Under the Sea, Grand Cayman

I’m not the bravest person you know. I used to be afraid of fish, reptiles and everything that grows and swims underwater. I made huge progress overcoming my fears to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef in 2011 for a practical reason: I may never get this opportunity again, but I have it now. So, building on my newly developed confidence in the marine world, I snorkeled in the coral reefs of Grand Cayman and took photos with an Olympus TG2 camera with a PT-053 housing. Had I purchased this equipment, it would have cost $690, but thankfully, I was able to rent this equipment for a day from Cathy Church, an accomplished underwater photography on Grand Cayman for just $35. (Cathy is originally from Altoona, PA!) Here is an wide angle photo of the reef, so you can see how busy the landscape is. Without a powerful strobe light, the colors all appear in the blue/green range. To capture the coral and fish in a full range of color, you need to get closer with scuba equipment and lights. This scene reminds me of the words, “hidden pictures.” Can you count the fish? Can you even begin to find a composition?

Hidden pictures: Can you begin to count the fish or name the coral varieties?
Hidden pictures: Can you begin to count the fish or name the coral varieties?

As a snorkeler, I floated on the surface, swimming around with flippers on my feet. I could not keep up with the fastest fish, but I tried to chase a parrot fish until I realized that he swam much faster than I could.

First thing I did on this outing was to recognize and identify the rainbow colored parrot fish and brain coral and elk horn coral. You can see them in these two photos.

Brain coral: looks like a brain!
Brain coral: looks like a brain!
Parrot fish. A fast swimmer.

Next I admired this needle fish, close to the surface. The light and color are better close to the water’s surface.

Needle fish. Look at that face!
Needle fish. Look at that face!

It was tricky to compose and focus on the fish as I was bobbing on the surface, and the fish are darting about as well, but I did capture photos of these blue and yellow tropical fish:

Blue tropical fish, another fast swimmer.
Blue tropical fish, another fast swimmer.
Cluster of bright yellow fish by the coral
Cluster of bright yellow fish by the coral

This purple fan coral attracted my attention, as it waved back and forth. It is anchored in sand.

Might this be called "fan coral"?
Might this be called “fan coral”?

And Yikes! Just before the three whistles summoned us back on board the catamaran, this sting ray cruised by. Hello!

Surprised by this sting ray in the reef
Surprised by this sting ray in the reef

I think I’m getting pretty brave now. Perhaps I will get some instruction in scuba, so I can get closer to the undersea world next time, use a strobe and capture even more color.

How to tame a sting ray

It all started with a naturally formed sand bar 3.5 miles off shore Grand Cayman, an island in the British West Indies south of Cuba. A coral reef formed a horseshoe shape, and storms over the years had pushed sand into the reef where it was trapped and built up until the sand bar became so shallow that one could stand in it. Outside the reef, depths fell to 80 feet and then plunged to thousands of feet.

Enter humans: fishermen working off the island found the mosquitoes intolerable when they returned to shore and gutted their catch. One fisherman had the bright idea to gut the fish in the calm waters of the sandbar. Others followed him. Sting rays caught on. The rumble of boat engines signaled to them lots of easy food, and they made a habit of meeting humans there.

Enter tourism: an enterprising Grand Caymanian named the sand bar “Sting Ray City,” and began to ferry tourists out to enjoy close encounters with these enormous and intimidating sea creatures. Our Scottish boat captain briefed us on safety tips for handling and (yes) even kissing the sting rays. The big ones are the females, and they are agreeable to a rub on the nose or the side fins, but keep your hands away from the gills and the mouth. (Notice the eyes are on the top, and the mouth on the bottom, so they can’t see what their mouths are suctioning. The suction is strong enough to pull a conch out of its shell, which (if you have ever tried to do that) is pretty damn difficult. Oh, and by the way, if you step on one, they might say, “Hey, don’t stand on my head!”

"Don't stand on my head."
Cathy's favorite underwater photo of 1/30/2014
How to hold a sting ray, Cayman style
You can handle it. I'll be the photographer.

Remembering the horrible death of the fearless animal handler Steve Irwin, I passed on the petting opportunity. The challenge of underwater photography was my thrill for the day. However, the fearless Ed Smith, apparently emboldened by his 60th birthday, kissed a giant sting ray — so he’ll have good luck, Cayman style, for the next seven years. Here is Ed in the flowered swim trunks.

Fearless Ed and his birthday kiss

Why we set the alarm in Bryce Canyon

Thor’s Hammer is the tallest and perhaps most famous hoodoo in Bryce Canyon National Park. You can see it from the rim at Sunset Point, or hike a short distance down the Navajo Loop Trail for a more dramatic vantage point. On my first day at Bryce, I hiked the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trails, which took me 550 feet down into the canyon and gave me about 3 hours of high-altitude (over 8,000 feet) exercise. I captured this late morning view of Thor’s Hammer from the trail. I like the little tree in the foreground, the way the ground forms a steep slope and the color contrast of the sky, trees and mountains in the distant background.

For an even better way to photograph Thor’s Hammer, I set my alarm for an hour before sunrise (11/6/13), bundled up and hike down the trail with my tripod over my shoulder. As the sun rose, I enjoyed the sight of golden rays brushing the east side of the hoodoos. This first image was shot at ISO 200, f/11 for long depth of field and 1/5 second shutter speed. From this angle and in this light, the contour of the ground takes on interest, and the tiny trees on the rim give you an idea of the size of Thor’s Hammer. I like the color of the early morning sky, facing northwest.

As I continued to work the scene in the early minutes after dawn, I changed my vantage point to look more to the right and toward a more distant section of the rim.  This image was shot at f/11, ISO 200 at 1/8 second. The subject (Thor’s Hammer) calls for a vertical composition, but it is interesting how the second composition shows better the expanse of the canyon.

This golden side light was worth waking up early, to witness and to capture. But, before we left the scene, our efforts were rewarded with one more unusual treat — an encounter with a fox running down the trail as we began to climb back up. With no time to set up the tripod, I did my best to snap a few photos in low light with the camera handheld.  Then, it was time for coffee and a warm breakfast.

Earth’s Shadow at Bryce Canyon

Have you ever looked EAST at sunset to observe the effects of the Earth’s shadow on the colors of the sky? Like most people, I think of looking WEST at sunset, when I am lucky enough to watch that big orange ball sink into the ocean. While I was in Utah to photograph Bryce Canyon in all its natural splendor — at sunrise, sunset, in sun and in snow — I had the opportunity to witness the effect of the Earth’s shadow on the sky at sunset. As the sun begins to set in the west, it continues to illuminate the part of the eastern sky that you see up high, while the curvature of the Earth blocks the lower part of the sky closer to the horizon. In the transition, you see a spectrum of color from yellow (high) to pink to blue (low) near the horizon. If you are lucky enough to find yourself away from air pollution, clouds, precipitation and city lights, you can look east and admire this effect every night. If your foreground happens to be a grand panorama, all the better. Here are two of my photographs of the Earth’s shadow at sunset from Bryce Point:

As I photographed sunrise in Bryce Canyon, we enjoyed the same effect. This location was Rainbow Point, my personal coldest photo shoot with 10 degrees and 25 mph wind. We worked the location for 20 minutes. Here, the sun has just cleared the horizon, rendering the hoodoos as a high contrast scene.

This photograph shows the predawn glow in the clouds, looking west (opposite sunrise) from Sunset Point. You see the same color effect, blue by the horizon. The scene was still rather dark. It would change dramatically in minutes.

Lastly, I shot straight into the sun at sunrise from Sunset Point, using a tiny aperture (f/16) to achieve a sunstar effect with the camera lens.  The color pattern is reversed with yellow close to the horizon and blue above. The sunstar almost makes you want to squint, doesn’t it?

Wall Street: Bryce Canyon

Hiking down into the Wall Street section of Bryce Canyon is a lesson in how much your perspective changes as you descend. It’s also a demonstration of how much harder it is to climb UP out of a canyon, compared to the walk down, especially at 8,000 feet elevation. This series of five photos illustrates those changing perspectives during descent.

You can find “Wall Street,” a slot canyon so named for its extremely steep walls, at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah — which is, ironically, a great place to photograph sunrise and then begin a morning hike. This first photograph show you the vista looking southeast around 9:30am in early November. Wall Street is in the shadows in the center of the photo, in the lower third of the image. Its 200 foot high walls block the sun all the time, except for midday.

Here is more of a close-up that allows you to appreciate how steep those limestone walls are, formed by erosion. Bryce experiences an average of 200 days of frost-wedging each year. In the warmer months, monsoon rains wash away the gravel.

Here is the switchback path that leads you into the slot canyon. The climbers in the photo give scale to the scene.

On nature hikes in many regions, I am amazed at how much plants and animals resemble one another. For example, alligators floating in the water, sometimes resemble a fallen trunk of a palm tree. This remnant of a bristlecone pine tree gave me a double take on the switchback path. I knew that rattlesnakes inhabit this region.

Here at the base of the canyon, a half dozen pine trees stand tall. It is impossible to take one photo from the ground, up to the top of Wall Street, but here is one vertical view looking out of the slot canyon from the base. The base of a slot canyon is very dangerous in a rain storm, since flash floods form quickly and sometimes bring new boulders with them.

One last image today, to complete your tour. The Nikon D700, mounted on a Really Right Stuff tripod, points skyward toward Sunset Point.

Gardens with Latitude

It’s a rainy day in Naples, Florida. It has to rain _sometime_ in the tropics. And the weather is keeping me off the beach and indoors with my computer to review some of the recent photos I shot at the Naples Botanical Garden. The Garden’s slogan is “Gardens with Latitude,” making reference to the tropical plants it features.

Tropical water lilies, a butterfly garden and a variety of palms, grasses and succulents will keep you and your camera busy when you visit. Today, I will share with you three colorful plants that attracted my eye with their striking color and shapes. I shot these photos with my new Nikon D800, a 75mm lens and my Really Right Stuff tripod. I composed each frame by isolating the colorful bloom and taking note of the directional lines within the frame. Since I was close-up and the blooms were three dimensional, I used a high f-stop in order to keep each outreaching arm of the plant in focus. Working in the shade, yet wanting to maximize clarity and minimize grain, so I chose the ISO 200. Use of the tripod was very important, since the low light of the shade, low ISO and high f-stop will give me a … you guessed it, a longer exposure than you can successfully hand hold: from 1/8 second to 1/20 second. (You don’t want to hand hold a shot under 1/125, unless you have a Vibration Reduction lens. Even then, 1/60 may be your threshold.)

Here are my three images. When I learn the name of each plant, I will return to the blog and add them:

Thanks for sharing your time with me. Keep an eye out for a new blog post each week, now that the hectic holiday season has past.

Virgin River in Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah will astonish you with its extremely tall cliffs, carved over the ages by the (sometimes) gentle Virgin River.  In the first week of November when the last of the yellow foliage remained, I photographed locations in the Park that included sunrises on the mountain peaks as well as pastures full of deer and turkeys, and at dusk, the Virgin River cutting its path through the valley floor. Most of the photographs that included the sky included a very wide range of contrast from the bright sky and sunlit mountainsides to the shadowed parts of the canyon and the foliage in the shadows. I used the tripod to take five bracketed exposures of these scenes, so that I could process these images together with layer masks to create a perfect print, with no under or over exposure. I have some work to do!

This week I am living in my Naples FL home where I can only work on a laptop. The processing of five images into one with good contrast will have to wait until December. However, I can share with you two sweet images of the Virgin River looking quite creamy — thanks to the long exposure I used in photographing the scene.

How do you make running water, tripping over rocks and waterfalls looks smooth and creamy ? First, you need a steady tripod, like my Really Right Stuff tripod and ball head. Find a composition. I climbed on top of a boulder for this viewpoint. Focus carefully. I set the ISO on my camera (the new Nikon D800 with improved dynamic range) to 100. This low setting will give me very crisp detail and no grain. I closed the lens way down to a tiny opening of f/22; this setting will also give me depth of field throughout the foreground to the background. Last, I needed to find the proper exposure, checking the histogram to see if the highlights and shadows are balanced and not clipping. Here is the close-up with the lens zoomed to 120mm at 2.o seconds.

Working the scene, I tried some other compositions. This next image shows more of the scene with the impressive canyon wall and the yellow tree.  My lens was 28 mm for this image, and was open for 3.0 seconds. Of course, this image only worked well because the wind was not blowing. A gust of wind would have blurred the tree! If you look carefully, you can see the two rocks in the close-up in the foreground of the scene.

I look forward to sharing more photographs with you soon. If you wish to visit Zion National Park for some amazing hikes, you only need to drive 2.5 hours northeast of the Las Vegas, Nevada airport (LAS). Just arrive well rested and ready for strenuous exercise!