The Challenges of Florida Photography

Having recently taken — and more importantly stopped studying for — the Illinois bar exam, I finally found myself with time on my hands this weekend.  So I decided to put my new camera through its paces in the Everglades.  It was a thoroughly Floridian experience.

I had read Pine Glades Lake was a good spot to catch the sunset, so I found the correct unmarked turnoff from the main road, and a few bumpy minutes later pulled into a clearing next to the lake.  I had planned to scout out a good location before the sun really started to set, but decided to come up with a new plan when I noticed a pretty good sized gator lounging in the fading sunlight.  Evidently he wasn’t thrilled to see me either, because he grumpily got in the water.  But after swimming about 25 yards away, he promptly turned around a swam right back towards me (still in my car).  He stopped right at the water’s edge, and just lay there watching — except for the one time he appeared to bite at something, which, I think you’ll agree, looked a bit menacing:


As a result, I decided to see if I could just maneuver my car into a decent spot, set up my tripod from relative safety, and shoot the sunset out my driver-side window.  Fortunately, he got bored of me and swam off before the oranges and reds really set in, and I was able to snap a shot of the setup I was glad not to have to use:


With the gator gone, I was able to walk up the shore a bit to a better spot, but I still kept an eye out for him.  I was concerned he might stay mad at me for taking his spot, but I must have been wrong because not only did he remain a safe distance away, he later decided to swim right across my shot at a decidedly opportune moment!  Thanks for a memorable evening, big guy.


And then, as the colors faded to black, it began basically snowing mosquitos.  Still worth it, though.

See the rest of the sunset shots, as well as my run-in with a pair of barred owls and some iridescent insects here.


PS: This photo is something of an outtake, but I couldn’t resist posting the time I was scOWLed at this weekend!

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PPS: Another Florida moment I was not able to capture on film was when I heard a woman by the road shout at a passing biker.  As the biker rode off, the woman said to her friend, “Damn, I really wanted him to stop so I could take his picture!  He looked liked such a character.”  Speaking of characters, the friend she said this to was holding a squirrel monkey.  Wearing a tiny diaper.  In a National Park.  As if this was the most normal thing in the world.  Florida is a special state.

Posted in Animals, National Parks Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , |

Not the First in NYC

It’s no secret New York is a unique setting for urban photography. To have even a chance at finding a shot thousands of people haven’t already taken you have to go off the beaten path.  Even then, in a city so densely populated, most paths have been thoroughly beaten by now. Nonetheless, I was wandering the city early one morning in search of that fresh perspective and thought I’d finally found it: a new angle on not one but two New York landmarks: the Empire State Building framed by the supports of the Brooklyn Bridge.


And I thought the zoomed out shot from this angle, with some bright brick buildings and construction in the foreground, added an another element worth showing:


Having captured these shots, I went home thinking I’d succeeded in finding that new New York scene.  But of course, I was not the first to find this spot.

I took these photos in 2011.  More recently, I was rewatching one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, on Netflix.  A few minutes into Season 5, Episode 4, one of the main characters, Jenna Moroney, describes how she ended up locked into a 10-year contract with a Japanese karaoke video company.  The camera cuts away to a karaoke room with a video in the background featuring Jenna singing — and then becoming increasingly distraught about her contract — in front of scenic backdrops.  I was just enjoying the show when I realized Jenna was strangling a hapless man in front of a spot I knew well:

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Look familiar?  Oh well. I tried. You can see my other attempts at finding something novel through my lens in New York here.

Posted in Urban

Angel’s Landing in Zion

I am currently moving from LA to Miami, and I’m doing the drive—in part so that I can take some pictures in Utah before I get to the boring stuff (looking at you, Kansas). Today I was in Zion for my first hiking day. I woke up early to catch the first bus into the park so that I could beat the crowds to Angel’s Landing. If you tell someone who knows the park that you’re going to Zion, Angel’s Landing is the one thing everyone will say you must do.   It is a 5-mile round trip trail that takes you 1500 feet up to the top of an incredible outcropping with a view right down the Zion Valley. The trail starts off easily enough, with paved switchbacks to ease you into it. I actually wanted it to start more strenuously, because as much as I’d been looking forward to savoring the post-dawn peace in nature by myself, I had managed to pick up a socially clueless and/or lonely Russian/Canadian tag-along.  He would not stop with his incessant tales of other hikes, and was completely unconcerned that I was giving only monosyllabic responses. But I’d be able to lose Vladimir soon enough.

Angel’s Landing is famous not only for its views but also for the treacherous ascent to the actual viewing point: as you can see below, the pavement gives way to an unpaved path that tucks into a tight little switchback feature called “Walter’s Wiggles,” before last half mile or so, which is basically scrambling up boulders (with chains bolted into the mountain to help) with a 1500 foot sheer drop-off on either side.


Pretty exciting! As a lawyer, I’m actually surprised to find this level of risk available without some sort of waiver or more of a guardrail etc. I’ve often said that national parks in other countries can be more fun than ours because they aren’t normally as idiot-proofed as our highly developed National Parks system. That sentiment is especially relevant given the difficulty or at least risk of the Angel’s Landing climb. But once you make the climb, you are rewarded with some breathtaking panoramas. Well worth the climb—which is actually fun once you get past the prospect of falling to your death.


I was the first person from the first bus of the day to scale Angel’s Landing (three guys who camped in the park got an earlier start and beat me to the summit), and if you are going yourself, I might actually suggest being on that first bus but not rushing the ascent, because the light was actually better on my way down for a bit. Nonetheless, I caught my breath, took in the view, got a few good shots, and then went back down (equally if not more exciting for that famously dizzying stretch), to head over to my next trail for the day.

After Angel’s Landing, I took the Kayenta Trail over to the Emerald Pools trails. The water levels in the park are low right now, so the pools weren’t much to look at. On the bright side, I did not have to worry about the crowds blocking my shots like I might otherwise have had to. Instead, I took the opportunity to shoot some blooming cacti and flowers along the side of the trail, and the Zion Valley always offers imposing views regardless of the weather.


Overall, it was a good first day here in Utah and I highly recommend Zion to anyone passing through the area!  To see the rest of these photos, check out the Zion gallery, or Utah for more photos from this eventful road trip.

Posted in National Parks

Photo Safari Surprise

The day after I graduated from law school, I was on a plane to Nairobi.  My aunt and uncle worked in the Peace Corps back in the day, and one of my cousins was actually born there.  Now, some three decades later, they wanted to take the family back to see the village where they had taught and the vibrant country it is in.  Of course my immediate family jumped on that opportunity.  After a few days in transit, we finally arrived at our lodgings just outside the Maasai Mara National Reserve.  Even the accommodations in the Kenyan bush can’t help but be interesting:

Here, I encountered some baby warthogs (wart piglets?) right outside my door.


And this shot of the sunrise was taken right from our camp.


Unsurprisingly, a photo safari is a dream trip for a nature photographer, but I have to admit I was unprepared.  Literally, as it turned out.  On our first day, the very first photo op caught me completely by surprise.  This is because it occurred before we even left the property we were staying on, outside the park.  Some five minutes after the land rover set off, we were driving through the bush to get to the main road into the reserve, when we so some movement in up ahead.  It turned out to be a troop of baboons who either spooked by our presence or were late to some baboon event, because they came out from the trees sprinting by our in my lap, but I had not even adjusted a setting yet.

The baboons emerged and were passing so quickly I barely had time to turn on my Nikon, blindly guess an appropriate shutter speed, and start shooting.  For the next 30 seconds, as groups of baboons emerged from the trees, I would pan the camera from right to left as they ran by, hoping but doubting a single shot would come out.  After they’d passed, I scanned the photos on my camera to see what I’d gotten.  They were almost all out of focus or blurred by the motion of trying to track these animals at high speed.  But then I came to one photo that was in focus, and where the speed I had panned my camera had perfectly matched the speed of the baboons in that instant.  Their legs were in motion, but one of them had been looking at me for the entire duration of the exposure, providing a strangely evocative focal point for the picture:


This was my first keeper from what ended up being an incredible photo safari.  To see the other highlights, check out my East Africa (Safari) gallery.

Posted in Animals

Accidental Yosemite Night Hike

The State Bar of California Environmental Law Section has its annual conference right outside Yosemite National Park.  For three days, hundreds of environmental attorneys meet for panel discussions in the morning, and then the whole conference lets out so everyone can hike and enjoy the park in the afternoon.  This must be about as good as it gets as far as legal conferences go.

Law students are encouraged to attend with scholarships and discounts, so I made the trek.  After the second day’s lectures, my lawschool classmate Lara and I got a somewhat late start to the trailhead for Chilnualna Falls (which was silly on our part, because we could walk to this trail from our cabin).  We appeared to be the last 2 people to hit this trail that day, and we passed a lot of people coming down from the falls in the other direction.  We assumed this trail wasn’t too serious since it left from right by our cabin, but as it turns out, the trail is 8.4 miles long with 2,300 feet of elevation gain.  Whoops.

After we’d been hiking for a good two hours, and the afternoon was getting late, we considered turning back without seeing the falls.  Yet everyone we passed assured us “you’re almost there.”  …But we were told that for more than an hour.  By the time we got to the top, the sun was nearly setting.  This was both good and bad.  First, the good: the views were excellent and the light was perfect.  Having come all that way, we had to enjoy it for a bit (and take some pictures, of course).


Now, the bad: again, Lara and I dramatically underestimated this hike.  We had brought water bottles, but — aside from my camera — little else.  After I snapped these shots, the sun went down in Yosemite.  This conference is always held in late October, so while it was a pleasantly cool temperature for our hike up, it began dropping pretty fast.  More problematic, neither of us anticipated being out past sunset, so we had neglected to bring flashlights.  Nor did we really know where we were going.

Fortunately, the trail down was fairly clearly marked.  We did have some moments of uncertainty, and our pace for the hike down was limited by the darkness of the moonless evening.  We also heard what sounded like some sizable movement through the bushes not far away at one point.  But after our otherwise uneventful hike down, we managed to find our way back to the cabin with a story to tell and some photos to share.  The rest of my Yosemite shots (now from all three years I attended this conference), as well as my other photo-worthy moments during my time on the West Coast, are in the California gallery.

Posted in National Parks

Fearless Penguin Highway

Growing up in this day and age, I took it as a given that wild animals are afraid of people. There are exceptions, of course: many of us have had encounters with impertinent squirrels, raccoons, or a variety of opportunistic birds living near any habitual outdoor eating space. These animals that have become accustomed to living in our world without concerted hunting or harassment have learned we need not be feared. That said, beyond urban areas, I was always told if wanted to see some wildlife (on a hike, for example), I had to be quiet because animals run away when they hear people. That just seemed natural. But it’s not.

While it is certainly natural for particularly smaller animals to be wary of and run from larger potential predators, animals are not innately conditioned to flee the sight of all other animals. This makes some intuitive sense; otherwise, nature would be filled with creatures constantly sprinting away from each other, only to run into another animal and flee in a different direction in an endless repeating ricochet. Tranquility would not exist.

You hear about “untouched” places like the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador — ecosystems remote enough to have had the good fortune not to be exposed to humanity for at least recent memory. In these locations, you can observe animals that haven’t learned to run from us. Neither these creatures nor their ancestors recognized humans as predators and therefore do not fear us. It may seem trivial, but being in these situations can be a special experience, especially for a photographer.

This has all basically been a long-winded way of saying, “if you ever have the opportunity to visit Antarctica, I highly recommend you do so.” The ice is stunning, from the tiniest snowflakes to tabular icebergs that can cover thousands of square miles and rise over 500 feet above the water — yet still have 90% of their mass underwater.  The biggest tabular icebergs we saw were about 150 feet tall:


Beyond the ice, though, the wildlife is also pretty spectacular.  With the notable exception of the decimated whale populations, Antarctic fauna have had no reason to learn to fear mankind. This can lead to some amusing interactions and memorable photos.

Penguins are of particular note in this respect, and not only because they number in the millions down there. At times, they are as curious about us as we are about them:


Yet for the most part, as long as you don’t act threateningly, penguins tend to go about their lives as if we were not there.

Penguins spend much of their time along the coastlines. They need to swim to catch fish and move longer distances, but their major predators are almost entirely aquatic, so they pick their moments and indeed places to get in the water. And because the land rises sharply uphill from the coast in many places, penguins tend to walk — in comical single file — along paths next to the water along what are dubbed “penguin highways.” At one point I found myself next to one of these highways as a procession approached. So I just knelt down with my camera and waited as they proceeded by:

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Antarctica is a spectacular place. Unfortunately I was there early in my photographic career and did not have as good a camera as I’d have liked, but click here to see some highlights from that trip.

Posted in Animals