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Optimizing Opportunities by Knowing Your Subject ... Page 2
Lisel Shoffner Powell | E-Mail | Updated 6-01-2011
Do Your Homework
Bald Eagle, Conowingo Dam, MD - Lisel Shoffner Powell
If you have not been to a location or photographed a particular animal before, you can still improve your chances of getting great images by getting to know them before your trip. A little research can go a long way and research today is easier than it has ever been. Reference books for a given location or animal (e.g. Sibley's Guide to Birds) are obviously helpful, but books and brochures about hiking trails, wildlife viewing, or even general nature photography can be useful as well. Before my first trip to photograph birds in southern Florida, I relied on Art Morris' book Birds as Art to target locations I wanted to visit. I read his photo descriptions and notes on the locations so that I had a clue about what I should look for and where I should focus my attention.
Even if you can't get your hands on books about your target subject, there is so much information available via the internet there is no excuse to not study up before you head out. When I moved to Maryland, a friend told me I should visit Conowingo Dam to shoot Bald Eagles. There are no books on Conowingo and it is not the kind of location that lends itself to having brochures in the visitor centers, however, it does pop up in many blogs and photography discussion forums. Before I took a trip to Conowingo I read everything I could find on the internet related to the location, so that I knew the right time of year to go (there is only a two-week window for prime eagle opportunities), where the best places to set up were, and what time of day the opportunities were best (the birds are most active when electricity is being generated). By learning even a little bit about a location or subject before you shoot it, you save valuable field time as you try to get up to speed and save yourself the frustration that naturally results from unfamiliarity.
Learn from an Expert
Another way to get to know a place or subject your first time out, is to go with an expert. An expert is not necessarily a photographer, but having a photographer as a guide can be helpful because they will know the best time and locations for photography. Early on in my getting to know Steven's Creek, I asked a friend who was a biologist and wildflower expert (but not a photographer) to show me around the trail. Our hike included no camera equipment and took place well before wildflowers were blooming, but this was an invaluable experience because she pointed out leaves of target wildflowers as well as locations that were prime wildflower habitat so that I knew where to look once spring rolled around.
Elk, Rocky Mountains National Park - Lisel Shoffner Powell
For locations that you cannot visit often, having someone with you that knows the area will greatly enhance your opportunities. This is especially important for locations that are very large. For example, if you are heading out to Yellowstone, you could spend days trying to figure out where the wolf packs are usually spotted or where the elk herds like to roam, but by going with an expert they can put you on your target subjects your very first day, so that you don't waste any time aimlessly searching for animals that are too far off to shoot anyway. When I went to Rocky Mountain National Park, I was fortunate enough to have a friend that lived in the area and went shooting there often. When we pulled into the park I was very excited to see a herd of elk off in the distance and wanted to start shooting, but my buddy told me to be patient and that he would take me to a much better spot. When we pulled up to the setup location I was dubious, there were no animals anywhere and I just passed up a gorgeous landscape, but sure enough just as the morning light was turning a lovely golden color, the herd of elk came sauntering by not 50 feet away. My friend knew the elk would cross that spot because they crossed that spot every day at the exact same time; it was a wonderful opportunity I would not have experienced had I not been with an expert.
Spend Time with Your Subject While You Shoot
Once you have done your research and spent time observing your subject, make sure you spend enough time shooting your subject. This goes back to my original point that the more time you spend with something the better you know it. Don't pull up, snap 20 frames, and then move on to the next subject; a spectacular image of one subject is better than a bunch of mediocre shots of many subjects. When you are photographing your subject, it is important to stay observant. While it is important to gather as much information as possible, when the camera is down, you need to keep gathering info as you shoot. Pay attention to how your subject moves (that anole sure likes to do push-ups), note if they have any behavior patterns (such as returning to a favorite branch), and watch for what bothers or startles your subject (wow, the sparrows get nervous when that raptor is circling about), as these are all clues to what you need to do to put yourself in the best shooting position for the longest amount of time.
Cedar Waxwing, Aiken, SC - Lisel Shoffner Powell
One of my favorite birds is the Cedar Waxwing. I think they are absolutely beautiful and when I lived in South Carolina, I only got to see them for about two weeks each year so I wanted to capitalize on this short period by spending as much time as possible with those birds. As soon as I saw the first signs of waxwings I would hop in my car and track them down. I was never satisfied with just one shooting session, and as long as the waxwings were in town, I kept my photo gear in my car so I could cram in as many photo sessions as possible when I went to and from work (and sometimes during lunch). Because I spent so much time photographing the Cedar Waxwings, I learned their unique traits so I could differentiate them from other migrating flocks. I learned to look for the trees that they preferred and discovered their favorite spots throughout Aiken. I also learned that the best way to find the waxwings was to listen for them first, then look for them. Some might call my time shooting the waxwings an obsession, but I call it good photographic practice. It allowed me to know the birds better than I would through books and it gave me lots of opportunities to nail the perfect shot.
It is not always easy getting to know a photo subject. It requires research, time in the field, and a willingness to pay attention to small details. Not everyone is up to the challenge, but if you are willing to put in the effort, I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Slow down, pay attention, and open up to your subjects so that you can get to know them like you know an old friend and your images will ultimately be better for it.
Lisel Shoffner Powell, currently residing in New Market, MD, has dabbled in photography since she was a little girl participating in Daddy's hobby, but started her photography habit in earnest when she took her first photography class in high school. An environmental advocate and animal lover from an early age, nature was an obvious draw for her artistic expression.
Inspired by the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe, Lisel's early (and still favorite) emphasis was flower photography, but she has broadened her passion to include landscapes and birds. Regardless of the subject, Lisel's approach is to get the shot without impacting the target. For her, the perfect shot is not worth destroying the location or altering the subject's behavior. Her advice for getting the best animal image is to approach very slowly, stay quiet, and try not to look directly at them as you approach; this will minimize your disturbance and increase the chances of the animal staying around.
You can see more of Lisel's work by visiting her gallery on the Carolinas' Nature Photographers Association web site -
Lisel Shoffner Powell at CNPA.