I need to take a brief break in my Nature and Photography posts. I am working on some ideas for it as well as some other projects that are taking a lot of time. I will be back sometime in July. The photo above is Lake Isabella in California with the southern mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the background.
I have long thought about how we as nature photographers show nature. How we do this is important because we all become the "eyes" of the public, no matter where our photos are used, displayed or shown.
A challenge, though, is showing nature fully. A good example of this is landscapes and early and late light. Those are great times for landscape photography. I love being on location at the "magic hour" and seeing the light and shadow play out across the scene.
But nature doesn't just happen during those times. Unfortunately, getting interesting photos of nature at other times can be challenging. Night photography has gotten easier, but a lot of night life, such as bats, goes unseen by most people, including us photographers. Photographing during times of day away from sunrise and sunset often provides harsh, unappealing light, yet that's part of nature, too. Ansel Adams used to photograph throughout the day, and black-and-white can be one helpful approach to conditions that are poor for color. Still, I have seen places that are very interesting during the day, yet frustrating to photograph.
A good example is the desert. I have often traveled through the Mojave Desert in California on the way to someplace else, though I have spent a little time photographing in the wonderful Mojave National Preserve and in Death Valley. But a lot of the Mojave is very intimidating in its open, dry, hot spaces, especially to a guy who grew up in Minnesota.
I was driving through the Mojave this week and when I stopped for a break, I also stopped and thought about what was around me. It was mid-afternoon, not a time nature photographers usually photograph a landscape (me included), yet here I was challenged by an expansive landscape that really said Mojave Desert to me.
I had to try. So I found a spot that had an expansive view of the area. And at first, it was hard to make anything of it. It was just a big area of space at a hot time of day. I used a wide-angle lens to allow me to stretch the space and emphasize that space. I found that including more sky was helpful to add color but it also gave the feeling of big, empty space.
I tried working some distinctive plants into the shot to give the composition some structure. I tried including some telephone poles small to give a feeling of isolation. I even tried a little black-and-white.
The photos aren't all "beautiful", but they do show how I felt about an intimidating, full of space desert. Sometimes I think it is worth stretching ourselves to show off nature that is not the "usual" in photography.
All of these were shot, by the way, with an iPhone and the Moment wide-angle lens.
Night and low light photography has gotten easier and easier. With film, this type of photography was a challenge. Everything from color to color balance to "noise" (grain) to exposure problems due to reciprocity failure made night photography often unpredictable. Now with white balance control, excellent results at high ISOs and the ability to check exposure as you go, this is no longer such a problem. Digital photography makes night images accessible for any photographer.
That said, I can tell you that there are still a LOT of challenges for bat photography. I have set myself a goal of capturing images of bats on location, not captured and released for controlled photography. There is a reason photographers have not done that too often. It is hard!
Yet, for me, this represents another aspect of nature that is underrepresented in nature photography. Bats are a very important part of most ecosystems, yet when you see books about those ecosystems, you'll often find little to nothing about bats. Roughly 1/2 of each day, night, is consistently "under-reported" for nature. That is like trying to understand Mt. Rainier without considering its glaciers or Alaska without including its bears.
I get it, though, with photography of night life in nature. It is hard. Remote camera traps, including "trail cams" sold to hunters (and used by many naturalists), can record night life, but only when that life crosses in front of the camera. Bats are small, and with flight, they can go anywhere at anytime. Their flight makes bats neither contained or as predictable as terrestrial night animals (which makes the latter good subjects for trail cams).
One thing that is somewhat predictable for bats is their emergence from large colonies at dusk. Not all bats live in such aggregations, but when they do, their emergence can offer a wonderful experience of night life.
We had to privilege to experience some amazing Mexican free-tailed bat emergences in Austin over the Memorial Day weekend. The bat colony under the Congress Ave. bridge just south of downtown Austin is well known. Hundreds of people show up to watch every night, and on busy nights, that can be thousands. You will see every age, sex, culture and race there to see the bats. They have become a popular destination for folks coming to Austin. Over two million bats live in that bridge, the largest urban bat colony in the world.
We were there on a busy Saturday night – the park and lake below the bridge were filled with people. At this time of year when female bats typically have young, the Mexican free-tails often emerge earlier than sunset so they can get out and start feeding. There had been a lot of heavy rain in the area in the days before, so the bats would not have gone out much to feed, if at all.
But they did not start coming out until nearly 9 pm, about 30 minutes after sunset. It was definitely night and dark.
The bats became very hard to see. I had to use a flash to get anything, and only when the image showed on my LCD did I really see the bats. There could be no composing of bats or waiting until a certain number were in the frame because I could not see them before taking the picture. The photo opps were not good. A dad and his son near us were having trouble seeing the bats, so I showed them my LCD and that made their experience more real (and my work worthwhile, even if not that great). The local folks said that a hawk had been hanging around the bridge of late and that probably caused the bats to delay emerging until it was dark.
A friend who lives in the area, Ted Keller, had suggested we check out the I-35 bridge over McNeil Rd. in Round Rock (just north of Austin). He said that bridge also had millions of bats using it as a bat "house." We went there on Sunday night. The evening was sunny with hardly a cloud. The bats started coming out a little before official sunset and this was an amazing nature experience. My wife loves nature, but does not have the love of bats I do, but she was in awe and loved it. The bats swirled under the bridge, then came out in large groups out of the southeast end of the bridge.
The groups went into the sky and you could watch them go. The mass of bats and their group flight in the air reminded me of the starling flights going to roost in England (I have only seen videos of them). There were not many people there to watch, but they all just stood and watched with great attention as these bats came out in waves over the next half hour (they actually kept going longer, but when it was dark and getting hard to see them, the people left).
Easy to photograph? Yes and no. Easy to show bats with the urban location. Hard to give a feeling of the clouds of bats and show the bats, too (like most U.S. bats, Mexican free-tails are very small). I tried doing a variety of things, near and far, changing my position, etc. I was glad I was coming back the next day because I would know better what to do. Still, the experience was amazing.
Next day, Monday, sunset came. No bats. The bats did not start coming out until nearly 9 pm, like the Congress Ave. bats. I had seen a hawk fly through the flying bats on Sunday night, and it seemed like it caught a bat, though it was hard to tell at the distance.
I get it. These little bats are very vulnerable when it is light, so they delay emergence to make it harder for hawks to get them, even though that means going out for food later (bats have a very high metabolism, especially with young to feed, so that does matter).
This made the photography very, very challenging. I had to keep increasing my ISO in order to get a shutter speed fast enough to stop the action of the wings enough to recognize the bats as bats.
Now came a whole new challenge. How to focus! It was not bright enough to focus easily focus where the bats were. Lights from the street gave enough light on the bridge to focus there, but I was shooting with a long telephoto with limited depth of field, so the bats would be out of focus. They were moving too fast to focus on, even with a light. So I used the bridge focus as a starting point and gradually changed my focus manually until I started getting some in focus.
Since bats fly, they don't follow a narrow path, so sometimes I would get them in focus, sometimes not. I kept tweaking my focus, which sometimes helped, sometimes hurt. I am thinking about trying a laser measurer for bats so that I can measure a distance and use that for focus.
Still, it was fun and I learned a lot.
One of my favorite nature authors is Simon Barnes, a British nature writer. I am just reading one of his latest books, Ten Million Aliens. If you love learning about the whole range of possibilities of life in nature, this is the book for you. I love it!
Barnes is also a sports writer for the London Times and this shows in his lively, engaging text. He makes the animal kingdom fun, even tiny creatures most of us have never heard of.
The book has a few line drawings, but not much in the way of images otherwise. Still, if you are interested in nature beyond photographing it, and I suspect you are, check this book out.
He has another book that you might find of interest, How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. I read this a few years ago when it came out. It is about connecting with nature through birds by seeing birds as more than something on a checklist to check off. Definitely fits my way of thinking about nature.
Also, I am working to complete an on-line course that I had hoped to have available by June. Obviously, that isn't happening, but I am hopeful for the end of June. I will let you know when it is available.
In March of this year, a man visited a museum in Milan, Italy, and broke a 19th century statue. He essentially amputated the statue's leg. Now this would be something most people would consider pretty bad. Museums are special places.
Selfies are the big thing in casual photography today. And I know they can be fun.
We were at a restaurant not too long ago with a lot of relatives and we decided we wanted to get a photograph of the group. We got ready and I was going to do the shot as a selfie. As we took the shot, a waiter came by and offered to take the photo for us. I said no. I have found that you get a certain energy in the photo of a family group when one of the group is doing the shot as a selfie, an energy you do not get from some stranger stepping back and taking the picture.
The broken statue, though, is a cautionary tale that goes beyond simple selfies. Today, if you go anywhere where tourists go are, you will see lots of people taking selfies of themselves at the location. While they aren't breaking any statues, they are making the experience of being at a place about getting and posting a selfie rather than actually experiencing the place. The broken statue was more about how clever a person could be for a Facebook or other social media post of a selfie than actually experiencing the museum and its art. Showing you were there with that selfie becomes more important than actually connecting with anything "there."
You might think this is just about young people and camera phones. I think it goes beyond that and this is where it is more likely to affect you and I. Cameras are all too often used as a barrier between the photographer and the subject, not necessarily deliberately, but a barrier none-the-less. I know this is true because I have seen it happen in me and other photographers.
What happens is that we can get caught up in our gear. We start thinking, "Which one of my lenses is really best now?" or "I really wish I had a (full-frame, mirrorless, or any other camera you don't have)." Or we spend a lot of time setting up the tripod and gear, focusing mainly on it or we stand behind your camera on a tripod so that the camera in front of us now dominates the scene. Or we start thinking that the scene won't make a photograph that will impress the folks at the camera club or get enough likes on Facebook. None of which is about engaging with the actual moment in nature.
The point is that the experience of being in and connecting with nature can become secondary to the camera and the photography if we let it. I think we really have to be careful of that. Just as the young man who broke the statue was disrespecting both the statue and the museum, we also disrespect our subjects when the gear and its use becomes more important than our connection to nature.
Sometimes that can mean just putting the camera down and enjoying being alive in a beautiful place or connecting with some remarkable aspect of nature. Neither of those things demand being at some far away park or country. It is about slowing down and observing life in front of us, about truly seeing the wild around us, and using our cameras to capture some of that without having the photography become more important than the experience.
Recently, I was listening to a podcast of the interview show On Point with Tom Ashbrook. He had designer Itzhak Mizrahi on because Mizrahi had a new retrospective exhibition of his work. It was an interesting show with lots of ideas about art and how one works as an artist.
One thing I found very interesting was his statement, "Don't be boring." He had a number of reasons for that, but for me, that really resonated with my work. I think this has been very important to me over the years because nature is that important. A lot of nature photography is, let's face it, pretty, but boring. When I was at Outdoor Photographer magazine, I got an awful lot of images that all were pretty, but all were safe and pretty much looked the same. You could have taken the names off of the images, mixed them in a bin, and put the names back on and no one would have known the difference.
The problem with that is a bad result for nature. When viewers see the same sorts of images over and over again, when they see boring images, they don't spend much time with the photos, they don't engage with the images and nature loses.
I don't want that to happen. I know I do a range of images, and not all are the opposite of boring, but I do work hard to try to find images that are truly mine and not simply repeating other's work (which can be boring). I really want to engage viewers in the nature I see.
I recently got a copy of a book by Michigan photographers, Brad and Todd Reed, that really represents this idea well. It is their Michigan, Wednesdays in the Mitten. A lot of travel books play it very conservative so that, while beautiful, much of the books border on the boring. This book is far from boring. The Reeds work really hard to find shots that both represent Michigan well and show us something fresh and new. The cover alone is a real risk for many photographers because it is not the typical travel or regional photo book cover at all. I give them a lot of credit for producing a stunning book that is lively and engaging. For them, Michigan and its nature are worth the effort.