The Dragon Photographer

In our early days of nature photography, long before I had any right to be that way, I was very competitive. I wanted the awards and accolades. If someone took a good shot of something, I wanted a better photo of the same subject. Most of the time I didn’t succeed in capturing one, but I certainly tried. I have mellowed somewhat as I’ve gotten older—perhaps I can even say “matured” now. I no longer need to have the best photos of everything, which makes life much easier. Not that I ever truly had the best images of any subject, but that task would be virtually impossible now.

Bull elk in velvet
Bull elk in velvet sniffing the flowers, Rocky Mountain National Park

Never mind the fact that no two photographers can even agree on which image is best, there are simply too many great photographers as well as quite a few lucky ones taking pictures of pretty much everything these days. It’s almost overwhelming. And the images that are being captured…all I can do is look and stand amazed by what I see today. Many of these photographers are going to lengths I just don’t feel up to anymore, so I almost humbly say, “Kudos and well done.”

Autumn creek
Autumn cascade, Rocky Mountain National Park

Some might say I’ve gotten old and lazy. I can’t argue with the old part, but I prefer to think I’ve adopted a zen attitude, where it’s enough to experience the wonders of the world without necessarily coming home with award-winning photos. Oh sure, I enjoy taking a great picture as much as the next guy, but my photos no longer have to be among the best. It’s enough to feel the wind, smell the air, hear the songs/cries/growls/roars/bugles, and simply bear witness to the miracle we are a part of. Using terminology from the movie Kung Fu Panda, I have become the Dragon Photographer—able to see the grandeur of lions making a kill in a life and death struggle in my urban backyard, and able to subsist on granola bars alone…at least until meal time.

Bryce Canyon
Morning hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

I still maintain that while the Earth doesn’t need any more people, it certainly needs more nature photographers—not necessarily even good ones, just people who care enough about wild places and their residents to want to capture them in pixels. Even though some of our favorite spots might become more crowded, we just might create a demand for more protected habitat. By sharing images of our experiences, we might even influence those who rarely come in contact with the natural world. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. So keep sticking your noses deeper and deeper into the mystery and majesty of the wild, recording it on whatever medium best suits you, and by all means, share it with the rest of us.

Bald eagles
Roosting bald eagles and snowy mountains, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

Set Your Images Apart

The November gathering of bald eagles on Alaska’s Chilkat River attracts photographers from all around the world--Denmark, Japan, Canada, not to mention nearly every state in America were represented in the five days we were there. During one period when the eagles seemed to only be catching fish in one 10-foot stretch of river, I counted 35 photographers standing shoulder to shoulder, and I’m sure I missed some of them. Every time the birds twitched, a thousand frames were recorded on media cards. Cathy and I have been places where the number of photographers was higher, but it was a certainty that a great many of the images captured here were going to be pretty darn similar. How do you make your photos stand out in such a situation? And more importantly, should you even try?

Bald eagle fight

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, 500mm + 1.4 teleconverter, ISO 1600, 1/800, f6.3

Many big name photographers, some that I respect a great deal, believe you always need to try to set your work apart from other photographers. I’m not so sure that’s always the best plan. I’ve always been a big believer in photographing the subjects you enjoy shooting without regard for what others are shooting. If this means taking pictures of the same things everyone else is photographing, that’s just the way it goes. And besides, there are so many photographers these days that almost no matter what subject you want to shoot, and no matter what style you use, you’re going to have plenty of company. One of the things Cathy and I most enjoy capturing is behavior, and that’s one of the most popular subjects on the Chilkat at this time of year. Consequently, even though nearly everyone was trying to obtain sharp pictures of talon-to-talon action, it didn’t stop us from trying to do the same thing. Of course, we also tried a few other things that perhaps not as many photographers attempted.

Bald eagle & mountains

Canon EOS-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@150mm, ISO 1600, 1/1600, f16, -2/3

Wildlife photographers are often obsessed with making the subject as large as possible in the frame, so we’ll sometimes go in the other direction. We’ll try to make it small. In the photo above, we could have made the eagle much bigger in the frame, but then the mountains would not be visible. The eagle alone would not have been much of a photo, and the mountains alone would’ve just been OK. Combine the two though, and you’ve got a much stronger image. We are always looking for opportunities to make scenic images with wildlife, even if it means intentionally making the subject small in the frame. With a small subject you emphasize the immensity of the landscape and the subject’s relationship with that landscape. The most important thing is that even though the subject is small, it is still easily visible.

Bald eagle blur

Canon EOD-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@400mm, ISO 200, 1/30, f8, -1/3

With moving subjects you have two main choices to make your images stand out--shoot faster than everyone else or slower than everyone else. Ultra fast shutter speeds are great for birds splashing in the water, and with these shutter speeds we can see details in the water drops that were previously invisible. Since we had low light conditions for pretty much the entire week we were in Alaska, it was easier to go the other route--use a low ISO and shoot with a slower shutter speed than everyone else. With a slow shutter speed the photographer is trying to give the impression of speed, and you never know what you’re going to get. On this trip I only designated an hour or so towards the end of the tour to experiment with slow shutter speeds, and the eagles happened to be rather lazy that morning so I didn’t get as many chances as I would’ve liked. The photographers around me probably took a hundred images with fast shutter speeds that stopped the action in the photo above. Are they better than this shot taken at a 1/30 second? That depends on what you’re trying to show. All I know is that I’m looking forward to trying this technique with eagles again.

There is nothing wrong with shooting the same subjects and using the same techniques as everyone else. The most important things are that you get to spend time in the natural world reveling in the grandeur around us, that you have a good time trying to capture that grandeur with your camera, and that you are happy with your images. If some artistic drive has you wanting to set your photos apart from the those of the masses, there are techniques you can try, and we’ve touched on a couple of them in this blog. Have fun experimenting.