Expect the unexpected. All nature photographers, regardless of skill level, have had moments when the unexpected happens. Nature provides no script beforehand or studio that we can set up the way we want. What happens is not announced ahead of time. We know from experience that unforeseen and special moments will occur, so we improvise and use what we have to make the best of the situation.
Through our knowledge of the natural world and our willingness to endure whatever challenge is placed before us, nature photographers make it work. We know that going directly from point A to point B rarely happens in nature, and we are blessed for it.
I had planned to photograph a northern harrier frequenting the marshes of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia this past winter. For days, I watched this raptor as it swooped and glided over the salt marsh. Yet, I was never able to get set up in time to photograph it.
One picture-perfect morning I hiked along the bay side of the seashore determined that some feathered creature would not defeat me! My only challenge was that I had to be at a friend’s house for lunch at noon, and he would not appreciate my being late. The day held the promise of fun exploring this side of the coastal barrier island. Then, something unexpected happened. Continue reading →
The notes of the rail came loudly to my ear, and on moving toward the spot whence they proceeded, I observed the bird exhibiting the full ardor of his passion. Each time it passed before her, it would pause for a moment…and bow to her with all the grace of a well-bred suitor of our own species.—John James Audubon, 1840
What Audubon witnessed is something most folks will never see as this secretive marsh bird is heard more than it is seen. In 1926, ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote this about how to see a Virginia rail: “Take up one’s station near a pond or marsh frequented by them and watch patiently, silently, and immobile….” Wow, patience. What a concept.
Virginia rail at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland.
“The charm of its haunts and the beauty of its plumage combine to render the prothonotary warbler among the most attractive members of the family.”—Frank Chapman, ornithologist, 1907
Many nature photographers have locations or subjects that have been a desire or challenge to photograph. It may take years—sometimes, a lifetime—for a photographer to achieve a certain photographic goal. Indeed, it may never happen. The charm is that the photographer never gives up.
For years I wanted to photograph the prothonotary warbler, a beautiful yellow and orange warbler of the bottomland wetlands and cypress swamps. In the spring of 2013, that goal became a reality. It was a matter of being a naturalist first and photographer second. Knowing about the subject and using my skills at anticipating a moment and chasing one all played a part. Steadfast determination and persistence had something to do with it as well. Continue reading →
Part IV: Personal traits for capturing a sense of place
The final piece in capturing a sense of place in our images is using the personal traits we possess as nature photographers to document an area in such a way that the viewer feels what you felt as well as seeing a well-photographed image.
Capturing a sense of place is not easy to do, and for many nature photographers, the process of doing it effectively takes years. Becoming skilled at the technical aspects of photography is important: know how to read light, use the right exposure, understand how the camera operates, etc. But equally important is the individual photographer’s personal response to a moment in time and how he/she effectively captures it on film.
I tell the students who attend my workshops that becoming skilled at the technical aspects of photography should take no more than 365 days. That’s one year. The most challenging aspect of our craft and the one that takes a lifetime to become proficient at is the ability to capture compositions that speak from the heart. If we can’t feel the sense of place in the images we take, then how can we expect the viewer to sense it? Continue reading →
Part III: Techniques for capturing a sense of place
Capturing a sense of place happens through the techniques, approaches and vision you use while in the field. It does not happen in front of a computer screen. Hence, Part III explores some field techniques for you to consider.
This image of a small coastal community at Greenbackville, along the eastern shore of Virginia, displays a low-angle anchor/leading line.
Low-level, wide-angle perspective: When photographing at a lower perspective, especially with wide-angle focal lengths, images often become more dramatic and intimate. Consider photographing from a lower perspective than at your standing height. Use a low-angle anchor/leading line in the foreground (as displayed in the photograph above) to lead the viewer into the scene. Continue reading →
Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area, West Virginia
In Part I, we acknowledged that nature photographers of every skill level can achieve a sense of place in their photography. While a sense of place does not happen in every image, it is something nature photographers can strive to achieve in every image.
What do we mean by capturing a sense of place?
A sense of place expresses the essential character and spirit of a location—what makes it special or unique, such as its cultural or natural identity. It is a moment in time captured in an image where the viewer can sense being there. A sense of place may ignite a memory or spark an interest from the viewer who perceives the sights, sounds and/or aromas of the moment. A sense of place tugs at the heartstrings, enticing the viewer to want to be there. Continue reading →
Part I: The elusive “it” factor in nature photography
On a recent photo shoot in West Virginia I was reminded of how, as nature photographers, we strive to seek that elusive characteristic in our landscape photography: a sense of place. After all, it is the “it” factor in landscape photography to have our viewers feel the moment of the scene we photograph. Continue reading →
Marsh Landscape, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland
Or, why I never get to take an afternoon nap during my photo shoots
In the film days of yore, I always counted on an afternoon nap during my photo shoots on nice sunny days. The high contrast of a sunny afternoon proved too much for film to capture details in both the highlights and shadows. Since I didn’t want to shoot under those conditions, what else was I to do but check the inside of my eyelids?
Thanks to digital technology those napping times are over, but I can’t complain about this new digital stuff. The one advancement I love that has raised the playing field in nature photography is high dynamic range (HDR). Continue reading →
With the professional bird photographers hot on my trail, I’m going to reveal, right now, the top secrets of bird photography. I’m ready to sacrifice myself for the betterment of every one of you who want to photograph birds. All are welcome, but if anyone asks, I had nothing to do with this.
Jim Clark, uh, I mean Ansel Wolfe Lepp.
P.S. You never heard this from me.
When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. —Edward O. Wilson
Harvard professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson is one of my conservation heroes, and this is one of my favorite quotes. All nature photographers can probably relate to it. There is nature to be seen everywhere and all kinds of wildlife behavior to record.
The little mountain lake in West Virginia that I introduced you to in the May 2014 issue of NANPA eNews taught me a few lessons that reinforce the meaning of that quote. Continue reading →