Through The Lens with Kira Rowsell

The waters in and around Toronto are filled with all kinds of wildlife. Kira Rowsell, an Environmental Visual Communications student from Fleming College, joined our Environmental Monitoring and Data Management team this summer to follow their work monitoring creatures large and small, and share her experience.

Week One: Macro Photography

On Monday, July 17th, I started my Fleming College Environmental Visual Communications (EVC) postgraduate placement with the Environmental Monitoring and Data Management team at Toronto and Region Conservation (TRCA). Through this placement, I am excited to gain some field experience and to improve my current photography skills. Even though I am new to photography, I am keen to put into practice the skills I have been taught in my first semester of the EVC program being held at the Royal Ontario Museum.

My first assignment was to experiment with macro photography in TRCA’s environmental monitoring lab where they identify and document the benthos (i.e. bottom-dwelling aquatic insects) and mosquito larvae they collect in the field. Macro photography makes very tiny objects appear large. The details that can be captured with a macro lens are amazing!

A close-up photo of a stonefly species (Order: Plecoptera) with a Canon (100 mm) macro lens.

I was able to get up close with a variety of aquatic insects, which are stored and preserved in vials of ethanol. I would place them in a petri dish to capture the photos before returning them back to the collection vials. Collecting and preserving the samples are important data records as aquatic insects are used to help describe the ecological condition of various regional watersheds and lakes.

My biggest lesson learned from experimenting with macro photography is that patience is key. It took some time to adjust the manual camera settings to produce the photo I wanted. This was a unique opportunity to become familiar with macro photography because the subjects I was photographing were still, allowing me the flexibility to perfect the light and focus accordingly. Tune into future blog posts for more examples of macro photography!

Night Photography

Also during the first week, I had the opportunity to join TRCA as they conducted their annual night electrofishing surveys in Lake Ontario. TRCA has been collecting fisheries data on the Toronto area waterfront for almost three decades, and as part of these surveys, schedules night fisheries surveys each summer and fall to be able to document nocturnal fish species. This was my first experience with night photography and proved to be very challenging due to the low light conditions and the rocking motion of the boat!

TRCA’s Environmental Monitoring team weigh and measure each collected fish before returning them to Lake Ontario.

This year TRCA worked with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to collect the fish samples. Two boats were involved in collecting the data; the DFO boat used electrofishing to collect the fish species, before delivering the fish to TRCA’s Aqualab to be documented and then released back into the waters.

The headlights of the DFO boat are visible as they travel towards the TRCA Aqualab.

The biggest obstacle was finding a way to let enough light into the camera. Since I was shooting moving fish I needed a fast shutter speed, which makes photography difficult if the conditions are dark. Fortunately, I was able to use an external flash, which helped immensely with the low light circumstances. The main lesson I learned was that more light is always best when attempting to shoot moving subjects in the dark. Next time I would come even more prepared, and find which settings work best so no shots are missed. Also, bring bug spray! And Gravol!

A Smallmouth Bass in a special fish viewfinder. Placing a fish in the viewfinder was the best way to get clear photos of the fish as they could be brought into better lit areas.

In my first week of the placement, I have already learned so much about photography and the important environmental monitoring activities that TRCA is involved with. After reviewing my photos from this week and reflecting on the experience through this blog, I realize there is a lot more to learn, and I can’t wait to get back out there to keep improving!

Week Two: Water Play

During the second week of my Environmental Visual Communications postgraduate placement, I collected media footage for a wide variety of monitoring activities with TRCA. One of those activities was collecting benthos found in local streams. Benthos are invertebrates such as worms, snails, mussels, leeches, crayfish, and the immature life stages of insects. They are useful as water quality indicators because they live within the bottom of streams or rivers for one to three years (lifespan) and are sensitive to disturbances in their environment.

Monitoring staff use a field guide to identify a crayfish that has been found before returning it back to the stream.

The team members return to the same sites every year to collect benthos data. They follow a specific protocol to collect the benthos, including a kick-and-sweep technique to free the sediment in the stream and scoop its contents into a net.

A minimum of 100 critters is needed for a sample.  Benthos samples are transported back to the lab for further identification.

On this particular day, I was able to try out a GoPro camera to capture some underwater footage. After reviewing the footage at the end of the day, I was able to pick up some pointers on how to angle and position the camera in order to improve the next time I venture out into the field.

One of my first underwater shots using a GoPro camera. There is a setting on the GoPro camera that allows you to flip the image correctly when placed upside down.

I was a little nervous being in the water with my DSLR camera and gear and it took practice to secure my footing each time I took a step in the stream. After getting comfortable, I was able to try out a photography technique I’ve wanted to capture for quite a while – the misty water effect! I can’t wait to find a small waterfall in the field to try out this effect again!

To achieve the milky or misty water effect, you need to use a very slow shutter speed so the running water is captured over a time frame of 1 or 2 seconds. It can be done for longer or shorter periods of time depending on the lighting conditions. A tripod is necessary to achieve this effect so the surrounding still environment is not blurred during the long shutter exposure.

Week Three: Shadow Work

I can’t believe that I am already halfway through my Fleming College Environmental Visual Communication placement with Toronto and Region Conservation’s (TRCA) Environmental Monitoring and Data Management team! This week I had the chance to shadow the team while they set up nets as part of the invasive Asian Carp Surveillance Program. The program is funded by RBC’s Blue Water Project and supported in-kind by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. It was initiated in 2015 after TRCA found five Asian Grass Carp around Tommy Thompson Park and the Toronto Islands. Grass Carp is one of four invasive Asian Carp species that reproduce very quickly and displace native fish, damaging the local ecosystem and recreational and commercial fisheries. Surveying for the presence of any of the four Asian Carp species is very important in trying to prevent their establishment in Toronto area waters.

This photo depicts a fyke net, one of three nets used to survey for the presence of Asian Carp.

This program involves TRCA monitoring crews deploying nets in the Toronto area waterfront habitats that have the potential of supporting Asian Carp fish species. Three types of nets are deployed: fyke, trammel, and trap nets. The nets are left overnight and checked the very next day to identify the fish caught.  Electrofishing surveys are also conducted in the same area at different times. Fortunately, no Asian Carp have been found since the initial discoveries in 2015.

This photo depicts a trammel net, one of three nets used to survey for the presence of Asian Carp.

It was a very hot day on the boat, and also extremely sunny. I like to shoot in manual so I had to be quick to adjust the camera settings as we moved in and out of shaded areas to deploy the nets. Another challenge was getting a variety of shots within the confines of the boat, while not interrupting the work underway. I ended up holding my camera near the side of the boat and closest to the water where all the action was happening! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to go out with the monitoring crew when they brought in the nets the next day, but I do plan on doing this before my placement ends at the end of August.

Additional data on temperature, turbidity, water depth, etc. are collected to help contribute to information about the preferred habitat of Asian Carp (if found).

The estuary where we deployed the nets had some great wildlife to photograph such as numerous egrets and blue herons! Bonus!

Week Four: Adverse Conditions

I have just completed week four of my six-week placement. I noticed that I have a wider selection of photos to choose from each week when selecting the best ones to edit. Proof that practice makes perfect!

This week I went out for two days with the terrestrial flora monitoring team to set up wetland transects. I learned that this process requires a lot of organization, communication, and patience amongst the team.

TRCA field staff set up a long term monitoring plot
Heading out to a regional wetland to set up a long-term monitoring plot.

The setup involves running a 50 metre transect with subplots paired on either side for a total of 12 subplots. The transect starts upland and continues down into a wetland. Wetland transects are monitored each year, which involves recording every species within a 2 x 2 metre square and a nested 1 x 1 metre square subplot. Poles are inserted into the ground and marked so the site can be monitored as part of the terrestrial Long-term Monitoring Program.

transect marker
One of the transect markers for a long-term monitoring wetland vegetation site.

As I have experienced in the passing weeks, the site conditions are not always ideal for taking photographs i.e. there are lots of natural boundaries which can get in the way. For example, for the wetland vegetation monitoring, I did not have chest waders and I could only venture out so far. On the second day, I came prepared with chest waders but the height and thickness of the vegetation made it very difficult to capture what I had envisioned. Therefore the lesson learned this week was that you may not always get exactly what you plan, but you learn how to make the best of the conditions and equipment you have!

TRCA field staff member sets up wetland vegetation monitoring plot
The tall cattails and grasses made it difficult to photograph staff setting up the wetland vegetation monitoring plots.

In those instances when I was unable to photograph staff working, I took photos of different plants. I have been working on compiling a photo bank of different plant species for the team, so I try to focus on the identifying characteristics of the plant so it can be identified by just the photo later on.

bur-reed in a local wetland
The flower of one of the varities of bur-reed that grows in the region.

I am thoroughly enjoying learning about the different monitoring activities undertaken by TRCA. With only two weeks left in my placement, I’m determined to keep learning and improving!

Week Five: Video Production

I have captured numerous photos and videos and met so many amazing people! This week I shifted gears and dedicated the majority of my time to gathering content for a video I am producing about the long-term benthos (i.e. aquatic insects) monitoring that has been underway in Toronto and region area streams since 2001. The main focus of the video is to relay the importance of how monitoring the abundance and diversity of the benthos living beneath the water tells the story about the health and condition of regional streams.

Filming caddisfly casings with the macro lens on the Canon 80D. Can you spot them? The presence of a wide diversity of aquatic insects living in a stream, especially caddisflies, usually indicates that stream conditions are healthy.

Producing the video involved accompanying the stream benthos monitoring team into the field in order to gather clips of the work involved. This was fairly straightforward as I had previously gone out with the team once before to brainstorm for the video shoot. I then spent one day in the Environmental Monitoring and Data Management lab filming the team’s entomologist at work identifying collected insects, followed by one day in the field shooting the field crew collecting data. Any remaining time was spent working on gathering footage I felt was missing as well as collecting B-roll; footage which sets the scene and is used during the overall narration for visual interest.

Close-up shot of the kick-and-sweep monitoring technique used to collect benthos in streams.

There were a few challenges this week, including technical difficulties, balancing multiple tasks, and staying focused and organized. I had to figure out the best way to collect both video and audio content simultaneously while keeping all the equipment safe and dry. This involved some preparation, packing extra batteries, and executing a few test runs. I made a few mistakes this week, but as a result I had a lot of opportunities to problem solve and improve my overall skills!

I also played around with some effects in post-production when some footage didn’t turn out as planned. Here you can see that the original images captured (on the left) are backlit and I was able to correct this using Adobe Premiere Pro (on the right).

Week Six: Lessons Learned

I have just completed the last week of my Fleming College Environmental Visual Communications placement capturing media content for Toronto and Region Conservation’s (TRCA) Environmental Monitoring and Data Management team. I can’t believe my six week placement is coming to an end! Although I am excited to start school again, I’m going to miss being outside and improving on my photography and videography skills and all the great people I met!

Here is a ladder I found in a forest during vegetation monitoring surveys. Experimenting with different angles is something I worked on improving during my placement.

This placement has taught me a lot about photography and videography, field work, and my strengths and weaknesses. Although I ran into some obstacles and made a few mistakes along the way, these errors have helped me improve immensely.

This is Laura Irvine, a Crew Leader for the benthos (i.e. aquatic insects) monitoring team. She is keen on storytelling and was very gracious in having photos and videos taken of her in the field throughout my placement.

I have a few lessons learned that I gleaned from my placement at TRCA. The first one is to always keep taking pictures and video. You don’t want to miss out on something amazing because you aren’t ready! At the beginning of the placement I was often frustrated that my photos were not turning out exactly how I had envisioned them, but as the weeks progressed I felt I was able to capture exactly what I had planned.

Here is a photo of the Toronto skyline taken before night fisheries surveys began. Night fisheries surveys took place during the first week of my placement and I had a crash course in capturing content during low light conditions.

Another lesson I learned was the importance of organization. Having a consistent workflow helped immensely when working with the content collected. I also learned the value in asking a lot of questions. I found that asking questions about the assigned work helped me to plan the photos and videos I needed to capture, and identify the details I needed to pay attention to in order to tell an effective and accurate story of what type of monitoring I was covering. In the process, I was able to learn many valuable details concerning the importance of environmental monitoring.

Here is a photo taken of the monitoring team sorting and identifying the fish collected during stream fisheries surveys. These surveys take place in each of the nine regional watersheds on a three-year rotation. Get down low to focus in on your subject!

My biggest lesson learned was how much knowledge is gained from making mistakes! I felt like I didn’t have much practical experience coming into the placement but any mistakes made resulted in a bank of new skills and knowledge to apply in my next semester with Fleming College’s EVC program as well as any future endeavours. I am beyond grateful for having the opportunity to work with TRCA. This summer was a dream!

 

A rare photo of me! Here I am helping the monitoring team to sort and identify fish (before they are released back into the waters) during monitoring surveys along the Toronto area waterfront. What fun!

Follow me on Twitter @kirajrowsell to see more pictures!