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Bonaire Part 1

Luc's Sign.jpg

It was the early 1990s, I was fresh out of the University of Wisconsin’s anthropology program and I was hungry for some adventure.  I’d managed to find employment as a low-level field archaeologist and was training scuba divers on the weekends, desperately hoping that either career would lead to a life filled with the international travel, exploration, and adventure I’d been craving. In retrospect, I was a bit optimistic about the former vocation, which led to such exotic locations as Des Moines, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Sioux Falls⎯arguably not the caliber of expedition worthy of note on Edmund Hillary’s curriculum vitae. It was my involvement in scuba that ultimately proved a bit closer to what I’d been looking for. I begged my way into a position as a part-time travel guide for a local dive shop, leading groups of scuba divers to the Caribbean. I was terribly under qualified for a number of reasons (including the rather troubling fact that I’d never actually been to the Caribbean) and it didn’t pay much, but the tradeoff for the low salary was worth it: pages of colorful stamps in my passport, and a regular dose of new experiences.

Sunset from Karels Beach Bar (formally Karels Pier) in downtown Kralendijk

Sunset from Karels Beach Bar (formally Karels Pier) in downtown Kralendijk

My first trip was to the island of Bonaire. Located off the coast of Venezuela, the small Dutch municipality had earned the title it boasted on its license plates: Divers Paradise. Driven by a tourism economy based largely on scuba, Bonaire was custom tailored to divers. From the island’s protected nearshore reef system and calm seas to its first-rate dive facilities, Bonaire had become one of the world’s premiere destinations for scuba enthusiasts. I led a group of about twenty vacationers desperate to escape the frigid Midwest winter and dive someplace other than a local lake or murky quarry. I was billed as an experienced guide and as such, the others put far more confidence in me than I deserved. The truth was, other than a couple of jaunts to Canada I hadn’t even been out of the country. I spent a good part of that week suppressing urges to blurt out things like, “Holy shit! Look how pretty the money is!” or, “Well isn’t that interesting? They sell their gas by the liter down here.” or other touristy blather that would have surely tipped someone off to my embarrassing lack of worldliness. I frantically pored through every book and article I could find about Bonaire (a time-consuming task in the years before the internet) in the unnerving and very probable event that someone in my group actually had the gall to ask their tour guide a question about the island. Miraculously, the week passed without incident and I returned to Wisconsin deeply tanned, a bit more confident, and itching to travel again.

Some early photography work from the film years. This small fishing boat behind Willemstoren Lighthouse is nothing but a pile of wind-battered boards now.

Some early photography work from the film years. This small fishing boat behind Willemstoren Lighthouse is nothing but a pile of wind-battered boards now.

That visit to Bonaire was an important one for a number of reasons, but topping the list was that it marked my first trip to the Caribbean. And in more cases than not, first trips to any given destination tend to be the most memorable⎯the visit against which all subsequent travels are compared. My memories of that week in the early 90s are of an island seemingly sprinkled with fairy dust: Every facet, from first seeing the turquoise water as our plane descended on approach to Flamingo Airport to drinking beer along the moored sailboats at Karl’s Pier stirred an intense sense of excitement that has been all but impossible to recapture since.

The huts at White Slave

The huts at White Slave

In the following years, I was fortunate enough to lead similar trips to a number of spectacular locations: Belize’s Turneffe Atoll, Honduras, the Yucatan, and the Cayman Islands to name a few. I even managed (based far more on the people I’d befriended than my qualifications) to combine my two professions and land a job at the University of Hawaii’s underwater archaeology program where I helped map sunken World War II airplanes. There were a lot of places out there to see and I was determined to reach as many of them as possible. Still, there was a draw to Bonaire that was hard to shake and I found myself returning again and again to the island in a variety of capacities:  As a guide, a sun-starved vacationer and years later as a writer and photographer. Each visit brought me a little closer to the heart of the charming island. I met a number of local characters, explored more extensively (both below and above the waterline), researched articles for the island’s tourism magazine, and became fascinated with the region’s history. A few things have changed over the years: the currency has shifted to the U.S. dollar, there are more ice cream shops, and my favorite seaside restaurant, Richards has closed. But the changes are inconsequential for most. People still flock to Bonaire for what lies beneath the water, not for the waffle cones.

A star-crowded sky behind Willemstoren Lighthouse

A star-crowded sky behind Willemstoren Lighthouse

 A few short years ago, in my early forties with no children and seemingly none coming our way my wife Becky and I were convinced that our future would hold more intensive, adventurous travel. Conversations about the Pacific Rim, sailing, Europe and even surfing camp were occurring more regularly. And of course there was Bonaire. It had been twenty years since I’d first visited the island as a young, green tour guide and I’d been returning every year since. My affection for Bonaire had grown over the years, a sentiment shared fully by my wife, who’d logged five trips there herself. It was a relationship we planned on fostering through more extensive visits in the future, possibly even purchasing a small rental property on the island.  

The wreck of the Our Confidence shot for Diver Magazine and Bonaire Nights. What a treat to get on it right after its sinking.

The wreck of the Our Confidence shot for Diver Magazine and Bonaire Nights. What a treat to get on it right after its sinking.

It was a muggy July morning following one of these very conversations when the pink line made its appearance. It wasn’t there at first but slowly it materialized, becoming darker in hue and more pronounced with each passing second. A thin magenta line was a strange, almost comically understated way to inform us that our lives were about to be turned upside down. A second pregnancy test was conducted, just in case we’d somehow misinterpreted the crystal clear results of the first. Same thing: same pink line; same need to sit down for a minute and get my bearings. While we were busy thinking about far-away adventures, one had moseyed up to our front door and rang the bell.

The hulking iron propeller of he Hilm Hooker shipwreck.

The hulking iron propeller of he Hilm Hooker shipwreck.

Suddenly, all of the other parents we knew made it their mission to point out what was coming. In the middle of a conversation, we’d get that look⎯head tilted slightly, eyes closed, subtle smile and the slow cadence of nodding. It’s the knowing look that uncontrollably seeps out of parents when talking to those expecting their first. It’s a look that says, we know something you don’t (which of course they did) and, albeit kindly, you really don’t know what the hell you’re getting yourselves into (which of course we didn’t). And the look was invariably followed by what would soon prove to be the truest of statements: “It’s all going to change.”
“So you had a good time snowboarding last weekend? Good for you…it’s all going to change.”
“The trip to the Caribbean was amazing? I’ll bet it was…it’s all going to change.”
And so on.
Things had already changed, and we were still months away from being parents. They were logistical changes at first; tactical ones:  Like how the desk in the room that was once my cozy office had been replaced by a crib; or the way a station wagon and a sedan now sat in the garage where our Jeep and two-door sports coupe once resided. There were countless trips to unfamiliar stores to purchase unfamiliar things: bulbous silicone nose aspirators, bottles, pumps, strollers, car seats, and baby carriers. There were classes to take and books to read to prepare us for what was coming⎯both of which provided more than enough detailed information to scare the hell out of me. Then, as our due date crept nearer the other changes began to happen⎯the behavioral shifts: like the way I became obsessed with making sure the doors were locked, my constant worrying, and the frequency that I found myself comfortably using (and perhaps more mind-blowing, understanding) unthinkable terms like dilation, effaced, and breast milk expression.
So much for surfing camp.  

Sea Turtle at Karpata.

Sea Turtle at Karpata.

There were a lot of questions and plenty of speculation. Would our lives, as parents have to replace the lives we had before or could the two coexist to some degree? One thing seemed perfectly clear: We either give up the things we love to do or we find a way to bring our child with us. People did this all the time didn’t they? We’d pack diapers in our gear bags, buy overpriced drinks for passengers on the plane irritated by the crying and ask as many questions as we could. Visions of striking off across a coral-strewn Bonarian coastline with our giggling baby in a backpack began filling my head. We could do this. We’d be the envy of all of our friends. How hard could it really be?


After our son Luc was born, this flowery idealism made it about a week before crumbling. It met its demise late one night while I was pacing around the kitchen, a sleepless, wide-eyed infant in one arm and my iPad (displaying an article I’d just Googled on “how to get babies to sleep”) in the other. I’d never experienced so much confusion, felt so helpless or been so staggeringly exhausted in my life. Travel to the Caribbean with this little guy? I was scared to even go to the grocery store with him. Stroll along a tropical shoreline with him in a backpack? I was far too tired for strolling. I now had more pressing fantasies like sleeping for more than ninety minutes at a time or eating a meal while sitting down. Our days were filled with baby monitors, coffee by the gallon, diapers, and incessant fatigue. Could our lives before Luc coexist with our lives afterwards? I was beginning to have serious doubts.


And then I felt it slipping away: the excitement of travel, the adventure I was still chasing, and the small Dutch island that I’d once assumed would be a constant facet in my life. I saw a future filled with soccer practices, potty training, strained peas, chicken pox, and teacher parent meetings. No more stepping off the plane and being met with warm equatorial trade breezes. No more late nights on the pier fueled by too much Cuban rum. No more cresting the head of the reef and gaping off through the saltwater as schools of tarpon lazily circled the iron hull of a shipwreck.  There was just no way all of this could fit together. I was sleep deprived, overwhelmed, and feeling utterly unprepared. And now, just days into being a parent, I was selfishly and shallowly mourning the loss of my previous life, at times even wallowing in jealousy knowing that our childless friends would continue to travel, setting off into the world while⎯for the first time in my adult life⎯I would have to remain stationary.

Moon Jellyfish

Moon Jellyfish

But here’s the funny thing: In the broader scheme of things, none of it really mattered that much: The exhaustion, the confusion, even the petty jealousy. There were much bigger things in play now. I was simultaneously more miserable and happier than I’d ever been before. It was an utterly bizarre dichotomy that seemingly defied reason⎯a real mind-screw. It redefined love: Pure, raw, biologically hard-wired, and in its own way, simple, unquestionable. The sudden presence of such a feeling was overwhelming and more than just a little unnerving. I’d been consumed by it, unconditionally⎯almost fiercely⎯since before he was even born. I would let my passport get dusty from lack of use, pack my dive gear away in the basement and endure hours of Sesame Street videos if need be and it would all be worth it. A few months ago I would have deemed this notion ludicrous. Now, impossibly, it seemed logical.

The ruins north of Red Slave.

The ruins north of Red Slave.

Things had changed drastically from a year before, from a month before, from even a week before. And more was coming. It was nothing more than speculation (speculating was just about all I’d done since discovering I was going to be a parent) but if I concentrated, I could look ahead, beyond the haze of baby monitors, spit-up, fatigue and relentless worry to see a day when Luc would see fit to sleep through the night, to crawl, to smile, to talk. A day would come when I wasn’t so exhausted and confused. A day would come when Becky and I could start stitching our past lives and our lives as parents together.  And if that’s true, who knows? A day may come that I’m back on Bonaire⎯not as a tour guide or a carefree vacationer, but as a father. Maybe it was just a pipe dream, something I’d forget about over time as my new life took hold and more pressing matters replaced the frivolous dreams of travel. Maybe.

But there was no harm in hoping.

To be continued...

 

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An Evening Along Lake Michigan

I don't blog very often about portrait sessions these days...likely because my photographic work has steered me elsewhere and I rarely do them. Yet when previous clients-turned friends recently contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to photograph them for their five year anniversary along Lake Michigan, I dusted off the portable studio strobes and got in my car.

Jonny Pearson and I shot Tony and Bridget's engagement and wedding photos five years ago. Besides being great people in general, these two are a photographer's dream: comfortable in front of a camera, patient, fun and up for anything.

Bridget and Tony's 2012 wedding.

Bridget and Tony's 2012 wedding.

They chose two locations for the shoot: Atwater Beach and the McKinley Marina break-wall, both along Milwaukee's Lake Michigan shoreline. I arrived early at Atwater Park to photograph the crooked docks that jut out into the lake. The docks are frustratingly (albeit it safely) fenced off from the public which meant getting a bit creative with my shooting position. By hanging my camera and tripod on top of the fence I could get a clear view. I fumbled around with my auto focus until it locked on the portion of the dock I wanted, then marked the fence with a Sharpie marker, removed the camera, locked the focal point and added a dark filter so I could I shoot a long exposure and smooth out the water surface before returning my camera to the position I'd marked. It took a few tries but I finally got it right.

Fenced pier at Atwater Beach.

Fenced pier at Atwater Beach.

The final product.

The final product.

Tony and Bridget arrived shortly after I'd photographed the old dock and as always, they were excited, ready to get to work and up for anything. And as if that weren't enough, they brought me a sample pack of beer from their new home in Nebraska.

The weather earlier that day had been miserable: high winds, overcast and showers. I'd almost called to cancel the shoot but by the time I was loading up for the trip to Milwaukee, things had started to make a change for the better. As we headed to the beach for our first images, we all knew it was going to be a beautiful night. We shot at Atwater for about an hour then headed to the break-wall and as the sun lowered, the sky became smeared with beautiful reddish-purple hues and the rising moon began to shine.

Capturing the moon behind the two required a couple of techniques. First, I positioned a remotely-triggered strobe unit close to them, just out of frame. Then I attached a long telephoto lens to my camera (which allowed me to show the moon as more than a dot in the sky) and hiked back to shoot them from quite a distance away. When the image was exposed correctly, I quickly shifted my focal point and exposure to the moon so I could bring back the detail of it during processing. At the beach, I created my own subtle sunlight using the same strobe unit positioned low and angled slightly upward, neatly hidden from view behind Bridget. While the image is meteorlogically incorrect (putting the sun low in the sky at dusk in the east) the effect was perfect and everyone was happy with the outcome.

Our final scene of the night (Bridget and Tony against the backdrop of the Milwaukee skyline) required a much shorter lens (50 mm) and some tricky climbing on the break-wall's rocks to get in position. We got what we needed and walked back to the parking lot as the boats returned to their safe harbor for the night.

I've broken photographic convention over the past decade or so. Most successful photographers will insist that you find your niche and stick to it, practicing until it's perfected. It's sound advice to be sure...and advice that I haven't followed. I shoot underwater, aerials, celestial scenes, High Dynamic Range, and even portraits. I haven't perfected any of them but there's one thing I can say without doubt: I've learned from all of them. And techniques from each discipline have found their way into others. Portrait lighting for example has been a great benefit for me when lighting my subjects underwater. There's always something to take away from any kind of shoot.

A warm thank you to Bridget and Tony for trusting me to capture their evening together. I hope your trip back to Milwaukee was a memorable one and I look forward to working with you again.

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The Lake Superior Collection

When classifying water bodies, there seems to be something of a taxonomic gap. The three largest (lakes, seas, and oceans) are categorized by (among other things) what surrounds them: a lake is surrounded completely by land, a sea is surrounded by land as well but may connect to another body of water, and an ocean is effectively "without boundaries." It all makes sense.

That is of course until you stand along the shore of Lake Superior. That's when you feel like the classification system missed something, A water body after all, that has a surface area greater then Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire combined, that can swallow 700-foot ships, and that can create its own weather system shouldn't share space on the same list as Madison's Lake Monona. I suppose that's where the term "Great Lakes" comes in, but anyone who has spent time on or along her knows this particular water body is something special- something unique. 

Lake Superior Collection image locations to date.

Lake Superior Collection image locations to date.

Last week, when the moon's phase, the weather, the Milky Way's location and my family's schedule all somehow managed to cooperate, I made the run north to the Canadian border at Grand Portage, Minnesota. I've been interested in creating a Lake Superior Collection for a while now, adding to some of my previous images of the lakeshore. There were several things I wanted to photograph, but above all I wanted to capture the Milky Way behind a small, offshore rock islet named Hollow Rock. I arrived at Grand Portage around 4:00 pm and with another seven hours until I could try for the Milky Way, I refilled my coffee mug and set off to my first location: The Pigeon River's High Falls.

The High Falls Gorge, shooting northwest towards the Canada side.

The High Falls Gorge, shooting northwest towards the Canada side.

The falls are located in Grand Portage State Park. True to every Minnesota state park I've visited, it's superbly maintained and getting to the falls was easily done by following a paved trail and climbing a wooden staircase to an observation deck. The problem as a photographer however is that anyplace that's easy for you to get to is easy for everyone to get to. I waited patiently (outwardly anyway) as park visitors jockeyed for selfie positions on the deck. With a dark filter covering my lens, I needed between 7 and 10 seconds to expose the shot. This requires using a tripod that has to remain absolutely still...a feat not easily accomplished with a crowd bouncing around. I finally got a break and took this shot, pleased that my angle showcased the bright rainbow in the river water's mist. By 7:00 I'd made it to my small cabin at Hollow Rock, gotten more coffee and began scouting a location to set up for the night's shooting.

Hollow Rock, drone image.

Hollow Rock, drone image.

According to all of my planning tools (which these days are all on my iPhone and include apps for moon phases, direction and time of sunsets, Milky Way locations, etc.) the Milky Way would be visible in the southern sky and work its way west. I set up facing roughly south so I could capture Hollow Rock in the foreground. Because I wanted to be able to see the islet and not just its silhouette, I would need to "light paint" it, that is to say add light for a short time during the long exposures I'd need to bring out the Milky Way. Because exposing stars and the Milky Way requires setting your camera and lens to be very sensitive to light, I knew light painting would be tricky and overexposing the island, smearing light onto the water, and getting bright "hot spots" would all be likely. To combat this, I put together a very unattractive but highly effective light paintbrush built onsite from an Ikelite underwater flashlight, a Fong strobe diffuser, and a piece of cardboard I'd scrounged from the garbage to deflect the light away from the water's surface...all bound by duct tape.

My light paintbrush: Ikelite underwater flashlight, diffuser, and cardboard to deflect light away from the lake surface.

My light paintbrush: Ikelite underwater flashlight, diffuser, and cardboard to deflect light away from the lake surface.

By 10:00 I'd set up along the rocky shore and by 10:45 the Milky Way was traveling across the sky, just as promised. By opening my 24mm lens all the way up to f/1.4 and exposing for around 15 seconds, I could clearly see the Milky Way in my view screen. With my shutter trigger in my mouth, I began painting the island with my makeshift light paintbrush. It took a couple tries but I finally got it and even in my camera's screen I knew I'd done it right. It's rare (for me anyway) to have a picture I took so closely match the image I'd imagined prior to shooting it but that's exactly what happened last week. Planning, patience, and a roll of duct tape paid off beautifully.

I couldn't sleep Monday night. I was exhausted but couldn't get my brain to quiet down. I had a short time to shoot (three days total which included travel time) and I wanted to process the images I'd just taken--something I won't do until I'm at my desktop computer. I also knew that once beyond 10:00 am or so the next morning, the light would be too hard to capture all the scenes I'd have liked to. I found myself in a place I'd been countless times before: The first day of a shooting trip and already frantic for more time. I looked through images, pored through maps to figure out my next location and finally fell asleep about an hour before the alarm woke me at 4:45. I groggily crawled out of bed, grabbed my camera and got some early morning images of Hollow Rock, then headed out in search of more subjects.

Hollow Rock at dawn.

Hollow Rock at dawn.

Clear skies and bright sun can be a photographer's worst enemy. The light is hard...too much contrast, too many shadows, and skies that are far from compelling. Rather than wasting time shooting scenes better attempted in the dawn or dusk hours, I decided to take to the sky with my drone and get some shoreline footage. I spent several hours flying through rock lined bays and thoroughly enjoying myself. I've yet to sort through the footage but will do so soon and post it when I do.

The old pier in Chicago Bay, shot from 300 ft AGL.

The old pier in Chicago Bay, shot from 300 ft AGL.

I hoped to find someplace shaded to shoot and came across yet another Minnesota State Park that looked promising: Cascade River. I hadn't really driven this far to photograph waterfalls, but I had some time to kill before the storm front (and hopefully some interesting clouds) made its way to the area. This time I shot from a bridge and faced none of the crowds I had at High Falls. I set up, grabbed a few images and continued on.

Cascade River, Grand Marais

Cascade River, Grand Marais

I photographed a couple more waterfalls and tried to figure if there was a safe, legal way to launch my drone and shoot the Split Rock Lighthouse from the air but there wasn't. I was beginning to get a bit discouraged (and more than a little fatigued), when the clouds started rolling in from the west. I was close to Split Rock River and a set of old pilings I'd wanted to photograph so I hit the trail again for the short walk to the water, now diffused by cloud cover.

The shoreline near the mouth of the Split Rock River.

The shoreline near the mouth of the Split Rock River.

By around 5:00 I'd run out of steam and needed to get to Duluth for the evening so I packed up my gear and started the drive. Along the way, I drove past Two Harbors, where a few years back I got an image that will find its way into this collection, taken at sunrise off a rocky ledge behind the Superior Shores resort.

Sunrise at Two Harbors.

Sunrise at Two Harbors.

After oversleeping the next morning (and by oversleeping I mean I crawled out of bed at 5:30) I found myself at a bit of a loss as to where to go. I needed to be home that evening and had just missed a spectacular sunrise (which, when you only have three days to shoot and you're along the lake shore is almost unbearable). I decided to make the short drive to one of my favorite places in the world: Bayfield, Wisconsin and the Apostle Islands. I knew by the time I got there the light wouldn't be very good, but there would be a hot breakfast waiting at the Egg Toss Cafe, and I could wander around the docks a bit.

Like Two Harbors, Bayfield (and the neighboring Red Cliff) are places that I've gotten images that will be included in the Lake Superior Collection. Two of my favorites follow: The first is Bayfield Marina at sunrise, the second is Little Sand Bay at dusk. I've had the pleasure of hanging both of these images on people's walls and hope to do so again.

Provided you have the time and a little luck, there are virtually endless scenes to photograph along Lake Superior's shorelines and islands. I've barely scratched the surface. If anyone has ideas for me, please leave me a comment or contact me directly. Fine art prints on a variety of mediums are available here.

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Sea Turtles

I've always had a thing for Sea Turtles.

I suspect that if you were to ask most scuba divers or snorkelers, they would share my affection...and why wouldn't they? Turtles are amazing to watch underwater: They're graceful, playful, and depending on the individual, are often willing to let you approach and swim alongside them. This interaction can really be a treat and hopefully they'll stick around for a while. Sadly, their numbers are decreasing, the result of habitat destruction (nesting grounds in particular,) boat propellers, and the consumption of both their meat and eggs.

Sea Turtles are air-breathing reptiles and there are 7 species left: Green, Hawksbill, Leatherback, Flatback, Loggerhead, Kemp Ridley and Olive Ridley. The Green Sea Turtle, which I have by far taken the most images of can grow to reach lengths of 5 feet and live as long as 80 years. They've been around for a long time,  sharing space with the dinosaurs 150 million years ago.

In Hawaii, the Green Sea Turtle is called Honu, and is locally viewed as a symbol of good luck. I can't disagree with this assessment: It was nearly 25 years ago that I photographed my first Green Sea Turtle off the shores of Oahu. I was a terribly inexperienced photographer shooting with a borrowed Nikonos film camera. Nonetheless, I captured the first image I ever sold (the silhouette, lower right above) which would springboard me towards a long career shooting animals under the water.    

I've decided to run a small promotion, good on turtle images only. Visit my online art store or simply choose the SHOP ART link at the top of this page. Use the discount code "turtle" at checkout and receive 25% off any turtle image on fine art paper, canvas or metal through October 7, 2016. 

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Jalbert Productions Art Store is Up and Running!

I've been working on this for a while and I'm happy to announce that the Jalbert Productions Art online store is up and running. It's been a busy year for me in the fine art business..something I hadn't really anticipated. Since this wasn't really my area, I found it difficult to display (or sell for that matter) my images in a way that was simple for buyers. It took some work (not to mention a lot of mistakes and the help of some folks far smarter than I am) but I think we got it right. The site can be reached directly at http://jalbertproductionsart.artstorefronts.com/ or by clicking SHOP ART on the top menu of this page. The store is extremely easy to navigate from viewing to purchasing and is grouped by galleries including Beaches & Shorelines, Underwater, Italy, Landscapes, Waterfalls, and Madison.

There are a number of mediums and sizes to choose from (metal, canvas, and various papers) and the site even has a "wall preview" in which you can choose different types of rooms and wall color to see how the piece will fit in your space.

Pass it along! If you stop by the site and join the mailing list on the home page you'll get a coupon code for 20% off your first order (the offer will be good through December 31, 2016.) Take a look when you get the time...I'd love to get your feedback. The holidays are rapidly approaching...why not treat your favorite Wisconsinite, travel enthusiast or scuba diver to a piece of art? More images are coming soon so check back or contact me if there's something you'd like to see that isn't there.

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The Florida Keys 2016

This has been quite a year filled with incredibly rewarding projects including corporate art sales, architecture shoots, advertising work, a refurbished website (take a look around if you haven't already), an upcoming online art store, and the biggest (physically speaking) piece I've ever created: A 26-foot long display for the University of Wisconsin.

And I haven't written a single blog about any of it.

I'll blame this on Facebook, an environment that I hesitantly joined last year. It gave me an easy way to showcase my work and it's been useful but I need to get back to this blog for a number of reasons. And what better way than a piece on one of my favorite places: The Florida Keys.

Those of you who live in the Keys understand its rich history: Hurricanes, Hemingway, and one of the most "daring" road building projects ever attempted.

Then and Now: The long Key Bridge connecting Long Key and Conch Key. The bridge originally shouldered the Overseas Railroad from 1907 to 1935 before being used for highway traffic. The current bridge is used for foot traffic and the new US 1 runs parallel to the east.

Then and Now: The long Key Bridge connecting Long Key and Conch Key. The bridge originally shouldered the Overseas Railroad from 1907 to 1935 before being used for highway traffic. The current bridge is used for foot traffic and the new US 1 runs parallel to the east.

Many segments of the historic Overseas Railroad bridges are still in place and have become a familiar part of the landscape.

Many segments of the historic Overseas Railroad bridges are still in place and have become a familiar part of the landscape.

I could have spent the entire week with my lens focused on the region's historic elements, but I was staying in the upper keys for another reason: The Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.  Established in 1975, the sanctuary provides protection to the continent’s only coral reef. Later, in 1989, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act was passed, designating 2800 square nautical miles of coastal waters from the Dry Tortugas all the way to the Everglades as a marine Sanctuary. Strict regulations, put in place to preserve this fragile underwater environment, prohibit the collecting or damaging of any coral. I've been coming here since the early 1990s when I brought groups from our dive shop to explore the reefs aboard the Sea Dwellers boat. We've all gotten a lot older, as evidenced not only by the sheer quantity of reading glasses laying around the Sea Dwellers shop, but by my need to borrow a pair. Nonetheless, the waters surrounding the island chain have changed little and once on the boat, it felt as it always had.

Great Barracuda beneath a coral head on Molasses Reef. 

Great Barracuda beneath a coral head on Molasses Reef. 

For those of us in the Midwest who endure snow removal, ice covered roads, and the unwanted guest of late who goes by the rather daunting name of "Polar Vortex", booking a trip to southern Florida in the late summer (when the weather here is beautiful) seems a bit counter intuitive. If your purpose is to shoot underwater however, it really is a great time. The water is warm, seas are generally calmer, and visibility is good. And on this particular trip, the sea life was not only present, it was extremely cooperative.

With a new underwater camera housing, rebuilt strobes,  and a different camera than I typically shoot with (I could write an entire blog titled "camera's I've flooded and housings I've ruined"...) I headed beneath the waves at Molasses Reef. Diving without a group provided me with perhaps the single greatest photographic luxury: Time. I scoped things out a bit away from the others then I simply waited. It's a strategy that paid off.

When the Reef Sharks came in, they came in fast. Accompanied by their entourage of Jacks, they swam around for me for a bit, seemingly indifferent to my presence or the bright flash of my strobes. I photographed them for nearly twenty minutes before working my way back to the boat. With 15 minutes before needing to surface, I bumped into another pair of animals that typically are skittish around divers: Reef Squid. Again, I sat with them for a few minutes until they acclimated to sharing space with me before I started shooting. Capturing highly reflective, translucent animals isn't easy and I needed to make a lot of strobe adjustments (both position and power) to get it right. But I had time and that made all the difference. I wanted two particular images: The first was an underexposed, dark background where I relied on my strobe light to bring out the colors of the squid. The second was a photo that showed the animal's translucent qualities.

And of course there's always a turtle (well, almost always a turtle) and the next day I spent most of an entire dive with this one. I'm not sure how I got so lucky on this trip, but when I came across him, I got the same feeling I'd gotten with the sharks and the squid: He couldn't have cared less that I was swimming with him. Perfect...let's get a few pictures shall we? I followed him for 45 minutes as he looked for sponges to eat, firing off my camera the entire way.

Anyone who has been diving on a healthy reef knows that while these animals are all spectacular and sought after photographically, the entire environment is beautiful. I've become very particular about what I shoot but if you could see just beyond these images you'd be treated to a magical landscape of "riotous color" (to borrow a quote from famous author and avid scuba diver Michael Crichton) that is bustling with life. Even when you don't find the shots you're looking for, simply being on the reef can feel like a privilege.

Warm thanks to Rob Haff and the Sea Dwellers gang for always making me feel so at home when I visit. Key Largo is a very special place to me and I look forward to returning.

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Water and Light: Exploring Florida's Gulf Coast

Twenty years ago, if I had a camera in my hand it was (with very few exceptions) being used to capture a tropical scene, either beneath the water or along its margins. I was young, new to photography, arguably shortsighted, and positively obsessed with the ocean. If Jimmy Buffet didn't sing about it or Cousteau didn't document it, I had very little interest in shooting it. Admittedly, the bulk of these photographs weren't very good and ended up in a film box packed away deep in the basement, but I sure had a good time taking them.

As I aged, I begrudgingly expanded my subject matter and techniques, learning about off-camera lighting, more advanced filtering, camera and optical mechanics, high dynamic range sequencing, and digital editing. I finally began venturing inland...way inland: to cities, farms, churches, and even studios: the driest of environments where the risk of flooding an underwater strobe was absent and the pay was better. Yet there was a draw to the ocean that was hard to shake and I returned whenever possible. In a counter-intuitive twist, all of that time spent shooting and training away from the sea led to an arsenal of methods that ultimately helped me to walk away from a coastal or underwater shoot with images destined for publication or licensing rather than a box in the basement. The interaction of light with water will always be my greatest photographic love and I consider myself lucky whenever I get the chance to chase after it.

In October of 2015 I made a trip to Florida's gulf coast to shoot a couple of commissioned photos, expand my portfolio of shoreline images, and to see if I could track down a manatee or two willing to have its picture taken. I knew the last of these tasks would prove to be the most problematic. Manatees are extremely sensitive to water temperature and venture up river to find warmth in the spring fed waters near Kings Bay during the winter months when the gulf cools. This migration typically begins in November but there are always a few that hang around and I was hoping to find one.

With four days to myself, I tried to plan out the best use of my time, shooting coastal images in the softer light of dusk, crawling into Kings Bay to look for manatees in the mornings, and scoping locations during the hard sun of midday. I also made the drive north to visit some of Florida's underground springs including Devil's Den, a water filled cavern that over the years has given up fossils of numerous extinct animals from the Pleistocene (an epoch dating between approximately 1.8 million years ago through about 11,000 years ago) as well as human remains from more than 7,000 years ago. The cavern at Devil's Den looks like a scene right out of Raiders of the Lost Ark with a glass-smooth, turquoise blue pool illuminated from a hole in the cave's ceiling. The water, like that of other springs in the area is a constant 72 degrees and crystal clear.

The submerged pool at Devil's Den.

The submerged pool at Devil's Den.

I have long since forgotten the number of times I've visited Florida however most of these trips were to the southeast portion of the state and the keys where I could easily reach the vibrant coral reef that can't be found along the gulf coast. Whatever the western coast of Florida lacks underwater however, it makes up for with its stunning coastline and seemingly endless sugar-white sand beaches. There are hundreds of miles of shoreline to explore and I found myself wishing I had more time to do so. There were just too many choices: Popular beaches like Clearwater and St. Petes, coastal islands like Anna Maria and Fort De Soto, sprawling keys like Longboat and Siesta...they went on and on...and I was still half a state away from Marco Island and the 10,000 Islands chain. Yet I wasn't able to venture that far for one simple reason: I needed to travel north every morning to Crystal River...I wanted manatee images.

After three days of shooting, I was feeling good about about the coastal scenes I'd captured but getting a shot of a manatee was proving to be more than a bit disappointing. There were several issues I was contending with and by Thursday I was ready to give up. Finding one in the first place wasn't easy this time of year and once we finally did, a group of excited snorkelers stormed into the water to see, breaking one of my strobe arms and stirring up the mucky bottom along the way. Dredging activities in the area reduced water visibility to less than two feet so when I finally came face to face with a mother and her calf, the water was so cloudy, getting a good image was maddeningly impossible. After two days of similar experiences, I'd decided to cut my losses...a decision that made it about three hours before crumbling. I really hated to return home without giving it one more try so Friday I reconfigured my camera and returned to the bay...and this time I got lucky.

I'd slipped into a canal and was looking under a dock when I first saw her. She was probably in the 1500-pound range and was noisily chomping away on sea grass. Manatees can consume more than 10% of their body weight daily and she seemed intent on reaching that goal. With new U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations prohibiting scuba diving after the animals or even flash photography, there was only one way I'd get any decent photos: She'd have to come to me. And that's exactly what happened. We swam together for almost half an hour and as we did I fired away while she surfaced, rolled onto her back and nuzzled my mask. After three frustrating days I'd found my perfect model.

Manatees live a life that makes me a bit envious, dividing their time between eating, resting, and traveling. Their numbers have been steadily increasing, largely due to the hat trick of laws in place to protect them including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978. They're an animal worth protecting and with a bit of luck, they'll make it off the endangered species list sooner than later.

Water and light....and everything in between...what could be better?

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The Aldo Leopold Nature Center Blue Marble Campaign

I was recently hired by the exceptional team at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center to provide images for their Blue Marble Campaign. They've been hard at work installing the region’s first ever Elumenati Omnifocus Projection System in their Immersion Theater and needed both images of the theater system itself and interaction photos for promotion.

So what is an Elumenati Omnifocus Projection System exactly? I didn't know either until I made my first on-site visit. The center's promotional piece describes it as follows:

"This one-of-a kind panoramic astronomy and earth science theater software was developed by the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and will take audiences on interactive, virtual journeys across vast scales of time and space, provoking questions regarding the nature of the universe and human’s role in protecting our fragile planet’s place in it. This will also be overlaid with cutting-edge infrared technology and customized content, creating an interactive immersive experience like nothing else!"

Picture a circular room wrapped by a screen. For perspective, consider that HD video is projected at a 16:9 aspect ratio. This particular system projects at a 40:9 aspect ratio. It virtually wraps around you when you stand in the theater. Multiple projectors are tucked into the ceiling and the content is controlled by a touchscreen podium at the back of the room. It's like something out of Star Trek...and it is seriously cool. It also happens to be an incredibly difficult scene to photograph.

There were two clear challenges with this shoot, the first was the room's dimensions, the second was the lighting. I wanted to show the entire room and briefly considered shooting a series of images and stitching them together but that would have made the room look too flat...too 2-dimensional. I opted to use a 15mm fisheye lens which gave me just enough coverage (within inches) to get the entire room in the frame. The distortion was severe, but I could correct for it when I processed the images. The second challenge was exposing the theater in such a way that both the projection on the screen and the hardware would be visible. This is of course impossible with a single shot, especially in a darkened room so I opted for a High Dynamic Range (HDR) sequence. This technique involves shooting multiple exposures of the same scene and "tone mapping" them together. I shot 5 images, underexposing 2 to capture the projected images on the screen, over exposing 2 to get the hardware and room detail, and finally, 1 that was properly exposed according to the light meter. Below is what they looked like right out of the camera. Note how the lens distorted the room and how, from an exposure standpoint, a single image simply wouldn't have worked. To get the projected image of the Earth, sun and stars meant the room and the projection equipment was far too dark. Conversely, to expose the scene in such a way as to illustrate the projectors and the room would result in a washed out image on the screen. By combining all of the below images I could bring out the shadowed floor, the projectors and the screen image.

The five unprocessed images used to create the final product. Note the drastic distortion before processing and the different exposures of each.

The five unprocessed images used to create the final product. Note the drastic distortion before processing and the different exposures of each.

 I was hoping to recreate the feel of actually being in this room...the feeling of being on the bridge of a star ship looking out into space. After correcting for the optical distorion of the fish eye lens, tweaking the tone mapping, and doing quite a bit of cleaning, I was very happy with the result.

Final product: Projected image, podium, and ceiling hardware all exposed properly and entire room in the frame with lens distortion corrected for.

Final product: Projected image, podium, and ceiling hardware all exposed properly and entire room in the frame with lens distortion corrected for.

We also needed to create a compelling image that showed someone interacting with the theater. I knew just the photo I wanted...it was inspired not by any great artistic vision on my part, but rather by the system itself and how, just minutes after first seeing it in action, I could clearly picture my son Luc silhouetted by the earth, looking up at it in whimsically. And sure enough, once in the the room, that's precisely what he did.

For anyone who hasn't paid a visit to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, you should consider it. The center boasts a number of impressive interactive displays as well as some great children's programs and beautiful outdoor grounds and trails. And if you go, don't forget to stop into the immersion theater. You'll be glad you did.

 

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Super Blood Moon 2015

Last Sunday night was a rarity: Not because the moon was full; Not because its path trended close to Earth, making it appear nearly 15% larger than normal; Not because an eclipse bent the sun's light around the Earth, turning the moon a deep magenta color. No...the real rarity Sunday night was that while I was out shooting all of this, the clouds (which seem to delight in plaguing me every time I try to photograph a celestial scene) were nowhere to be found. They must not have gotten the memo instructing them to flow in and obscure my view whenever I aim a camera towards the sky.

The Setup: Canon 1DX for stills, Canon 5D MKII for time lapse.

The Setup: Canon 1DX for stills, Canon 5D MKII for time lapse.

Shooting a picture of the moon itself isn't a particularly difficult endeavor. A long (telephoto) lens is a must, otherwise the moon, which looks so spectacular to the naked eye, will appear as a mere dot of light in the sky...a disappointing result experienced by the droves of people I saw shooting it with their smart phones. A tripod is a good idea as well, helping to steady the camera and avoid blurring the image from camera shake. Finally if at all possible, manually setting the camera's exposure is the surest path to a moon image with detail. Cameras set to automatic exposure average everything in the frame which will often cause a boost in exposure level to compensate for the dark sky, in turn blowing out the moon to little more than a bright white orb.

I had two goals last Sunday: (1) Get a picture of the moon in context, that is to say, an image that gives it a sense of location (my mind of course went right to the capital building), and (2) Try for a time lapse piece showing the transition from full moon, to eclipsed to red.

It became apparent pretty quickly that a time lapse piece wasn't going to work out. Using a long lens meant limited space in the frame and during the time it took for the eclipse to go through all of its phases, it simply moved too far....way too far. I started my sequence with the moon in the lower left corner of my frame at 8:11 pm. By 8:38 pm, it had already moved through the entire frame and exited the other side. I knew it was a bust, so I concentrated on still images. I'd set up at the top of Wisconsin Avenue where it meets Langdon at the newly rebuilt Edgewater Hotel. A crowd of people had gathered to watch the phenomenon and the atmosphere was positively festive. I talked to others, showed them the images on my view screen, coached a young photography student through exposing the scene correctly, and handed out business cards to those who were anxious to see the finished product. The night had the feel of Mallory Square during a Key West sunset.

As the moon began to shift to a reddish orange color, I had an all too familiar realization: I was in the wrong spot to get the shot I needed. The telephoto lens created a very narrow scene and to get the capital and the moon in the same shot wasn't going to work from my position. I quickly gathered up the cameras, raced to my car and miraculously found a parking spot right next to the capital square. From here I could get the moon as well as the "Golden Lady" statue atop the capital dome. To accomplish this, I needed to aim my camera upwards, focused on the moon. The resulting composition gave the illusion of the moon being much lower in the sky than it actually was.

The shot had its own set of challenges, exposure in particular. A proper exposure for the moon was far different than that needed to get the illuminated white capital dome. This was easily solved by shooting a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. I set my camera to shoot 9 images: four over-exposed, four under-exposed, and one that the camera's light meter assumed was right on. By doing this, I could tone map them together, bringing out the darker moon and avoiding a dome that was blown out. The result is the image above.

This was an exciting shoot for one very simple reason: It won't happen again until 2033. The next time I have a shot at this, my three year old son Luc will be 21 and I will be comfortably into my sixties. It makes you think....If you're a photographer, get out and shoot these things and if you're not, make the time to watch it. I must have talked to a dozen people that night who remembered what they were doing when they saw the last blood moon. It's a conversation I hope to be having during the next one in eighteen years.

What an amazing night.

 

 

 

 

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Lougee Lake, Minnesota, 2015

Crow Wing County (as well as the entire central portion of Minnesota) is a region defined by lakes. The state's "10,000 Lakes" license plate motto may at first glance seem an exaggeration conjured up by the tourism department but in fact, the number is a bit low. Officially, there are nearly 12,000 lakes in the state...an astonishing quantity and one that has led to numerous lakes with the same name. There are seven Lake Augustas, seven Bass Lakes, and just as many Birch Lakes, to name a few. The landscape is absolutely peppered with lakes and last week, we had the chance to visit a particularly beautiful one. Tucked behind the convex southeastern shoreline of Pelican Lake (the Crow Wing County Pelican Lake to be more specific, as there are five other Pelican Lakes in Minnesota) lies Lougee Lake, a 217 acre, sand-bottomed water body that is just shy of 60 feet deep. While I was tempted to explore beneath the waterline with my camera, my shooting time would be limited and our late August visit and southern view from the Studebaker house were perfect for what would likely be my last good shot at a Milky Way time lapse piece for the year. All I needed was a clear sky. Unfortunately it stormed for the first two days of our visit and didn't let up until Wednesday evening, obscuring any view of the stars but giving me the chance to shoot a sequence of the storm clouds as they sped southwest.

Thursday morning we awoke to a cloudless sky which the meteorologists predicted would stick around for another couple of days. The morning was cool but that didn't stop Luc from donning his coat and exploring the beach and nearby woods. As the day warmed, there was volleyball, boating, fishing, swimming and what can only be described (by me anyway) as death-defying acrobatics on the trampoline by the kids, who expertly manned my GoPro and got some great point-of-view video footage that would have surely landed me in the hospital if I'd attempted it myself.

With the sun falling behind the trees to the west and the loons calling out from the lake, a campfire was built for a fish boil. It was shaping up to be the perfect northwoods evening but my mind was elsewhere: In about three hours the Milky Way would be shifting across the southern horizon and I really wanted to capture it. Finally, the sky darkened and I once again found myself on a beach with my camera hoping I'd get it right. The crescent moon was following the sun below the western horizon and the stars began making their appearance. I opened up my 24mm lens to F/1.4 and began shooting at 25 second intervals, adjusting the shutter speed as it got darker. By 11:30, I had nothing more to do but wait. I had a drink by the fire with Jon then called it a night. I went inside to get some sleep, my camera still firing away into the night.

The night sky is a busy place when viewed on a time lapse piece: shooting stars, planes, and clouds that you otherwise wouldn't notice suddenly crowd the scene. And the Milky Way of course, which didn't disappoint, smearing its way across the southern sky before exiting my frame, stage-left. Processing the piece was a bit tricky...with the camera set so sensitive to light, even the subtle glow of the houses on the other side of the lake lit the night sky. The clouds, which seem to follow me wherever I go to to shoot star scenes, did in fact show up, but not until the Milky Way had taken a bow. The sequence is comprised of 715 individual images processed in Adobe Light Room, Light Room Time Lapse, and Photoshop.

A very warm thanks to the Studebakers for opening their house to us last week and to everyone else for making the stay so enjoyable. A special thanks to the kids, all of whom acted well beyond their ages in taking such great care of Luc, even when there were more exciting things to do than color with a three year old. Lougee Lake 2016 is already on my mind...and maybe some underwater photography. I've been home only two days and I miss it already.

 

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2015 Perseid Meteor Shower Time Lapse

It's always something when shooting time lapse...always.

As I sat at my computer yesterday, everything looked to be converging beautifully: The forecast called for clear skies, the nearly new moon wouldn't rise until after 4:00 the following morning, assuring a dark shooting environment and most exciting of all, the Earth was passing through the orbital path of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, whose debris field would pummel the atmosphere later that night resulting in the Perseid meteor shower. I even had a rural shoot location along the shore of Crystal Lake near Wautoma, Wisconsin, far away from the light polluted skies above Madison. I spent much of the day preparing for what I felt certain would be the best clip I'd ever shot. I'd sit down to write this entry, then triumphantly upload my dazzling video of the cosmic light show I'd so brilliantly captured and top it off with some compelling Carl Sagan quote about stardust or the solar system.

But this is time lapse, and there's always something. There was indeed a convergence last night...of unwelcome clouds and some rather poor choices on my part. 

When I arrived at Crystal Lake I was met by our friend Ann who, together with the Davis and Riley families own the lakeside home where I would be shooting. The house is perched high above the lake on a wooded, sandy terrace. Down slope a pier extends out into the lake, which is where I decided to set up my camera. The problem with my choice was that the only unobstructed view of the sky I could get was east - southeast. The meteor shower was going to be "easy to see," the meteorologists had assured viewers earlier that day, by simply "looking to the northern sky."  It would seem that I had overlooked a pretty important requirement for this shoot: I wasn't facing the right way. Nonetheless, with a wide 24mm lens I could aim high and was confident that I'd capture enough of the northeastern sky to get some comets. And that's precisely what I should have done.

Two things happened around 9:30 last night: The linear form of the Milky Way began to materialize in the southern sky, and I learned that my 3 year-old's knack for being easily distracted and veering off task must come from me. It was the Milky Way after all, far too tempting to resist. The comets would surely venture into the southern sky. I decided (based on absolutely no astronomy knowledge or training) that they would. I promptly rotated my tripod head directly to the south...180 degrees from where I should have been shooting.

With everything logistically in place (or out of place depending on how you looked at it) I had to turn my attention to the technical challenges of the shoot. I shot with a Canon 24mm f/1.4L II lens, which I opened to f/1.6. Before beginning to shoot, I pressed the depth of field button then rotated the lens, detaching it. By doing this, it became a fixed aperture lens, insuring that I would avoid flicker- the distracting staccato effect that can turn a great time lapse clip into a mediocre one, or worse. There was an additional problem to contend with during a shoot this long:  Dew drops condensing on the glass. Last year I shot for three hours in the Nicolet National Forest only to discover that the lens had completely fogged over early in the sequence. Not this time. Enter battery powered fans, Gaffer’s tape, and hand warmers.

The setup: Battery powered fan to repel insects and hand warmers wrapped in neoprene to warm the lens and avoid dew condensation.

The setup: Battery powered fan to repel insects and hand warmers wrapped in neoprene to warm the lens and avoid dew condensation.

Dew is basically water that condenses on objects that are cooler than the Dew Point temperature. Tonight the Dew Point was around 60 degrees which meant if the temperature dropped close to that (cooling my lens glass in the process) water would form on it. I needed to keep my glass warm. There are a number of ways to do this, but I chose the cheapest (and arguably least attractive) method: I used Gaffer’s tape to attach a series of hand warmers to the outside of the lens then wrapped the whole concoction in a piece of neoprene I’d cut from one of my old wetsuits. These warmers are cheap and last up to 7 hours. I also set up a battery powered fan below my camera-a method that has proven effective for keeping insects away from the lens.

With fan whirling, the settings locked in, and viewfinder covered, I began the sequence. I shot at f/1.6, ISO 3200, with a 20 second exposure time. Because I wanted to use some of the images as stills, I followed the “500 Rule” of star photography: Take 500 and divide it by the focal length of the lens I was using, in this case, 24mm. I divided 500 by 24 which gets me a number just shy of 21. If my shutter was open for more than 21 seconds, the stars would begin showing up as trails, an effect I didn't want. I used a 30 second interval:  2 shots per minute; 120 shots per hour. Since the result of this whole endeavor will be an HD video clip played back at approximately 30 frames per second, every hour I shoot, I’ll get about 4 seconds of video. That's a lot of time and planning to get 20-25 second clip.

Once the camera was going, there was no point in staying with it so I wandered around the property a bit, shooting a few stills with another camera, sat with Ann for a long overdue catch-up session, and even grabbed a 45 minute nap. I periodically walked back to the lake edge to make sure the camera was still firing and I began to notice a disturbing lack of stars in the southern sky. I knew that my camera would pick up stars that I couldn't see, but the northern sky (which I should have been shooting in the first place) was positively crowded with them, brilliantly lit and remarkably defined. The southern sky on the other hand, had an odd yellowish tint that meant something I dreaded: a low bank of clouds had streamed in and was reflecting the tungsten light from the cabin porch lights below, masking the stars in the process. I had chosen exactly the wrong direction to shoot, a sickening realization four hours into the shot on a sleepless night.

But this is time lapse, and there's always something...and sometimes it's interesting. The clouds, which I'd feared would completely obscure the stars and the Milky Way, only did so partially as they raced past, adding a level of depth to the piece. And even hidden behind the clouds, the Great Rift of the Milky Way (the dark seam of dust clouds that run its length) was visible. A few stray meteors did in fact find their way into my scene. I made a lot of mistakes last night, but I still ended up liking the sequence. The next moonless Perseid meteor shower will be in August 2018, so I have plenty of time to make a plan and convince myself to stick to it.

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Gangster Island 2015

Gangster Island 2015

Gangster Island 2015

From Diapers in the Gear Bag blog, 2012

"For those of us afflicted with chronic wanderlust, daydreaming about far away places occupies more of our daily thoughts than we probably care to admit. I often find myself thinking back (nostalgically I should add) to the days when I traveled hard: Weeks spent traversing the high plains of South Africa's Karoo; hitching a late night ride aboard a fruit boat bound for Belize's Turneffe Atolls; scuba diving in the frigid waters of Alaska's Kenai Fjords...I miss those days. And yet now, looking back, I realize my vision was a bit far­sighted, foolishly equating a greater distance from home with a more rewarding destination. This led to some pretty hefty gaps in my travel resume that I cared little about at the time, but now find myself regretting. While I will never regret photographing dolphins off the coast of Honduras, I have never really seen the American West...or the northeast coast during autumn...or been on a respectable mountain ski trip. It's a valuable lesson I hope to pass on to my son: Travel far when you can...and when you can't? Just travel someplace closer. There's an awful lot to see in your own country, in our own state, even in your own city.

Recently, we took just such a trip (four hours by car) to a location that, among other things, boasts the greatest name of anyplace I've ever been: Gangster Island. Tucked into the southwest corner of North Twin Lake near Phelps in northern Wisconsin, Gangster Island (so named for its ownership for a time by Al Capone's personal doctor) is a stunning, ten acre, maple and birch covered islet where the Shaffner family built their 3800 square foot plank and stone house in the early 1900s..."

Gangster Island 2015

Last night, we wearily pulled into our driveway after returning from our third visit to Gangster Island. The bunkhouse has changed little, the tall pines are still home to bald eagles, the lake tempts as it did before, and our travel companions remain some of the most gracious, accommodating people we've ever met. The kids have aged three years since our first visit which  (whether a pre-teen or a toddler) means astonishing changes. For Luc, who first came to this place at five months old, this trip is a special one for a very simple reason: He will likely remember it. We're in the memory building business now, and that carries some weight.

Armed with pretty minimal photo equipment (GoPro Hero 3, Canon 1DX, Tripod and intervalometer) I shot as much as I could but not as much as I wanted...a pretty common theme these days when the tug of spending time with family and friends trumps the desire to sit for hours looking through a viewfinder. Nonetheless we all had some fun combining the two, especially Sunday afternoon when the kids (and a few of the adults) decided to head for the deeper water of North Twin Lake and take turns jumping, twisting, flipping, and diving off the roof of the pontoon boat while I jumped with them or filmed from the water below. While not fully processed yet, the videos were fun to look through and I will post them soon. A special thanks to Jason who risked further water-logging his sinuses to get me some great footage diving from the boat, GoPro in hand.

While Luc busily played boat captain, ran around in the woods with Dane and threw nearly every pine cone on the island into the water, the others canoed, paddle boarded (with the dogs who weren't about to be left behind,) swam, fished and spent time by the fire catching up with one another and treating themselves to some much deserved relaxation.

The weather, while cool, cooperated and provided us with temperatures in low 70s. Although the cloud cover put a damper on my hopes to shoot a time lapse of the stars and Milky Way, it did make for an interesting sky at dusk filled with swirling clouds and a gold-smeared lake surface. The cumulus clouds seemed to endlessly flow in from the northwest Monday and I slipped away from my packing responsibilities for just long enough to set up the camera and shoot them at two second intervals.


More time lapse sequences and GoPro videos to come. Until then, thank you to everyone who made this trip such a success. We can't wait to travel with you again.

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Gateway Arch, St. Louis Time Lapse

Even when conditions are perfect for a time lapse shoot, there are a number of things that can go wrong and over the last couple of years, I've managed to find most of them. The notebook I carry with me in my Think Tank camera bag has become a catalog of mistakes, usually made while I was distracted or in a hurry to assemble equipment and make calculations before the scene I'd come to capture changed. Shooting time lapse requires...well...time. These sequences can take hours to shoot and if you arrive on location and conditions aren't right for what you hope to accomplish, you're better off packing up and waiting for another day unless you happen to have the luxury of unlimited time and nothing to fill it with.

Tuesday night was one of these times. The temperature in St. Louis had soared to a muggy 100 degrees. This led to a problem I was lucky to catch: the glass in my lens, cooled from being in the AC all afternoon, immediately fogged when I removed it from my bag and continued to do so until it finally warmed up. The clouds were minimal (something that doesn't lead to a very compelling sequence and that leaves the bright sun un-difused and nearly impossible to photograph towards) and because I wanted to shoot across the Mississippi River, I needed to be situated in East St. Louis. The bank on the east side of the river is heavily industrialized and not the kind of place I wanted to be by myself after dark with an expensive camera...or without an expensive camera for that matter. This meant shooting from a high deck at Malcolm Martin Memorial Park which gave me a great view of the arch....and a string of distracting power lines right in the middle of my scene.

The final piece that just about sent me packing was learning that the arch would not be lit on Tuesday until much later in the night...I had no intentions of hanging out alone by the river in East St. Louis until midnight. The lighting of the arch was really what I'd hoped to catch. Everything was pointing to a waste of my time and had I not struck up a conversation with another photographer from Kentucky, I probably would have left.

As I expected, the bulk of the sequence is pretty unexciting but there were a few surprises...one of the things I absolutely love about time lapse. As the sun dipped below the horizon, a series of clouds made their appearance, turning the western sky into a swirling yellow-orange caldron for a few minutes before suddenly vanishing. I could also see what is an arguably obvious thing: boats and barges travel faster down-river than up-river against the current. The sequence is comprised of 850 individual images.

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Shake the Lake 2015 Time Lapse

Shake the Lake 2015, Madison, Wisconsin

Shake the Lake 2015, Madison, Wisconsin

A warm thank you to the Decker family (as well as their dog Max) for graciously allowing me to set up atop their boathouse tonight and shoot the 2015 Shake the Lake fireworks display. The following time lapse piece took about two and a half hours to shoot and is comprised of more than 700 images. For anyone who didn't have the chance to see the amazing show, here's your chance...and it will only take a little over twenty seconds. It's worth watching at full screen just to see the mass exodus of boats after the show's completion.

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Mississippi River HDR shoot, Quad Cities

Had the chance to try out the new Canon 1DX Tuesday night along the bank of the Mississippi River. I shot seven exposures and tone mapped them using Photomatix Pro 5 to create this HDR image of the Centennial Bridge connecting Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa.

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