A former coworker saw my latest personal project on my website and emailed wanting to feature it as the Photo of the Week on his photography blog and asked me if I would tell him how it was shot. It wasn’t until I started the email that I realized how unusual the 6 month personal photo project for the Tallahassee Stock Photography collection turned out to be.
Below is what I sent:
The photo was a 6 month personal project. I would shoot for 3 or 4 days each month when there was no moon depending on the tides and wind. I was particularly interested in a tide that was partially low when dusk fell. I would set out three cameras in different locations on large tripods. Two were in freshwater ponds and this one was on the mud flat. I weighted the tripod with sandbags and a Paul Bluff Vagabond used to supply power to my 1Ds Mark ll throughout the night. I shot 4 minute exposures utilizing intervalometers to time the exposures. During the exposures I would walk along the water front and through the woods in the dark and paint the scene with flashlights and electronic flash. I would shoot anywhere from 6 to 8 hours each night as the tide rose. I usually shot until 2 or 3 am or until the rising tide was waist deep or up to the bottom of my Vagabond and camera. At that point I would have to pull gear before it went under the salt water of the Gulf. Without the light painting the entire scene would be rendered as a silhouette. The only light was the sunset and lights on the west shore as well as the stars tracking thought he sky during the night.
I downloaded an app called Star Walk to my wife’s iPad and used it to locate and line up the North Star (Polaris) also known as the polestar. I positioned my camera such that Polaris was behind the light on the lighthouse. Polaris is the axis star for the earth’ rotation and as the earth rotates, it makes the stars streak through the night sky around the axis which is Polaris.
When I got back to the house, I would select the various frames that had good exposures on the different areas of the foreground and lighthouse exterior and combine or stack them, sometimes up to 40 photos at a time. Most frames would be good but if I and important area got a bad exposures, the gels were to strong or I had dark areas I’d missed, I’d head back the next night. It wasn’t possible get my camera and tripod positioned at exactly the same spot each time so basically I had to start from scratch each night.
The tricky part was when the tide came back in. I would have to wade back and forth from my light painting to my tripod which by the end was waist deep in Apalachee Bay. It was a challenge to walk the trails in the dark, remembering how many pops I did of this tree or that and then wade back to my tripod to keep the fish, sea turtles, alligators and commercial fishermen away from the camera and tripod and make sure the sand and mud under it weren’t shifting by the wave actions as the tide came back in. There are a ton of creepy ass fish noises in the water and shoreline during a rising tide in the pitch black night.
I worked the shoot from January of 2011 until June. Shoots like this are always a challenge as exampled by both my first night on the shoot and my last night shooting.
On my first night to shoot, I saw headlights come to the lighthouse while I was out checking my tripods so thinking it might be the park rangers, I went to see who it was. Turned out to be two rangers, hands on guns, checking who was at the lighthouse after closing. While I have worked with law enforcement at locations for 35 years, a nighttime shakedown in the dark is a nervous time for both parties. After patting me down and all of us walking back to the car to get my ID, I think the caution yielded to curiosity and they realized I was not a threat.
On my last visit, I had to walk most of the trails in the dark because a flashlight would have shown up as trails of light through the photos. I decided to give the project a break in June when I came face to face with an 8 foot alligator laying in one of the dark trails I used to move back and forth between the lighthouse and tripods in the ponds and gulf as I painted the area with my hand held strobes. I had nothing but rocks to chase him off. He was not amused. If your not familiar, June-Aug is alligator breeding season and they are much more aggressive at that time plus they feed at night. A dark colored 8 foot alligator is not only hard to see on land in the dark but impossible once it slips into the water. Even for hard news man for 35 years, when faced with an 8 foot horny hungry alligator while wading waist deep in the gulf and knee deep in the freshwater pond behind the lighthouse, it was time to temporarily abort the project.
While persistence pays for Tallahassee Stock Photo projects, I certainly wasn’t interested in being his dinner or his date for the night!
Listening to: Dan Seals-Everything that Glitters