Photography: The Magical Light of Wetlands

This article dates from some years ago, almost pre-digital! – when I was writing regularly for Australian Photography. I hope it may still have some interest and relevance.

(Please click on the images for larger and higher res reproductions)

Light is the very essence of photography…

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Mangroves at High Tide – Brisbane Water – north of Sydney. This image was taken with Leitz  50mm f2 Summitar lens on a Leica III. This Summitar is colour-coated,  and the glass is still superb.

Remember the story about a famous photographer who was once walking around a photographic exhibition when he was asked:  “Are you a photographer, too?”  “No” he answered bluntly, – “I am an artist in light.”

Yes, that might sound pompous, but we all must master the use of light if we aspire to become even half-way decent photographers.

Modern technology has given us cameras that do most of our thinking for us. Our every-day cameras have highly sophisticated light metering systems and – often – the idea is that we simply point and shoot.  A good modern camera —fixed on a tripod, for instance, and pointed at a particular subject — would  produce virtually identical images if half a dozen people filed past and simply pushed the shutter release.   But that’s not what we’re after. The magic of light can be fickle and elusive, and — as each of us sees things differently – our idiosyncratic use of  light is one of the basic tools of our work.  Our ability to capture the quality of light within the image in our viewfinder is a vital part of the raw material that contributes to the individuality of our work.  To succeed, our photos should record the magic, the spirit, the immediacy, and the essence of the moment and the scene.  And they should have the ability to impact and communicate through time.

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Another Summitar Leica III image taken of mangroves at Brisbane Water, NSW, Australia

In the vast and fascinating wetlands of the world – in river basins, swamps, marshlands, estuaries, harbour foreshores, lagoons, and  lakes – we have the chance to experiment with light – with sunrises and sunsets, and particularly with reflected light, – with mysteriously wraith-like mists, scintillating scudding rainstorms, with the dancing sparkle of sunlight caught in flight on the moving surface of water, and with the stark drama of contrasted light and shade. Here we can find the inspiration to compose our images in all weather conditions, at any time of day – and throughout the passing seasons.

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Summitar/Leica III again

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High Tide near Brooklyn, NSW Australia. Leica III this time using Summar uncoated 50mm F2 lens.

I was lucky to spend time in the Amazon basin in Brasil.  Wet? I was often drenched – almost washed away .  I had my trusty Pentax P30t with me, but I was also relying on using completely manual cameras – a Leica IIIb  rangefinder, and a Pentax SV SLR – cameras that I knew would work even if batteries or battery-driven equipment failed.  I would never travel to such an area without taking along exclusively manual equipment. Imagine being there and not having a camera that worked!  But despite the almost constantly damp and dripping atmosphere, and the incredible weight of the hammering torrential rain, my P30t never let me down.   It’s TTL meter never lies, but I always carry a Weston Master V handheld meter in my bag – just in case.  (The Weston Master is a precision instrument powered by a photoelectric cell, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to drop it in a creek.)

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Heron fishing in the Amazon near Belem.  Pentax p30t camera – medium telephoto lens

If you’re ever caught out without any form of meter, you can fall back on the old f16 anchor point idea of exposure.  It works like this: using f16 and the reciprocal of your film’s speed as your anchor point, you choose and change your shutter speeds according to the light; –  in bright sunlight it would be 1/400th of a second with 400 ASA film. In hazy bright light with the same film, move one speed down – to 1/250th of a second; hazy and bright without shadows would be 1/125th of a second; heavy overcast 1/60th – and so on.  You’ll should soon get the hang of it, but – if this ready-reckoner seems too hit-and-miss for you – it’s still possible to buy revolving calculator cards that give the readout for light condition, time of day, and season of the year.  And on this subject of exposure there’s an old rule that some of us tend to forget today: expose for the darkest areas of your image, and let the light areas look after themselves.

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Woy Woy on Brisbane Water – north of Sydney.  Leica with Summar using a green filter

Here in Australia we have a variety of wetlands within relatively easy reach of most of our coastal cities.  Sydney, for instance, has the widespread and wonderful ‘Great Lakes‘ area only a short drive up the coast.  This is a veritable paradise for anyone interested in unspoiled landscape or wildlife photography.  The bird-life here is rich and abundant, — and the vegetation is surprisingly diverse and fascinating.

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On the Myall Lakes, part of the Great Lakes area north of Sydney.  Leica  III with Summitar lens

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The rhythm of the reflections of reeds – Myall Lakes Leica III and Summitar F2 lens 

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I love working here with black-and-white film.  For me it’s a medium that can conjure atmosphere and a sense of tantalising mystery: an atmosphere that can give a timeless ‘other-worldliness’ to the best images.  But we have the option of digital, colour transparency, colour print, and two types of black-and-white film: the traditional film that is processed with B&W chemicals, and now the modern films by Kodak and Ilford, for instance, that are processed with colour chemicals.  Try these new ‘black-and-white’ films, and make your own choice. Their popularity lies in their cost and ease of processing. We can drop them in at  almost any photolab, and the printing and developing will set you back much less than for the older and specifically dedicated B&W films.  Most modern photolabs work with digital equipment, so if you’re a purist and want high quality silver bromide prints, you’ll either have to make them yourself, or send the negs to a specialist laboratory.

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Copacabana lagoon – north of Sydney.  Leica III and Summar lens

The majority of us will be using 35mm cameras, but there should be few problems using medium format cameras in most areas of Australia’s wetlands.  Medium format cameras are ideal when setting up a shot with plenty of time, but for most of us they’re more cumbersome to lug around, load and unload – and  to use – than our 35mm equipment.  For some of us, too, TLR cameras are too awkward to use when split-second reactions are vital for our work.

The advent of 35 mm photography, following the design and development of Oscar Barnack‘s brainchild  – the Leica – gave us a truly handy ‘candid camera’, ideal for our work in wetlands.  Barnack was was a keen climber and walker – a passionate landscape photographer – and he was adamant that his camera should be small enough to  be carried in a pocket.  (Ernst Leitz, the optical lens maker from Wetzlar, worked with Barnack to develop the camera that was named by using the first three letters of Leitz‘s name – LEI – and the first two from the object itself: – CA – for camera.  And so the Leica with its collapsible lens took the photographic world by storm, even though  poor old Oscar’s name didn’t figure in the final result.

Although most modern 35mm cameras would no longer fit in our pockets – they became more-and-more bulky with the use of the large modern telephoto lenses that have given the world so many staggering wildlife and sporting images – it was the high-resolution of the old Leitz and Zeiss lenses, and their ease of handling, that revolutionised 20th century photography.  Today’s high quality compacts, and the extraordinary new digital technology, have allowed us that ‘pocketing’ convenience once more.  These cameras – like the original Leicas – will fit in our pockets.

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‘Fallen Giant’ in the Great Lakes. An ancient T Tree photographed in light rain.  Leica III with 35mm Elmar lens

Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest of the 20th century’s photographers, was almost fanatical about his 35mm Leica and a 50mm Zeiss Sonnar lens; – and he encouraged aspiring photographers to use similar equipment, – often instead of the popular TLR cameras such as Rolleiflex and Rolleicord  His famous dictum for reasoning for this was: “You don’t have your eyes in your belly.”

Motor drives on 35mm cameras are ideal for capturing birds in flight; but — even then, and in so many cases — there is that one-and-only decisive second in which to release the shutter to capture a fleeting image of drama, magic, or beauty.  The blink of an eye, a split-second of hesitation, and the opportunity for the picture can be lost.  Far better to take too many photos than too few.  Skimping on film is no way to become a good photographer.

True to their name, and having learned the hard way myself, wetlands can be wet, — very wet; — and, even if you’re not camping-out on your shoot, or hacking your way through thick rainforest or jungle, it’s a good plan to take a large umbrella with you.  In more open country you can take one you can set up — a beach umbrella, perhaps — or one that a friend can hold for you. Overcast skies and pouring rain can give situations where you can exploit the lighting conditions to your advantage: the water can then give an even pearly spread of light that allows wonderful opportunities for silhouettes of birds, trees, or both.   In exceptionally dull light, flash can be used to advantage – especially if you’re lucky enough to find a spectacular lizard lolling unconcernedly on a heavily shaded tree root .In the Amazon, one magnificent toucan wasn’t even bothered when I got close enough to touch him!

Don’t forget to take some form of tripod with you, and try not to shoot without it when using shutter speeds of less than around 1/100th of a second.  (Well, that’s the idea, anyway; but if you’re up the Amazon – or some creek – in a dugout canoe or floating on a slippery pile of lugs, you just have to do the best you can.) Sure, most of us reckon we can hold a camera with a 50mm lens  steady-enough for shutter speeds of 1/50th of a second, but decent-sized enlargements and projected transparencies can bring out every defect caused by minute camera shake. There is a handy rule of thumb about shutter-speeds and their relationship to lenses.  It’s simple: your shutter speed should never be less than the reciprocal of your lens size: 1/50th of a second with a 50mm lens; 1/100th of a second with a 100mm lens; and so on.

If the lighting is bad, and you’ve forgotten to take your tripod, you might still be able to solve the problem with your camera’s carrying strap. Shorten the strap so that when you wind your left hand through it you can pull your camera’ body hard against your nose and forehead.  You’ll be surprised how well this works – and perhaps couple it with the exhaling breath idea: breath in, hold your breath a second, and then breath out gently while pressing the shutter or cable release.

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Ducks in the shadows of the wharf.  Myall Lakes: Leica III and Summitar f2 lens

Lens hoods are great accessories in wetlands and in all wet weather conditions.  Here we’re not too bothered about stray light sources affecting the image; rather that we keep the rain off the lens.  I use a lens hoods with all my cameras and lenses, and – like UV filters – they are cheap and practical protection for your valuable lenses.

Films, like cameras themselves, are a purely personal choice.  I prefer to use 400ASA film for most wetland photography.  It allows for faster shooting, and copes well with the often tricky lighting conditions.  But there are times when you might want to saturate colour in very dark rainforest or jungle conditions, and then – provided  you’re using a good tripod – you can opt for a slow film, use long time exposures, and close your lens right down.

Copyright Rob Weatherburn