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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Along The Amazon

Adventures astride the largest river on Earth

Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a tributary of the Amazon River, Peru.

There he is again! I swung around in the skiff with my D90 mounted with a 70-300mm lens, shooting, zooming and focusing at the same time and coming up with nothing but a shot of churning whitewater...for about the 20th time that afternoon.

We’re on the Pacaya River in Peru, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, and our naturalist guide, Jorge, is helping us spot the rare pink river dolphin. These strange, pale creatures are endemic to this river system. Getting a good shot of them when they surface briefly, one that shows their eyes and their strange snout instead of just their slick backs or tails, is next to impossible.

I’ve about given up hope of ever getting the shot, so I focus on the other skiff carrying the rest of our group of river explorers to frame up a storytelling shot of wildlife spotting for my story when, lo and behold, between the two boats, right in the foreground of my shot, two pink river dolphins surface. This time, I’m ready, squeeze off a series of exposures and get a keeper.

That’s the way it seems to go shooting in the Amazon—if you stress out, you come up empty-handed. If you relax and let the rhythms of the river come to you, you’re likely to be rewarded with some memorable pictures of this important ecosystem.

Skiff Shots. Traveling in this region is usually done by boat, and I’m lucky to be on one of the best. La Amatiste—The Amethyst—is based on the design of the riverboats used by the rubber barons near the end of the 19th century. Luxurious as those boats were, they didn’t enjoy the air-conditioned cabins and dining room that made our steamy jungle conditions more than tolerable. Couple that with excellent locally caught fish and locally grown vegetables expertly prepared, and a supply of ice-cold Amazonas beer, and you’re all set to explore the jungle in high style.

Most of the best wildlife viewing is done from smaller skiffs that can maneuver up creeks and small channels. While they’re roomy and stable, they’re moving platforms, making it challenging to use the 400mm to 600mm lenses required.

Because of the design of the boats and the vibrations of the engines, a monopod won’t do you much good for steadying your long glass, and the gunnels of the skiff are too low to make a beanbag usable. So my advice for the best stabilization for your long glass is to use a shoulder stock, like the BushHawk (www.bushhawk.com) or the Stedi-Stock (www.agonic.com). These type of stabilizers are becoming more popular with video-enabled DSLR users as they’re excellent for helping to steady your movie shots, too, so it may not represent as specialized an investment as you once thought. I relied on my tabletop tripod used as a chestpod; it’s not as elegant a solution as a shoulder stock, but it worked fine in a pinch.


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