NATURE’S VIEW: Photographing Patterns

A retrospective of Gary Braasch

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Today a plethora of information exists on the web about how to photograph nature. Just type your question or topic in the search box and immediately you are presented with hundreds of links that may or may not be of use. It seems as though books about nature photography techniques have gone by the wayside.

Photographing the Patterns of Nature by the late, great photo-naturalist and environmental activist Gary Braasch is surely an exception. This is one book that I continually pull from my bookshelf and read.

Published in 1990, Gary’s techniques are as relevant today as they were when he first started his career as a nature photographer in the sixties. The book is only 144 pages, and it is written in a simple, readable and relaxing style. Gary offers a treasure trove of techniques for photographing nature — techniques that will elevate the skill level and photographic vision of any nature photographer. It’s as if Gary is right beside you, helping you discover the patterns in nature.


Pink salmon spawn in the Indian River, Sitka National Historic Site, Alaska.   ©  Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Walking with my telephoto zoom on a backlit type of day

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Like most nature photography instructors, I arrive several days prior to a workshop to scout the area. I check on the condition of the sites where I will be taking my students and search for new ones as well. I take the time to see how the light illuminates a scene at different times of day and determine the best perspective and time for my students to photograph there. These days also afford me time to photograph on my own and to reconnect with and savor nature.

On scouting trips before my workshops along Virginia’s eastern shore, I make time to walk the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge’s wildlife loop drive. The drive is closed to vehicles until after 3 p.m., making it a great opportunity to get my daily steps in while exploring the refuge without worrying about traffic.

The loop is a perfect 3.1 miles in length and winds through major habitat types of the refuge. With a few spur trails leading off from the main loop, there is always a new and different route to explore. Whether I hike the loop in the morning or afternoon, I’m going to find something to photograph — or better yet, experience.

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Backlit winged sumac leaves, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Still waters and golden light

Story and photography by Jim Clark

For a few years now I have taken my workshop attendees to explore Taylor Landing, an isolated historical boat landing located along Maryland’s lower eastern shore. With the scenic vista of Johnson Bay and the tranquility of a morning shoot, the landing has become a favorite.

A small bay that opens into the much larger Chincoteague Bay, Johnson Bay borders along the western shore of the coastal barrier island of Assateague. The water is protected on three sides, and, weather permitting, it can become very still and flat, with nary a ripple to be seen.

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Pre-sunrise moment on Johnson Bay, Taylor Landing, Maryland. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW : About Those “Sea” Gulls

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Birds have always been an important part of my life. At just ten years of age, I could identify birds not only by sight, but also by their songs, calls and even by habitat. There were not many days when I did not have my second edition of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds within arm’s reach.

So imagine my confusion as a kid, at the beach with my family, hearing adults talking about a flock of sea gulls doing this or a sea gull doing that. Sea gull? I checked my trusty Peterson Field Guide, because I couldn’t remember anything about a species named sea gull.

I quickly learned that there is, in fact, no bird officially named sea gull. Yet, that term persists to this day. If there are sea gulls, then shouldn’t there also be river gulls, lake gulls, parking lot gulls and landfill gulls? There are not.

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia.                                                                                     © Jim Clark

Sea gulls? No these are adult laughing gulls in breeding plumage, photographed at Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Taking a dive

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Within the North American avian universe, no other bird is like the belted kingfisher. Its look is distinctive. Identifiable by its large bill, chunky body and slate-blue plumage, the belted kingfisher is a common sight along any clear open body of water, whether that be freshwater or tidal.


Female belted kingfisher at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

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NATURE’S VIEW: Moments (Part III)

Chasing the Moment

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Knowing when to anticipate a moment can pay dividends in photographing nature, as shown in my column in Part II in the November issue. This article provides an example that illustrates how knowing when to chase a moment can also pay off.

After the conclusion of my final spring workshop along Virginia’s eastern shore, I spent the afternoon exploring the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. While on the refuge’s Wildlife Drive, I saw several flocks of white and glossy ibis flying into Snow Goose Pool. As soon as one flock landed, another flock winged over the pines and landed in the same wetland.


White ibis flying into Snow Goose Pool at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Before long, several hundred wading birds had gathered in the wetland. With so much avian activity, I decided to stay and photograph this amazing natural event. Only a few hours of daylight remained, so I had to be ready to chase the moment. Now wasn’t a time to fiddle with camera controls, as precious moments could be lost.

I quickly positioned myself to allow for the best angle of ambient light on the birds flying into and feeding in the wetland. For me, that was having the low-angled sun directly behind me. The light washed over the birds, showcasing the details and color in their plumage. I used a continuous high rate of 9 to 11 frames per second to capture the action of birds flying and interacting with each other. For exposure I used both manual and aperture priority settings. For manual, I took a spot reading off the ibis and set my exposure accordingly — as long as the birds were in the same light, the exposure would be correct. For aperture priority, I simply adjusted exposure with the camera’s exposure compensation dial. If I needed more speed, I increased the ISO setting. With a quick look at the histogram on my camera’s LCD monitor, I could make adjustments as needed.


Juvenile white ibis feeding in wetland at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

My lenses of choice were an 600mm with and without a 1.4x extender on a tripod and an 80-400mm telephoto zoom, handheld to capture the flocks as they flew to the wetland. With my 80-400mm telephoto, I could zoom in on individual birds or action and then zoom out quickly to capture a wider view of the flocks of ibis. My 600mm stayed firm on a sturdy tripod with a Wimberley WH-200 gimbal head, which provided quick and easy follow-throughs when photographing the birds in flight.

Except for the occasional sip of a diet cherry cola, my attention stayed focused solely on the drama playing out in front of me. The activity in the wetland became nonstop. Something was happening no matter where I looked — flocks flying in, birds competing for position, birds chasing other birds to get a prized catch, or just birds standing and waiting their turn for an opportunity.


Two immature white ibis fighting at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

I needed to keep my attention on the action and not worry about my settings. The critical part of knowing when to chase a moment is having the confidence in your understanding of exposure and camera settings so you can concentrate on capturing the shot at the right moment in time. So before you head back into nature, be sure to bring your skills at anticipation and chase with you. You’ll be glad you did.

What Drew Them In?

Are you wondering why the ibis and other wading birds were congregating in such large numbers in these wetlands? Well, water in the freshwater pools is carefully managed by refuge staff to provide optimum feeding habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds.

In spring, water levels are reduced to create exposed mudflats that attract migrating shorebirds. The lower water level also creates isolated pools of water that concentrate fish for wading birds to feed upon. This is what I was witnessing — a literal feeding frenzy of herons, egrets and ibis. Later, as summer progresses, the exposed mudflats become thick with native vegetation that migrating waterfowl favor for food. As winter approaches, the water control structures are closed to retain rainwater, which creates higher water levels preferred by waterfowl that winter on the refuge. The more you know…


A past NANPA president and former contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is currently the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Jim’s website can be found at, blog at, or visit him on Facebook.

NATURE’S VIEW; Moments (Part II)

Anticipating the moment

Story and photography by Jim Clark

In Part I, I described the two important personal skills I recommend a nature photographer possess: knowing when to anticipate a moment and knowing when to chase a moment. In this month’s column, I will share an experience that shows how knowing when to anticipate a moment paid dividends for me.

This past spring, my last nature photography workshop of the season took place along the eastern shore of Virginia. The students and I had a great day photographing birds, coastal landscapes and historical fishing villages. It was one of those days when you feel as though, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” Yet, as I soon found out, it can. Continue reading

NATURE’S VIEW: Moments (Part I)

When to anticipate them and when to chase them

Story and photography by Jim Clark


At Sandstone Falls, West Virginia, I waited for a bank of low-lying clouds to enter the scene before I photographed it. © Jim Clark

During my childhood living in the remote mountains of southern West Virginia, nature became my addiction. The only way to satisfy my craving was to spend more time outside. I learned about the importance of waiting, listening and observing. After all, I was, at age ten, a hardcore birder, and by simply doing these three things I was able to add more birds to my life list. The more time I spent in the mountains, the more adept I became at reading the landscape, the seasons and the critters.

When I couldn’t be in nature, I read every book I could find about nature and the men and women who made it their careers. I learned that these individuals—Roger Tory Peterson, Rachel Carson and John Burroughs, to name a few—possessed the same skills I was developing: waiting, listening and observing.

Today, through my life-long passion and career in wildlife conservation combined with 40 years of nature photography, I have developed a mantra that always holds true to form: Know when to anticipate and know when to chase a moment. It has worked well for me both as a wildlife ecologist and as a nature photographer.

Knowing when to wait—anticipate—for just the right time to photograph means having the ability to be patient and the intellectual curiosity to determine ahead of time how a moment might play out. I discovered in my early years that the more patient and observant I am, the more knowledge I gain that can be used to decipher, locate or identify an event in future situations. And, by knowing the species, its behavior and habitats, and by understanding the lay of a landscape, I gain an ability to anticipate a moment. Continue reading

NATURE’S VIEW: Fading Light and the Fern

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Along the fabled eastern shore near the state line between Maryland and Virginia, is one of my most favorite places to take workshop students: The Pocomoke River State Park. Bordering the Pocomoke River and Corker’s Creek, this Maryland state park protects one of the last remaining bald cypress swamps on the eastern shore. In fact, the cypress reaches its northernmost limit of distribution on the eastern shore.

Cypress Swamp 04292016 Pocomoke River St Pk MD (c) Jim Clark_1_01

Bald cypress swamp, Pocomoke River State Park, Maryland. © Jim Clark

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The True Value of Your Photography

Story and photography by Jim Clark

Pencils in Mason Jar (c) Jim Clark_01

Two pencils © Jim Clark

A few years ago I was invited by the Wood County Reading Association in West Virginia to speak at several elementary and middle-schools in the county. I jumped at the opportunity to speak to these young folks, especially since I’m a native son of West Virginia.

From the moment I arrived, I was treated like royalty, even being chauffeured from school to school. I visited eight schools, spoke to more than 1,000 kids, and although the facilities varied from school to school, we made it work each time. I also gave a program to the local community on my first night. While that was fun and well-attended, my time at the schools touched my heart. Continue reading