Finding your own locations
I think about bird photography a lot, I mean, way too much. Most of my downtime is spent working on, thinking about or planning bird photography. Ask my wife, she will tell you, it's become a bit of an obsession. Lately I've been thinking a lot about how and where I photograph birds, more specifically how am I going to find many of the birds I photograph in this upcoming year. I'm starting to realize that I much more enjoy the chase then simply capturing the photo. The longer I've been doing this the more I realize I was losing out on the experience, and I want that back!
I grew up outdoors with my father, fishing, hunting, hiking, you name it we did it. I was always outside enjoying nature. Wildlife photography became an obvious extension of that joy for nature when I got started with it. It was a perfect merging of two things I love, nature and photography. I can't think of a time in my future when I will not be chasing wild animals, usually birds, with my camera in tow. Lately though in my downtime when I'm thinking about it I keep coming back to the moments that stand out in my mind, the encounters that really meant something. Often that ends up being one of the subjects I had to work the hardest to capture, or when I was far away from civilization.
I've noticed a trend lately of countless bird photographers, myself included, taking the simplest route to find the next bird to photograph. That simple path is usually asking others where to find something. We all do it, it's part of the bird photography community, sharing locations and what you found. Every day I see it either on my own shared photos or on others, people constantly asking "where was this?" I have a network of close friends and we always share locations with each other, it's not even a question when one of us finds something great we share with the group. This behavior is great to easily be able to capture a wide variety of birds in the shortest amount of time and effort possible so that you too can share that next great photo. I get it, I have done it probably hundreds of times myself, and now I realize I think I'm losing what got me into bird photography in the first place, the thrill of the hunt.
There is nothing like the feeling of searching, finding and capturing a bird all on your own. Just the other day I was out searching for some new spots in a large tract of forest in southern New Jersey. I spent about 3 hours walking for miles and barely took any photos. Oddly enough it was a great outing and it really confirmed that I need to do this more often. Searching for my own locations, with nobody around and putting in the time and effort it takes to capture a great bird photo. It brought me back to when I was younger and spent endless hours sitting in the woods or in the canoe on a calm lake just taking it in. I realized I had somewhat forgotten the reason I enjoy bird photography, being out in nature. I had become so consumed with getting the next great shot that I was missing out. I was chasing the photo not the experience and thankfully I recently realized I need to start to change my behavior.
Here are some examples of what I'm talking about. Below are some Belted Kingfisher photos I've taken over the past few years. The first one is arguably the best of the set. With nice light, action, and great behavior with the fish in the beak. This photo was taken with a guide who had everything set up. He had photographed this bird countless times, set up a perch for it and knew when to go. I just showed up and took the photos. Super easy and not much of a challenge at all. The next two photos were all my own hard work. I spent many hours scouting, noticing the favorite perch of this local Kingfisher. I then cleared an area I could set up in a blind and get a clear shot to one of its favorite perches. Next I spent countless hours sitting in this blind waiting and waiting for the Kingfisher to show up and land in just the right spot. When it finally did and I captured these close up photos of a very skittish bird I was so thrilled! Now to the viewer seeing these photos they have no idea what went into the creation of them, but I do, and that I'm realizing counts for a lot. I feel so much more pride and got much more enjoyment out of the entire process of photographing the simple perched shots compared to joining that guide. Don't get me wrong I still love the photos I got with the guide, they are great action shots and I happily shared them but the hard to get photos mean so much more to me. The best part is those harder photos caused me to be out, enjoying nature for many more hours then the guided shots.
Another example was my experience with some Wood Ducks. As many bird photographers know, truly wild Wood Ducks are not easy to get close to. I'm lucky to have a spot less then an hour from me that has habituated Wood Ducks. This means you can just walk up to this spot at the right time of year and the Wood Ducks will swim right over to you and allow you to photograph them really close up. There of course is still the challenge of capturing a unique and creative photo but there is zero challenge in getting close to the birds and there are often hundreds of people walking by, not the most isolated experience.
In stark contrast were the photos below that I captured on a local pond of wild Wood Ducks. I had arrived on the pond nearly an hour before sunrise, crawled to the edge of the water, covered myself in a camouflage blind and laid there until there was enough light to photograph them. Keep in mind this was not the first time I had done this at that pond. I had visited that pond many many times before while photographing Hooded Mergansers. That was actually my target that morning but instead I got the Wood Ducks. I got these Wood Duck photos because of all the hours of shooting and preparation I had done in the past, knowing where to lay down and what angles worked best. These shots don't have the amazing bokeh or incredibly close detail that the easy location photos do, but again they mean so much more to me and I do think they compete with the easy to capture photos. The best part of both of these examples is that I was completely alone when I captured them. Just me, the bird and the sounds of nature.
I'm happy that I have started to realize what was happening and that I can now take steps to prevent myself from going more and more down that path to the point that I'm only taking photos of birds and locations given to me by others. That is not the bird photographer I want to be. This doesn't mean that I'll never give or receive a shared location again, or that I won't go take photos where other are. I just know that I will make a conscious effort in the coming year and beyond to get out there and search for my own locations and birds more often then I have in the past. I completely understand that many others aren't as fortunate as I am to have so much free time to spend in the field, and I have no issue with those photographers who choose to find birds from shared locations. I personally want to just take my time and enjoy the search, enjoy being in nature, not just chasing my next photo to share online. I accept that I may not get as many or as much variety as I used to but I'm hoping that I'll enjoy the birds I do capture even more than I have in the past couple of years. I think I will.