Somebody’s Watching Me: Kayaking in the Okefenokee Swamp

The moss-cloaked trees reflect on the glassy surface of the headwaters of the Suwannee River, the trees delineating the horizon and it feels like we’re paddling in a still image, floating on the blue sky colored water reflecting a parallel world. Our kayaks slice through the water and only our wake disturbs the stillness, the ripples long and undulating. We can hear a low, rumbling growl, best described like a deep and prolonged guttural belch coming from ahead of us. Barry and I look at each other, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and against my instinct to flee, curiosity cautiously propels me toward the source of the sound.

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Early morning reflections in the okefenokee swamp in Georgia

Ahead of us I can see large alligators cutting through the water, crisscrossing our path like a classic arcade game of Pong. The low, primordial growling sound in the early hours on this spring morning is coming from them – it is the beginning of the mating season for these American Alligators.

Kayaking with alligators in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp

This is our second kayaking foray into the Okefenokee Swamp (link to Please Don’t Feed the Alligators), this time we’ve put in at Stephen C. Foster State Park, named after the composer of the famed song Swanee River, and located a few miles from Fargo, GA. The park is part of the National Wildlife Refuge, home to an estimated 12,000 alligators, some of which can be spotted sunning themselves on the edge of the river, completely indifferent to our presence.

As we paddle further, our eyes become trained for spotting alligators. Some slowly submerge into the water as we approach, leaving only their eyes and nostrils visible above the water, others slowly swim to the river’s edge, their armored bodies swishing through the water in an unhurried manner, and others, maybe caught off guard, plunge into the water with a big splash, causing me to jerk my paddle up in the air, a natural reaction to the unlikely scenario of being snatched into the water.

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Why does it feel like somebody’s watching me? Photo: Barry Scully

We maneuver our pointy ocean kayaks around the large bases of submerged trees, the cypress knees tucked close to their trunks. The water is swift as we paddle up stream toward Big Water Lake in what the interpretive map aptly refers to as ‘Pinball Alley’. After several hours kayaking, we pull up to a rest shelter to stretch our legs. The shelter is a platform with a covered picnic area and an outhouse and is similar to the camping setups within the refuge’s extensive waterways. Presumably alligators can’t walk up steps? It is, however, with some comfort that we spot a water snake curled in the vegetation just below the platform. I’m still not brave enough to camp in this wilderness, give me a bear encounter any day over a cold-blooded snake slithering in my sleeping bag seeking warmth.

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Navigating between the large buttressed tree trunks

The way back to the park headquarters was much quicker as we drift with the current – occasionally skewering the bow of our kayaks into the thick lily pads for a better view of the alligators and turtles sunning on the riverbank, or to watch the herons, egrets and ibises pick through the lush green foliage for snails, insects and frogs. I focus my lens on one alligator as it glides through the water. Looking up from my camera, I realize that the alligator has crossed my path much closer than I’m comfortable with – the wide-angle lens skews the perspective and objects are definitely much closer than they appear.

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Kayaking toward a little blue heron fishing in the lily pads. Photo: Barry Scully

The next morning we encounter a huge alligator along the edge of the river. Again, it is unperturbed by our presence. Other visitors refer to this alligator by name. Apparently that’s Sophie, distinguished by the bright green fishing lure pierced in her jaw – the lead weight is visible just below her teeth. The park interpreters have clearly done a good job of humanizing these predators in an effort to protect them and their threatened habitat. I had seen these women on the tour boat while paddling, even joked with them on who would win in a kayak/alligator encounter. To see them swoon over this alligator was a testament to the park rangers’ efforts to engage and educate people about conservation efforts.

Watch this short video of our paddle through the refuge. You can hear an alligator bellow in the first clip: 

These kayak trips are vastly different from our past trips through Ontario’s lakes and rivers. Paddling through a forest of cypress trees and encountering alligators is one of the most unique experiences living in the South. Weaving between a forest of trees and exploring this habitat reveals a rich and diverse world that is far beyond any stereotypical perceptions of a mosquito-infested backwater and I look forward to exploring more of these swamps while we’ve got access to these rich waterways.

Painting with Light: A Crash Course in Studio Lighting

After a series of four intensive workshops on portrait studio lighting, I was asked the question what makes a good portrait? My first response was to cite a cliché about the look in the eyes, perhaps capturing an intangible moment between subject and photographer. That may very well be, but practically speaking, it’s all about the lighting.

The course at the Light Factory was lead by portrait photographer Herman Nicholson in Charlotte, NC. By default, Herman ended up being the model and the majority of the pictures are of him.

The first class was a frenzy of different lighting setups and modifiers using Paul C. Buff’s Alien Bees B800 flash units and accessories including softboxes, octaboxes, umbrellas and reflectors. Using only one light at a time, we could see the impact of each different setup. I frantically tried to document each one by scratching notes and sketches in my notebook and taking the occasional iPhone pic.

Here are just a few examples of lighting setups using a single light. I particularly liked the use of modifiers to narrow the light for a dramatic effect. (I’ve included a description of the lighting setup for each image for my own future reference).

The second workshop added new layers using fill lighting and we experimented with taking corporate headshots, minimizing shadows in favor of even lighting and tones.

Here are two examples, one using a white background illuminated with stripboxes and the other shot on a black background. Both methods have minimal shadows on the face. Thanks to the patience of this great model who likely ended up with a couple of good shots to post on LinkedIn.

As a marine and sailing lifestyle photographer, I never had the luxury to use additional lighting and most of the shoots were done on the fly (or on the water, is the case may be). While there is always control over the results, the nature of the subject was more spontaneous and greater than one photographer could control –  weather, sea conditions, access to chase boats are just a few elements that all needed to align in order to capture a great shot. Light is what defines all photography, and with studio lighting, the potential for control over the environment is what makes it so appealing.

While you can control lighting, that is not always the case with the subject. In this case, the older of the two girls was more agreeable to pose, but the younger one simply did not want to smile and a dance of the wills ensued. In this case, I found a more passive approach resulted in an enchanting and compelling portrait.

Here are a few examples of the two very sweet and patient girls. They both wanted to twirl and perked up when they got to spin in their fancy dresses. Girls do just want to have fun.

The final week we were introduced to more intricate lighting effects to create dark shadows and contrast using flags, background halos (a go-to favorite on Wired Magazine cover shots), dramatic contrasts to add depth and dimension similar to Marco Grob’s portrait style and finally, Herman pulled all the stops by recreating Jill Greenberg’s icon style. By introducing fill lighting, shadows recede, profiles are outlined and new, dramatic accents are applied to the image much like a painter applies oils with a palette knife.

Coming into this class with no prior experience in studio lighting, I felt like I was fumbling along and mostly watched Herman do all the setups. Sifting through some of these setups and keeping in mind the concept of light painting, I applied some of what I learned over the weekend to varying degrees of success. It felt great to get my hands on the lighting equipment, and with an audience who had confidence in my ability(!), I went about setting up, adding more fill, changing accessories and adding modifiers to get different results.

While I still don’t have the answer to ‘what makes a good portrait?’ I do know that ultimately I am a storyteller, and while it may be naïve to think I can capture a story in a single image, playing with light can hopefully enrich that story.

As for the eyes? They do in fact have a lot to reveal. If you look closely you can see exactly where the key light is coming from. And so begins my journey into deconstructing photographs. That’ll keep me busy for a while.

Adipiscing Mollis Inceptos

October 15, 2014 photography, Restaurant 0 Comments

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Adipiscing Mollis Inceptos

October 15, 2014 photography, Restaurant 0 Comments

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Adipiscing Consectetur Cursus

October 9, 2014 Flowers, photography 0 Comments

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Style Guide

October 23, 2013 Flowers, photography 0 Comments

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