I’ll have to admit, when I read about some of the great photographers, their stories are almost as fantastic as their images. One of my favorite photographers is Paul Nicklen, and if you haven’t read his book Polar Obsession or watched his Ted Talk, you are really missing something. His story about scuba diving in the Antarctic to get an image of a leopard seal is hair raising. The seal was trying to induce Paul into playing with her dead penguin and while Paul was trying to figure out what she was doing, she became more and more assertive with the penguin.
My stories aren’t nearly as fantastic. And while almost every week I’m out there in the countryside of Maryland, Virginia or even Washington DC, gathering some kind of image with a conservation focus, I might have a story or even a lesson to share. I’d say my biggest lesson so far is when you think there’s nothing of interest to photograph, just turn around.
That first lesson came at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington DC. I had been leading my first Meetup for the local North American Nature Photographer’s Association (NANPA.org). I was doing a miserable job. I had lost track of my group among the growing mass of tourists. The heat of the
day was increasing and I’d lost the morning light trying to keep track of everyone. One gentleman stopped me and asked if I was with NANPA. I learned that he occasionally followed our group, but he informed me that much of the group had already left for the day. Doubtful that there was one more image left in the bright morning light, I started to pack up my equipment. With camera in hand, I turned around and bent over to grab my backpack. But what caught my eye was the teeniest little grasshopper on a lotus flower. The flower even shaded him a little from the bright sun light. I’m not even sure I checked the settings on my camera, but I wasn’t going to let that moment get away.
Six months later I was on my way to my first NANPA conference and that teeny little grasshopper won me a “Top 200” spot in NANPA’s annual photography competition. I thought I was pretty hot snot with that victory….which was not replicated the following year. But “when in doubt, turn around” has been a recurring theme for me. Whenever I get stuck or whenever I think the light is gone, I turn around for a new view of things. Frequently the change of perspective works. You just have to be open enough to try a different view.
This week I am heading to my second NANPA conference, and I’m really chuckling at myself this time. Though this time it’s for a Top 100 image, which is a nice accomplishment for a part-time conservation photographer. I’m laughing to myself because once again I’m going to NANPA because of a “when in doubt, turn around” image. This time it was from a visit to Costa Rica’s Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio where my wife and I hired a guide for the morning. Unfortunately hundreds of tourists also chose that day to cross through the park to get to the beach. In a moment of frustration as we let a group of cooler-toting-tourists through, I chose to turn around a find something more interesting to look at. And there it was, a huge and beautiful spider web glistening in the sun. The closer I got the bigger that Costa Rican garden spider got. I titled the shot Twilight Zone Garden Spider for the beautiful green foliage behind the spider web.
Trust me, when I go to NANPA later this week, we’ll be hearing from all the famous photographers and some highly visible conservation successes attributed to the excellence of their photography. But I’ll probably pick a moment to turn around and tell the stranger behind me about my two lucky NANPA images.