the tent, and about an inch of frost on the outside of it. I hit the (now sadly) dark restroom and fired up the stove to heat some water for oatmeal with almond slivers, brown sugar, and dried cherries (oh yeah, I know how to live). My near empty gas canister gave out just before the water was hot enough, but it worked well enough. I happily munched on oatmeal to the accompaniment of two duetting Great Horned Owls nearby. I then threw my photography gear (well, carefully placed is more like it) in the canoe and headed back out to the lake. The paddle back out in the semi-dark was more pleasant, with each stroke toward the lake, things got a bit brighter. I just had time to set up at my first location before the sky really started to light up. Unfortunately a fogging problem with my lens kept me from getting some early shots.

This is image was taken towards the end of civil twilight before the sun rose. You can see some fog along the opposite bank of the lake. This image was exposed at 1/8 of a second at f/16 and ISO 100. Back at home in Adobe Lightroom 3, I added about a quarter of a stop of exposure and some fill light to bring out the detail in the trunk of the tree. Finally, I added some Clarity and Vibrance, then transferred the file to Photoshop for Lab Sharpening (Amount: 120, Radius 1.0, Threshold 3.0).

This final image was taken after sunrise, just as the first rays of sunlight cleared the forest behind me and fully illuminated the entire tree. This image was exposed at 1/15 of a second at f/22 and ISO 100. Back at home in Adobe Lightroom 3, I took away .05 stops of exposure and added just a tiny bit of fill light to bring out the detail in the trunk of the tree. I added just a light graduated filter effect to balance out the sky/tree and water. Finally, I added some Clarity and Vibrance, then transferred the file to Photoshop for Lab Sharpening (Amount: 120, Radius 1.0, Threshold 3.0).

I have to say that this is one of my favorite photo trips to date. Not just because of the pictures that I came home with, but because of the entire experience. There were many moments of exquisite beauty, that I didn't or couldn't capture on film, but that will always be with me. Hope you enjoyed the long post!


  1. Wow! And you did all that on 2+ hrs. of sleep!

  2. Elijah, I so enjoyed reading this wonderful "A day in the life ..." post! Being an amateur photographer, I'm always curious how the pros come up with such fabulous images. Truly spectacular photographs!