September 4, 2012 ·

Bors Vesterby

Art from Dragon

On location in northern Australia, my plan is to get close and create art in the field with the Estuarine Crocodile, ‘saltys’ to the aussies.  My intent is to show these creatures for what they are, descendants of the Archosaurs, the ‘ruling lizards’ of the Cretaceous age.   

Setting out, I have no idea how to do so.  I’m a landscape photographer with little wildlife photography experience.  What I learned is that these animals are their own landscape, and that the same principles apply; time in the field, get to know the subject, visualize, practice, avoid being eaten.

No Swimming

Drive across north-central Australia and the crocodile warning sign becomes a part of your daily visual experience.  There are pictograms of croc heads with their jaws wide, jaws closed, crocs nose to tail, crocodile crossings, cartoon crocs that display all the threat of a child’s fuzzy toy, and even a crocodile icon with a flailing person in its jaws.  Amusing is the sign titled ‘Crocodile Safety’ that looks like a checklist for crocodiles on how to stay safe at the best locations to grab a quick meal.  

From the comfort of a vehicle it’s all an adventure, like the ‘Here Be Dragons’ warnings on old maps.  Well, an old mentor once told me, “Bors, you don’t want adventure.  Adventure is what happens to other people when their expeditions go pear-shaped.”  

It isn’t often that we get direct experience of the raw, bare fact that 1-on-1 with certain critters, we are not at the top of the food chain.   My first reminder of this simple truth occurred as I was skiing cross-country in the high Arctic east of Barrow Alaska when, on my return leg, I came across a set of Polar Bear prints the size of dinner plates that overlay my earlier ski tracks.  The second occurred in the Kakadu, the tropical region of Oz where much of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was filmed.  The reality of these animals isn’t felt until you enter their world.   


Out on the Billabong 

When the monsoon waters recede after the Wet, the floods leave behind a remarkable lake and wetland ecosystem.  As the dry season advances, the wetlands  shrink, concentrating wildlife like African water holes.  

Driving from Darwin under the heat of a cloudless, tropical-blue sky, the Eucalyptus savanna produces a unique scent of aromatic forest and desert dust.  Once on-site, dust gives way to a wet, earthy waterscape abundant with birds.  

Photo by Nick Rains

At dawn, water gurgles under the prow of our little open boat as we head out.  Being so low to the water provides a sense of  intimacy with the wetland, as well as a hint of danger-humor as our guide lists the possible results of leaning out over the gunwale.  “…and if you drop your camera, we’re none of us going after it.” 

As the sun rises, its heat banishes the morning mist, and picks out the patterns of scutes on the backs of crocodiles lounging on the grassy banks.  One beast by itself catches our eye.  Most crocodiles are patterned, some of them beautifully, but this one has gone beyond color.  It is pure black.  Not dark gray.  Black.  

As we edge closer, I’m leaning forward, shutter snapping, seeking in slanted light and scaled shadow for the essence of this creature.  This is the animal I am here to photograph.  Something else is happening too.  In the primitive part of my brain, a small animal has awoken, and it is not happy to be here. 

Our guide has killed the engine to be less intrusive, and to this point the crocodile has ignored us, but at thirty feet we cross a threshold.  The head rises a few degrees and swivels like a battleship turret.  Everything stops, breathing included.  Our boat glides on.  

When the beast moves, it is unlike any motion I’ve seen in an animal.  Think of flowing obsidian.  Such effortless, gliding grace feels purely unnatural in something of this mass.  And it isn’t moving away like other crocs have done.  This one is turning our way, looking right at us. “I think we…” says Nick, and our guide replies “yeahyeahyeah,” and starts fumbling with the engine.  

The motor roars to life, then slams into reverse as the black crocodile descends into the water, making as little a disturbance in the surface as death itself, coming straight for us.  In the back of my head, the primitive little animal mind is screaming, screaming.  Waterweed and lily-pads mark the croc’s approach, catching up with us without apparent effort.  Looking down, I notice plants shift beside me as the beast passes beneath us.  The boat surges into open water and we all sit for a moment, poised for we don’t know what, hearts racing.  

A Matter of Scale(s)

Each encounter with these animals contributes elements that will result in the expedition’s master print.  Elements like yellow cat eyes, ivory teeth, patterned armor hide, lurking stealth, eternal patience, and perhaps most important—sheer breadth of reptile.   All of these, plus good light, must come together in a single print in order to communicate the essence and scale of Archosaur, the ruling lizard of these north Australian waterways.

The three examples that follow each show elements of crocodile character.  The first two tell their stories, yet the third, published in Better Digital Camera magazine, is where I began to see the crocodile in a different way.  


Critter as Landscape

Late one morning, a croc with remarkable patterns is found.  It’s position is unusual, only half submerged in smooth, flowing water, and far enough from the marsh-grass margin to be framed by water, even from a low angle.  The reflections of its tail scutes look like butterflies.  Panning it is like scanning a mountain ridge with a long lens, each section unique and worthy of study, yet part of a greater whole.   The animal is its own landscape, and the solution to expressing its full meaning lies in a technique now ubiquitous in landscape photography, but rarely used for wildlife — a stitched panorama.

I’m having too much fun to consider the impossibility of a successful panoramic from a tippy, moving boat with a 600mm lens hand held — so I go for it.  In fact, success criteria are many:

* Image stabilized lens.

* Manual focus on the eye, then on the near side of the critter in each image.  

* At least 1/3rd overlap, frame to frame.

* F8 to enable at least some depth of field.  

* ISO 100. (a devout of high end digital, I crave the being there feel of ISO 100)

* Bright, slightly diffuse morning light.

* Braced technique.  Arms tucked + forehead ‘tripod’.  

* Marksmanship breathing; fire in the natural pauses at the bottom and top of each breath.  This reduces camera shake and enables rapid capture to minimize movement parallax due to the boat traveling forward.  

* Low to the water shooting angle for an eye-to-eye feel.

* A healthy distance from the apex predator of the ecosystem.

Still, the captures are far from perfect.

1. Exposure.  In the heat of the moment I failed to lock the exposure, and there is a full  stop of difference between the brightest and darkest images.

2. Limited DOF.  A depth of field of around three inches is unforgiving.

3. Insufficient Overlap. I could have used more than 1/3rd overlap. (see #4)

4. Plane of Focus.  While the angle to the subject created nice, off-center composition in the head as well as body and tail scutes, it also caused the planes of focus to cut across the croc’s body at a shallow angle.

Exposure difference capture to capture.  Using AE Lock would have helped avoid this.

My approach to these challenges in post processing:

1. Exposure.  I choose a base exposure halfway between brightest and darkest and brought all frames to that exposure.  This limited the shift to a half stop in either direction.   

2. Limited DOF.  Not much you can do about the optics of DOF. I tried some creative sharpening and noise for some blurred areas, but the effects were never satisfactory.  (see #4 for final solution)

3. Insufficient Overlap.  Like DOF, you have what you took in terms of overlap.  

4. Plane of focus issues.  PTGui’s masking feature gives you complete control  over the blend.  In this case, I mask for the sharpest region of each frame.

Using PTGui Pro to mask for areas of greatest detail.  

Mask Effect

Left is the seam that PTGui chose, showing the result of blending a sharp region of one frame with a blurry region of another.  The right shows the result of manual masking to make use of areas of greatest detail in each frame.

Framing an Archosaur

The first full size, nine foot long proof emerges from the printer like the animal itself hauling out to bask in the sun.  

Proof in hand, I visit a number of framers before finding one with experience framing large pieces, and a can-do attitude, including a satisfaction guarantee.  

Some considerations for a panorama this wide.

* Matting.  Mats don’t come in pieces ten feet wide, so if matting is desired a good solution is to choose cloth-wrapped mats to hide the seam where they join.

* Moulding Length.  I decided that nothing short of ten feet wide will do the piece justice, however not all moulding is made in sticks that long.  If you want longer lengths, they must be spliced together.

* Plexiglas.  Does the framer have a source for museum grade plexi in very wide widths?  Glass isn’t an option due to weight and the possibility of torque on such a long piece.

* Transportation.  Can the framer deliver something this large?  Do they guarantee delivery in perfect condition?  If not, it will require a moving van. 

* Hanging.  Pieces of this size and weight are best supported at multiple points to avoid the risk of bowing the frame.

There are other mounting options, the most viable (and least expensive) is to print  on canvas.  This would eliminate the need for a frame and dramatically reduce overall weight.  However, for this piece I want the window effect of a frame and a print media that has little presence or texture of its own.   The intent is for the viewer to be transported, to look through the media without distraction, for them to smell the water, hear the cries of birds, and roam the breadth of reptile as though they themselves were in a tippy boat on a billabong in the Kakadu.   

On the gallery wall.



Bors Vesterby

Bors Vesterby creates fine art prints of landscapes he knows intimately—Washington state, the Southwest USA, and Australia.  Born in Tucson, AZ he has an affinity for the language spoken by dry desert rock, and the scent of sagebrush after a cloud burst.  Trained from boyhood in woods-lore, Bors’ connection to the land is direct, to walk it, sense its textures, listen and watch its moods.  

You can find more of Bors’ work, and subscribe to his free monthly newsletter on his website, www.landstrider-photography.com.  Subscribe today and receive your own copy of From Tippy Boat to Gallery Piece, as well as his essay Dynamic Patience in ebook readable format.

August, 2012

Copyright © Bors Vesterby 2012
All rights reserved worldwide 

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