As­sign­ment | Rod Mor­ris

New Zealand D-Photo - - CONTENTS - WORDS| KELLY LYNCH

Our seashores are teem­ing with fas­ci­nat­ing in­stances of life, but this aquatic world is one that most of us over­look. With his lat­est project, vet­eran na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher Rod Mor­ris asks us to look a lit­tle more closely

Rod Mor­ris doesn’t ad­mit to be­ing a nat­u­ral-his­tory pho­tog­ra­pher, or even re­ally a pho­tog­ra­pher. He says he’s “an old-fash­ioned nat­u­ral­ist”, who uses cam­era gear to tell a story. How­ever, one glance at his on­line photo li­brary tells us that he is very mod­est; his pho­tographs are out­stand­ing.

Rod’s col­lec­tion of stock im­ages be­gan in the early ’70s, while he was work­ing for the New Zealand Wildlife Ser­vice. Ac­cess­ing lo­ca­tions such as New Zealand’s off­shore is­lands, Rod was in­volved in res­cu­ing wildlife, in­clud­ing black robins, ka¯ka¯po¯, and kiwi. He soon ac­quired a con­cen­trated pho­to­graphic col­lec­tion of New Zealand’s en­dan­gered species, and used the pho­tos as an aid in his talks to in­ter­ested groups. Con­tin­u­ing to tell sto­ries, Rod be­came a di­rec­tor and pro­ducer at TVNZ’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit — now called Nat­u­ral His­tory New Zealand. Aim­ing the spot­light at New Zealand’s unique wildlife, he cre­ated many well­known doc­u­men­tary films, a num­ber of them win­ning both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional awards.

Leav­ing tele­vi­sion, Rod con­cen­trated his at­ten­tion on writ­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy for books, his sub­jects rang­ing from in­ver­te­brates to birds, lemurs to ko­modo drag­ons. If a crea­ture ex­ists within the South Seas, you can be pretty sure that Rod has pho­tographed it. He’s pro­duced an ex­ten­sive num­ber of chil­dren’s sto­ries and field guides, as well as cof­feetable books — and a num­ber of these have been award fi­nal­ists. Rod’s im­ages also ap­pear in mag­a­zines such as For­est and Bird Mag­a­zine and New Zealand Geo­graphic; some­times he writes the sto­ries, but more of­ten there’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach with a writer. The story that’s given him the most sat­is­fac­tion was about Den­nis­ton Plateau, on the South Is­land’s West Coast, his pho­tographs doc­u­ment­ing the rare and en­dan­gered species un­der threat by min­ing ac­tiv­ity.

Rod’s lat­est project has lasted for five in­tense and con­sum­ing years. The re­sult is a colour­ful, com­pre­hen­sive, and user-friendly guide book for the ca­sual beach ex­plorer, au­thored by Sally Car­son and called Collins Field Guide to the New Zealand Seashore. Av­er­ag­ing three pho­tographs a page for its 400 pages, the book cov­ers a huge va­ri­ety of sub­jects — ev­ery­thing from oc­to­puses and shell­fish to coastal in­sects, birds, and anemones. Cap­tur­ing im­agery for the book has been Rod’s most chal­leng­ing pho­to­graphic job. His image li­brary al­ready con­tained 30 seashore im­ages, but none was suit­able for the book, so a steep learn­ing curve to­wards find­ing each sub­ject en­sued. Rod be­gan by go­ing to the beaches that he’d once vis­ited with his chil­dren.

“It was a great project to keep me young again,” he says.

There was a lot to learn, and, while he did travel to dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try, Rod came to re­al­ize that about 85 per cent of the coun­try’s shore life is rep­re­sented in Otago Har­bour, near his home in Dunedin. The big­gest chal­lenge was the sub­jects’ avail­abil­ity.

“The prob­lem the in­ter­tidal pho­tog­ra­pher faces is that most of the wildlife and in­ter­est­ing sea­weeds are ex­posed for only a brief time each day, at low tide, and, in any given month, there is only one day, or night, when tides are at their low­est,” Rod ex­plains.

When the an­i­mals are present, they’re do­ing their ut­most to shel­ter from the el­e­ments, and tidal surges would of­ten stir up sed­i­ment that com­pro­mised Rod’s macro pho­tog­ra­phy. Rod learned early on that the best way to en­sure that some sub­jects were com­fort­able and re­laxed was to trans­port them to tanks in a lab­o­ra­tory, recre­at­ing their en­vi­ron­ment. Rod took many of the book’s im­ages with a macro lens at the great­est depth of field. He used a Nikon D700 — he now has a D810 — and has two Nikon S910 flash­lights on a Wim­ber­ley bracket. In front of this set-up is a home­made dif­fu­sion kit to dis­perse light evenly; the wet skin of crea­tures can be a chal­lenge for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers, as their skin can eas­ily be­come burnt out.

Rod’s the first to say it was a pretty Mickey Mouse set-up, but it was ro­bust

and worked re­ally well. Re­mote set-ups are not part of his prac­tice, as he pho­tographs on the spot. He says that an es­sen­tial piece of the tool­kit was pur­chas­ing the best plumbers’ knee pads avail­able, as kneel­ing on the rocky shore­line was test­ing at times.

A wel­come ad­di­tion in pho­tograph­ing the field guide book was an un­der­wa­ter Olym­pus TG-870. Rod calls it “a beau­ti­ful lit­tle cam­era”.

It had macro ca­pa­bil­ity, and its flip-back view­ing screen was per­fect for plac­ing in rock pools and small spa­ces, en­abling him to see his sub­ject. Un­for­tu­nately, that cam­era model has since been dis­con­tin­ued.

Rod isn’t in­ter­ested in hav­ing the lat­est cam­era; his ad­vice is to spend more money on a good-qual­ity lens. For bird pho­tog­ra­phy, he has a tele­photo 500mm f/4, ca­pa­ble of be­ing used with a tele-ex­ten­der. He also owns an 80-400mm and 60mm macro lens. For pho­to­jour­nal­ism, his hard­est­work­ing lens is a wide an­gle 20mm, and the lat­est ac­qui­si­tion, which he loves for peo­ple pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause of its con­trol with the sub­ject and back­ground, is a 24–70mm.

Which pho­tog­ra­phers in­spire Rod the most? In his opin­ion, some of the best pho­tog­ra­phers are here in New Zealand. He ad­mires the macro pho­tog­ra­phy of Bryce McQuil­lan, na­ture pho­tog­ra­phy from Neil Fitzger­ald, and bird im­agery from Dunedin pho­tog­ra­pher Craig McKenzie.

“New Zealand has ex­tra­or­di­nary young pho­tog­ra­phers, who con­sis­tently have a high out­put,” he says.

Look­ing through Rod’s books and ar­ti­cles, you’d think that he’d trav­elled and pho­tographed the en­tirety of New Zealand and all of its un­usual crea­tures, but he as­sures us that he hasn’t. He says that he has “an ec­cen­tric col­lec­tion of pho­tographs”, and he’d love to spend time pho­tograph­ing brown creep­ers, tomtits, fan­tails, and more com­mon birds, which are a chal­lenge to any pho­tog­ra­pher.

What­ever his next as­sign­ment, you can be as­sured that it’ll be worth a long look.

MARRAM GRASS (AMMOPHILA ARENARIA), AN IN­TRO­DUCED GRASS NA­TIVE TO EUROPE AND NORTH AFRICA, SMAILLS BEACH, OTAGO PENIN­SULA

MUNIDA, OR SQUAT LOB­STER (MUNIDA GREGARIA), A ‘RED TIDE’, JU­VE­NILE MUNIDA OC­CA­SION­ALLY WASH ASHORE IN SPEC­TAC­U­LAR NUM­BERS IN OTAGO HAR­BOUR

SEVEN-ARMED SEA STAR (ASTROSTOLE SCABRA) FEED­ING ON A COCKLE (AUSTROVENUS STUTCHBURYI)ON SEA BED, QUAR­AN­TINE POINT, OTAGO HAR­BOUR

PAINTED SHRIMP (ALOPE SPINIFRONS) PAIR, WITH SMALLER FE­MALE IN FORE­GROUND, OTAGO HAR­BOUR

SEA TULIP, OR KEAO (PYURA PACHYDERMATINA), AQUAR­IUM POINT, OTAGO HAR­BOUR

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