Dean M. Chriss shares insight into his photographic adventures
Except for meeting my wife, nothing I have done in life has brought more joy than nature photography. It is a form of creative expression that allows me to share experiences, a tool for learning about the world, a way of seeing things more deeply, and to some extent it has become a way of life. Nature photography requires slowing down and looking at the fine details of different places and the creatures inhabiting them. You end up learning the intricacies and interdependencies within different environments and the behaviors of the birds and animals living in them. I hope to keep learning and photographing nature for as long as I am able.
The world is a dynamic place where special moments seldom repeat themselves. By the time you see an extraordinary scene, it is usually too late to capture the best possible photograph of it. It takes too long to find the best composition, set up a tripod, and optimize all of the technical aspects. It’s also impossible to find great locations for morning twilight and sunrise shots in the dark before they happen. For me, the best photographs always come from finding great locations and determining the best time of day and best compositions well in advance. I scout for them in the middle of the day when the light is typically not good for pictures. Then it’s a matter of being there at the right time, setting up equipment, and waiting for something spectacular to happen. That might be later in the same day, the next morning, or after dozens of attempts spread over many years. Some places are so incredible that I keep going back regardless. Different seasons, different years, and different weather conditions will always provide something unique to see, experience, and photograph.
Photographing wildlife is more serendipitous, but knowing the habitats frequented by different species makes them much easier to find. As with landscapes, it is impossible to get a good photograph without the correct lighting and composition, and the best lighting is usually in the early morning or late evening. That is also when most animals prefer to be out and about. Fortunately, each specie behaves in its own fairly predictable ways. It is often possible to tell what a given animal is likely to do next. Reading those “signals” and positioning yourself for a good photograph in advance pays off more often than not. The most important thing is to never leave a good wildlife situation prematurely. I generally stay until the animal leaves or when it gets dark. In one memorable case, I photographed a great gray owl for about seven hours and took nearly 1000 images. Just one image near the end of that session captured exactly what I wanted; the world’s largest owl nicely posed and softly highlighted within its dark forest home.
Most rewards in life come with sacrifices, and nature photography is no exception. The most common sacrifice is fatigue. Waking up hours before sunrise, getting to a predetermined location, taking pictures, scouting for more locations, and staying at some other location for late evening and twilight photos leaves little time for things like sleep, meals, and other necessities. It is impossible to go more than five or six days like this and function well. The middle of the day is the only time available to scout for new locations, but since it is not good for most photography so we periodically use it to have a good meal and catch up on sleep. Fatigue is not the only sacrifice, but it is the most predictable one and the easiest one to accommodate. Other problems come up more randomly. My wife and I endured terrible conditions in the tropics to get some once in a lifetime photographs. As if the conditions were not bad enough, I became the sickest I have ever been immediately afterward. On a different trip to the northern Rocky Mountains, I tried to photograph migrating mountain bluebirds that were stranded by a very early winter storm. I had to stop taking photos when I started to shake and could no longer feel my gloved fingers. After getting back to the vehicle I could not insert the key to start it. My wife, who did not venture out into the howling -11 °F winds, had to do that. We sat with the heater on high for about a half-hour before I could drive. That discomfort resulted in one or two pretty good photos. The next day I had a sore throat, fever, and chills, but forced myself to go out in still below zero temperatures to photograph the winter wonderland that the storm left behind. Those photos were fantastic and definitely worth the discomfort! On yet another trip I suddenly developed hundreds of opaque black spots in the vision of one eye, which happened to be my “viewfinder eye”. Long story short, a tiny rural hospital sent us to an eye clinic 30 miles away for a more thorough exam and possible immediate eye surgery. Since it was Sunday the clinic was closed and had to be opened for me by an ophthalmologist who was late for a family portrait session. It was determined that I did not need surgery, but the eye would be useless for photography until the condition resolved itself “in a year or two”. I insisted that we proceed with our trip instead of going home as advised. It took a while to adapt and taking pictures was much slower than usual, but that too was definitely the right decision. There are countless stories like these. The point is that photography trips have had nothing in common with vacations. In fact, my wife and I sometimes need vacations from our photography trips!
Concern and respect for my subjects is the driving force behind my photography. No photograph is ever more important than they are. My job to portray my subjects in the best way I can without impacting them. For instance, a living cryptobiotic soil crust that looks like dark brown sugar is common in undisturbed desert areas. It prevents erosion and takes decades to heal when stepped on. In those places, it is important to step only on rocks and in small dry washes where the crust does not exist. That sometimes restricts the compositional possibilities, but it leaves the place intact. When photographing wildlife the primary rule is to never allow your presence to alter the animal’s behavior. If an animal stops feeding, acts nervous, looks at you, or starts moving away, you are too close. Birds and other animals stay around longer, for more and better photo opportunities, when they can go about their business as if you were not present. It’s better for the subject and in some cases safer for the photographer.
Unfortunately, development is consuming the last best places I know. Wildlife populations, including those of most common back yard songbirds, are a fraction of what they were when I started doing nature photography forty years ago. Based on experiences I am certainly less than half of the photographic opportunities I used to have, exist today. The best thing my photographs could possibly accomplish is to make more people aware of what is being lost so they might be inspired to help to preserve some of it.
Deans’ work is currently featured in the gallery, Please stop in to visit!
Or visit deans site https://www.dmcphoto.com/