Capture the moment!

When I look at the work of the most famous nature photographers, I am always amazed by the technical perfection of their photographs, but sorely disappointed by the almost complete lack of special, sudden, or unanticipated action. For this reason, most nature photographs are sterile portraits, snapped from solidly tripod-mounted cameras, posed and static and lifeless, no matter what post-processing wizardry is applied to the images.

What is the most famous human portrait? Arguably it is Karsh's 1941 photo of Winston Churchill glowering at the camera. And why does he have this marvelous expression? Supposedly, Karsh had just snatched away Churchill's cigar and snapped the photo as he reacted! Among nature photographs, Moose Peterson's photo of a great blue heron tossing a smaller, dead bird into its gullet is my absolute favorite. Its energy and bizarre subject matter make it totally different from the run-of-the-mill animal portrait.

The best pictures capture a special moment, not just a scene. The special moment need not be entirely unplanned or unanticipated. After all, it's perfectly reasonable for a sports photographer to pre-focus his camera on the finish line or on second base; that's where the climactic action will likely occur. In other cases, the special moment is not one of action, but arises from an unexpected juxtaposition of subjects, or perhaps just the special lighting of a choice subject.

I can't hope to match the masters, but the photographs in this section, as imperfect as they are, are among my favorites. (I have not included, however, any photos found in other parts of this web page.) Most of them capture a special action, special lighting, or a special pairing of subjects. I have listed them in chronological order. (Am I getting better or worse?) As may be seen from these examples, when I walk around the woods I always carry a telephoto lens; I almost never have shorter focal lengths available for nature photos unless I am being a tourist in a National Park.

Truck with Flowers
How long does a dump truck loaded with dirt have to sit in one place to grow such a garden? This is one case where I wish that I had had a tripod so that I could have maximized the depth of field of my telephoto lens. Nikon FE2 with 180 mm f/2.8 EDIF AF and Fuji Reala 100; exposure unrecorded.

Fritillaries and Flower
There's not much depth of field at close range with a 500 mm f/4 lens, but in some way that adds to the charm. Nikon FE2 with 500 mm f/4 AI-P EDIF and Fuji Super HGII 400; exposure, aperture priority at f/4.

Moon and Spires
A year of planning and experimentation led to this photo. A site had to be found where the Princeton Graduate College was visible on the horizon, at a distance where the moon and spires would have comparable angular sizes (about 1.5 miles away). The precise compass direction between this site and the tower was determined, and an astronomical program was used calculate when the moon would set at this azimuth. Then I just had to be willing to get up at any hour of the day or night, check for acceptable weather (it had to be really clear), carry my telescope to the site, and wait to see if the moon hit or missed. I believe that four trips were required to get this picture. It's the real thing, not a superposition of two photos in Photoshop! Nikon FE2 with Astro-Physics 130EDT telescope (1016 mm f.l., f/8) and Kodachrome 200; exposure 1/4 sec at f/8.

Mirrored Heron
On a perfectly still, overcast day on Whidbey Island, Washington, a heron flew by. There is scarcely a trace of the air-water interface in this photo. The negative was scanned and the scratches and blemishes removed, but no other alterations were made in Photoshop. I guess that this is what 18% gray looks like. Nikon N70 with 180 mm f/2.8 EDIF AF and Fuji Super G 200; exposure 1/1000 sec at f/4.

Backlit Grasses
I'm sure that this photo could easily be reproduced (and bettered!), but it's still nice. Nikon N70 with 180 mm f/2.8 EDIF AF and Kodachrome 64; exposure unrecorded.

Spider in a Flower
I have never seen this type of yellow-green spider before or since. I have prints of this slide that look perfect, but I have never got the color quite right in the electronic version. Here is a brighter, warmer view. Nikon N70 with 180 mm f/2.8 EDIF AF + TC201 and Kodachrome 200; exposure unrecorded.

Holei Pali Tree
The light was just right for this dead tree on the Holei Pali in Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii. Nikon N70 with Sigma 28 mm f/1.8 and Kodachrome 64; exposure unrecorded.

Delicate Arch and Vulture
The vultures were circling, looking for a dehydrated tourist, on this August day in Arches National Park, Utah. I finally got one framed by the arch. Nikon N70 with 24-85 f/2.8-4.0 D IF and Kodak Gold 200; exposure unrecorded at the 85 mm focal length.

Alexander Hall
Well, there's no special circumstance for this photo. It's just good lighting for a picture of this mutant building on a campus famous for its unspeakably horrific architecture. I note that the university has planted a tree in front of this building (to the left of this photo) in order to prevent anyone from photographing the bizarre relief that depicts a multitude of historical figures in some incomprehensible arrangement. I am working on it. Nikon N70 with 18 mm f/3.5 AIS and Kodachrome 64; exposure unrecorded.