Beat the Conditions. Get the Shot.

Shy Albatross - Pelagic Waters off Tasmania, Australia

After several days of rain, wind, and storms, I have been thinking about photographing in adverse conditions.  I just haven’t had the desire to go trudging out on a heavy overcast day with a constant drizzle.  Of course, it’s the perfect conditions for photographing small intimate landscapes like creeks and waterfalls, especially with fall color just getting good, but I just haven’t done it.

Today I was looking back through my old files seeking some inspiration and I came across some photos from my time in Australia in 2007.  In February, I went out on a fishing boat to spend the day at sea off the coast of Tasmania, searching for pelagic birds such as albatrosses and petrels.  Pelagic birding can be fantastic or it can be miserable, it all depends on the conditions.  Of my four pelagic trips during that year, this was by far the worst.  It was gray, wet, windy, and cold.  If we weren’t getting soaked from the rain, then we were getting soaked by salt spray from the waves (worse for camera gear).

I was not the only photographer on the boat; in fact I think I was one of four.  However, due to the awful conditions, most people decided to huddle under the small roof and leave their cameras locked away in the cabin.  I figured that I had paid for the trip and I wasn’t going to get another chance to do a pelagic trip in the area so I better get out and get photos when I could.

Now, you have to have a bit of an understanding of pelagic birding to full appreciate the conditions.  Basically, I was standing on a wet, slippery boat that was pitching and rolling all over the place due to rough seas.  Some passengers were seasick, the rest were just miserable.  I was soaked to the bone and it was cold.  I was trying to aim a lens and camera combination weighing in at about 10 pounds at birds as they flew past the back of the boat at high speeds.  It’s a difficult photographic situation in great conditions, much less in crappy weather.

Soft-plumaged Petrel, Pelagic waters off Tasmania, Australia

Most of the group proved to be much smarter than I and hid underneath the small roof covering a small area of the deck.  I proved dumb and stubborn, standing at the gunwale photographing whatever flew by as best as I could.  My stubbornness proved useful though when a strange petrel cruised the stern of the boat at a distance.  The experts on the boat were initially stumped and couldn’t agree on an identification.  When the bird made another pass, this time a bit closer, I was able to grab a couple frames of the mystery bird.  Sure, the images aren’t quite sharp, but they proved to be what enabled us to eventually identify the bird as a Soft-plumaged Petrel.  Not a rare bird elsewhere but had only been seen in these waters a couple times.

This fantastic sighting and record was only confirmed because I decided that I was going to stand at the stern of the boat and take photographs no matter the conditions.  I treat my cameras and lenses as best I can but ultimately, they are tools that I use in my profession.  If I leave the tools in the bag then what’s the point of being out there?  There are times to baby the gear and times to get it out and use it.  So beat the odds, beat the conditions, and go get the shot.  Just don’t forget to insure that equipment before heading out!

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