Too Cliché?

The older I get the quicker the years seem to go by.   Is 2016 really over?  It feels like it was just a couple months ago that I watched a marathon of The X Files curled up on my couch with my pup and kitties on New Year's eve.  I didn't make any resolutions; I rarely do.  But I always make a little promise to myself to do better, be kinder, and work harder, as I am sure we all do.  

This year was a rather pivotal one for me, but not in a big or loud kind of way.  It was pivotal based on one small experience connecting to another..and then another..and so on, until I was left to stand there with eyes wide open.  

This year was full of so many challenges, both personal and professional.  I loved, trusted, lost, nurtured, neglected, obsessed, gave, took, and learned quite a lot.  I realize I have a lot more learning to do.  If I were to sum up what I learned the most, through everything, it is the fact that what you feed grows and what you neglect dies.  That applies to relationships, business, craft, body, mind, spirit, and yes....even plants. 

I traveled to Africa, Belize, England and to the east and west coasts of the USA.   I met many lovely people, taught photography and led workshops to over 200 students, and I worked a lot. I am forever grateful that this is my life and that the people I teach choose me to be the one.  I am lucky, so very lucky.

In 2016 I didn't spend enough time with my family and it gnaws at me, I'll admit. This is something I always seem to be trying to get right, the balance of work and family. 

And where to from here?  I really don't know.  Part of me is kind of content in that, to be honest.  The future is bright.  I'll continue to do better, be kinder, and work harder, and for 2017  I'll add to that: CONSUME LESS and GET RID OF THE STUFF.  And by stuff, yes I mostly mean the inanimate objects that clutter, but I also mean the ideas, people, habits, etc. that do not contribute to my becoming the best expression of myself.

Surround yourself with the people you love and those who love you, do the work that ignites your soul and makes you want to never sleep, visit the places you dream of seeing, help those who need it, be kind, be grateful, be of service to others.

And above all else...don't make excuses for not doing any of those things.  I'm sure people tire of hearing me say it, but seriously-just do it

We have one life, people.  Make it count. 

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An Elusive Jackal

This photo of a Side-striped Jackal was taken by Canid Project collaborator David Lloyd in the Maasai Mara, Africa. David spends several months a year in Kenya photographing the wildlife. This elusive and shy jackal, with its white tipped tail, is rarely seen in the Maasai Mara, especially compared to the Black-backed Jackal which is much more bold and almost a guaranteed sighting.

Interesting Fact: These two jackal species differ genetically so much from other species of the genus Canis some have proposed they be placed in a separate genus.

In regards to this lovely portrait David says, "I think I've seen Side-striped Jackal maybe five times out of the 50+ weeks I have spent in the Maasai Mara. They are a rare sighting in the Maasai Mara but are more common in the Serengeti. So, I've had five maybe six sightings tops, but there was only one instance where one was close enough for a good photo. It was in March 2015 and it was fleeting. I only had a minute with the jackal before he disappeared into the grasses."

More jackal goodness coming soon. 
http://www.canidproject.com

The Fox Effect

I’ve never lived a conventional life. Things don’t happen to me in the same way or order they do for most people I know. I didn’t go to college right out of high school and graduate in four years with a degree that would guarantee me a job with benefits and a 401K. The route I chose took me 10 years before I was able to graduate college. I attended three universities and went through three majors before staying put in Philosophy. I had basically given up photography when I switched my major from it to Philosophy.  Going to school for photo had unfortunately caused an aversion to the craft. 

I worked and went to school mostly part-time, but pushed through full-time the past two years. During all this I was also raising my daughter on my own and had been since I was 21 years old . I worked 14 hour days on my online retail business and it was doing fairly well. 

In the spring of 2007 I was running my business from home and it was doing well enough that I eventually needed more space. After many years of living in a tiny garage apartment I finally had the means to move into a real house. It was still a rental but this was a real house on a lake near the university, and perhaps one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in this city. 

I chose the house because it was built in the late 1930s and there were heirloom bulbs in the messy cottage garden. I recognized the gladiolus flowers were a variety from the 1940s and the walking irises were just as old, probably passed along from a neighbor. I also chose the house because I could look out the kitchen window and see cormorants, herons and egrets on the lake through early blooming camellias that dotted the long rolling back yard. I’d always lived near water and I was excited to continue the trend for my daughter. Waterways, ponds, and lakes in Louisiana mean birds, turtles, and other fantastic critters-the kinds of things that just feel like home to me.  

We had been living in the new house a month so far so we were still busy settling in and unpacking. One gorgeous Louisiana spring afternoon as we headed home, I drove into our neighborhood and as I turned the corner only a block from our house my daughter pointed and yelled, “Mom, I just saw a fox!”. I instantly slammed on the breaks and looked back; she was right. There to my left sitting in the drainage ditch between the street and the sidewalk was an adult fox. Her copper fur shown like tiny blazes of fire in the late afternoon light as it filtered through the Live Oak tree canopy above. I backed my car up slowly and stopped when we were eye to eye with her. She just stared at us; she didn’t budge. To this day I think she was the tamest, or boldest, fox I’ve ever come across. 

I was locking eyes with something that looked and felt so much like a domestic dog, until I noticed her thin vertically oriented pupils. They were more cat-like than canid.  At that moment I didn’t know why her pupils were shaped like that, but I saw the wildness of that animal in a way I’ve never seen it in an animal before or since. I couldn’t look away; I was completely transfixed.

Later I would learn that the shape of the fox’s pupil and the degree to which they can close down or open them is what allows them to see in dim light; its an important feature since they are largely nocturnal. Not only that, vertically oriented pupils help predators who hunt ambush style, those who hide until they attack their prey from a close distance.  The pupil shape allows them to judge distance without moving their head, which for an ambush predator is vital to avoid detection from their prey. We stared each other down for a few more seconds before she very calmly disappeared into the drainage pipe. 

I quickly drove home to grab my camera. All my film cameras were boxed away so all I kept around was a point and shoot that could fit in a coat pocket. Armed with my tiny camera, I pulled the car up next to the drainage pipe and out popped the adult fox. And then to our surprise out popped a fox kit too! The kit was just as bold as the mom and she looked at us curiously, sniffing the air. We watched them for a couple of minutes then they disappeared into the pipe. I took three snapshots that day.

Evening walks soon led us to the den. The fox family was making their home just a few blocks from our home underneath an old uninhabited but maintained house. The house faced the lake and was on a rather busy road, but the foxes largely used the drainage pipes to navigate the area. I remember one morning just after sunrise we drove past the fox house and noticed a small traffic jam caused by the sight of the kits playing rambunctiously outside of their den. As I slowly drove past a man in a truck opposite of me asked, “Can you believe this?  Amazing isn’t it?” I smiled and nodded my head. Yes, it was quite an amazing sight.  

People seemed to really enjoy this little mini-view into the wild on their way to work or school. Taking in the entire scene made me smile, but I remember being a bit concerned for their well-being at the same time. It seems for every one person who welcomes urban wildlife there is another who feels the opposite and who might be capable of trying to have the animal removed and “relocated”. The problem with this is two-fold. Removing and relocating or trapping and killing an animal from an environment just opens up the space for another animal to move in, and if the population is healthy,  one will. Both of these options have always seemed pointless to me. Also, animals are territorial. Relocating an animal could dump it into another animal’s territory, immediately causing conflict. 

About a week after we discovered the den location, my daughter and I sat down at the bottom of the fox house driveway at dusk to watch the fox family emerge from under the house. We sat about 15 feet from each other and kept a good distance from the den entrance. One by one they slowly started to emerge. Mom fox noticed us immediately but kept a distance and just watched us watching her babies, who ran and romped and played and chirped. The bolder kit of the litter soon took notice of my daughter, looking curiously and sniffing the air as he made his way towards her. The others followed soon after. At the time my daughter had long hair down to her waist and she used a fruit-scented shampoo. I wondered if the fruity scents of her freshly washed hair is what drew them to her.. They got closer and closer and eventually their little noses were an inch from her hair and for 20 seconds there was my daughter with a garland of coppery little foxes wrapped around her. The one thought that keep going through my mind was, ‘Why don’t you have a camera with you?’  They eventually lost interest and went back to their romping and running. My daughter was 11 at the time and I know it was an experience she’ll always remember. 

After that, I remembered to bring my point and shoot with me on our next early evening walk. Keeping distance and watching to make sure I wasn’t making mom fox uncomfortable or nervous,  I shot off a few pictures to document the family. The pictures are awful because of the low resolution of the tiny camera and with bad lighting it couldn't correct for, but they are still some of my favorites captured moments. They represent the last time I saw the fox family. Neighborhood talk was that the couple to the left of the fox house had them trapped and removed. I’ll never know if that happened, or if they were run off from the den, but either way we never saw them again.  

 

The pictures also represents a very pivotal moment in my life and it’s why I feel I owe so much to the fox. After I took those snapshots that day I uploaded them to an online forum I used to journal and speak to friends on. The first response was from a Russian photographer friend of mine, “Oh these do these creatures no justice. Go and get your cameras out of storage, stop being stubborn, and start shooting again” was the gist of what he typed to me that day. And I remember thinking that he was off the mark because I was just shooting the foxes in a documentary fashion and it didn’t matter. However, I knew deep down it did matter. It mattered in the sense that I gave up something that once gave me great joy and happiness. I gave up the one thing I never got bored with and the one thing I was always hungry to learn more about. It wasn’t just a disservice to the foxes but it was a disservice to myself too.  I was being stubborn and getting in my own way.

I vowed that day to start shooting again. It meant a lot at the time because I had yet to make the DSLR leap from film. I was a purist and had resisted it for some time. But that day it all became clear, and I started saving up for my first DSLR. Had none of these experiences happen, had I never moved to that house and had never seen those foxes I would not be doing what I do today.  Photography would not be a part of my life. And yes, I came back to it in a roundabout unconventional way and “late” comparatively speaking, but as I mentioned early on--nothing I do seems to be the result of conventions. I follow my heart more often than my logic, which can sometimes result in a little bit of magic in my life.  

Sometimes when I am with students at a workshop or they tell me how much they have fallen in love with photography or nature having gone through my basic photography class, a little picture of the fox family pops up in my mind. Over the past 4 years, I’ve taught hundreds of students and I wonder if I’d never had the pleasure of meeting the fox family if, photographically speaking, my students would be doing what they are doing today. 

It makes me think of the term butterfly effect, with reference to chaos theory, which is defined as “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere”. It’s not exactly the same thing, but taking from the general idea I’ve come to call all of this The Fox Effect. There are undeniable links and connections to foxes in my life and to the people around me. This new photojournalistic project of mine on canids that I’ve been formulating in my mind for almost a year now is a tribute to these inspirational creatures we call foxes and their canid relatives. It is about this effect they have had on my life and those who come into contact with them in some capacity. I hope you follow along. 

Read more about the project or submit your own story HERE

Louisiana Bobcat Refuge Project

When I heard of this rescue organization early in 2016, I was immediately curious and eager to meet the woman behind it all. The Louisiana Bobcat Refuge is a 501c3 non-profit and is the only species-specific bobcat and lynx rehabilitation & research center in the USA.  Central to its mission is a surrogate program called AKP, which was developed by Pamela Kay Connery, the founder of LBR and an expert on bobcat and Canada lynx behavior. Pamela also works hard on conservation education, nationally and internationally concerning felids native to the USA.

I finally got up the courage to contact Pamela this summer in hopes she'd be interested in a collaborative photo-documentary effort.  I wanted to learn more about her abandoned kitten surrogacy program, and I wanted to see it for myself, especially after hearing it takes 1 year to prepare a kitten for reintroduction into the wild.  A whole year! Lucky for me she was interested, and I soon found myself sitting in her SUV on a 3-hour trip to pick up an abandoned kitten that had been brought to Dr. Gia Morgan at WERLA in Shreveport. 

Click on the pictures below to see a full version. Mouse over the photos for captions:

Pamela is the warm and personable sort of person who you feel you've known for years within the first few minutes of meeting her.  She's also super smart and has an impressive background.  Pamela graduated with honors from Louisiana College with a Master Degree in Teaching. As for the wild cats, she is one of fewer than 20 species-specific bobcat rehabilitators in the United States and has more than eight years of hands-on experience with native and exotic felids. Pamela is also a NWCO bobcat live-trapper and holds an International Wildlife Rehabilitation Certification in Lynx rufus rehabilitation.

 
When she began her journey to get certified in bobcat rehabilitation, she soon realized there was next to nothing known on the subject.  She read every bit of literature on felid rehabilitation she could find, spoke with experts in the field, and learned as much as she could about the behaviors and natural history of the bobcat and the Canada lynx.  She took that knowledge and her hands-on experience with the cats and began to develop what she would call the Abandoned Bobcat Kitten Surrogate Program (aka AKP) for the abandoned kittens. She is literally writing the book on bobcat rehabilitation.  

When we arrived at WERLA, Dr. Morgan and a few volunteers were busy tending to animals.  After a quick tour, we were led to the bobcat kitten. I didn't really know what to expect. After a few minutes of observing the kitten observing us and our gear, she reminded me a lot of a domestic feral kitten. She was curious and rambunctious, but definitely a lot wilder and more strong-willed. Although cautious, she was eager to explore and play and claw and nibble, but I could tell Pamela would need to win her trust to be able to work with her. In the wild the kitten would normally be experiencing important play enrichment with her litter-mates. This play ultimately helps them learn key aspects of hunting. Pamela aims to rectify this lack of litter-mate  enrichment through her surrogate program. 

As we sat on the floor and watched the tiny kitten make some rounds, she finally approached Pamela, perched on her knee,  and they were properly acquainted.  Pamela seems to have a special way with cats, something not many people have.  As I watched their interactions, I could tell that the kitten trusted her, and I could also see the concern and genuine care Pamela felt for the kitten through her eyes and gentle gestures. 

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I think we both could have stayed all day in that room, or just at the wonderful place called WERLA, but it was eventually time to head back for the refuge.  As Dr. Morgan walked us down the long driveway to the car,  I got a real sense of the bond between these two wildlife rehabbers. Pamela has taken in a few bobcats from Dr. Morgan before, as well as helped in the release of WERLA opossums. They talk often to share expertise. That quid pro quo relationship confirmed for me that wildlife rehabilitators are a rare breed, and they need the interaction and exchange of ideas between each other because, let's face it, although it's a rewarding existence, it is also at times isolating and stressful. Having the moral support of a few like-minded souls seems a very necessary part of any wildlife rehabber's life.  


Click on the pictures below to see a full version. Mouse over the photos for captions:

Once back at the refuge, I was able to watch Pamela engage in enrichment activities with the bobcat kittens. She literally becomes a surrogate parental figure to these kittens for a time. This is the first step in her AKP Surrogate Program. Regarding her surrogate role to bobcat kittens Pamela says,  "Even though it looks like fun, I am building a bond with a kit that is necessary in its rehabilitation process. Having interactions with one assigned person (AKA surrogate) is enrichment and stimulation for them on many levels. I have to win their trust, but as they mature, I begin to distance myself and transition them to a habitat where they are no longer touching me, but are interacting gradually with a surrogate bobcat which will eventually take my place..."  


Little Green Guys

As a kid I thought I was quite the adventurer.  I grew up in a suburb with ranch style houses built largely in the 1960s in the capital city of Louisiana.  My backyard was a standard size complete with a trampoline and basketball goal in the driveway.  But at the back of the yard and just beyond the row of Ligustrum that hid a fence line it was anything but standard, at least to me.  The ditch, as I referred to it, was a steep drop into another world for me, the only wilderness I knew.  The water of the canal contained minnows, brim, catfish, ghost shrimp, crawfish, turtles, snakes, amiphiuma, mussels, and bullfrogs-all of which I found endlessly fascinating-even the little water bugs that glided over the water in patterns like those  of ice skaters. 

Turtles were easy to catch and a favorite of mine to keep for a while in my aquariums. Once, I convinced my mother to allow me to keep a baby pool full of ditch life in my bedroom, including a couple of tiny red-eared sliders (turtles).  I always released the critters I caught back into the ditch after getting to know them for a little while.  I even accidentally re-caught a couple of turtles.  But there was one thing I never could catch.  The bullfrog eluded me for years. They were big and easy to spot, but they were skittish.  They’d hear me coming from a distance and I’d hear a splash as they quickly jumped back into the safety of the water.  I tried staking them out hunter-style by waiting quietly, with my net in hand, for them to emerge from the depths of the ditch, but I never succeeded. 

I eventually enlisted the help of my childhood friend Bart.  And on his first try, with my net, he did it!  This was a huge healthy bullfrog that was just stunning.  I remember getting home and putting him in a 10 gallon aquarium, set up to imitate his natural environment, and I sat there, with my chin resting on my crossed arms on the table and just watched him, studying every little thing about him.  I’ve always liked to really study things up close, to plant a good image in my memory of the textures, colors, and individual nuances of animals and plants.  It’s probably one of the reasons I was drawn to photography now that I think about it.  After a few days of studying my new bullfrog friend, I released him just where Bart had caught him. 

Now, 30 years later, I live in a different kind of suburb in a semi-rural area outside of the capital city of Louisiana. We have 2 gas stations, 3 small schools.  a post office, a restaurant, and no grocery store.   So, as you can imagine, it does feel a bit more rural except for the fact that we are only a 20 minute drive into the city.  

Our house is situated on 7.5 acres of bottomland hardwood forest near Bayou Manchac. Once a major water throughway, the bayou is now a small stream that a kayak could barely navigate.  When water levels are high enough I do see the occasional alligator and plenty of wading heron and egrets. Physically it resembles the ditch of my childhood, but I don’t have the same immediate access to it.

However, as one can imagine, living this close to a swamp, we do get quite a lot of wildlife on our 7.5 acres.  Although I no longer trek through the ditch with a net in hand, I do enjoy putting trail cameras out, taking photo walks through the property, and appreciate when my husband alerts me to any cool critter he comes across. We have deer, skunk, coyote, swamp rabbits, fox, opossum, raccoon, gray and fox squirrels, armadillo, and even little shrew.  I’ve yet to see a bobcat but I know they are around. We also have lots of reptiles and amphibians, especially treefrogs. These tiny guys are gorgeous in their saturated colors and patterns, and very different to my bullfrogs of childhood. Every year during the warm moist months you can find a handful scattered across the outside of the windows of the house, where they hunt night-flying bugs attracted to the lights.  This year however, I’ve seen more than ever before.

I’m not sure if it’s due to the recent flood or of the fact that we raised three buckets full of tadpoles over the summer, but this year's frog invasion has been impressive. The first night I noticed it was a month or so ago while cooking dinner. I glanced over to the kitchen window and counted fourteen frogs! There clinging to the window were Squirrel, Gray, and Green treefrogs, from nearly 2 inches long to less than a half-inch. My curiosity was piqued so I slowly walked from room to room and continued counting frog silhouettes on the windows.  I counted 24, 30, 40, …. then I walked outside and continued counting more.  I stopped at 80.

That next day I took my phone out with me.  I took 102 iPhone pictures of these little green wonders.  Giddy with excitement, I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen anything cuter than a 1” Squirrel Treefrog, with his disproportionate bobble head and bigger-than-life eyes.  

The weather was still warm in October and early November, and the continuing frog spectacle propelled me to document them with the big camera. I ended up spending a handful of weeks photographing them in the early mornings and late afternoons until sunset. It was a magical few weeks, and I felt quite special tuning in to their quiet lives. And as I do, I studied them close-up.  I didn’t give up watching or photographing them until either the light was so poor I could no longer see or the mosquitoes were just too much to tolerate.  

And I’m so glad I did.  In some way this has satiated my childhood dream of catching a bullfrog, I think.  Little green and gray frogs in lieu of one big bullfrog? Yes, I’ll happily take it. 

 

Recent Field Trip: The Gardens

We find our classes at some local gardens quite often.  This is where I like to take my students, especially the new ones, to work on manual mode and composition.  For the more seasoned photography students it's a great place to practice using their creative eye.  

I rarely post my photos, should I take any, from these field trips but this past weekend it was a very small group and I was able to shoot some of my own photos so I thought I would share.  :) 

PS I do have a Basic Photo class starting this week (tomorrow night!) and private lessons are always an option as well. To see more, please see the current class schedule HERE. 

Abita Springs for Wonder South

Last weekend I held a photography walk with Will DeGravelles, land steward for The Nature Conservancy, at the Abita Flatlands Preserve in Abita Springs.  

In this walk we concentrated on photographing the intricacies of the habitat, textures and colors of early fall while using creative shooting techniques. Will was a top notch guide on this creative journey, as he truly is a tome of information on Louisiana ecosystems, plants, and trees. 

I have always felt that photographing nature and wildlife over the years has helped me maintain a strong relationship with and a sense of deep respect for flora and fauna I live with on this planet. It is a bond that only becomes deeper the more I photograph and even deeper still when I am teaching this craft to others.  Photographing nature compels me to learn more about the things I am photographing; I want to understand  and know everything I can about them. As far as photography goes I do feel learning about the things you choose to focus on is just as important as knowing your camera inside and out.  

These workshop walks are designed to help you learn more about the animal behaviors, habitats, changing seasons, plant life, and conservation efforts of these diverse and aesthetically rich areas while challenging your creative eye. Just remember, the more you develop an intimate knowledge of your subject the more your images will say and the better they will ultimately be. 

Check out some of the photos below that I took to document the walk.   The day was a lovely learning experience that ended with a lunch  and short walk in downtown Abita Springs.  I was so happy with the photos my students took home and I know they were too. As I always say, a day spent with my students is always the best kind of day.  :)

If these sound interesting to you, be sure to sign up for my newsletter to be notified when the next one is posted.  

 *A percentage of the proceeds from these workshops will benefit Louisiana Coastal Restoration by way of Wonder South

California 1

I have had an extraordinary year and a half, photographically speaking.  I traveled a bit and I've really taken a lot of photographs, many documentary in style, and I have yet to blog about these experiences. I'd say 80% of those images haven't seen the light of day yet.  So I recently started cataloging and editing and getting all those images ready for this blog.  I want to start with California, my most recent trip, and also my favorite place on this earth.

I led a photo group out to the deserts of California a couple of weeks ago.  We were to focus on sunsets and night skies, with the Milky Way being our primary goal.  Most of the participants had never been to the California deserts and it was quite rewarding to see a student teary-eyed at sunset and when asked if she was ok, she just replied that it was just so beautiful and she never thought she'd be able to make it here to see in person. And really, at the end of the day, that's what it's all about for me.  Yes, helping students get a good picture is part of it, but helping someone realize their dream or experience something they never thought they would and seeing that appreciation is by far the greater reward of what I do. 

The Joshua Tree National Park encompasses both the Colorado desert and the Mojave desert. They are at different elevations and support different flora and fauna but the one thing they have in common is their night sky.  Even though Joshua Tree is only 2 hours from Los Angeles, it is dark.  You can easily see the Milky Way with your bare eyes (and also more airplanes than you may ever see in your life in one night).  

I must admit I was surprised and a little disappointed with the amount of people out shooting the night skies this year.  I have been venturing out to the Joshua Tree area for almost 4 years now and this year was by far the busiest I have ever seen it.  Busy isn't bad in itself, but the fact that many of these photo meet up groups lacked any sense of photo etiquette ruined it for a lot of us.  We got our shots, don't get me wrong, but many shots were foiled by people lightpainting without asking and walking right into shots with headlamps on.  But the part that was the hardest for me was the noise level and the disregard for others who may enjoy a more quiet approach, not to mention the people actually trying to sleep in the campgrounds. 

I'll never forget the first time I went out to shoot in the late night at Anza Borrego, California.  I am from Louisiana and we simply can't see the stars like you can in California.  We have way too much humidity, for starters.  In the desert that night I couldn't see a foot in front of me until my eyes adjusted, and then I could only see what was faintly lit by the stars. And there were billions of them; I had never seen so many in my life. And it was quiet.  And it was still.  It was just my husband and me and we were the only people out there.  The only noise we heard was the rustle of some small reptiles or mammals every now and then.  I remember wanting to lay down and just look at those stars all night, until the sun came up.  I could have and would have too, if my husband hadn't wanted to leave after a couple of hours or so.  It was hard to peel me away from that night, from that experience.  It was one of those moments where you really feel alive, when your brain is free of all distractions and all you can think about is how vast this universe is and that all you need to do at that moment is press the trigger again, once your long exposure is done.  It is the definition of being present in the moment for me. 

And so, this past experience shook me to the core in a way those who have never experienced a quiet and still night sky may not understand.  And maybe it's good they hadn't because they enjoyed the night, the banter, the laughter.  I don't want to take that from them.  But I do hope, as night photography becomes more popular, that photo etiquette is once again a priority for those of us shooting together.  I know it has motivated me to discuss this in EVERY class and workshop I teach from now on.  

Check out the new galleries with some of my documentary photos from the trip: 

 

  

 

Photography as Therapy

I always find it interesting when students tell me that they are lost taking pictures without humans in the frame. My classes go on field trips and these are often to natural areas where we focus on photographing flowers, plants, light, building textures etc. , all things that are great for practicing exposure and composition. In my classes I do have a good deal of budding retail photographers who are starting, or have recently started, photography businesses that focus on families, children, weddings and the like. Usually the story is that they started taking pictures for fun, of family members, and then others started asking them to photograph their family, children, or wedding. And from there they decided to turn it into at least a part-time business.

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This is so different than my experience of finding photography. I dabbled in retail photography (families, kids etc) years after I had been shooting, but realized soon after that it just wasn’t for me. I prefer nature, food, animal, commercial, and editorial work. Those are just my niches. And families, children, and weddings are just those students’ niches. And that’s ok.

Regardless of your focus however, I do feel there is great value in taking time out from your comfort zone and shooting, just to shoot. Taking a few hours, or even a day, to devote to shooting for no other reason than to be out shooting, can be a type of therapy for me. For that time, especially if I am by myself, there is nothing except me and the camera and all my focus is 100% on what I am shooting.  I have a goal and it puts me in a type of tunnel vision mindset.  All else seems to fade away, and I just shoot.  It is a type of decompression

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The pressures of performing, producing, and deadlines are lifted. There is a wonderful sense of freedom in that realization. It forces one to see the things he may not normally see or photograph. It forces one to think and problem solve creatively in a way he may not normally, in regards to lighting and environment. It gets you out of your box. And the other stuff, the learning and practice part of it, is just a fantastic added bonus.  Two birds, one stone.

And yes, going out to shoot flowers, a car show, architecture etc may be completely opposite of what you are used to shooting, but the moment you feel uncomfortable and ask yourself, ‘What am I suppose to do with this?’ is when the magic starts to happen. Challenge yourself to see what is in front of you from different points of view, different perspectives, different light, different angles, through different lenses. Exploit all of these things. This is where 'making an image' instead of 'taking a picture' begins.


www.amyshuttworkshops.com  // www.amyshutt.com // amyshutt@gmail.com

Groove-billed Ani

I've been wanting to see a Groove-billed Ani for about seven years now.  These birds breed from S. Texas throughout much of Mexico and Central America and parts of South America. There has been no record in my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana since 1999 and there are very few records anywhere in Louisiana in the last 15 years.  Formerly they were found in late fall and winter in south Louisiana. The reasons for decline are unknown. 

Yesterday one showed up in Cameron Parish in Louisiana. And today one showed up 15 minutes away from my house at the Bluebonnet Swamp.  I rushed over as quickly as I could.  People were already there and I was able to see it immediately.  He was hanging around the meadow right off the boardwalk.  These birds eat large insects almost exclusively, especially grasshoppers and katydids. So we watched as he'd disappear to feed on or near the ground in the weedy and brushy areas then he'd pop back up briefly, but usually in a bramble of bushes and vines.

Finally he perched on a small but barren Devil's Walking Stick tree and there were finally no distracting leaves and branches and I was able to see him in good light.  He was well lit and the iridescence in his feathers as well as the beautiful subtle patterns on his chest were in full view.  The grooves in his bill were also quite visible. 

So, a nice morning with quite a nice surprise.  What a fantastic looking bird with an equally fantastic call. 

*It's also interesting to note that Groove-billed Anis have a highly unusual breeding system: they are communal, with several pairs defending a group territory against other groups, and all females of the group laying eggs in same nest.  

To read more about these birds visit: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Groove-billed_Ani/id

Lensbaby Velvet 56: A Creativity Reminder

I've been teaching photography classes and workshops for four years now.  One thing I have noticed in those years is the amount of emphasis put on the clarity and sharpness of images. People expect a certain level of sharpness and if it's not achieved, they are left frustrated and disappointed, more often than not. And, I get it.  I do understand the desire for 'tack sharp' and smooth non-grainy images for many situations, but I do think this is more of a recent digital preoccupation than it ever was with film and analog cameras and lenses.  

I learned photography almost two decades ago on an analog film camera, a Minolta SR-T 101 with a 58mm f/1.4 lens to be exact.  I think back to critiques and discussions with my film friends of the day and I know, for a fact, that how grainy an image was or how 'tack sharp' our focus may have been was rarely discussed.  Rather we discussed light, our images' compositions, tones, hues, atmospheric aspects, and the feelings our images evoked.  Of course sharpness had its place, but it wasn't such a major focus as it is today.  There was also a lovely feel in the grain of film prints.  I enjoyed using a high ASA black and white film because I knew it'd deliver more grain, which to me equaled more depth and texture, more atmosphere. But today, software can eliminate noise (AKA grain) entirely, much to the detriment of the atmosphere and mood I enjoyed.  

All this being said, I rarely shoot film these days.  I love my Nikon D810 and wouldn't trade it for the world.  I also love my extremely sharp prime lenses.  But, one thing I have noticed is that through this digital camera age, I struggle more than I ever did with film as far as creativity is concerned.  I think about this a lot and try to pinpoint exactly what it is, and I have a few ideas.  One of those ideas centers around the fact that we are using such incredibly powerful gear and technologies these days that we just may have become hyper-obsessed with technical perfection. We also have programs now that help us to enhance images in a way that was impossible in a darkroom, which seems to compound this as well.  

So, have we become overly fixated with the perfection of the technical aspects of an image due to digital photography?  I think yes, to a very large degree.  

I no longer "shoot from the hip".  I do not take as many creative risks as I once did with film.  I am less apt to experiment, as well.  

Enter the Lensbaby Velvet 56, a 56mm f/1.6 manual focus 1:2 Macro lens.

A description from the website: 

Inspired by classic portrait lenses from the mid-20th century, this manual focus portrait lens delivers a soft, glowing effect at brighter apertures and beautifully sharp yet subtly unique images as you stop down. The gorgeous, velvety- tones give your digital images a film-like, organic quality. This incredibly versatile lens enables photographers to move seamlessly from shooting an environmental portrait, to capturing the finest details with focus as close as 5” from the front of the lens. Velvet 56 features a black all-metal body and smooth, dampened manual focus.

Check out all the specs HERE.

The day this lens arrived I took it with me to a hair appointment.  Vicki Beechler, who deals with my difficult head of hair, has her own small studio and on that particular day she let a couple of her cats in for me to meet. This is the first shot out of my camera using the Velvet 56, of Rambo:

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I was in love.  I also immediately fell into some state of nostalgia.  Something about the imperfect manual focusing, the manual aperture ring (be still my beating heart), the quality and feel of the bokeh, the bit of hazy grain at f/2.8, the way it felt in my hands with its heavy metal construction, all just brought me back to the things I miss so dearly about analog film cameras.  

I've now had this lens for a couple of months and have taken it with me on commercial food shoots, photography field trips here in Louisiana, Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, New Mexico, and even the Masai Mara, Kenya in Africa.  I continue to get fun, creative results and it has helped me to break away from the obsession with technical perfection of the digital camera age and exercise my creative visions once again.  When I am shooting with this lens  I can get lovely tack sharp images if I close down on the aperture, but  for me it's more fun to stay between f/2.8 and f/4 to get the look I'm after, the look that none of my other digital lenses will give me.  

I've made a gallery with some of my favorites from the past couple of months with the Lensbaby Velvet 56. All images were taken with either a Nikon D810, D800, or D7100. 

Please view the gallery HERE

In a nutshell, I love this lens. It reminds me of how I approached photography when shooting film, more creatively and less technically. I highly recommend the Velvet 56 for just about anyone from any photography background.  Spend a little time with this lens, and I guarantee you it'll help exercise your creative eye. Find the Lensbaby Velvet 56 HERE

 

 

 

Introversion + Finding Your Element

I recently had to write up some info about my work for a facility that will be hosting one of my Basic Photography Classes. It got me thinking about photography, natural science, animals, nature, people, and teaching. I have been devoting the majority of my energy into teaching over the past (almost) three years, and I have to say that I find it interesting and surprising that I enjoy it so much and that I feel so comfortable in it.

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I am an introvert in every sense of the word. I’m probably even on the more extreme end of the spectrum. In addition to being an introvert I am pretty darn shy. Combine these two and it gets challenging. Talking to people in groups, parties, social interactions, class discussions etc. has always been something I have dreaded and even avoided if at all possible. I’m fine one-on-one in conversation and with limited exposure to smaller groups, but I definitely need to recharge and take a lot of alone time to counter my social or larger group interactions.

Over the last two years, however, I have been leading small and larger classes on a weekly basis and I have even given a couple of talks in front of very large groups, something that would have normally made me run away screaming at just the thought. So why can I do it now? I think it’s because I am talking photography. If there is one thing I’m comfortable in, it’s photography. When I’m talking photography to like-minded people (and in many cases some kindreds) I am in my element 100%. And I wish I would have known this earlier on in my life.

Teaching photography is what I need to be doing. I genuinely love it. I love it as much as taking pictures and that says a lot to me. Focusing primarily on nature and animal photography has made me love it even more. And in the case of the Audubon Nature Institute photography classes I am able to focus also on conservation and animal education, which is just the icing on the cake. These are all the things I care deeply about rolled into one.

I honestly feel photographing nature and animals over the years has really helped me to forge a strong relationship and a sense of deep respect between myself and the flora and fauna I live side by side with on this planet. It is a bond that only becomes deeper the more I photograph and even deeper still when I am teaching this craft to others. Photographing nature compels me to learn more about the things I am photographing; I want to understand these things and I want to know everything I can about them. I stress this in all of my photography classes. The more you know about your subject the better your photographs will be. So do the research. Study the animal behaviors and habitats, the changing seasons, the native versus invasive plant life, or whatever it is that you want to focus your photography. Develop an intimate knowledge of your subject. All of this will make you a better photographer and will open your eyes to things in a way nothing else can.