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Capturing wildlife on camera

You wouldn't know it from looking at his nature photography, but Frank Planes walks with a red-tipped cane.

Legally blind, he views the world through a thin, vertical slit.

"Like looking through a crack in a board," he says. "My vision is pie-shaped. The farther away, the more I can see."

With a digital camera, he uses his slice of vision to catch sandhill cranes on the wing, at water's edge and caring for a fuzzy chick. The images are vivid and intimate, some striking enough to look right at home on a calendar.

Planes, 64, lost most of his sight six years ago, the last in a series of challenges.

He had grown up in Miami, raised three children by himself and had his own commercial real estate and mortgage lending business.

"When Hurricane Andrew came, I had 42 houses ready to close and all but one got blown away," he said.

After that, Planes suffered a first stroke, retired, then was injured in an automobile accident. About six years ago, he moved to the Archstone Boot Ranch apartments. A week later, he had his second, more serious stroke, and lost most of his vision. Bouncing back was tough.

"You're really down and out when you wake up and find yourself with a big change," he says. "Basically, you sit on the couch and wait to die."

Then he heard about a group now called the Watson Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a private, nonprofit rehabilitation agency in Largo. He enrolled in a coping skills class with instructor Wanda Austin, who lost her sight shortly after her 40th birthday.

"The good news is that it certainly can get better and that's one of the things we do here," Austin said. "We help people rebuild their lives and find hope in the process. You know, hope's a wonderful thing. It's a very powerful thing."

When he saw Austin immaculately dressed, in makeup, sipping a cup of coffee without spilling a drop, Planes took heart.

"By the time you go to the class, you go out happy with what you've got," he said. "You find a way to do just about anything with the vision you have. And some of them have no vision at all."

After more classes at the center, Planes took computer classes at St. Petersburg College. About 2{ years ago, he found a new hobby _ digital photography.

These days, Planes' studio is a small pond not much bigger than a baseball diamond on the southwest corner of Tampa and McMullen-Booth roads. Most people pass it without a glance.

But Planes has gotten to know its wildlife with a patience and devotion worthy of Henry David Thoreau.

"It's just amazing how many people live and work around here and don't know what's going on in this pond," he says. "Each season it's different. The foliage is different. The water's different. The birds are different. You'll find an angle in most any light."

At the pond, he has photographed more than 30 kinds of birds so far, including two sandhill cranes, as well as trees, water lilies and dragonflies.

"Some days, you don't see anything," he said. "And some days, you see everything."

He roams the area near his apartment with his two rescued greyhounds, Gwen and Happy Boy, looking for possible subjects. Then he returns without the dogs to take pictures.

Late last fall, he spotted two sandhill cranes in the middle of the pond. And by early April, the cranes were traveling with a chick, which he thinks is a male.

Planes takes pictures of them once or twice a week, documenting the rapid growth of the chick, now roughly the size of an adult. They regard him with no fear when he leaves the dogs at home.

Once Planes squatted down for a picture. When the cranes came too close, he tried to back away, landing his 200 pounds with a clatter of cane and a cry.

"They started walking toward me as if to see if I was all right," Planes said. "It was either concern or curiosity."

So he stepped back in the bushes and they started feeding beside him.

One recent evening, Planes watched the cranes in the middle of the pond just before dusk and talked about his craft.

The focus is the hardest part.

"If I can get them in my line of sight, I can get reference points," he said. "Sometimes, one of them will make a move and that's how I find them. If I can find something around them that has high contrast, then I can set the focus and snap it."

Planes uses a Sony F717 digital camera with a zoom lens that can store about half a gigabyte of data. That's about 368 of the 22- by 28-inch pictures he takes. And since he can't drive, a benefit is that the digital format means no trips for film or processing.

He uses the autofocus setting frequently or a wide-angle lens because it has a wide range of sharp detail. Usually, he can't see his subjects well enough to frame them tightly in the camera. So he takes a picture covering a wide scene and then crops in for a composition he likes at the computer. The prints he makes are shared with family and friends.

"Look at 'em, at peace with the world," Planes said as the dusk deepened. "They've adapted pretty well, considering."

Still, he recently saw the cranes walk into traffic before retreating to the curb. And the chick is stretching enormous wings, preparing for the day when the cranes fly away to safer feeding grounds.

The blind photographer extends the hope that sustained him to the chick he's watched grow over the last three months.

"I just have this big feeling this guy's gonna make it," he said.

_ Theresa Blackwell can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or Blackwellsptimes.com.

Frank Planes, who is legally blind, moves in to photograph a pair of sandhill cranes and their chick. Planes has formed an extraordinary bond with a group of the birds. The 64-year-old retiree lost most of his sight six years ago, but he has embraced digital photography as his new hobby.

A sandhill crane parent, above, looks for food with a chick that's probably days old on April 8 along the shore of a pond at a medical complex at the southwest corner of Tampa and McMullen-Booth roads. At left, the chick follows a parent across a parking lot off Tampa Road.

The sandhill crane chick has shown remarkable change at 2 months of age. "He is one growing bird!" said photographer Frank Planes. The more time Planes spends with the birds, the less they fear him.

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