Sunday, November 28, 2010

Pattern Seeker

Both time and thoughts are dwindling as the 2010 Thanksgiving weekend fades into the past. Rather than bore you with trite platitudes, I humbly offer a few images from the holiday break.
Bone-chilling cold, icy snow, and bright skys defined this late November. As a result, I shot for drama rather than beauty. Strong directional light, deep shadows and aggressive post-processing yield graphic images with leading lines. Here the images trade beauty for a strong artistic statement.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kenya 2010: Missing Africa

The Patagonia expedition weight thermals clung tightly to my frame as I braced for the biting cold. It's 7 degrees fahrenheit and the north wind ushered the frigid air through my layered attire. This is Minnesota, it's Thanksgiving Day, and I'm on a hike. My Sorrel bound feet blazed a trail as I crunched through the crusty mix of ice and snow that fell the night before. I'm seeking a winter landscape, and I'm thinking about Africa. 
The cold and lonely hike offers me the opportunity to reflect on my summer excursion... We were three on a Kenyan safari... Tamy, my mother and I. It was my opportunity to share my passion for nature, photography and travel... it was an opportunity of a lifetime.  

You never know what to expect when you travel abroad. Research helps you predict potential pitfalls and opportunities, but research cannot prepare you for the unexpected. On this trip, my fears were not about the travel experience... I pre-arranged all transports, lodging, and safaris; I knew that our in-country experience would meet expectation. We were in Africa... We were on Safari... Kenya would not disappoint!
Tamy and I travel abroad at least once a year, and rely on these opportunities to add to our vast library of images. International excursions provide a creative and intellectual boost to my psyche, it is the DNA from which I write, teach, and publish. This type of travel photography compliments our efforts home, and fulfills my desire to explore our natural world. We have been travel companions since the late 80's, and have always embraced the intensity of a rich travel/photographic experience. Love of travel and adventure united us in the beginning and continues to be a theme for our lives today. So, if I had any trepidations about my Kenyan Safari, they were about a new unknown. How would the addition of a third travel companion... my mother,  influence our travel experience and our productivity?
Ten days in Africa can be a grind for anyone. A safari vacation is not as self-indulgent as it sounds. The distances between refuges are large, the roads are rough, and the days can be long. Having traveled through Tanzania in 2008, Tamy and I knew what to expect. We prepped my mother for the experience, and hoped for the best. 
I feared that our excitement for Africa was masking the reality that I knew, but I hoped that the magic of nature would negate the inconveniences of adventure travel. Once we arrived in Nairobi and made that first long journey to Samburu Reserve, I knew that we were in for some fun. My mother embraced the experience in a way that I could have never anticipated. She was enthralled by the people, the landscape and the wildlife. The inner child that possesses me while on the road or with a camera, possessed her. My mother was one of us... not a photographer, not a traveler, not a tourist... she was a student. The intimacy of an intense cultural and environmental travel experience fostered the learner in us all. These are the experiences that enrich our minds and our hearts. 
Today is a cold Thanksgiving Day in Minnesota. I am thinking of Africa, pondering my next adventure and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share my passions.
Image #1: Cheetah. Masai Mara Game Reserve
Image #2: Olive Baboon. Lake Nakuru National Park
Image #3: Elephant Babies. Samburu National Reserve
Image #4: Young White Rhinoceros with Mother. Lake Nakuru National park
Image #5: Lioness. Masai Mara Game Reserve
Image #6: Black and White Colobus Monkey. Lake Naivasha National Park
Image #7: Reticulated Giraffe. Samburu National Reserve
Image #8: My Mother... an all around good sport! 
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Monday, November 22, 2010

Confessions of an Average Bird Photographer (IV)

Dry skin, windblown hair, and unexpected flops can only signify one thing,... winter has descended upon the upper midwest. Sunday marked our first freezing rain event, and frigid now defines the daily forecast. It's November,... it's whine time. 
I detest the cold. I hate the feeling of hammered fingers, frozen toes, and the deep chill that persists for nearly five months. Dressing requires a checklist, and a walk out of doors is worse than any trip to the dentist. Each winter I challenge myself to ignore the oppressive north winds and strive to be a "real" photographer. I trudge tirelessly with my tripod in hand and pack on my back. I will not be beaten by the inclement weather, I will not be beaten...
Image #1: Great Gray Owl. Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota
Image #2: Northern Hawk Owl. Pine Barrens, Wisconsin
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Confessions of an Average Bird Photographer (III)

 I woke up to freezing drizzle, glaze ice on the driveway, and a dog that was clearly unhappy about the current weather in Minnesota. Sequoia (the dog) and I pretty much agreed that the day was shot, and I wouldn't be doing any photography on this Sunday morning. We shared a quick breakfast, and I settled into a podcast, The Digital Photo Experience, and immersed myself in some photo-minutiae. I like to hear what other photographers are doing and try to understand how some small subset of the photo-universe have figured out how to earn a living by doing what they love most. Needless to say, I'm envious of the travel/nature photographers who have learned how to market themselves and become fixtures in the photo-making industry. Anyway, towards the end of their Q&A section of the podcast, Rick Sammon and Juan Pons began to interview renowned bird photography Chris Klapheke. And here is where my blog about average bird photography collides with excellence.
Chris Klapheke laid it all out during his brief fifteen minute interview...
  1. The Great Ones (let's call them G.O.'s) mortgage their homes to buy an $8,000 to $10,000 lens like the Nikon 600mm f4.0 VRII or Canon 800mm f5.6 IS.
  2. The G.O.'s manipulate their environment to attract birds. The manipulation can be as subtle as clearing brush around a potential perch or as invasive as constructing artificial perches, clearing habitat, and creating feeding stations. This form of manipulation stimulates both repetitive and predictable behaviors.
  3. The G.O.'s wear the camo, carry a hide, or often create a permanent blind to maximize their photographic opportunities.
  4. Finally, the G.O.'s have a passion that feeds their need to be patient. This passion for bird photography transcends their lives and provides the incentive to sit for hours in a blind and wait for weeks to establish a patterned behavior.
Let's compare my strategy for making slightly better than mediocre images to the techniques describe above.  
  1. There is no way that I will ever be able to justify the expense of a 600mm or 800mm lens. I use a 300mm f2.8IS lens with converters and often feel as if I broke the bank buying this luxury item. While it isn't as well suited for bird photography as the latter super-teles, it is relatively compact and wonderfully sharp.
  2. I don't believe in environmental manipulation. I love to capture the essence of a behavior and thrive on the serendipity of the moment. I don't want to alter an animal's behavior, I want to be ecologically invisible.
  3. I hate camo, and I've spent more days in a blind than I care to remember. Anyone who has sat for 60 hours in an elevated blind on the rocky coast of the Bering Sea would understand why I'm not wild about these unstable little boxes. 
  4. I love birds, but not as much as the G.O.'s. I like to walk and I like variety... the great bird photographers have a single-minded approach to their craft. They are artists in their own right and have a passion for birds that exceeds my own.

Image #1: Snowy Egret. Back Bay, CA 
Image #2: Resplendent Quetzal. Savegre River, Costa Rica
Image #3: 
Pied-billed Grebe. Bolsa Chica, CA  Snowy Egret. Back Bay, CA
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Confessions of an Average Bird Photographer (II)

"Good is the enemy of great"... so goes the opening sentence in Jim Collins' best selling book about successful organizations and businesses. But can good be good enough if it meets some intrinsic need or desire? Does the pursuit of greatness somehow taint the pleasure of the experience? 
I am a perfectionist and I tend to approach everything I do with the goal of being the best... number one... admired, loved and envied. This perfection complex often steals the moment, and denies me the opportunity to live the experience. However, when I photograph birds, I know that I will never be the best. I don't have the patience to be the best, nor do I even want to try to be the best. 

It's actually refreshing to air this baggage in a public forym. There it is, I'm pretty average when it comes to bird photography. I'm good,... but I'm definitely not great. I could wallow in this mediocrity and avoid birds altogether, but instead, I've chosen to pursue them. 
I like the silence of a cold morning in predawn light. I enjoy hearing chatter in the trees and waiting for a fleeting opportunity to capture an elusive feathered reptile. While I'm not one of those obsessive enthusiasts who needs to see the rare exotic visitor that banked left instead right during its migration, I do get excited when I see something new. I have no idea how many bird species I've seen, as I am not organized enough to keep a list. Yet, I recognize those birds I've seen before, and know when I'm viewing something new. 
Let me be clear... I am definitely not a "birder." I like a long walk in the woods and will try to study the birds I encounter, but that's about as far as it goes. I know quite a few birders, and I find them to be an interesting lot. I think some suffer from flight envy. They always seem to be captivated by the whole soaring thing. Don't get me wrong, it's cool that birds can fly, but that's their adaptation... it's what birds do. Do you think birds envy our big brains and our ability to give live birth?... I doubt it. 
 I just find this class of vertebrates interesting. The structure of bird feathers, the layered plumage, and the unique patterns can be quite striking. I'm captivated by their bipedal bodies, scaly legs, and toothless beaks. Bird behavior seems to be more tightly linked to their genetic inheritance and more predictable than mammalian behavior. Is this adaptation as important as their ability to fly? I love the fact that birds are ubiquitous. I can find them when I travel, during the summer, and even throughout a harsh Minnesota winter. Simply put, birds are just cool! 
So here's the rub... I'd love to say that I'm a great bird photographer and celebrate in my ability to nail the peak moment, but that's not the way it is. Clearly, my bird photography is not about greatness, it's about the process, it's about being there. For now, I'm just sweeping that whole perfection thing under the rug and try to accept the idea that good is good enough!
Image #1: Marabou Stork. Kenya 
Image #2: Grey crowned Crane. Masai Mara, Kenya
Image #3: Sandhill Cranes Migrating South During a Harvest Moon
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Friday, November 19, 2010

Confessions of an Average Bird Photographer (I)

Confession... My avian photography is pretty average.
It's not that I don't know what to do, it's just that I don't do it all that well. 
Here's what I know:
  • I've got the vision thing down... I'm a pattern seeker and aim to see things differently. I look for unique angles, light and shadow before making the shot.
  • I'm a composition wonk... I love to play with my subject, my point of focus and my perspective. I like to shoot at wide apertures, minimize my depth of field, and make my birds "pop."
  • I've got the exposure thing down... I can nail exposure with my eyes closed... Ok, that's hyperbole, but exposure theory is a strength.
  • I've got the commitment... I'll wake up early and make a long drive just for the opportunity to make a unique and creative image. 

However, I have this problem... my timing is off. I always seem to miss the peak moment, the key stare, and the right light. The way I see it, there is more to producing captivating bird images than some formulaic method of controlling a flash, maximizing autofocus, or using some overprice mega-telephoto lens. The great bird photographers have a sixth sense, they see and feel the peak moment before it happens.  These great ones exude a passion for birds, and are driven by the unattainable goal of perfection. 

  I'm NOT one of the great ones... Actually, I'm a pretty average bird photographer. I'll shoot all day, think I made some keepers, but generally feel disappointed. Nonetheless, I've accepted the challenge and will continue to push the limits of my ability. Why chase a subject that exceeds my skill?... simple answer... I love birds. I studied them for years... they are a part of my past and photographing them will be a part of my future. 
So, in celebration of my mediocrity, I am declaring the week of November 19th, 2010 "The Week of Pretty Average Bird Photography." During the following week I will offer you a glimpse into my bird files. I'll share  my slightly better than mediocre images of selected bird species... we can ponder this mediocrity together as I strive to realize my vision.
About the Images
Image #1: Sandhill Cranes Migrating South During a Harvest Moon
Image #2: White Pelicans engaged in Fishing Party
Image #3: Sharp-tailed Grouse drumming in spring 
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kenya 2010: Midday Light

As the saying goes... "If you can't beat 'em,... join 'em!"
You're on the trip of a lifetime, living in the moment... but the light is not your friend. What to do?
It would be all too easy to put the camera down, get discouraged, and lose that photoMoJo. Alternatively, you could throw caution to the wind and turn your bad light into an opportunity to experiment, learn, and get creative. 
Harsh midday sun creates deep shadows, blown highlights, and unflattering colors. These unmanageable conditions make for great stories about the one that got away or the "impossible" conditions of the day. 
Never say die... work that bad light! 
Place your subject between you and the sun, stay low, and shoot for the backlight. Streams of bright sunlight can produce glowing highlights around ears, fur, or leaves. These "high-key" images are often the first to be tossed, but will occasionally make that list of cherished and interesting keepers. Don't fight the deep shadows and black blacks... leverage that lousy light and convert your raw images to black and white. Those trashy shadows now make for an interesting contrast to the bright whites. These shadows are now your friend as they make an average image into an abstract that compels your viewer to study the form and pattern.
Don't put that camera away... use that lousy light, think different, and shoot - shoot - shoot... you just might be pleasantly surprised.
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Favorite Places: Gooseberry Falls State Park

Each year we manage to do at least three trips to Gooseberry Falls State Park. Located an hour from Duluth along Minnesota's "North Shore," these falls are a state icon. While the middle of the North America is no place for an ocean, our little piece of Lake Superior offers mid-continental dwellers the opportunity to enjoy the vast landscapes often relegated to coastal folk.

Tamy and I try to visit Lake Superior and "The Falls" at least once during spring, fall and winter. We avoid the area like the plague during the touristed summer months. Crowds of people, noisy kids, and traffic spoil the serenity that I crave when seeking nature's solitude.  These falls are dynamic. They change with the seasons and with the light. Misty mornings contrast with splashes of highlights during the midday hours. Come evening, hues of pink and orange reflect the calm of the Great Lake and the torrents of the Falls. 
When visiting Gooseberry, play with your gear.... change your lens, change your position, play the angles. During this last trip, I worked one side of the falls hoping to isolate the movement of the water against a fallen tree. I shot low and moved in. Each image from this shoot is unique and yet the same. Here in lies the value of a favorite place. When you know an area, you are free to experiment. I have yet to make the "perfect" Gooseberry shot, but no worries... I'll be back... it's a favorite place!
©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission

Monday, November 1, 2010

Kenya 2010: The Mara in Review (III)

Predators abound across the African Savanna.... always on the lookout for a place to hide, something to eat, and easy prey. With their keen eyes, large ears, and ultra-sensitive olfactory organs, predators are finely tuned to seek out the injured and feeble.
This morning's quick post is homage to the evolutionary process that has so carefully crafted the anatomy  and physiology of the carnivore. Be it gradual or punctuated, natural selection facilitates the retention of only the most adaptive characteristics while enabling the loss of traits that fail to perpetuate the species.
Graceful and lean, the cheetah is an ancient member of the family Felidae. Known for speed and maneuverability, she and her cubs scout the Mara in search of the weak and vulnerable. 
The Banded-mongoose belongs to the family Herpestidae. Thin and wiry like a mink, this predator takes on rodents, insects and serpents. Working among the collective, the mongoose is a fierce enemy of the cobra. 
The last image is of a Black-backed Jackal. Lurking among the tall grasses, these members of the family Canidae, seek out the dead and dying. They steal bits of food from abandoned carrion and hunt in the secrecy of night.
Here's to the predator.... crafty and lean... like all of Africa's wildlife, living on the edge.

©2000-2010 / Bruce & Tamy Leventhal. All rights reserved. No image on this site may be used without permission