What’s in the package?

It’s funny – I’ve been thinking for years that I should perhaps look into leading a weekend nature photography outing to some promising locale, for instance the Outer Banks of NC, but always hesitate over two things: that I could find enough people to sign up that would at least cover the expenses; and that I wouldn’t be blamed if the weekend turned out unproductive, which is one of those wild variables that occur in such pursuits. Or at least, it does for me – I honestly can’t say if, you know, competent nature photographers always come back with lots of photos, but I suspect luck plays a role with them as well and some days are just crap. I’d like to think that, if such an outing really did pan out with few subjects, people would be understanding, and I could still make it worth their time in imparting some useful information.

This made me reflect on what kinds of things that I am talking about during, for instance, routine student outings, the couple-hour-long ones done locally, and decided to give a few examples in a post. Naturally, I talk about camera controls and won’t reiterate them here; I find composition is much more important (and have another composition post in the works,) but most students need help knowing how all the little dials and options work first, so I spend more of my time concentrating on those. But when it comes down to outings, actually out on locations and chasing natural subjects, these are some of the things that I’m yammering about:

Good hiking habits. Dressing appropriately, of course, and I often stress carrying a disposable rain poncho in the camera bag, always. Layers of clothing if, like this time of year, there can be a wide range of temperatures during an outing – chances are, going back to the car for anything is more effort than it’s worth. But a lot of it has to do with having to spot copperheads, which camouflage really well in leaves and undergrowth, and always watching one’s footing. In really high risk areas, this means a habit of surveying the ground closely for a meter or two immediately ahead, then allowing oneself to look for subjects elsewhere for just a couple of steps before returning one’s gaze to the ground, and anytime a promising sound is heard, stopping immediately. Most especially, not walking around with the camera raised to your eye – that’s asking for trouble, even just from camouflaged holes.

It’s actually very easy to get focused on a subject and start jockeying for position, forgetting that we’ve never checked the immediate region for danger or unsafe footing, so I stress this often – never let your guard down in high risk areas. But even just being aware of twigs and leaves, because they’re noisy and can alert potential subjects to our presence, and because leaves will camouflage a hole, as well as hiding dangerous critters better. Another example is logs. Never, of course, reach under one or even blindly loop fingertips under an edge, and when stepping over one, we make sure that our legs don’t get too close to the far, blind side and be in a prime location to get bitten or stung by what lurks there. And when rolling one over to see what kind of fun stuff might be underneath, we roll it towards ourselves; this ensures that the suddenly-open gap is facing away, so startled snakes don’t have a clear shot at us.

Orienteering. Not to any serious level, to be honest, because I’ve never led any outings to great distances away from known areas – usually we’re in parks or small plots where ‘civilization’ isn’t far away. But once we go off the trail, I make sure we’re paying attention to how to get back. People have a wicked tendency to believe their phones are useful in this regard, but this requires three distinct things: 1) that their phone is in working order, not damaged and not suffering from a dead battery; 2) that their phone is receiving an adequate signal, and this is crucial, because cell signals tend to be weak in just the areas that anyone may be hiking; and 3) that they actually know how to use the functions in the first place. A compass, or even a set of GPS coordinates, tells us absolutely nothing if we don’t know where we’re supposed to be, and most downloadable terrain maps are on a scale that does not assist hikers in any way, nor will they usually show the trail we’re trying to regain. So I more often point out orienting by the sun, and reading the lay of the land (such as the valleys that lead down to creeks and rivers,) and even knowing what the region looks like ahead of time, by getting familiar with maps. Any time someone relies on one factor, like a working phone, that means only one failure and they’re screwed.

Sounds, of course. This ties in multiple ways. For orienteering, the sound of the river or distant traffic can be helpful in finding a way. But mostly it’s to assist in finding subjects. Not only knowing the calls of the wildlife in the region, but what alarm calls are, can help point towards photo subjects. Even a small rustle near our feet can alert us to lizards, snakes, or rodents, and a plop in the water can indicate turtles, snakes, waterfowl, and so on. Some of this comes from experience, and knowing what typical sounds are (rustle of leaves and the creaking of tree trunks in the wind) and what isn’t normal background noise. Naturally, the moment we hear anything of the sort, we stop and assess it, or start to home in.

Identifying species. I’ll be honest, I can’t pinpoint everything, even in my own area, and I’m only so-so at birdsong, but I contribute what I can. And if there’s any trivia connected to them, I’ll add that too. When on the more popular hiking trails, I’ve told more people about snake species and how to identify them than I can count, usually with a live specimen on hand to illustrate. But this also extends to ‘spoor,’ the catch-all term for evidence of a particular species, whether it be feces, tracks, fur, or specific behavioral traits. Sometimes I can even provide a rough time frame of a visit, from the dampness of the muddy tracks or the freshness of the chewing marks.

Composition, naturally. While the blog is devoted to showing particular species and expressive animal portraits, more often than not, I stress the fartistic and communicative aspects of photography as much as I can, without trying to impose my ‘style’ (word used with wild abandon) onto others. Often, this means pointing out the backgrounds and how a change of angles accomplishes something different, or reminding people what effect some particular trait has. When I’m shooting, it’s often not immediately obvious that I choose position more than casually, and try to illustrate or demonstrate this when I can. I don’t push students towards particular activities or session goals, which might be to their detriment because I feel that the post-shooting examination of the images is important too.

Further along those lines,

Purpose and expression. By this I mean, what is the goal of the image? What are we trying to say with it, or what use is it intended for? As I said, much of my stuff tends to be illustrative, with the occasional nod towards being fartistic (which may not actually be acknowledged anyway.) So, if the idea is art, is the image balanced? Is it direct, with a strong focal point? Does it contain distractions or detractions? Or if the purpose is illustration, does it show what’s necessary? Scale, setting, behavior, enough detail? This is one of the benefits of digital, in that we can immediately ascertain (to a point, anyway) whether we captured the right lighting or focus. And one of the trickiest aspects of taking photos is the detachment from our inherent sense of place. Standing there out in the field or wherever, we know where we are, but are we communicating this through our images adequately? Are we illustrating the conditions or climate as needed? Or (and this is a useful aspect all by itself,) are we giving a purposefully misleading idea of ‘place’ to the viewer, for instance hiding the fact that the image was shot in a planter or at a park?

Fairly frequently, I realize that something I’m shooting may make for a decent blog post (I said, “may,”) and this starts me composing it in my head, which often leads to ensuring that I have all of the images that I anticipate needing. It doesn’t always work, but it works much better than coming up with a post idea at home and then realizing there are things that I’d like to illustrate but never got any images of. A little forethought while on-site can help a lot.

Professionalism. In some cases, this means considering all of the different uses some potential future editor might have for photos of a particular subject, and attempting to meet as many of those as possible. In some cases, it means taking the time to ensure that we’ve captured the best photos of the subject that we can, given the conditions, and even pointing out how different conditions will change the photo. And in some cases, this means behaving with respect to the subject, environment, and anyone else in the area. If we see someone else shooting, we stay out of the way, and if we detect that someone else is hoping to get the same perspective as we have (for instance, at zoos or aquariums,) then we move aside as quickly as we can to allow them their own chance. Very often, I spot a potentially spooky subject and coach the student in their approach while foregoing my own shots, knowing that there’s probably only one chance before it flees. I have occasionally encountered other photographers who are arrogant, selfish, and even snide, and I have no time for that kind of bullshit – it certainly doesn’t define ‘professional’ in any way.

I reiterate, from time to time, the simple criteria of, ‘Stay safe.’ Too many people feel that getting the good photos involves some risk, and that there’s a certain cachet to danger. Utter horseshit. The professional knows that risk is a gamble that invites negative consequences, the bad shit that’s eventually going to happen, and it adds nothing to the image. When we take on the practice of nature photography, we take on the knowledge of negative consequences and the behavior to avoid them, and it’s getting the good photos while maintaining these standards that earns our prestige – not betting that we can get away with something stupid like some YouTube mook.

And even,

Good organization and maintenance. If there isn’t any subject immediately visible, I might start talking about the before and after. For instance, a distant subject like a bird or a raccoon might be visible for mere moments, while a macro subject like a frog is more inclined to stay put. To this end, having the longer lenses affixed most of the time increases our chances of capturing any given subject; the macro subjects will wait for a lens change more readily than the distant, fleeting ones. Too many lens changes, however, increase the dust within the camera and on the sensor. Most-often used equipment should be easy to get to, but our bags should also have a selection of the handiest accessories. And putting the equipment away securely before tackling any kind of treacherous footing is paramount.

This also carries to the post-shooting habits. Do we have good organization and sorting of our photos, and the ability to catalog them well enough to find them again as needed? Are we recording all pertinent information? Are we determining correct species? And are we maintaining routine backups? Are we ensuring that we never edit an original, but only copies? Are we routinely cleaning and maintaining our equipment? Some of these questions actually become embarrassing, but that’s okay – that’s what goads us towards better behavior, sometimes. I don’t try to be a hardass, but I will make my students aware of the potential consequences, and I’m not above saying, “I told you so.”

Now, here’s something that occurred to me, as I was typing this. I occasionally wonder just how I come across, and how I should be improving my approach. You see, a lot of students are brief, one or two sessions and that’s it, and I can credit this to three separate things:

1) They found out the crucial things that they needed and didn’t have further use of my services;

2) They lost interest in the pursuit, or got too busy with other things; or

3) They didn’t like my method, approach, or style, or thought I was overcharging, or something of that nature.

I virtually never hear direct negative feedback or even indirect for that matter, which could mean there isn’t any, or it could simply mean that people wouldn’t ever say this directly. Naturally I worry about not meeting students’ needs or expectations the most, but I’m never sure that this is the case (or how often – I can’t imagine that it’s never occurred.) But here are two things that I am aware of:

A) I get plenty of direct compliments, and people usually seem quite engaged when I’m working with them. I don’t say this out of ego (much, anyway,) but to demonstrate that, no, I can’t feel too insecure about what I’m doing;

B) I have never had an openly angry, disappointed, or upset student. At all. I mean, being in the public service, just about anywhere, you can certainly expect it to happen occasionally, and I’ve definitely fielded it enough in other jobs unrelated to my photography, some of it deserved, most of it just overreactive (or manipulative) people. But not here. Which is startling, but gratifying.

So, yeah, maybe I should start looking into leading some bigger field trips. Let me think about this.