Category Archives: Underwater Photography

A New Dive Buddy

No long, detailed description of an iconic landscape photography location today…I just wanted to share with you a short but sweet encounter I had recently.

Last weekend, my wife Anita and I drove down to Pompano Beach for a day of scuba diving.  Oddly enough, although we live in Florida, we rarely dive here…most of our dives are in the Caribbean which is close and cheap.

However, we might rethink that strategy because of a wonderful experience:  We ran across a young Green Sea Turtle got to swim with him for an hour or two.  Okay, okay…it was really less than two minutes, but it seemed longer!)

So, my Dive Buddy (Anita) and I were diving on a shallow reef called the ‘Nursery’ off of Pompano Beach.  It is a shallow reef and frankly, the visibility was only so-so.  I’m starting to think, “Yup, this is why we don’t dive in Florida” and I happened to glance to my right and noticed this little guy (gal?) calmly swimming right along beside me…

Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

“Mind if I swim along with you for a bit buddy?”

 

Anita spotted him at the same moment and swam over to take a peek…

Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

2016 Pompano Scuba-275

We slowly swam together in formation like a squadron of old biplanes as I happily popped off shot after shot of our new dive buddy..Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

2016 Pompano Scuba-284 asb

Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

My favorite shot of the day…

But it didn’t take long for our new little friend to get bored with our effort at Synchronized Swimming.    He veered away from Anita and headed right at me…

Story and photos from a chance encounter with a Florida Green Sea Turtle near Pompano Beach.

“Ramming Speed!”

 

For a moment I thought he was going to hit my camera housing before he gracefully swooshed below me and out to the deep blue.

Anita and I hovered there for a moment or two and did our best to smile underwater with regulators jammed in our mouths (trust me, it’s difficult to do!)

Now, this was nothing more than a common, simple, chance encounter.  But I’m reminded of the old saying:  “Life Is Not Measured By the Number of Breaths We Take, But By the Moments That Take Our Breath Away ”

Jeff

 

 

My Twelve Best of 2015

Writing my annual Top 12 blog is always interesting.  Yeah…interesting.  It’s a good word.  It covers everything from fun to frustrating…and that’s very appropriate.  Trying to filter 12,000 images down to 12 is a challenge.  Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to remember the trips I took to capture these shots…those are some wonderful memories.  But just 12 images…wow…it’s really frustrating trying to narrow it down that much.  On, the other hand, I guess it’s a good problem to have, it meant that 2015 resulted in a lot of work I was proud of.   Well anyway, you didn’t click on this blog to hear me ramble…you want to see photos, so here we go…my best work of the year 2015 (in no particular order):2015 Smokies_04_30_03285 3260 blendI know I said the photos aren’t ranked, but this might be my favorite shot of the year.  Heck, this might be my favorite shot ever.  I have huge metal print of this image hanging right over my desk and every time I see it, I seem to stop and drink it in for a moment or two.  Not only does it inspire me, but I always think of the improbable chain of events that resulted in me capturing this image.  It’s a shot that I shouldn’t have gotten, but I did…and I’m grateful.

2015 Smokies_04_30_02492 cropJust adorable.  I came upon this cub and his sister playing on the edge of a field in the Smokies and they couldn’t have been more cute if they had tried.  I spent a few hours  photographing them while hand-holding the ‘beast’ (my 200-400 lens…which weighs as much as the cub’s mom)…but it was worth every aspirin I had to swallow!

2015 Smokies_04_28_00219 blendGeorge Jetson was here!  Well, that’s the type of graffiti I was expecting to see on top of Clingman’s Dome when I was setting up this shot.  I love how the spiral observation tower mimics the grace of the Milky Way.

 

2015 Scuba 17 March 11879 crop2_1My wife and I were diving on a wreck in the Caribbean when this big kahuna joined us and made my day.  I’d never had much luck photographing sea turtles but that all changed on this trip!  I’d be the first to admit that I still have volumes to learn about underwater photography, but even so, my family considers this shot to be one of their favorites!

 

2015 PAC NW 08 12 2628My son and I had an epic hiking trip to the Pac NW last summer and came home with some lasting memories and killer waterfall photos…this shot of Ryan in front of Wachlella Falls is my pick from that litter….

 

2015 PAC NW 08 11 2353

On second thought, I kinda like this long exposure perspective of Ponytail Falls too…

 

2015 PAC NW 08 09 1205cropwm24x36

When I get to visit a location on my “Photographic Bucket List” I rarely come back with a photo I would consider ‘world class.’  After all, when you only have a day or two, what chance do you have to really learn how to best capture the scene PLUS be blessed with weather that makes the image truly something special?  This shot of ‘Thor’s Well’ was a welcome exception to that rule.

2015 Northwest 06 30 451 (1)

This Alaskan harbor seal appears due to the lobbying efforts of my wife.  I would have put it in my top 25 but not top 12…she disagreed.  Over the years I’ve learned to carefully listen when she speaks…

2015-northwest-06-24-656-blendskewsky

 

I have a love-hate thingy going with the Oregon/Washington coast.  I love that the coast line has some of the most breathtaking incredible vistas anywhere but I hate that the weather is often, usually, always crappy.  Okay…not always, but it sure seems that way to me.  So it takes some perseverance and luck to get a memorable image.  On the other hand, since you have to go back to the same spot multiple times hoping for good weather, when it finally does clear up, you have scouted the spot to death and know how you want to shoot it!

 

2015 Northwest 06 20 904

Washington’s Palouse Falls is an incredible sight and I’ve long believed that it would be even more impressive at night with the Milky Way rising over it.  Well, over the years I’ve tried many times to get that shot but the falls are in a deep, dark gorge and it is real challenge to light it up well. I tried long exposures…I tried light painting…  Nothing I did looked ‘right.’  One frustrating and unproductive night when I was breaking down my equipment a guy walked up and asked if I minded if he tried some light painting.  I chuckled to myself and told him to have at it since I’d thought I had already tried everything.  He pulled out the most powerful flashlight I’d ever seen and proceeded to do a masterful job of illuminating the gorge.  I snapped away and ended up with the shot I had always dreamed of.  My thanks to Ariel Rodilla for showing me that I still have a lot more to learn about light painting!

 

Best Photos of the Year

Perfect Palouse

Every photographer should have the chance to shoot the Palouse region of eastern Washington State at least once before they die.  It truly is a land that time forgot (in a good way) and the 360° views of the sensuous, smooth, and seemingly liquid landscape from Steptoe Butte are stunning.

 

Best Photos of the Year

Manatee Sunrise

I’ll finish with the most popular photograph I’ve ever published.  When I posted this one on my Facebook page, it seemed to really strike a chord with folks and it went viral.  Oddly enough, this photo bothers me.  When I look at it, all I seem to notice is that the front of this manatee’s nose is out of focus.  Sometimes being a perfectionist means you get hung up on small details and I’m certainly guilty of that.  It was an incredible moment though, when this manatee surfaced right in front of me while I was taking a shot of the sunrise.  If only he had given me the time to make sure the shot was in focus…

It was an incredible year for me professionally and personally.  I explored more of this incredible planet, met lots of wonderful folks, sold some prints, won a contest or two and got a few images published.  Plus, even after all these years, I found that photography continued to challenge and inspire me.   Even better, my wife and I got my first Grandchild (little London Grace)…which helps keep my photography obsession in perspective.

Life is Good.

Jeff

Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Landscape Photography, Milky Way Photography, Night Photography, Pacific Northwest USA, Waterfalls, Wildlife

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver’s Paradise

When I first began my career in photography, I was drawn to the icons…Yosemite, Yellowstone, Arches (you know the list).  The internet and libraries are filled with info about “Photographing the Southwest,”  “How to photograph the Grand Canyon” and “Fifty Places to Photograph Before you Die.”  These icons are famous for a reason…great photographs can be taken there and as an aspiring photographer it only made sense to  ‘fish where the fish are.’

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Bonaire Bound

But there is a downside too…and that is that it is unlikely that your shots are really going to stand out.  Yes, they still might be impressive, beautiful and inspiring….but honestly, it is pretty difficult to take a unique photograph of Half Dome from Yosemite’s Tunnel View when 43 trillion other photos have been taken from the same spot.

One solution is find a new way to photograph an old icon: a different angle, a creative perspective, something…anything new and different!  You will find this piece of advice in nearly every photography article ever written.  It’s good advice, and I certainly strive to dream up new ways capture these legendary vistas.

But there is another way to take a unique photo.  Find a place that isn’t already well known to every photographer on the planet.

I can’t honestly say that this is the reason my wife and I spent a week on the island of Bonaire earlier this fall.   To be honest, we were there because we are divers and Bonaire is well known as a “Diver’s Paradise.”  I hoped there might be something else to photograph, so I searched the internet.  But even Google failed to give me much except lots and lots of underwater shots.  But I’m an optimist, so I packed my cameras, tripods, lenses and another 80 pounds of photo gear…just in case.

I’m glad I did!

It turns out that there is a lot more to photograph in Bonaire than just fish.  A lot more…

First a bit about the island.  Bonaire lies about 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is the least well-known of the “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao).   Cruise ships don’t visit often and with less than 17,000 natives it is quiet and uncrowded.   It’s a Dutch island and people are friendly but respectful (you don’t get mobbed by people yelling “hey pretty lady, buy my t-shirts!”  Surprisingly, the island is very dry…looking more like the desert Southwest than the typical lush tropical rainforest you might expect.

First of all, there is some fascinating wildlife to keep your camera busy.  Yes, they have iguanas (which I simply love….running around like half-baked dinosaurs)!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Iguana Rex

And then there were the birds…wow!  Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Barika-Hel

For me, a highlight had to be the Flamingos.  Bonaire is host to the one of the few places in the world that has breeding grounds of the Caribbean Flamingo.  Heck, I’d never seen a flamingo except in a zoo….and in Bonaire I saw thousands.  They don’t like noise or movement, so you need a long telephoto and some stalking skills, but where else can you get shots like this?Barika-Hel

As you know, I adore hummingbirds, so I was delighted to see hummers swarming the flowering bushes and trees around our resort even before we got to our room!

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Ruby Topaz (Chrysolampis mosquitus)

The Ruby-Topaz hummingbird and the well named Emerald hummingbird  are both gorgeous and much different from the Ruby-Throated hummers we have back at home in Florida.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon mellisugus)

For the entire week, after our morning dives, you would often find me with my 70-200mm staked out by the flowers near our room.  Other tourists would be walking to their rooms, spot me, take a wary look at the guy creeping around with a camera… but then they would see the hummers and their faces would light up and they would start whispering and pointing.

Oh yeah, they had parrots too! (at least I thought they were parrots).  Right outside our room..often roosting in the same trees as the hummers were what the locals called ‘Loras.’   They looked like a huge parakeets on steroids, which it kinda turns out they are.  Meet the Caribbean Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax, subspecies xanthogenius) .  They certainly had no fear of people and posed patiently while I burned thru some memory cards.

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

The Schwarzenegger of Parakeets!

There aren’t many big critters on the island.

Spotted Trunkfish

Meet Larry, Curley and Moe

The most interesting are the donkeys. Apparently the early Dutch imported a lot of donkeys for use as pack animals.  When cars and trucks became available, the donkeys were let loose to roam the island and fend for themselves.  Since they aren’t native, life was challenging for the newly emancipated burros, but in 1993,  Marina Melis and her husband Ed Koopman, established a donkey sanctuary on Bonaire for sick, wounded and orphaned donkeys.  Now over 400 donkeys call the Donkey Sanctuary home.  For a small donation you can drive thru the compound.  If you ever wanted the opportunity to get a close-up photo of a donkey, here is your chance.  Hey, it’s not photographing Grizzly’s catching spawning Salmon, but it makes for an entertaining photo op!

Spotted Trunkfish

“Hey Pretty Lady, are you going to finish that carrot?”

How about landscapes?  Well, to be honest, we never even made it to the northern part of the island which is the home of Washington Slagbaai National Park.   This park covers 1/5 of the total island and locals told me it had the most potential for landscape photography on Bonaire.  Unfortunately, I really only explored the southern coast and  central part of the island around our resort (near Kralendijk, the Capital).

The salt flats on the southern end of the island are pretty dramatic.  The water in the flats is actually pink…well maybe mauve…well, it changes, depending on how the sunlight hits it.  The huge mountains of salt in the background can make some fascinating images when contrasted with the salt ponds and if you happen to find a couple flamingos necking in a salt pond in the foreground, you might actually get one of those unique images we were talking about:)

Spotted Trunkfish

“Caribbean Fantasy”

Also on the isolated and unpopulated southern coast were the remains of the slave huts and ship markers that are a fascinating but disturbing reminder of a past when slaves worked under harsh conditions harvesting sea salt from the nearby salt flats.  The huts are minuscule and must have been like ovens with whole families crowded into them.

Spotted Trunkfish

The obelisks were built in 1837 as markers directing ships to the correct beach where the salt would be loaded.

Since there isn’t much light pollution on Bonaire and nothing but ocean to the south, I hoped this might be a good spot for Milky Way photography.  I was right!   It might have been a bit spooky but it made for some wonderful and unusual photography.

Spotted Trunkfish

Cursed Obelisk

After my wife and I returned home, I got a note from one of the folks I had met on Bonaire telling me about a Photo Contest the island’s tourism bureau was conducting.  The top prize was a week of lodging for two along with food, rental car and free diving.  I’m not much on contests, I’d rather be out taking photos than filling out forms but my wife encouraged me to enter.  I find it is usually a good idea to listen to her advice….and guess what?

Spotted Trunkfish

I should always listen to my wife!

Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!

Jeff

PS:  I have a long way to go with my Underwater photography before I ever see the end of my learning curve.  But I love a challenge,  Plus the underwater world is alien, colorful and visually stunning. My UW shots didn’t win any prizes, but I’d like to share a few of them with you anyway:

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Spotted Eel

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

Caribbean Reef Squid

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

My wife loves these little guys. They are just plain funny looking. We call them Cowfish but I’ve been told it is actually a Spotted Trunkfish

Photography in Bonaire: More than just a Diver's Paradise

 

 

Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Hummingbirds, Milky Way Photography, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , |

Perceptions

It is funny how perceptions differ between people.  It is certainly true for photographers as well.  There are some shots that I consider to be my best work that members of my family look at and politely say…”oh, that’s nice.”  On the other hand, there are images I’ve taken that I think are just okay but others really “ahhhh and oooohhhh” about.

The shot below is a perfect example.  I took this image earlier this year but I wasn’t happy with it.  Sure it was nice to get a manatee and a sunrise in the same shot but I didn’t like how part of the manatee wasn’t in focus so I didn’t even bother to process the shot for a few months.  But eventually I did and on a slow day, I named it “Morning Rendezvous” and posted it to my facebook account.  And it went viral.  Over 10,000 ‘likes’, hundreds of shares and comments.  More than anything that I’ve posted before…heck, more than EVERYTHING combined that I’ve ever posted.  People started tracking me down to buy prints and it is now, by far, my best selling print.  It’s been published and used as the banner for multiple websites…heck…the Crystal River Manatee Refuge even used it as the basis of a mural they had painted at their center!

I really don’t intend to brag.  But to be honest, this is a huge break for me professionally, so of course I’m very pleased.  It really is great to create something that strikes such a chord in people.  That is, after all, one of my goals in photography.

But did it have to be this picture?  Clearly most folks aren’t immediately distracted by the poor focus…which is all the perfectionist in me sees.

Funny, huh?!

Morning Rendevous

All I can see are those (out of focus) whiskers….

 

 

Also posted in Best Photos of the Year, Manatees, Wildlife Tagged , |

Busting the Turtle Jinx: Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Photographing sea turtles underwater has been a challenge that has long taunted me.  Over the years I’ve had a few opportunities but they just never seemed to pan out.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Honu breaking the surface off the Big Island

Sure…I’ve gotten some decent above-water shots…like this “Honu” on Kona’s famous black sand beach at Punalu’u …but whenever I slipped below the waves, I seemed to be jinxed.

That streak of bad luck seemed to continue right through last week.  My wife, Anita, and I had done some research and learned that scuba divers often saw turtles at Buck Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Thomas in the American Virgin islands.  That sounded great to us…so we planned a vacation with the goal of diving at Buck Island.

Last month, we were in St Thomas and it was finally time to go!  It was early morning when we made our way to the port, dragged our gear down to the dock and climbed aboard the dive boat ready for our adventure!

..And then the Captain informed us that he was cancelling our dive because one of his engines had just failed.  I shook my head.   We were only going to be on St Thomas until nightfall so it wasn’t like we could just book a dive with another company the following day. The jinx was still alive and well.

Some folks would have just figured that the gods were against them and headed to a bar to find comfort in a large quantity of tall, cold and wickedly alcoholic drinks crowded with little umbrellas.  Actually, I considered this option for a second or two…but I knew it was impossible.  Because I know my wife.  Anita had her heart set on turtles and I knew she wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.  As we feared, all the other scuba tours were booked for the day but within ten minutes she had found a snorkeling tour and we were climbing onto a catamaran by the name of “Virgin Breeze”.  No, it wasn’t what we had planned…but at least the day wouldn’t be a total bust.  Then things started looking up when the crew told us that they were heading to ‘Turtle Cove” on Buck Island…the exact same spot our scuba tour had been going to dive at!  That sounded promising but we were determined not to jinx things by getting our expectations up.  But that determination crumbled when we spotted a turtle surfacing for air just as we entered Turtle Cove.

As soon as we anchored, Anita and I hit the water and immediately spotted two turtles about 25 feet below.  That’s a difficult depth to reach without weights and I watched a few folks try…but none of them even got close.   Fortunately, my camera weighs a ton (well it probably tops out at 15 lbs or so…but it feels like a ton when I’m lugging it around all day).  I took a deep breath and let my ‘Nikon Anchor’ pull me down.  I dropped like a rock and within seconds I was face to face with this Big Kahuna:

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“How did you get down here Buddy?!”

I think he was kinda surprised that one of those silly humans flopping around on the surface had actually gotten to the bottom.  He stopped eating, slowly raised off the sand and turned his head to take a good look .  I was able to get a few portraits before I had to head back to the surface…dragging that dead-weight camera the whole way.

I dove a number of times but the turtles were already bored of the guy with the big camera.  They just kept eating the grass and totally ignored me…which meant no eye contact (and boring photos).

There was a small reef nearby with lots of colorful tropical fish which attracted a lot of the snorkelers but I stayed with the turtles as was rewarded with a few more solid images:

"Turtle Planet"

“Turtle Planet”

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

“Dive! Dive! Dive!

I had hoped to photograph turtles near the surface but other than the one we had seen when we first arrived, they all seemed pretty happy staying on the bottom (I later learned that they can hold their breath for 4-7 hours  while they sleep although they breathe more often while awake).  I was starting to think that the tour would be over before a turtle would need air…but then this one headed up:

2015 Scuba 16 March 11727

As it surfaced, I was able to squeeze off a number of shots that captured Anita and the turtle in the same frame.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

In my opinion, these are two incredibly beautiful aquatic creatures

Before I knew it, the crew was blowing the whistle to get us all back on the boat.  Like usual, I was the last one out of the water (a fact my wife never fails to note).  As we dried off, Anita and I caught ourselves grinning like a couple of kids.  It had taken a long time, but we finally had broken the jinx and got our chance to get up close and personal with sea turtles.

The next day, we were in St Kitts diving on the wreck of the M.V. River Taw (we were on a cruise vacation so we scheduled dives at every island the ship docked at).  We were running low on air and about to finish the dive when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  I turned and…you guessed it…another turtle!  Clearly the jinx was totally busted.  This green sea turtle was skimming over the wreck in about 40 feet of water. Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

It was headed in my direction and I  got off a flurry of frames before it saw me and curved away.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Green Sea Turtles grow to over 5 feet in length and this one looked every inch of that to me!

Luckily, Anita had spotted the turtle before I had and quickly positioned herself in the background for this shot.

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Anita has learned how to be an underwater model much faster than I’ve learned how to be an underwater photographer!

Within seconds the turtle gracefully glided over the wreck and faded into the deep blue.

Although we dove another five times over the next week, this turned out to be the last turtle we would see….but we weren’t going to complain.  Years of ‘near misses’ and missed opportunities had been put behind us after two unexpected and thrilling encounters in less than 24 hours.

Photography is like that.  You can plan things to the Nth degree but sometimes they just don’t go the way you anticipated…you just have to go with the flow.  I guess life is like that too.  Funny the things you learn as you grow older…

Jeff

 

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

We have this print in our home. It makes us smile every time we walk by it!

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

Busting the Turtle Jinx:  Photographing Caribbean Sea Turtles

 

 

Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America, Wildlife Tagged |

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

It’s that time of the year again!  Last week I made a trip over to the coast to snorkel with Manatees.  The weatherman said that Thursday would be the coldest day of the winter so far…which ensured that Manatees would be clustered around the (relatively) warm-water springs that abound in Kings Bay.

Although I look forward every year to photographing Manatees,  it is still a bit of a shock when the alarm starts wailing at 3am and I have to haul myself out of my bed, into my Subaru and make the two hour drive to Crystal River.  Sometimes, while making that trip, I start to ask myself if it is really worth the trouble…I mean, I have thousands of manatee photos…do I really need more?  But once I get in the water and the first manatee slowly paddles up and butts his head into my facemask, well, then I remember why I do this:

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

A face only a mother could love? This manatee greeted me within moments of hitting the water. You can see Steve, our Captain, in his warm parka on the back of our boat.

It’s really not only about the pictures:  Swimming with Manatees is a calming and peaceful experience.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

This big fella really seemed to take a liking me me. I got a nice “Good-Morning” smooch.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Sea Cow Ballet

There is just nothing frantic about these lumbering beings and when they peer at you with their sleepy, hound-dog mugs, you just can’t help but smile.

The weatherman was right: It was COLD…and the wind-chill made it even more frigid.  One of the couples on our boat were from Russia (Siberia actually) and even they were freezing!  It was a relief to get into the water…which was at least 40 degrees warmer.  The darkness and silt resulted in poor visibility…maybe 8 feet or less.   But, the cold and poor water clarity were forgotten within minutes…because there were a ton a manatees about.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Manatee Flyby

As usual, most manatees didn’t seem very interested in the odd-looking humans, but one youngster was fascinated by us.  Even though we tried to observe him passively, he would have none of that.  He swam right up…bumped into us, held on with his front flippers and just seemed to have a ball snuggling up with his new friends.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

“See you later buddy!”

All too soon, it was time to leave.  The Manatee in the photo above seemed to slide up to me and ‘wave’ goodbye.

When we got back to the dock, I decided to book a second trip on the 11am boat.  Usually, I only consider going out on the dawn trips because by mid-morning there are usually hundreds of folks in the water.  But the cold weather had resulted in a lot of cancellations, so I figured..what the heck, I’m already here.

Two German tourists from Hamburg were the only customers other than me on the next boat.  It was still pretty chilly (“Sehr Kalt!” according to one of my compatriots).   Although most tour boats inevitably head over to Three Sisters Spring, our Captain decided to try a  less crowded spot:  Jurassic Spring.   He was right…we were the only boat there.

There was plenty of sunlight, but the Manatees had stirred up tons of silt.  The good news is that this did enhance the sunbeams in the water and I was able to get some interesting shots.

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Underwater Godrays

Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

“Monet Manatee” The particulates in the water almost make this shot appear to be impressionistic.

Unfortunately none of these manatee had a fascination with people.  Since government regulations prohibit you from pursuing or approaching them, I had to patiently wait for them to come to me.  The cold water soon sent the Germans back to the boat for hot chocolate.  I stuck it out another hour trying to capture a last portrait or two before I joined them.

As I reviewed my photos the next day, I was initially pretty disappointed.  In the past, I’ve been spoiled by photographing manatees in the crystal clear waters of the Three Sisters Spring.  But there was so much silt in these shots that I had to instead concentrate on playing with the the moody ambiance created by the backscatter and particulates in the river.  Once I made that mental transformation I started to have more success processing my shots and ended up with some that are now among my favorite manatee portraits.  Funny how those initial impressions can be so wrong.

Take care!
Jeff

 

PS:  If you would like to learn more about how to photograph manatees, take a look at my Manatee Photography Guide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Crystal River Manatee Photography Trip

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees Tagged , , , |

And now for something completely different…

Ever since I can remember, folks have told my wife (Anita) and I that we “don’t act our age.”

I haven't changed a bit in the last 30 years...right?!

I haven’t changed a bit in the last 30 years…right?!

I’ve always taken that as a compliment even though I’m pretty sure that’s not how it was always intended!

I mention this because last month, Anita suggested we get  SCUBA licenses.  A lot of folks get SCUBA certified, so that’s not that unusual…but Anita and I aren’t kids anymore.  In fact, we had already had gotten certified a while ago (okay, it was three decades ago) before kids and careers had engulfed our lives.  In fact, I found it pretty funny that our new SCUBA instructor hadn’t even been born when I earned my first SCUBA certification in 1985.

Anyway, Anita and I just got back from a cruise to the Caribbean and we went diving every time the ship hit a new port.   Not only did we get to indulge our new SCUBA hobby in some wonderfully exotic locations, but I got to do some underwater photography that I’d like to share with you.

There were certainly some strange critters  to see.

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 And the colors…wow, all you need is a strobe…and then some of the colors you see are just unworldly:

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There was drama:

"Looking for Lunch"

“Looking for Lunch”

Underwater caves:

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Not exactly Bryce Canyon…but pretty cool just the same!

Sponges and fans:

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And all kinds of colorful, vibrant and beautiful fish:

2014 Cruise 18 November 08315 crop2014 Cruise 17 November 08020 croppsd2014 Cruise 18 November 08247 crop2014 Cruise 17 November 08118

One of the things I love about photography is that it just never gets old.  I mean there is just so much beauty in the world, in so many different places and much of it requires that you learn new techniques or master new equipment.   For example, although I’ve done quite a bit of photography while snorkeling,  I found that underwater photography while scuba diving to be much different.  Now I’m excited to have a whole new world to explore!

Not all of my photos from this trip were taken underwater…

2014 2014 Cruise 22 November 08752

Tugboat heading out of Tampa Harbor

2014 2014 Cruise 20 November 08723

“Prepare to be Boarded!”

And one last photo…  Anita and I were grabbing some lunch in Grand Cayman when we noticed a rooster running down the sidewalk.  It started heading toward a KFC.  Anita and I looked at each other and without a word she herded the beast toward the sign while I snapped off this shot:2014 2014 Cruise 20 November 08705

Life should have good smile in it at least once a day!
Take care,

Jeff

 

 

Also posted in Caribbean/Central & South America Tagged |

2014 Manatee Photography: Tips and Suggestions

Those of you that subscribe to my blog know that I’ve been photographing Manatees for years.  Every winter, I look forward to the Manatees returning to Crystal River and my chance to interact and photograph these gentle giants.  And every year, I  learn a few tidbits that help me take better photographs (who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks?!).  In today’s blog, I’d like to share with you the best of my 2014 manatee photographs as well as my learnings, tips and suggestions.

 

Manatee Photography: Tips and GuideBefore we get started, if you are looking for an in-depth review of how to photograph manatees, check out this article I wrote last year.

My first tip of 2014: Book your tour with Birds Underwater

In the past, I haven’t recommended a specific tour company…because over the years I had found them all pretty much the same.  However, this year I took two trips with Bird’s Underwater and I was incredibly impressed.  They’ve been in business for quite a while and somehow manage to combine all the best aspects of the other tours with none of the downsides…and their pricing is competitive as well ($45/per person in March of 2014).  I’m not the only one who thinks highly of them, they also have an excellent Trip Advisor rating.  Here is a link to their website.  And…no, I (unfortunately) don’t get any kickbacks/discounts for this recommendation:)Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

Buy an underwater housing for your DSLR

Although you can get solid quality manatee photos from a waterproof point n shoot camera (which is what I’ve recommended in previous posts), I finally broke down last year and bought a Ikelite underwater housing for my old Nikon D700.  Although I got it used on eBay for half of the retail price, it still wasn’t exactly cheap.  But, I have to admit that using a DSLR provides a significant advantage.

When combined with a 15mm fisheye and an 8″ dome,  you can get truly remarkable shots of Manatees with a technique known as CFWA (Close Focus Wide Angle).  Since manatees will come right up to you (heck, they will bump you!), CFWA is perfect for this type of photography (I wouldn’t try it with Great Whites though).  Alex Mustard is a underwater photographer I have long admired and he has provided a great recap on techniques involved in CFWA…check out this link for more.

Shooting underwater with a fullsize DSLR takes some practice.  Over the years,  you get to know your camera’s controls without even looking, but don’t be surprised if using an underwater housing initially seems like learning how to use your camera all over again. The sheer size, bulk and weight of the housing can also be a bit intimidating but it manageable with practice.  Oh, and you will certainly get comments from your fellow snorkelers!

Hold your camera down and aim up at the Manatee.

I photographed manatees for years before I realized what a difference it made to use this technique.  It will allow you to capture the dome of the blue sky in your shot, which makes for a beautiful contrast to the grey manatees and green-blue water.

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Looks like a huge blimp is flying overhead!

The photograph bellows illustrates a photographer using this technique:

2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions

Regulations prevent you from diving below the surface, but you can accomplish the same effect by holding your camera below you and and angling it up toward the manatee..

Try to capture sunbeams streaming thru the water.

I think sunbeams are a magical enhancement in a manatee portrait.  Although silt in the water doesn’t help the clarity of your photos, it does enhance the sunbeams. Position yourself with the sun nearly in front of you and you should have some luck.

2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions

 Try Off Camera Flash

Using a flash attached to your underwater housing (not the one on your camera) is a tremendous advantage, for a few reasons:

  1. First of all, by moving the flash away from your lens, you deemphasize the ‘backscatter’ of the silt suspended in the water.
  2. It also helps you illuminate the bulk of the manatee and give it a more 3-D appearance.
  3. Finally, when it is overcast and/or visibility is murky…a strobe will cut thru the gloom and help you finish your day with some usuable shots that wouldn’t have been possible otherwiseManatee Photography: Tips and Guide

Be Aware of New Manatee Laws & Regulations

The laws and regulations that protect Manatees from over-enthusiastic tourists (and photographers) are reasonable and should be respected.  Not only that, they are actively enforced.  Know your responsibilities as a photographer and be well informed before you go…this video from the US Fish and Wildlife Dept. is a great recap (eff March 2014).  Note that the regulations seem to be upgraded every year…be sure you have the latest info.

A few watchouts/suggestions:

  1. You only allowed to use flash beginning a hour after sunrise until a hour before sunset.  This means if you are on an early tour,  you may not be able to use your flash when you first get there.
  2. You are not allowed to use a strobe/underwater flash more than once every five seconds.  I saw a photographer pulled out of the water by a wildlife officer for violating this restriction.
  3. I suggest that you ask your tour captain how the laws are currently being applied to photographers.  Since there can be some subjectivity to how the regs are enforced, your guide will be able to provide the latest scoop.
  4. Finally, you should be aware that there are those who would prefer that we not be allowed to snorkel with manatees and that all observation be restricted to above-water.  We should consider it to be a honor to be in the water with manatees and be on our best behavior.  It would be a shame if a few overly enthusiastic photographers were to cause all of us to loose this privilege in the future.

There you have it…my learnings from 2014.  Hope they help you get better shots the next time you get to photograph these wonderful animals,

Take care!
Jeff

Manatee Photography: Tips and Guide

How could you not love these friendly critters?

 

 2014 Manatee Photography:  Tips and Suggestions


 

 

Also posted in Central Florida Photo Locations, Manatees, Photo Tips and Guides, Wildlife

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

I’ve just returned from a two week photo extravaganza in Hawaii and I have a lot of photos, stories and tips that I’m dying to share with you.  After the first ten days or so, I was starting to think that my biggest problem would be deciding what I would write about first, but that turned out not to be an issue after my wife and I did a night snorkeling Manta Ray tour!  Holy crap…this was one of those kick-you-in-the-head incredible events that leave you positively giddy!  I mean it was otherworldly, graceful, enthralling, ethereal, beautiful, exhilarating,…and another hundred adjectives that elude me right now.  Read on to learn more about an experience you will be adding to your bucket-list.  This article will give you some pointers and tips that will ensure you make the most out of your trip and also help you take incredible photographs to keep along with your memories.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Just imagine this big guy shooting up at you from the ocean floor! (Click on the photo to see a full resolution image)

So, what makes this so impressive?  Well, start by looking at the photo above.  Imaging laying on the surface of the ocean, at night, and you start to notice shadows moving on the periphery of your sight, then this massive, but impossibly graceful apparition swoops up from the ocean floor, slowly opens its huge mouth and heads right toward you.  Then, inches away from your nose, it turns away and silently glides back into the darkness while your body rocks from the water displaced by its passage.  Now imagine four or more of these creatures doing this same ballet repeatedly over an hour.  Oh, and by the way, when I say massive, let me clarify…many of these suckers are easily 12′ or more from wingtip to wingtip and can weigh 2,000 lbs.   The captain on our boat referred to one local Manta they call Big Bertha that is more than 20′ across!  If you would like to read more about Mantas, check out this link.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Almost like you are on another world having a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind!”

Absolutely insane.  This was without a doubt, the most incredible thing I did in Hawaii (which is truly saying a lot).  Not only that but my wife ALSO agreed that it was the highlight of our trip…which is perhaps an even more impressive fact:)

Okay, I’m assuming you want to give this a try this now, so here are some answers to some questions that often come up:

Is it safe?

Mantas eat plankton.  If they mistakenly get a fish in their mouth, they spit it out.  They certainly don’t dine on Homo Sapiens. Also, unlike, stingrays, mantas don’t have stingers (so don’t concern yourself about a repeat performance of the sad story of the Croc Hunter, Steve Irwin).  Put it this way, the nickname for Mantas is the “butterfly of the sea”…gentle, non-aggressive, no worries.

One other thing, there are two locations that most of the tours go to…one is by the Sheraton at Kona and the other is near the airport.  Both locations are within 100′ of the shore, so it isn’t like you are heading out a couple miles to sea.  If the boat sprang a leak you could swim ashore in two minutes.   Also, the Kona coast is pretty calm so unless you are very susceptible to seasickness, you can leave the Dramamine at home.

Sharks?

Some folks have a real phobia about sharks…but attacks are rare. Your chances of getting hit by lightning is much higher and a fatal traffic accident while driving to the marina is even more likely.  I did an internet search and couldn’t find a single record of a shark attack during a night manta ray dive.  I’d worry about other things instead.20130912_Hawaii_3625

Is it difficult?

No…we had boy and a girl under 7 years old on the tour.  You basically float on the surface while breathing thru a snorkel about ten feet from the boat. Most boats have large floating platforms (see photo to the right) with hand grips you hold onto (so you don’t even have to really swim).  This float has lights that shine down into the water…which attracts the plankton and the plankton attracts the mantas (and the mantas attract the tourists)!

By the way, the two kids didn’t have a good time for the first five minutes.  The reality of floating in the ocean at night wasn’t as cool as they had anticipated.  Once the Mantas showed up they settled down and had a great time.  Obviously folks that hate the dark or the ocean might not enjoy this as much as most.

Is it expensive?

My wife and I paid $90 each.  For a bucket-list item, that seems cheap to me!  Of course, you still have to get to Hawaii…which is anything but cheap.

Where can I do this:

The Big Island in Hawaii near Kona is the only spot in the Hawaiian Islands that I’ve heard of.  However, if you ever get to Australia, Bora-Bora or the Maldives, I understand that you can do night dives with Mantas there as well.

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Here is a critical Thing to Know:

Not all tours are the same.  Some of the folks we saw on another tour were given glow sticks and a cheap underwater flashlight to attract Mantas (their boat didn’t have the lighted floating platforms).  Needless to say, those folks didn’t see many mantas and probably didn’t have a memorable experience.  When you are deciding which tour to take, be sure they use the lighted platforms.  We used a tour operator named “Sunlight on Water“…they did a fine job (no, I don’t get kickbacks from tour operators…wish I did though).

One other thing, I was checking out Trip Advisor and saw that some folks on other tours didn’t see a single manta when they went out.  Being wild creatures, no operator can guarantee sightings, but if your tour operator knows what they are doing and have the right equipment, you should have a very high chance of success.

Other hints:

Most of the tours start about an hour before sunset (so the actual start time depends on the time of year).  You will be told that your tour will be about 3 hours long, but your time actually in the water will probably be 45 minutes to an hour)

Bring a towel and some dry warm clothes to change into when you finish your dive (yes, it is Hawaii and the water is about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but that is less than 98.6 and you will feel a chill by the end of your time in the water.)

Our tour operator supplied a wetsuit, snorkel gear and gave us hot chocolate on the way back to the harbor.  Check to see if yours does the same.  It really is nice to have something to get the taste of saltwater out of your mouth.  Our tour also had a warm fresh water shower right on the deck which was great as well.

Tips for my fellow photographers:

Don’t use a Flash!

Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

Backscatter at its worst…

I know this seems counter-intuiative, it would seem to be common sense to use a flash at night, especially underwater.  The problem is that using your flash/strobe will result in backscatter because of all the plankton (backscatter is a term used to describe when an underwater flash illuminates small suspended particles in the water resulting in thousands of little specs of light in your photo…see example to the right).

The tour operators told me all this, but I had lugged my strobe nearly 5,000 miles and I had to give it a try.  Sure enough, even though I had my strobes set up on the arms set as wide as possible away from the camera housing, I still got terrible backscatter.

If I ever have a chance to try this again I might try to have an assistant hold another flash unit off-angle about six feet away and trigger it remotely.

The floating platform actually generated a lot of light…enough for me to get great shots without the flash.  And since those lights are shining straight down and you will be off to the side, the backscatter won’t fill your frame.

 

Take the first 15 minutes to Experiment

This will be difficult advice to follow.   You will be so excited and overwhelmed by the mantas that you will want to capture every moment.  Trust me that the action will get better the longer you are in the water (you often get in the water right at sunset and it takes the mantas some time to be attracted to the lights).  Use these first minutes to try different camera settings (ISO/Shutter speed/exposure) to get your camera ‘dialed-in’.  It is more important to finish the night with a couple dozen killer shots than to review you work the next day and see that you got 200 frames, but they are all mediocre.

ISO

I shot with an ISO of 800 on my Nikon D700, which has very good high ISO resolution.  This is one of those settings you will want to experiment with during those first 15 minutes to see how low you can keep your camera’s ISO and still have good exposure on the mantas.

20130912_Hawaii_3558

Looks like one of those old WW2 movies with the British bomber caught in the spotlights above Berlin!

Shoot in RAW

If your camera has the ability to shoot in RAW (as opposed to JPEGs), do it.   There can be a substantial dynamic range between the areas illuminated by the spotlights and the shadows and manipulating a raw file in photoshop will give you the best chance of coaxing those details out of the shadows and avoiding the ‘blow-outs” in the highlights.

Use Shutter Priority

The Mantas move slowly and I found that a shutter speed of 1/250 successfully froze their motion.  In retrospect, I think you could probably get away with as low as 1/100th.

Use a fast Wide Angle Lens

The Mantas will get close.  By close I mean that they bumped my underwater camera housing a couple times!  Coupled with the fact that they are huge, a wide angle lens will be ideal.  And since there isn’t much light, the faster a lens you have, the better.  I used a f2.8 15mm Sigma Fisheye and it did a tremendous job.20130912_Hawaii_3537 crop

Try a Video

The Mantas  perform what you would swear is an underwater ballet…it is incredible (and I’m not even a fan of the REAL ballet).  Still photos are great, but they fail to capture the grace and fluid movement of the Mantas.  If your camera has the ability to record video, you might want to give it a try.

Post Processing

Since your shots are taken at night with limited lighting, you will have to invest a significant amount of time in photoshop to develop high quality prints.  A full review of processing underwater night photos is beyond the grasp of this post, but here are some guidelines:

Adjust your white balance.  Fortunately, mantas are white on the bottom, so you have something on which to click your white balance tool and get an initial setting.  I found that a color temp of 11,ooo or so was close to correct if the manta was close to the dive platform, but I had to increase the setting up to 30,000 if it was near the sea floor and away from the lights.

Then use your Fill Light tool to reveal some of the details lost in the shadows and also adjust your Exposure as needed.

You will likely spend some time with noise control.  I had to move the Luminance slider all the way up to 50 or so to get the noise level down to an acceptable level…far more than you would dream of doing with a typical daylight shot.  I also found it helpful to cut the manta out and put it on a separate layer, which allowed me to use even more drastic noise control on the background while maintaining detail on the ray.

 

20130912_Hawaii_3512.1

Here’s a good view of a Manta starting its “roll” below the floating light platform…you can also barely see some snorkelers holding onto the platform.

Capture ALL of the Manta

Don’t come home with shots only of the bottom of the Mantas.  I say this because if you are not careful, you will end up with most of your shots showing something similar to the photo above.  The reason is because the Mantas have a particular ‘dance’ they will perform for you repeatedly.  They swoop in along the sea floor until they are right below the lighted platforms. They then swoop straight up scooping up plankton (you will be shocked how big their mouths are…and you will see ALL the way down into them).  Just before they get to the surface (and you), they flip upside down (exposing their bottom side to you) and spin away.

After my first ten minutes I reviewed the shots I had taken and saw that 90% of then showed the bottom of the rays.  After that I concentrated on getting shots of them during their ‘approach’ BEFORE they did their flip.

One last thing

Don’t get so wrapped up in taking photos that you fail to take a moment to appreciate just how magnificent this experience is.  About 50 minutes into our swim, I heard some folks shouting and hollering loudly so I popped my head up to see a new group of snorkelers that just joined in the fun.  These folks were so excited that they literally couldn’t restrain themselves.  Now, I’d be the first to admit that I was raised with the old-fashioned ‘real men don’t show emotion’ mindset…but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I put my camera aside for a couple moments and let go of a couple little ‘woops’ myself!

I really hope you get swim with the Mantas someday.  If so, I know you will find the experience to be as mind-blowing as I did!
Jeff

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Swimming with Manta Rays: Tips & Photo Guide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also posted in Hawaii, Photo Tips and Guides, Wildlife Tagged , , , , , |

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

I’ve lived in Florida 40 years now and visitors often ask me what they should do when they visit.   At the top of my list is swimming with the Manatees at Crystal River.  I’ve done it a number of times and I’d like to share with you my learnings and photo tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

“Just Chillin’

Manatees are large, gentle creatures that seem to touch an emotional chord in most people that encounter them. They live in the coastal areas of the southern US and through-out the Caribbean.  Being mammals, they are sensitive to the cold.  As a result, every Florida winter they return from the ocean and head for the rivers that have underwater springs which pump out relatively warm 72 degree water.

Although there are a lot of springs that attract manatees, there are only two locations where you can swim with them:  Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.  Of the two, Crystal River is the best for photography, and an entire industry has been built around this fact.  Crystal River is on the west coast of Florida about 70 miles north of Tampa (100 miles west of Orlando).  There are a bunch of small tour companies there that will take you on a pontoon boat directly to the manatees so you can snorkel with them for a couple hours.  The cost is about $50-75 per person and includes snorkeling gear and a wetsuit (you will need it…72 might be warm to a manatee but I guarantee you will find it chilly!)  If you haven’t done much snorkeling, don’t let that stop you… most of the places the tours hit are shallow enough that you can simply walk on the bottom rather than swim.

My photo tips for Manatees:

Equipment

  • Obviously you will need a waterproof camera. Fortunately, this isn’t like photographing 60′ below the surface inside a wreck…you are shooting in 5 feet of water (freshwater at that)   I’ve used everything from a high-end DSLR in an expensive underwater housing to $300 waterproof point-n-shoots.
  • A DSLR can certainly provide better quality and if you are trying to produce world-class work, then it is the way to go.  However, if the shots are just for your own use and you aren’t going to try to print anything larger than 8×10,  then a high-end waterproof point-n-shoot is a lot easier to use and will give you adequate quality.
  • I would suggest that the camera be able to shoot in RAW.  You will need to avoid blown-out highlights and adjust the white balance in post processing to account for the shift into the blue spectrum and having your images in RAW will help a lot in this regard.
  • Whatever camera you are using, practice using it in the water until you instinctively know how to adjust the controls.  I stress this because most of us don’t use underwater cameras often and even if you are using your regular camera in a waterproof housing, you will be surprised how difficult this can be in the water.  For example, the last time I was photographing manatees I was using my Canon S 100 in an Inklite housing.  I practiced using the camera in the housing for an hour the day before the dive.  But…almost as soon as I got in the water I noticed the camera had started a video recording.  For the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off in the housing.  Sixty seconds later the memory card was full and that camera was done for that dive.  Fortunately I had taken a backup camera with me.
  • Since you are so shallow and since the sun usually shines brightly in Florida, you won’t need much in the way of lighting.  Often you don’t need any.  On-camera flash does a fine job when some in-filllightingis needed.
    • Note:  There are state and Federal regulations restricting the use of flash photography around Manatees.  Those regulations tend to change yearly and become more restrictive.  Please check online here and here  to ensure that you have the latest info.  If you book a tour, your boat captain will have this info…just ask.
  • Take a roomy backpack or duffel bag with you on the boat and load it with a warm change of clothes (including socks), a towel and Thermos with hot coffee or chocolate (some tours have hot beverages on board).
  • If you have your own wetsuit (full wetsuit, not a ‘shorty’) mask and snorkel, bring them as well.  Bring water shoes and wear them when you are in the water. You probably won’t need fins and many tours won’t let you use them anyway (so they won’t inadvertently bother the manatees or stir up silt)
  • The boat ride to the dive site can take up to a half hour (depending which marina you start from).  There is a lot of wildlife on the way, so I always bring my bestDSLR with a long lens (300mm or more).  Eagles, osprey, herons and other birds will keep you busy.  I just leave this camera on the boat when I dive and I’ve never had an issue with theft.

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

    You can get great photos of manatees with a few photo tips

When to Go

  • Manatees can be found in Crystal River year-round and the dive companies will tell you you can see them any day of the year.  However, you really want to come during the winter and if possible, during a cold snap.  You can see literally dozens of Manatees on a one hour dive during the winter while you might only see a couple during a full day in the summer.
  • Most tour companies have two or three tours a day.  You want to go on the FIRST tour they have in the morning.  In fact, you should check to see just how early their first tour is.  Some “8am” tours don’t actually get to the manatees until 9:30 and by then there might be dozens of other boats already there.  The problem with this is that if there are a lot of people, they will inevitably kick up a lot of silt from the bottom of the river and this will adversely affect your visibility AND your photographs.  Some tours start before sunrise so you are getting in the water as soon at it is light…those are the folks you want to book your tour with.
  • The least busy, and therefore the best days of the week are Tuesday thru Thursday (unless one of these days is a holiday).
  • The two weeks before Christmas are excellent since most folks are focused on the holidays and don’t plan a manatee trip.  As a result, you will have the manatees almost to yourselves.Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

What company to Use

  • I’ve used a number of different companies and they all were all adequate.  I’d suggest using Tripadvisor  to check out reviews of potential companies.  Here is a link: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g34162-Activities-Crystal_River_Florida.html  
  • If you are looking for a bargain, you can occasionally getagroupon that cuts the cost down to only $25.
    • Also be sure that a wetsuit rental is included in the price…otherwise you might be hit with a surprise extra charge.
  • Personally, I prefer a company by the name of Bird’s Underwater.  They feature an early 6am trip, their captains know their stuff and their price is very competitive (and no, they don’t compensate me for this recommendation).

Where to go at Crystal River?

  1. The most popular location is Three Sisters Spring and this is the destination for most tours .  This location is in a beautiful, lush setting and has 3 springs (hence the name:  Three Sisters),  The water flow can result in very good visibility by constantly pushing the silt downstream and out of your way.
    • Due to its popularity, thislocationcan be VERY crowded.
      • If you can’t be there at sunrise, it might be too crowded to be worth your trouble.  All those people can create storms of silt that the springs can’t clear out.
    • The regulations at this location are more restrictive than other sites (and they are very actively enforced).  The officials do their best to make sure the manatees aren’t ‘loved to death’ and you need to be on your best behavior.  Talk to your captain to be sure you fully understand the rules for photography.
  2. There are over 40 other fresh water springs that flow into Kings Bay at Crystal river.
    • Three Sisters gets all the press, but many of these other springs can yield wonderful manatee photo.
    • Your captain will decide which location(s) to visit.  Let him/her know that you are a photographer and visibility is really important to you.

      2015 Manatees 08 January 09922_1

      If you do have a DSLR in an underwater housing, then Over/Under shots can be a lot of fun.

So I’m in the water at Three Sisters, Now what?

  • The boat will probably anchor in the river near the entrance of a small stream where the Three Sisters empty out into the river.  Ask the captain to point out the stream and head for it once you get in the water (and get used to the chilly temperature:)
  • You will pass a roped-off  ‘manatee refuge’ area that you are not allowed to enter.  You will probably see a bunch of manatees there which will attract most of the tourists.  Don’t spend much time here.  Make your way to entrance of where the 3 Sisters spring empties into the river and make your way up the stream.
    • NOTE:  There are new proposed regulations (January 2015) which would create new ‘manatee refuge’ areas in the pond area…ask your captain
  • There is a bit of current, and the bottom is irregular but your water shoes will protect your feet.  I find it easier to walk up the stream than to swim it. It will take you five minutes or less to get to the springs
  • The stream will open up into an irregular shaped pond.  Most of it is less than 4 feet deep so you can move around easily.
  • First, make a tour of the pond to see where the manatees are.  Don’t necessarily stop at the first manatee you see one.  What you are ideally looking for is:
    • A Manatee that is in relatively shallow water (less than 5 feet)
    • A Manatee that is close to and downstream from one of springs (this will ensure that your shots won’t show much suspended silt).
    • A Manatee that isn’t surrounded by a horde of snorkelers.
  • Often the manatees are resting on the bottom.  If see this,position yourself about ten feet in front of the manatee.  Try to find a spot that has a darker background behind the manatee (ideally, you want to get the dark blue water of the spring behind it).  Now… you….wait.  Usually it will come uptobreath every 3 or 4 minutes rising slowly to the surface and back to the bottom.  If so,youshould be able to get a number of shots every time it does this.
    • Note:  New proposed regulations (January 2015) will ban ALL flash photography at Three Sisters (although not at other locations).  Talk with your captain to ensure you know the latest rules.
  • If the manatees are moving, you just have to try to anticipate where they are going and position yourself accordingly  Keep in mind that you are not allowed to harass them…which basically means that you shouldn’t do anything that makes them change their behavior.  In other words, if a manatee swims right up to you and rolls over, you can rub her belly (this really happens..and it is just incredibly cool when it does), but you can’t swim up to a stationary manatee and try to climb on it’s back.  Please review the official  regulations on the attached link: http://myfwc.com/education/wildlife/manatee/viewing-guidelines/
  • I’ve never had a captain rush me back to the boat, even when I was the last one from our boat in the water (actually, I’m always the last one in the water).  However, be aware of the time and the fact that unless you hired the boat for the entire day, that the captain does have another boatload of folks waiting back at the dock.Photo Tips:  Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

Postproduction

  • Your primary task will be re-adjusting the white balance.  Manatees are grey, so you can usually just touch your Photoshop white-point stylus to their skin and get close to the right colors.
  • It can be challenging to get a shot that has the right exposure.  If you were able to shoot raw, then you should be able to recover most, if not all of the blown-out highlights that often result from the sun reflections off the surface of the water.
  • No matter how careful you set up your shot, you will probably see some suspended silt (backscatter) in your shots…especially if you used flash.  You can try using the dust filter in Photoshop but if that is a bit too severe you can just take a deep breath and take the time to use your clone tool systematically thru the frame and remove the ‘backscatter’.

UPDATE:

  • I’ve added a number of new techniques and suggestions in a more recent blog.  Click on this link to see more!

Final thoughts

If you want to photograph more after your tour, then take the time to hit some of the numerous parks located right on the water in Crystal River (none of them are more than ten minutes away).  I’ve gotten some incredible bird shots here…two weeks ago I watched (thru my viewfinder) an osprey desperately trying to steal a fish from another osprey that had just snatched it from the river.  Just another boring day in Florida!

 

PS:  After completing this blog, I was referred to an excellent photo guide by John Ares.  Check out the attached link: http://www.divephotoguide.com/underwater-photography-travel/article/underwater-photographers-guide-manatees-crystal-river/

Good luck and good shooting!
Jeff

Photo Tips: Guide of How to get Great Photos of Manatees at Crystal River

 

 


 

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