“If we look real cute he will take OUR photo instead of that pesky hummingbird!”. Great-horned Owls and hummingbird, Santa Fe, NM.
Everywhere I go I keep an eye out for interesting light and scenes that trigger an emotion. This has pluses and minuses though. If I am always thinking of a taking a photograph the beauty of nature can be lost in the angst of trying to “get a photo”. “Where is my camera?” “If only I was standing over there instead of here”, or “I just missed the best light”. This behavior can ruin the experience of simply enjoying nature.
Skill, technique, luck, patience, and persistence all come into play in nature photography. These factors also play a key role in many other outdoor activities like birding and fly-fishing. I am not a golfer or a hunter, however I am sure these factors are important there too. The luck component is what keeps me interested in nature photography. Not knowing what you might see on any given outing keeps things interesting. Being prepared, with the right camera settings and able to quickly adapt as something jumps out in front of me increases the probability that a lucky sighting will result in a good photo.
The image of the two snuggling owls and the hummingbird above is an example. This image was taken on one of my daily walks with Melinda and our three vizlsas. Sometimes I bring a camera along on these walks. This particular day I had a very long lens (840mm) in hopes that I might see some interesting birds. We are lucky to live in a rural area with abundant wildlife and the enchanting light of Northern New Mexico. Far down the trail ( ~ 150 meters) I saw these two Great Horned Owls and quickly captured a few images before they flew away. The hummingbird in the background was shear luck. So was the moment in time where they were nuzzling together. I was persistent in the sense of bringing my camera and long lens along with me. The conditions were about as challenging as one could experience — three dogs and two hikers are not exactly a stealthy approach!
The majority of my photography outings involve more planning than this. For example, camping out in the desert for days to focus on wild mustangs or spending time in the Alaskan wilderness to photograph bears. Luck is still a big factor though on these trips. A unwritten rule is that if I am out photographing bears, then I will see something cool that I did not expect. I can never predict what that might be. This “rule” seems so ubiquitous that we often laugh about it. (Bring an umbrella, it won’t rain; do not bring a net when fishing, and you will catch the biggest trout ever; leave your camera at home, and see the most incredible sunset).
Melinda, an incredible watercolor artist, reminds me of what she calls “artist eyes”, where over time you develop a sense of what is good light and interesting scenes. Being able to spot these and respond to them is the trick. Now when I see something interesting as a I am driving along on a road, or hiking up a trail, I tell myself “stop and experience it” — with or without my camera. I do not always follow through with this — and that is a mistake.
We live in a place where artists have considered to be magical for centuries – Northern New Mexico. It is a “target rich environment” that I frequently take for granted. It is easy to become complacent and “get used to” the incredible light and wildlife around us. On those days when I do not have my camera I try to still pull over and take a moment to watch the incredible sunset or listen to the owl calling. Interestingly, I think those moments are etched into my memory more than the ones where I did take a photo.
I think the “luckiest” image I have ever captured is “You Love the Thunder”, shown below. That image resulted from a very lucky moment in time and persistence. You can read more about that image here.
“You Love the Thunder”. A Great Horned Owl watches a lightning storm over Nambé, New Mexico.