I look pointedly from my new camera, perched on its tripod, to the grey, uninspiring sawn-off tree stump it’s positioned towards, to my husband, busy connecting the remote control cable.
“So, what exactly is going to be the subject here?” I inquire.
“Wildlife,” he says confidently. “Squirrels or chipmunks. I’m going to sprinkle trail mix on the log.” I glance around our silent campsite. Apart from a few birds scratching for breakfast, it is devoid of any kind of creature, wild or otherwise. I laugh.
“Sure,” I tease, “they’re all lined up in the trees waiting for the photo shoot.” Incredibly, no sooner did he place some trail mix on the tree stump than a squirrel bounded down a tree, leapt onto the log, grabbed a peanut and sat perfectly still, tail raised, coat and ears shining, eye sparkling, portrait-posed for a stunning picture. Wow! I was impressed. The laugh was on me, but that adorable budding Cary Grant or Rudolph Valentino of the squirrel world sparked what was to become an all-absorbing interest in wildlife photography.
As a single mom for many years, I devoted all my time and financial resources to my children. But once they left home, and retirement loomed, I needed a diversion to occupy my time and thoughts. So, I used my Christmas bonus to splurge on a camera: telephoto lens, macro lens, flash attachment, remote control, tripod - the works.
I was ecstatic. I had never owned an adjustable camera before; my cameras in the past had been of the simple point-and-shoot variety. Now, able to set various settings and work with different lenses and films, I took a night school beginners course in photography to improve my knowledge and skill.
Later that spring, I joined a singles group and met, Bruce, my best buddy and future husband. A shared interest in photography, together with a passion for the outdoors, provided a bond early in our relationship. He was more knowledgeable than I was about photography, having bought a similar camera and taken photography courses the year before.
When we weren’t working at our day jobs, or taking care of aging parents and assorted family responsibilities, we spent the summer hiking, biking and photographing just about everything. I am naturally curious, and admire beauty in any shape or form, so the natural world is a constant source of fascination and provides a smorgasbord of visual delights. Snow-capped mountains, lakes and rivers, landscapes, seascapes, bugs, butterflies, creatures of all shapes and sizes soon found their way into my viewfinder. Merrily snapping away on our camping (tenting, and later RVing) forays, Bruce nicknamed me The Happy Snapper.
Photography was not as easy as I thought. There was so much to learn, and so much that could go wrong: an incorrect shutter speed; poor composition or an image out of focus; too much or not enough light; a cluttered background or blurring because of subject or camera movement. Taking pictures was easier said than done!
But I had fun. Trying to capture, on film, creatures going about their daily business became a favourite camping activity. We used up many rolls of film, often with unexceptional results, but every once in a while one of us would produce a picture we both loved. There was the unidentified bug wearing the smart black suit with red headgear Bruce photographed in Oregon; a dramatic sunset picture I took in Hawaii on our honeymoon; an interesting black-splodge pattern on a dragonfly’s wings repeated in a background of green.
Photographing moving objects is more challenging than shooting still ones, and creatures are always on the move. Trying for a clean, crisp shot is made more difficult by movement of the subject, movement of air and camera shake. Tripods, whenever possible, are a valuable tool, but are sometimes cumbersome to carry. Built-in image stabilizers in present-day digital cameras help cut down camera shake, as does resting the camera on a rock, fence or similar stable support.
Creatures in their natural habitat, without human “managing,” are the ones we like best. And, strictly speaking, certainly in photo contests, using “props” such as trail mix is discouraged, as is feeding wildlife. One would not want to be too close to many of the larger ones anyway, photo op or not. When photographing large animals, we keep a respectful distance.
However, magnified with a macro lens, or drawn closer with a zoom, seeing creatures up close and personal is a revelation. The amazing perfection and minute detail of the natural world comes alive; the intricate patterns of butterfly wings, rich, vibrant colours of bugs, tiny perfect paws and sleek body formations, gleaming fur, feathers, whiskers and tails.
Magical animal moments can appear anywhere to an interested observer. Like the blissful “Mmm - that feels soooo good,” look on a goat’s face pictured at a children’s petting zoo, when his friend, the big orange cow, provides an all-over grooming.
“WHAT WAS THAT?” I exclaimed, one morning late last fall. Shore side, a huge white bird the size of a winged dinosaur thundered past. It flew out to sea and circled in a wide arc over the ocean before flying by so close we could almost touch it. Gracefully, its pure white likeness reflected in the water, it landed on the small lake beside our campsite. It was a magnificent Mute swan, our field guide told us, a rare and very beautiful bird - the biggest waterfowl in the world.
Jumping on the digital bandwagon and investing in small, lightweight cameras with optical zoom lenses, Bruce and I added wings to our hobby – bird’s wings. Mockingbirds, mourning doves, guillemots, and grebes - identifying the many different species of birds we see on our travels is a fascinating offshoot of photography. So much so, we have become avid, if accidental, birdwatchers. When travelling in unfamiliar territory, we often purchase field guides to help identify local species. If we’re unable to make a positive identification at the time, we take a picture, record time and place, and identify later.
The colourful, elongated duck that looks like it’s having a bad hair day is a Common Merganser; the mini-variety, with tidy bouffant, is the Hooded Merganser. A Bufflehead is cute and compact, a tiny duck with a huge, black head and white wedge. Safe in a tree, eating fresh-caught fish for supper, the large bird with dark wings, white undercarriage and watchful eye is an Osprey, or fish hawk; white heads and tails gleaming, a pair of Bald Eagles, roosting high in an evergreen, rest from the hunt.
With retirement, life took a strange and exciting new turn. Always a reader, but never writing anything longer than a letter, I unaccountably developed an irresistible urge to become a writer - a children’s writer. It was an itch I absolutely had to scratch. A completely new wonderful world opened up after I was accepted at an accredited writing school for kids.
I took writing courses, bought how-to books, market books and, like a sponge, slurped up all the information I could about writing and publishing - an incredible learning experience. Soon, as a freelance writer, I submitted children’s and, later, adult stories and articles to magazines for publication. As an added bonus, I’m able to supply supporting photos.
Photography, and learning about a variety of animal and bird species and their habitats, helped immeasurably in writing nature pieces for children. Likewise, writing has created a use for photography. Together, the two work hand in hand as rewarding, creative partners.
SEPTEMBER 2009 - VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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