The most popular articles on the Internet always seem to be downers. Just notice how little good news there is on a typical news website. It’s mostly celebrity gossip and death. So, to radically increase the views on my articles, let me tell you about a time that things went wrong.
It’s not in my nature to be too gloomy and grim, so I’ll say now that there’s a positive message at the end. Hopefully you, as readers, may learn from my mistakes – and, if possible, not repeat them.
The incident that inspired this article begins in Ecuador, South America, where I’ve spent the past few weeks. It’s amazing what beauty and diversity such a small country can hold. But that’s another story.
One of the places I visited was the fishing town of Puerto López. This place certainly doesn’t pretend to be some kind of fancy tourist destination. When it rains here, which happens quite often around the equator, the dusty streets turn into a gooey mix of mud and dog excrement. The dull gray sand is enlivened by fish carcasses and their entrails.
A big attraction worth visiting is the fish market. Every morning, fishermen return from the sea and sell their catches right on the beach. Brown pelicans, frigatebirds, cormorants and blue-footed boobies keep them company. There are sea turtles swimming in the ocean just off shore, and like the birds, they enjoy feeding on what falls out of the fishermen’s hands. As a distant backdrop to this spectacle, a humpback occasionally leaps out of the ocean on the horizon, and with a great splash it falls back into the waves.
It was blue-footed boobies and humpback whales that my group wanted to find one morning. We got in the speedboat and headed towards the Isla De La Plata 40 km away. The famous words “plata o plomo” uttered by Pablo Escobar enriched my vocabulary: “silver or lead.” Today, the real silver of this island is in the form of nesting water birds (and perhaps the silver shine of the island because of their guano).
The ocean was not exactly showing its favorable face that day. The wind was blowing, it was drizzling out, and the water of the Pacific was more of a dim gray than silver. The boat struggled through the high waves towards the island. Geysers of water blew off the bow and into the boat by the strong wind. These were not ideal conditions for whale watching or photography.
However, the whales seemed to enjoy such conditions and started jumping out of the water about halfway between the mainland and the island – in other words, where the waves and wind were the fiercest.
It’s famously true that bad weather can result in the most impressive photographs. This was the thought I held in mind as I struggled to maintain my balance on the slippery deck. I remained more or less upright, even though I felt like I was shooting from a skateboard. But then came the stray wave.
No, it didn’t sweep me overboard, but it sprayed my Nikon 300mm f/4 lens with some drops of water. In the heat of shooting, I didn’t pay much attention. My faith in the weather-sealing of this lens was unshakable. In fact, I even remember that I once took the lens into the shower. (Don’t ask.) What’s that compared to a few drops of sea water?
You can probably guess – and you guessed right. When we finally reached the island and climbed up to where the boobies nest, I detached the camera from my pack, put it to my eye, composed, and focused. Actually, I didn’t focus!
First, I blamed my sweat-drenched eye, then the dirty viewfinder. Then I thought I must have accidentally changed the autofocus setting, until I finally realized the truth. The lens wasn’t focusing, because the lens couldn’t focus any more!
Cortisol evaporated from my ears, anger glittered from my eyes and swear words flowed from my mouth. The lens wasn’t working, and in my state of mind, I couldn’t get accurate manual focus. Not to mention that with moving birds like these, manual focus even at the best of times would have been tough. I gave it up. The telephoto lens went into the bag, and I mounted the 24-120mm f/4.
And now watch out, because here comes the positive side of the story. With a telephoto lens, I would probably have slipped into the usual stereotypes, and I’d have taken very similar photos to what I got last time on the island. With a wide-angle instead, my mindset and photos both changed. The results are completely different, and I think even better than what I got before. They don’t just capture the birds, but also their natural habitat.
It goes to show that you can make the most of things in photography even when you get the tail-end of luck.