Tuesday, September 9, 2008

shooting agriculture, and riding a tomato harvester


A few days ago editor James Leonard asked for some photos relating to the drought relief story that would likely be featured on the cover of our newspaper. He suggested photographing anything to do with agriculture and maybe try to get some water in the shot.


I immediately thought of an image most of us Westsiders have probably witnessed driving north or south on Hwy 33 during the evening hours, sun hanging low on the horizon, just about to dip below our beautifully untouched rolling coast range hillsides, the sun backlighting row after row of sprinklers irrigating a crop, the mist from the light seems to glow as golden as the dry grass waving on the hillside just beyond.

Low directional light in the morning and evening hours of a day can create dramatic effects in a photograph. Landscape photographers almost always try to photograph during these times of day, the light is very warm, and can add saturation to photographs that you might not get if you shot the same photograph at high noon.

That being the desired effect, all I had to do was wait for the sun to get low, then find a field being irrigated with sprinklers.

After spending some time photographing the high school football team's scrimmage against Ceres High, the sun was just over the tops of the hillsides. By that time I new I only had 20 to 30 minutes of daylight left, so I drove to the elevated banks of the Delta Mendota Canal, just south of Patterson, hoping I would be able to scope out what I was hoping to see from there. I could see south to the Covanta Waste to Energy Plant, and sure enough, between there and the canal were two separate fields being irrigated by sprinklers, one was just adjacent to the canal off of Marshall Rd. I drove up, got on top of my car for an even higher point of view, and got what I needed just before the sun went down.


Being how I love to photograph and document the many different types of agriculture that reside in the central valley, I enjoyed this assignment very much. But one shot wasn't going to do it for a photo package, I would need two or three at least, so I continued to photograph agriculture but I emphasized on the tomato harvesting that happens nearly around the clock this time of year.
I had always been fascinated with the harvest, the processes that takes these plants from their natural environment and readies them for human consumption. Growing up in the country at an early age, being around farming and farm equipment, and going along with my father to the sugar beet fields in the Imperial Valley as he would take loads to 'Holly Sugar' probably attributed to my love of the earth and farming.

So when I was coming home late from Modesto earlier that same day I had to pull over and snap some shots of a tomato harvester filling up trailers full of tomatoes right off of East Las Palmas ave. After photographing a little, two farm hands noticed me and asked if I would like to get some shots while riding the harvester.

"No way," I thought at first, but he was being serious. I totally dig when I get access to or on a piece of moving farm equipment, especially one I haven't been on before like the tomato harvester. It's one thing getting shots of the production from afar, with a telephoto lens, but being right up and in the process can provide for a much more intimate wide angle shot, an image that can hopefully put the reader right there in the action with me.

I switched lenses from the f/2.8 telephoto, to the 17-40mm wide angle and attached the flash to a TTL cord that would allow me to hold the flash separately from the camera. I try to shoot available light as much as possible, even at night, but a bright flash (even though very intrusive) can illuminate so much that you wouldn't be able to get shooting available light.


So, when the machine stopped, I jumped on, and stood on a small catwalk surrounded by railing where I was able to easily see how the entire tomato plant gets scooped up, is separated from the plant, is sorted, and sent into the trailer to be shipped to the cannery. The entire process takes only a matter of seconds. The ride itself reminded me of a carnival ride, swaying back and forth, making sudden stops, my hands suspended in the air (because I was holding the camera in one hand and the off camera flash in the other). After spending 20 to 30 minutes on the harvester it was time for them to shut down. It was about 1:00 am and I was informed that all tomato harvesting has to cease at around this time because the cannery itself shuts down.

All in one day's work. Even though the photos of the harvester never made the print version of the newspaper, nor were used for the drought relief story, I'm glad I got to post them here.

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