North of 49

It had been about 5 months since I received an email from a friend at work who had discovered a workshop taking place a couple of hours from where I live.  North of 49 Photography offers different levels of photography adventures based on their location, the nature of the subject being shot and the risks which may be involved.  

At first glance, the price tag on the Kawartha Loon Workshop seemed a little high for what I was expecting.  Looking back, it probably seemed that way because I didn't really digest what it had to offer.  Regardless, by the end, I was very happy.  

If you have followed my progress over the years, you probably noticed I spend a pretty good amount of time shooting landscapes, wildlife and basically things that weren't created by mankind.  Of course, I do that with the latest and greatest gear I can afford, but let's let that bit of irony slide, okay?  Reading this description ticked all the right boxes for me.  Immersed in nature, beautiful "north" country, wildlife, quiet, on a boat. That's a lot of boxes ticked - I'm in!

The trip there from my house is pretty much beautiful from start to finish - there is a pretty definitive line you cross when you go north that tells you that you are truly "away".  For me, that happens just a little north of Barrie, Ontario where one highway splits into two and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by lake after lake, cottage roads, log cabins and truly friendly people.

Before I made this trip, I had been told by another friend that there were very large nests resting on top of hydro poles in the area, and as luck would have it, I was going to pass right by.  Unfortunately my timing for being here wasn't stellar - mid day sun doesn't really lend itself to beautiful photos, but I did get this shot of a beautiful osprey.  I will have to go back again for early morning and do better.

Using a tripod wouldn't hurt either, but anyway, back to the loons!

I apologize in advance, this may read much like a Tripadvisor review but I know there are several photographers who read this so I'd like to illustrate the value of this little adventure.

Arriving in the area of the cottage which we were to be staying as home base, Kevin (aka K1) met me nearby and guided me in the rest of the way over a very scenic and fun gravel road.  This road cannot be understated, it was a FUN drive!  Lots of twists and turns, hills and valleys, all while passing forested ponds, swamps and of course, other cottages.

On arriving, Kevin and my friend Chris showed me in, both helping me with my gear and stated firmly, "this is your house".  It doesn't get much more welcoming than that.  We chatted for a bit and before long, our third, Lori, arrived and chat continued.  We all chatted for a while about what the plan would be over the next couple of days, gear, what the goals were and what to expect shooting from a boat and before long, we were out on the water in a wide-body aluminum boat with Kevin at the prop.  

It was a little cool out and his advice about bringing hats and gloves was much appreciated.  In fact, he was in regular communication in advance so we would be prepared when we got there.  We were lucky enough to find some loons on beautiful Salerno Lake and he explained their patterns such as how they will swim and dive - sometimes staying under for minutes at a time searching for food.  Other times, he would notice mannerisms that tell him it is about to rear up, flapping excitedly for a few seconds.  This evening didn't bring me much in the way of "keepers" with the rough light of day, but there is nothing to be disappointed with being on an empty lake in a boat enjoying cottage country.  The view is spectacular and good for your soul.

Time came eventually to return to shore and think about something to eat and discuss photography, editing, what we enjoy shooting, our experiences, etc.  It was a great way to spend a few hours, not to mention with the wine and Caesar's flowing.  If you're a Caesar drinker and you do this workshop, you have to let Kevin know.  Not only is he an excellent photographer, but he knows how to be one heck of a host.  He's ready for anything.  

I couldn't help but  notice that the night sky was quite clear which gave me an excellent excuse to go back down to the dock, listen to the water, the crickets and of course, the loon song and take some photos.  

The thin crescent moon (though it looks full here) was just what I wanted to give me a nice silhouette.  I shot happily for about an hour as I watched the moon slowly descent closer to the trees and eventually into my shot.  Thank you nature!

After a great first night, it was time to retreat to bed - for me, it was to be in "the cave", a very dimly-lit bedroom downstairs.  Perfect!

The alarm went off shortly before 5:30 - the sun was coming!  Time to get upstairs, get geared up and get ready to go - a bagel and a coffee later (yes, I had coffee!), it was time to go.  We loaded up in the boat and we were off.  For anyone who isn't accustomed to doing this sort of thing for photos, the first 0-2.. maybe 3 hours are the very best light of the day.  It goes from "blue hour" to "golden hour" very quickly - What makes golden hour special? Long shadows, beautiful warm light from the sun - so low on the horizon, and contrasty photos where the sun lights your subject while the sky and background are very subdued.  There is a price to be paid for such beautiful light, and it means getting up before everyone else.  

One thing I didn't expect to see though was a beaver.  Kevin pointed out that these are nocturnal creatures so it is common to see them returning home to sleep when you get out so early in the morning.  It doesn't look very dark in this shot, but there was a healthy dose of magic used to make this shot.  I'd love to spend more time shooting these, especially if it were gnawing on a tree, but that whole nocturnal thing makes that a pretty tall order.  Oh well, back to loons...

Being up so early also means beautiful fog on the water before the sun has a chance to burn it off.  The challenge now is to actually find loons.  This doesn't mean screaming around the lake at full speed, leaving a tsunami-sized wake.  It is all about maintaining the tranquility of the water and not making enemies of our feathered friends - not to mention other cottage owners.  It wasn't long before we discovered this trio in the mist - a pair joined by what I assume is another male.  They mingled together for a while before they split up and the one left the pair alone.

This shot above is just shortly before the sun cleared the trees or found an opening in them.  Kevin expertly got us closer with a combination of a steady hand on the motor and predicting where they would come up.  It was a bit of a game, each of us calling nine o'clock if it was directly to the left (port), three o'clock (starboard), 12 o'clock (straight ahead) or anywhere else on the clock dial.  

There were times where these fellas would just swim merrily on their way, or just stop, enjoying the peace.  Pro tip: They are much more relaxed first thing in the morning.

The sun is pushing through the trees, almost in the clear lighting up this loon as he rears up, flapping for 3-4 seconds before settling back down.  Again, Kevin calls out that "he's going up!", triggering us to fire off a burst of 10 or 12 shots.

As the sun eventually came up, Kevin made great efforts in keeping the birds lit by the sun for best results, occasionally shooting as well with his drool-worthy 400mm 2.8 prime lens.  This example above is what you can get first thing in the morning when the light is just right.  Soft light, beautiful reflections, gentle - almost glass-like water.

After following for a while, we left these two alone and went off to look for the single.  We found him up the lake and he was very curious about us.  We shot him for a while and then tried luring him in closer playing loon calls via recording.  As soon as the call was played, he instantly turned and swam towards us.  It afforded numerous opportunities to shoot, as well as watch him go up.

This went on for a good half hour before he seemed to tire of being lured in, and eventually sought other opportunties further up the lake.  

I didn't know this, but a loon isn't quite the amazing flier that other birds are.  They certainly do fly, and when they're up in the air, they are like a dart, but it takes quite an effort for them to become airborne - maybe 50-75 yards.  This gives a photographer a great chance to shoot them running on water.

I wish I had been lucky enough to get a shot with him parallel to the boat, but I'll take this and be quite happy.

After docking, there was plenty of time to back up photos and enjoy the results, talk about where improvement could be made, the challenges of the morning light, editing and so on.  On my new laptop, I was less than thrilled with my work.  ISO was being a tricky challenge and some quick editing was telling me I had work ahead of me to make my shots look the way they should.  (Fortunately when I loaded the photos on my desktop, they looked far better.  There is something to be said about a calibrated monitor and a good video card vs a laptop, but I digress.  It was a relief!)

Anyway, edit we did - Kevin watching over for the true keepers.. The one that is razor sharp, well lit, good background and maybe just a little personality of our subject showing through.

While I've written this as if it were one day, this was the scenario for 2 full days and they were a lot of fun.  If you haven't done something like this before, let me just say outright what the challenges are to overcome.

  • light - dim light, constantly changing light, soft light and hard light (not quite so much of this one)
    • You have to be able to overcome this quickly, be it through quick changes to ISO, dropping shutter speed or adjusting aperture.  I began with fixed ISO, then changed to auto ISO, then as consistency developed, I left ISO fixed, shutter speed basically fixed, and simply adjusted aperture when I needed more or less light.  It is a very easy thing to adjust on a Canon.
  • Movement - Loons are constantly moving, so you need to have a reliable shutter speed of around 1/800-1000.  The boat is moving as well, but with this type of shutter speed, not an issue.

I began my weekend shooting with my Sigma 150-500 lens, but with an aperture of f5.6-6.3, it is a very slow lens.  One rule I live by is, it's no good getting a close-up if the conditions won't allow for it to be this closed.  The next day I switched to my 70-200 f2.8 and added a 2x Teleconverter but that put me at a fixed f5.6.  This didn't give me quite the same reach as the other lens, but my aperture was a little more open.  In the end, I took off the teleconverter and simply shot the bare 200mm at f2.8.  It did the trick nicely and makes my heart ache for that 400mm f2.8.  Maybe some day down the road if I can save enough nickels.

If anyone is considering a photography trip, based on this trip, Kevin (K1), his incredible hospitality, I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to recommend him and North of 49 Photography.  I am already contemplating my next trip.  Who knows, maybe one day I can join his team.

If you like what you've read, I would appreciate it if you would share my website with your friends.  It's the only way I can get my name and work out there.  Until next time..