People sometimes ask me whether getting a particular photo was a matter of luck. Or sometimes people exclaim how lucky I was. Lucky to stumble upon butterflies mating, lucky to be there when the elephant seal pup was born, lucky the bird flew straight at me, lucky to find such an amazing looking specimen of a plant, lucky the conditions for the sunrise came together so splendidly, etcetera.
So… Was it luck?
Without a doubt, luck plays a crucial role in the kind of nature photography I do. If no fabulous colors materialize on the clouds at sunset, then I just won’t get that photo. And so it is, that non-events fizzle all the time, and foil me from getting some shots I’d hoped for.
And yet, if you look at the body of work of any competent nature photographer, it might look like s/he’s getting quite lucky all the time, like winning the lottery every week. It can’t be just really good fortune, to achieve that kind of consistency.
Indeed, there’s more to it. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind”. Skilled nature photographers know how to work serendipity in their favor. If you want to know how they do it, here are some of their methods.
To begin with the most superficial part of the great luck that dedicated nature photographers enjoy: it’s a matter of how much time they spend in the field. If a dedicated shooter spends ten times as many hours in the field as a more casual shooter, then s/he’ll happen upon random chance opportunities ten times as often. The more time out there, the more opportunity for luck.
When you look at someone’s photo, you only see the end result, you don’t see how much went into achieving it. Often, it’s a matter of long-term perseverance finally paying off, not a matter of one-time luck. As an example, the Passiflora Tendril and Leaf Tip picture which I showed in a previous blog entry: I didn’t chance upon such a tendril specimen the first time I looked; I looked at dozens of tendrils most every day for about three years, many thousands in total, before I found this tendril. Even when I did find this special tendril, I decided to wait until it had grown a little more, and twisted on its axis a little more, before shooting it, and came back the next day to shoot it under better conditions. Making a mental note of an exceptional opportunity, then coming back repeatedly, until the conditions are right for photographing that opportunity at its peak, is a common practice in successful nature photography. There are spots that I revisited dozens of times, over several years, before I finally got the shot.
Nature photographers sometimes go on photo excursions together. Two sets of eyes are better than one at finding what’s around. To take maximum advantage of this, nature photographers will sometimes split up, but stay in the nearby area, and use radio/walkie-talkie contact or cell phone contact to let others know when they’ve found good photo opportunities to share with the others.
Having as broad of a scope of nature photography interests as possible helps with finding good stuff to photograph. If you only photograph birds, for instance, and you go to a location to find that the birds you were after are strangely absent, then your photo excursion will be unsuccessful. However, if you are open to all other available opportunities, there will usually be other good ones available. I often go afield with a particular goal in mind (such as photos of a particular animal or plant), but I also try to stay open to whatever else comes my way. I end up shooting mushrooms, wildflowers, landscapes, lichens, insects, rocks, and everything else, along the way to my goal. Then, if my goal fails, I still get a great day of shooting. By adjusting your vision to look at the world’s photo opportunities from the smallest insect to the broadest landscape, there’s almost always something spectacular, nearby.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Getting yourself to the right place, at the right time, can make a big difference. I can chase the occasional monarch butterfly that passes by me, or I can go to Natural Bridges and Lighthouse Field in late Autumn through early Spring, and find them by the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, fluttering all around me. Similarly with wildflowers in Paradise, hummingbirds at Lake Isabella, elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, nesting egrets at the Palo Alto Baylands, Brandt’s cormorants at Point Lobos, sea otters at Moss Landing, woodpeckers at Yuba Pass, krummholz in the White Mountains, violet-green swallows at Mono Lake, and sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache, among many others. For many species, geological formations, weather phenomena, and whatever else, there’s a time and place to find them at their extraordinary peak. For dedicated nature photographers, it often is the most economical use of their time and energy to get to the right place at the right time, rather than fight against more meager conditions on a regular basis.
Take Advantage of the Information Others Offer
Read online reports from bird watching groups, commercial fishing boards, wildflower enthusiasts, and the like, to find out about promising situations. Look at schedules of where and when various organizations (Native Plant Society, Audubon Society, and such) are planning guided trips, to find out which places are notable, and when. (If you go to where a guided tour is scheduled, the guides reconnoiter the areas in advance, and usually lay subtle markers [small rock piles, pieces of wood in the shape of an arrow sign, scuffs in the soil, etc.] at special locations they find. You can often add to what you find on your own by watching for their markers.) Find good nature photographers online, and keep track of when they newly post a recent picture of something that interests you, and then, perhaps contact them, for details.
Observation, Situational Awareness, and Naturalist Skills
This is by far the most important aspect, mentioned so far, of getting lucky consistently. Unfortunately, it might also be the least convenient for readers.
What I mean by situational awareness, in this context, is: an actively maintained mental state of observation and thoughtfulness about what is going on around you, so as to identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of information about your environment, in order to choose actions well. It is worth clarifying, when talking about these kinds of observation skills, that it is not merely a matter of seeing stuff, but also a matter of making the cause and effect connections related to what you see, and understanding what is unfolding.
Situational awareness is a major part of nature photography. One has to understand what is going on around her / him in order to see the photographic opportunity.
Here’s a brief example of what I’m talking about:
Recently, I was in a 6,700 foot sub-alpine meadow, in the high Sierras, when I saw a lost dog running loose through the meadow. (I rescued the dog, but that’s a different story.) As I watched the dog, it saw and charged a spotted sandpiper. When the dog charged this little bird, the bird hopped up on top of a nearby stump, and started squawking.
If you had seen this, what conclusion would you have drawn?
To a naturalist, it would be clear that it was very odd for the sandpiper to stay in the area and stand its ground, instead of just fly away, and the obvious conclusion would be that the only reason it stayed is because it has small, defenseless chicks to protect, in the immediate area. After rescuing the lost dog, this hypothesis was confirmed.
Certainly, there was an element of luck to finding the hidden sandpiper chicks, but luck alone would not have been enough, without understanding what one is seeing unfolding… without knowing certain concepts about how nature works, and applying critical thinking skills to the situation at hand.
This equally applies to how one looks for nest holes in trees, how one surveys a field and decides where to go, how one approaches wild animals, how one assesses the seashore and chooses which tide pool to go to… and everything else.
The “luck” of finding great nature photo opportunities consistently is largely a matter of possessing such naturalist knowledge, observing, and thinking about what you see to grasp the cause and effect relationships, to thereby shift from waiting to happen upon photo opportunities to reading the clues and actively seeking them out.
Put it this way: Someone who photographs nature well is as much a photographic naturalist as a nature photographer.
There’s another whole dimension of this to discuss, but it will have to wait for the future blog entry, Get Luckier.
Thanks for reading.
Silvery Blues (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) Mating on Fiddleneck, Pinnacles National Monument, California
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.