“Famous” Bleecker Street Pizza restaurant and bar, Manhattan
I always enjoy restaurants and similar attractions that declare themselves to be “famous” or even “world-famous.” (Many years ago a place opened up in the Eastern Sierra Nevada along a main travel route and immediately declared itself to be “world-famous,” as near as I could tell on the day they opened. They must have been able to see the future, since eventually they arguably became so.) A very quick check suggests that this place might be good but might also not be exactly the most famous attraction in Manhattan…
That aside, I love the storefront. The shouting signs are classic, but the subtler elements are also interesting, from the hand-lettered “GLUTEN FREE” sign to the “as featured on WB11” testimonial and the barely visible “Purple Haze” neon sign in the window, not to mention the inevitable Manhattan plastic garbage sacks. It was a cold winter day, and no one was sitting outside at the tables, but I’ll bet things are different on a warm summer evening.
Thousands of Ross’s geese fill the dusk sky above California’s San Joaquin Valley
The light and the photographic subjects pass through a series of stages at the end of the day in these wetlands areas. The nondescript late afternoon light takes on a warmer tone as the sun drops toward the horizon and shadows lengthen, and often clouds in the distant west may momentarily mute the light. There is still plenty of light for traditional bird photography, as the direct sunlight has not yet disappeared. Before long comes the last bit of direct sun, golden in color on the bodies of white geese, and then it is twilight.
At this transitional moment all sort of light magic can happen. As flocks of birds wheel around in the night sky they take on different colors — the gold of reflected sunset, the blue of the eastern sky that is transitioning towards night, and sometimes they simply are black against the sky. And the sky shifts colors, too. Sometimes the effect is wild and gaudy, but more often it is subtle, with tones of pink and blue and purple and more. By the time I made this photograph the light was becoming quite dim, and it was dark enough that I could no longer maintain a shutter speed that would stop the motion of the birds. So I no longer tried! I use a longer shutter speed and pan, watching for the flocks to compose themselves in interesting ways, always in constant motion, and against the colors of the evening sky.
Ross’s geese in flight above San Joaquin Valley wetlands in dusk light
This was a beautiful mid-winter day in the San Joaquin Valley. It began with a two-hour pre-dawn drive from home, starting earlier than a month ago now that the days are beginning to lengthen again. I drove in clear weather and it remained so as the sky began to brighten as I entered the valley, but as I got closer to my destination I was pleased to encounter for — thin at first but within minutes so think that I had to slow and turn on fog lights. I arrived at my destination a half hour before sunrise, and began photographing, working all morning before finally taking a break for lunch.
My friends Claudia and Michael had dropped a hint in an email that they might be out that way later in the day, and I was pleased to find them there when I came back from my break. We greeted one another, took a quick trip around the area to scout the birds for evening photography, and then ended right back were we started. Big groups of sandhill cranes and geese (mostly Ross’s but with a few other interlopers mixed in) were active in newly turned fields nearby, so we found a good vantage point and watched as the evening light came on. Eventually the light became so dim that it was no longer really possible to make sharp stop-motion photographs of birds in flight. This is, in a way, one of my favorite times of day, when I switch over from a more typical kind of bird photography and begin to go with the darkness, using slow shutter speeds and panning along with the motion of flocks, and making photographs that work with the motion blur of low light and slower shutter speeds.
This particular egret and I shared a few brief seconds of photography as the bird suddenly emerged, already in flight, from a brushy area along the edge of a pond at a Sacramento Valley wildlife refuge. In most ways, the egrets are at their most graceful while in flight, but this is when they are also the most difficult to photograph. Usually they take off and fly away from the photographer, and they are soon too far away to photograph. This one, however, flew parallel to my position and gave me a good side view. I only had a brief interval to raise my camera, find the egret in the viewfinder, and track it as I squeezed of a sequence of photographs.
I shared another one a few days ago. I interpreted that one in black and white, so I thought I’d work this one out in color. There was a great deal of softness in the original image — while parts of the wings are in focus, the large aperture and motion of the bird left other parts soft. So I decided to go with that soft effect and, in fact, amplify it and to then also go with a bit of a high key treatment, further emphasizing the brightness of the bird against a bright, cloudy sky.
Evening light on the Big Sur Coast and the Big Creek Bridge
I have to admit that when it comes to available photograph subjects… I am spoiled. I knew I was going to go make photographs today, but when I awoke well before dawn I had not decided for sure where I would go. I considered going north across the Golden Gate to Point Reyes National Seashore, but it sounded like a weak weather system was going to pass through that area late in the day. I thought about heading to the Central Valley where my favorite winter subject, migratory birds, can be found — but I generally prefer to go there when I think there will be at least some fog. So I headed south, beginning my morning with a few hours at the Point Lobos State Reserve and then heading further south down the Big Sur coastline.
When I arrived at Point Lobos the light was interesting and the surf was still huge. Over the next few hours the surf diminished a bit and a thin overcast drifted in overhead and began to thicken. I figured that I might get somewhat clearer light a bit further south, so off I went on the Pacific Coast Highway. On the way south I stopped at this spot and considered it as a possible subject for the sunset hour, and then I continued on down the coast. Later I checked the time, estimated I had enough to make it back to this spot before sunset, and headed back up the road, arriving here perhaps ten minutes before the good light arrived. The bridge, dwarfed by the immense landscape of coastal mountains and ocean, spans the outlet of Big Creek.
I recently posted a photograph of a great egret, probably the most striking are recognizable of the egrets found in the parts of California where I photograph. That bird is found in field, creek beds, along lakes and rivers, and even in Pacific Ocean kelp beds. But it isn’t the only kind of egret found in the state. Two others are the snowy egret (seen here) and the small cattle egret. All of them often are found alone, though occasionally in small groups, and all may fly off with the least provocation if you get too close.
This snowy egret seemed to be in a rather inactive mood as I came upon it while driving around the perimeter of a wildlife refuge. Those who aren’t familiar with the California refuges and their regulations might wonder why one would drive rather than walk, but it turns out that this is the rule in most areas of the refuges. One is supposed to stay mostly inside a vehicle and make photographs from the “mobile blind” of the vehicle, supposedly since this is less stressful for the birds. So I stopped the vehicle and then very slowly moved forward a bit at a time, first to get close enough for an initial photograph and then to work my way closer for an even better image. Much to my surprise, this specimen didn’t budge at all, and I was able to stop quite close and make frame-filling photographs.
A flock of snow geese takes to the air above the Sacramento Valley
Occasionally during idle moments out photographing birds, when not much else is on my mind, I try to imagine what it might be like to be one of them, to live their very different lives, especially among the migratory flocking birds like geese. (Yes, I recognize that much of their lives would seem very, very unromantic and even brutal.) One of the most difficult and interesting things to try to imagine, given that it is so far out of our own experience, is what it might be like to be airborne among so many other birds.
One of the special moments that comes when photographing the migratory geese is when something triggers them to all take to the air at once in huge groups that may number in the thousands — maelstroms of wings and sound and flight. When this happens we often simply point our cameras in that direction and begin photographing almost mindlessly. (In the best circumstances, it isn’t quite so mindless, and we pay attention to things like the background landscape and the light as this happens.) Often these lift-offs happen at a distance, but when it is closer the effect is even wilder. On this morning I was fortunate to have a viewing position that was very close to the place where the birds had settled in, and when the inevitable wild liftoff came, it was about as close as I have experienced, and I was able to photograph straight through the rising flock, from very close birds to those already farther up in the air.