In this latest Photographers in Focus feature, we are delighted to highlight photographer Rory Merry from Pacific Grove, California. Rory’s work came to our attention after we saw his dramatic photo of a Margo Pellegrino, who was visiting the area from New Jersey, as she waded into the Monterey Bay surf to rescue a stricken cormorant.
Born in Ireland, Rory is a professional photographer and world traveler and has been capturing people, wildlife, and events for nearly 60 years. He is represented by the Zuma Press photo agency.
We hope you enjoy all his photographs of the extraordinary beauty of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and its wildlife inhabitants.
Question: The photo of the women rescuing the cormorant is pretty amazing. What’s the story behind that image?
Answer: I was taking my usual morning walk along the coast by Asilomar State Beach in Pacific Grove, when I noticed five or six people off of the path on a rock outcrop looking down at the rocks below. As I got closer, I saw a woman climbing over the rocks.
I thought to myself that it was another collector. “Oh no, not another collector.” Then I saw something splashing in the water some distance from the shore. I could not make out what was going on with the naked eye, so I looked through my camera’s 300mm lens. At first I thought it was a cormorant and a sea otter fighting it out.
In the meantime, this woman was climbing out over the rocks and then into the cold water up to her waist. She kept going out further and further until she finally reached the splashing. By then I realized that the woman (Margo Pellegrino) was on her way to rescue a cormorant that was in serious distress suffering from Domoic Acid poisoning.
She was pretty far out and well above her waist in the cold water of the Northern California Coast. She was wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Meanwhile the cormorant was floundering around. She finally reached the cormorant, grabbed the bird and started to make her way back to shore. She chose a different route back to shore. It looked like to me like a passageway between rocks where I feared she would run into deep water. All the time I was taking images not in continuous sequential shooting mode, but one frame at a time as I saw the story unfold.
Suddenly she was in deeper water, hence the splash in the photo. I got it. Of course, she could not use her hands for balance because she was holding to the cormorant. She was actually hugging the bird for dear life. She never let go of the cormorant and finally reached shallower waters. The total sequence is made up of 59 frames. In frames 40 to 51, Margo is actually smiling. No doubt because she realizes she has actually saved the cormorant and herself included. Mind you, she is still up to her waist in water in frame 40.
See: Monterey Herald story: Woman saves cormorant with domoic acid poisoning at Asilomar State Beach
The images were shot with a Nikon D800E with 300mm AF 300mm f/4 ED. Sadly, it’s not a Vibration Reduction (VR) lens. I processed the RAW images in Nikon Capture NX2 with no manipulation and no color enhancement; just processing as per the World Press Photo Competition Rules.
Normally, I would shoot with a Nikon D4s and a Nikon 300 mm 2.8 VR. However, I had decided to sell my 2.8 to pay for my last photo adventure. I was not actually shooting anything that required a 300mm anyway. Due to being evicted from my apartment in Berkeley, I came to live in my house in Pacific Grove. Walking along the shoreline every day, I realized I really needed at least a 300mm to shoot wildlife. I found just such a lens on Ebay for $145. The seller said it had dust and fungus. It also had an aperture ring issue, which I repaired with dental floss.
Q: How did you get your start in photography?
A: My father was a magazine publisher and thought all the photographers could not take a decent photograph, so he bought himself a Rolleiflex TLR Zeiss Tessar 1:3.5/75. This was in Ireland. I was ten years old. He bought me Kodak Brownie, which is a basic box camera made of thick, leatherette-covered cardboard introduced in 1911 by Eastman Kodak. The camera shot film 2 1/2 x 4 1/4 size negatives.
This was great as my father also bought me a photo printing set for my birthday. It was a simple set with a frame for holding the negative and photo paper to make a contact print the size of the negative. This is the same as the processes used today for printing digital negatives on photographic paper to make silver gelatin prints.
In 1958 when we went to Belgium to the Brussels World’s Fair where I photographed a model of the Sputnik space capsule in the Russian pavilion. I eventually got my father’s Rolleiflex and just kept on photographing. My first professional photo was published in 1969.
Q: What’s are some of the challenges you face in your bird and nature photography in general?
A: I like to shoot without a tripod whether it is birds in nature, portraits or whatever, so holding the camera steady (or cellphone for that matter) is always an issue AND really the most important part of photographic technique. All camera manufacturers including Nikon, Sony, and Cannon have spent millions of dollars perfecting some form of Vibration Reduction (VR) technology to reduce camera shake. Nobody wants a blurred photograph, at least not too often.
I also shoot on manual mode, so forgetting to change my setting from one scene to the next is an issue.
Getting close to my subject without disturbing the creature in nature photography is always difficult. Whatever I do, I don’t want to disturb the creature or bird. It is fine if the bird is conscious of my presence, but that’s it. I shoot what is see as I come across the situation. I walk. I don’t sit in a blind hide out waiting for the shot. I go about my daily life and shoot whatever interests me. Obviously, I do cover situations where my presence is preplanned, but with birds or nature photography it is all up to the birds.
Q: We know great photography is more than big name brand equipment. But that being said, what lens could you not live without and why?
A: Well, that is a good question all right. The issue of being close enough to your subject is always critical no matter if it birds, bees or humans. You really need a minimum of a 300mm lens for bird or any nature photography. Sometimes I use a 1.7 Teleconverter with a 300mm lens this make the lens 510mm. However, a 1.7x teleconverter will lose 1 1⁄2 stops of light making the effective wide aperture f/4.5, which is not bad for a well-lit subject. To be honest, I have shot bees with a 105mm macro f2.8 and even a 14-24mm f2.8. I am always experimenting.
Q: If you could give beginning nature photographers just one (or two) bit of advice, what would it be?
A: Don’t disturb the birds or animals you photograph. Since I shoot in the open, the birds do see me, but I keep my distance. A lot of my shots are action, so the birds will be flying by keeping an eye on me. Don’t be fooled. The wildlife has its eye on you.
Always carry your camera, keep the camera steady, the lens cap off and the lens hood on the correct way. One day you will get the shot of a lifetime.
Q: What bird photo projects are you working on in the future?
A: I am always trying to get shots of birds in flight, hence no tripod. I like nature in action. One shot I am after is from a boat. You know the way the pelicans and cormorants fly along just above the waves. The pelicans use the updraft from the waves to save their energy. Well, I want to be right there with them as they come towards me, pass by and glide away. The pelicans fly so close to the waves that their outer most feather sometimes touch the water. I got that shot once from the beach, but the image was not crystal sharp. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Q: Who is one of your favorite photographers?
Q: How has working in nature enhanced your life?
A: When I walk along the Pacific Ocean in Monterey Bay during the mornings, I see the most beautiful sights on the planet. I see pelicans and cormorants flying in formation, vultures circling around waiting for breakfast, deer grazing, gulls fighting over pieces of food, Snowy Plovers dancing in unison in and out of the surf, rabbits hopping along, deer mice peeping out of their homes, egrets standing on kelp half a mile out in the ocean, Sea Otters lounging around in the kelp, and Sea Lions popping their heads out of the ocean for a quick look around and take a breath of fresh ocean air. I hear the sound of the waves crashing in the rocks.
When one looks at all this going on around you, all of one’s troubles go away. The images fill one’s mind like the feathers at the end of a pelicans’ wings for precise flying. Sea lions can see above and below water. Cormorants can see above and under water too. They can fly, swim and walk on land. Nature doing what nature does.
When I pick up my camera and put it to my eye, I only see the images in the viewfinder. No thoughts in my mind. I am in the present and experience a Zen clarity of mind. No mind. Just like nature itself.
When on live in the city, which I did for 40 years, one does not see nature. One is divorced from it.
I have always loved nature of that there is no doubt, but now that I see nature in the wild every day, I am adamant about preserving and protecting it.
I am featured here because of my photographs of a cormorant rescue. To be that close to a wild bird was an honor. When I process my images, I get to see them big and in detail on my computer screen in every detail: eyes, claws and individual feathers. When I see the creature again, all of sudden I am flying with the Pelicans gliding along with the flock up and over the waves, flapping my wings, zipping along at 35 miles per hour and skimming over the ocean with my friends, the cormorants. I talk to the sparrows as they fly around the sand dunes of Asilomar State Beach, “How are you this morning, Mr. Sparrow?” I am a part of nature.
All photos © Rory Merry