Archive for the ‘Projects’ category

How NOT to Photograph a Whale Underwater.

Whale cruising by shore (click to view larger image)


I have been told to be patient and that good things take time to happen but a part of me wonders if it’s even possible.  It all started two years ago when I watched whales scratch their bellies right on shore by my house in Todos Santos.  So close you could almost reach out from the beach and touch them.  They say they do it to remove barnacles from their bodies.  I took plenty of shots from shore but the back of a whale is really not that interesting.  Occasionally you might get a tail sticking out, or a fin or a nose but again, pretty boring shot.  I wanted an underwater image.
Watching a whale cruise by (click to view larger image)


Visibility is the first biggest issue.  Baja doesn’t have the clear water you might find in Hawaii (where many whales underwater are photographed) and clear water is a must when photographing such large animals underwater.  If you have murky water all you will photograph is murky water.  You have to wait for those perfect conditions of no swell and no wind for a few days to settle all the sediments to the bottom.  This doesn’t happen very often in Baja and you just have to wait.  “Patience grasshopper” I have been told.
The next issue is the whales.  Dam wild animals, aren’t they excited and honored to be photographed? I imagine they all have different personalities, just like humans and you have to find that curious one, that bold one not afraid of something as intimidating as little Paolo with a mask and the wide-open eyes of fear.  Yes fear, and I am not shy to admit it.  Jumping in the water to try to get within 10 yards of an animal that weighs 10 tons, is covered with razor sharp barnacles, is the size of a ship and that could really mess you up with a flip of a tail is intense.  Last year, a 14-foot whale shark I was photographing, accidentally slapped me with the tail and it sure got my attention.  If I multiply that force by the 9 extra tons of a gray whale, plus the barnacles then that math would turn me into a badly scarred pancake.  The first time I tried to approach a gray whale that was cruising by shore I jumped in the water and pretended to swim towards it.  In truth, I didn’t put the effort I needed to move forward and get close, I was frozen.  I knew that the sea monster was there in the murky water ready to get me.  Or at least that’s what went through my subconscious.
Jumping in (click to view larger image)

This year I met a free diver from New York named Peter and I asked him if he wanted to dive with whales.  I figured that having an extra body in the water was going to help fight those sea monsters that run through my head when I jump in the water.  We waited for the perfect conditions.  No wind for a few days, no waves and a clear sunny day.  We loaded the pickup truck with all the gear and off we went bouncing down the beach Mexican style.  It didn’t take long “There they are!” Peter shouted.  A few whales right by shore.  I took a few shots from shore and suited up and we jumped in as a whale approached close by.

Swimming into deeper water (click to view larger image)

As we swam to deeper water I saw rays of light penetrating into the depths.  Peter should have been right near me but I couldn’t see him.  I popped my head up and sure enough he was nearby, it was good to have the mental comfort of someone close, I kept going.  Visibility was not as good as I was hoping, we swam and swam but no encounter, the whale had vanished.  We decided to wait for another passer by.  We waited and waited until Peter started making whale sounds to mess with me.  A little while later I dove down when he couldn’t see me and snuck up on him from underwater pretending to be a sea monster from the depths and I felt him jerk even though he played it cool as if I didn’t scare him.  Hours went by, I felt cold but mostly I felt nauseous.  I also realized that wearing my weight belt wasn’t a good idea.  Weights are good for going down but are not good when you are just trying to stay on the surface, I was exhausted.  The sun was getting lower in the horizon and it felt like it was penetrating and burning a hole in my brain.  Peter was still making whale sounds.  I was ready to head back when Peter glanced at me with the same look of distress I was feeling.  “Let’s go back”.

Peter not looking so happy (click to view larger image)

We started swimming back and Peter made an other whale sound that this time got me, it sounded more real than the other.  I looked up, he looked up.  “Ah, ah, I got you this time!” and then he pointed “THERE!!!!!  WHALE!!!”.  I kept swimming annoyed.  “THERE!!! REALLY!!!!”.  I turned around and sure enough the back of a whale erupted out of the water not more than 30 yards from me.  I turned around and swam as hard as I could towards the monster.  My camera trusted in front of me ready to shoot but also as a shield, I felt like a frighten gladiator.  I saw deep water, rays penetrating into nothingness and then bait fish swimming lighting speed towards me in fear, escaping something big.  I knew what they had seen.  I shot a few frames as they passed by.  I knew I was close and that the whale could have been coming at me, I was ready to see a shadow, I was ready to see the beast, my finger ready to press the shutter.  I kept going and going and going but all I saw was blue water.  The whale had vanished once again.

The shot taken as the bait fish swam by (click to view larger image)

Next day there was still no wind and waves.  I decided to try a different approach.  Using a kayak to find whales more in open water.  Maybe the vicinity of shore made them more susceptible to humans, maybe one person was better than two people.  I loaded up the truck with the kayak and gear and drove down the beach.  I could see a few whales a ½ mile or so from shore.  This time I changed my gear set up.  I took out a good 6 pounds from my weight belt so that I could dive but I would also float easily.  I swapped my free diving mask for a pair of swimming goggles.  I wanted less in between me and the camera as even a low volume free diving mask can be cumbersome.  I strapped all my gear on the kayak and waited for the right moment in between waves and pushed off the beach.  A few Mexican fisherman on the beach watched me with a smirk on their faces, waiting for me to flip or get pounded by the waves.  I made it out.  Not too far from shore I noticed some lobster traps indicating a reef.  I paddled up to them and slipped off the kayak with my swimming gaggles to check out the reef.  I could see the ropes disappearing into the depths.  Again the visibly wasn’t as good as I wanted it.  I could see a faint darkness at the bottom indicating there was something but not giving me a clear picture of what was there.  There is something I find very spooky about being suspended in the water and not being able to see clearly.  You wonder what is hiding behind that layer.  For some reason the ropes disappearing into the depths accentuated this uncomfortable feeling and I decided to get back on the kayak.  I paddled a half a mile out, closer to the whales, and I was surprised by how loud the sound of the spout was.  You can feel the power of their breathing as their spout burst out of the water.  A mile down from where I was I could see a whale jumping all the way out of the water several times and crashing down into the ocean into spectacular explosions.  I wondered what would happen if a whale decided to jump while I was there and landed on me.  A kayak/human pancake?

No success, I am looking disappointed (click to view larger image)

This time I decided to use the patient approach.  Wait in an area, intercept the whales as they move along the shoreline and slip in the water right in front of them in their trajectory.  Sounded like a good plan.  The first close encounter doesn’t take long to happen.  It’s a mom with her calf.  This brings an other element of concern.  Are mama whales protective of their babies?  I make it to about 60 yards in front of them and mama whale decides I am no one to mess with and changes her trajectory to avoid me, I don’t blame her.  This happens several times.  After a few hours of playing this game with different whales finally one is pointing right at me.  Like the Titanic about to run into the iceberg, me being the iceberg.  I get right in front of it, the whale is moving at a good speed, she is maybe 40 yards away coming myway. I time it perfect, I slip in the water as she approaches.  She is at 20 yards now!  I hang on to my kayak with one hand, as if it could protect me, the camera with the other shaky hand.  I am ready for the impact but I am also ready to click the shutter before I get run over.  My heart is pounding, I wait for that shadow to appear and finally see the whale underwater but nothing happens. Vanished once again…

I slide back on my kayak, disappointed, wondering what it will take.  I feel pretty tired.  I figure out a way to lay down on my kayak and rest.  I am drifting down the Ocean and the fatigue takes over my consciousness.  I am dosing off and it feels good.  I can hear whales in the distance, the sun feels warm, the rocking of the kayak, I am sleeping now.  “WHOMP!” A whale erupts out of the water a few feet from my kayak! I am trying to get up, grab my camera that is stuck in the webbing.  I can see the eye of the whale.  The camera comes loose I dip it in the water, point it towards the last place I saw the whale and start firing away.  5 frames of hope.  When the whale is for sure gone I look at the frames with anticipation and excitement.  My hope is shattered, blue water, nothing but blue water.  The sun is low on the horizon, time to get back.
One of the frames taken as the whale swam away undetected (click to view larger image)


To photograph, or not to photograph a hummingbird, that is the question.

The dilemmas of being a photographer.

The porch (click on all images for larger view)
A few years back I started spending my winters in Mexico.  I was tired of shoveling snow, having cold hands and cold feet but mostly I became obsessed with surfing.  My little house in the middle of the desert just north of Todos Santos is a little oasis of green.  The Ejido canal, a fresh water irrigation channel of crystal clear mountain water (from the Sierras Lagunas) runs right through my property.  In the desert, you add water to the soil and everything grows like magic.  And magic it is around my house, fruit trees, palms, flowers, a paradise for birds.
Curve Billed Thrasher
Gila Woodpecker (click on image)
I have sat on my porch under the shade of the coconut palm and watched countless numbers of birds fly by.  I am no bird watcher but I coundn’t help noticing the abundance of species.  Last year, mostly motivated by the task of promoting my house, which becomes a vacation rental when I am not there, I started photographing the birds to post on my Casa Las Olas facebook page.  It didn’t take long to realize that photographing birds is no easy task and there is a reason why there are photographers who specialize in that.  Believe it or not but birds fly!  And they fly fast and they really don’t like Italians chasing them around pointing a long object at them.  My long lens seemed very long until I tried this new task.  100-400 5.6 zoom is really no big gun when we are talking birds.


Cactus Wren (click on image)

My first approach was, see a bird, run to grab my camera, run at the bird full speed while my spring loaded door slammed behind me , point the camera and watch the bird fly away before I even had a chance to see it through the view finder.  I learned that patience and stealth was the key to success.  It’s a hunt, a hunt which requires skill and patience.  The question is how much patience and skill do you put into this task?  As a professional photographer you soon learn that you just can’t photograph every cool thing you see.  In my early days I lived with a camera strapped around my neck and fired away.   I lived my experiences from behind a lens and only when I looked at the pictures I truly lived the experience.  That is no way to live.   I realized it was important to make a change and I started thinking with a business sense.  Do I REALLY need to take a picture of that?  Is the light right? Can I sell that picture? Can I use that picture for anything?  Could that picture go on my portfolio or my website?

Western Tanager


So I had to ask myself, will a wildlife type picture of a bird ever go on my website or porfolio?  Can I sell it…?  Do I need to take that picture?  Probably not.  How much time do I invest taking pictures of birds when the only place I will use them is on my Casa Las Olas vacation rental facebookpage?

Cactus Wren (click on image)
Then I decided  to throw my business sense away and just fire away.  I spent hours stalking birds and trying to get a shot.  I was not trying to shoot art and wait for the perfect light.  I was just trying to get the bird.  It became a hunt and honestly a very fun one.   Some pictures are better than others but the goal was to just document and it didn’t really matter how good the pictures were.

Northern Cardinal, male
A few weeks ago I made it back to my house in Mexico and discovered what I believe is a family of hummingbirds.  Or maybe they are not a family but there is a few of them.  They hang out and drink the nectar from the flowers of a grove of banana trees or from a massive agave that has flowered in its last effort to propagate before it dyes (they flower once and then they die, which is very unfortunate).  I sat by the flowers thinking it was going to be easy.  I had in mind that perfect National Geographic image of the bird hovering over the flower.  What I didn’t realize is that the little bastards move fast and between the Agave and the banana flowers they had a million and one choices and I couldn’t just wait and focus my camera on one flower.  As soon as I would see them hover over one flower I would blink and they would be gone, vanished.  I tried not to blink but you can’t sustain that.  We made circles around the banana grove, the birds always going to the opposite side of were I was.  I think they enjoyed messing with me.  I could hear the surf pound the beach and I had just grabbed my camera on my way to surfing thinking it was going to be a quick deal.  Bang and go.   Surfing was really my priority at that point but soon things flipped around on me, the hunt was on.  I was not going to give up so easily and the little bastards had to be immortalized on pixels.  I blocked the sound of surf from my mind and danced around the bananas.  2 hours went by in a blink but finally I managed a few shots.  The hummingbird was captured for now.  This may or may not be National Geographic material but that will happen later.  After I surf.
Xantus’s Hummingbird (click on images)
Xantus’s Hummingbird


Xantus’s Hummingbird
Xantus’s Hummingbird

Choice Out Loud

January 22, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision protecting every woman’s right to abortion. I had the honor of working with 40 other photographers on this project. Check it out the Choice Out Loud project and share it on social media!