Photographing wildlife as subjects

One evening recently, I watched a great egret preening his feathers, drawing the long filaments of his plumage through his bill and allowing them to drift slowly back down, one by one, to ripple individually in the breeze.  The setting sun glowed through his wafting tail and glazed one shoulder and his neck to emphasize his sinuous lines.  I longed to depict it in watercolor.  Unfortunately, I was too far away to see much detail in the bird, and my memory banks do not retain information as well as they once did, so I decided to use my camera to record the moment for later painting.

Great Egret Preening

Grabbing my digital camera, and opening the back door as quietly as possible, I glided across the lanai and hid behind a palm.

But the bird had become aware of my presence.  The moment was lost.  The egret turned and watched warily, standing as still as I, and even more patiently, to be sure that I represented no threat.  He posed gracefully as I zoomed the camera in on him; he contorted his neck, turned this way and that, and continued to watch me out of the corner of his eye while I recorded shot after shot.  But he did not resume his preening, and I was unable to capture the pose that had initially caught my eye.

Such are the vagaries of wildlife photography.  Ideally, you can catch a prize shot, with light from the right direction, the animal turned at a perfect angle, and everything falling into place.  More often, however, the sun slips behind a cloud, the animal is startled or turns away at the critical moment, your camera’s response is too slow, your battery dies, or your memory card reads “full.”  It happens.  Sometimes things simply don’t work out.  You work with the shots you get and do the best you can.

It’s at those times I realize how dependent I’ve become on photography as an artistic tool.  I take it as a warning that I’m getting lazy and allowing my drawing skills to atrophy.  As an artist, I feel I shouldn’t have to rely on photography as more than a dispensable tool I have at my disposal.  But the fact is that I do find it indispensable.

I don’t intend to take up hunting or start collecting taxidermy to provide myself with easy-to-study subject matter.  I’d rather risk the missed photos and keep my eyes open and camera at hand. I may never get that elusive “perfect shot.” But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the vitality of the wildlife around me.  Even if I don’t capture it in my camera or successfully reproduce it in watercolor, the experience will have touched me in some way.

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