Lessons Learned While Passing Time on Puget Sound Ferry Crossings
It only takes 35 minutes by ferry to get from Seattle to Bainbridge Island on the way to the Olympic National Park but it can seem longer. You can use the opportunity to grab a quick bite to eat, but the choices are rather limited. Many passengers hang out on deck if the weather is good. Like me, some of them have cameras.
The obvious targets for many of those photographers are the flocks of seagulls that fly around the boat throughout the voyage. Perhaps they're just curious about the behemoth of a boat invading their environment but I'm thinking most of them are attracted by the possibility of food. Although the onboard dining options for humans are less than gourmet quality the seagulls seem quite satisfied by any crumbs of bread or other scraps thrown into the air by the passengers. Everyone knows you shouldn't feed wild animals but enough people do to keep the seagulls interested.
Regardless of the reasons, seagulls are everywhere. Once I get to the Olympic Peninsula I may have a hard time getting up close shots of marmots or other wildlife, but on the ferry crossing the seagulls are easy if seemingly indifferent subjects.
And therein lays the challenge. Photographing seagulls from on deck with a wide enough angle lens is easy but not very satisfying. The birds come out too small in the frame. The seagulls occasionally fly close enough for even the unaided eye to catch a great deal of detail, but they fly fast enough that photographing them that close isn't easy. Trying to pan with a hand held camera might be possible if you could predict the bird's flight path but they seems too erratic, or perhaps the inner logic they navigate by simply escapes us humans.
I've long ago lost count of how many times I've made the Bainbridge run. I love shooting on the Olympic Peninsula. The ferry is both a walk-on and a car ferry meaning that I can drive on in Seattle, then drive off when in Winslow, Bainbridge Island and continue on my way to Port Angeles and the heart of the peninsula. On the ferry crossing I used to be up on deck with the best of them trying to photograph seagulls. It finally dawned on me that I should change my approach.
The best one can generally hope for chasing seagulls with a camera is an image of a passing bird randomly placed in a randomly framed sky. I've included one of my random attempts near the top of the article here. I shot as the bird flew overhead against the mostly blue sky. It's an adequate shot I suppose, and when you think about it there's really not much chance of improvement when panning with a bird in random flight. As is, the shot has no context — there's nothing but the seagull and the sky. Had I caught anything else in the frame in an attempt to provide a sense of place it would likely have been an portion of some random railing or ship's mast looking quite awkward jutting an a wild angle. No, compositionally, there's little chance of getting much this way.
Instead, I decided one day to shift gears and concentrate on the composition rather than the subject. Looking around, the obvious landmark was downtown Seattle receding behind the boat in the wake of the engines. I had observed that the seagulls tend to swarm around the boat, for a time leading it, and then for a time dropping back to follow it in somewhat of a game of leapfrog with the boat. Trying to follow any single bird had turned out to be somewhat futile, but I figured I could still rely on this basic large-scale pattern to their motion. Given this, I mounted a camera with a mid-telephoto lens on a tripod, pointed it towards downtown Seattle, and waited. I framed the shot with downtown on one side of the frame, and the spire of the old Smith Tower on the other, leaving an area of open sky in between. I was relatively confident that, given enough time, I seagull would fly appropriately into the frame so I could photograph it. In other words, rather than trying to follow the seagulls wherever they went, I aimed a camera where I wanted them to fly and just waited.
It did take nearly ten minutes to catch the second shot here, but I think it was worth it.
Indeed, randomly trying to get a good shot rarely works as well as methodically planning a shot and then taking steps to make it happen. Sometimes that merely requires being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it means rethinking the way you approach the problem entirely.