Based on their reputations alone I knew the keynote speakers at last month’s Summit in Las Vegas were going to be good, but their presentations surpassed my wildest expectations—brought tears to my eyes a couple of times. Of course, that might not be much of an endorsement. My wife, Cathy, says I’m a big crybaby at the best of times, while I maintain I’m just sensitive.
People get into nature photography for a variety of reasons. Some of us are high-minded enough to do it with conservation in mind, but for most, and that includes me, it comes down to the fact we want to share the wonder of what we’ve seen with others. There might even be some bragging involved. Ha ha! Look where I’ve been. See what I photographed. We may do it partially to remind ourselves of exceptional experiences. I know my memory is not what it used to be, and sometimes it takes a photo or two to bring back the memory of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen. But then I’ve been doing this for more than half my life. That’s a lot of photos under the bridge.
“Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring
When we think of outstanding sites for nature photography, most of us tend to think of places like Tanzania, the Pantanal, Costa Rica…you know, places that cost a fortune to visit. And these locations do indeed have wonderful photo opportunities, but some of the best images are captured by people who never wander far from home. Yes, there are wild things right in our neighborhoods, hiding secrets that are just begging to be photographed. Keep in mind my livelihood is dependent upon photographers traveling to distant destinations, but I feel it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that there is beauty everywhere. Even without money to travel, there are photographable worlds available to you.
I love being close to animals. Their proximity reaffirms the fact that we are a part of nature, another thread in the tapestry of life, rather than something separate or apart from it. If my youth is any indication, this is an affinity we are all born with, but it gets lost if it’s not exposed to the right stimuli, wild stimuli. The first wild stimulus I’m aware of in my own upbringing was bears. My family was visiting Yosemite when I was three, and in those days the park had an open-air dump where bears would scavenge. Upon seeing the large animals, I set off running towards them, yelling, “Doggie, doggie!” My parents managed to overtake and control me before the bears could be traumatized by an overly enthusiastic toddler, but it was a near thing.
Being close to animals remains an incredibly precious experience for me, and it makes no difference what the species is—butterflies or bighorns, sea turtles or snakes, mice or moose (they’re all doggies to me). In Baja, I laid in the path of an approaching tarantula just to see what it would do, and to get some wide-angle shots, of course. After a few tentative steps on my arm, which was dry, flaky and hairy, the spider decided it did not care for the terrain and retreated to walk around me. Now approaching any creature closely is not something to be taken lightly. There is an element of danger involved any time you are near a wild thing, more for the subject than the photographer, for even if it’s the photographer who is injured, the animal will almost certainly be killed. And that’s one of the reasons NANPA decided to come up with some guidelines to help photographers make wise choices, ethical choices.
My degree is in Wildlife Biology, and I have worked at getting close to critters of all kinds for more than 50 years—50 years! Boy that makes me feel old—but even with that background, I know I would’ve benefitted from projects the Ethics Committee has tackled. In my early days as a nature photographer, the images I was trying to capture often took on a life or death level of importance to me. I’m sure I stressed subjects more than I should’ve and trampled things under my boots that I should’ve been more aware of. Three decades ago, there was rarely another person anywhere around me, so the impact I had was relatively light. Today, where one photographer goes, hordes are likely to follow, and our potential for disturbance and disruption is correspondingly greater. It’s been 20 years since NANPA first came out with a code of ethics for nature photographers, but the game has changed. And not only because there are so many more of us, but because newer research shows some of the old practices have the potential to harm the landscape or the creatures that live there. The original code of ethics is kind of paltry compared to the guidelines listed in the latest Ethical Field Practices, another indication of how much things have changed. Check it out. It’s worth looking over regardless of how experienced you are and how many covers you list on your resume. An ebook on ethical nature photography is also scheduled for release in the near future, and, with any luck, it will be out before the summit next February.
Another issue the Ethics Committee has worked on is the accurate captioning of images. At one time, this was something that pretty much only applied to editorial photography and contest entries. It was important to know if an animal or plant was captive, and if the photo had been manipulated in some way. There was a definite temptation to fudge the truth a bit just to get published or win a prestigious contest, and that temptation is still there. Not too many years ago, the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest was caught using a captive subject for his winning image. At a time when we could have used both the money and the fame, my wife, Cathy, and I passed up an opportunity to have the cover of Defenders magazine by letting the editors know the wolverine they wanted had been photographed at a game farm. Not only was it the right thing to do, it wouldn’t have looked good for the person who wrote the original Truth in Captioning article for NANPA, as well as sitting in on the Truth in Captioning panel at the 1997 summit, to be caught cheating. Those were the early days of Photoshop, and its limits were still being tested. Today there is literally nothing that cannot be done to an image during processing. Between the incredible possibilities in photo manipulation and a new awareness of the nuances that exist between wild and captive, the Truth in Captioning Document is considerably more detailed than the one we arrived at back in 1997. Again, this something all of us should check out and be aware of.
These issues were not approached with the idea that NANPA is going to be a policeman or play referee, watching over all of our work to slap us down if we cross the line. The completed projects are there to help nature photographers better understand some of the implications of what they’re doing. We did not get into nature photography for the money or fame (if you did, you’re really barking up the wrong tree). We picked up a camera because we love nature, we love wildlife, and any help we can get is welcome, especially if it makes life easier for the wild landscapes and wild things that mean so much to us.
There was a time when every photo my wife, Cathy, and I took had a purpose. We had a market in mind every time we pushed the shutter button, and we pursued subjects not because we were wildly crazy about them, but because of how likely they were to sell. Elk were a natural, exciting target, and they were only 90 minutes from home, but even back then the market was saturated with elk photos, so we rarely pointed a lens at them. We went years without taking a landscape image, no matter how beautiful the scene was unless it had a person in it because people shots sold better than straight scenics did. Each trip was analyzed. Did the resulting photos pay for not only gas, mileage, and lodging, but also for our time and effort? Consequently, we were able to do most of our photography within two hours of home. It’s a lot easier for the photos to pay for a short trip.
In an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon—most of my philosophy comes from cartoons—Calvin comments, “I wonder why people are never content with what they have.”
This is my last letter as president. Gordon Illg becomes president on July 1 and I look forward to working with him this coming year. NANPA is an amazing organization and I know under Gordon’s leadership, NANPA will continue to do great things for its members.
Text by Gordon Illg. Photography by Cathy and Gordon Illg.
.NANPA recently posted a blog, “The 6 Myths That Frustrate Aspiring Photographers” by Tom Horton that offered advice to new nature photographers. The post reiterated advice I’ve heard from established pros many times over the decades, and every point he made was valid. Following his guidelines will almost certainly help neophytes augment their craft and become more noticed. But there are other issues that were not considered, quite possibly because there’s just not enough room in a blog.