One of my current art projects is to re-establish my photo reference database on my new laptop. Photo reference is an essential tool for any artist interested in depicting animals in their work. Critters, by nature, tend to not stand still for very long; an accurate representation of any animal means that good reference material is a necessity. Ethically, this means taking your own photos instead of just Googling for images. It’s also more fun.
In the “old days”, before digital photography, the expense and processing of film had a tendency to put the brakes – at least a little – on my accumulation of images. Still, I ended up with thousands of pictures plus their negatives. Then when digital came along, the problem became even worse. Once I owned a few memory cards, my motto became “If in doubt, take it”. Each photo became essentially “free” with no associated costs of developing and printing. I could come home from four or five days in the Adirondacks with close to a thousand images to download. In the old film days, that could add up to a $400 or $500 bill for developing and printing!
While background and landscape images are important, once wildlife is spotted it becomes a matter of capturing the body language and attitudes of that creature. Whether birds or animals, it seems that – like potato chips – you just can’t stop at one shot. More is always better because after the fact, when you’re sitting in your studio going through your pictures, you want as much visual information as possible. Accuracy is critical.
So where do you find all this wildlife to “shoot”? Well, believe it or not, wildlife is everywhere and is particularly easy to find in suburban areas. I know that seems counter-intuitive – you’d think that wilderness would be the place to go. But many wildlife species have adapted very well to life in and around human settlements. In fact, human activity often inadvertently creates ideal habitat, particularly for some species. If you build it – malls, golf courses, housing developments – they will come. Whitetail deer and Canada geese are two such species that have responded to our penchant for open spaces with lawns and fields. The same habitat we find so appealing is also preferred by deer and geese to the point that they have reached pest status in many areas.
Up until a few years ago (when vegetation began to obscure the view), one of my favorite places to find wildlife – especially birds – was a stormwater retention marsh created when yet another mall was built about 10 minutes from my home. Off to one side of this complex – which includes Walmart, Staples, Barnes & Noble, and Panera Bread – state regulations mandated the concurrent construction of ponds and marshes to collect the millions of gallons of rainwater that could no longer percolate into the ground once buildings and blacktop were in place. So the primary purpose of the marsh was to give the water a place to go without causing flood damage as well as to clean it of contaminants – something marshes are very good at.
Of course, a marsh is also prime wildlife habitat because of what’s known as edge effect. It’s where woods, fields and water meet. Each of those habitats attracts its own particular residents, but because they’re all in such close proximity, the opportunities for photography are far more abundant. I’ve always found it a little strange that people will pay a premium for waterfront property overlooking a pond or a lake, since there’s not much to see other than cowboys on their personal water craft and the occasional mallard duck family swimming by. For my money, I’d choose a piece of property overlooking a marsh – the wildlife watching opportunities would skyrocket! I’d get nothing else done!
Another interesting aspect of wildlife photography in the ‘burbs is that your car becomes your camouflage. No need to set up a blind and wait patiently for hours for some interesting creature to happen by. Suburban wildlife are so abundant because they’re compressed into the limited areas available to them, and they’re so used to being surrounded by vehicles that they don’t pay the slightest attention to you as long as you stay inside your car. Just roll the window down and start shooting. It’s sometimes amazing how close they will come as long as you stay put. But the instant you try to open the door and stand up, it’s over. They’ll be gone.
You may think that where you live, there’s no wildlife at all. Other than the robins and squirrels, you never see any, at least. That’s because you’re not looking. Once you train your mind and eye to keep a lookout – and especially if you learn a little bit about the sort of habitat that’s appealing – you will suddenly find that wildlife is everywhere. Don’t make the mistake of my Adirondack neighbor who once complained that he never has any critters on his property. It might have something to do with the fact that he maintains a mono-cropped yard of mowed grass and his dog is outside all the time. Lawn grass and predators do not a wildlife habitat make.
Learn to delight in the wildlife in your area. Deer are likely to be the largest creatures you see unless you live in close proximity to designated wilderness. But the tiny count too. Maintain a few rough edges and “wild” areas in your yard and you will be amazed at what will move in: damsel and dragonflies, toads, frogs, chipmunks, and rabbits. And birds, birds, birds: everything from bold chickadees to stately blue heron, to fierce redtail hawks and turkey vultures. All have their place in the circle of life and all are remarkably adept at coexisting with us. We’re a part of their world as much as they are a part of ours. I think it’s time we (re)learned to respect that fact.