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.’
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 or 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 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)!
And then there were the birds…wow! Bonaire has over 210 species of birds.
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?
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!
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.
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.
There aren’t many big critters on the island.
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!
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:)
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.
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.
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?
Looks like we will be going back to Bonaire in 2016!
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: