Robert photographing in the bogRobert and Kristin enjoy nature and outdoor activities. As a forest and wildlife biologist, Robert began taking photographs to document species and places where he was working. Quite soon a camera was always included in our outings. When Kristin, an ecologist, started shooting outdoor imagery as well, we began arranging trips specifically to take pictures as we evolved from a point and shoot mentality to a more thoughtful mode of photography to illustrate habitats, plants, animals, and some of the ways they act and interact. We find that we enjoy showing other people some of the outdoor world they may never get a chance to see, providing new perspectives, or helping them remember a special experience.

If you are interested in using any photograph for commercial or personal use, please contact us by email. All images are copyrighted and use without permission is illegal.

We hope you enjoy our imagery and thank you for visiting.

Based on some recent conversation, I am recycling an article I originally wrote for Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association Camera in the Wild.
Photography by Robert & Kristin Smith

Introduction
For those of you who know me, you can stop worrying. I have not suddenly morphed into some kind of technology guru who is keeping up with the latest and greatest must-have piece of equipment. I am talking about how to start a fire with your camera gear.

Why might you need to start a fire with your camera gear? Maybe you slipped into a stream while photographing winter waterfalls. You might have gotten turned around, and need to spend the night out. You need a fire to attract attention from rescuers. You simply want a warm cup of coffee or need to cook the hot dogs. Whatever the reason, let’s imagine that you want or need a fire.

Furthermore, let’s imagine that maybe you gave your emergency cigarette lighter that stays in your camera bag to a friend on your last group outing. And you haven’t checked that small wilderness survival kit in years, and the match heads have turned into soft putty. Well, you can use your camera equipment to start a fire! We will discuss using telephoto lenses, Fresnel flash extenders, and camera batteries to ignite fires in two different ways.

More important than the ignition source when starting a fire though is having the right fuels available for the fire to continue burning. Laying a fire properly and using properly sized & arranged fuels is as critical a skill in successful fire starting as the ability to get ignition. Before lighting the fire, make sure you have enough fuel available for the fire burn for some time.

The first fuel that is lit is called tinder. This is usually very thin, very dry material. Good examples of tinder include pocket lint, very dry grasses, shredded cedar or hibiscus bark, and very dry grass or aster seed heads. It is important to make a small nest or knot of this tinder so that once it is ignited you have a large enough and hot enough flame to ignite the kindling.

And kindling is the next larger size of fuel. Kindling is usually placed on top of the tinder so that the rising heat and flames ignite the kindling. Dead, dried twigs that are smaller than a number 2 pencil make good kindling, especially greenbrier and yucca. Sappy heartpine from most of our southern yellow pines, including pitch pine in the mountains and longleaf pine in the flatwoods, makes an excellent kindling, especially when splintered. Once the kindling is burning well, larger and larger wood can be added to the growing fire to meet your needs. Make sure to leave plenty of space in the fuel piles for the fire to breathe, as oxygen is necessary for the fire to burn.

It is a great skill to be able to start a fire with only one match (or without a match!) in damp situations. But in an emergency situation when you may have a limited number of attempts, the judicious & sparing use of small amount of accelerant may help get your fire going. An accelerant is a flammable substance that aids in the spread of an intentionally set fire. Some accelerants include gasoline, some bug sprays, some hairsprays, starting fluid, and powder out of a firearm cartridge. Basically, if the container says something like “CAUTION! KEEP AWAY FROM HEAT AND FLAMES”, it is likely an accelerant. Again, using an accelerant may be dangerous and should only be considered in an emergency situation.

Camera Lenses
Our camera lenses generally magnify subjects, and longer lenses are basically fancy magnifying glasses. We all know how to take a magnifying glass and focus the sun in a bright spot that will quickly cause paper to smoke. We can use that same concept to start a fire. In theory, the longer and faster telephoto lenses focus more light and create a more intense heating effect. In practice, “big glass” is difficult to align and hold in the same position. Shorter lenses, such as an 80-200 mm f/2.8 lens or a 70-300 mm f/5.6 lens work just fine.

There are several steps in using your camera lens to start a fire. Take the lens off the camera. Remove the front & rear lens caps (if in place). Remove the lens hood. If it is a zoom lens, extend the zoom to the maximum length. Open the aperture as wide as it will go, whether that is f/2.8 or f/5.6 (and the wider apertures focus more energy). Note that on some newer lenses, this may mean finding & holding the diaphragm pin open with your finger. Align the lens with the sun holding the end that attaches to your camera closest to the tinder you want to ignite. The distance from lens to tinder will generally be around 2 inches to get the most intense heating (the smallest spot of the brightest light produces the most heat). Simply move the lens closer and further from the tinder until you find the right spot. Note that upon ignition, you will want to quickly get your lens away from the heat and smoke.

A Sigma 70-300 mm lens (at 300 mm and f/5.6) is used to ignite a fire.

A Sigma 70-300 mm lens (at 300 mm and f/5.6) is used to ignite a fire.

Fresnel Flash Extenders
Fresnel lenses were originally designed for lighthouses to focus light so that it was visible for longer distances. These compact lenses basically have a larger aperture and a shorter focal length than traditional lenses that do the same job. These lenses have been adapted to focus the light from a camera flash so that it will illuminate objects further away. The Better Beamer Flash X-Tender is probably the most common Fresnel lens used by nature photographers, and any photographer who has used one very often can testify to the truth of the orange sticker on the X-Tender’s cover. That sticker says (in part): “WARNING! This is a magnifying lens. Pointing the lens near the sun may result in damage to your camera or your eyes. Always remove and/or cover this lens when not in use!”

Holding a Fresnel flash extender about 8 to 10 inches from the tinder you want to light can result in rapid ignition. It is a much simpler lens to use than a camera lens, but not all nature photographers use Fresnel flash extenders.

The lens from a Better Beamer Flash X-Tender is used to ignite a fire.

The lens from a Better Beamer Flash X-Tender is used to ignite a fire.

Batteries
Magnifying glasses work great to start a fire when there is bright light, but what if it is cloudy or dark? Your camera battery (or cell phone battery or car battery or other battery combination with reasonably high voltage) will work just fine as an energy source to ignite steel wool. The drawback to this technique is that you will need steel wool. The finer the steel wool, the better this technique works. Basically, you touch the steel wool to the positive and negative battery terminals at the same time. A large current flowing through a tiny wire results in lots of resistance. This resistance creates enough heat that to quickly ignite the wire. This burning steel wool may already be placed in a nest of tinder or quickly transferred to tinder to ignite the fire.

When steel wool touches the positive and negative terminals of a battery (in this case a Nikon EN-EL3), it rapidly ignites.

When steel wool touches the positive and negative terminals of a battery (in this case a Nikon EN-EL3), it rapidly ignites.

Fire is the quick result of applying a battery to steel wool surrounded by a knot of tinder.

Fire is the quick result of applying a battery to steel wool surrounded by a knot of tinder.

This shot was taken 7 seconds after the other shot.

This shot was taken 7 seconds after the other shot.

Summary
Take the time to put an emergency cigarette lighter and a small wilderness survival kit in your bag and hopefully you will never need to use these techniques. Robert will be glad to demonstrate these techniques if you catch him in the field. In addition to starting fires with these, he has also started fires with flint & steel, a fire bow, a fire piston, chemical reactions, and a firearm.

After a 3-year hiatus, I managed to go back to Gary Carter’s in McLeansville, NC earlier this February to photograph wintering birds of the eastern deciduous forest and yard. As you can quickly find out from a web search and reading the articles about and watching the television shows filmed from Gary’s blind, it is a fantastic location to photograph birds. Gary hosts bird photography opportunities (http://garycarterphotos.com/main.php) ¬mainly in the spring where you have a chance to catch birds in their breeding splendor and also pick up some of the migrant warblers as they pass through. In the winter, there are chances for resident and wintering birds. So a visit in February and a visit in April will result in almost totally different birds!

Mourning dove on a snag.

Mourning dove on a snag.

Northern cardinal posing.

Northern cardinal posing.

Gary’s blind comfortably holds 6 photographers, and we had a great group of photographers to shoot with on this trip: Mark Hoyle (http://www.markhoylephotography.com/), Elizabeth Gray (http://photographybyelizabethgray.com/), Ceasar Sharper (http://cdsharper.zenfolio.com/), Larry Basden (https://www.flickr.com/photos/30717042@N04/), and myself. Gary kept a steady supply of foods available to both the birds and photographers.

Male downy woodpecker on a snag.

Male downy woodpecker on a snag.

For this winter visit, I really wanted another chance to photograph a male yellow-bellied sapsucker (which I did) and hoped that a brown creeper would cooperate (he had been there a couple of weeks before, but did not show up for us). A week or so before we arrived, the area got hit with some snow. A week or so after we left, the area got hit with another snow. While we were, there the weather was cool, but pleasant with mostly cloudy conditions – great weather to sit in a blind and photograph birds, even if we couldn’t photograph birds in the snow.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker on a dead pine.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker on a dead pine.

The birds were out in force! We sat in the blind for a day and a half and had 29 species of birds flit into shooting range. Some of the birds were real hams, like the dark-eyed juncos and chipping sparrows. Others were more reticent, like the red-bellied woodpeckers and fox sparrows. The blue jays were surprisingly cooperative this trip.
We had other birds, including a couple of hawk species, turkey vultures and many tantalizing overpasses of flocks of cedar waxwings that flew within sight of the blind, but were not photographable.

Blue jay in an azalea bush.

Blue jay in an azalea bush.

We also had gray squirrels and chipmunks come and pose for us from time to time.

Chipmunk posing on a log.

Chipmunk posing on a log.

The sheer diversity of shots that a bird photographer can take at Gary’s without leaving a small blind is amazing. You can capture shots that look almost like a meadow.

American goldfinch perching on a goldenrod.

American goldfinch perching on a goldenrod.

You can capture shots that look like a forest.

White-throated sparrow in a Virginia pine.

White-throated sparrow in a Virginia pine.

Pine warbler on a snag.

Pine warbler on a snag.

You can capture the “Birds & Blooms”-type shots.

A "fall" chipmunk shot.

A “fall” chipmunk shot.

You can capture drinking & bathing shots.

White-throated sparrow bathing.

White-throated sparrow bathing.

And the scenery will change a little throughout a single visit as Gary’s exterior decorating skills are put into play to change small details to create yet another kind of image that can be created.

I cannot wait for another chance to visit Gary’s bird blind and spend some quality time learning from and sharing with other photographers.

Dark-eyed junco on a perch.

Dark-eyed junco on a perch.

I am delighted to share that a selection of my favorite images of flora and fauna found in south Mississippi will be on display at the Moss Point Fine Art Gallery in the new Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, MS from mid-February until mid-May. I will be available in the gallery several times while this show is hanging and will likely offer some short photographic presentations and workshops during this show.

MPFAG-PRAC-Photobiologist

There will be an artist’s address and reception on February 12, 2016 that is open to the public. Use the Contact link to get in touch with me for more information or contact the Pascagoula River Audubon Center (http://pascagoulariver.audubon.org/).

All of the framed photographs in this show were masterfully framed and matted by Randy Landers of Landers Fine Art and Framing (https://www.facebook.com/Landers-Fine-Art-and-Framing-335579478568/).

Southern Leopard Frog Tadpole

Southern Leopard Frog Tadpole

 

As I munch, I see a human typing.  I wiggle around getting air.  I also spot food that is not guarded by another tadpole.  Hi, my name is Rana and this is my story.  I used to be the middle egg in the egg pile.  It was a short but sweet time.  Soon I hatched in a small puddle.  It was cool.  I had competitions with other tadpoles to get food.  I had to watch out for predators like snakes and birds.  Then one day a big, white thing (net) captured me and others.  I was put into a bag!!!!!  Next, I was put in a big clear thing and given yummy cold leaves, and that is what has happened every day since then!

More to come!

A few weeks ago, I traveled to the mixed-grass prairie of the Nebraska Sandhills for a meeting.  It was a really good meeting where various folks looked at and talked about outreach to help private landowners better manage their properties so that both the economy and ecology of the area was sustained.  I took a few pictures during the field trips and stayed an extra day or two to photograph more things in the area.

I had a great time photographing in the central and northern sandhills.  The afternoon that I planned to spend in northern Nebraska turned off gray – not just gray but DARK gray.  At 3:00 the light was just gone – it wasn’t overcast, it was dark!  And the wind was blowing as the rain intermittently spit from the sky.  I could have gone with some long exposure to show grass movement in the rolling prairie, or I could be spontaneous and make a run for Badlands National Park just a couple of hours away in South Dakota.

Normally, I plan a photographic trip pretty carefully.  I look for all kinds of options, make an Excel spreadsheet that I can sort by location or species, have a plan A, B, and C.  This time, I hadn’t even considered going into South Dakota!  Well, I made a run for it anyway.  I got there right at dusk.  The visitor center was closed, and I couldn’t even find a park map!

I repaired to my hotel room, drank a Coke and ate some nabs for supper, and jumped on the internet.   I didn’t have time to do much planning.  I found the park map brochure on-line, but didn’t have access to a printer.  I noted a couple of spots that other folks had taken “sunrise” shots and saw that the western end of the park was “better” for wildlife pictures (with me being on the southeastern end of course…).

I went to bed planning to go shoot a sunrise spot.  Luckily, I got up at my normal eastern time and headed out anyway because I took a wrong turn and went about 36 miles out of my way well before sunrise.  I still managed to make it to Panorama Point well before sunrise.  As I set up my gear in the dark, I met a nice photographer that was shooting his way along as he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles.  I also met Jeannee C. Gannuch, the force behind Southeastern Living (http://www.southeasternliving.com/home.html).

Now, I photograph landscapes from time to time.  Unlike a lot of my friends who primarily photograph landscapes and create wondermous images, if I’ve got “good” light, I’d much rather be looking for a critter!  I took a few pre-sunrise shots.

Before the sun came up in the Badlands.

Before the sun came up in the Badlands.

As we stood around waiting for the light to change, Jeannee asked, “Do you like to photograph wildlife?”  Now, she had absolutely no way of knowing that I was standing there weighing in my mind whether to continue to stay here & wait for the light to change or jump in my rental vehicle and go off in search of animals who might cooperate.  After I replied in the affirmative, she told me that back towards the east a couple of pulloffs where a trail crosses the road, there had been a bighorn sheep for the last couple of mornings that was cooperative.  I figured that I knew about where she was talking about.

As the sun broke the horizon, there was a brief flash of color in the sky that quickly dimmed.  I couldn’t see any way that I’d get more color than I’d already gotten, so I packed my gear and headed for the rental.

The sun breaking the horizon in the Badlands.

The sun breaking the horizon in the Badlands.

As I pulled into the pulloff that I thought she was talking about, there 30 yards from the truck was a gorgeous, mature bighorn ram eating dried grass in beautiful light.

Bighorn ram in the morning sun.

Bighorn ram in the morning sun.

I photographed the ram and went on in search of other critters.  (I did cross pass with Jeannee and thank her for the tip!).  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had to have crossed paths at least twice during the day with my friend Eric Bowles (http://www.bowlesimages.com) who was prescouting for a workshop he was leading starting the next day!  (I was able to pass on the location to Eric who got some nice shots of him as well).

I spent the next several hours wandering Badlands National Park and wishing that I had more time there.  I did manage to get within photographable distance of several critters before I began my dash back towards central Nebraska to catch my flight home.

Bison strolling through the prairie.

Bison strolling through the prairie.

Bison headed for the Badlands.

Bison headed for the Badlands.

 

Pronghorn headed for the far side of a hill.

Pronghorn headed for the far side of a hill.

 

Coyote looking for a meal.

Coyote looking for a meal.

Prairie dog having a meal.

Prairie dog having a meal.

Western Meadowlark ready to leave a rangeland fence.

Western Meadowlark ready to leave a rangeland fence.

Clouded sulphur feeding on a fall aster.

Clouded sulphur feeding on a fall aster.

I was truly blessed to see so many critters and more in such a short time!