Friday, October 12, 2007

The Ones That Got Away

If you ask any wildlife photographer to show you their best photographs, they won't be able to, because they'll tell you that the best photos are the ones they were never able to capture. Wildlife photographers get up before the crack of dawn, make their way through the dark mists to a blind in the marsh or woods, and then wait--often for hours--until the ducks or turkeys put in an appearance. The best photographers are always ready, with their fingers on the shutter, to capture that perfect, fleeting image. But the animals are just about always stealthier, quieter, faster, coming into view opposite from where the camera is pointing or moving faster than the photographer can focus. The photographer might be able to snap his/her head around to see what the elk or coyote is doing, but in such a situation, only rarely will the photographer end up with more than a memory of the moment.

Nowadays, we all walk around with digital cameras (or even cell phones) to record our memories, but how many times do we still say, "If only I had a camera with me..."? The best images are still the ones we carry around in our minds, not on film (or in digital files).

So the next time you're tempted to take out the photo album or load the slide show for your friends, take a couple of minutes to share as well those images that you can't actually display--those unforgettable moments that are burned so vividly in your memory--the ones that never really "got away" from you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Intimate Views

To photograph nature is essentially to notice and "see" the world in new ways, in a manner that is different from my workaday glance at my surroundings and perhaps in a manner that is completely alien to most people's view of the universe. When I've gone hiking with companions, I'm always lagging behind--where they search for an elusive deer or bird or butterfly, I'm looking at perspectives, lines, and angles. "I see a photo here," I might call out to them, bending to examine a mushroom or fern, to which they might respond, "Just a jumble of rocks and logs to me." Or I might say, "See how the sunlight coming through the leaves turns this area into a crimson room with a red ribbon curling across it," while they're impatiently tossing rocks into the stream. For them, a path through the forest might be just a way to get to a pretty scenic overlook, but for me, it is a subject unto itself, never the same from moment to moment.

The contrast is even more extreme when I do "macro" photography--that is, when I'm taking pictures of very small things, such as tiny flowers. Once I find a suitable subject, I have to pay attention to so many factors: the angle of the light and the resultant shadows, the background "noise" or distracting elements, the "ideal" height of the camera and the perspective on the subject, the bits that I want to be in focus and the bits that I want to be blurred, the effect any slight wind or breath of air movement can have on the subject, and so forth. Taking a closeup photo of just one flower can sometimes take thirty minutes or more. Most hiking companions, unless they are also taking photographs, don't like to wait so long.

It's possible to think that looking at the world with a camera in front of my eye has its definite limitations, for it means I end up by myself an awful lot. It could also mean becoming an outsider, an observer, not a true participant. Were I a portrait photographer or a photojournalist, I would admit to some truth in this claim. Yet when photographing people, I pose myself in front of the camera as often as I put others there. But more than that, interacting with the world as a photographer really brings a calmness to my spirit. Not only do I slow down my usual headlong rush through life, but I also pay attention to the details that make the world so astonishing, so beautiful, and so sacred. I feel connected with the universe; I experience a sense of unity that is both intimately personal and infinitely beyond the personal. I have a strong suspicion that I would not have had these--dare I call them "spiritual"?--experiences had I not been looking through my camera lens.