July 13, 2014
By: Katie Egan


R.J. Wiley fell in love with digital photography and then with Corkscrew Nature Sanctuary.

R.J. Wiley doesn’t create the right moment to shoot an image. He waits for the moment to come to him.

“It’s about capturing the spirit of the animal,” the 15-year professional photographer said. “Something that speaks to the viewer.”

It could be a simple tilt of an owl’s head or a tree on the edge of the frame.

“I see the complete image in my mind,” Wiley said. “I know what it needs to be and I complete that.”

Wiley’s carefully crafted photographs of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary’s hidden gems will be on display through July 31 at the Blair Audubon Center at 375 Sanctuary Road W. in Naples. He has shot many places, people and things, however,

The 64-year-old has always been fascinated with photography. “Where else can you stop time forever?” he said.

He was at a restaurant with his wife when he saw a woman lift a box to her eye and take a photo. What happened next changed his life. The woman instantly showed the photo to her grandchild on the back of the camera, piquing Wiley’s curiosity.

“I got up and the lady showed me her new camera and I was hooked. No film, no waiting, instant feedback,” he said. “I purchased my first digital camera and needed a place to take pictures and went to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, and the rest is history.”

Wiley moved to Bonita Springs 38 years ago. The former welder said, with a chuckle, that he took up photography because he got older and needed to slow down.

Nature laurels

Corkscrew is one of his favorite places to shoot the Southwest Florida landscape and wildlife. “It’s always green and the skies are always beautiful,” he said.

Ten years ago Wiley was asked to be Corkscrew’s honorary resident photographer.

“It started with me doing a book of what was happening at the swamp on a weekly basis,” he said. “I was asked to do a show and things developed from there.”

The book was a collection of Wiley’s photos in a loose-leaf binder.

“It would show our visitors what was happening right now in the swamp,” he said.

One of Corkscrew’s best known attractions is the ghost orchid, which is currently in bloom. It sits high up, away from predators, on an old bald cypress tree three-quarters of a mile out on the Corkscrew boardwalk.

Wiley displayed a photo he took of the mysterious flower and explained how just shooting it wasn’t enough. He wanted to capture the different stages of the pure-white wonder.

“This isn’t over yet,” he said. “It’s still happening.”

At the top of the photo, a bud is still tightly closed. In the foreground, a handful of open flowers seem to smile at the viewers with their flower faces. At the bottom of the photo, a bud is about to open, showcasing the different stages of bloom.

“Rod’s success is no mistake. It is part art and part science, to know the subject, the lighting and the limitations of the equipment,” said Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Director Jason Lauritsen. He called Rod a “staple” on Corkscrew’s boardwalk with his “custom tripod cart with its massive off road tires and zoom lens.”

In the RAW

As with his unconventional equipment, Wiley uses a different approach to editing photos

Wiley switched to shooting in the RAW mode when he wasn’t getting the kinds of photos he was looking for. The RAW image bypasses the camera’s computer and puts the data right on the memory card.

Shooting in the RAW mode gives photographers more control over their photos. It’s also easier to correct nuances like exposure and white balance.

Wiley gave this example — a photo taken of a pure white bird using normal camera settings (not RAW mode) would have the bird’s wing come out white, without its visible feathers. The RAW mode allows the photographer to prevent something like that from happening and make it easier to adjust later.

His favorite subject to photograph? Wiley said without a moment’s hesitation, that he liked to shoot birds. The egret is his favorite because it’s so majestic.

“With birds you’ve got to give them room and take your time,” Wiley said. “If you play your cards right, they’ll go to sleep.”

Sometimes he even uses a remote to capture the photo, to have his hands free, so he can get the moments with attitude. “It’s all about the attitude,” Wiley said. “Once the bird turns, bam — got it!”

Wiley will also drive hours out of his way for a single photo.

“You’ve got to take the pic today,” he said. “It won’t be there tomorrow.”

Wiley says he’ll wait for as long as it takes to get the right photo — and once he gets it, he says he “just feels it.”

He waited four to five hours to shoot the blood moon, but he waited around six hours for a painted bunting to show up once. “The second (longest wait) would definitely be the ghost orchid.”

One time he abandoned his gheenoe, a flat bottom canoelike boat, and jumped into freezing cold water so he could fit three cypress trees into the frame.

“The wind coming off Lake Istokpoga was rocking the boat too much to take the image on board,” Wiley said. “When I set the camera on the tripod setting in the water, the bow of the boat kept hitting it. I knew if I jumped into the water with my clothes and boots on, I’d have a very cold ride back to camp in the boat.”

He was out there all by himself, so privacy wasn’t an issue.

“What’s nice after skinny-dipping with a Nikon is climbing back into the boat to find neatly folded dry warm clothes waiting for me.”

Meet the time ready

It’s also about being ready.

You’re already missing the boat if you’re still looking for a place to set up when the sun starts to rise. “You need to know where to be,” Wiley said. “You only have six to 10 minutes of usable time.” he has gotten up at 3 a.m. to be in place and ready for the perfect dawn shot.

He also shoots personal portraits and teaches private classes in Photoshop.

His advice to aspiring photographers is to “be patient and only shoot when the light is good.

“Listen to criticism without getting angry. Study other photographers’ work and keep the sun to your back and learn from your mistakes.”


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