Last weekend I drove with a couple of friends to Delaware to watch what surely must be one of the most amazing natural spectacles in North America, the annual mass spawning of Atlantic horseshoe crabs. I do it almost every year, and over time the eight hour drive from Boston to Delaware Bay has become a ritual, my way of communing with the ancient arthropods. (It is also an opportunity for me to gorge on delicious things I normally try to avoid – gas station donuts, Big Macs – after all, there is simply no way to eat healthily while on the road, right?)
A trip to Delaware allows me to flex my photographic muscles and try new approaches to capturing a scene that has been photographed a zillion times already, but this year the circumstances were not particularly favorable for photography. In fact, they could not have been worse. High tides, which is the time when horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean to lay eggs, were late at night, long after the sun had set. It was new moon and the sky was overcast, hiding the stars. This challenge presented me with three possible options. I could forget about pictures and simply enjoy the show with a beer in my hand – I have already taken thousands of photos of horseshoe crabs, and didn’t really need to take any more. Very tempting. I could also shoot with flashes and get crisp, clinical shots of the crabs’ aggregations. Boring. Or I could think of a new, unorthodox way to shoot them.
Photographing horseshoe crabs is not easy even under the best of circumstances – the light is usually low, salt water splashes on the equipment, waves move the tripod. In the near darkness of the new moon things were even tougher. Still, I was determined to get at least one interesting shot. The idea was to capture the dynamic nature of the spectacle and convey the darkness of its surroundings. I decided to go for a low angle shot of the animals tumbling in the waves, while showing the darkening skyline. I used my Canon 7D with a Canon 14mm fisheye, mounted on a tripod (dug deep into the sand to stabilize it) and positioned less than a foot above the crabs in the splash zone. I had to wipe the camera and lens every minute, but soon they were both dripping wet. I tried a bunch of simple, long exposures (30 seconds or longer), but those produced static, if somewhat dreamy pictures, where the waves turned into a silky mist enveloping the animals. I needed extra light to capture individual waves.
A pop of flash often works very well in such situations, freezing some of the action, while the rest of the exposure time allows for the scene to become more diffused and messy. But I did not like the harshness of the flash, and even my headlamp produced illumination that was too bright for a long, ISO 1600 exposure. Only after I wrapped it in a few layers of paper towels did the light become diffused and soft enough for me to start “painting” the scene with it. In the end I was able to capture an image very close to what I had in mind – a melee of animals among waves splashing against their bodies, while the last traces of sunlight reflect off the clouds above. The shot is grainy and dark, but to me it feels right and true to the circumstances. I guess the lesson here is that when life gives you lemons, you photograph them.