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After 22 days photographing daily stories aboard a 420-foot ship, I can tell you that I’ve used up all of the obvious vantage points. I’ve climbed to the aloft conn, the highest point on the ship, for night shots of the ship moving through ice and low-crawled around the main deck to shoot instruments being hoisted into the air. There are very few places I haven’t poked my camera.
For one story we covered the seabird and marine mammal observers. They work in one of the most difficult places to shoot: the bridge. This is where the crew drives the ship. It is high up and lined with giant square windows from end to end, which let in a lot of light. Since this is the only light source, you’re faced with a monster contrast problem. Add to this the fact that these observers are, well, observing. That means that they are pressed up against the windows with binoculars stuck to their eyes. This leaves you with a rather predictable side shot or a very unflattering back-of-the-head shot, both with a washed out sky background.
As I was pondering this dilemma, I watched a bird fly by and I thought –- that’s it! I’ll shoot them from a bird’s perspective—outside the windows looking in. Well, it turns out that there is no way to look in those windows from outside unless you’ve got wings. Plus it’s a good 50 foot drop to the deck. However, there is easy access to the roof, which is also called the flying bridge. So I thought, what if I lowered a camera from above?
I decided to use a monopod to lower my camera to window level. I attached my Nikon D700, with a 14-24mm lens set to 14mm, to a Gitzo monopod using a Really Right Stuff monopod head. Then came the tricky part. We were steaming at about 10 knots when I took the shot, into a 20 knot headwind. That makes 30 knots of wind in my face (which is roughly 35 miles per hour). The air temperature was about 22 Fahrenheit, so the wind chill was in the flesh-numbing range. Yes, I could have done this in calm weather and better light, but I had just thought of it and that day’s story was due in a few hours. So I had to make it work.
I tied a line from the camera to a railing so that if anything went wrong I wouldn’t be dropping thousands of dollars worth of gear onto a very unforgiving deck. I prefocused the lens and set the exposure manually so that ambient light coming through the viewfinder wouldn’t bias the exposure. I set the interval timer to click off a shot per second. Laying on the deck, I gradually lowered the camera four feet down, until it was level with the windows below. I bracketed the composition by slightly turning the monopod as the camera clicked off the shots. The first attempt was a failure because Liz, one of the observers, couldn’t stop laughing when she saw the camera (which in all honesty, had the very unsubtle look of an Inspector Clouseau spy camera). On the next round I tried Marty, and he was so intent on his work he didn’t even notice the camera. Those were my best frames — they create a completely candid portrait of a bird observer at work.