Five years ago, almost to the day, I finally broke down to the idea of buying a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. A DSLR would give me better images, would get me closer to birds, and would ultimately give me more control, going back to the way I used to take images when I first used an SLR in high school photography classes.
Mentioning this to many friends, most of whom were owners of such gadgetry gave me dire warnings.
“You’ll spend lots of money on gear.”
Correct. I don’t even want to think about the amounts I’ve spent on my two bodies, two point and shoots, gopro, game camera, three tripods, two flashes, tangles of cables, piles of cards, and heaps of other miscellany. However I also know I have far less than a lot of professionals, despite occasionally thinking about selling it all and heading out with a simple camera to travel on all the proceeds.
“You can take great pictures with the camera I have.”
True. Case in point illustrated below. However, I wanted to do more. And I have.
“You won’t be in National Geographic immediately. You might not even make any money at it.”
True. But I didn’t expect to leap into that status, I’m happy with having images in High Country News and a lot of other places on the web. And I’ve made money, not a full income, but enough to be encouraged.
So what I did was ignore their advice and went through with it. I’m happy I did, because if I didn’t have an SLR I wouldn’t have been to some of the places I’ve visited nor would I have some of the art I’ve captured over the past five years.
The images I’ve lined up are my favorites from the past five years. They’re maybe not what would win contests, nor possibly my most technically perfect images, but they’re my personal favorites, the images I have the most emotional attachment to, the images I subjectively enjoy more than others. I don’t give a shit about objectivity in the case of deciding which are my favorite images from the past half a decade.
Why five years? It’s arbirtary seemed like a good period of time to examine. I’m still figuring out my photography style, learning new ways to take better photos, and making investments to be a better photographer. I’ve learned to be more patient and it’s paid off. After going through all these images, I feel both vindicated in my gear choices and excited about future work.
Five years is a short time, because it could take another five at least to get anywhere. Sure I’ll probably never be an Art Wolfe or some other powerhouse, but if I can make part of my income with photography, I think I’ll be doing pretty good. I maybe eventually decide to put down the camera for work or move on to purely writing or actually become a full-time biologist, but for now I’m happy taking pictures and writing and having an excuse to spend extended periods of time out in the natural world.
I feel as if I should have something sage to say about taking pictures, about waiting for the perfect moment, or meditating on the changing lightscape. At the moment I don’t except that I’ve gone from rank amateur to quasi professional with no initial intention of doing so. I’m incredibly proud of the images below, regardless of how they stack up against anyone else, largely because of the moments they describe in my life and what they’ve captured of nature.
Initially I included a lot of descriptions of these images, but I decided I’ll leave it brief. I invite you to ask me questions and let me know what you think.
This moth was nearly 8 inches across, a male Leopa megacore. It was one of thousands of insects seeking refuge from a storm and attracted to lights of a hostel on Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. I couldn’t help but think of Alfred Russel Wallace and a similar night he spent collecting moths during a storm in Sarawak. (2011)
I take a lot of double and multiple exposures. This was an early experiment. They always turn out different from how you imagined. (2011)
The Navopatia Field Station, in Southern Sonora, Mexico does a lot of work with birds, banding them for MOSI (you can read about this elsewhere on Wingtrip). This Bell’s Vireo is being released after being banded. I love photographing bird banding. (2014)
Banding birds in the high desert in late summer means lots of neotropical migrants who have finished breeding and are now trying to recover. This male Black-headed Grosbeak was the definition of worn, all his feathers were beat to shit. He’s still incredible and I hope he made it to Mexico. (2010)
One of the rarest birds in the world, the Spoon-billed Sanpiper in Pak Thale, Thailand. This was a lucky shot, two of them landed right next to us, and I only had a 300mm lens. (2011)
Doing bird surveys in burns of the Northern Sierras in spring and summer 2011, we had a hard time due to inclement weather. We arrived one day, only to leave because of bad conditions, to this spot in the Moonlight Fire. It’s an early attempt at HDR that actually worked quite well. (2011)
The deep eyes of female Southern Pig-tailed Macaque in the lowland rainforest of Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. (2011)
The Hoh River Valley is full of fallen giants and I imagined that this giant’s cracked trunk, spread over the middle of the river, was related to the trees that grew tall on the bank. They could be siblings, offspring, or cousins. They were all giants. (2012)
A rain storm sits over the canopy near Danum Valley Research Centre, Malaysian Borneo. I spent a whole day in a canopy platform enjoying the life that pulsed nearby. (2011)
I found this this female Yellow Warbler building her nest, in the middle of a frenzy of birders at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Field Station, in Oregon. She was constantly struggling with the spider webs for the nest. Taking pictures of this behavior sold me on owning a DSLR. (2010)
This Townsend’s Warbler had me bothering it for three hours while it visited my parents’ bird feeder. This was a small slice of what it means to stake out a bird, but the end result was exciting. What a light in the middle of winter. (2012)
This boa was sleeping in a building at the Navopatia Field Station in Southern Sonora, Mexico when we pulled it out to take pictures of it. They happily take in these snakes because it helps ensure their survival during their sluggish winter months. (2014)
This Northern Pygmy-owl was probably a bit less shy than usual because of the cold. We watched it hit a snow bank hunting for food beneath the crust before landing on the road mere feet from us. What a bird! (2010)
Glacier Lilies in Paradise Valley, Mount Rainier National Park. Summer blooms on the mountain are my favorite. (2013)
Forest Park in Portland, Oregon is an example of what we should all have nearby as urban dwellers. This spot near Audubon Portland made me feel small, the way a good forest should. (2011)
Black-and-Yellow Broadbills are hard to see, but infuriatingly easy to hear. I took a lot of time with this one near Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (after I finally found it). (2011)
When you leave Cedarville, CA and head East, you eventually cross into Nevada on a dirt road. There are no signs to Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, so I was happy to intuit my way there and even happier to find myself in the middle of an epic, but fleeting high desert storm. (2011)
A pulsing stream of bats leaving the Gomantong Caves, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. A Brahminy Kite is nearby, waiting to grab a meal. This was a favorite spot in Borneo. And the most terrifying drive of my life when we left that night. (2011)
I’ve spent embarrassingly little time in British Columbia. When working as a naturalist guide for Evergreen Escapes, I got deep into mountain wilderness of the Coast Mountains on a staff retreat. We had clear weather, which made for great crystal formations. (2012)
Sometimes you just see a photo randomly during your daily life. I saw this double exposure and captured it. (2011)
Sure, lots of people have this image. Tetons, buffalo, big deal. But I love it because there is no obvious sign of people in the huge landscape that stretches from sagebrush to ten thousand foot peaks. This is wilderness and I’m glad I could see it, even if it’s a fraction of what used to exist across North America. (2011)
The Sonoran Desert is one of my favorite places in the world. Thanks to Saguaro National Monument, it isn’t all being turned into condominiums. This is during an April storm that brought the desert from desiccated to flush with flowers and green within hours. (2012)
Firelight lighting the leaves of a rainforest tree in Gunung Leuser National Park, North Sumatra. (2011)
Steve Herman is a legend in birds and natural history. I’m thankful to call him a friend and mentor. Every morning during Summer Ornithology, when I was a Teaching Assistant for this field ornithology course, he went on a morning walk. I caught him here during a morning calm after a storm. (2010)