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Optimizing Opportunities by Knowing Your Subject

Lisel Shoffner Powell | E-Mail | Updated 6-01-2011

Roseate Spoonbill at Ding Darling - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Roseate Spoonbill at Ding Darling - Lisel Shoffner Powell

When I look over my best images, I have a rather involved story for nearly all of them. I realized one day that this is not just because I like to hear myself talk (which I do), but it is because the majority of my best shots are of subjects I know very well. This concept seems fairly intuitive at first, but when you start to think about it you realize that many nature photographers do not take the time to really study their subjects and learn the habits and behaviors of those subjects, instead they take a "bag and tag" approach to their photography resulting in one or two "lucky" shots instead of multiple outstanding images of that subject.

As a scientist, I am a trained observer, thus I constantly notice things about my photo subjects without even realizing I'm doing so. The "things" I notice may be behaviors, direction of light, or preferred habitat, but the key is that I am always noting the characteristics of a given subject in the back of my mind and these characteristics are invaluable tools for knowing how, when, and where to get the best shot possible of the subject I am pursuing.

One of the first times I realized the advantages of knowing a subject was shooting Roseate Spoonbills in Ding Darling. Those of you that have spent any time at Ding trying to get Spoonbills know the frustration they can cause: when the light is great, the Spoonbills are on the wrong side of the drive or hiding in the darkest recesses of the mangroves; when they are in good light they keep their head down most of the time; and most frustratingly, they fly rather fast but only when there is no longer enough light to shoot flight shots. Yes, trying to get a great shot of the Spoonbills will age you before your time, but there is hope if you learn the habits of these tricky birds.

Having been to Ding Darling several times, I noticed that the Spoonbills had a somewhat set schedule: in the very early morning you could find them feeding in one of two locations until they flew off to the east to roost (did I mention, this was always just before the light was good enough to shoot), in the evening they would always fly to one location on the west side of the drive to feed (again, just after the light got a little dark for flight shots - man, those birds frustrate me!). So what is a photographer that wants a flight shot to do? Well, I paid attention to the Spoonbill habits, becoming familiar with the direction from which they typically flew and the time at which this occurred, and one day instead of going to the feeding location to wait for the Spoonbills to fly in, I set up at a point along what I thought would be their flight path. Now, my photo buddy had doubts as to the sanity of this approach, mainly because the light was exceptionally good and there was nothing to shoot where I told him to pull over, but he humored me because I can be a bit of a tyrant when I don't get my way. I assured him that the tiny pink dot in the tree off in the distance was a harbinger of good things to come and that we only had to wait for the dot and its friends to wake up and come to us. It took a little while, but after about 20 minutes, lo and behold, the first Spoonbill went cruising by in good light! After that, the spoonbills came by one at a time, at about two to five minute intervals, always following the same flight path as its predecessor. The regularity and predictability of the Spoonbill flights gave us plenty of opportunity to adjust settings, rethink angles, and just plain burn frames. We both got multiple excellent flight shots that day even after we edited for picky little things like head and wing position: this is the benefit of knowing your subject!

Although the Roseate Spoonbill story is one of my favorite examples of knowing your subject, it is an extreme case. Not all subject knowledge needs to be quite so intimate or species specific to improve your shooting opportunities. Even a basic knowledge of nature will improve your chances. For example, knowing that prey animals tend to dislike being directly stared at (for some crazy reason they think they are being hunted), will change how you approach those animals, which in turn will improve your shooting opportunities because you will stop scaring them away.

Spend Time with Your Subject Before You Shoot

So how does one come to know their subject? There are many methods, but the key way to get to know your subject is to spend time with it. Just like a friend, the more time you spend with something, the better you know it. Do you spend time prior to your shoot doing reconnaissance of the location? Do you know what time of day the animal you are looking for is most active? Do you know the tell-tale signs that a bird is about to fly? Can you predict the direction a bird will fly? This is the type of knowledge that will give you better photo opportunities, but if you are only spending time with your subject when they are "photographic" then you aren't giving yourself the time necessary to really understand your subject and to capitalize on the aspects of that subject that are going to get you "THE" shot.

Everglades National Park Anole - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Everglades National Park Anole - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Spending time with your subject requires just one thing: your time. This seems simple enough, but are you really giving yourself the time you need? You need to take time to observe a subject without the camera at your eye. It is tempting to cram as much photography as possible into the shortest time possible, but this can be self-defeating and actually short-changes your potential opportunities. When you go to a location, get there early so you can spend time scouting the best locations, seeing where and when the light direction is best, and checking out where the best opportunities for wildlife may be. By doing this type of reconnaissance, you avoid the trap of shooting the first thing you see only to find out there was a better opportunity down the road. Scout for clean backgrounds and note where there is too much clutter so you avoid shooting images you'll toss later. Pay attention to where food and water sources are, as those are places you'll likely find animals. If you are planning to shoot landscapes, pay attention to when and where sunrise/sunset occurs so that you know where to set up ahead of time to capture that gorgeous dramatic light. When your target is animals, allow yourself time to just sit and watch them, you'll be amazed at the insight you gain.

Although it is tempting to race back to your room, or to a restaurant, so you can edit photos while "the light is bad," this can be valuable time to just observe wildlife. I will often sit and just watch a bird for an hour because when I do this I am always entertained by their strange little habits and I discover fascinating behaviors patterns that I then use later when I'm shooting.

While I recommend spending as much time as possible observing your target subject, a lot of information can be obtained in an hour or less if you are observant. A few years ago I went to the Florida Keys for a dive trip. I convinced my husband to swing by the Everglades on our way down, so that I could squeeze some photography into the trip. I only had a few hours, so we headed straight for Anhinga Trail, which I knew from previous trips would have the most opportunities in a relatively small area. Although my time was limited, I diligently walked around the trail once to see what subjects I had to work with. After scouting, I decided the male anoles displaying their dewlaps would be my target and headed straight to the start of the trail where I had seen them. I had tried to capture displaying anoles before with no success, so before I took any shots I decided to just observe the anoles' behavior. I spent about half an hour just watching the display behavior, and eventually discovered the pattern that lead up to a fully extended dewlap. The anoles would sort of work up to the display by doing a little dance that involved several bobs up and down and a few test blows before a full dewlap display. By the time you see the display it is too late to snap the shutter, so by watching and learning the display pattern, I was able to predict the optimal moment to fire the shutter to capture the fully extended dewlap. Instead of capturing one lucky shot of a displaying anole, I ended up with an assortment of images with varying backgrounds, positions, and crops.

Firewheel, Savannah NWR - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Firewheel, Savannah NWR
Lisel Shoffner Powell

Dutchman's Breeches - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Dutchman's Breeches, Steven's Creek, SC
Lisel Shoffner Powell

Visit Often

The anole story points to another method of getting to know your subject: keep revisiting it. Had I not been to the Everglades multiple times, I may not have known that Anhinga Trail would give me the most opportunities in the time I had available. Every time I visit a location, I learn more about it and subsequently I get better photos.

Steven's Creek is a prime wildflower spot in South Carolina and in the spring it is constantly changing. Some wildflowers only come up for one week then are gone without a trace, so if you don't know where and when things bloom it is easy to miss some spectacular flowers. During the spring that I was getting to know Steven's Creek, I went almost every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend, so that I didn't miss any opportunities. The advantage of making so many trips was that I became familiar with all of the nuances of the location, such as when the light was best on my favorite slope, which part of the trail had the best flowers, and the sequence of blooms along the trail. Additionally, by getting to know Steven's Creek so thoroughly, I knew when to target that location in subsequent years without having to go every weekend for fear of missing my precious Dutchman's Breeches.

Least Bittern at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Least Bittern at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge - Lisel Shoffner Powell

Even seemingly simple locations like the wildlife drive of a refuge, can afford better opportunities once you've become familiar with all the nooks and crannies of location. If you take the "been there, done that" approach to a location, you reduce your chances of getting a truly spectacular image. I have visited Savannah Wildlife Refuge on numerous occasions yet manage to find a great new opportunity each visit. I know some photographers who are not as enamored with SWR as I am, but I believe this is because they have not taken the time to truly know the location. At first take, SWR does not seem to have much to offer: subjects are often too far to shoot, you can drive the whole loop and only see one subject, and if you don't go at the right time of day the light on the majority of the loop can be terrible. However, if you take the time to be observant and really learn about SWR, you will know that the Purple Gallinules like fisherman's corner and will come out if you are quiet and patient, you will know the best location to find a Least Bittern is at one of the last pull-offs, and you will know that the last desolate stretch of the drive is often where the best photo opportunities are found.

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