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The Year That Almost Wasn't ...

Gary Carter & Janice Carter | E-Mail | Posted 11-02-09

Molting Cardinal

Molting Cardinal - Gary Carter

I guess every photographer runs into times when they just don't seem to be up to par, or wonder if their eye sight is still good, or if they've lost their ability to find photographable subjects. This has been one of those years for me.

Finding time to photograph seemed to be at a standstill. I'm not sure if that was due to work pressures or the fact that maybe my age was catching up with me and I was getting slower. Of course it just comes natural to blame it on work and all of those other things around the house that seem to get in the way and there is always the weather.

The year started off slow and by the time winter was over spring came in with a bang almost overnight. It seemed that there were subjects everywhere to photograph. Then as quick as it came it was gone. It was like someone turned the water faucet off ... just when you got it running good.

The weather had been cooler than normal in the North Carolina Piedmont area and by May dry weather was setting in.

The butterflies had come in earlier, before there was any food supply. By the time it got warm the butterflies were gone. The dry weather prevented the flowers from developing like they should and this was detrimental to the supply of nectar for the butterflies and skippers. It seemed everyone was asking where the butterflies were this year and saying they hadn't seen as many as in years past.

Hummingbirds were no exception either. Like the butterflies there weren't as many hummers as in the past. In years past I was able to take several hundred photographs of the hummers coming to feeders, but not this year. There weren't enough of them coming to the feeders to bother with setting up for photography.

Even the songbirds went into their molting stage earlier than normal. June had hardly rolled in and the songbirds were starting to look bad. One of the cardinals at the feeders was bald headed and another had only a single feather sticking up on his head.

Then another setback occurred. One day I saw the chipmunks running about and gathering food and the next day they were gone. I don't think I can ever remember a time when I didn't see chipmunks running back and forth to their holes. Now it's been a good two or three months since I've seen one and no one can figure out what happened to them, much less how or why they disappeared almost overnight.


Chipmunk - Gary Carter

Now fall is on our door step and leaves are starting to turn. Many leaves have already fallen off the trees due to the dry weather. Old man winter is just around the corner and will soon be making an entrance.

As I think about this year, I'm reminded of two men in the Old Treatment. One of them was named Job. Job was known for his patience. Perhaps you've heard someone say that he or she "has the patience of Job". Len Rue use to talk about having the patience of Job as he sat many hours in a blind waiting for a subject to show up to photograph.

The other man in the Old Testament was Abraham. Abraham had patience, but also learned to be thankful for both feast and famine. In other words to enjoy those days when everything is going right and there are plenty of subjects to photograph.

After all, any day photographing is better than working. But the hard part is being content when the days of famine set in and we just can't seem to find the time or the subjects to photograph. It's times like these when we can get a jump start on the bountiful days.

As photographers, what do we do during the times when subjects just don't come as easily as they have in the past, and what lessons can we learn from the year that almost wasn't?

It's a great time to re-read our camera manuals or a book written about our camera. Brush up on the various functions available on our cameras, make sure our equipment is clean, and do some test shots to make sure everything is working correctly and ready to go when the bountiful days return. It's also a great time to review photos we've taken and critique our work to see if we could have made the image better. Likewise, it's a good time to review our skills with our various development software such as Lightroom, NX2, and Photoshop, etc. Maybe re-develop some of the photos, experimenting with different settings. Maybe do some administrative chores such as backing up your computer.

Times like these are a good time to practice the little subtleties of camera operation. John Shaw used to ask this question when he was having trouble with equipment, "John have you ever done this before?", then he would go on to explain that the time to practice is before you get in the field. Can you put the lens on your camera in the dark and which way does the lens focusing ring turns to focus farther away versus close up. It depends on which camera manufacturer made the lens as to which way the ring should be turned to focus. Today most rely heavily on autofocus and many have no idea which way to turn the focusing ring to adjust for distance or close ups. The above are just examples of a few things to be explored during photography down times.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal - Gary Carter

To illustrate this point further, Robert Smith and I taught a nature photography course for Duke University which is part of an accreditation course they were offering. A lot of our time was spent teaching the students how to use their equipment and how it worked, how to use flash (balance fill) as well as teaching them to be patient and work the subject matter. Many of them had never read their manuals and couldn't understand why they couldn't get the photographs they wanted ... why they couldn't make good photographs. Needless to say, our patience was tested, as well as our knowledge of equipment and subject matter.

I'm also reminded of DeWitt Jones philosophy about making the best of what you've got to work with and trying to look at things in a different way. Many times we're not able to photograph in ideal situations when the light is just perfect. We're not able to travel to all of those wonderful places we read about in the various photography magazines. Point being we were there and we were trying to photograph our subject. After all, that is what counts! Many times those moments are the ones we cherish the most or remember, not whether we got the photograph technically right or not.

I'm sure you've heard other photographers say the same thing. How many times have we heard the word shoot and shoot some more and practice and practice some more. Learn from your mistakes. I feel that I've learned my mistakes well though it seems I keep making them over and over.

Now it's time to look forward to another year and hope that I've mastered some more skills, improved my patience, and learned to live with the famine and look forward to the bounty. One day I hope someone might say "he had the patience of Job and learned the lessons of Abraham. He wasn't too bad of a photographer either." What a compliment that would be to receive.

When we learn to make it through the famine times, the bounty waits for us. All we have to do is open our eyes and look for the beauty that God has made just for us ... to enjoy and photograph.

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