Category Archives: Travel

Puffins Galore

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After a 30 minute boar ride across the most beautiful glacial blue waters I have ever seen, we arrived at a spectacular hunk of rock rising up out of the sea completely covered in horned puffins. These birds were everywhere. In the water. In the air. On the rocks. The whole island was quite literally dripping with puffins!

These birds are a member of the Alcid family. This is a small family of birds that have the remarkable ability to fly underwater. Upon diving into the sea for fish, they will then use their wings to propel themselves along beneath the waves as they chase down their prey.

After bobbing up and down and trying to keep up with these colorful little bullets as they raced by through the air, we decided to hop off the bow of the boat and set up shop on a small beach at the base of the cliffs where many of these birds were nesting. They were completely unphased by our presence and we were rewarded with a near constant barrage of birds coming and going from their nests that were stuffed inside of rock crevices.

The trick was to try and find a good background. Most of these birds perched right at the entrance to their nesting crevices. This means that the background was so close to them that even photographing the birds with an aperture of f/4, there was a hyper amount of detail bleeding through from behind them. If you want that sexy smooth background that you see in this photograph, you have to remember that bokeh is a function of the backgrounds distance from the subject. The further away the background is, the softer and silkier the background will be.

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Three Toed Sloth on Cover of Outdoors Unlimited

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This year, while I was down in Panama, I learned that a photograph of mine from a trip to Panama last year made the front cover of December’s Outdoors Unlimited.

This is a photo of a brown throated three toed sloth. Look closely at all the green fur on her back – and I do say her because this is a pregnant female. That green is actually algae. The fur of the sloth is hollow which allows it collect water and grow a hydroponic garden of a species of algae found nowhere else in the world but on the back of a sloth. Additionally, you will also find a unique species of moth than lives nowhere else but on the algae that lives nowhere else but on the back of sloths. The leafy diet that these sloths eat does not actually provide them with all of the necessities of life – namely protein. So, they actually supplement their diet by feeding off of the algae that grows on their backs. Crazy!

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red-billed tropicbirds of Isla Pajaro

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This is the lost world. Situated a few miles off the coast of Isla Colon, Bird Island, or Isla Pajaro is nothing more than a tropical seastack in the Caribbean. Monster waves pound its cliffs, shooting water through caves, as salt water waterfalls cascade down the other side. Life here does not so much grow as it does explode from the island. This is a neotropical emerald colored gem set amongst a sea of sapphire blue. Palm trees grow from every crack in the rocks. Vines, or what are technically known as lianas literally drip hundreds of feet down from the micro rain forest perched atop this giant rock. And the birds. The thousands of birds drifting overhead, circling the island like a tornado. Red-billed tropicbirds, magnificent frigates, and brown boobies all call this oasis home. These birds are pelagic seabirds, meaning that they only come to these little islands during nesting season to lay a single solitary egg. The rest of their lives are spent over the open ocean.

I have had the opportunity to photograph the Galapagos variety of the red-billed tropic bird, but my boat trip out to Isla Pajaro was the first time I photographed the Atlantic variety. Its something that I have wanted to see and photograph for some time now and I can honestly say this little rookery did not disappoint!

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Lilliputians in the land of Giants

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When it comes to photographing this poison frogs in the Panamanian rainforest, I like to get eye to eye with my subject. This lets me enter into their world. It makes them leap out of the composition and become larger than life. From this perspective however, its easy to forget just how small and delicate these tiny frogs are and how impossibly difficult to photograph them at times in the cathedral like rainforest. Luckily I have a couple guides who are like the poison frog whisperer’s and somehow always come through with new and beautiful color morphs for me on the different islands. Natalia and Romone, if you read this – I couldn’t do this without you!

 

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The Lovely Poison Dart Frog

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The Lovely Poison Frog – yes that is its real name! A.K.A: Phyllobates lugubris

Look closely at its back. That is a tadpole right there. The males of the species stand guard over the eggs that the females lay until they hatch into tadpoles. From here, they scoop up the tadpoles and transport them to deep puddles where they stand guard until the tadpole morphs into a frog. Other species of poison frogs have a similar life cycle and will carry their tadpoles high in the trees to deposit them into water filled bromeliads, then make the same trip each day in order to provide the tadpoles with food.

This particular species of poison frog contains a toxin that affects the ability of muscles to contract. Your heart is a muscle. It must contract in order to pump blood. Stop muscles from contracting, and you stop the heart from beating. In other words, don’t lick this frog!

I chose to photograph this guy on a light table made out of pvc pipes, opaque white plexiglass, and with two flashes (one above and one below the plexiglass). The idea behind this was to showcase not only the frog in all of its beautiful colors, but to also reveal the tadpole on its back. And no, it was not fun lugging this thing around the tropics!

Isla Popa, Panama.

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Poison Dart Frog – Bastimentos Red

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Based out of the Boca del Toro region of Panama, I spent the last week finding and photographing poison dart frogs, sloths, tropical birds, and tropicbirds (this last one is an actual species). The islands associated with the Bocas del Toro archipelago are some of the most diverse tropical islands in the Western Hemisphere. The Smithsonian calls this place the Galapagos of the Caribbean. And for damn good reason. Basically you had a landscape once firmly connected with itself. Then the seas rose. Valleys became flooded. Tall hills and mountain tops became islands. Animals become disconnected from the rest of their tribes. One big gene pool became many little gene ponds. Genetic mutations become dominant traits. The founder affect reigns supreme. New species are created. Competition for resources becomes intense. New niches are filled. Adaptive radiation occurs. New species are created again.

This tiny little poison frog that science so awkwardly calls Oophaga pumilio is a perfect example of all this. The frog has a couple common names that you may have heard: Strawberry frog and blue jeans frog. The name blue jeans is pretty apt given that just about everywhere this little guy lives they come in red with a pair of blue legs. From Nicaragua to Costa Rica and most of Panama – so the entirety of this guys range – this what you get. But when you enter Bocas del Toro however, everything changes. Suddenly you have frogs that are all red, all orange, all yellow, and all blue. You have orange frogs with big black dots and white bellies, and red frogs with little black dots and orange bellies. You have purple frogs. Frogs that are green on their back and yellow in the legs. You have 1980s leopard print colored frogs, and 1960s acid trip tie died frogs. Some frogs I don’t really know what color they are – as if Bob Ross paused for a moment from creating happy little trees and swirled together all the colors on his pallet and then flicked his brush at the dark canvas of the tropical rainforest splattering specs of a seemingly unlimited array of different colors across this landscape. Crayola doesn’t have shit on the colors of the Oophaga pumilio in Bocas del Toro. And this is the diversity of one little species of frog on these islands. Almost every year entirely new species of poison frogs are found here.

The image is dark and foreboding for a reason. THIS IS THE RAINFOREST! Ever been? Its not bright, open, and airy where these frogs live. They like it dark and wet. So when photographing this little guy in the tea cup mushroom, I had a choice to make. Do I set up multiple flashes, pop on the softboxes, and light up the world? Or, do I try to work with the scant amount of natural light available here, and judiciously work magic with a single off camera flash to give certain elements just a kiss of light – creating a photograph that resembles the forest floor of a multistoried rainforest that swirls around in my mind and imagination?

Imagination wins everytime.

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Westcott Apollo micro Softbox review

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I recently spent 10 days down in Panama bouncing around the islands of the Bocas del Toro area chasing poison dart frogs. If you have ever seen a poison frog then you know they are small – like really small. There are a few species that are a bit larger, but the particular species that I was chasing after, the strawberry poison frog (Oophaga pumilio), are extremely small. Photographing frogs is always going to be the realm of macro, but these guys are really going to test your reserve!

Photographing macro subjects in the tropics means that you will be using flash – like it or not. The light is just way too low in 99% of the sscenariosthat you are going to find subjects. With multilayered canopies towering upwards of 100 feet overhead, a bright overcast day is reduced to the equivalence of candle light inside of the rainforest. Flash is what is going to allow you to photograph in these conditions, period. But the problem with flash in close quarters, especially when everything is wet and shiny like it is in these tropical forests, is that the light from our flash bounces and sparkles off of everything give our compositions a decidedly “flashed” look. Photographing birds at 50 feet away, using a touch of fill flash is not going to be a problem. But shiny subjects like frogs on the other hand can really cause some problems for you.

In order to overcome these issues we need to diffuse the light. Diffusing the light means that we scatter the light around instead of concentrating it. By scattering it, we are not only eliminating a lot of the contrast of a scene (both good and bad depending upon what you are going for) but we are also reducing the intensity of the flash enough to eliminate the sheen of these frogs. You flash probably comes with some sort of drop down diffuser. Many even come with a little plastic cap that you can stick over the flash to cut light even more. However, if you really want to be able to control the light in your macro photography then you need to move in the the realm of softboxes.

I have used a variety of different softboxes over the years – both really big ones for commercial shoots as well as little tiny ones for macro work. The rainforest is no place for a full sized softbox you would see on a portrait shoot. But it is perfect for something like the Westcott Apollo micro softbox. Measuring just 5 x 8 inches, this thing is the ideal size for in the field macro work.

Basically the micro softbox attaches over your speed light (flash) via a couple of strips of velcro that come supplied with the softbox. If you a shooting in TTL then you can just adjust and shoot as normal. If you are shooting manual this is going to reduce your flash output by about 1 stop.

The results are phenomenal. These softboxes are without a doubt the best I have ever used. Westcott is a top of the line company trusted by professionals throughout all walks of photography – not just macro work. The build and construction is second to none, and the whole things folds flat so I can slip it just about anywhere in my photo backpack while trekking through some pretty gnarly terrain or bouncing between islands by boat. If one of these can hold up to the abuse that I put it through when in the tropics, then they will endure just about anything.

The price is more than reasonable coming it at right around $30 usd.

Below are a few photos that I made in Panama while use this micro softbox.

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Also posted in equipment review, Technical Skills, Wildlife Photography

Wild Photo Adventures and Wyoming Grizzlies

bear-journalSo it’s been a minute since I have updates this here Photographer’s Journal. Busy summer to say the least. I kind of have this whole Johnny Cash thing going on in the back of my head. . . “Ive been everywhere man”

One of my recent projects was working on another episode of Wild Photo Adventures. We were actually supposed to do another wild horse show – though in Montana / Wyoming not North Carolina. However, due to permit weirdness this year we had to switch gears at literally the last minute. Faced with the decision to cancel a show, I decided that we could pull off an episode photographing grizzlies high up in the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming.

I chose to focus on bears in this mountain range simply because it was NOT one of the national parks. That meant that we would be on our own. No people. No distractions. Fewer restrictions. So hopefully better photography.

Season 5 of Wild Photo Adventures airs this winter on PBS. So keep your eyes open for our show on photographing grizzlies in Wyoming.

Also posted in Projects, Wildlife Photography

The Leaf Cutters

Hiking into the still uncovered remains of the La Milpa Mayan Ruins in the highlands of Belize, I really had no idea what to expect photographically speaking. The unmistakable smell of spider monkeys lingered in the air around us and in the distance I could faintly make out their chatters. The forest here was tropic primeval. Towering cahoon palms, ancient mahagony trees, and an impossible tangle of lianas (woody vines) surrounded us. Occasionally we would spot a black poison wood tree whose sap is so caustic it will literally burn the flesh right off your hand if you touch it.

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Also posted in Technical Skills, Wildlife Photography

Planning Ahead for a Photo Trip

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Planning a photo trip to a place you have never been before can be daunting. There is a certain balance of excitement and anxiety that goes with this. Excitement because its someplace new and then possibilities are endless. Anxiety, because you are investing a lot of time and money into exploring a place you have never been to and therefore you are taking a gamble in whether or not the area will be productive for you.

With my trip to Belize, a place I have never been before, kicking off next Saturday I want to share a few tips and resources I use to hedge my bets and help insure I put myself in the right places at the right times.

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