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Hello + Background!
I frequently do this thing where I get excited about a particular photo, so I share it out on social media before I post it here on my blog. Usually, not a big deal, but today I’ve been overwhelmed by love, questions and comments on a photo that I posted on Reddit titled: “ITAP of a baby turtle at sunset”. I wish I’d have prepared all this beforehand, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20!
On Friday, I experienced one of those magical moments that you never really expect to see with your own eyes. But let me give a little background for those that are coming in from Reddit!
My background is first in graphic design, then in concert and live music photography. Landscape, travel and wildlife photography never came into focus until the midst of COVID when concerts were out of the picture.
During the pandemic, I decided to take advantage of a digital nomad style visa and moved to the Caribbean island, Barbados. I’ve been documenting some of those adventures in a travel blog here. I spent the first year living inland without a car, but last November moved to an apartment within walking distance of the beach. Since then, I have photographed every single sunset that it hasn’t rained for.
I mention this because I want to clearly state: photography is not always just about luck and skill, but also about persistence and showing up. Not every sunset has been one of those stunning ones that you see in magazines that instantly makes you want to head on a Caribbean vacation. In fact, most sunsets aren’t that way at all. Barbados is often affected by dust clouds from the Sahara Dessert, along with late afternoon tropical showers. I still go out every day and spend an hour walking the beach to make sure I don’t miss out on something amazing.
After exactly 238 days of shooting sunsets over the last 37 weeks – that persistence was rewarded.
Setting the Scene
My partner and I headed out for our usual sunset route, which is a walk up the road to Batts Rock Beach, then heading south to Paradise Beach. It’s all one stretch of sand, so a bit hard to say precisely which beach we were on, but my partner happened to notice a baby turtle poking its head out from a hole. It was covered in sand, so we thought we might’ve gotten there just in time to see a whole nest hatch.
Imagine our surprise when the next creature to pop out was not a turtle, but instead, a crab! And it was pretty intent on pursuing the poor little hatchling. I can only guess that we arrived just in time to interrupt dinner.
I am unfortunately aware that we had unintentionally disturbed the circle of life in the situation. In more ideal circumstances, a turtle rescue should’ve been contacted, but we don’t take our phones to the beach (as we don’t have reception without Wi-Fi). Given how important sea turtle preservation is, I felt like the least we could do was to stand between the turtle and the crab and give it one more fighting chance. We kept our distance and only stood behind the turtle, avoiding hindering its journey to the sea.
Meanwhile in the background, the sky was lighting up over the ocean with colors more spectacular than they’ve been in the last couple weeks. Being on the west coast of Barbados benefits in that almost every beach has a great view for sunset, so it didn’t take a lot of effort to compose a photo without needing to interfere with the turtle’s course. I just knelt in the sand, occasionally repositioned and otherwise waited.
The “ITAP” Photo Techniques
Now, I’m no National Geographic photographer. Even though I shoot sunset every day, I do so without a tripod. Usually, I also don’t bother bringing a lot of equipment with me, so I was entirely unprepared for this moment without a tripod or a zoom lens. I just did what I could handholding a wide angle 14-24mm on a Nikon D750.
Honestly, I knew I couldn’t take a single perfect shot in camera. I had no tripod, no filters and no way to balance out the lighting of the foreground on the turtle with the bright sky in the background. Additionally, using flash on turtles is a huge “no-no”, so even if I’d had an off-camera flash with me, I wouldn’t have used it. However, it was a perfect moment, and that was more important in my eyes.
I used exposure bracketing and took three photos of every photo in this mini-sunset series. One exposed for the background/sunset, one exposed for the foreground/turtle, and one somewhere in the middle (which I didn’t use). This is an incredibly common technique that most photographers are familiar with and use to achieve a desired result.
Photo Editing Techniques
Many non-photographers have probably heard the term “HDR” – which is referring to the post-processing/editing done to combine exposure bracketed photos together. This technique is not for everyone, however without it, the end result of these photos wouldn’t have been possible.
I don’t know about you, but even with over 10 years of photography experience, I have yet to meet a camera that captures colors and scenes true to what my eye sees in person. I use in camera color balancing to try and capture scenes as accurately as I can, but I strive to bridge the rest of the gap with my editing techniques. And as much as some people will hate to hear it – yes, that includes “turning up the vibrancy” (but only by 30% and no, not the saturation – never touch that awful slider!) on my photos. I often use combinations of levels and curves, dodging and burning, and every other trick in the Photoshop book to make my photos represent what *I* saw in person.
I know my photos are not everyone’s tastes. I try my best to stay within the boundaries of realism – when people question whether it’s edited or not, then I feel I have succeeded at not going too far overboard. But I will be the first to admit, I don’t always hit that mark. Inevitably, people will criticize and even call into question my validity as a “photographer”, as evidenced on the ITAP thread itself.
Not to devolve into a rant, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t take those comments to heart. Photography is an art, and art is subjective. I’m not offended when people don’t like my art, but I struggle with people that resort to insults when they see something they don’t like. As I was taught, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”
I shared a moment that was special and inspirational to me, sorry to those who miss the bigger picture because they’re too focused on technical perfection.
The Before & After Photo
I have to caveat this by saying I hate showing most of my before photos. In a world of digital photography, editing has become a core component of how photographers can make their photos stand out from everyone else’s. When I show a RAW/unedited photo, it’s incomplete. It’s like showing a half done painting, or my hair if I stopped dying it halfway through.
That said, I also hate to not be transparent – and I wouldn’t have written 90% of this post if my goal was to deceive. So here’s the unedited version, and below that I will answer some FAQs.
Short answer: Sorry, yes. I could not have done the real life scene any justice without post-processing. Long answer details explained above.
That’s half the magic turquoise blue of the Caribbean sea and half the result of a struggle to get it right in post-processing. This is an example of not quite nailing it, but I hope that it’s still evident enough in the unprocessed version of the photo to show that I didn’t add something that wasn’t there at all.
I’m hoping they’re a little bit more visible in the larger before/after photo above, but there are definitely tiny little sand clumps behind the turtle in the photo. Bear in mind that with a wide angle lens, a much bigger scene is captured with less detail than you’d get with a telephoto lens. This turtle was already standing on wet sand where water was rolling on shore and washing away the tracks (you can see the water lines in the sand, even).
At any rate, I’ve include another photo above with a very clear turtle imprint in the sand, which should hopefully clear up whatever the concern is surrounding the “lack of” tracks. (I am curious though – do people think I’ve photoshopped the turtle in? Or that I photoshopped the tracks out? I’m not even sure why this is repeatedly called into question, so if anyone has insight, let me know in comments below!)
Final Thoughts + Thank you!
Honestly, I just want to close out with reiterating how much I appreciate the love this photo has received. I posted it early this morning not expecting much, took a nap for three hours and woke up to an unbelievable 16k upvotes.
I hope the above information offers some clarity for some things (for better or for worse!) and that this gives you a deeper look behind the scenes of what is almost certainly going to be a once in a lifetime photo for me.
Thank you so much for reading and stopping by! 💖
I’ll be updating my shop soon with some sunset turtle photos from this post. Until then, here’s some other prints I have available from Barbados!
Explore my blog to find more beach photos and inspiration below.
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