Monday, June 11, 2012

Making the Dreamcatcher

"The Dreamcatcher" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - © Mac Stone
In my last post I showed you two of my favorite new prints from Florida Bay and the Everglades, "The Dreamcatcher," and "Dreamcatcher Dusk." While I love sharing my polished and best work, the point of this blog is to also show you some of the behind-the-scenes stories of what it takes to make images like this. To shed a little light on my creative process, I thought I would share with you the many trials and tribulations of my year-long relationship with this tree. While most of these following images aren't what I would consider portfolio "keepers" they represent the building blocks, the frustrations and rewards of what a long-lasting and fruitful relationship always require: patience.

Everglades, Mangrove, Florida Bay, Mac Stone
"Anchored in the Bay" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
Most professional photographers shoot with a specific goal in mind. That goal may be fine-art prints, editorial magazines, or filler material for blogs and social media. Personally I tend to shoot everything, that way when the time comes to supply an editor with content, I have a wide range of images to offer. Just like any other muscle, the more we artists exercise our creative minds, the sharper it tends to be when we need it the most. The downside to this, however, is that without a specific goal in mind you can easily miss great opportunities for one or the other, particularly during the golden hour when light is fading quickly. For the image above, "Anchored in the Bay" I knew what I wanted and I made sure to park the boat in the right location and have my brother ready with the right pose to make sure his legs and arms weren't blending in with his silhouette form. This image doesn't necessarily depict the uniqueness of the tree so much as it typifies the experience of boating in Florida Bay which still allows me to use this photo in conjunction with "The Dreamcatcher" for my portfolio. For the following images, however, I'll walk you through the reasons why you never saw me posting about them in earlier blogs. First off though, let me give you some context.

Mac Stone, Everglades
Me photographing "The Dreamcatcher" - Everglades National Park photo by Will Stone
Mac Stone, Everglades
Photo by Will Stone
This mangrove is massive and sits upon a large grass flat. To access at low tide, it requires a heart-pounding slog, which is particularly difficult at 6:00 AM. 99% of the time I use a tripod, but for the image "Anchored in the Bay" which I am shown photographing here, I decided not to bring it because I knew the light was strong and I wouldn't be attempting any long exposures since the wind was steadily gusting. With any plant or tree-photography, wind is a huge factor. Typically I shoot in the mornings because the wind is calmer than in the afternoons. Since I'm looking for dramatic light I know that a windy day will cause the branches to sway and leaves to shake. In low light situations this is a deal-breaker for long exposures. Many mornings I left with the wind at 0-5mph only to arrive at the mangrove with 10-15mph winds increasing as the sun peaked the horizon.
Mac Stone, Everglades

Silhouettes, often moody and striking, are an effective way to show shape and form. But for me, this image didn't quite capture the radial shape of the tree. I liked the color and detail in the sky and the lonesome feel of a solitary mangrove, but I wasn't ready to call this image "the one." Plus the sharp ripples of the right side of the frame bothered me as they competed with the dark branches.

Mangrove at dawn - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
This image was made only minutes after the previous one, and you can see that just getting closer with a wide-angle lens starts to reveal the circular shape of the tree. The color in the sky was excellent and the exposure was slow enough to smooth out the water helping to isolate the tree. I was very close to publishing this image, considering it a "keeper" but it just wasn't the one I was looking for. Something wasn't right with the sky. I felt that the sky and the foreground didn't complement each other enough, almost as if they were both competing for attention instead of sharing it, so I starred it in Lightroom as a possible favorite and waited for another opportunity. I thought perhaps a different perspective would work better. 

Photo © Mac Stone
One overcast morning, I went out to the tree and I was almost positive the light was going to pop and color the clouds with brilliant pinks and purples. That would have been perfect. Alas, the sun stayed behind the clouds and only briefly showed hints of pastel blues and purples. I did really like the low perspective from the water line and how the clouds seemed to emanate from the mangrove, which solved the problem from the previous photo, but the light quality just wasn't there. I hoped to try this same technique and point of view again. 

Mac Stone, Everglades
Photo © Mac Stone
The next time I returned to the tree, there were no clouds higher than a few degrees above the horizon. With this in mind I decided to tighten down my angle of view and focus on the water instead of the sky. To avoid tangential lines created by the horizon and the tree limbs, I had to extend my tripod uncomfortably close to the water, looking up at the mangrove. Like the previous image I wanted smooth water to help simplify the composition and isolate the tree but shooting directly into the sun almost always forces photographers to use high shutter speeds. To counteract this, I used a 6 stop neutral density filter which gave me the slow speeds I needed. In hindsight I wished I would have used a reflector to redirect the light from the sun  onto the tree giving it a little side-light detail. When shooting in salt water, though, I don't bring all of my gear and I paid the price for it this time. 

Photo © Mac Stone
I did like the low-angle idea and since the tree was big enough to crawl under, I decided to dedicate a sunset to exploring the possibilities beneath the canopy. There were certainly some interesting possibilities here and I loved how the highlights made an amber gateway through the prop roots and created a sunburst through the leaves, but I couldn't see this image ever hanging on someone's wall. I used a neutral density filter to slow the water down but again, I wish I would've used a reflector to light up the tree a little more. It's small mistakes like this though, that hone your skills and have you ready for the next shoot.

Photo © Mac Stone
Context is a big thing and should not be overlooked. As I continued to get closer and closer to the mangrove I realized that I had essentially taken it out of its landscape. That's fine for some subjects, but for this tree, it beckoned to be displayed against its big sky backdrop. One afternoon I stopped by the mangrove and stayed on the boat, forcing myself to shoot it from a distance. The wind was calm enough to reflect the sky in the water giving the photo a totally different feel than any other I had shot before. I just couldn't bring myself to ever share this photo though, simply because it made my "Dreamcatcher" seem so lonely. A regal mangrove shouldn't be pitied.

"The Dreamcatcher" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - © Mac Stone
Finally, on what I determined to be my last chance of photographing this tree, I went out with a group of friends and a bucket of cold drinks. When I saw the clouds shifting on the western horizon, I was overjoyed knowing that perhaps finally I had my sky. I left the bucket and my friends on the boat and slogged out to the tree waiting for the sun to get just above the horizon. For thirty seconds it held and I managed two frames. I used a reflector to add fill light to the mangrove and a neutral density filter to smooth out the water. It was a culmination of all the right elements and I knew as soon as I triggered the shutter that this would be "the one." It was a vantage point I never tried before, but I wouldn't have arrived at the conclusion during the right light had I not tried a dozen times before from different angles. 

"Dreamcatcher Dusk" - Florida Bay - Everglades National Park - Photo © Mac Stone
Then, just when I started to call it a night, I turned around and the sky was a streaking pink and violet wisp. I couldn't believe it. I had attempted for almost a year to find a sky to compliment my mangrove, and in a thirty minute span, I was given two perfect opportunities. When I finally got back to the boat, I climbed up and grabbed a frosty beer, toasted my friends, then the tree, and drank it down. It felt like I had been holding my breath for the last hour, frantically making images, and finally I could breathe. Jerry Lorenz piped up and said "Oh, sure, Mac, just your luck! You decide one day to take a picture of a mangrove and of course, the day you come out it's one of the best sunsets I have seen on Florida Bay." I just smiled and said "Jerry, if you only knew what I've been through with this tree, you wouldn't call it luck, you'd call it probability."

Mac Stone, Everglades, Florida Bay
Photo © Mac Stone
There is no end to how creative we can be with our cameras and our vision. Luckily mother nature gives us a fresh palette that we can work from every single day. I hope this little peek into the image-making process was helpful. Now you know just how much thought and time goes into making some of these photos. Thanks for reading!

3 comments:

  1. Great work -- nice blog on the behind-the-scenes process!

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    1. Coming from you, Rob, that's a big complement. Thanks for reading!

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  2. WOW, these are stunning!!

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