Adventures of a Sage—Photography as a Lens for Self-Discovery
Shoot date: 11/27/20
Loyal Adventures fans—those of you with coveted Platinum Membership status—may recall from Article 0003 What to Shoot—Finding Subject Material, that I create wish lists of locations in advance. Then, when I’m ready for a new project, I peruse my wish list and select a destination, as opposed to hemming and hawing about where to go when I feel like shooting.
Or, more accurately, when I have time to shoot. As I write this, life after Covid was just starting to ease, when along came the Delta variant which caused more consternation, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Is it possible that my last official photo excursion was November of 2020? Apparently so, and that was the old pier in Naples, Florida, just south of where we live in Fort Myers.
The Naples Old Pier is one of those destinations on my local wish list. Except that, it’s not really a pier any longer. More like remnants of old pier pilings that have provided subject material for many photographers, examples of which can be seen here. As you can see from the sample photos, sea and elements are taking their toll on the old pier, as the number of pilings continue to disintegrate over time. I wanted to get there while at least one piling remained.
Shot Plan and Gear List
For this shoot, I decided to pack a wireless flash, the idea being to illuminate the pilings from the front as the sun set on the horizon. Being the semi-professional photographer that I am, I could envision the perfectly illuminated pilings framing the setting sun. Reality doesn’t always quite go according to plan.
To capture these amazing images, I needed the following gear (bear with me, this detail is integral to the story):
1. Camera Bag with Body & Lenses
Your basic camera bag with room for several lenses plus accessories. As a former Boy Scout, my camera kit also includes items for most emergencies, including the ability to apply tourniquets to strangers, tools to repair most car engines (along with a variety of timing belts), and peppermint schnapps in case I get lost in the alps. Weighing in at just over 14-pounds, this is not recommended for the faint-of-heart—or anyone with slanted shoulders.
2. Case with Strobes & Wireless Trigger
My flash case includes two strobes, a wireless trigger, and spare tripod mounts. Very compact, this mini-case only weighs 3-pounds.
3. Accessory Pouch
I have several small utility pouches for accessories, extra batteries, and extra SD cards. I can strap these to my belt, camera case, or backpacks as needed. Only 1-pound.
4. Camera Tripod
Knowing that everything would be exposed to saltwater and sand, I decided to take my older Manfrotto tripod for the camera. Well-used over many years—and perfectly balanced for chasing away the occasional home intruder: you can swing it with legs extended and still not lose your balance. It’s no longer in pristine condition, and so I don’t care what happens to it. The Manfroto weighs 5-pounds.
5. Flash Tripod
Two Rollei aluminum travel tripods serve as flash mounts. A local canvas shop made two cases for me with shoulder straps so that I can easily transport the tripods without banging them up. Only needed one flash tripod for this trip, weighing about 3-pounds.
6. Folding Aluminum Step Platform
This item really separates the semi-pros from the hobbyists. Measuring, 35” x 18” x 10” (folded), I use this portable aluminum platform as a workbench or for standing on—in this case to keep my gear off the sandy beach. 15.5-pounds.
7. Folding Beach Chair
Not planning to stand around for 3-4 hours, the folding beach chair is an essential piece of photo gear. Drink pouch holder included. 6-pounds.
8. Cart to Transport All of the Above
Total weight for everything above: 47.5-pounds. Not to mention bulk. Consequently, I needed a dolly to schlep everything. My choice of weapon: a Costco 4-wheel utility cart that cleverly converts from a vertical hand truck to a horizontal mode. 17.5-pounds.
Total weight all gear + cart = 65-lbs.
As you can see in the image below, in horizontal mode the cart has no front, back, or side support. This necessitated several back, forth, up, down, and lateral bungee straps to keep everything in place, which further required advanced German engineering to ensure all the stuff didn’t fall out en route between the car and beach. Note the tiny wheels in the front—another critical element of the developing story.
The Costco Cart
When is Sunset?
Next, if you’re planning a sunset shoot, it really helps to figure out when the sun will actually set—as opposed to showing up late because you didn’t allow enough time for parking, schlepping, and setting up.
The weather app on your phone probably has a Sun & Moon tab with sunrise and sunset times. That’s for amateurs.
There are amazing apps for photographers that enable you to analyze not only when sunrise and sunset will occur at any gps coordinate on the globe—but also the exact timing of golden and blue hour, as well as compass direction of the sun and moon, at your specific location on that specific date. These apps are invaluable if you want to get a shot of the moon in a certain position—such as a sixth ring of the Olympic logo suspended under the London Bridge during the 2012 Olympics.
I use an app called PhotoPills. Available for $9.99 on both Android and iPhones, their website promises you can “shoot legendary photos.” Because $9.99 is a small price to pay to become a legendary photographer, I’m in. Their software development team is from, get this, the Island of Majorca. Not aware of any other technology that has come from Majorca, I had to look it up on the map. (It’s 142 miles west of Valencia, Spain in the Balearic Sea.)
Celestial Photo Planning App
The calculus algorithms coded into this app are nothing short of stunning. Sir Isaac Newton would himself have been amazed, had he been able to charge his iPhone in 1693 at the time he invented calculus at the ripe age of 50. (Alas, the first electric grid would not be commercialized for another 201 years.)
Sage Note: Had Newton been born as a baby boomer, with a head of hair like that, I’m convinced he would have aspired to rock guitarist instead of mathematician. This career change would have had severe global consequences: Gravity would not have been discovered, and move over Jimmy Page.
What also amazes me is how fast these complex algorithms run instantly on a device that fits into the palm of your hand. Are you aware that today’s smartphones were yesterday’s supercomputers? Here’s an interesting perspective on that.
Back to the practicality of PhotoPills. This video demonstrates how a photographer used PhotoPills to position the moon as a sixth ring in the Olympic logo suspended under the London Bridge during the 2012 Olympics. (And you thought I was making a joke.) Figuring out how to use it requires a master’s degree in iPhone apps. Seriously, PhotoPills has many hours of online tutorials available. All you need are many hours to view them and a book of commonly used Majorcan phrases and slang.
Knowing that golden hour starts at 5:35 PM, you can work backwards to determine when you need to arrive for set up. In my case, I planned to arrive at 4:30 PM.
It’s easier to win the Mega Millions Lottery than to find beach parking in Naples. There are only a limited number of streets with beach access, and each access street has less than 10 parking spots. These spots are usually full by 3:00 a.m. Sunset is even higher demand. If you don’t want to walk a mile, you need to get lucky.
To find a spot, I channel my inner 007. This is where you think like James Bond, who always finds an open parking spot for his Aston Martin DB5, no matter what crowded city, what time of day, or how many Spectre agents are shooting at him. To pull this off, you can’t just think like Bond. You need to truly Be Bond. It’s a metaphysical leap that—I’m sorry, I just can’t divulge trade secrets like this in public forums.
In true Bond form, an open spot awaits me. Although it was one city block away from my preferred access site, no problem. As a semi-professional, I have planned extra time.
After carefully loading the cart with my gear and applying the pre-engineered bungee strap system, I make my way across the pavement, onto the boardwalk access ramp, and then, uh-oh, onto the beach. 65-pounds of gear immediately burrow the small 3-inch wheels into the sand. Pushing is out of the question. I do not need Newtonian physics to figure this out. I have one city block of sand to traverse. And the cart is stuck—as in completely immobile. My precious set-up time is ticking away. Plan ‘B’ is required. Maybe if I pull?
Pulling this thing, Obe Wan, is my only hope. To get this rocket gantry on wheels to budge, I need to lift the stupidly small, worthless, T-Rex-front-paw-dangling-like micro wheels up out of the sand, and then pull the cart on the back wheels only, while leaning back on my heels for leverage. No problem. I can do this.
I can only do it for about a 3-foot span, at which time my arms hurt from the 65-pound weight that I’m carrying from waist up as my feet tunnel to China in the soft sand, legs flailing in opposite directions. It was a perfectly executed triple klutz. This forms a poetic rhythm: Lurch, lean, rest. Lurch, lean, rest. I feel like an extra in a Richard Simmons workout video. Lurch and REST, and lean and TWO, and THREE and rest, and lurch and …
I am lurching and resting past groups of scantily clad young girls on blankets who stare at me like I am a homeless guy who’s hauling all of his earthly possessions to, God knows where.
Note: I do not mean to disparage homeless people. However, the reality is, there are still homeless people on the planet. And at this point, I have a very similar appearance.
My weightlifting and lurching, combined with the temperature of the afternoon sun, combined with a smidge of doubt and significant degree of self-humiliation, now creates another Newtonian cause and effect called ‘sweating.’ Sweat starts pouring down my face, and my shirt starts to soak. Only 150-feet to go!
At this point I recall Patrick McManus: one of my favorite humorist writers who was considered to be the Mark Twain of Baby Boomers. In my duress under the hot sun, I specifically recall an article about how Patrick would cover for his lack of coordination while fly fishing to save face among other anglers. To accomplish this, Patrick practiced and honed two facial expressions: “thoughtful” and “bemused.” He learned the benefits of this technique from a college administrator he once served under, Dr. Milburn Snodgrass. According to McManus, Snodgrass advanced through many levels of collegiate administration to become dean, with only these two facial expressions and the ability to puff curiously on his pipe.
Patrick cunningly applied these pipe and facial techniques to offset complete humiliation when he fell off a log onto a small boulder field while fishing at a remote creek. Nearby fishermen rushed to check on his 20-foot fall, expecting to find him in need of a medevac. Instead, they discovered Patrick standing, unfazed, curiously puffing on his pipe, while gazing thoughtfully at the log. They watched in amazement as he calmly blew a series of perfectly formed smoke rings toward them, arching his eyebrow in a bemused look. Then, Patrick thoughtfully gazed at the log again. Instead of becoming the focus of laughter and derision among his fly-fishing compatriots, the crowd simply scrambled away as they fought for his former, perfectly positioned casting spot on the cliff 20-feet above.
Maybe I could use Patrick’s techniques to diffuse my current disgrace?
Had I had a pipe with me, I could have paused, lit up, folded my arms, and contemplated the cart’s miniscule wheels—now buried 6-inches in the sand—with thoughtful bemusement. On the other hand, lighting up a pipe in 90-degree heat probably would have caused all nearby sunbathers to drop their jaws, not to mention their iPhones, while I became the center of attention. Here’s a boomer dressed in long pants and long sleeve shirt in 95-degree heat, dragging a 90-pound cart while smoking a pipe. What’s the number for the Collier County Health Department? They have professionals for this kind of thing.
Not being a pipe smoker, I only had two remaining options: either “thoughtful” or “bemused” facial expressions—sans smoke rings.
Gazing “thoughtfully” at the overburdened cart wouldn’t have worked. Not the appropriate context, and I would have looked really stupid.
Already looking really stupid, my only recourse was “bemused.” I arched my eyebrow and smirked with my best look of bemusement. I had never practiced a bemused look in front of the mirror, so I was uncertain if I actually appeared to be bemused. To compensate, I quickly improvised into non-repeating patterns: Lurch, rest, bemused. Lurch, bemused, rest. Bemused, lurch, and rest.
A gaggle of scantily clad girls dropped their iPhones, pointing and laughing hysterically. Only 100-feet to go!
Eventually, I lurched my way to the old pier pilings. Fortunately, several pilings remained standing after my eternity of lurching, such that my planned photo shoot was still viable. I had ingeniously planned enough contingency time to assemble my portable studio prior to sunset. The distinct mark of a semi-professional.
The next challenge was finding a few square inches to set up. Because this was prior to any Covid-19 vaccine availability, I knew that I would have the beach to myself. To my surprise, I had to elbow my way in between six gaggles of scantily clad young girls, five couples (all of them romantically involved to the point where they wouldn’t have noticed an alien invasion), four fishermen, three family reunions from Cleveland (all unrelated), and 12 tourists from Greece dancing circles around a roasting goat in an open sand pit, yelling “Opa!” while tossing back shots of Ouzo. Oh, and a TV crew from Germany.
I sharpened my elbows and again channeled my double-oh-seven to find a perfect spot just to the right of the pilings, with the setting sun angled behind. Laying out my set-up schematic over one of the romantically involved couples, I was now finally ready to get going. With the folding aluminum workbench in place, I now had a platform for the gear. Then I unfolded my portable beach chair. Next, I unfolded the two tripods—one for the camera and one for the wireless flash. Finally, I unfolded my portable Tommy Bahama beach bar. Boy, was I popular with the Greeks!
At this point I had about 30-minutes to sunset. You just shoot away based on how the sunset changes minute-to-minute. I alternated between aperture priority (prioritizing different depth-of-fields) and shutter priority (prioritizing either for crisply-focused or motion-blurred seascapes).
For example, when shooting aperture priority, you might want to focus on the eight Greek men rinsing a roasted goat in the surf (apparently a longstanding tradition on the island of Thira). Or, you might want to focus on the fisherman in his kayak who was constantly weaving in and out of the pilings, and wouldn’t go away.)
Old Naples Pier Sunset
With Fisherman and Kayak
The idea of capturing images of the pilings in nature, without any humans, wasn’t going to happen until well after sunset. In fact, just as the sun’s golden orb started to touch the horizon a French tourist waded out into the water to throw his cast net—right in between me and my sunset. (This is a “true story,” as they say.) With no time to relocate my workbench, beach chair, and tripods (not to mention the Tommy B beach bar), I had to take matters into my own hands. Wading out into the water, I politely yelled, asking him to maybe find another section of the beach to cast his net—pointing out that I, along with 50 other people with iPhones, wanted to capture the sunset with the pilings. He walked back onto the beach to the cheers of many iPhone hobbyists behind me.
Sage Note: When you set up a camera tripod and flash, that attracts hobbyists who think, “Here’s a semi-professional who really knows what he’s doing. I should take a photo from his exact position!” Thus, the army of iPhones behind me.
I shot away at the setting sun, in various stages of setting. The French cast netter again waded out into the water with his cast net in hand. Not wanting to be the bad guy all the time, every time, I turned to the nearest person for reinforcements: the German TV cameraman (who had set up his tripod directly behind mine). In no uncertain terms, I forcefully suggested, with my almost fluent high school German, that it was now his turn to relocate the cast netter. The cameraman agreed that, “Javole!” how rude it was for people to walk in front of our sunset shots, as he shoved me toward the beach, shouting something about Blitzkrieg.
Time was running out. Recognizing that it was probably prudent not to pit a German and a Frenchman against each other—not the best of ideas, historically speaking—I resolved to act. So, out I waded into the saltwater to, once again, encourage the French cast netter to find another section of beach. I did this accompanied by catcalls of angry iPhoners who likewise demanded the beach cleared. (Note: This is how mob action can explode out of nowhere. All it requires is decisive leadership.)
The Frenchman again retreated while his wife glared at me from behind her French bikini. I think I had interrupted dinner.
Professional photographers advise that, when you think you’re done shooting, just keep shooting. As the beach cleared, I thought, “at last, the opportunity to capture the serenity of pier pilings at twilight!”
Just then, a flock of pelicans flew onto the pilings. Loyal Adventure fans know that I do not like to photograph birds. The pelicans showed no inclination to respond to my protests—despite my animated gesticulations and colorful language.
Shutter Priority Old Naples Pier Sunset
Blurring the Waves
As the sun disappeared, I kept shooting. I shot away until it was too dark for the flash to illuminate any pilings. Actually, the flash never illuminated the pilings, because the pilings were over 100-feet away. (I knew that would happen.) (Later, I helped the dim glimmers of flash with a bit of post-production piling illumination.)
Old Naples Pier
Convinced that there were no more photos to coax out of the Old Naples Pier that evening—as evidenced by the black images on my camera’s LCD—it was time to pack up.
Given that it was now after 9:00 PM, packing my gear could have been a significant problem in the moonless night, had I not astutely planned for such an event. I whipped out and donned my trusty headlamp. For those of you not aware of such professional gear, this is a contraption (I do not use that word lightly) with a collection of elastic straps that mounts a battery powered flashlight onto your forehead. Fitting snugly over your noggin, the headlamp provides highly utilitarian illumination for situations like this, when you need to have your hands free. It is not something you want to wear on a first date.
A quick note. She who is my wife, The Bekster, is used to me crawling under the sink and through the attic with headlamp mounted in place. Proof that, running around like a geek for long periods of time over many decades of marriage, can actually desensitize women who turn up their noses to anything geek-like. I offer this as a ray of hope to the men who wear headlamps while changing out the garbage disposal in their pajamas. Below is a photo of me with headlamp taken by The Bekster on just such an occasion. Note: Headlamp below is set to ‘night mode.’ DO NOT try this without military prowess.
Hands-Free Headlamp Contraption
Powered by my trusty headlamp, I packed up my gear in reverse sequence. I wasn’t the least bit concerned that my packing schematic had long since blown down the beach. Not to worry. I had by now memorized how things needed to go back onto the cart. Mostly.
With my dolly once again fully laden, it was time to head back. This time, I was going be smart about it. Instead of fighting 200-feet of beach with my sand-burrowing cart, I would escape to the closest boardwalk exit, a mere 20-cart lengths away. Ha! (And Dr. Stumble, my college counselor at Michigan State University, said I would never amount to anything.) My lurch, lean, rest routine went completely unnoticed by anyone in the black of night. Even the pelicans paid no attention.
With the cart and gear now blissfully rolling on concrete, I headed towards my SUV. Clacking along one particularly dimly lit section of sidewalk, a young teenage couple approached from the opposite direction.
When, what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, with all kinds of gear.
Boxes and tripods and bags of all sizes.
The driver, must long have been collecting such prizes!
A disheveled waif, with windblown hair,
Pushed his belongings, in solitary despair.
Smelling of salt water, pelicans, and smoked goat,
A solitary headlamp to illuminate the path of his tote.
It suddenly dawned on me that the sight of this silhouetted figure, clacking along in the dark with this headlamp contraption on his forehead, would likely have raised the hair on the backs of anyone’s neck. Mothers teach their children to heed such “warning signs” from a very young age. Not wanting to cause alarm, I realized that something must be done: I needed to say something to diffuse what may have been a somewhat uncomfortable situation for them.
As they approached, I mumbled something about “not really being a homeless person, and actually, I’m a photographer and this is all my semi-professional gear.” The wind drowned out most of the words. They only heard vague mumbling coming from somewhere behind a headlamp. As they ran to the opposite side of the street, I distinctly heard the fellow pounding 9-1-1 into his mobile phone. His girlfriend may have been screaming.
But no, that was just the wind whistling through my headlamp.
All-in-all, it was a terrific photo-shoot adventure that will go down in the annals of Sagedom.
- Was it inappropriate to chase away the French cast netter multiple times? Maybe I shouldn’t have been so controlling.
- Still working on how not to look like a weirdo pushing a cart of bags and gear with a headlamp late at night.
- I definitely need another beach cart.
- Do you have a similar sunset photo excursion to share?
- Please leave any comments about my Naples Old Pier adventure.
0009 Results of the Fstoppers Night Photo Contest
How I Set Up the Shot