By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
Pam Wells has patience.
When she’s in search of the perfect photo she can wait hours, in some disheartening conditions. She’s not
shooting brides or weddings or newborn babies or products. She’s photographing the natural world. And she knows there are a lot of things out of her control.
Late last winter she spent a few hours a day every day for almost six weeks sitting in a pop-up blind near Sunkhaze National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Maine. Sometimes hot, sometimes freezing. Waiting for a bobcat to return to a frozen deer carcass. She was almost certain it would. A motion-sensitive video camera had captured it before so she knew it was in the area. She just had to wait it out.
“I went out about every day for six weeks and I’d sit and sit and sit. Sometimes for two hours. Sometimes six. I was either cold or hot,” Pam remembers.
Finally her patience was rewarded, and her bobcat showed up. The camera clicked. And clicked. And the cat, curious about the clicking and where it was coming from, posed like it was being paid for its time. Pam had her bobcat, and she was ecstatic.
Pam is a wildlife photographer and web developer who lives in Old Town with her husband Bryan, a dog, cats, and some snakes. She’s been listening to the clicking of shutters since she was 10 years old and her grandfather bought her a Polaroid Instamatic. These days she’s armed with a Canon digital camera and a backpack full of hefty and expensive lenses. She has focused them on every kind of wildlife she can find, from moose to mayflies, bees to bobcats.
One of the best ways to get to know the forest is through the lens of a camera, she agrees. And it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. These days many inexpensive digital cameras can take good photos.
Going out in the woods intent on capturing the essence of nature via a camera forces you to change your viewpoint and approach the Maine woods, or any woods for that matter, in a different way. Normally when we walk in the woods we’re intent on a destination in the distance, even if we’re ostensibly just “going for a walk.” Concentrating on the destination we often miss the journey and when we come back are no richer for the experience than when we started. Thoreau said as much.
Photography can help us slip out of that mindset.
“It’s not unlike hunting,” said Pam. “It’s that chance. I enjoy taking people photos, but there’s something different about photographing wildlife and nature. I have to be quiet. I have to be focused or I won’t have a chance at all.”
Nature photography requires you to “park your ego,” to realize that things are out of your control, and to be open to what comes up rather than your preconceived notions of what should come up, said Pam, who has been selling her photographs for 15 or 20 years and has several magazine covers to her credit.
“The forest is an amazing place,” she said. That’s part of the lure, what am I going to see round the next bend. It’s unpredictable and random.” After thinking about it, she said her reasons for pursuing nature photography are fourfold: “I have a passion for the forest. I have a product I want to get, which is a picture. I have a process, I truly love being in that moment getting that picture. And I have a mission, which is to let other people see what’s out there.”
You can share your experiences in nature with friends as well. So, grab your camera and we’ll give you some tips. Keep in mind that creating memorable nature photographs isn’t a matter of being “artistic,” but of developing a different mindset — of approaching the forest on its own, very intimate, terms.
- Slow down. We can’t say it any better than that. Walk slowly. Stop frequently. Look around. Really look. What do you see?
- See the forest, and the trees: Step close, and back, in your mind’s eye. Check out the big picture, but don’t forget the details. Look for patterns. The tatters of a birch’s bark waving in the breeze, drops of dew on the end of a branch, a dragonfly taking a rest on a flower.
- Don’t ignore the “ordinary.” Common species make beautiful photos too. A bluejay is a beautiful bird, it’s just because they’re not rare that people ignore them.
- Be quiet. Stop and listen to the sounds the forest makes. They’ll help point you in the direction of photographs. If you’re making noise the wildlife won’t come close. Same goes for when you get there: “Don’t slam the car door,” says Pam.
- Look up, and down. Good photos aren’t just present at human eye level. There is much beauty in the forest floor, and the canopy. Lie down on the ground. get a mouse’s eye view of the forest. Mushrooms, for instance, look a lot neater taken from ground level.
- Look at the very small. If your camera has any sort of macro feature you can exploit that to excellent effect. An ichneumon wasp or a beetle can be just as fascinating as a moose or a bear.
- See the beauty in a part as well as in the whole. Remember the artist Georgia O’Keefe?
- Remember the light. Photography is only partly about your subject. It’s mostly about the light.
- Get out early. Animals, including birds, tend to be most active early and late in the day and, coincidentally, that’s when the best light is — that slanting, warm light that brings things alive. Similarly, don’t ignore less than ideal weather. Drizzly or snowy days can often yield good photos.
- Know your wildlife. Read up a little on the habits of the animal you want to photograph. “Know what’s active at the time of year you’re going out. If you’re after bird photos spring, when they’re singing, is the best time,” said Pam.
- Take some water, maybe some hot packs, sunglasses. Dress for the weather. If you’re uncomfortable you won’t be seeing, you’ll be thinking about how uncomfortable you are. Carry a spare camera battery and a photo card.
- Exploit your friends, and others. Find good places to photograph wildlife and the rest of nature by querying wildlife biologists, foresters, hunters, wardens. Sign up to get on bird alert networks. Read a couple of guidebooks.
- Don’t bankrupt yourself, but be realistic about what your equipment will do. A point and shoot camera will be fine for many things, but don’t try to take a full-frame photo of a mother bear and cubs with one. If you want that type of picture you’re going to need to go shopping and your list should include a respectable telephoto.
- Be open to what nature gives you. Just because you went out hoping to photograph a fox, don’t ignore the garter snake crossing your path or the play of light in the crown of the autumn maple. Be in the moment. Let go of your agenda. Pam got a great photo of a mourning cloak butterfly while she was waiting for her bobcat, for instance.
Sometimes, it helps to have exercises to do in order to see the possibilities. So, here are a couple.
Finding the still point. Go out in the woods. Sit down, or stand, it’s up to you. Now, you’re going to document the natural world from this spot. Without moving more than three paces in any direction. This self-limiting exercise is designed to get you thinking outside the box of your mind. To get you thinking of nature as something vaster and more complex than your conception of it. You can pick up branches, turn over logs, lie down on the forest floor. After an hour go home and put together a slideshow.
The time-lapse documentary. Pick a spot in the woods, on the edge of a field, near a wetland. A photogenic spot, or not, as the case may be. Perhaps near an old snag in the forest, or a stream. Then visit this place off and on for the next three months, or six months. At different times of the day, in different seasons, in different weather. Staying a set amount of time each time. You’re trying to document the life of this place. Again, assemble a slideshow at the end.
Doing nature photography requires a few things more than a camera: patience, openness, and endurance. The best nature photographers, say, those who get the National Geographic assignments, often spend weeks in the field, under difficult conditions, said Pam. “People who get the most extraordinary wildlife photos have to have the most extraordinary physical endurance. It’s about your willingness to endure.”
Pam has pursued her passion for nature photography all around the state, but much of her portfolio is made up of shots taken on the 1,000 acres she and her husband Bryan own adjacent to Sunkhaze National Wildlife Refuge. She loves it there and knows the place well.
That being said, she, like virtually every other human being, longs for the unfamiliiar, the unusual. Last year she and Bryan took a weeklong vacation.
Most people might go to Paris, France, or Costa Rica, or Disney World. Not Pam.
She went to . . . Snake Road. It’s in a national forest in southern Illinois. They went in the fall, when the snakes are migrating from the swamps up into the cliffs to den up. The U.S. Forest Service closes the gravel road during that time to help keep the snakes alive.
Pam and Bryan walked up and down the road for a week, Pam photographing snakes, Bryan videoing Pam photographing snakes: timber rattlers, copperheads, cottonmouth moccasins, rough green snakes, ribbon snakes, Mississippi green water snakes, black ratsnakes, red milksnakes, kingsnakes, ring-necked snakes. Pam was in heaven.
One photo of a deadly copperhead is a favorite.
“They are considered such dangerous animals. Yet I laid down on the ground next to him and because I wasn’t startling him and he was in his zone he wasn’t aggressive. He was very, very still. It was like, ‘at this moment we’ll respect each other,’ ” she said. “It was that captured moment in time that might never, ever happen again. That was an extraordinary moment for me, a shared moment between two species.”
Pam dreams of flying to the high arctic to photograph wolves and polar bears. Or going to Australia. “But, I love Maine wildlife. It’s extraordinary in its own way. People don’t necessarily realize that.”
Joe Rankin studied journalism, modern foreign languages and photography in college. He’s continually amazed at how much he’s forgotten.