The swamps have always been a place of mystery, and for a lot of people, swamps are just plain creepy. Unknown monsters, tales of horror, and all kinds of slimy and creepy crawlies…all are associated with the swamps. Then add all the tv shows and movies filmed there, and it only compounds the strange and mysterious vibes. It’s only been the last 10-12 years and the popularity of digital photography that people started really trying to capture the beauty of the swamps and seeing them as a destination to photograph.
I met a group of 5 eager future swamp photographers in Marshall, Texas for 3-days of exploration in the largest cypress swamp in the US (maybe the world) I think a lot of folks just assume the swamp to be these dark green jungles, but cypress trees turn colors just like every other deciduous tree, and in the fall they put on a show. Our group met Thursday for a brief orientation so I could go over the schedule, and help get people acclimated to the kind of shooting we would be doing over the next three days.
For most of the workshop, we'll be shooting from a boat, which makes this more like shooting wildlife or sports in terms of camera settings and I wanted the group to be in that mindset when we boarded our boat Friday morning. Everyone was really excited for the first morning and we set off to get a good night’s sleep.
We met Rich, our boat guide bright and early at a mysterious-looking boat dock. For the locals, I’m sure it’s not mysterious at all, but for those of us who don’t live in the swamps, it looks like some kind of a set from a movie. The group boards our patio boat and sets off for our first morning. There’s something eerily awesome about driving through the narrow channels and hearing the silence of the swamp in the dark.
The lake is huge, and there are many narrow bayous and channels for us to explore. The sky is cloudy, so we get awesome dappled light all morning to work with. This gives us some softer-looking exposures as well as some with light only on certain trees. It’s otherworldly and gorgeous. Literally, in every direction, you look there’s something new to photograph. This kind of landscape shooting is new for a lot of people, so I try to help remind them to bump up ISO and shutter speeds and keep shooting in continuous mode. When you’re moving on a boat in low light, it’s very important to rack up as many possibly sharp shots as you can.
After our morning on the water, we head to the old town of Jefferson Texas, an 1800s town that looks like a movie set. It’s fun to browse the old general store and grab lunch in one of the few restaurants in the area.
For our evening session, we drove over to the Louisiana side of the lake, to a little park I like to visit that has a good amount of cypress trees just off the shoreline, where we can work on long exposures, and use the tripod to help us compose. A big storm was on the move and our group enjoyed the light rays and dramatic clouds. Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms were forecast, so we really made sure to stay on the lookout for any threats while we shot. Thankfully the bad weather moved a bit to the west of us, and we didn’t feel any rain until we had concluded our time. That night we got some great wind, lightning, and rain though…which was fun to watch from the comfort of a hotel.
The next morning it was back on the lake, the storm had passed, and left us with great blue skies and morning light to work with. We explored a few different bayous of the lake and drove down the “government ditch” again to see this waterway lined by giant cypress trees in the sunlight.
This lake used to be part of the transport from Louisiana and the gulf into Jefferson. Paddle boats and shipments were delivered through this narrow channel, which is now a popular spot for photography.
That afternoon we spent some time going over images and working on processing. There were some really amazing images and most people said that it took some time to get used to shooting on a boat..but by the end of the second morning, I saw much sharper images on the backs of the cameras, and on the student computer screens.
That evening we went to the state park boardwalks, to the mill pond area where we could again work with our tripods and compositions that didn’t require high ISO and shutter speed. The light and possibilities here were great, and something totally different than we’d been getting on the boat.
The final morning was back on the boat with Rich. The weather was great, and we circled back to see a few of the quieter ponds on the lake, and we really enjoyed shooting some backlit mossy cypress trees. We also tried our hands at finding some of the egrets, and herons that frequent the lake to see if we could capture them in flight. I think by the end of the run everyone had gotten at least one bird in flight…though some of the birds played hard to get!
Because this kind of shooting is more like wildlife, everyone will end up with thousands of images to go through. The fun will start now as they all go home and sift through multiple memory cards filled with the beauty of the swamp. It’s always fun to see what the camera captured because swamps are always mysterious. It’s a good bet that you’ll see something in the captured images you didn’t see while you were shooting. Thanks to a great boat guide in Rich with Caddo Lake Bayou Tours, and a fun “Up for everything” group of photographers.
Until Next Time,
Brian and the rest of the Aperture Academy Team!
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