David Liittschwager: Tide Pool Portraits
Photographer David Liittschwager must have encountered at least a few divas while working on high-end advertising campaigns in Richard Avedon’s studio in New York City, where he learned his trade during Manhattan’s roaring ‘80s. But nothing in that experience completely prepared him for the elusive behavior of the nudibranch.
The no-show sea slug was just one of many tide pool creatures he attempted to shoot recently for an article about the teeming but largely invisible life in Hawaii’s tide pools for Hana Hou!, the in-flight magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.
“On the last morning of the job, with no time to put together the special set up for taking pictures of little creatures, a whole new species of nudibranch showed up that had not been there on previous days”, says Liittschwager, a noted natural history photographer. “And it was the biggest, prettiest one we’d seen of these little Spanish Dancers. It would have been the hero shot if it had just showed up earlier”.
Liittschwager’s “special set up” includes a glass and plexiglass aquarium that he used to hold an astonishing variety of shallows-swimming, bottom-walking, crevice-skulking creatures pulled by his team out of the tide pools to “sit” for portraits that are as exotic and, well, fabulous as any image he’d ever made in New York City.
If the aquarium served as a kind of miniature photo set at Diamond Head beach near Honolulu, Liittschwager’s Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera tethered to a MacBook Pro running Aperture completed his studio-in-the-sand. Tethering directly into the shrouded MacBook Pro allowed Liittschwager to make on-the-fly adjustments for light and focus in Aperture without having to wait to download CF cards. Not a small advantage when a camera-shy crab, in the small aquarium, is suddenly and rambunctiously ready for its close-up.
In delivering animal advocacy “advertising”, Liittschwager learned that his photographic M.O. translated surprisingly closely. “The very first pictures of these endangered species were done with the identical equipment that actually had been used to photograph magazine covers”, he says. “The California kit fox was photographed with the very same umbrella that was used to photograph Brooke Shields for a cover of Vogue magazine six months before. And the technique for how to make the sparkle in the eyes show and be attractive was identical”.
Liittschwager’s tide pool shoot fell right in line with a downsizing trend in his recent nature portraiture. “I’ve been working on small things like tide pool species that people don’t generally notice”, he says. “A lot of this stuff is so small that unless you squat down and get in the tide pool, you’ll miss it”.
Judging from his tide pool take, Liittschwager didn’t miss much. But efficiently pulling the best images from Hawaii’s tidal shallows required using Aperture in a really deep way. Besides shooting tethered into his MacBook Pro to allow for maximum field flexibility — for example, using Aperture’s colour meter and loupe to check how close to white he was in the backgrounds — he also leveraged the organising features of Aperture’s metadata capabilities.
“Aperture allowed me to efficiently look at, edit and handle very large quantities of images”, he says. “In the last three weeks I shot 12,000 pictures and every single one of them has to have data carried with it into the future, as in species name, magnification, creature size or even just interesting notes. And since the pictures have to be edited by others, to be able to have picture information travel forward with them into the editing process at the magazine is incredibly useful”.