The Value of Uncomfortable

Yellow warbler bathing

This blog includes a couple of excerpts from our latest book, Worshipping With A Camera, for several reasons. The excerpts fit the subject well, it gives me a chance to promote the book again, and all but one image was taken on our Texas Birds Photo Tour—we’re going again in May—come join us!

Gull eating brine flies

The water of California’s Mono Lake is too salty for humans, but brine flies in untold billions find the habitat ideal. And because the brine flies are here, many birds consider this desolate place a land of milk and honey. Mono Lake was obviously created with species other than humans in mind. Does that mean we should drain the lake, desalinate the water and treat the land until it does make a comfortable environment or humans? The brine flies and the gulls certainly don’t think so. And just perhaps, neither does the power behind the lake’s creation.

Baby javelina

Humans seem unable to survive without altering the landscape, and not just altering it, but doing so violently and on a massive scale. Just how did our species survive long enough to overpopulate the Earth? It turns out we’re tougher than one would guess from our climate-controlled, hyper-sanitized dwellings. Somehow though, regardless of the conditions we can easily endure, our comfort and safety have taken precedence over everything else in the world. No matter the conditions outside, we want to wear the same outfit summer, winter, spring and fall. If an animal is potentially dangerous to us or even our pets, it must be eliminated. Entire ecosystems are smothered in concrete and asphalt just so we can be comfortable and safe. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s nice to see that in some places people are making an effort to save some uncomfortable pieces of habitat.

Roadrunner with lizard catch

South Texas scrub in its natural state is a harsh environment, a place of hellish heat and vicious thorns. The weather has been described as perpetual drought interrupted by periods of flood. The vegetation is usually drab-colored and has all joined in a common vendetta against all things that bleed. It doesn’t look like the kind of place colorful birds would call home. You can’t see them. Their calls seem to originate in thickets and brush. Spend some time at a waterhole though, and the most amazing things materialize around the edges. It’s as if something breathed life into tiny pieces of the rainbow and set them flitting through the underbrush. This is alchemy of the most powerful kind, changing thorns and dry seeds into living colors, drinking and bathing in the shallows.

Green jay pair

Something like 98% of Texas is in private hands, and that includes nearly all of the scrub in the Rio Grande flood plain. Many of the ranchers here live on huge tracts of land that have been in the family for generations. Most of them are not wealthy, even though their property is worth a fortune, and the temptation to subdivide and ruin the land must be enormous. The nature photography contests that brought photographers to these ranches, and if possible, made the ranchers love their lands even more, were a Godsend. Because of these contests, many ranches in the area now have blinds on waterholes with feeding stations. They have opened up an entire ecosystem to nature photographers, an ecosystem in which we had almost no access previously.

Desert tortoise and cactus flowers

South Texas scrub is about as nasty an environment as one could imagine, and yet people are doing their best to ensure it isn’t bulldozed aside. Here’s hoping they succeed. Here’s hoping South Texas will continue to be uncomfortable long after we’re gone.

Painted bunting bathing

It's Not Rocket Science

Some time ago, during one of our presentations, an audience member floored me with the question, “Why did you keep that particular photo?” As if we could possibly have any photos that were not masterpieces. The image in question was a wide angle shot of a hummingbird hovering with the Costa Rican rainforest surrounding it.

Hummingbird and scenery, costa rica
White-necked jacobin photographed with wide-angle zoom and
single flash to show the bird and where it lived.

It’s not that our questioner considered the image a bad one, but he could not think of a reason to keep it. It probably would not do well in a photo contest or club competition, and it would not make a wonderful print. The person was not necessarily wrong. The image would not make a good, stand-alone print, and it has certainly never won any awards. However, that’s not really why I worked long and hard to take the photo.

Leaf cutter ants
Leaf-cutter ants are an integral part of the rainforest, and their parades are common sights. This was taken with a 180 macro, a flash in front and a flash behind to show the translucence of the leaves.

Why do we photograph, and perhaps more importantly, why do we keep the photos we do? Why didn’t I delete the hummingbird photo after seeing that it didn’t meet the obvious criteria for being a “good” photo? Allow me to wander off topic for a moment and talk about octopi--believe me, it all ties together. An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium has been taught to photograph the visitors that come to see and photograph it. Cephalopods do appear to be a good fit for photography. There are times when I thought an extra arm or two would come in handy. The point is though, this boneless creature is taking perfectly acceptable photos. Granted, octopi are the Einsteins of the mollusk world, but it’s still pretty obvious that taking pictures is not exactly rocket science. All photographers are doing pretty much the same thing. Among the few variables we can play with are: where we point the lens (even the octopus could figure that one out), when to push the shutter button, how much to include in the frame, shutter speed and aperture.

Sloth in tree
Whether you see them or not, the rainforest is full of creatures big and small. Even though it was at eye level,
this sloth had to be pointed out to me. Taken at 100mm, ISO 1600.

We’re not doing this because it’s an intellectual challenge. We’re doing it because it’s a creative challenge. In spite of the rules of composition, it’s still an activity of the heart more than it is the head. Regardless of our intentions, most of us will never do anything truly meaningful with our photos, like convince the powers that be to preserve and conserve, or change the mindset of environmental villains. Most of us will always concentrate on taking pretty pictures. The pretty pictures are an end in themselves, and there is nothing wrong with this. Many people, like Cathy and myself, find that they are compelled to make an effort to capture the beauty around us. The universe pretty much demands it. We find that we are dragged into the cold, the hot, rain, snow and sometimes even pleasant weather, just to witness and record that beauty.

Costa Rican landscape
Of the few variables we can play with, where we point the lens and what to include in the frame are two of the most important. The colorful blossoms beside a cascade in Costa Rica almost dragged me to this spot.
5 second exposure at f22.

The beauty surrounding us exists on so many levels we find that we are constantly stretching the limits of what we can do and what our equipment can do just to get to the core of the miracle, just to show what it means to be a part of the biosphere, a part of the universe. In Costa Rica it’s relatively easy to get great hummingbird photos--great bird photos in general, but they don’t show the relationship between the rainforest and the animal. That’s what I wanted. That’s why I worked so hard to get the hummingbird photo. There was no way I was going to discard it.

Aricari eating coffee bean
This aricari eating coffee beans had a serious caffeine addiction. Taken with a 100-400 zoom.

Green honeycreepers eating berries
Juvenile green honeycreeper begging to be fed even though it’s standing next to the berries.
Taken with a 500mm and 1.4x teleconverter.

Back in the film days, a very popular environmental writer wrote an article that questioned the necessity of capturing any more wildlife images. His argument was there were already plenty of hummingbird photos, or elephant photos, or whatever photos. We didn’t need anymore, and all of this photographic attention was stressing the creatures unduly. How idiotic. If anything, this planet needs even more people immersing themselves in the core of the miracle, and it doesn’t matter if they are doing it mentally, visually, with paint and easel, hammer and chisel, or with camera and lenses. No, this isn’t rocket science. It’s much more important than that. It’s a pursuit of the heart and soul.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird at flower
Rufous-tailed hummingbird feeding. Taken with 100-400 zoom, 1/1250 sec, ISO 800 and no flash.