There’s no better feeling than capturing that one precious moment in nature, when a bird takes flight, a bumble bee lands softly on a flower, or the setting sun reflecting perfectly on the surface of a mountain lake. Photographs are one of the best ways to relive your adventures and an excellent tool to teach others about the beautiful wildlife you’ve experienced. But when it comes to nature photography, capturing that perfect moment can be a challenge because there are so many moving parts, and wildlife can be especially unpredictable. We asked Chincoteague Bay Field Station’s expert nature photographer and Road Scholar instructor Jim Clark to provide us with a few simple tricks to elevate your photography and bring a piece of nature home with you:
1. Know Your Subject
“Be a naturalist first, photographer second. I guarantee your images will be much more appreciated and welcomed by your audience,” explains Jim. “Oh yeah, you’ll have more fun, too!” The best way to photograph nature is to understand nature. Once you gain a deeper knowledge of your subjects, you’ll have an easier time capturing those defining moments about what makes nature so awesome.
2. Don’t Just Photograph Nature; Photograph to Be in Nature
You shouldn’t photograph nature just to get a pretty picture. Professional nature photographers enjoy being outside as much as they love capturing that perfect moment. For Jim, he loves how his students and Road Scholar participants have “just as much fun watching a great egret patiently wait for the right moment to strike the water to catch a fish as they did actually photographing it.” Nature photography should be about the experience and appreciating the beauty of the world, and then about you trying to photograph it.
3. Knowing When to Anticipate and When to Chase
This one is a twofer. Knowing when to wait for just the right moment to capture can be hard, but it’s also very important. It involves plenty of patience and having a little know-how (see above tip) to anticipate how a moment might play out. Slow down, observe and wait to see if you can anticipate something incredible about to happen. Then be ready to chase the moment.
Just as important as anticipating is knowing when to chase a moment. Once you see a moment beginning to unfold, get to work capturing the moment, like an osprey diving for a fish or two polar bears wrestling on the arctic tundra. Just remember: Jim says that knowing when to anticipate and when to chase aren’t mutually exclusive. Both depend upon each other to capture that perfect photograph.
4. Capture a Sense of Place
“As nature photographers, we strive to seek that elusive characteristic in our landscape photography: a sense of place,” says Jim. “After all, it is the ‘it’ factor in landscape photography to have our viewers feel as if they can actually sense being there.” That’s why truly immersing yourself into the landscape you are photographing is so important in becoming a skilled and confident nature photographer. Let all distractions fade away and try to pinpoint what makes this landscape so uniquely beautiful. Engage all your senses – savor the experience. The more connection you have with the location, the better your photography will stand out and the more your viewers will feel that magic, too.
5. Get Eye to Eye with Wildlife
Though your first inclination might be to remain standing to photograph a small animal, a guaranteed technique to improve your wildlife photography is to change your perspective. Look at your subject from a different angle and get low for an up close and personal view of the animal. “What makes a lower perspective appealing? The short answer: intimacy,” states Jim. “The viewer gets a sense of looking straight into the animal’s eyes and experiencing the world as the animal does.”
“Newly minted nature photographers tend to focus on what they see, not what they hear. They fail to take advantage of the moment they are photographing when they don’t use all of their senses.” Jim explains that there’s two reasons for listening when photographing nature. The first is to help identify the species you want to photograph. Sometimes the sounds an animal makes will reveal what it is going to do next. The second, and more important, is that nature’s symphony provides an extra level of nature appreciation. Enjoy the experience!
7. Challenge Yourself
Once you’ve become skilled at the basics of photography, step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Try a new perspective or a different lens. Experiment photographing under different ambient lighting situations. Try a new Road Scholar photography program. “Make this the year you say to yourself, ‘Maybe it’s time…’ Then, fill in the rest of the sentence, and go for it,” Jim says. “Make this the year to increase your confidence, improve your skills, and raise your enjoyment in photographing nature.”
A former North American Nature Photography Association President, Jim Clark is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. Jim leads anywhere between six to eight Road Scholar nature photography workshops at the station. Jim is also a columnist for Virginia Wildlife Magazine, former contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine and author/photographer of six books. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com or like him on Facebook. For a full list of Jim’s Road Scholar programs, and more learning adventures, visit www.roadscholar.org.
Images © Jim Clark. All rights reserved.
In February, I packed my bags and hit the road to my next adventure – being a Field Station Educator at Chincoteague Bay Field Station. On my trek from South Carolina to Virginia, I soon realized that I was about to learn more than I could have ever imagined. From meeting new and amazing friends, star gazing in our backyard, bird watching at the refuge, mock-teaching in 20 degree weather – the list could go on and on - 2015 has been an eventful year to say the least. It is difficult to sum up the thousands of stories in just a handful of photographs. With that said, I will attempt to tell a story of 2015, at the Field Station, in photographs. It is not the story of 2015, it is certainly not all stories, but as a collection it does show a good portion of what life has been like over the past three months here at CBFS!
One of the first days on the job - heading out to a field site to learn more about the classes we would soon be teaching.
A photograph from one of our training sessions in the marsh muck. Fun stuff!
View from the harbor in late February & breathtaking sunsets over Chincoteague Bay.
Our first “family” picture together.
The wildlife here is possibly one of the most incredible aspects of the area - bald eagles, deer, dozens of migratory shore birds, and of course the famous Chincoteague ponies!
Above all, I've enjoyed the opportunity to inspire and teach learners of all ages. The enthusiasm of our participants is what makes each day an amazing experience. I've been able to work with students and adults of all levels and look forward to facilitating summer camps in just a few weeks!
Some people get up in the morning and go through the same routine day in and day out. They drive to a job where they only see a computer screen and an office all day. But at the Field Station a “day at the office” could mean several different things. It could include catching up on indoor office duties or it could be seeing the sunrise, biking down a scenic back road, or paddling through a winding creek.
I have worked at the Field Station for two and a half years and I still find excitement and wonder in each new day. I am the Adult and Family Education Assistant Coordinator and I work with all kinds of groups and ages ranging from 5-year-olds up to adults. I have led bicycling and kayaking excursions, family camps, grandparent and grandchild camps, and many more! During each program I have the opportunity to meet wonderful people who are excited to be visiting the Field Station. They are interested in specific activities and like to learn about the different areas around Chincoteague.
This past spring has been exciting and busy with programs! Even though I have led some of these programs more than once and have visited the same areas multiple times I discover something new each time I step out my door.
While working I try to take some time to notice the area around me and find natural beauty everywhere. It is so easy to get caught up in your job or your own life and not notice the little things around you but I am glad that working here has allowed me to marvel at my “office”.
During one of the Road Scholar Basketry programs this past February we went on the Wallops Island beach to collect shells. This was the first time that I saw the beach covered in show and ice. It was bizarre to look for shells with participants in the sand under a thin veil of snow.
Another week I was on a Road Scholar Photography program where I was able to watch the sunrise and sunset of each day that week. Some people think, “if you have seen one sunrise you have seen them all” but each one was different and showed off the landscape in different ways.
I can return to the same place every week and see something different. I even have seen people return to our programs because they love this area of the Eastern Shore and can’t get enough. This week I have been kayaking in the surrounding rivers and bays and some of my participants that are with me this week are returners. They haven’t just been here once but at least 3 or more times. These two ladies have been on the same kayaking program many times and say that each time they return the paddles are different. The areas change seasonally and can look drastically different depending even on the tide and time of day.
Last week my adventure was Biking the Eastern Shore, this week is Kayaking. I can’t wait to see what new adventure is in store for me next!
As I write this, I am slightly sun-burned, covered in mosquito bites (and maybe poison ivy – that is yet to be determined), and I have unlocked a new level of exhaustion. I’m not alone in this. Every educator here at Chincoteague Bay Field Station has pink cheeks and irritating bug bites.
We also share something else – huge smiles and exciting stories from our days in the field.
As a first year educator at the Field Station, I have only been on the Eastern Shore since February. In that relatively short amount of time, my brain has been packed full of marine ecology facts, interpretation techniques, and first-aid knowledge. The initial training was daunting. As a native Michigander, making the transition to an entirely new part of the country and shifting my environmental training from “fresh water” to “salt water” was a challenge. Now, almost three months later, I realize that this job isn’t necessarily about the skills I will gain or the lessons I will personally learn, but the experiences I have with the kids and campers who visit the field station. Those experiences in the field will be what I carry with me into my future.
I came upon this realization within just the past few days. While each group I have taught to date has been extremely enjoyable with their own set of ups (a herd of Chincoteague ponies walking by during maritime forest class) and downs (pouring rain and a trawl net full of Boring Sponge), my most recent group reminded me why I wanted to be an environmental educator in the first place. While each day was long – often tipping over the 13 hour mark, and I won’t deny falling face first onto my bed at the end of each day, I genuinely looked forward to waking up, going into work, and teaching the group of 8th graders I was placed with this past week.
There was a tangible energy and excitement with these twenty-four students that naturally spread to me and my co-educator Kirstie. Despite the biting gnats on our boat trip, I didn’t hear a single complaint. Instead, they all crowded around our recently found Diamondback terrapin, eager for a closer look. That same day, I had to practically drag them out of the intertidal zone because they wanted to keep looking for organisms with their sieve boxes. The student’s easily worked together, whether they were friends or not, and were all trying new things – like being covered from head to toe in marsh mud.
Bob Sheridan is one of CBFS's Master Educators. He's worked on school programs, Road Scholar groups, homeschoolers, boyscouts and everything in between during his two-season tenure. This week we're honored to feature Bob in our first of many "Behind the Scenes" posts, before he moves on to earn his master's degree back in his home state of Connecticut.
I was asked to talk a bit about the Field Station before I leave here, a kind of reflection on my experience over the last 14 months. I guess the best place to start is to describe what the educators do during our tenure here. If you have already visited us, you have most certainly interacted with an educator-- or at very least someone who used to be an educator. We are the ones who may give a lecture or lead your boat trip in the bay, but we are also the ones who set up your chair before you arrive, and make coffee at 4 am so it's ready for you before we drive out to meet the sunrise; We're the ones who cook a basket of crabs to welcome you to the Eastern Shore, and the ones who made the name tag that you might wear during your time with us. Don't get me wrong - the smiles that we show during programs aren't just plastered on our faces for your benefit. In fact the reason we are all so happy to be here is because we all truly enjoy sharing the experience of sunrises, sunsets, Bills dinners, lecturing about plankton, singing songs around campfires, driving the bus, and helping you find the meaning and substance to the trip that you’re spending with us. And there is one very important reason why we enjoy doing it: we love those experiences so much we made it our profession to share it with other people. Now I could spend time talking about the prep work and paperwork that our job has (and I promise it’s there) but that’s not what gets us energized, just like how those PTS reports aren’t the reason you wake up in the morning. But let’s get into what this job was (and still is) for me.
I wasn’t sure what the culture of the Field Station was until about a month into my job. At that point I began to realize that what I learned in college and one year out of the gate, was miniscule to what these people, who have immersed themselves in the life of environmental education, knew. There is a special attitude that goes into working at a place like the Field Station. Living on campus with 10 other young professional educators, I found that often times the enthusiasm we have for our job carries into our spare time. So while we can breathe a sigh of relief when we complete a successful program, we are all always constantly discussing and investigating the environment around us. It sounds like we never stop being part of our programs because we are always looking at things through that lens. And being there with 10 other people who are all equally passionate, has made me realize that I was blending into a family of fellow Field Station Educators. This idea was reinforced during the 2014 Friends and Alumni weekend. Because CBFS has been around since the 1960's, there have been dozens of people who have shared the position of educator before me, and there will be dozens after me. But meeting people who have done my job and moved on was an experience that I would never trade. That weekend reinforced the familial feeling around this place because people who had my job in the 90's came back to sit around a campfire and bond over equally wonderful and totally miserable experiences that bridge gaps between generations of educators.
Just like any job you will ever have, there are bosses to answer to: someone to remind you that a Friday morning meeting was missed, to scold you for forgetting to float a biowheel, to be disappointed that you forgot to take a sample for Massongo Creek, and even that you need to submit a blog post before Friday. That being said, I want to thank my bosses (whoever it is I have to answer to this week!) for being exemplary at what they do. After working for other organizations and talking to friends who work at other nature centers, I can count myself as one of the luckiest. The mentality of constantly putting forth your best and doing the best you can to provide the best service you can is something shared by people from every industry. But what puts this place above the rest is the care and encouragement they provide. Not only do my bosses want my participants to learn as much as they can while also learning those intrinsic values only a field station can supply, but they insist in continuing the education of their employees. My favorite example of this when one of my many bosses asked, within the first 10 seconds of talking with her, “What do you want to do for the rest of your life?” Right away, I knew they were either looking to get rid of me, or were looking to make my experience here beneficial beyond my time as their employee. These are the bosses that are hard to leave, and I want to thank all of the senior staff for making my time as your employee so great.
This post only focuses on the staff I work with in the ed center, and neglects some of the people who deserve a shout out. The cafeteria staff is chock full of some of the hardest working, and caring people anyone can come across. And if anyone says meal times are not a bonding experience, they need to sit down for shepherd’s pie and corn bread from our kitchen staff. I am ever thankful that I don’t need to keep the dorms clean, and the buses full of oil. Thank you to the operations crew for being so flexible and ready to have the place ready for the groups we have through.
I think those educators from the early 90's as well as the educators today will all say that you will build a family here. It’s hard not to. After only a few months with the new 2015 staff I’ve already made bonds I don’t want to break and have reinforced bonds with old staff which are now deeper and more meaningful than they were a year ago. From top down and bottom up, these are some of the hardest working and most caring people in the world, and if we lost any one part, this place would not be as great as it is. Thank you all for a great year and a half. Just keep working as hard as you do.
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