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.

MARCH 6-8, 2020


American oystercatcher flying over the beach.

Shore Thing Charters and Wildlife Mississippi are working to provide a later winter/early spring bird photography opportunity off the coast of Mississippi.  Shore Thing Charters has a fleet of 7 comfortable bay boats, and a long history of quality fishing and touring excursions based out of Cat Island – their famous “Cat Island Experience.”  Wildlife Mississippi has a project called “Focus on the Wild Side” that is designed to enhance access to wildlife photography opportunities in Mississippi.  Robert Smith, Wildlife Mississippi’s Coastal Program Coordinator, has been photographing wildlife for over 30 years, and leading bird photography outings for over 15 years.  For more information about Shore Thing Charters’ Cat Island Experience, visit:  For more about Robert Smith’s photography, visit: For more about Wildlife Mississippi’s coastal projects, visit:

Stabilized sand dunes on Cat Island beach.

The Mississippi barrier islands are known for their beauty and wildlife.  Their environs hold great numbers of wintering shorebirds and some sizeable flocks of winter waterfowl.  Shorebirds will be a focus, but if the opportunity presents itself for waterfowl photography, that option will be pursued as well.  Other wildlife, such as osprey, raccoons, and wading birds are also common.  Scenic shots abound, as do opportunities for still life photography.

Photographers on two of Shore Thing Charters boats drifting in to an island in Biloxi Marsh.

Our photographic adventure will be based out of the Cat Island house.  We will have 4 photographic outings with 2 licensed captains in 2 of Shore Thing Charters’ bay boats.  We will plan to visit mud flats and beaches on Cat Island that are known to host loafing and feeding shorebirds, wading birds, and waterfowl.  We will also visit the shell banks and marshes of the Biloxi Marsh area in neighboring Louisiana for more habitats and photographic opportunities for wading birds and shorebirds.  If the light is good and the water calm, we will also cruise the canal edges as we come and/or go for other photographic opportunities.  On Friday night, Robert Smith will give a presentation on beach bird photography.

Some of the thousands of shorebirds, water birds, and wading birds that typically loaf and feed on the southeastern end of Cat Island.


Marbled godwit feeding on an intertidal mud flat.

The birds on Cat Island and in the Biloxi Marsh are wild birds; these birds are not as habituated to people as the birds on the mainland beaches and around mainland harbors.  That said, as long as you make no quick movements and are patient, the shorebirds will often dart within minimum focus distance of most long lenses.  There are plovers, sandpipers, yellowlegs, oyster catchers, terns, willets, dunlins, turnstones, and a few scattered whimbrels, godwits, and less common shorebirds during this time of year.  Waterfowl, such as scoters, scaup, redheads, buffleheads, and common mergansers often swim into the lagoon entrance to feed; photographing these birds requires more patience and camouflage clothing is a definite help.  Opportunities to photograph ospreys, pelicans, and wading birds are a given.  Some resident and wintering birds, such as black and white warblers, kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, northern cardinals, and northern mockingbirds are also found around the house.  Some early migrants, like purple martin scouts, may also be present.  Depending on the weather, we may see alligators, nutria, raccoons, and other wildlife.

Semipalmated plover running the waters edge on Cat Island.


Whimbrel in Biloxi Marsh.


Osprey flying by the Cat Island House.


Larry Dees photographing shore birds in Biloxi Marsh.


Great blue heron on the Cat Island Canal edge.

Kayaks and fishing rods will be available for individual use at the Cat Island house during our trip.

Our adventure will begin at in the very early afternoon on Friday, March 6th when we meet to load our gear onto Shore Thing Charter’s boats at Long Beach Harbor.  We will photograph Friday afternoon, Saturday morning and afternoon, and again on Sunday morning.  We will return to Long Beach Harbor around early to mid-afternoon on Sunday, March 8th.

Least sandpipers on the beach at Cat Island.


Our group will depart from Long Beach Harbor (720 South Cleveland Avenue, Long Beach, MS 39560).  We will go out to Shore Thing Charter’s house on Cat Island, a barrier island about 7 miles off the coast of Mississippi.  From the house, we have 3 options:  1) we can visit nearby sites on the island by foot or kayak, 2) go by foot or boat to photograph birds on shallow mud flats near the ends of the island, or 3) go by boat over into neighboring Louisiana and photograph birds loafing on shell banks, feeding on mud flats, or foraging in the marsh.

White and brown pelicans on Cat Island.

Lodging is included, and will be in a private house on Cat Island, location of Shore Thing Charter’s famous “Cat Island Experience”.

The house on Cat Island.

Hearty meals are included, and will be served at the house on Cat Island.  The cook at Cat Island specializes in “Cajun-Southern Cuisine”, and we’ll have seafood dinners, hearty breakfasts, and delicious lunches.  We will attempt to serve the meals around the best photography light, which may mean a late breakfast and a late dinner with a light lunch in the bright mid-day.  Snacks and water will be available on the boats while we are out photographing as well.  As always, if you have dietary needs or restrictions, please let us know so that we can plan for those in advance.  You may bring your own alcoholic beverages for consumption at the Cat Island House.

Pack in waterproof container (many coolers work well).
Lenses (long lenses)
Other Photographic Equipment (flashes, brackets, memory cards etc.)
Battery chargers
Rubber knee boots
Subdued or camouflage field clothing (recommended for waterfowl opportunities)
Flash light
Bug spray
Toiletries and other personal items
Waders (if you wish)
Small folding stool/dove stool (if you wish)
Lay-down mats to lay or sit on in the sand & mud (if you wish)
Blinds/hides (if you wish)
Check weather before trip to see if you need to pack for cold weather, warm weather, hot weather, or all 3!

Shorebird feather on Cat Island beach right after a rain shower.

This adventure is moderately rigorous.  It may involve walking in loose to firm sand carrying gear for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ miles one-way to a photographic location; though if the tides and weather permit, we will transport to a nearby beach via boat.

Climbing from the boat to the shore (and then back aboard) is usually done with a minimum of effort by utilizing coolers and steps, but sometimes a little wading may be needed.

Mosquitoes, no-see um’s (sand gnats), and biting flies may be present at this time of year, so bug spray and bug netting may be helpful.

Offloading on the shell beach in the Biloxi Marsh.

The price for this Cat Island Bird Photography Adventure is $900 per photographer.  This includes guided boat transportation, photography assistance from Robert Smith, 2 nights lodging, 2 suppers, 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and the opportunity to press the shutter release a lot of times!

A deposit of $200.00 is required to hold your slot.  If the trip is cancelled because of weather or the minimum number of photographers is not reached, your deposit may be applied to another day or overnight trip with Shore Thing Charters.  Make checks payable to:  Shore Thing Charters and mail them to:  Robert Smith, Wildlife Mississippi, P.O. Box 1374, Biloxi, MS  39533.

A minimum of 6 photographers are needed, and a maximum of 8 will be accommodated.

A group of birders and photographers in one of Shore Thing Charters boats in a Cat Island canal.

Sonny Schindler and the other 6 captains at Shore Thing Charters make up the largest charter fishing fleet on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  The captains at Shore Thing Charters are on the water throughout the year and know the places where not only the fish are, but where the birds are located as well.  They make every effort to provide an unbelievable outdoor adventure, while striving to make sure your trip is as enjoyable and productive as it can be.

Robert Smith is a wildlife biologist by vocation and has been photographing wildlife for over 30 years.  He first worked on the Mississippi barrier islands in the late 1980’s.  Robert can help with wildlife identification and camera issues.

To sign up for this adventure or to ask questions, contact Robert Smith at 228-990-0559 or


Black skimmer fly-by.

Nature-based tourism is a big deal on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  There are a few recreational charter boat captains that specialize in eco-tours, mostly in the swampy river and upper marsh areas.  There are a few fishing captains that advertise tours of some sort, but none that have really tried to develop that niche.  After seeing the reactions of some of their fishing clients to the bird life the encounter while fishing, Captains Sonny Schindler and Kenny Shiyou with Shore Thing Fishing Charters have decided to expand into the niche of taking non-anglers out to see the bird life and coastal habitats.

Winter birding trip to Cat Island.

They have taken a group of National Audubon Society employees out to see some of the areas, they have taken groups of biologists and tourism professionals out.  And they have taken a diverse group of birders out on a test run.  I’ve been on three of those trips, all without my big bird lens because I was not there to take pictures.  Though I did get a few pictures that I liked, like the great blue heron below.

Great blue heron on Cat Island.

One of the areas that I had not seen, but had heard about was a rumored roseate spoonbill rookery.  Even though the spoonbills nest during a time of the year that the guides are busy guiding fisherman, I told Sonny that when the spoonbills were nesting, to give me a call, and Larry Dees and I would be ready to go.  Turns out that Larry Dees, Scott Breazeale, Michael Sandoz and I were all ready to go.  Four photographers and gear was a good fit for the 26-foot bay boat that we’d be using.  Shore Thing Charters has 7 captains and boats, so larger groups could have easily been accommodated.

So, just after sunrise on a late May morning, we departed the marina in Long Beach, Mississippi.  It was hard on the photographers who shoot a lot of scenic, because the orange orb had just gotten a little too high to create a very cool image of the Port of Gulfport to our east.  We left the docks and headed south into the Mississippi Sound.  Rather than go for a diversity of birds, what we really wanted was “quality, charismatic birds” that were approachable in good light.  We decided that we’d rather have fewer good shots rather than a lot of shots of a bunch of different birds.

Our first stop was just across the Louisiana line where brown pelicans were nesting in the shrubs on a low oyster bank.  We found a place where we could ease in between fishermen fishing from their anchored boats and not interfere with others wade fishing and cut the engine and began drifting towards shore.  We got some decent shots, and could have stayed and gotten even more, but the lure of the rumored spoonbills a tad further west had us cranked up and on plane after a few minutes of shooting.

Brown pelican rookery in Biloxi Marsh, LA.

Photographing brown pelican rookery from the boat.

Our next stop was an intimate roseate spoonbill rookery in a large clump of eastern baccharis.  Well, like most wading bird rookeries, it wasn’t a single-species rookery, there were also white ibis, tri-colored herons, great egrets, and snowy egrets.  But the star of the show was definitely the roseate spoonbills.  Based on their behavior, there were likely nesting clapper rails, willets, and red-winged blackbirds nearby as well.  After getting a few shots from the boat, we waded into the marsh to feed the horseflies and get some frame-filling shots.  After a period of initial alertness, most of the birds seemed to go back into their routine of nest-enhancement, brooding, going down to the water’s edge, and more.  Even so, after getting shots that we liked, we left the rookery with plans to return later when there were chicks.  Most of the nests were down in the vegetation, and we only saw a teeny amount of chick movement out of one spoonbill nest.

Roseate spoonbill bringing a stick to the nest.


Roseate spoonbills returning to the rookery.


Photographing the rookery from behind cover to reduce potential impacts on the rookery.


Great egret returning to the rookery.


Willet flying by the rookery.

The next plan was to go to a large mud flat where we had seen thousands of shorebirds and wading birds a few months earlier.  Because of the wind and waves, we had to approach the flat from a different direction that had a large shell bank that we could walk down.  As we approached that end, it quickly became evident that wouldn’t be walking down that shell bank because it was a colony of black skimmers, gull-billed terns, and laughing gulls with nest scrapes all along the open area.  We slowly drifted in until we were close enough for good shots, a Captain Sonny put the powerpole down into the mud to anchor us in place as we shot the birds squabbling, feeding mates, incubating eggs, and just doing what a nesting colony does.


Black skimmer coming into the nesting colony.


Calling black skimmer on a nesting scrape.


Gull-billed tern on a nest.


Gull-billed tern returning to the nesting colony.


Laughing gull pair at their nest site in a sea ox-eye daisy.

Looking across a narrow bay to another strip of open oyster shells we could see a smaller colony of Caspian terns.  We slipped across the bay for a few shots.  As we began circumnavigating the marsh island for better shots, we had to stop for a pair of American oystercatchers.  As we photographed them, one went just over the crest of the oyster pile and sat back down on the nest.  Rather than intrude for a photo opportunity, we moved on.

Caspian tern nesting colony.


American oystercatcher near a nest.

We finally made it around to the mud flat, and found ourselves out there at high tide.  Rather than a mud flat, we had a shallow water area with tailing redfish chasing mud crabs across the bottom.  There were a few shorebirds along the edge, but not the numbers we were expecting, so a quick shot of a whimbrel that should have already been up north somewhere and a few other birds, and we moved on.

Tailing redfish on flooded mud flat.


Whimbrel on a shallow mud flat.

We made a run back over to Cat Island to look for shorebirds on the southern beaches, and found them in decent numbers.  However, the tide was still high and the light was getting brighter and higher, so made a quick trip on around the island looking for other wading birds.  We saw some of the great blue herons, green herons, osprey, and other birds we were expecting, including the green heron nests we expected.  But it was so hot, the birds were generally tucked back into the shade, and the ones that were not did not look elegant with their gular panting to keep cool.

Cat Island shorebirds on an earlier trip – over 13 species of shorebirds plus wading birds plus pelicans plus waterfowl and more! (The shorebirds are in the air because a peregrine falcon was coming over!)


The sun and the tide were both high, leaving photo opportunities for Larry Dees to be limited.


An osprey fly-by.


By almost noon, it was so hot, the birds that were not in the shade were panting.

So, we headed back to the mainland after a great morning of bird photography.  In hind sight, we’d have been better off spending more time in Biloxi Marsh rather than trying to squeeze in a bit of Cat Island as well.  Plans are being made to return to both, however.  Another trip over to the Biloxi Marsh this summer when all those nesting wading birds and shorebirds have chicks is in the works.  And then a 2- or 3-day trip in late fall or early winter out to Cat Island to photograph shorebirds, wading birds, and potentially waterfall while staying in the house on Cat Island for the full “Cat Island Experience”.  If you want more information, drop me a line or contact the folks at Shore Thing Charters (

Most folks who shoot with me know that I’m a big fan of MANUAL Photoshop – getting it right in the scene and in the camera BEFORE you press the shutter release.  I am NOT a big fan of “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop”.  Even when I might be able to fix it in photoshop, it’s often just too much work.  It’s ever so much easier to get it right first.

I recently led a photographic workshop at Indian Point RV Resort as a part of the City of Gautier, Mississippi’s 2nd Annual Plein Air Art Competition.  One thing that I offered was to meet participants to shoot the sunrise on Sioux Bayou.  When I am leading photographic workshops, I am usually not shooting much myself – focusing instead on helping the participants learn and get their shots.

We had a small group for sunrise, so I went ahead and got out my camera and tripod, and I was glad that I did.

Sunrise on Sioux Bayou

Sunrise on Sioux Bayou

I had told them that there was a snag that herons and egrets often perched on.  And just as the sun started to break the horizon, sure enough a snowy egret lit on the side of the snag.  Then it moved on up to the top, right where I had envisioned it.

Now, I vastly prefer to shoot critters rather than landscapes, so when the egret perched up there, I didn’t even press the shutter release on my wide angle lens (my mistake).  I went to the truck, and got out a long lens and another tripod so that I could get a cool egret silhouette shot.

I got the gear back down where I wanted it, got it set up, focused on the egret.  Then I rotated the lens from horizontal to vertical, and the bird flew away!  In a fit of pique, I went ahead and pressed the shutter release to add to my growing collection of “perch” pictures.  Now, a perch picture is a picture of the branch (rock, log, etc.) that a bird HAD been perched on moments before.

Another shot for my perch collection!

Another shot for my perch collection!

As I looked at the image as I got ready to download my shots, I realized that I could “fix it” in Photoshop!  So, I selected the brush tool, and drew a snowy egret right where it was before.  But instead of making it just a dark silhouette, I went ahead and made it a somewhat natural-color snowy egret.

Now the snowy egret is on the perch where it had been moments before!  I guess I CAN "fix it in Photoshop!"

Now the snowy egret is on the perch where it had been moments before! I guess I CAN “fix it in Photoshop!”

That image earned me a pat on the head and “Nice job, Dad!” from my daughter, but something about her tone combined with that pre-teen eye roll makes me think that she just might have some other meaning in mind…

I did grab a few shots of some of the photographers shooting out of one of the two bird blinds, as well as a pair of photographers photographing an American alligator.  The alligator came up and posed within 10 feet, as did a sora, and a trio of black-bellied whistling ducks.  All in all, we had 17 bird species, two mammals, and a few damselflies, dragonflies, and fiddler crabs within photographable distance during the workshop.

Shooting out of one of the bird blinds at Indian Point RV Resort in Gautier, MS.

Shooting out of one of the bird blinds at Indian Point RV Resort in Gautier, MS.


Another view out of one of the bird blinds at Indian Point RV Resort in Gautier, MS.

Another view out of one of the bird blinds at Indian Point RV Resort in Gautier, MS.


Gotta get eye-level to get a cool gator shot!

Gotta get eye-level to get a cool gator shot!

I did manage to get a couple of shots of the birds during the last part of the afternoon.

Boat-tailed grackles are ubiquitous - luckily the males are attractively iridescent too!

Boat-tailed grackles are ubiquitous – luckily the males are attractively iridescent too!


Black-bellied whistling ducks are increasing in number on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but they are especially increasing around Indian Point right now.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are increasing in number on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but they are especially increasing around Indian Point right now.


The sun was sinking, and the light wasn't great, but the opportunity to photograph a purple gallinule on the Mississippi Coast doesn't occur every day...

The sun was sinking, and the light wasn’t great, but the opportunity to photograph a purple gallinule on the Mississippi Coast doesn’t occur every day…


Authors note:  A recent positive experience with USB Memory Direct prompted this blog post…

Photography is fun.  And sharing pictures with others makes it even more fun.  I’m using sharing in a VERY broad context.  I’m including sharing with friends, sharing with editors, sharing with coworkers, and sharing a final product with a client.  Historically, those images were shared as prints, and in many cases, that is still true.

But other times, those images may need to be shared digitally.  Social media has made it very, very easy to share lots of pictures with other people very quickly.  Sharing one or two high resolution digital images via e-mail is reasonable.  But what happens when it is time to share a lot of high resolution images?

Some times when I share a folder of images or a selection of digital images with an editor or other user, I use a “cloud” service like DropBox.  But there are times when you want to deliver a physical product, even if you are delivering digital images.  Many years ago, I bought a printer that would print images on compact discs.  I would save or “burn” the selected images to the CD, and then work up an image and label for the CD and print it on the CD.  Sometimes, I’d deliver the CD in a special case that also held a 4”x6” or 5”x7” traditional print.

Client images on a CD packaged with a traditional print.

Client images from 2008 on a CD packaged with a traditional print.

It’s been more than a few years since I’ve printed an image on CD, though that printer still works.  My daughter’s current PC does not even have a CD drive.  My current method of choice for sharing a number of images or large files is a USB drive.  These little USB drives are also called USB fobs, flash drives, thumb drives, memory sticks, pen drives, and jump drives.  It is much easier to put the images on the USB drive than it is to put them on a CD.  They are lightweight, easy to transport, and seem to have a good digital lifetime.  There are also USB ports on all manner of electronic devices including PCs, televisions, “digital picture frames”, and more.

Not only can I save the digital images on a USB drive, I can also save a PDF version of the imaging license or useage release that tells what rights I am sharing with those images.  I also usually put a “contact” file on the drive that has my business contact information on it should whoever end up with the drive in the future need biological or photographic expertise.  In the past several months, I’ve had 3 occasions where a USB drive was either the logical or requested method of sharing.

The first was after a land management workshop that I helped facilitate.  The workshop information and Powerpoint presentations were all going to be compiled and sent to all the presenters and participants.  Traditionally, this would have all be printed out and put into some sort of binder and mailed.  In this case, it was significantly cheaper to convert all the files to PDFs with each “slide” having it’s own page and save them to a USB drive than it was to print the same files with 3 “slides” to a page and put them in a spiral or 3-ring binder.  The USB drives were also cheaper to mail than the traditional paper booklets would have been.

I was invited to be a featured artist at a small gallery recently.  There is limited room to hang images in the gallery, so deciding which traditional prints to hang was not easy.  There were several other images that I wish that I could have taken.  The good news was that the gallery manager said, “We also have a high-density , flatscreen television mounted just outside the gallery room that you are showing in.  Bring a dozen to a hundred of your other images on a USB drive, and we can run them as a loop on the television.”   I took a USB driver over, and we plugged it into the USB port on the back of the television, and my images were there in a matter of seconds.

I also do some outdoor event photography.  Joe Venus ( and I recently shot a 2-day event.  One of deliverables was a slideshow the last evening with action shots of all the participants.  We provided that slideshow on a USB drive.  After the event, the organizer asked was there any way that we could provide a copy for each of the participants.  Of course there was!  Thirty-seven additional USB drives later, each participant has his own version of the show.

USB drives come in a variety of sizes from 64 megabytes to 16 gigabytes or larger.  USB drives can also be customized.  There are all sort of shapes and colors, and there are all sorts of innovative ways to protectively cover the end that plugs into the electronic device.

I recently acquired 25 personalized USB drives from USB Memory Direct.  I am a pretty simple guy, so I chose a pretty simple option.  I chose a traditional drive with a  removable cap (style DE) that was black with silver accents with my logo/website printed in it’s normal orange, black, and white – though it was divided to print on both sides so that it could be a little larger than if it were put on both sides.

Front side of custom USB drive from

Front side of custom USB drive from

Rear side of custom USB drive from

Rear side of custom USB drive from

The folks at USB Memory Direct were easy to contact and responded more quickly to my messages than I did to their replies.  The digital mock-up of my drives looked good, but they said when they started processing it for real the logo got a little distorted.  I resent the image in a vector format, and everything went great.  A few days later, I had a very padded parcel of USB drives sitting on my desk!  The drives feel solid.  The caps are snug.  The logos are tough – I scratched on one with my thumbnail, and it looked just like it did before (though I’m sure that if I carry one around in my pocket with change and keys, that it will show signs of wear).

A tray of USB drives waiting to be loaded and sent to clients!

A tray of USB drives waiting to be loaded and sent to clients!

While I did not use any of the additional services that USB Memory Direct offers, they will format the drives in different ways, preload information on them (in hindsight, I should have gone ahead and had them load my business contact information on the drives), and more.

Somehow giving clients a physical product with digital images feels like more of a transaction than delivering those same files through the ether.

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

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.

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.

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.