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I’ve been all over most of Maine, from the Allagash at Fort Kent, to Katahdin and Bar Harbor, but I couldn’t tell you much more about the coast of Maine below Mt. Desert Island than that there’s a fabulous campground called Hermit Island I discovered on a memorable camping trip with my family when I was fourteen. Some day, I’ll have to find my way back to that childhood memory with its secluded sandy coves and windswept headlands where my dad and I grilled the flounder we caught over a campfire and I searched in vain for starfish. As a kid from Ohio, I didn’t know starfish don’t inhabit sandy beaches.
Like fried eggs, Maine seems to sort people into two schools, those that like their shores hard and those who like them soft. The latter gravitate to destinations southwest of Ellsworth to where the coast is covered by sand or silt owing to greater deposits of sedimentary rock along the southern Gulf of Maine that more easily erodes into beaches and mudflats and provides the substrate for extensive saltwater marshes. The rest of us prefer our coasts hard and rocky. We head to points northeast (or, “Downeast” as the old salts say) to where the granite and metamorphic geology resists erosion and there’s no cushy segue from land to sea. The Bold Coast of Maine. I also come here because by my admittedly rough estimate 90% of all tourists belong to the former school and they, along with the infrastructure they count on – the usual claptrap of boutiques and gift shops and the like disappear almost entirely as one heads Downeast of Ellsworth.
Any fourth grader (though, for a boy from Ohio, it took a Master’s Degree in Marine Zoology) growing up on the coast of Maine can tell you that the rocky intertidal is where to look for starfish and anemones and mussels and crabs and a host of marine life easily visible at low tide. Animals living on sandy beaches and mudflats tend to live in the sand and mud, not on it. Photographically, the rocky intertidal is much more productive.
At low tide, a pair of well-soled shoes is all you need to see critters that, otherwise, require SCUBA gear to find. With a hand-held camera equipped with one or two strobes, and a macro lens during a full-moon spring tide, I’m as happy as…a clam wandering from tide pool to tide pool framing some of the most exotic animals that have ever evolved on Earth. What’s more, every high tide brings the promise of new discoveries and novel photos as the ocean delivers a fresh collection of marine life that temporarily gets trapped in the pools at ebb tide. An ever-changing tableau of photo opportunities and you don’t even have to leave the spot!
Seals and nesting seabirds also prefer rocky shores to haul out and establish rookeries. From Andy’s boat (see my previous post of the bold coast), one can get calendar shots of guillemots and terns and razorbills, gray and harbor seals as he cruises along the headwalls and granite islands outside of Cutler Harbor. Again, leave your tripod in the car and simply bring a body and an IS or VR lens in the 200 – 400mm range. Andy will do the rest to get you eyeball to eyeball with a seal.
I’ve sat on the rocky intertidal at Schoodic Point with my wife, Cheryl, our dogs, Charley and Bela, a picnic basket, and my camera gear watching the sun set over the ocean and enjoying some fruit and crackers and cheese while reviewing on my laptop dozens of photos of marine life I’ve taken that day. It’s the fourth of July and we’re the only humans in sight. Try that at Old Orchard Beach.
May the Light Be With You,
Lessons Learned on the Road
I like to take family road trips. My favorite ones are those where we toss sleeping bags and a tent in the back of the truck and just go where we want. Waking up each morning without any destination in mind and sleeping that night wherever we are at the time we decide to camp adds to the fun and spontaneity.
I always bring my camera on these journeys and frequently these road trips yield some of my favorite images. So, I thought I would share some of the photography lessons that I have learned, or been reminded of, during these adventures. Though hardly revolutionary insights, I think they are worth mentioning. It is so easy for us to get comfortable in the way we take photos and to lose both a little bit of our passion as well as the opportunity for some inspiring images.
All of the following suggestions apply to more than just “road tripping” of course, but I have been reminded of each during my recent weeks on the road.
Turn Around (Version 1)
The moment only happens once so take advantage of it and TURN AROUND.
How many times have you driven by a place and said to yourself, “Wow, that’s striking. I should stop and capture that.” But you don’t. Instead you continue on because stopping is such a hassle, or not in your plans, or you don’t have time for it, or (fill in your own reason – we have SO many of them).
The “Pink House”
There is an abandoned pink house along the road to Plum Island which I have driven by dozens of times in the past. Each time I thought about how I should stop and take a picture. And each time I talked myself out of it because I was in a hurry to get to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge before I lost the good light.
Finally (I literally caught myself in mid-excuse), I said aloud “Then stop and take the damn photo!” And, I did. It is still one of my favorites. My advice, as you drive by that “perfect scene” while you are on your way to somewhere else, is to “make the U-turn and take the damn picture.” Just try not to illegally cross the double yellow line. I never have.
TURN AROUND (Version 2)
If you think you have a great image in front of you, TURN AROUND.
I think we have all heard this one before, but it is so often true that I think it should be a rule rather than a guideline. I was set up for the iconic shot of Bass Harbor Lighthouse near Acadia National Park in Maine thinking about how lucky I was to be there for such incredible light.
A storm had just passed through, it was evening and I managed to get a good spot among the multitude of photographers who were also there. (I may be exaggerating, but I think the Professional Photographers of America association even had an exhibition booth there at the time and there may also have been concession stands hawking food and drinks).
Knowing it was afternoon light and that the rain was in the air, I thought there might be the possibility of a rainbow. Since the antisolar point was behind me, I turned around to a scene that was more interesting to me than the lighthouse: The wife of one of the photographers was relaxing and reading a book while oblivious to the full rainbow above her.
At least several times a month, there is a better image behind me than in front of me.
Take the iconic shot and then find your own.
While some may disagree, I’m okay with positioning myself, or finding the spot to place my tripod, based on the images of the multitudes that have gone before me. First, it will never be the same image because the light and scene is always different and as unique as a fingerprint. Second, it’s a shortcut to finding interesting places you might never find on your own due to limited time.
The Bass Harbor Lighthouse that I noted above? I had never been there before so I looked to others’ images to see what was accessible, possible, and interesting. Then, once I was there, I looked for my own shot and captured one that I liked even better.
If you don’t know what the iconic shot is for a given location, there are some pretty simple ways to find out including using Google Images, photo books of the area and, my personal favorite, postcards in the racks of the service station, tourist center or park headquarters. I’m not suggesting that you set out only to recreate the images of someone else, but rather take advantage of the knowledge of others about where to go to find naturally scenic places.
There is often a secondary benefit too. The route to these iconic places will likely bring me through areas that are more interesting than the destination itself. This brings me to my other point…
Sometimes the journey is more interesting than the destination.
My daughter and I set out on a hike through the woods to visit a set of waterfalls. I hadn’t been to them in over 25 years and remembered them as dynamic and beautiful. They still were. However, now there was a boardwalk the last few hundred feet to the falls and a viewing platform designed to provide visitors with a view while minimizing the environmental impact.
It was a great view for a tourist, but not a great one for a photographer. So, reality intruded on my goal to achieve the magnificent image I envisioned while hiking there. I was determined to find some vantage point that would salvage the shot but I came up with nothing that was either safe or responsible to do. So, I appreciated the falls, snapped off a few casual shots and turned back.
I think it was because of this disappointment that my eyes were perhaps a little more open during the return journey. If I had obtained my waterfall shot, I may not have seen the lovely “S” curve of the path through the woods during my return. In the end, I think I came away with a more interesting image than if I had achieved my original vision.
Dig deep and stretch big.
Most of you who have seen my images know that I gravitate toward ultra-wide perspectives, taken down low to the ground of landscape scenes with plenty of water, rock and sky.
I know I’m in a rut when I look at a beautiful scene and am unable to find anything in it that moves me emotionally. I have found that the best way to keep my passion for photography alive, and to continue to find fresh images, is to try and move out of my comfort zone.
I do this by taking streetscapes, people scenes, scenes requiring unusual lighting or flashes, images that require me to pull out my camera manual and figure something out, scenes that are fleeting, human and emotional.
My dirty little secret? I love my landscapes, but these “out of my comfort zone” images are often the most rewarding to me personally — even though they may never sell or be seen by anyone other than a Facebook follower. Taking images outside of my comfort zone and trying to apply new techniques keeps my perspective fresh and the joy of photography alive and vibrant within me.
It may not be perfect light… but so what?
If you wait for the perfect light that occurs during the one-minute period each morning and evening, then you are going to be doing a lot of driving and not much photography. So, don’t wait. Shoot with the light you have and try to find its perfect subject match.
All the textbooks seem to indicate that you can only achieve good images during the magic hour of just after dawn or just before sunset. Do I shoot super-wide landscapes on sunny, clear, blue sky days? Not often. Why? Because that can be a pretty boring shot. But does that mean I put my camera away and call it a day? Nope. On such days, I may use it as an opportunity to practice my streetscapes or close-up/macros.
Recently while in Bar Harbor, Maine (during the harsh mid-day light), I struck up a conversation with the store clerk while the rest of my family shopped in the small boutique. It turns out she had a fascinating work history.
She traveled from Romania each of the past five summers to work various jobs around our country. (The Grand Canyon area is her favorite place to work – sorry Bar Harbor). While the light outside might have been terrible for landscapes, it was perfect as a portrait side-light to convey her open, friendly nature. Light that was more suitable for outside shooting would not have yielded this wonderful glow inside the shop.
Even when the light isn’t perfect for what you may originally have in mind, there is probably a perfect subject for the light you have.
So, get out on the road, take a bunch of photos, keep your passion alive and your camera on-hand. Set your sights on a goal but don’t stick to your guns — and please make safe U-turns.
The first time I visited Machias Seal Island was on my wedding day. I’d proposed to Cheryl in Vermont on a Friday and told her that if she met me on the intertidal at Schoodic Point that Sunday afternoon, we’d get married. Without waiting for an answer, I got in my truck and headed for Maine.
In Ellsworth, I stopped off to visit my dear friend, Tom Jordan and his wife Peggy. Tom was the police chief at Bar Harbor and also an undertaker. He was very well connected and after telling him what I’d told Cheryl and asking him and Peg to be our best man and bridesmaid, he promised to have everything arranged. He leaned over his glass of scotch and peered at me through his bifocals. “This time Sunday, you’ll be a married man,” he said.
“That’s if she shows up,” I said.
“Oh, she’ll be there,” said Peg without looking up from her dinner plate.
After dinner, I proceeded up to Lubec.
Early Saturday morning I photographed Quoddy Head Light at dawn. I spent the rest of the day at Quoddy State Park composing seascapes and getting up close to the sundews and pitcher plants in the boreal bog in the park. Saturday night I camped in the back of my truck and then early on Sunday morning I drove over to Cutler Harbor for my first of many excursions to Machias Seal Island.
Tiny Machias Seal Island (MSI) rises some thirty feet above the Bay of Fundy ten miles off the coast of Cutler, Maine. At fifteen acres, it’s just large enough to support a thin veneer of soil, some hearty grasses, and a garnish of sheep laurel and seaside rose. The Canadian Dept. of Fisheries manages the island and maintains the lighthouse. Canada also, albeit reluctantly at times, provides a seasonal interpretive naturalist to shepherd small groups of ecotourists who come to Machias Seal Island to see and photograph the island’s most outstanding attribute – the thousands of razorbills, murres, common and arctic terns, petrels, and Atlantic puffins that return to the island every summer to nest and raise their broods.
Captain Andy Patterson is one of only a few operators licensed to bring ecotourists to Machias Seal Island during the precious nesting season. He runs his Bold Coast Charter Company – Puffin and Sightseeing Tours Along the Bold Coast of Maine (www.boldcoast.com) – out of Cutler Harbor aboard the Barbara Frost. A quota limits the number of visitors and the duration of one’s visit to MSI to three hours. Boats must be anchored offshore and visitors are ferried to the island in small skiffs. Once safely on the island, the naturalist escorts you to a patio in the shadow of the lighthouse with some picnic tables, appraises you of the protocols and precautions, and then leads you down a grassy path to the rocky intertidal where he assigns two or three people to each of several plywood blinds. Stuffy, sometimes downright hot, cramped, and acrid with the stench of uric acid, rotting fish, and your blindmates sweat, you wouldn’t imagine that your sojourn in the blind would be an experience you’d recall fondly for the rest of your life.
Outside the blind, a feathered frenzy of birds – murres, razorbills, and most notably, puffins wing to and fro, preen and squabble and huddle in cliques like delegates at a national convention on the guano-encrusted rocks. If their eggs have hatched, adult birds return to the intertidal with hauls of hake, herring, and krill in their beaks.
In fact, my afternoon in the blind, during which I captured this image of a puffin with a beak-full of hake, together with my wedding on the intertidal at Schoodic Point that evening – yes, Cheryl showed up – made July 26, 1998 one of the most remarkable and happiest days of my life.
In my next NEPG blog, I’ll continue with my adventures on Maine’s Bold Coast and describe some techniques you might want to keep in mind if you plan to visit this magnificent region of New England.
With gratitude and respect,
Atmosphere – Sights and Sounds
There are few things as awe-inspiring as observing the night sky and so few people ever get to see it. I’ve always been a “night owl” – I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood to enjoy the sights and sounds of the night. In the past year or so I’ve become increasingly interested in taking my love of the night to another level: capturing it on camera. This short essay covers a few of the reasons why I shoot at night, not how: for advice on camera settings and methods for how to shoot in the dark I recommend folks check out Michael Blanchette’s great 3-part blog posts from last March, June and September. And while you’re at it read Jim Salge’s excellent write-up on viewing the Northern Lights from last August.
The atmosphere of the night, the sights and sounds, are so very contrary from normal daytime hours that it is literally a different world – I know it seems trite to try to explain it but it is a radical world of diffused light, excessive shadows and noises that you will simply never see or hear when the sun is up.
Sights – Keep Your Eyes Open
I live in central Maine and I have been fortunate enough to have seen the Aurora Borealis twice in the past few months. I will never forget when I saw the Northern Lights for the first time: at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol, Maine. I went out that night specifically to shoot the Milky Way with the lighthouse in the foreground but I had also heard on the news that the chance for seeing the aurora that night was decent. It was a perfectly clear albeit cold night in March – St. Patrick’s Day morning. I was aiming my camera towards the ocean and clicking away, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the rugged coastline when something made me turn around (always look behind you when shooting!) and there, behind me was an incredible scene of shimmering light green and magenta colors dancing in the sky. I had never seen the aurora before. I quickly turned my camera around and began shooting the Northern Lights for the first time. I became giddy and a bit nervous that I was actually capturing such a fantastic light show in the middle of the night – but I quickly calmed down and the pragmatic part of my brain took over: check my camera settings, trust my instincts, and keep shooting.
I simply could not believe the colors revealed on the LCD screen on my camera: pinks, reds and magentas that I had never seen in the natural world at night. I ran around for a half an hour capturing different vantage points as the sunrise twilight hour began taking over the sky; within minutes the colors were disappearing along with the stars, the Milky Way, and the fantastic gift that Mother Nature had allowed me to witness. As the sun was piercing the horizon just after 6 AM, six or eight other photographers arrived, setting up their tripods and grabbing gear out of their backpacks. They were all standing in a straight line, shooting towards the sunrise over the ocean, when I started walking towards them. They all looked genuinely surprised that they weren’t the first folks to be there shooting the morning’s activities. A few of them asked me how long I had been there and I simply showed them the LCD screen on my camera. I told them I had been shooting the night sky for the past 4 hours and they all began shouting about how they had missed a (perhaps) once-in-a-lifetime scene because they showed up late to the party. The possibility of seeing the aurora had been well publicized in the local news but none of these folks had heeded the advice.
Sounds – Keep Your Ears Open
The second time I witnessed the aurora was last week, during the morning of May 18. Again the possibility of seeing the aurora was publicized, albeit this time in smaller, specific astronomy circles – and a good friend of mine called me and said, “Go out tonight and capture it man!” So I drove out to a local body of water hoping that the reflections would be impressive and after taking some frantic test shots and realizing that yes, indeed, there was a geomagnetic storm happening, I picked a vantage point I liked: on the train tracks that run along the Western edge of Unity Pond, Maine. Keeping my foreground elements in mind (train tracks, a single tree, the pond itself) and aiming my camera directly North, I set my in-camera intervalometer to shoot 30 second exposures for the next 40 minutes or so. Again, Mother Nature did not disappoint. The wind was calm and although the cloud cover was thick it was also sporadic so I was able to capture some awe-inspiring images of the atmospheric dancing of lights. They were more green and purple this time, the way I’ve always seen them depicted in photos – it was a gorgeous and awesome sight that literally thrust me into the throe of wonder yet again.
But the thing that sticks in my mind the most about that night is surprisingly not the visual light show going on in front of me – it is the sounds I heard; to my right was the quiet, glass-like water’s edge of the pond. But to my left was a bog that was roaring with the creatures of the night – frogs. I smiled at the sounds of the high-pitched, constant chirp of peepers and the occasional load burp of a bullfrog or two. And then I heard something I’ve never heard before – the sound of an amphibian playing the jug. I know it was just a huge frog singing out into the night, perhaps trying to impress the local ladies, but it sounded like he was on someone’s front-porch playing the jug in an impromptu band. He would do his thing for 10 seconds or so and then be quiet for 3 or 4 minutes, long enough for me to forget he was there … and then he’d catch his breath and blow it out for another 10 seconds. And it was almost as awe-inspiring as the aurora – something I had never sensed before, whether it be with my eyes or my ears.
These are just a few experiences I’ve had while out shooting at night that have opened up my world to something new: these existential awakenings and empirical awareness that have sparked my inner child to marvel at the world again. There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, the quiet calm and the sounds of the night. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a rarely seen natural light show as well! I urge everyone reading this to spend more time looking up into the night sky, it is a beautiful and magical sight that too few people ever enjoy. And while you’re out there, make sure you take a camera because you never know what you might see – and always take a second to look behind you! There may be something there that you’ve never seen before.
Text & images by Mike Taylor - Taylor Photography
Recently, on our Facebook page, one of the fans posted a question. It was worded something like this: “I desperately want to photograph owls. I have very limited time and live in Boston. Where can I go to photograph owls?”
The person writing the post already had these 3 strikes against them:
1: Owls. They are among the most difficult birds to find.
2: Limited time. This equals almost a 0% chance of finding any kind of wildlife, much less owls.
3: Living in a metro area. This is not conducive to finding owls in the wild.
Keys to Success
To be successful at any kind of wildlife photography you need 3 basic things:
1. Knowledge of your subject.
2. TIME to spend in the field.
3. Finding habitats that support the type of wildlife you’re looking for.
To that end I’ve decided to recount a typical safari I went on to get Bald Eagle pictures. If you think this is over the top I’m sure most of the Guild members who shoot wildlife will confirm that it’s what you have to do to be successful.
For 20 years now, on the weekend after Labor Day, I have been playing in a golf tournament in Maine. One of the birds of prey that I wanted better pictures of was the Bald Eagle. Here in Southern New England they are scarce. I did research and found that one of the largest concentrations of Bald Eagles is in the Lake Umbagog region in northern New Hampshire-Maine. I got out maps, researched Google map and satellite images, and decided where I was going.
I tacked 3 days on the front end of the golf trip and packed golf gear, photography gear, and kayak gear in my pickup and hit the road. I drove from Rhode Island, up through western Maine, through Grafton Notch to Errol, NH. I had talked my sister Judy, also a photographer in VT, into meeting me there. I got to Errol in the late afternoon. I couldn’t call her because I had lost cell service 50 miles back in Maine. I drove to the Androscoggin River where we planned on putting in. There was the familiar Toyota with VT plates and kayak — Judy was at the river. We scouted the river and planned our launch at first light.
Morning dawned clear but with heavy fog over the river. The date was Sept. 6, the temperature was 31 degrees. We drove the short distance to the river and prepared to launch. It was here that we met Fred. Fred lived in Errol and fished the river almost daily. We questioned Fred on where the eagles were, what we could expect, etc. His local knowledge proved invaluable in planning our day.
Where the Eagles Live
We kayaked up the Androscoggin, taking our time, looking for moose, eagles, and loons. When we reached the headwaters there was Fred, casting for bass at the mouth of the river. Sitting in a tall pine was a bald eagle. We photographed him from the kayaks, taking our time, lining up the shot to take advantage of the light. At some point the eagle swooped over the river and landed in another tree. We started to paddle across the river, anxious to get more pictures. As we passed Fred he said, “Don’t hurry. He’s not going anywhere because he wants this.” Fred then proceeded to lift a nice bass out of the water. He told us to take our time – he’d hold the fish until we got our shots. “I’d give it to him, but it’s a bass,” he said. “I’d give him a pickerel, but I won’t give him a bass.”
Striking a Pose
Eventually he released the bass and the eagle flew back across the river. It was here that he did something that gave us a shot that I haven’t seen in anyone else’s pictures — he posed. He struck the pose that you see on the back of every quarter — wings spread; looking regal. He held it for so long his wings drooped and he finally folded them in and flew off. We spent a total of about 6 hours in the kayaks that day. In the evening we went looking for moose without any luck.
One more Shot
The next morning, before I left, I took one more ride up Rt. 16 looking for moose. I found a spot on the Magalloway River with the morning fog accenting the sunrise. I stopped and took some shots. One of the pictures I took that morning took top honors in a juried art show the following summer.
I drove the long trip back to Sebago Lake and Frye Island for the start of the golf tournament. I switched from photography and kayak gear to golf spikes and clubs. By the time I got back home I had been gone for a week, had logged over 600 miles on the truck, kayaked the beginning of the Androscoggin River and Lake Umbagog, photographed eagles, and took a picture that would win an award. So the next time you see a wildlife shot that really grabs you, you can bet that the photographer, like me, went the extra mile — or two.
~ Butch Lombardi