Understanding Nature

Olney Three-square Bulrush – Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Anyone attending my photography workshops is quick to learn that I’m a naturalist first and photographer second. This stems from my childhood days exploring the mountains surrounding my home in southern West Virginia. It was my prime source of entertainment and passion, and to this day I just can’t get enough nature.

Lamar Valley at sunrise – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

For years the camera was just a tool document what I was doing as a wildlife ecologist. But the more I used this tool the more I discovered how it released my creativity and artistic vision – something I now use to help me excite thousands of others about the natural world.

I savor every moment when I’m immersed in all thing nature. When in the field, it’s the immediacy of the moment I cherish the most, to enjoy what I’m seeing or hearing at that very instant and not so much the anticipation of what’s to come next.

Nature is such a wonderful gift, waiting for us to unwrap it each time we explore its nooks and crannies. The joy is not so much the image I capture, but the memory I get from being in the moment. Understanding something about the animal or landscape I’m photographing adds to the enjoyment.

Big Horn Sheep Ram – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

I try to instill this appreciation into my workshop students as well. I’m always letting them know what it is I’m hearing or seeing, and before we even start photographing, I do a tail-gate natural history session about the area we are photographing. I like to set the stage for what they will see and to help them become aware as what to look for when they embark on their photographic journey.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog near Big Timber, Montana

The more I learn about nature, the better I become at capturing it with my camera. It becomes a skill to know when to chase a moment and when to anticipate one, and this comes about by understanding what it is I’m photographing. Having that understanding helps me make that critical snap of the shutter to get a moment that really stands out.

I have never lost that child-like curiosity or fascination with the natural world; in fact, I embrace it even more as I get older. For true nature photographers, the knowledge and understanding of nature is as important as possessing the most recent lens or camera body.  It defines you as a true nature photographer.

Be a naturalist first, photographer second. I guarantee your images will be much more appreciated and welcomed by your audience.

Male Eastern Box Turtle near Catonsville, Maryland

Dutchman’s Breeches – Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, Virginia

4 responses to “Understanding Nature

  1. Thanks Joel and Robert — In the more than twenty five profiles/interviews of professional nature photographers I’ve done for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, just about every photographer has said they were a naturalist before they were a photographer. The knowledge and understanding they gained from this helped them become better nature photographers. Some of these folks include Art Wolfe, Joel Sartore, Elizabeth Carmel, Theo Allofs, Craig Blacklock, and Jack Dykinga. We are talking heavy hitters here!

  2. Jim, You are the closest thing to a younger version of me, That I have found. I would like to meet with you some time. I get to Welch occasionally, or you could come and spend some time with me here in the Smokey Mountains. My “Museum” may be of interest to you. I have several writings you might be intersted in as well. You Know….when the youth gives out and one does a lot of “porch sitting,” 8>) the mind does the traveling and the deep thinking of the why’s and how’s take over. Yery inyertt

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