Let The Games Begin

I’ve known photographers who were totally oblivious of this fact, and I’ve lost sight of it myself from time to time. It can be a difficult thing to keep in mind, and it was another photographer--thank you Valerie Millett--who reminded me. Nature photography is not a contest. It is not a game in which the person who visits the most locations or the most exotic sites wins. I have fleeting moments when I think it might be nice if it was a game, at least for a little while, but those thoughts are generated by a desire for financial security. Speaking as a photo tour leader, it would great if everyone was competing to see all the places we want to take them. However, for good or bad, it is not a contest, and it makes no difference if you’re photographing in Alaska or your own backyard, as long as you’re out there shooting.

The miracle that compels us to push the shutter button is not something that is only present in far away climes. The beauty, the life and death struggles we want so desperately to capture happen in our own gardens just as they do in the rainforest. This orb weaver spider laid her trap right beside our front door, and the fact that we didn’t need to travel to the far corners of the globe did not detract from the engineering marvel that was her web, the evolutionary miracle the stronger-than-steel gossamer strands represented or the deadliness of her attack.

Orb weaver spider and web

The poetic naturalist, Annie Dillard, once wrote, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.” And the same applies to spiders. Not only do they have way too many legs, too many eyes, fangs and impressive chelicerae, but their mobility on sticky strands of silk borders on the supernatural. It’s no wonder they feature prominently in many horror movies. For me, it is their method of eating that is most distressing. You see, spiders do not simply eat their victims. They inject a witches brew of poison and enzymes that paralyzes the prey and then reduces its muscles and organs to a protein shake that can be sucked out. Makes you hungry just thinking about it.

Orb weaver spider and prey

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to photograph exotic locations and the magnificent scenery, charismatic megafauna, colorful birds or whatever that make them a Shangri-La for nature photographers. In fact, our business depends upon it, and even though Cathy and I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of these places, there are many more that are still on our wish list. As you dream of far away destinations though, keep in mind the distance to the location often has little to do with the quality of the photos you may come home with. A photo of an iceberg from Antarctica or Iceland is not inherently better than one of a flower from a local garden. A photo of a grizzly bear is not necessarily stronger than one of a spider. Some of our strongest images were taken within an hour’s drive of our home. When we judge photography competitions, we’ve found that quite often the most ordinary and pedestrian images are the ones with the most exciting subjects. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the image is exciting just because the subject is. On the other hand, some of the most extraordinary images are composed of ordinary subjects. I’m not sure if the ones I’ve included with this blog illustrate this fact adequately, but you get the idea.

Orb weaver spider and prey

If nature photography is a contest, the winner is the one who gets to spend the most time immersed in the mystery and majesty that we are a part of, wherever that may be.