Louisiana swamp photography adventure pays off
I received an email in early February from some guy named Tom Hamilton who introduced himself as a Virginia photographer and asked if I could help him find a photography guide into the Louisiana swamp during his first visit to the state. Now, I had never heard of Tom, but my first thought was, “I have a boat.”
I googled Tom, and discovered that he is a fantastic landscape photographer. So I shot him a note offering to be his guide if our schedules worked out.
On April 15, we were running down the Reserve Canal at 5:45 a.m. on the way to Lake Maurepas with hopes that thick clouds that had obscured the skies all week would break, if only for a few minutes, and allow the sun to pop through and offer the sunset-in-the-swamp shot Tom wanted to capture.
“Do you worry about snapping turtles?” Tom asked as I slipped into the shallow waters on the lake’s edge in the predawn gloom.
“Snapping turtles? Nah, but you have to watch out for the alligators,” I laughed.
OK, so that might have been funny only to a native Louisiana boy, but, to his credit, Tom finished pulling on his waders and soon was waist deep in the Louisiana swamp.
The sunrise we hoped for never materialized, but we spent an hour or so shooting cypress trees and getting to know each other. Tom was awed by his first experience with our swamps, repeatedly remarking on the beauty and how different it was from anything else he had shot.
He was also a little proud that he was sloshing amidst the cypress trees and would have some stories to tell his friends.
By 9 a.m., the boat was back on the trailer and we were heading south and west, around the bottom of the Atchafalaya Basin to Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge. I had paddled in the refuge once with my wife, only seeing a small portion of it, but Facebook friend and budding photographer Bryan Charpentier had created a map of some areas that might provide photo jackpots.
But before we even reached the halfway mark of the drive to Bayou Teche NWR, Tom’s head spun to the side as we passed an old, abandoned home tucked behind a set of large, old oak trees in Gray, just north of Houma.
“You want to shoot that, don’t you?” I asked.
So we made a U-turn, pulled onto the side of the road and spent a few minutes capturing amazing images of the stately old home.
When we finally reached Bayou Teche and put the boat in the water, it was fun watching Tom’s reaction as we zipped down the first canal. But when we turned into a twisting bayou to move into the refuge’s interior, his interest turned to wonder. The banks of the bayou were lined with beautiful moss-draped cypress trees, and his head was on a swivel as I ran the curving waterway at 30 mph.
We stopped for a few shots of some live oaks that seemed to be reaching into the bayou, producing some fantastic photography.
And then we were off to find the Louisiana irises Bryan had located for us. Several stops provided plenty of opportunities to shoot these beautiful flowers.
As we moved on, Tom couldn’t stop talking about his surroundings. In fact, Bayou Teche NWR is a fascinating example of the Louisiana coast. It features almost all of the wetland types imaginable, moving from live oak cheniers to freshwater marshes to cypress-tupelo swamps.
Our last stop of the day was to be at a large bird rookery Bryan had located. I rented a Nikon 200-500 telephoto for the shoot, and we were soon set up and trying to get some images of nesting egrets scattered through the cypress swamp. However, they were a little too far from us, so we decided to see if we could find a better vantage point.
Back into the boat we went, heading to what the map showed was a canal on the far side of the rookery. I had to jump a mud flat to get into the canal, only to discover that the rookery couldn’t even be seen from that vantage point.
The move wasn’t a waste, however, because we discovered an old cypress run through the swamp that offered us the opportunity to take some unique shots of the afternoon sunlight gleaming through an opening in what appeared to be a tree-lined tunnel.
We closed the day out by finding a closer spot to shoot the rookery, although I have a lot to learn about wildlife photography. While Tom captured some tack-sharp images, mine were less than impressive. I did manage to get one really nice image. A real disappointment, but it gives me something new to learn.
Now, I have been asked why in the world I would go out on a boat with a guy I’d never met Apparently folks believe there are ax murderers posing as traveling photographers. But here’s the thing: Two Houston photogs (Dave Morefield and Tim Stanley) took a chance on me when they made a trip to New Orleans a couple of years ago, and we are now fast friends, texting and talking by phone weekly. We also get together as often as possible to shoot new images, and we’re constantly critiquing each others’ photography.
I have learned more about photography from working with Dave and Tim than by watching Youtube vids and reading how-to articles. My work has improved every time we have worked together, and I have sold a number of images because they have been wise sounding boards for how to market them.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day with Tom. I came away with a few new tricks, and I learned to look at the Louisiana swamps in a different way. A couple of the images I captured are direct results of his interest in stopping to capture scenes I probably would have passed.
In addition, I now have a photographer buddy in Virginia who has given me an open invitation to make a trip to his stomping grounds for another adventure. And I’m certain we’ll be staying in touch as we move forward, pushing each other and helping improve our craft.
You just can’t buy that kind of experience and friendship.