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A Lifetime in the Making

The old, green, “retired” warden’s Bronco stops with a lurch. The door swings open out of my hand, the truck is pointing down the steep grade. “The road is washed out beyond here, gotta walk the rest of the way.” I got up at 02:20, drove thirty minutes to meet up with the biologists and then drove another forty minutes to get to this point. The sun is a rumor on the horizon when I grab my camera gear and head off while attempting to keep up with the 24yr old springbuck biologists I’m working with this day. Down we go at an alarming rate and speed in the darkness, alarming because we’d have to hike back up the same grade to get back to the truck.

A mile down the grade, the antenna goes up and the signal is found. Cross-country we go, hurdling sage brush in a marathon race with the sun. First, down a gully and then up a hill, my guides moving like pronghorn and quickly pulling away from me (oh to have young legs). Our route is precarious at best as we zigzag, following the signal. We reach a rise to get another sounding; I look over my shoulder to see the road way below us. Not even catching my breath, we’re off again still cross-country, but now following the ridgeline we had climbed to. The biologists come to a quick halt; the signal has exploded, which means the quarry is less than 10 meters away. This routine is familiar, just did it the morning before, so I froze. Spotting the object of our quest, the biologists crouch down, walk very slowly towards the tan colored lump at the base of a sage. Less than a meter away it explodes in the air and down the slope and the biologists freeze. When they stand up and I see their faces, they look like they’d just swallowed a lemon.

“There’s none here, must have been predated upon between 17:00 last night when we last checked and this morning.” “She’s broodless.” With that, we head cross-country again, at least at a little less feverish pace and work our way back to the truck. The three mile jaunt netted all of us nothing, the biologists weren’t able to collect any data and I not a photograph. Mother Nature still rules the roost and for the moment, the Greater Sage Grouse has five less chicks to booster its falling numbers.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Man, you got up mighty early and walked a long way to come back empty handed.” As one of my first biological mentors always use to say, “There’s data in no data!” For the biologists, the question is now to determine what happened with the five, four day old chicks. For me, the “dry run” provides more insight into the situation and sets my mind to working on how I’d photograph the event next time. And if you’re a wise photographer, you make a plus from the negative.

I’ve been at this wildlife photography gig for thirty years and even with that, each and every day I learn something new about my craft (which joyfully means I don’t know everything). This is key if you don’t want to fall victim to the Darwin Theory of Photography, “evolve or perish.” To get to the point where I could get skunked on the hillside, thirty years had been put into the craft. Practice wasn’t needed to get skunked, but rather to learn that being skunked is part of the craft. The learned craft is what you fall back on when you do succeed and the chicks are there and for a moment Mother Nature let’s you peek inside her very mysterious world.

It’s really quite simple, this mastering of photography. There’s only one unspoken secret in this quest. It takes time! You’ve gotta put in your time and learn from your mistakes as much as your successes and always, always look for the silver lining. There are days you’re going to walk those three miles up and down hills only to get skunked. There are going to be those days when you fall out of bed and the image smacks you right in the face. In between is an incredible journey that if you only take a deep breath, smell the roses and every other bad cliché about enjoying life, time will make your photography as meaningful and as powerful as you want it to be.

Two years ago, every time I came up to a landscape photo opp, my mind would race and inside the word HELP would be screamed. “Where’s the subject, how do I compose it, folks are watching me for inspiration and the best I can do right now is a joke.” HELP! Then, just as it was for me and flash twenty years ago, the switch was turned on so for the last couple of years, making the decent to spectacular landscape photo requires no real thought on my part other than how I want to finish it in post. All the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. They just happen, life’s experiences have finally taken over.

This, my friends is what’s waiting for you and your photography! I know this for a fact. Playing is the heartbeat of passion. If your passion is photography, any kind of photography, play until you’re exhausted because with time, and time is the most important ingredient (not f/stop or Photoshop plug-in), you WILL experience the same joys, same rewards, same quality images that get me up at 02:20 and walk three miles only to be skunked. The same love that you’ll get up again the next day at the same time to walk the same distance to see if this day, you’ll win. Great photography is a lifetime in the making!