Soot, Dew, Waves, and No Birds

This week the Spring Semester officially gets underway with preliminary interminable but mandatory meetings then classes start next week.  I was desperate to get out and do something, anything, with a camera that was a little more interesting than shooting illustrations for handouts.  I’ve been working on a handout for location lighting that is part two of a set dealing with using various types of electronic flash for additional lighting in the field.  I was pleased with the results but needed to do something a little more creative.

So I was thrilled when my friend Lee Peterson asked if I was interested in joining him and Mike Uriel to go photograph some wetland birds since we were to be having extraordinary high and low tides early in the week.  But the day turned into a “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” adventure.  The day was gray, totally bereft of contrast, and with heavy fog and mist… but hey, I’m not water soluble and I was going to shoot something no matter what.  I needed to feel my fingers on a camera body and exercise my brain a bit.

When I arrived at his place he told us before we could go play, a friend of his had a major garage fire and he needed to document it for insurance.  So of course we went along.  The garage was a mess.  The fire started when a rat chewed through some insulation and shorted some wiring.  In an apartment over the garage a renter had been awakend by coyotes in the canyon and discovered everything filling with smoke.  What a rude way to wake up!

The place was coated in that slimy combination of heavy soot and water from fire hoses.  It was a miracle that the damage was not worse and that the renter awoke when he did.  Here is a corner shot and you can see the soot on everything.  If you look at the items on the shelf and realize there were stored paint cans, solvents, etc. all over this could have turned very ugly very quickly.

Soot covers the items in this corner of a garage following a fire.

Soot covers the items in this corner of a garage following a fire.  Canon 1Ds MkII w/ Sigma 50-500mmf-4.5.

One additional lucky outcome was that the owner’s classic antique  Ford Coupe was stored in the garage but was quickly removed undamaged except for the smell of smoke in the interior.  I was drawn to the classic radiator cap.

Classic Ford radiator cap on Coup saved from the fire

Classic Ford radiator cap on Coupe saved from the fire.  Canon 1Ds MkII w/ Sigma 50-500mm f4.5

The car was parked outside now by a lovely little garden.  So while Lee was busy with his documentation duties I could not pass up some of the garden details.  Coming out of the garage I noticed the fine dew left from the fog and took advantage of the 1:3 close focusing of the Sigma 50-500mm.

Dew from fog on leaves.  Shot with Canon 1Ds MkII and Sigma 50-500 f4.5.

Dew from fog on leaves. Shot with Canon 1Ds MkII and Sigma 50-500 f4.5.  The mutred colors reflect the heavy gray overcast.

I put the 85mm Brass Petzval lens on and found several small gems hiding in the bushes.  The first was a bright red leaf nearly hidden among the other more drab colored ones.  I had to lean out over the bush and hand hold this while shooting wide open (no Waterhouse aperture Stops used).  Not the best for stability but sometimes you can’t resist trying.

Red Leaf 02

And then, camera back on the tripod, I spied this bright scarlet blossom with a small latticework of spider’s web attached to it.  This shot really shows the unique “swirling” bokeh distortion of that lens.  That is really the “signature” of the Petzval design along with the rapid fall of of depth of field.

Blossom and web

When Lee was finished we headed south to Imperial Beach and a bird sanctuary.  Equipped with some long lenses this was to be fun shooting in the wetlands in the fog.  But there weren’t any birds.  I mean there weren’t ANY birds except for a couple of terns and one or two egrets or herons (I never know which is which).  We drove to several spots but the story was the same… no birds.

So, since we were close, we went down by the Imperial Beach Pier.  I put the Sigma 50-500 f4.5 back on the camera.   But it was gray, flat, and it looked like the world ended a few yards beyond the end of the pier in a huge fog bank.

IB Pier fog for blog

Now Lee is an old time surfer who used to even make surfboards and this was his element.  The angle and shape of the waves, how they form and break, all contain a story for him.  While I can read the messages of marks on a forest floor, Lee can read the messages of the patterns in the sand.  So he had plenty to photograph.   Here is Lee shooting near the pier.

Lee at IB Pier for blog

He and Mike headed down the beach but I simply wasn’t “seeing it” so pulled up a rock and decided to really try to observe the action of the waves as they broke near the shore.  I did notice several surfers trying to make use of this high tide but the waves were insane, they were coming straight into the beach and all breaking at once.  There was no real curl simply a sudden pour-over as they crested.  The fury of all this energy defeated several surfers and finally I decided to take a shot of one of the more violent spots near where I was seated.  To capture the turmoil in the water I shot very fast, at about 1/6,000 of a second.

IB Surf 01 for blog

To the left of the image you can see the pour over that is more like a waterfall than a wave.  The foam to the center and right actually contains a surfer in it but he is completely buried in it.  I had hoped to catch an arm or leg sticking out but it totally enveloped him.  You can click on the image to enlarge it to get an even better sense of the fury of the water.

Lee and Mike finished shooting so we checked out several other spots along the coast.  But the fog was closing in even tighter and reluctantly we called it a day.  They are going out again today and at my house the sun is breaking through.  But I will have to be with them in spirit while I try to act excited in the meeting du jour.

This is only the second time I’ve taken that big Sigma lens out for some real field shooting.  The more I shoot it , the more I like it.  But Holy Cow it is heavy.  The first time I carried it hand held (mistake) and by the carrying handle built in to the tripod mount.  This time I mounted it on a lightweight carbon fiber tripod.  I did that purely for reasons of stability but discovered, in the process, that is is far easier to carry the heavy pro-spec” body and 6-pound lens on the tripod and over my shoulder than trying to just carry camera and lens by the strap or handle.

My tripods (I have several for different purposes and environments) all have pads on the legs where they rest on my shoulders and that makes a major difference in perceived weight.  Having the camera on the tripod also gives me a good place to set the camera down without putting it on the ground.  Additionally it gives me a good extra hand to hold it when changing lenses.

Back “in the day” when I shot with large format film cameras I was used to having to always use a tripod.  Experiments done with other instructors proved conclusively that even a student-based panel could all easily tell the difference between shots hand held and those on a tripod even at the so called rule of thumb “safe” hand holding shutter speed.

My recommendation, image stabilization notwithstanding, if you need it to be REALLY sharp, for example for large prints, shoot from a tripod with a remote release whenever possible.  If you are shooting editorially then IS/VR at one or two stops slower than the “safe” speed will probably work fine.  But do not believe the four-stop marketing hype for anything other than low res shots for social media use.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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