The importance of 'being there' Taking pictures: Knowing where to go and being ready at any instant to capture unpredictable moments in nature are keys to being a good outdoor photographer.

On the Bay

January 12, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

DESPITE NOT having seriously clicked pics since the Pentaxes were looted from my North Broadway luxury apartment 24 years ago, I am going to give you the secrets of outdoor photography.

I can do this through the miracle of osmosis -- long and close affiliation with Dave Harp, a leading photographer of Chesapeake Bay, snoozing as I outline this column on the living room couch we keep reserved for him.

Tip No. 1 is to cultivate people who live near the places you plan to portray.

Dave, my wife reminds me, always makes the bed in the morning, always washes his breakfast dishes, does not slam the door on his way out at 4 a.m., brings decent wine. Dave is more welcome here than I am.

This is a small part of a larger truth of his craft that Dave calls "being there."

Of course, to photograph anything in the outdoors, you have to be there. What he means is that, at any instant, there is more happening out there in nature than you can imagine, and if you only go for the predictable shots, you miss so much.

There are so many variations on even the simplest scene; no matter how well you think you have captured it, you can bet that the second, or the hundredth time you revisit it, something unique will occur.

A good photographer can boost the odds. Dave took college courses in meteorology and is good at predicting which days to leave his home in Cedarcroft to get thick mist curling up from the Pocomoke River through the cypress swamps.

He knows also how fog-blottered light coaxes colors from the drabbest salt marsh, and what favors that pearly, luminous gray light you get some days on the bay does for white objects like swans and watermen's boats.

Also, he knows how specially that rare, big snowstorm can feature certain landscapes -- which is why his phone call last week to reserve the couch was predictable, and why one day this week, at 5 a.m., we were pushing his four-wheel drive utility vehicle (another essential for the serious photographer) across utterly deserted Dorchester County back roads covered with snow drifts.

We were bound for Bestpitch Ferry, by way of Vienna and Henrys Crossroads, and the Hurlock and Griffith necks, a trip eminently worthwhile in any season, with or without a camera.

The route goes southwesterly from U.S. 50, playing tag first with the Nanticoke River, then the Chicamacomico and finally the Transquaking, crossing the last at a humpy, single-lane wooden bridge that is about all there is to Bestpitch.

But from the bridge, you can look out in almost every direction across a greater expanse of tidal marsh than the eye can comprehend.

The region is the closest Maryland comes to the feel of Florida's Everglades. By skiff or paddlecraft, it is an endless labyrinth for exploration: a land of isolated pine hummocks, overgrown graveyards at the end of abandoned, marshy roads and vanished settlements.

We have preserved sweeps of tidal marsh such as those around Bestpitch for their ecological values, but sheer beauty would be reason enough to make them national treasures.

The marsh is by necessity a fairly homogenous vegetative regime -- few plant varieties can tolerate the seawater. But this salty sameness stretches a perfect artist's linen to catch every nuance and shift of the sun and wind.

The austere tidescape spreads itself wantonly to the light, and the light resonates with infinite variety between immense, reflective sheets of marsh and sky.

Mists, moons, dawns, sunset afterglows, white noontime blazes, blue and golden late autumn afternoons, the cirrusy calligraphy of winter skies -- all are amplified immensely around Bestpitch.

Only those who regularly practice "being there" would think to describe it as a gorgeously, unpredictably flamboyant part of Maryland.

Technically, Dave is here today to capture sunrise on a snowy marsh, but sunrise turns out to be dessert. The main meal is first light, the magical hour or so before dawn, when the day develops like a photographic print -- first forms, then colors tugging loose from the featureless dark.

It is so quiet; a snowy hush lies over the roads, and ice on the creeks has eliminated even a duck hunter's outboard. A wind seems to whoosh just overhead -- a flight of ducks, so high you can barely see them. A loud thumping is just your heart, from the exertion of wading through muck overlain by thigh-deep snow.

Dave's clicking now, as the eastern sky thaws from hints, to cold tints to lush oranges and roses, and the first direct rays give us shadows some 70 yards long, gild a grove of loblolly pines and texture the snowy marsh with extraordinary patterns of light and shade.

And that is pretty much as he had hoped and planned for. But look back at the western sky-- quite unexpectedly it is aglow with streaks of deep color, as if fileted by light's scalpel from its gray bulk. A 360-degree dawn, Dave exclaims.

Then the western sky does yet another turn, to a deep, uniform purplish-blue bruise shade. Against this backdrop, lighted brightly now from the east, sea gulls and swans glitter like platinum.

Then the window closes, as clouds move in. It was, in retrospect, only open a few hours. At midnight, there had been no clouds, and by 8 a.m. there were too many. For a couple of hours it was perfect and then some. And we were there.

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