Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Wide-Angle Macro: The Nuts & Bolts.

Many of you may remember several posts that I wrote this past summer on Wide-Angle Macro Photography. Well, for those interested in really learning the nuts and bolts of this technique, I would highly recommend that you follow this series of articles by my friend Paul Harcourt Davies. Paul –a master of wide-angle macro– will be going through how to create these amazing images in great depth. Do check it out if you want to learn more.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Charting My Course

I am driven by goals. Some people like goals and others find them detestable. I need goals because they give me a focal point in the sea of 'what ifs' and 'wouldn't it be cools' that cross my mind throughout the span of a year. I also appreciate the fact that at the end of another 365 days I can look back and actually feel like I've accomplished something worthwhile –if I actually have, of course. I have a tendency to forget about the good things that I've achieved and all too often will focus only on the things that need work if I am not careful. That isn't always a bad thing in terms of learning how to grow as a photographer but we all need little positive reinforcement from time-to-time.

One peculiar thing that I've noticed over the past few years is that the number of items on my list of goals has begun to shrink, while the ambition level of each seems to be rising. I have found this to be a very natural progression as my maturity as a photographer grows and my focus becomes more and more fine-tuned. In actuality, each one of my goals has a lot of moving parts and pieces – they just happen to share a common umbrella. For example, in 2010 I am focusing on four main projects. If things go as I hope, the outcome of some of these will include components such as books, exhibitions, and articles. In the past, I might have just listed these products individually. Now, I've begun to look at a body of work and consider all of the different ways that the imagery can be interlaced to support a common message; not exactly brain-surgery but it takes me a while to catch on sometimes!

I recently flipped through Andrew Zuckerman's book Wisdom. There is quote in the book from Ben Stein, in which he basically states (paraphrase) that one should "Focus on the best thing that you can do in a given year and your career will take care of itself." Right now, I am not quite at that level of trust but maybe one day I'll arrive. Although I'm not quite so young anymore, at 33 I am still dumb enough to be joyfully ambitious in the face of great odds. That is a piece of my youth that I hope I shall never lose!

For those seeking some instant inspiration and goal-setting advice for the approaching New Year, I came across this free downloadable e-Book from Seth Godin today. It is packed with thoughts from people way wiser than me.

Friday, December 11, 2009

HDR Portraits

If you had a chance to read my previous post, then you'll no doubt recognize the subject of this photo as Capt. Jim Yergin who was featured in my shoot with The Nature Conservancy earlier this week. As soon as I had the pleasure of meeting Jim, I just knew that he would make a great subject for a duo-tone portrait. This afternoon, I happened to come across an article in the November issue of Black & White Photography Magazine on HDR Portraits. The image above is an HDR composite of three different exposures of the same photo (one 2 over, one 2 under and one properly exposed) , which were then merged in Photomatix. I then converted the image into a duo-tone in Photoshop. This technique is a very effective way to create gritty portraits if that is the sort of thing you're into. In fact, I could have pushed the contrast of this image even further if I so desired. Although I'm not a big fan of a lot of the HDR work that is currently in vogue, I really love this technique and will probably find a lot of use for it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Happy as an Oyster

Yesterday started with a very early 4:00 am wake up call in Charleston, South Carolina. Joy Brown –Marine ecologist and oyster specialist extraordinaire– would soon be arriving to pick me up at my hotel, which was on the way to the landing in nearby McClellanville. Although bedraggled and barely functional at that hour, I was really glad to be going out to the coastal marshes to once again document the progress of The Nature Conservancy's oyster habitat restoration project. We were blessed with good weather and the great company of U.S. House of Representatives Member Anne Peterson-Hutto and local fisherman Capt. Jim Yergin who were both very tolerant of my request for "Just one more photo, time I really mean!"

Here are some highlights of the morning. For background on this story, visit this earlier post.
A beautiful sunrise over the marshes as Capt. Jim guides us to the installation site.
First light revealed the new oysters that had colonized the oyster castles.
The oysters quickly colonized the man-made structures.
Local fisherman like Jim Yergin need healthy marine ecosystems to keep fish populations strong.
U.S. House of Representatives Member Anne Peterson-Hutto joined us on our trip to learn more about how the project works.
Joy demonstrates how the project is mapped via GPS for Representative Peterson-Hutto.
Joy Brown, proud defender of Oysters everywhere!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

e-Books and the Future of Print

I love books and it isn't just about the contents for me; I relish in the smell of the paper, the sound of a crisp page turning, and the revisiting of well-thumbed illustrations – often with undying wonder. Books bring me comfort and my night stand is always covered in various titles that I peck at over a period of months.

For the past several years I, along with my close friend Dale Cochran, have been experimenting with interactive pdfs. I give Dale credit for initially revealing the possibilities to me and together we've spent a good deal of time sharing ideas on how to make them work. The potential to create 'living brochures' is something that really intrigues me and I am surprised that this exciting possibility has yet to be fully grasped and accepted by more business and advertisers. There are also huge opportunities for educational publications –particularly in the realm of children's literature– where sound and motion can be blended into a book effectively to enhance a reader's experience. Imagine a book on the Amazon rainforest in which a page is turned only to ignite the lush sounds of a waterfall punctuated by the harsh cries of a macaw. The technology has been around for several years but only just now seems to be gaining some traction. Children are already so used to learning on-screen that I suspect they will have no issue with embracing this type of learning experience.

In spite of my enthusiasm for all of this, I still have had my doubts about the possibility of successfully selling electronic copies of highly artistic photography books. After spending several hours on the computer most days, the last thing that I want to do is be tethered to a machine for a while longer to read a book. Anyone else feel this way? Well, my doubts were put to rest after witnessing the successful sale of William Neill's "Landscapes of the Spirit" e-Book. In brief correspondence with Bill, I naively expressed my lack of faith (as I mention above) but I'm happy to report that I was proven very wrong. His beautiful e-Edition sold briskly and he has now added others to his on-line store.

When developing an e-Book, there are a couple of different approaches to take and both have their ups and downs. The first type, which until recently had been the sole source of my focus, is the interactive PDF. These documents can feature streaming video, sound and motion. They are easily developed in Adobe InDesign CS3 & 4 (in conjunction with Acrobat Pro) and look fantastic on screen. Another advantage is that the layout of these documents stays just as designed on screen and there aren't any issues with image shift or text re-wrapping. At the moment, this is definitely the best approach for artistic photography books and graphic-heavy pieces.

The second approach involves designing Digital Editions for e-Readers such as Amazon's highly popular Kindle or Barnes and Nobles' Nook. What these e-Books lack in design appeal, they regain in terms of flexibility and ease of use on various devices. In my opinion, I believe that this is the way to go for instructional books where information, and not graphics, lead the way. These can also easily be designed and exported from InDesign CS4 (and CS3).

Today I find myself in the developmental phase of two projects in which e-Books and digital editions will be highly featured. After spending several years toying with the technology and following the development of these next generation books, I'm very excited to have an opportunity to actually put my knowledge to good use and for good causes (more to come on these later). Although I don't expect printed books to ever really go away, as digital reading devices become more and more prevalent I feel certain that the old way of distributing written materials will diminish to some degree. The next few years will certainly be interesting for designers, photographers and publishers in particular.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Give Green Gifts from The Nature Conservancy

Midori Matsuyama, who is the on-line outreach director for The Nature Conservancy, sent a nice note today and asked if would mind sharing some of the organization's Green Holiday Gift Ideas with you all. TNC does a lot of good and with each purchase, you'd be supporting their vast conservation efforts around the world.

Here are few ideas if you get stuck looking for that perfect gift:
  1. Adopt an Acre in the US or abroad
  2. Plant Trees in the Atlantic Forest. Each tree costs just $1.00!
  3. Adopt A Coral Reef
  4. Help Save the Northern Jaguar
  5. Give the Gift of Clean Water
Think of this way, you'll be doing a good thing AND avoiding a trip to the mall. What could be better?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bits & Pieces

In lieu of a long rambling post, here are few items of note.
  • I made my first foray into the world of international life-style publications this month in the new issue of Sublime Magazine. This issue features, among other interesting things, a selection of six winning images from the 2009 CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year Competition. I was lucky to be one of the chosen few winners who were represented. Thanks Laura!
  • Just discovered the work of 17 year old Jaco Ottevanger today. He has some really beautiful, creative images on his website. It is so exciting to see the next generation coming in swinging!
  • Really interesting post on how to create 360 panoramic photos here and several great examples here and here. With the addition of narration, these really can be powerful photographic tools, which can be used for conservation awareness.
  • Check out Niall Benvie's take on the “Vivaldi-isation" of Nature Photography

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Something to Chew On

Is it possible for conservation-minded nature photographers to create work with an artistic slant and still maintain good standing among their peers? More importantly, is it possible for these photographers to positively support the causes that they hold dear, without crossing the line into morally and ethically questionable territory? After all, the world is full of skeptics and any opportunity to denounce certain efforts will surely be pounced upon. These are questions that often keep me up at night.

Everyone has their viewpoints and I am certainly not the wisest in the bunch. However, it seems to me that if photographers cease to feel comfortable exploring creative ways to shed new light on the natural world and its wonders, plight and existence to the viewing public, then are we not ultimately bowing to fickle public perceptions anyway?

I can think of no other photographer that I hold in higher regard than Jim Brandenburg. He has done it all and has shot his fair share of powerful, documentary style images for National Geographic and other high-standing organizations. However, in recent years, artistically toned books such as the incredibly inspiring "Looking for the Summer," have captured the public's imagination. I would wager that this isn't due simply to the subject matter, as painful as it may be for some to admit.

And what of the Frans Lanting's and Art Wolfe's of the world? Does the work of these two goliaths of nature photography, whose work is laden with creative uses of lighting, motion blurs and the like not constitute artistry? Are these two bodies of work now rendered null because of the invention of digital photography and Photoshop? I seriously have my doubts. Besides, if anyone really wants to find out whether an image is authentic or not (like this chronically Googled, truly amazing shot by Thomas P. Peschak) they always have Snopes.

In a perfect world, everyone would be in love with nature just for what it is. The problem is that many (if not most) people simply don't see the natural world like those of us who spend our time desperately trying to show others what it is all about. We know it is amazing and vitally important but there are so many who don't...and don't care, I suspect.

How about the photo at the top of this post? I didn't anything to alter the physical nature of the scene. However, what I did do was use a warming gel on my SB900 flash to change the mood of the image. I also used a wide-angle lens, which altered the angle of the trees to some degree. Does this count as morally objectionable manipulation?

Please share your thoughts with me on this if you wouldn't mind. It would be insightful to hear how other photographers, and non-photographers for that matter, react to this issue. I am certainly still trying to find my own way through the wilderness and company would be most welcome!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Winter Blend

Although winter isn’t quite here, it is fast approaching, which sometimes makes the subject matter that I love most quite scarce. However, one thing that I can always count on when I need a pick me up is time spent in a nearby shrub swamp.

I love freshwater wetlands of all kinds but I particularly enjoying slogging through flooded fields, swamps and creeks. This is something that I share in common with author David M. Carroll. I recently spent a morning photographing sparrows and hermit thrushes, which find the shrub swamp a rich resource for food in the leaner months.

I’m always amazed at how cunning birds can be when they don’t want to be noticed and sparrows are no exception. Although there aren’t too many birds friendlier to man than sparrows –perhaps with the exception of the Kea– these small passerines are amazing at blending into their surroundings and sitting in loose vegetation mere feet from an onlooker without being detected.

There are a lot of photographers who prefer to produce tightly cropped images of birds (often employing the derogatively termed “bird-on-a-stick” approach) but I enjoy showing a bit of habitat whenever possible. I was first inspired to do this many years ago after seeing a 'small in the frame' photograph by Chris Gommersall of a male winchat perched on the end of a long stalk of grass. To my eyes it was pure poetry.

Perhaps in a less poetic photograph, the small song sparrow featured in the image above happily made its way through the grasses and frost covered leaves appearing to be quite unconcerned about my presence. I wanted to showcase its ability to cryptically blend into its surroundings while foraging. I couldn’t have asked for better company on a cold, frosty morning!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Digital Graffiti

I've often wondered why people through the ages, from cultures all around the world, have found it compelling to write their names on buildings, trees, rock walls and other public spaces. This isn't a new phenomena to be certain.

I've witnessed Maori graffiti in New Zealand and Native American carvings estimated to be nearly a thousand years old just minutes from my home. Other examples show up in Mulka's Cave in Hyden, Western Australia and we've all heard of France's famous Lascaux.

What is the driving force that compels mankind to strive for a lasting legacy; to carve expressions of puppy-love into the bark of the biggest beech tree? In many instances –especially in times past– I'm sure these things were done to stake a territorial claim not unlike the Vogelkop bower bird of New Guinea, which builds a most beautiful structure to make its presence known. Other marks have undoubtedly been made out of a desire for self-expression of a more artistic nature or for documentary purposes as well.

There is a beautiful granitic outcrop about fifteen minutes from where I now sit that has been painted again and again by visitors. The vandals come in the late hours and cast out their undying affections like multi-colored nets across the surface of the rock. In spite of this, the view is still amazing but I can't help but feel that some of the magic has been robbed away.
As I write, I am struck by the thought that maybe even this blog is a sort of digital graffiti. Possibly my own way of saying "Hello world, here are my thoughts, don't forget me when I'm gone." We are funny creatures indeed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

People Patterns

When my wife Kari and I were in New York last week we had an opportunity to visit The Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, which claims to showcase “18 miles of books!” Personally, I was in heaven but had to soon retreat before my bank account began to stretch as much as my overstuffed suitcase.

I happened to find a really cool little book by Welsh artist and writer David Wade entitled “LI: Dynamic Forms in Nature.” In this quick read, Wade explores commonly occurring patterns and forms found throughout nature. I’ve always been fascinated by the Golden Section but find this much easier to grasp since I am dreadful at mathematics.

Browsing through its pages, I was reminded of just how connected all aspects of nature really are. Regardless of how much time we may spend convincing ourselves that we are exempt from the need to be a part of creation, it just doesn’t add up. That is a sum that even I can formulate correctly!

As we walked through Central Park, I marveled at the throng of people who flocked there to be amongst the trees. Even in a city like New York, where there is an opportunity to feed every imagined human desire, the need to connect with something deeper cannot be shed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Tapestry Unfolds a Little Further

As of late, I've continued to experiment with my 'Tapestry' series. Although it may look like a dreary, photographic rendition of something akin to Picasso's "Blue Period," the actual tone of these images isn't intended to be depressing at all. In actuality, the images are more about the passage of time and our place in it, particularly in natural settings. Risking pretentiousness, I might say that in a way I'm trying to capture the past in the present. Read previous posts about the technique here.
My wife and I were able to spend this past weekend in New York and were fortunate enough to see the Robert Frank's "The Americans" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was familiar with Frank's work but must admit that I was really blown away by the collection. Several of the images particularly struck a chord with me because they seemed to be more about the essence of the moment rather than the subjects that they portrayed –exactly what I've been reaching for in this series. Some images were quite dark, and the subjects were treated as a vehicle to express some deeper emotion. They definitely gave me the encouragement that I needed to explore this experiment further.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let's Talk About Grassroots Conservation

On Sunday November 15th at 3:30 pm I'll be giving a presentation for the Upstate chapter of Carolina Nature Photographers Association on the topic of grassroots conservation photography. The meeting will be held at the Greenville County Library.

The tone of the talk will be very casual, fun and (hopefully) inspiring! I'm really looking forward to sharing a bit of my story with members of the photographic community here in Upstate, South Carolina and I hope to see you there too!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Greenwashing is All Washed Out

The blogging hiatus should be over after this week.It will be nice to actually post some photos again.

In the meantime, read this very interesting article on The Nature Conservancy's Cool Green Science Blog, which considers the ineffectiveness of the current deluge of  "Greenwashing" in the marketplace.  It is time to recalibrate the environmental message and bring audiences back around to what it is truly all about. We have to do more than just give lip-service and make ourselves feel good by saying all of the right things. Believe me, I am just as guilty as the next person so this is directed inwardly as well.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Into the Ether

Some of you may have noticed my recent lack of posting over the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, this may continue through the end of the month. I've been quite busy ironing out the details on a new project, which is great, but it certainly leaves less time for blogging.  In the meantime, I'll try to at least pass on some useful info as I come across it.

I recently wrote a blog-post about camera traps for wildlife. In this vein, I'm pleased to link to a recent in-depth review by well-known macro photographer Paul Harcourt Davies about the Phototrap, an infrared trigger kit, which works well with insects and other small animals.  Paul knows his stuff so stop over and check out the review when you have a minute.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Drives Me On?

Having been involved in the Arts for as long as I can remember, I have had my share of ups and downs. It has been an interesting journey, which has, at times, been more like clinging desperately –and often in exhilaration– to a tidal surge that is pushing me forward and pulling me under in the same stroke.

I have wondered, many times, what the defining element was, that crystallizing event that has defined my career so far, my burning desire to create, to spread a message. Why is it that I was cut from that cloth –however poor of a pedigree– that would keep me up late at night scrawling out ideas and feeding my ravenous desire to learn more and more?

I remember one event in particular that had a great effect on my sense of what might be accomplished: my first grade science fair. I've always had a great fondness for peg beetles (which I called 'stag beetles" at the time) and chose to make them the subject of my project. Deciding that just an illustrated poster alone wouldn't do, I also adhered a terrarium, made from the clear plastic packaging from a He-Man action figure, to the poster with live beetles and a mini-habitat. I must admit that I felt a rush when I walked into the classroom and my wonderfully encouraging teacher, Ms. Alexander, showed much enthusiasm. Winning first place was also immensely satisfying to an awkward and shy little boy. Ironically, that melding of graphic design, art and nature, directly links to where I am today: still combining those elements to tell a story, but instead of a Crayola marker, I'm using a camera to do most of my illustration work. And, of course, my passion for nature has been an equally, if not more of a determining force in my life these past few years.

Perhaps it is an addiction to creativity, there is certainly a rush associated with artistic success and an ever-growing hunger to achieve more. If so, I'm afraid that there may not be a cure. Whatever it is that drives me on has been a constant companion in my life, for better or for worse, and as I write, I can't help be distracted by an idea that just occurred to me. It is a relentless master, but one that I love and hate at once, and without it I would be lost.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Click646 & The ILCP in SC

For anyone in the Carolinas or bordering states who are interested in learning more about conservation photography, it may be worth your while to attend the upcoming Click646 event in Greenwood, South Carolina on October 16 & 17. Cristina Mittermeier, who is the founder and Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers, will be delivering the keynote speech on the evening of Friday, October 16th. A selection of her images, which highlight her conservation efforts from around the world will be on display along with additional images from the ILCP. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Turtle People and the Other Half

It has often occurred to me that there are two types of people on this Earth: Those who, upon seeing a turtle attempting to cross a road, stop their vehicle and safely transport it to the other side, and the others who choose to ignore the hapless creature or engage in even more villainous vehicular acts.

To some, this may seem like an unfair judgement. After all, isn't it our God given right to use the land to build roads, communities, parking lots? What is the loss of one turtle, a cold-blooded reptile? And yet, I'm reminded of Psalm 50, which says: “For every beast of the forest is mine;...I know all the fowls of the mountain; and the wild beasts of the field are mine.”

I found a slider in the road on my way home this evening. It was undoubtedly the largest one that I had ever seen before. Its shell was a beautiful gun-metal gray and the lines that ran up its neck and face were as vivid as fresh paint. Picking it up, I began to count the rings on one of its shell scutes. If the number (25) was anywhere close to its age, it was over twenty years old, making it only eight years younger than me! Considering all that it surely would have gone through to survive for that long in the wild made this one spectacular animal.

The protection of small wild creatures like turtles (or snakes, lizards, butterflies or birds) is such a simple act of kindness. I am struck by how often we mistake our size and station for an excuse to do as we please in life; as if anything other than providence to the least among us is acceptable behavior.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When a Spider is not a Spider

My childhood best friend's family had several acres of fields and woods behind their home. We spent a great deal of time riding our bikes there, fighting monsters (I swear they were real), and exploring. Many great things came out of this magical time with one possible exception: a sudden case of arachnophobia that came on as strongly and steadfast as spider's silk. Before that, I wasn't exactly fond of spiders but I certainly didn't have such an adverse reaction to them. Like millions of people around the world, an ancient distrust of eight legged creatures sprang to life in my psyche that seemed to be unshakable.

It happened like this:

One normal afternoon my friend and I –both around 10 years old at the time– were in the woods hunting down a large white gorilla that had somehow managed to find its way South Carolina. We began to follow a meandering creek deep into the forest when suddenly, we noticed the top of the great ape's head barely peaking up over the side of an overturned tree. In an instance, adrenaline began to course through our veins and decided that perhaps that day was not the best one to confront the beast. Abandoning our swords and our courage, we ran madly towards the safety of home. I'm sure that I could hear the pounding footfalls and ape's manic breathing getting closer and closer by the second. Then, in the event that would change my life for several years, I ran through what seemed like an endless series of spider-webs. My head became incased in what I perceived to be a writhing mass of spiders and in a flash, all simian threats were suddenly forgotten.

For several years, my imagination began to grow around this event –like an oyster with its pearl– but this was not a thing of beauty but rather a dark distortion of what had actually occurred. I found myself held-captive by an unwarranted fear of spiders.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time now may be surprised to learn about this little admission (the arachnaphobia not the gorilla, of course) considering all of the invertebrate photos that I've posted over the months. Well, I can freely admit to this phobia now because I decided several years ago I was tired of such a pointless fear when truly scary creatures, like politicians (politicophobia) were on the loose in large numbers. So I kicked it for good. How did I do this? By 1.) Dissecting the fear and getting to the root of what is was really about 2.) Realizing that it was based on ignorance and irrational behavior 3.) Reading about and observing spiders in the field. 4.) Acknowledging that if I was ever going to become a nature photographer of any caliber, arachnophobia could not be on my resume'.

As it turns out spiders are absolutely amazing animals. I am especially fond of the Salticides, or jumping spiders. I must admit that I do sometimes get a little edgy with larger species like brown fishing spiders but at the same time, I find myself absolutely fascinated by them. Recently, I have become entranced by the Mygalamorph species found in Southeastern, U.S. and plan on photographing more of them next spring.

So many people today are afraid of nature in general without any justifiable reason for their fear –other than perhaps seeing warped tales on television. After experiencing this fear first-hand, I know how difficult it can be to conquer.

At one point in humanity's history, these strong evasive feelings likely served the greater purpose of survival. However, most of you who are reading this piece today are so far removed from any sort of natural danger that the time has come to let these worries go. Once all of the wild creatures in the world have been eliminated because of blind misunderstanding, we'll only have one another to deal with and that will truly be something to fear. As it sadly appears, we are already well on our way of taking care of that threat as well.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Just Passing Through

Several months ago I wrote about an image (see below) that I created using an under-exposed image of a deer in dappled sunlight. At the time, I had only begun to experiment with my 'tapestry' technique and wasn't sure where I wanted to take it. Just recently, I've begun to revisit the concept and have been encouraged by the direction and the results that are materializing.
This technique relies on the soft forms and native noise that develops within an image when it is underexposed at a very high ISO. Of course, you can add noise to an image in Photoshop –which I've done with the image of the goose– but to my eye it looks somewhat less organic. Once the image is converted to a duo-tone, the high RGB noise blends together and adds quality to an image, rather than subtracting from it.
I'm compelled by imagery where the details of the subject matter are almost irrelevant, which allows the viewer to focus more on the emotion of a scene or moment. I am also interested in photographically exploring the idea of the Living’s transience within nature and time.

The self-portrait was made in an area of our field where I've found several Civil-War era bullets. I've often stood on that spot and wondered about who fired the shots and what (who!) they might have been firing at. I also think about the Native Americans who would've walked the land well before that. In the great span of time I'll become someone else's ghost one day as well. It is a humbling thought that I hope will be conveyed in this body of work.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mowing with the Dictator

Am I alone in wondering just why our Western culture is so obsessed with lawn care? What is it about taming tiny blades of grass with a rapidly spinning blade that gives homo sapiens such feelings of utter satisfaction? These are questions that I mutter to myself, as I mow my own lawn (or the limited area that I begrudingly do maintain.) Is it all a great power trip, a way to keep up with the Joneses or something deeper and more ancient?

Author David Quammen, in his essay entitled "Rethinking the Lawn," confesses that he once believed that the American Lawn was part of a Communist plot meant to turn we statesiders into mindless drones. He later goes into several very intriguing explanations for the phenomena, including one linked to evolutionary biology known as the savanna hypothesis, which was proposed by a biologist named Gordon H. Orians. In a nutshell, this hypothesis draws a link from the modern suburban humanity all of the way back to the plains of Africa where "savanna-type environments with scattered trees and copses in a matrix of grasslands should be highly preferred environments for people and should evoke strong positive emotions." In short, less vegetation = less hiding places for predators = higher visibility = improved conditions for human survival. The problem is, I like tall grass and only seem to find more and more satisfactory reasons to let grass grow tall. Where does that put me on the evolutionary scale of life?

When my wife and I lived in the city, there was more pressure to keep a somewhat manicured front lawn. Nosey neighbors would dob you in to the council if things got too out of hand (in quotations) and even the good ones began to squirm a bit if one let anything got long enough to sway, ever-so-slightly, in the breeze. Once I let a milkweed grow up to seven feet high in my yard just so I could listen to the neighbors discuss its massive height when they thought that I wasn't around to hear. It was pure joy, let me tell you!

Playful vindictiveness aside, I noticed another thing that began to occur as my lawnspace was diminished and replaced by native plants, wildlife began to populate the backyard, seemingly overnight. First it was the butterflies, followed by the spiders, and then the birds, and then toads, and snakes, and on and on it went. I was the proud owner of my own private sanctuary. Something quite unexpected also began to happen; I began to make better and better photos. Because so much of my work has always been macro-based, I no longer needed to travel long-distances to find great subject matter –it was already there.

I feel very fortunate that our country neighbors are tolerant of my unpopular desire to let the field grow tall – although I believe that they think I'm a little odd for doing so. However each day, as the sunlight strikes the broom sedge golden, or a morning fog hangs heavy across the dew-covered wildflowers, I hope they will begin to see the beauty that was just waiting to be unlocked during all of those years of heavy mowing. Each season, as more new plants turn up, more cottontails appear and more deer hide their young in the undergrowth, the more affirmation that I feel. Then again, I might just be an odd and easy meal for a predator that will never turn up.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Camera Traps–Self Portraits for Shy Beasts

Photo copyright Steve Winter/National Geographic
For elusive, shy and remote wildlife, camera traps often prove to be the ultimate solution for photographing these species. In the past couple of years improvements in trap technology, coupled with more efficient lighting and strobe systems, have allowed for some absolutely incredible moments to be captured that would have previously been impossible.

Those of us who follow photographers who utilize camera traps will undoubtedly be familiar with the brilliant work of National Geographic's Michael Nichols. His images of forest elephants in Ndoki are truly amazing. Nichols' ground breaking work has been followed up by a new generation of wildlife photographers including fellow ILCP member Carlton Ward, Jr. and fellow NG shooter Steve Winter, whose snow leopard images from the Afghan mountains created quite a bit of media buzz last year. One image in the series won the 2008 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. In my humble opinion, these are some of the most beautiful trap-made images to date.

One of my favorite new series of images is by Joe Riis, an emerging member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) who has recently received praise and excellent exposure for the images that he has made of migrating pronghorn antelope in the American West. Because of his keen understanding of the antelope's migration patterns and and his ability to utilize camera traps on the fly, he has been able to make a series of images illustrating this ancient occurrence for the first time in history.

For anyone interested in learning more about the "how-to" side of camera trap photography, I would recommend a visit to the blog Camera Trap Codger, which has a lot of useful info for the beginner!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Note: The following images are from a personal project that I've worked on over the past 2 1/2 years:

It was in April of 2006 that my family first heard the exuberant honking of two Canada geese coming from the direction of the pond behind our home. At that time, we had no idea how much of a part of our lives the pair would be become.

That first year, the boisterous waterfowl only stayed for a few weeks, aggressively defending the one-acre pond against any other approaching pair. Then, one day they suddenly left and we expected to never see them again; for better or for worse, we were wrong.

The following spring, the pair returned about a week earlier than they had in 2006. However, this time, they appeared more confident, and even began to walk up the hill from the pond and 'spy' on our daily activities. Little by little, they came quite close –we were in love. However, the feeling wasn't always mutual. The pair, comprised of a small female and a tall but standoffish male, was dubbed ‘Grumpy and Shy’ by my oldest son. Shy was the male and Grumpy –a very appropriate title– was given to the overly aggressive female. In fact, she was so willing to nip at our shins that we assumed that she was the male; that is until she began to nest.
We eagerly watched the young female as she tossed leaves and soft down onto her back and then shook the nesting material down around her feet, slowly building up a nest over a period of days. My wife, who had never really been a bird lover prior to this event, became enamored by the process and read everything that she could about the life cycle of Canada geese. Anxiously, we counted the days until when the eggs were supposed to hatch. In early May, we saw our first glimpses of the five beautiful goslings that Grumpy had hatched.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Highly Commended, Environmental Photographer of the Year, 2009

I have just been informed that one of my photographs has been 'Highly Commended' in the 'Natural World' category of the 2009 CIWEM Environmental Photographer of the Year Competition. I am so honored to receive this recognition and send my sincere appreciation to the judges of this year's competition. Although this is my first time winning an award in the London-based EPOTY, it will be the second year in a row that I have been part of the exhibit which is presented at a number of locations across Europe as well as in various media outlets.

The purpose of the global competition is to "...share images of environmental and social issues with international audiences, enhancing our understanding of the causes, consequences and solutions to climate change." I am so grateful to be a part of this undertaking.

More information about the competition can be found on the CIWEM Facebook page, as well as at the link above.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Let Children Experience Nature First-Hand

Although there certainly isn't any shortage of wildlife and nature programs on television these days, I have begun to worry that many of these programs aren't sending the right message out to viewers. It particularly concerns me that many children get most, if not all, of their knowledge about the natural world from this sensationalist programming.

In February of 2008, Animal Planet revealed their new brand-image that moved away from traditional natural history programming to a more campy-fare; one that involved 'Monsters of the Deep' or 'I was swallowed by a Bloodthirsty Croc and lived to tell about it in all the glorious gory details and bad re-enactments that a person could ever dream of." As Marjorie Kaplan, the president of Discovery Communications said in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, "We feel a little too human, a little too soft, a little too all-family and not powerful enough," "We're being more aggressive and tapping into the instinctual nature of compelling animal content." WOOF!

Those of us who are parents and share a concern for the natural world really must take the time to allow our children to explore woods, fjord streams, catch insects, raise tadpoles and generally just have fun in a natural environment. With two boys of my own, I understand just how difficult it can be not to panic when your child climbs to the highest branches of a tree or gets a really bad bee-sting. However, the confidence that they will gain, no doubt, from experiencing freedom in nature transfers over to other areas of their lives as well. Recently, I heard that my oldest son is the 'go-to' person among all of his friends whenever someone finds a spider or snake. Not only is he able to share his knowledge with others, but he is also learning how to become a leader.

T.V. is fine – we love all of Sir David Attenborough's programs – but nothing will ever take the place of just letting kids run wild and discover The Life in the Undergrowth of their own backyards. Don't let Animal Planet, and other stations with similar shows, taint your children's view of what the outdoors are really all about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Conserve A Legacy: Cover Draft

If anyone has been wondering why I've been so slack on posting lately –I can just feel the vibes– it is because I've been in the trenches completing the layout & design for the book that I've been making images for over the past 1 1/2 years. The book, which has now been titled, "Conserve a Legacy: Natural Lands & Waters in South Carolina" is going to the publisher–Mountain Trail Press– later this week if all of the stars align properly. Can I tell you just how happy I will be when that happens? :) Seriously, the book looks really good. I sincerely hope that readers will take notice of all of the amazing things that the SC Conservation Bank has been able to accomplish over the past 4 years. The bank needs everyone's support in these difficult financial times. In addition to my photos, the book also features images by Thomas Wyche, Richard Bernabe and Greg Kiniry to name a few.

To prove that I've actually been doing something other than chasing bugs in the backyard, I've attached a fairly complete draft of the front cover; I hope you like it. Once this goes out, things should slow down a bit and I can immediately jump into another project, which I can then use as a new excuse for not posting regularly.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Project Ends on the Black River

I thought that I would write a quick post to let you all know what I've been up to. I made my last last picture for the South Carolina Conservation Bank book this weekend. The property in question was located on the incredibly beautiful Black River; a South Carolina state Scenic river found in Georgetown county along the coast. The book is divided up into the four geographic regions of the Palmetto State: Piedmont, Central, Pee Dee & Coastal. Like the Black River site, most of the properties that I photographed for the book are found in coastal SC. This was a really great educational experience for me because I live, and usually shoot, in the Piedmont.

The Black River was one of the most hauntingly beautiful places that I've ever had the privilege of photographing. Now that I've fallen under its spell, I am certain that I will be spending more time there. I would really like to spend some time photographing the wide variety of flora & fauna that thrives along its banks and the riparian corridor that surrounds it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bogged Down in Beauty

The post was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of the now deceased South Carolina Magazine. For three years I wrote a column for the magazine called "Our Wild State." In the future, I'll be sharing several of those pieces with you all. You're probably asking yourself right now, just how did I get so lucky?

The incredible tenacity of nature never ceases to amaze me. Regardless of natural environment or circumstance, life tends to find ingenious ways, not only to survive, but to flourish. I can think of no better living testimony to this than the communities found in South Carolina's bogs. It is here, among the sphagnum and peat, that a truly incredible group of plants thrive in the face of adversity.

There is just something about carnivorous plants that seems to capture the popular imagination. Since the time of their discovery, the Palmetto State's wide array of “meat-eaters” have been a subject of much discussion. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they exhibit behaviors primarily only found within the animal kingdom, or that their alien-like appearances are so beautifully bizarre. In the end, we are simply drawn in by their charms much like the very prey that they seek.
Although many species of plants world-wide are considered to be carnivorous, arguably the most famous member of this clan – The Venus' fly trap (Deonaea muscipula) – is found solely along the Carolina coastline. The first formal announcement of the discovery of this species to the western world came on April 2nd, 1759 in a letter written by the famed botanist William Bartram. In it he writes, “We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon anything that touches it.” Over two hundred years later, we are still fascinated by this discovery. These fly traps are triggered by sensitive hairs found on highly modified leaves. When an insect brushes against these hairs, the leaf quickly folds, trapping the creature inside. Over a period of time digestion takes place.

In South Carolina, carnivorous plants are not limited to coastal and Low Country areas. In the mountains of the Upstate several species thrive in special bog-like areas called “cataract bogs.” One of the most unique examples is the very rare Mountain Sweet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia jonesii) which only occurs in a handful of locations in the mountains of SC and NC. Pitcher plants are considered to be passive traps because they do not use movement to trap insects. Instead, they rely on large funnel-shaped leaves which are filled with digestive juices that dissolve the creature over time. Other pitcher plants found across our state include Frog Breeches (S. purpurea), and Yellow Trumpets (S. flava).
Contrary to what one might think, carnivorous plants don't just rely on the insects and small animals that they capture for nutrition. Their traps, which are comprised of modified leaves, actually employ photosynthesis just like everyday trees and shrubs do. However, in the case of these bog plants, the purpose of capturing prey is to make-up for the loss of vitamins which they are unable to extract from the poor, acidic soil in which they grow. The poor quality of the soil results from the fact that bogs receive most of their water from rainfall which allows very little mineral content to be added back into these unique wetlands.

Other types of carnivorous plants include bladderworts, sundews and butterworts. Each of these are very special in their own right and are worth seeking out and protecting for future generations. No matter where you live in South Carolina, the opportunity to see one of these amazing species is usually just a short drive away.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Interview on 'Sound Off South."

I was interviewed for a live TV broadcast for local NBC affiliate WYFF this morning (part 1 & 2). The segment, part of the station's 'Sound Off South' feature, was conducted by anchor Kelly Coakley who did an excellent job of steering me away from prattling on –for the most part. At one stage it suddenly occurred to me that I was on television and I quickly blurted out a mishmash of " like camera...spider furry." Topics include this blog, my photography and the natural diversity of South Carolina's various eco-systems.

I had a really good time and mangaged to avoid the 'Nixon sweats.' Fortunately, I've been told that it wasn't too obvious that my legs were going a little Elvis with nervous tremors. However, I can't vouch for this 100% as my 5 1/2 year old, who gave me the good review, watched the broadcast in swimming-goggles. Since I don't have the stomach to watch it myself, I guess that you'll have to be the judge!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pluff Mud & Oyster Castles

I spent last Wednesday in a spartina marsh, covered in dark, oozing pluff mud and absolutely loving every minute of it! When project leader Joy Brown asked if I liked the mud, my reply was that I preferred it to sitting in the office any day! I had been invited by The Nature Conservancy to document the organization's first coastal SC installations of Oyster Castles – a type of artificial reef– on a few privately held islands near Charleston. Over the next year, I'll be traveling down three more times to photograph the progress of these initial structures.
After leaving my hotel just past six, we headed to the dock and motored out to the project site with a three man crew from the SC Department of Natural Resources. During the short trip, I saw a small shark skirting the edge of the marsh, brown pelicans and just missed seeing an alligator riding a wake of its own across the channel. The morning was gorgeous, cool and foggy; perfect lighting for this type of shoot.
Upon disembarking from vessel, I promptly threw any apparent caution to the wind and stepped into a very unstable spot on the island; instantly sinking up to my knees into the concrete-like mud. Comedians seem to crawl out of the woodwork in moments like this and Joy asked me if I could stay where I was for a minute while she collected a plank for me to use as leverage. After barely pulling myself out with a audible sucking sound –surprisingly similar to the sound of my fleeting pride– I managed to head for the water and more solid ground; sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but just take my word for it.
In order to place the castles properly into the marsh, the biologists had to measure the distance from the water's edge to the nearest vegetation and space the structures equally apart from one another. This was done using hand-made frames which allowed for quicker measurements; each device was about a meter long. Joy would call out how many 'flips' it took to get to the vegetation and this was recorded for later calculations.
The Oyster Castles were constructed from giant concrete blocks, similar to over-sized LEGO pieces. Each block was composed of quite of bit of natural material such as shell and limestone so that eventually, they would be taken over by the marine life that the structures are created to house. At one point, I felt slightly guilty for not carrying the heavy blocks into the water's edge but, hey, someone has to document this stuff, right?
As the morning ended, I felt incredibly grateful to be allowed to witness this really important coastal restoration project and am looking for to heading down again later this summer. Next time, I'm hoping to focus on the fauna of the marsh-edge and the new life that we hope will be clinging to these palaces by the sea.