“Proof of Life” Photography – Part 1

Moving to the Pacific Northwest changed nearly everything about my photography. When we left San Francisco, with mixed feelings for sure, I consoled myself with the idea of photographing species I’d never seen in the Bay Area — like Bald Eagles and Orcas. I anticipated tramping along the shoreline trails of Puget Sound as I did around San Francisco Bay, finding my way in a new landscape and ecology. I envisioned the Salish Sea bubbling over with pinnipeds, whales and salmon, all there for the photographing with just a launch of a kayak.

Some of those visions did, indeed, manifest. The Bald Eagle flyover is no longer an anomaly for me. It’s so common, in fact, that I recognize the familiar rumblings in duck flocks before the eagle even enters my periphery. During our first trip on the Salish Sea, a pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales unexpectedly changed course and sped toward us so close that I missed the best shots for not having my wide angle attached.  Then, for two winters in a row, we were gifted with a Snowy Owl irruption that dropped Snowies into fields and onto urban rooftops for the duration of the season. These are all magical encounters I now can’t imagine my life without.

ProofOrca

There’s a Reason It’s Green

The flip side is that in the Northwest, you’re also working multiple environmental factors when making wildlife pictures. I’ve written before about the limited public shoreline access around Puget Sound, and the hunting issues that challenge an animal-caring photographer. From a technical standpoint, though, the most dramatic adaptation in this gorgeous green zone is light — both quality and quantity of light. You’re always playing the odds with rain, clouds, diffusion, and time.

Seattle doesn’t win the prize in terms of annual rainfall. The Emerald City gets 37 inches of rain each year — easily dwarfed by a city like Miami which gets 61 inches.  But Seattle excels at the drizzle effect. Where huge downpours in southern towns will drop an inch of rain in one spurt, Seattle wallows in the slow soak. It ranks in the top five towns nationally in terms of overcast, with Seattleites living an average of 226 days under clouds each year. And Seattle also gets about 140 days of measurable rain. Many of those days are functionally unusable from a wildlife photography standpoint, with even more days iffy because of variable light.

You then have to factor in days or hours off. Will your day off or your free lunch hour coincide with one of the 139 sunny days? And, in my case, for reduced psychic trauma while in the field, will one of those sunny days off occur after hunting season and before the winter birds take off for northern breeding territories? Anyone looking at probabilities can see how this might affect opportunity and outcome.

Proof of Life

Hugh and I came up with a term to describe this type of experience: Proof of Life Photography. That’s the baseline. Did we enjoy the experience? And, as a bonus, did we capture any proof of life? Beyond that, image quality and expectation becomes icing on what we consider the crux of the endeavor: the story. In this way, the Pacific Northwest has changed my framework from the acquisitive — the photo as goal — to the experiential — the journey as reward. It’s also caused me to rethink my role as a photographer by forcing me outside the box of photographing wildlife straight on, while finding ways to employ the atmospheric elements into my own creations.

Have I embraced this idea entirely? Let me put it this way. As I pointed my lens at Bald Eagles tussling on the shoreline just across the Squamish River, with Hugh shielding my lens from rain dollops, and me shooting at a minimal speed of 1/500 at ISO 2000 — knowing full well what my image quality would be at the end of it all, especially with my teleconverter attached — did I think about how pristine those shots would be with just one godly beam of sun through broken clouds?

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  :)

But, I’m becoming more adaptable — a bit less enamored of California light,  a little more accepting of opportunities lost, a fraction less photo-intensive, and a lot more likely to put down my camera and just enjoy the visions before my eyes. I like to say it’s a form of surrender, not defeat —  like the lyric from John Mayer’s song 3 x 5:

Today I finally overcame
Tryin’ to fit the world inside a picture frame;
Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to
Lose my way but let me say,

You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life;
You’ll be with me next time I go outside
No more 3×5’s.

——————-
In Part 2, I’ll post about our cloudy, drizzly trip to see eagles in British Columbia. For now, here’s one of my better Proof of Life images from our travels northward into the deep forest, low light, and constant drizzle among men in camo.

Short-Eared Owl in the Mist – Boundary Bay, British Columbia
ISO800 • 1/500 • f/4.9 • Olympus OM-D E-M1 + Zuiko 50-200mm + EC14 Teleconverter

Short-eared Owl

 

3×5 Audio on YouTube

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Comments

  1. says

    Hello Ingrid — It’s amazing that as a photographer you still consider putting your camera down to take it all in with your eyes. I am reminded of my August trip whale watching near Friday Harbor, where we were treated to an entire pod of orcas of all ages splashing and feeding and breaching. Many of the people on the boat were so intent on their cameras that they didn’t “see” the whales… On many occasions the only sensor I want to engage is my brain, the only gallery is my memory. As always your posts are beautifully written, and full of thoughtful ideas. All the best, Louise

    • says

      Hi, Louise, I know the scene about which you speak. Were you happy with the boat and company? The experiences are so variable and it sounds like you had a great one. I confess to (at first) being one of those camera people. When we saw Orcas swimming toward us, I was so excited about taking photos, it was tough to put down the camera. It took just a bit of seasickness and the wrong lens for me to give in and just enjoy the whole experience. It helped, too, that our captain had a hydrophone, so the mystical associations of image plus sound forced everyone into the moment. But, before that, as I was looking through the frame, a few times I heard Hugh saying, “did you see that breach, Ings”? Of course, I didn’t — it was out of frame. It was a lesson about what you say here — engaging the brain as your sensor, your memory as your gallery. [But does it have to be a hard fast rule for baby gulls on your rooftop? :) ]

  2. says

    Interesting how the Short-Eared (and Wide-Eyed) Owl doesn’t need any equipment to remember and record sights and sounds. I envision him sharing his findings in owl language with his mate when he gets home in the evening. I’m glad you used your camera to share this gorgeous gift of “beingness” (as Bea would say) with us, but I’m even more pleased to know that you “surrendered” and carved out a Proof of Life moment with Mr. S. E. Owl.

    My sister was at first peeved with herself for not having her camera on a walk with Missy when they came upon a doe and her fawn in the woods. But later she grudgingly admitted she felt a kinship with mother and child that she wouldn’t have experienced had she been concentrating on getting that perfect shot.

    When you think about it, seeing is more than physical perception, isn’t it? Isn’t seeing actually our thoughts projected and made manifest in forms and actions that are humanly recognizable? I believe that what we see as “outside” us is really inside our consciousness. So, intrepid Ingrid, thank you for showing us the apparently “out there” beauty that resides within you and me and all of us. I’m in owl awe. :-)

    • says

      CQ, I love that you mention the sight and sound logistics of the Short-eared Owl, not just for the point you make about his own experience and what he may tell at the end of the day — but also because this owl’s own sound is so imaginative (from the listener’s POV). I love being out on a trail and hearing a call that I don’t recognize. Not only does it juice the creative process — to see if I can find the source nestled in a tree somewhere — but it reminds me of how little I know and also how much remains beyond my comprehension entirely.

      On this All About Birds page click on the “Bark in flight” and the “Calls at winter roost” audio clips. That’s what we heard as we first approached the owls, before we even saw them. They were darting around the wetlands, looking for food and communicating with each other. From what we could tell there were four owls in the same area, with one perched on a utility cable, calling out constantly to the others.

      Your sister’s experience alludes to what Louise describes above, with whale watchers losing out on the Orca excitement outside of the picture frame. Except in your sister’s case, she actually had the kinship instead of missing it. There’s another factor that can get in the way of this connection with wildlife, and that’s the camera itself. It’s a device that worries some animals, especially hunted animals like ducks. It looks suspiciously like a shotgun to them, I’m sure. Outside of a blind or makeshift blind, even lifting the lens can cause these animals to scatter, which completely destroys the moment and the potential communion, in addition to the stress it causes them. I have to consciously hold back because I do still enjoy the process of photographing the hims and hers of the animal world.

      What a great idea you present about the sense of sight. We’ve all been in situations where it’s clear a person’s focus determines what he or she sees and what judgment gets applied to the scene they witness. But, I hadn’t fully considered the implications of internal projection on the physical manifestation of image and form. In cosmic terms, there’s an analogy with human language being far too limited to encapsulate the transcendent. Descriptors become rudimentary in the face of the grandeur. There’s technical validity to this, too, in terms of how a camera captures an image versus how the eye sees it. I found this at a photo site tutorial on the eye versus the camera:

      ” … a single glance by our eyes is therefore only capable of perceiving detail comparable to a 5-15 megapixel camera (depending on one’s eyesight). However, our mind doesn’t actually remember images pixel by pixel; it instead records memorable textures, color and contrast on an image by image basis.

      In order to assemble a detailed mental image, our eyes therefore focus on several regions of interest in rapid succession. This effectively paints our perception …

      … The end result is a mental image whose detail has effectively been prioritized based on interest. This has an important but often overlooked implication for photographers: even if a photograph approaches the technical limits of camera detail, such detail ultimately won’t count for much if the imagery itself isn’t memorable.”

      • says

        Hadn’t checked my CQ website when I logged in here to add a quote, which I found while reading tonight. So let me copy/paste it first before addressing your detailed reply, Ingrid.

        “We must remember that the light is within us and that any attempt to find it outside is vain.” ~ French biophysicist Pierre André LeComte du Noüy

        Gracias for steering us to sounds you and Hugh heard even before finding their source. That barking sound is delightful. I never would’ve guessed that its originator is an owl! (By the way, I see I should’ve lower-cased the “e” in “Short-eared.”)

        Your point about the camera “looking suspiciously like a shotgun” and scaring the animals is something I should’ve considered, especially when the creatures are the unfortunate prey of humans who are trying to prove their shooting prowess instead of caring one whit about the fears of the poor animals, not to mention their desire and their right to not be shot at!

        The thoughts about the difference between what the eye and the camera behold are interesting. Your analogy to the limitations of human language is closer to what I was getting at, though. The most memorable sights and sounds we carry with us are, I suspect, not the color of someone’s hair or size of their biceps or the tone of their voice, but the lovely qualities that can neither be seen, heard, nor quantified. These qualities are individualized, but they cannot be “owned” by anyone, any more than the number 10 is able to be possessed. The warmth conveyed by a generous gesture, the innocence expressed by a child, the trust conferred by an admiring friend, the praise bestowed by a boss, the intensity of the owl’s thoughts — all are examples of intangibles that we hold in consciousness and that we recognize because we ourselves are constructed of the same wealth of non-material elements! Thus, to me, what we think (about ourselves and about every one “out there”) constitutes our true, lasting, substantial identity! :-)

  3. says

    I never call myself a nature photographer. I take pictures. For my blog. About a year ago, I realized my desire to have pictures for my blog was superseding my desire to seek and simply enjoy nature. A shift in intent had occurred from why I started blogging. Instead of being thrilled for the outdoor experience, I ended up disappointed, often. If I got home and discovered all my close-ups were crappy, disappointment. If I spotted a Mola mola and did not have the camera on me, disappointment. I’m in the process of adjusting my attitude and focusing on enjoying the moment. I like your proof of life definition. The experience comes first, all the rest is gravy.
    Katie (Nature ID) recently posted…wordless WednesdayMy Profile

    • says

      Katie, I relate to this very much and it’s been a similar process for me, still in progress. My early photographic endeavors especially were plagued by that vacillating sense of excitement and let down. I had to work hard for often substandard results. And I knew I had to start enjoying the inherent value of the outing — or live with a perpetual inferiority complex. But that idea didn’t come easily.

      When I first joined Flickr years ago, a friend of mine would comment on the photos that held overt or subtle stories. He’d say, “love the story in this shot.” His notes were potent reminders of why most of us photograph or blog to begin with … to tell a tale, whatever form that takes. In those early days, I did a lot of reading about the technical aspects of acquiring wildlife images. I needed to. I was not a highly skilled photographer. I spent much time lurking at photo critiquing sites to get my bearings. I learned a lot but was also frustrated with the exclusive focus on perfection. I’d see poignant images of animals (as one example), ones that truly spoke to my heart, readily shot down by critics for technical merit alone. There was little appreciation for the intangible ingredients … like the viewer’s emotional response.

      When you look at some of the classic photojournalistic shots — and then, accomplished photographers’ own favorite images as published in their collections, the photos that move people are not always the technically pristine ones. Sometimes they are both technically awesome and moving, but perfection isn’t a prerequisite. Eking out a story from a single frame can be difficult. And, of course, wildlife photography is another endeavor entirely — where the grit and grime valued in, say, street photography, isn’t generally appreciated as part of the artist’s nature oeuvre.

      I think the joy of life (and photography) lies somewhere in the murky middle of all this. I still struggle with the idea of inherent value when I write creatively, as one example. When the process is as agonizing as writing sometimes is, it becomes a mission to achieve the end. That in itself can be self-defeating, where the joy-disappointment cycle can be so profound as to stop people in their tracks. Gustav Flaubert agonized for hours trying to find just the write word for a sentence — “le mot juste” (the right word). In my older age, I’ve come to see that sense of “rightness” as a fallible, highly suspect and creatively damaging framework. As a learning framework, the skills of “rightness” are important to acquire. As an immovable mandate, however, “rightness” becomes a straitjacket.

  4. says

    As a native, the Seattle Gray is normal to me, but I know it is hard to take if you aren’t born into it. It does help to have a flexible work so you can pop outside to take a forest walk when the sun comes out. I love heading east of the mountains, though, for sun and blue sky. The eastern Cascades are some of my favorite places on earth.
    Your photos are wonderful!

    • says

      Denise, thanks so much for the comment. And by the way, I just love your work. I bounced on over to check out your latest blog posts and not only are your watercolors so evocative and beautiful, I found myself immersed and in total sync with your Urban Wild proposal. You’ll have to forgive my long reply there on your post, but it’s something I too feel very strongly about.

      I know I’m being a little persnickety about photography and sun, like a grumpy Californian. How unbecoming, right? :) I actually spent formative years in a very rainy, maritime climate so I should know better.

      When you consider the broad expanses east of the mountains in a completely different biome, there’s a bounty to explore way beyond my limited reaches. Do you have a few favorite spots you return to over again east of the Cascades (without giving away any of your best secrets)? Our primary, collective goal in life is to work toward more flexibility in the schedule so that we can, indeed, enjoy opportunities as they arise as opposed to when they are scheduled. Scheduling rarely works in the wild, this I do realize.

      I will know I’ve accomplished this end when I finally connect with eagles+salmon+sun. We’ve watched eagles feeding upriver — in the rain. We’ve seen remnants of salmon runs upriver in the winter sun — with no eagles. So, I’m getting close. I will break this curse, I know it. Have you been up to Harrison Mills, by any chance, during the height of the November eagle congregation?

  5. says

    I don’t know quite how you do it Ingrid but there’s no doubt you are as “pro” as anyone could aspire to be, yet your down-to-real-Earth always speaks to and invites the rest of us! I’m quite out of my element in the specifics of photography. But yeah! “Santa” brought me a new camera so I can now retire my first digital one that’s over 12 years old! As clumsy as it was… For me it captured the best photos of nature and family members. Well… It sort of recorded all the important things in my life for over a decade!

    I thank you for recording for us who don’t have the skill or opportunity to see the living world the way you do. Indeed you truly do document and reveal to us “Proof of Life”. I’m grateful for this gift you generously share. <3

    • says

      Bea, you are far too kind … but I can’t elaborate on that any further at this moment because I’m too excited to hear what Santa brought you. What type of camera will you be shooting with? And, what was the 12-year-old digicam that came before? If I had to take a guess, I’d say something like an older Powershot or Coolpix — or did you mean a digital SLR? I have a film SLR I got as a graduation present from high school, and couldn’t part with it for the very same sentimentality. It captured so much of my life, it felt like a betrayal to give it away.

  6. says

    Hi Ingrid,

    Weaving words and images together is sometimes a struggle. I think that if too much time has been spent looking through the viewfinder, then any accompanying words will feel soulless, so finding the correct balance is crucial. Thank you for sharing such an eloquent and heartfelt post! Thanks also to Katie at Nature ID for the suggestion to visit The Wild Beat.

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