The world of wildlife photography is interesting. First, there are the difficulties involved in actually photographing. In the days when I started (late 20th century), the difficulties were almost unimaginable. Imagine a scenario where there was no such thing as a digital camera. Imagine a scenario where you wait hours for a species or event to finally occur, you take a picture of that species or event, but you don’t know if you’ve “got it” for several days. That was the case in the days of film cameras.
Nowadays, with digital cameras, you can take a picture and know almost immediately whether you “get it” or not. Regardless of the wait (seconds or days), there still lingers the mind-wracking agony of knowing that the event you’ve been trying to capture on film may not happen again in a year, or worse, never . The lack of a photo can be devastating.
There is also this notion of “authenticity”. What are the rules for accepting a photo in different publications? What taboos should be avoided in the world of wildlife photography? Well, the first one (the big one) is pretty reasonable: no photos of captive wildlife. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the animal is or how “natural” the environment may seem, you just don’t. This suggests that the term “savagery” needs to be respected and nurtured by the people trying to represent it. Seems very reasonable, doesn’t it?
Then there is the notion of background. Unless the content of the story to which a particular photograph is linked specifically mentions the specifics of the characteristics of a particular photograph, it is usually desirable to avoid certain artificial objects in the background. Here, too, there seems to be a certain anti-humanity chauvinism associated with the notion of savagery; the idea that if there’s any trace of humanity in a photograph, it’s somehow tainted. Of course there are exceptions to every rule. A bird’s nest in an old rusty mailbox might be more desirable than the bird’s nest itself, if you get my meaning.
So that brings us to an examination of the photos I provide with my columns. What kind of photos are acceptable and which are not? Are the rules for me different than the rules that might be imposed on a photographer for National Geographic magazine? The inescapable reality of this question is a resounding yes. I can get away with things in this column that I couldn’t get away with in most magazines, and it all depends on the context.
My column has always focused on nature, which you can experience in your own neighborhood and in your own garden. Over the years this has taken up the theme of backyard bird feeders and this is especially true as winter rolls in and the rush around the bird feeders increases. I’m allowed to photograph birds at feeding sites because I’m specifically trying to show you how to identify the birds that might come to feed. And let’s face it, you could wander around the woods for hours, days, and weeks without seeing the kind of activity that you can catch at a backyard bird feeder in an hour or two.
This allows me to use photos that have obvious artifacts of human civilization in the background. My deck’s railing has featured in my photos more times than I care to count. The various feeders I use also seem so predictable that I have no idea the actual number. But even I still strive to get a picture of a backyard bird captured in a more “natural” setting whenever possible. This week’s photo is a perfect example.
I sat in my thinking chair on that unseasonably warm weekend in early November and photographed all the birds that were gathering around me. The only reason they gathered near me was because I had distributed food. In fact, I do this so regularly that the birds often wait for me before I even arrive. Once the food is out, activity increases as the word spreads, and it’s always interesting to see how a group of tits can attract the attention of other birds.
So, by chance, a dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) appeared on the fringes of the daily crowd. Curious about all the excitement, the bird quickly saw that there was food and although understandably shy at first he eventually joined in and was given some breakfast. I happened to take this picture of the bird as it sat assessing the safety of the situation and in doing so I captured a wild bird in its wild habitat; maybe the best photo of a Junco I’ve taken in many years.
But here’s the thing… later in the winter, that same bird may visit my deck to forage for food. In fact, this wild bird can spend hours of its life every day near the bird feeders on my deck while trying to survive the winter. So isn’t my deck the “natural” habitat of this wild bird living its wild life? The answer is unequivocally yes, but there still remains a certain authenticity associated with a photograph with a “natural” background. Luckily, I think we all just want to see the birds wherever and whenever we can.
Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and wildlife photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more information, visit his website at www.Speakingofnature.com or visit Speaking of Nature on Facebook.