December 29, 2009

Cat Ppalu, Northern Exumas, Bahamas

While I have spent many years in the Bahamas, it wasn't until Thanksgiving week last month I had the chance to explore the Northern Exumas. Accessible only by boat, the ideal way to do it is by an extended stay on a live-aboard vessel.

In this case, it was via the Cat Ppalu, a 65 foot catamaran, on assignment to do some promo images. Sleep, eat, dive and explore - a four man crew, ten guests, six days on the water, what could be better? Exploring the northern cays is a rare experience. Isolated and essentially uninhabited, visited only by the most dedicated travelers, they offer a taste of the Bahamas reflecting the essence of the true Bahamian island life.

The elements included the indigenous Bahamian Rock Iguanas on the Allen Cays and Leaf Cay, Schooling Horse-eye Jack along with toothy sharks and fearless Black Grouper on Danger and Amberjack Reefs, the protected areas of the Exumas Land and Sea Park, trails through the shallow hills and valleys of Warderick Wells, a former drug smuggling plane in just ten feet of water off Norman's Cay along with a true history of pirates, buccaneers and a full roster of other ne'er-do-wells.  Ahhh, the islands!  Even given a week packed with activities, I barely scraped the surface.

My hands-down favorite dive site was Jeep Reef off Hall's Pond Cay. Named for its signature WWII jeep (which has to have been sitting on the bottom for at least thirty years) - ridiculously overgrown with corals and sponges, but with frame and wheels still showing - the entire area is one of the healthiest reefs I have seen in years. Located on the southwest side of the cay with a max depth of 30 foot, subject to high current flow and diveable only at slack tide, the reef benefits from a great flow of nutrients and it shows! High profile healthy coral heads, a varied selection of large and colorful sponges, great fish life - this is an ideal shallow Bahamian reef.

Don't miss a stop at the Lost Ocean Blue Hole on the way back to Nassau. Surrounded by low profile coral heads, she is 150 feet across with that classic bell shape, 160 feet to the top of the debris pile and sloping down to caverns snaking off from the sides at 200 feet or so. A perfect open ocean blue hole!

One week was insufficient, I'm looking forward to my next trip.

December 24, 2009

Eleuthera, Bahamas - Lighthouse Point

There are many hidden corners in the Bahamas, one of the reasons I love working there. So many islands, so little time - that is one of the time worn travel sayings. But, here, it is actually true.

This time around I was in Eleuthera at Cape Eleuthera, a fine resort, shooting a fam trip, a gathering of various folks who sell travel. I was there to document the activities, both above the water and below the surface. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side (an unusually strong west wind was blowing) so underwater time was limited, a blessing as it turned out.

The blessing was this, a road trip to Lighthouse Point, located at the very southern tip of Eleuthera. Several people had mentioned this spot to me, often with different names, always with the highest recommendations. "You must go there, it is the best!". This time, I listened.

Once off the main road, getting there entails a torturous thirty minute drive over a path that is more potholes and gullies than road. The reward? One of the most gorgeous Bahamian beaches one could imagine, powder soft sand stretching forever, this along with a long spit of limestone cliffs that define the Bahamas. The stratified limestone structures reflect the very creation of the islands and include a sublimely beautiful sea cave on the west side. It is a trip well worth the effort and one each visitor should endeavor to undertake.

While a short day trip is fine, preferable for most people, there is much to be said for a longer stay for the more adventuresome.

As traversing the road in the dark is ill-advised, perhaps a tent and an overnight camping trip would be worthwhile (with sufficient provisions, of course, vendors are non entities). The sunrise to the east illuminates the beach and the cliffs with the perfect light and the afternoon sun to the west is simply unbeatable. But, a note of warning, just take a few precautions. Sun screen, aloe gel and bug repellant are essential as both the sun and the sand fleas can take their toll.

So, in the end, would one want to undertake this adventure? Choose between an evening in a fine resort or a solitary night spent under a star-studded sky, the edge of the sea lapping at your doorstep while you are wrapped in the embrace of the Bahamian salt-scented air. It is a matter of personal taste.

It does not matter how you choose to approach Lighthouse Point. If you visit South Eleuthera, put it on your must-see list.

May 13, 2009

Film vs Digital: My Perspective

I admit it, I am an iconoclast by nature. What works for me, I use. I dislike change. After decades of shooting film stock and believing in it - the process, the images, the look. the feel, the very smell of the chromes - the change to digital imaging did not come easy. It comes down to a simple concept, analog vs. digital, a solid physical medium with palpable substance as opposed to the clinical 0's and 1's of digital encoding. One you can hold in your hands, feel and admire, while the other is an ephemeral object which does not exist in the physical world until the final print is executed.

A point of perspective. I was at a major dive operation, assembling my favorite outfit, a Nik III with a 15mm lens and old-style viewfinder, when I proudly told the resident photo pro, "This is my big animal machine." She looked at me and slowly, almost sadly, said, "Can you spell D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R?". Well, it took a bit of time but I have overcome that personal hurdle and am happy - no, thrilled with the change. I will explain why as concisely as possible.

1 - Image control. The latitude of 1/3 stop under or 2/3 stop overexposure when shooting chromes (positive transparencies) means you have to be pretty much spot on in your exposures. It is a great learning tool but so many otherwise potentially great shots end up in the round file. Shooting a RAW digital image allows 2 stops either direction, similar to shooting print film.

2 - An instant learning curve. The ability to review images immediately after shooting rather than waiting until arrival at home and retrieval of the images from the lab, both for exposure and composition, cannot be overstated.

3 - Post production capabilities. Rather than submitting a chrome to your client and trusting the editors and tech people to treat that image with the integrity it deserves, digital tools allow the photographer to maintain total control over the process of optimizing the image, ensuring the very best presentation of the work.

4 - Storage space. Instead of storing slides in slide sheets and binders often taking up many, many feet of shelf space in the office, we store images in space efficient hard drives. Even with proper caution of three duplicate drives, it is a no brainer.

5 - Image accessibility. With proper keywording (I use Lightroom), one can access images in seconds instead of going the tedious process of searching through dozens of binders, if not hundreds of them, trying to find that image you know you have but just can't seem to put your fingers on.

6 - Image numbers. For years we were limited to 36 exposures per camera system on a single dive forcing us to pick and choose subjects. Now, with a large capacity card and flexible high quality zoom lenses, we can shoot hundreds of images on a single dive, bracketing to our heart's content. Of course there is still the tedious editing process but that is a separate subject.

Which brings me to a story that will portray me as either laughable, truly dedicated or simply crazy; I will leave that determination to you. Years ago, when I had only a single Nik V, I used to dive the Frederiksted Pier in St. Croix on a regular basis shooting the incredibly rich macro subjects found both on the pilings of the pier as well as in the rubble of the floor. As it was both tiresome and time consuming swimming back to the base of the pier and clambering up the rocks, I used to carry an extra roll of film in my mask. After exhausting the first roll I would float on the surface in the lee of one of the pilings, rewind the film, open the camera and change film (all very carefully, of course), tuck the spent roll back in my mask and continue the dive. Man of man, do I love digital!

So, the final word. As much as I used to love film, shooting digitally has won me over completely. And, the quality of the final image? All I can say is this. I recently did a major installation at a facility, 24 images in 18 frames (32x46 inches minimum framed size), a mixture of film and digital. Side by side, even with some images shot on medium format 6x4.5cm film, the digital images shot with a Canon 5D won hands down. Just imagine the results with a high megapixel Hasselblad! I have even sold my last film camera, a Fuji G617 (6x17cm panoramic camera) because, after experimenting with stitching digital images into pans recently, they simply looked better. And, the file size of the digital image and the scanned chrome was comparable so ...

Even though it was done kicking and screaming, my transition is complete. I only wish it had happened sooner!

April 28, 2009

How Do I Get Your Job?

Over the past two and a half decades, while roaming from one destination to another on assignment (or sometimes just for fun), there is one question I have heard over and over again. It is not about my photographic techniques, not about the best place I have ever dived, not about my greatest experience ever, nothing like that. It is just one simple question. 

"How do I get your job?"

I understand. From the outside, travel photography seems like the very best gig in the world. In theory I simply go from place to place, enjoying the local culture and cuisine. I'm diving the best sites, trekking to the finest scenic overlooks, hanging with fascinating people and generally being treated to the best of the best. And then there I am, winging my way home (first class of course) to relax, relive the adventures, deliver my experience in images and words and then casually prepare for my next outing. Well, while there may be some small amount of truth in this, no - that is not the way it is.

Let me start at the beginning, how to enter this line of work. For me, it was relatively simple and I consider myself very fortunate. I made my first money in underwater photography in the early '80's photographing the damaged prop of a cruise ship I was working on, this courtesy of the benevolent captain who paid me out of his own pocket.  My  first assignments were done a few years later for Fisheye View Magazine, a local South Florida publication produced by Rob and Robin Burr, later purchased by Scuba Diving Magazine. These early assignments allowed me the opportunity to produce several images which stand out as my favorites to this very day, notably mating Spotted Dolphins on White Sand Ridge off the Little Bahamas Bank and Manta Rays in Tobago.

Within one year, with a recommendation to the editors and solid encouragement from the extraordinary marine photographer Doug Perrine, I had submitted a spec article to Skin Diver Magazine. This resulted in one article the first month, two the next, three the next and then it was off to the races. For the next ten years I did an average of four assignments per month, a truly grueling schedule. There was little time to do anything but travel, shoot, process film, repair gear, write articles and do it all over again. 

The truth? Even with the sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the absurd travel schedules and the inherent difficulties of international travel, I would do it again in a heartbeat. I have never had a better time.

Since that jam-packed period of frenetic travel, I have been published by virtually every major dive magazine in the Americas, contributed to the ad campaigns of multiple tourism boards and corporations utilizing travel/tropical images and published many thousands of images in a variety of venues. But, even with all of this exposure, unless you have a solid business plan and a dependable support network, it is a nearly impossible and unsustainable lifestyle.

Early in the game Stephen Frink told me, in the midst of a conversation about pricing and protocol, "There is no money in the dive industry". I didn't want to believe him but it is true. There is an old saying, "If you want to make a small fortune in the dive industry, start with a large one". Truer words have never been spoken and they apply to all travel and wildlife photography.

For any travel and/or scuba photojournalist, the money is to be made in commercial and stock photography or in marketing your work as fine art pieces, not in publishing.  That is just a means to an end. Each of these are separate businesses in their own right and all require a minimum ratio of 20 per cent field time and 80 per cent office and marketing time. Be aware, there is a living to be made, sometimes a very good living, but it is not an easy path.

Entering the field these days is neither more nor less difficult than it was 25 years ago. While the imaging market may be flooded with sub-standard digital images, there is some very stiff competition from highly accomplished photographers, both professional and amateur.

That aside, true success requires only a few essential qualities. These are passion & belief, the pure love of the work and technical excellence. Talent, vision and a means of expression – these elements, either purely visual or in conjunction with words, are the core. If you have a personal vision and can communicate that vision to others, you are well on your way.

And, above all, you must have perseverance. No matter what, never, ever give up. Put all this together and you will have a shot at making your dream come true.

What is the bottom line? With talent, a vision and a plan, you can do this! I wish you the very best of luck in following your own path while pursuing that elusive but achievable dream.




April 22, 2009

Cape Eleuthera Fish Cage

I just returned from an assignment in South Eleuthera shooting promotional material for Powell Pointe Resort of Cape Eleuthera and came across one of the more fascinating dive photo ops I've encountered in some time, the Fish Cage. The Cage is an experiment in aquaculture being conducted by The Island School, an educational institution with students from grade school through high school, in conjunction with The Cape Eleuthera Institute, a dedicated marine research facility. Both are located just up the road from the resort and are funded by the Cape Eleuthera Foundation.

The experiment? Raising Cobia. They begin life as fingerlings and are raised in tanks until they are about 10-12 inches in length. They are then transferred to the cage where they are fed twice daily until reaching market size.  The cage is located just a couple hundred feet from the edge of the wall, is anchored in 84 feet of water, measures about 50 feet in diameter and rises to a depth of only 25 feet at the top.

Depending on your perspective the Fish Cage looks like either an underwater hot air balloon or, when viewed from the side, a flying saucer. No matter how you view the cage, it is a superb subject by itself or is easily transformed into a striking backdrop for the sponge-laden coral heads surrounding it. The cage is frequently shrouded by schools of Yellowtail Snapper, Horse-Eye Jacks and such with large Black Grouper, Dog Snapper and Hogfish near the bottom. Sharks also make regular appearances and, during my stay, there was a sighting of a group of over a dozen Spotted Eagle Rays passing by the cage.  This close to the deep waters of the Exuma Sound, you never know what may appear out of the blue.

Far beyond the photo opportunities, this approach to mariculture is sorely needed.  The constant flow of current-driven, clean water flushes detritus that would be a pollutant in more contained fish-farming situations. With the fish being protected from natural predators, the final result is expected to be a far greater yield than one could expect out of a natural open ocean breeding program. Considering the stress being put on the ocean's natural stock by overfishing and/or poorly regulated fishing, I hope to see much more development of these types of sustainable, easily replenishable resources and soon. I also applaud both The Cape Eleuthera Institute and The Island School for their admirable efforts. This very well could be and should be the wave of the future.

March 23, 2009

First Stop On The Road

Every journey begins with the first step and this is mine. I am new to blogging and find it slightly intimidating, throwing words out onto the internet highway like crumbs on a path, hoping either to find my way home or hoping the crumbs will lead someone to me. It's an interesting concept.

In a way, I wish this instant communication technology had been around 10 to 20 years ago when I was on the road, on assignment constantly. Traveling from destination to destination at least two weeks of every month, so many stories to tell, so much info to impart. On the other hand, with my limited time at home being consumed by unpacking, processing and editing film, repairing gear, calling editors and art directors, writing stories and delivering the final product while also attending to the day to day details of life like washing clothes, paying bills, working out the details of the next shoot, staying in touch with friends and, on top of it all, making profuse apologies to my cat for my long absences … would I have found time to actually post my thoughts, experiences and feelings? Well, maybe yes or maybe no. I'm leaning toward no as an honest answer.

But, times and situations change and this is the great advantage of having a currently less demanding travel schedule. A little more elbow room, a little extra breathing space. In the new digital realm, there is no film processing and such. On the other hand, the entire work flow of post-processing after a digital shoot takes more time than ever so the extra time turns out to be not so abundant after all. Such is life, what one hand gives, the other takes away. So it goes.

My desire is to make this blog both informational as well as entertaining. I can and will find time to describe new destinations and/or find new approaches to the well-trodden path, talk about new adventures while recalling old ones, hopefully bringing the two together into a cohesive whole. I'll throw in some insight into new equipment and techniques and will most certainly toss in a few satisfying, maybe even exciting images as we travel together.

Will it work? Only time will tell but my hopes are high. Welcome to my view of the ever-changing, endlessly ramblin' road!