Lessons from the lake, Part II: Exploring with an open mind (c) Jim Clark

Beach at Sunset – Assateague Island National Seashore, VA (c) Jim Clark

“When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all.” Edward O. Wilson

Harvard professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson is one of my conservation heroes, and this is one of my favorite quotes. All nature photographers can probably relate to it. There is nature to be seen everywhere and all kinds of wildlife behavior to record.

The little mountain lake in West Virginia that I introduced you to in the previous blog taught me a few additional lessons that reinforce the meaning of that quote.

You have choices, explore your options

Regardless of how often I photograph at a location, I look for (and find) something new to photograph every time I’m there. By simply changing your perspective—slowly moving around a scene—you can discover compositions that have yet to be captured.

Cooper’s Hawk at sunset – Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

Understanding how to use different lighting situations—side, backlit, diffused, and frontal—also provides more options. While the subject remains the same, the interpretation doesn’t. And changing the focal length provides even more choices on portraying a familiar subject in different ways. For example, instead of using a wide-angle, opt for a mid-range telephoto to compress a scene and isolate a portion of it.

It’s never crowded going the extra mile

Salt Marsh in morning fog 11122014 Queen Anne's Ldg Chincoteague VA (c) Jim Clark_1

                        Coastal Marsh in November morning fog – Chincoteague, VA (c) Jim Clark

Through the years, I have become more discerning in what I photograph and how I go about it—passing up some typical compositions that I’ve done time and time again. Keeping in mind that I have choices and can explore other options, I usually give myself some time to become comfortable in a place. Usually, inspiration quickly follows.

Recently, I spent two weeks photographing along the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia. On the first day at each location, I didn’t worry about what to photograph. My cameras were at my side, but I took that time to explore and enjoy the area. That’s something I’ve learned to do over time, and I continually strive to instill it in my students. Enjoy the moment first and then the image will come to you. After getting into the moment, I started seeing more to photograph. Instead of rushing, I took my time. I watched, listened and absorbed my surroundings. Then, I decided to push myself by waiting just a little bit longer. While I waited, the marsh told me its stories.

Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area, McDowell County, WV (c) Jim Clark

The lake at Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

Going the extra mile means having patience. That’s the gift of nature photography. Savor the special moments that unfold before you. Capture a new, more informed image. Those who view your image just might feel the moment as well.

Lessons from the lake: Part I – Going beyond f/stops & shutter speeds (c) Jim Clark

Northern Parula Warbler 04172014 Berwind Lake WMA WV (c) Jim Clark_11

“There is no place like springtime in the marsh. I like to just sit back and let it tell me all its stories.”—Karen Hollingsworth

I have learned that an outstanding image takes more than technical skills. The more you are into the moment, the more your images stand out.

This past summer I visited my childhood home in the remote coalfield region of southern West Virginia. Much has changed since I grew up there, but one constant remains: a small mountain lake that has served as my secret location to explore and photograph nature. There is nothing fancy about this lake, but it has provided me with countless hours of enjoyment.

During my latest trip, I thought about how all landscapes hold important lessons that not only help us become better nature photographers, but also help us appreciate moments in nature. Here are a few of those lessons from my little lake:

Wherever you go, there you are

Original, eh? Well, not exactly, but this drives home the importance of making the best of your situation. While this lake is not a crown jewel of the National Park Service, I have yet to be bored or disappointed with what I find there each time I visit. When I started out on this trip, I had no idea I would be treated to two extraordinary days of photographing birds from northern parula warblers to ovenbirds to American redstarts.

American Redstart - Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

American Redstart – Berwind Lake Wildlife Management Area near War, West Virginia (c) Jim Clark

Most nature photographers would prefer to be in exotic locations, but let’s face it, it’s not always going to happen. Enjoy nature wherever you are at the moment.

Don’t just photograph nature; photograph to be in nature

I am always impressed by how most of my workshop students become immersed in their surroundings. From the beginner to the most advanced, each student appreciates what is happening around them.

It helps when the instructor is more than a technical guru and shows his or her enthusiasm to be in nature. Just as important is for the instructor to be an interpreter of nature and to share that knowledge with the students.

At a recent workshop, my students had just as much fun watching a great egret patiently wait for the right moment to strike the water to catch a fish as they did actually photographing the egret. We had the added enjoyment as friends and colleagues to share the scene unfolding right before us.

Next time you are in a location you think is not worthy of your time to photograph, think again.

Great Egret - Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

Great Egret – Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA (c) Jim Clark

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

A Morning with the Stilts

During my spring and summer trips to the coastal island community of Chincoteague, Virginia, I often catch fleeting glimpses of one of our most colorful and entertaining shorebirds, the black-necked stilt. Unfortunately, fleeting glimpses is all you can get since these long-legged shorebirds frequent the salt marshes and salt pannes along the causeway leading to the village; not the safest place to park and enjoy nature. 

Last June I had an opportunity to finally get a chance to photograph them. I found a safe location away from the speeding cars, trucks, and vans that zip along the causeway.

On the morning I decided to photograph the silts, the weather was perfect with clear skies, mild  temperature and low humidity.  The early morning light was perfect as well. I positioned myself to get full frontal lighting on the birds; the low angled morning light would bathe the bird in a nice warm glow and enhance the bird’s black plumage and long pinkish-red legs.

For a couple hours I photographed these elegant birds as they fed along a small salt panne in the marsh. At times they would take off and chase any other avian intruder that dared invade their space. But once this was accomplished, they would fly back to the salt panne.

The success of this morning was made possible by reading and using the right type of light.  I also did not rush to photograph them, but instead made a slow, steady approach so the birds would not flush. While photographing, I never made any sudden movements.  During this whole time the stilts went about their business, paying me no mind.

My camera set up was Nikon D300s with a Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens with a 1.4 extender on a Wimberley BH-200 Head on a 1548 Gitzo tripod. I had several flash cards with me because in my type of photography, I prefer to work a subject as much as I can. I’m not one to snap a picture and move on; I want to savor the moment before me and watch nature play out before me. Nature first, photography second.

Stilt Fact:  The male stilt has a jet-black back and darker pink-red legs, while the female is tad bit browner on the back with duller colored legs. Unlike many shorebirds, stilts do not perform aerial courtship displays, but they will aggressively fly after potential predators.