The Island of Costa Rica?

Tropical Fantasy | Resplendent Quetzal

When you mention Costa Rica people often envision a tropical isle in the Caribbean, decorated with colorful birds, white sand beaches and rich rainforests. Though most all of that is true, one point is decidedly false. There are a few common misconceptions about this popular photographic destination and being an island is right at the top of the list. It doesn’t help that the name of Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose, is easily (and often) confused with the capital city of Puerto Rico, which is San Juan. Costa Rica is not an island, though in some ways Costa Rica does have an island like feel to it. One can easily enjoy a quiet morning along the Caribbean coast, followed by a breathtaking drive through the cloud forests and mountains, and still arrive at the Pacific coast in time for a sundowner overlooking the ocean.

Cloud Atlas | Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a small country in Central America, bordered by Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the South. It comprises a total of 19,700 square miles, which is roughly equivalent to the size of West Virginia. Despite its relatively small size, this country boasts more than 10% of the world’s biodiversity with 19 different ecosystems! Costa Rica has been a bastion of democracy and stability in a region that has seen its share of revolutions and civil unrest. Costa Rica is recognized as a land of peace-loving people and has been without a standing army since 1946.

Color Pallet | Keel-billed Toucan

Conservation here is very important. Costa Rica is moving toward carbon neutrality faster than any other country in the world. A major goal of the Costa Rican government is to be the first carbon offset country in the world by the time they celebrate their 200th year of independence in the year 2021.

Heart of the Tropics | Costa Rica

This beautiful country is broken up into seven different provinces and during our recent photo tour my group visited six of them. We enjoyed being transported in our own private bus by our dedicated driver, Santiago. He was an expert of navigating the roads of Costa Rica and kept our luggage and camera gear safe at all times. Santiago arrived at the entrance to our hotel and ushered us away in a spacious 18 passenger bus with plenty of room on board for the group to spread out and have their camera gear close at hand. As you travel across this lush countryside one has to resist the urge to grab your camera and go chasing off into the rainforest every time you pass over one of the regions countless, beautiful streams!

The shadow of our bus as we travel out of San Jose up to the mountains.

For my Costa Rica photo tours I partner with the very best native guide. He graduated in 1996 as a biology major from Costa Rica University. Shortly thereafter he began guiding trips and now has nearly two decades of experience under his belt. He’s an endless wealth of knowledge and an incredible photographer as well. More than once on the trip he identified a bird species by simple characteristics like the color and shape of their bills. Due to his background in the field of biology he’s always mindful of the well-being of our subjects and his knowledge in that regard is indispensable.

Morning Glory | Scarlet Tanager

Costa Rica is far more than just colorful birds. During our ten day photo tour my group was able to photograph Howler Monkeys, Coati, Crocodiles, Sloths (including a mother and baby), as well as a wide variety of frogs, snakes, bats, insects and owls. There were endless breathtaking landscapes and multiple waterfalls to enjoy as well. To see a sample of the subject diversity that we photographed take a moment to browse my Costa Rica portfolio here at this link.

Midnight Snack | Orange Nectar Bat
Eye Candy | Spiny Glass Frog
Nectar Bar | Fiery-throated Hummingbirds
Cover Girl | Eyelash Viper

If you’re planning to visit Costa Rica, one term you should be familiar with is “Pura Vida” (pronounces poo-rah vee-dah). Simply translated, it means, “simple life ” or “pure life ”. In Costa Rica this is more than just a saying, it is their way of life. Another thing you should be aware of is the food. It is delicious! The portions are plentiful and hunger is never a problem. If tropical drinks are your thing, then you’re in for a treat with their Pina Coladas. The only warning I’d give you is to stay away from eating the Mangos that my guides will offer to pick for you fresh off the trees. I say this for the simple reason that the Mangos from the supermarket back home will never be the same!

Spotlight | Red-eyed Tree Frog

I’ll be taking another group to photograph this incredible country again next year and the trip is already sold out. If you’re interested in joining us in 2021 you’ll find next year’s itinerary at the Tropics of Costa Rica Photo Tour. This is truly a magical destination filled with species diversity and stunning landscapes. It is for good reason that Costa Rica is the only country that can make the claim ‘Pura Vida‘ and you’ll need to visit to experience it for yourself.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Nathaniel

The Golden Canopy | Costa Rica

Life, Legacy and The Shadow of Death

Inspiration | Iceland

“Leukemia,” my doctor answered when I asked him to clarify specifically what he meant by eliminating anything ‘really scary’ from the possible cause of my symptoms. His words were followed by stunned silence as my wife Elizabeth and I tried to process the weight of that word. Leukemia is perhaps the most dreaded of all cancers. For those who have been diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia the survival rate after five years is a mere 26%. Earlier in March of 2018 I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a non-contagious, auto immune disease that attacks the digestive system. I’d also lost over 35 pounds in the past year without really trying. During the following weeks my blood labs showed my hemoglobin was below normal and that my blood platelet counts were dangerously low, and dropping steadily. Healthy platelet levels range between 150,000 – 400,000 per microliter, mine were at 32,000. Platelets are responsible for clotting your blood, so low levels make even a small cut a serious situation as significant blood loss can occur. In mid-May my hematologist recommended I take a high dose of steroids over four days in hopes of boosting my platelets into a normal range. The following week we met to discuss the results. They were far from what we’d hoped, my platelet levels had only increased to 48,000. It was on this day that my hematologist indicated the urgent need to eliminate Leukemia as the cause of my symptoms. I was scheduled for an emergency bone marrow biopsy two days later on May 24th.

For Whom The Bell Tolls | Iceland

WHISPERS IN THE DARK

From the day my doctor uttered the word ‘Leukemia’ my life was forever changed. Despite the absence of a confirmed diagnosis both Elizabeth and I were certain of the results long before we received them. It all made sense now, my platelets were low because with Leukemia I’d no longer be producing them. I went through a variety of emotions; disbelief, loneliness, anger, sadness and a host of others. At the same time all the typical, daily frustrations suddenly seemed so insignificant. The priorities of life rearranged themselves incredibly fast as my family and I struggled to grasp and accept this new reality. So often we take life for granted, there is an unwritten expectation of living well into our eighties. I wasn’t afraid of dying, however, the pain of knowing I’d not be able to be there for my wife and children crushed me. When I looked at the faces of my three sons I struggled not to weep. I’ve usually been very observant of my surroundings, but now when I went outdoors I took even greater notice of the trees and flowers, the warmth of the sun, the sounds of a bird singing and tried to soak up every single moment of my existence here. Over the following days Elizabeth and I had some very real conversations, the kind you never expect to have in your early forties. We discussed what a positive diagnosis would mean as far as where we lived for the next five years. All of my family lives in New England. Elizabeth and I decided it would be best to move back to Maine so that our four year old son Dimitri could develop a strong support network and be surrounded by my family members once I was gone. We’d been seriously considering a move back to the East Coast within the next five to ten years anyway, but my health was now accelerating this decision. We insulated our youngest from what we were discussing, however our two older sons (ages 15 and 13) knew all my symptoms were pointing towards some form of cancer. As a result we had to discuss all the possibilities of life and death with them as well. This was certainly the most difficult conversation we’d ever had and lots of tears were shed. Most of the time Elizabeth and I were stohic in front of our children in the face of this situation, but that conversation was the exception. Over the following week sleepless nights became almost common. Elizabeth and I frequently awoke in the middle of the night and cried in each others arms when the pain became too much to bear. We would sit up together for hours discussing everything from our favorite memories, to planning how to best position our family for a life without me.

The Solar Effect | New Zealand

LIFE AND PURPOSE

During one of our late night conversations Elizabeth asked me what I wanted to do with whatever time I had left on this earth. I’d had many hours to ponder that question over the past few days, so my answer was easily articulated. I said my primary focus would be on making wonderful memories with her and our three boys. Secondly, I already had four major photography workshops sold out for this year to Iceland, Alaska, Sedona and Africa, and if my health would allow I wanted to complete those trips with my clients. After that I’d see how effective the chemo treatments were before deciding whether I could continue my photography business in 2019. My third and final wish was to dedicate a concentrated effort into making the world a better place as long as I had the strength to do so. My plan is to donate any spare time I have teaching nature photography and sharing presentations of my images with the infirm and those suffering from terminal illness in hopes of brightening their days. I’ve been immensely fortunate in my life to travel the world and photograph some of the most beautiful places on our planet. I want to share these blessings from my life with others in attempts to ease the sufferings of my fellow man in some small way. Elizabeth said that would be a noble way to spend the remainder of my life and that me using my last days seeking to comfort others who were suffering would be a profound example for our sons.

Photographers speak about using nature photography to bring about awareness and affect change for the benefit of the natural world. While I believe this is important or perhaps even critical, it has never seemed like it accomplishes enough. There’s more that could and should be done. People all over the world live every day with chronic diseases like Leukemia while no sign of a cure exists. Nature photography can be used as a tool to bring peace and comfort to them in their pain and suffering. Just knowing someone else cares enough to visit them and share their work could brighten the day in ways we can’t even imagine. Though much of the devastation in the natural world has been caused by man, I don’t believe we can discount the fact that humans are also the key to protecting it. People protect what they love. The famous Russian author Dostoevsky wrote, “Beauty will save the world”. Through my images I’ve always strived to foster a real love and respect for the natural world by touching the heart of the viewer with its beauty. As Dr. Jane Goodall said, “We can never win an argument by appealing to people’s heads, its got to be in the heart”.

Dawn Of Time | Africa

CREATING A LEGACY

The results of my bone marrow biopsy surprisingly came back negative for Leukemia, Lymphoma or any other forms of cancer. I was instead diagnosed with ITP, an auto immune disease where the body destroys your platelets. I’ve begun infusion treatments for this disease at the cost of $40,000 per treatment and I’m expected to do four of them in the first month alone. While I am immensely grateful for this news and thankful that my journey on this earth continues, I’ve been forever changed from this experience. I see life through a completely different prism now. Once you’ve experienced life as a defined timeline, your perspective is permanently altered. For an extended period I truly believed that my time here was over, instead I now have a new lease on life and a fresh outlook. I’m delighted at the prospect of spending it with my beloved family and eager to continue sharing my love of photography through teaching my workshops. All of these recent experiences caused me to ponder the idea of building a legacy with ones photography. Due to the sheer number of photographers today, leaving a legacy behind after your death is more implausible than ever. I’ve often wondered what would happen if I stopped uploading files to my website or posting on social media, just how many people would notice? We are so inundated with an endless stream of content that it would be easy to overlook the absence of our favorite photographers if they faded from view. The realization that my weakened health led me to see was that I must create a legacy with my photography now. Perhaps this was the reason I had to go through such a terrifying experience, the clarity that it brought me is invaluable. This seed of inspiration, to teach nature photography and share my images in order to brighten the lives of those around me that are suffering, was planted in my heart for a reason. The results of these efforts will produce a far greater legacy than being remembered for ones work after your death. My commitment to this is even more important now that I have the time to fulfill the task. I’m deeply grateful to have this opportunity. It is my hope that by teaching nature photography and sharing my images with those that are terminally ill, perhaps I can enrich their lives and help to ease their suffering. I pray that these recent life experiences I’ve shared here inspire others to do the same and bring happiness to those who need it most. This is how photography will change the world.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Nathaniel

* UPDATE:

Nearly two years after this terrifying experience I am happy to report that my Crohn’s disease is in full remission and my blood platelet levels are continuing to climb back to normal levels. Thank you all for your love, prayers and concern during this incredibly difficult period of my life.

Through The Tempest | Iceland

Alaska, Land Of The Ggagga

This is the incredible backdrop while on location photographing Alaskan Brown Bears in Lake Clark National Park. The top of Iliamna Volcano, shrouded in clouds here in this photo, towers 10,016 feet above the park and is covered by snow year round.

Lake Clark National Park and Preserve protects more than 4 million acres of diverse habitats ranging in elevation from sea level to over 10,000 feet. The first record of the native people building permanent settlements on the shores of Lake Clark are estimated to have arrived around 1000AD. Known as Dena’ina Athabascans, these people came to this land for the fishing opportunities. Lake Clark (known to the Dena’ina as Qizhjeh Vena – or ‘The lake where people gathered ‘) was named after John W. Clark of Nushagak, Alaska in 1891. Long before the Dena’ina came to this place or John W. Clark discovered it, this region belonged to the bears. The Dena’ina word for Bear is Ggagga… Welcome to the Land of the Ggagga!

ALASKA’S BEST KEPT SECRET

A few years ago I began to explore the possibility of leading a workshop in the wilds of Alaska to photograph the majestic Brown Bears. After a lot of research I determined the ideal location was at a remote Lodge along the shores of Cook Inlet in Lake Clark National Park. The Lodge is situated on 40 acres of private land in Lake Clark National Park. The owners have deep roots in Alaska combined with a sincere love for the land and its wildlife. This is an exceptionally unique location offers an unrivaled opportunity to photograph these incredible animals. Over the past 30 plus years the Lodge and its caretakers have carefully established their presence so as to limit the impact on the bears way of life. The Lodge requires compliance of their staff and guests to certain guidelines that ensure the bears and people continue to live together here in harmony. Since starting to lead groups to the area nearly half a century ago, the they have achieved an impeccable safety record with zero bear related injuries or attacks. The Lodge has been named “One of the 10 great places for a North American Safari” and boasts a 50% guest return rate.  Their experienced, professional staff attended to all the needs of their guests with the greatest enthusiasm and care. Due to the immense popularity of this destination there was a multiple year wait to even be able to book space for my workshop participants. Finally after a lot of planning the day of our departure finally arrived.

The view from the skies approaching Seattle.

THEN AND NOW…

Before you even reach Alaska the anticipation begins to build. My flight routed through Seattle and then continued on to Anchorage. As our plane dropped below the clouds the view of the lush rainforest below was overwhelming. Stands of deep green forests covered the mountain range as far as the eye could see, dotted by vast, blue lakes. After a brief transfer we took off for Alaska! Upon arrival we checked into the historic Hotel Captain Cook to rest and relax before our charter flight the next day. The hotel offers views of neighboring Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains from any one of their 546 rooms and suites. The Hotel Captain Cook is Alaska’s only member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, making it far beyond the ordinary. It was the perfect resting place for the group on our first night together. The hotel was recently inducted into Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization founded Historic Hotels of America in 1989 with 32 charter members for historic preservation. Since that time, only 275 hotels and resorts across America have been awarded this prestigious honor for preserving and maintaining their historic integrity, architecture and ambiance. The Hotel Captain Cook being one of those recognized. The hotel offers four distinctive restaurants within the building as well as gifts and unique souvenirs for sale in their 12 shops. After a pleasant evening meal together we all turned in for the night.

The stunning view from one of the hotel’s impressive ‘Crow’s Nest’ suites.

A BIRDS EYE VIEW

The following morning we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast before heading to the airport for our charter flight that transferred us to Lake Clark National Park. We were fortunate to have clear skies, but high winds delayed our departure for a couple hours. While we waited for the winds to subside we spent time chatting about the upcoming adventure, sharing our mutual excitement. Finally the call came through from the Lodge and we were cleared for takeoff. The plane was loaded quickly and we climbed in, eager to reach our intended destination. We took to the skies and headed towards Lake Clark National Park. I have flown over many beautiful landscapes, including Iceland and Africa, but this flight was exceptional! Despite the light mist that we flew through, the views were incredible. A myriad of patterns played out on the forest floor below us. Rivers and streams made fascinating shapes as they chased out to the wide open ocean. Intricate, abstract patterns in the sand could be seen along the shoreline, left behind by the changing tides. As we drew closer to our destination massive waterfalls could be seen flowing off the cliff faces and plugging to the ground beneath… It was magical! Our pilot welcomed us to talk to one another through the headsets during the flight to the Lodge, but it seemed we were all lost in our own thoughts as we passed over this breathtaking landscape. As a result, most of the trip was completed in silence with us staring out in awe at the Alaskan wilderness.

Our chariot awaiting to take us to the remote Alaskan wilderness!

The view from the skies just outside of Anchorage.

Amazing patterns in the sand where large rivers flow into the open ocean.

Fascinating shapes in the tidal rivers below us.

One of the guides from the Lodge greets the incoming plane and the new guests as they arrive on the beach against the backdrop of a dramatic sunrise.

WALKING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS

We were greeted by the friendly faces of the Lodge staff as we touched down on the beach. Landing on a sand beach is one of the most incredible experiences and only added to the amazing journey we were on. Stepping out of the charter plane signs of the bears were evident if you looked closely. Scanning the sand you could see their gigantic footprints along the shore. The smell of the salt air mixed with the strong aroma of the conifer forest surrounding us was a welcome greeting. We were quickly shuttled up to our accommodations and given an opportunity to settle in before meeting at the Lodge for a warm mid-day meal.

The Lodge here in Lake Clark National Park affords photographers a completely unique experience with bears, allowing us to photograph them free of viewing platforms and crowds of noisy tourists. All the guests visiting this Lodge are there to view the bears and they do so in a respectful, considerate manner. As the bears walked we would stay back, always giving them their space. The guides from the Lodge do an amazing job ensuring that the guests never restrict the bear’s movements or encroach on them. Our first session shooting the bears was very memorable and set high expectations for the group! We started off photographing a couple of bear cubs with their mother on the beach. Eventually we followed them back into one of the expansive meadows for more photo opportunities of them grazing. The bears, though certainly aware of our presence, behaved as though we didn’t exist and passed by our group as we hunkered down behind our lenses. Listening to their grunts as they communicated with one another was unforgettable. At times we were close enough to hear them munching on the grass. One of the local raptors perched in a nearby tree repeatedly put on a show for us, flying out over the field and hovering in place as it hunted for its next meal. A light rain was falling on and off, giving the bears great texture in their fur. Every so often one of the bear cubs would shake, sending a shower of spray everywhere. The expression on their faces are priceless as their bodies wiggle in three different directions!

A first year cub shaking the water from its fur after a rain shower.

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BEAR CUB

Over the next five days my workshop group would experience and photograph incredible scenes and unforgettable moments beyond their greatest expectations. The Lodge is situated along a river that flows into the ocean and provides the perfect feeding opportunity for the bears and their cubs. They fish for salmon in the river mouth, dig for clams at low tide on the mud flats and graze in the meadows on the grasses. During the workshop there were about half a dozen mother bears with cubs. Watching the young cubs interacting with their mother and each other is very entertaining! The cubs would often try to hunt for fish in the river without success. However, when one of them was lucky enough to catch a salmon that was spawned out or a morsel of one left behind by their mother they would become rabidly aggressive in protecting the fish from towards their sibling and mother. This was when you’d really see the personality differences between the cubs, it was fascinating to watch. When a cub did manage to catch a fish or secure a stray piece you almost wanted to stand up and cheer for them!

An experienced mother bear showing her two small cubs how to hunt for salmon at the river mouth.

A yearling cub races off frantically from its mother and sibling with a chunk of salmon in order to eat it without sharing. These moments were hilarious!

The smaller of the two siblings sits dejected in the surf after missing out on the last fish caught. Its larger counterpart affectionately approaches and comforts junior bear.

Apparently forgiven, the junior bear cub returns the affection of its larger sibling with kisses on the end of the nose.

One of the favorite places for the mother bears to feed their young cubs was on the tender clover blossoms that grew thick on the mowed lawns of the Lodge. Getting down low offered an excellent perspective to capture these images.

About half way through the workshop we got to witness and photograph a mother bear nursing her two cubs. This was one of the many highlights on the trip and a memory that we all will treasure. There were a few times when we were photographing the mother with her cubs that we anticipated this happening, but it never did. When we finally got to witness this behavior it made it extra special for my group. The mother bear purrs to her cubs as they nurse, sounding like an overgrown cat!

After fishing all their bellies were full and they would settle down into a giant heap of bears and dose off in the warm sunlight.

Photographing the sleeping bears from the shoreline of Cook Inlet.

The weather wasn’t sunny all of the time, but the mists and rain provided whole different look and feel to the surrounding landscape. I loved these days.

FISHING LESSONS

Perhaps the most exciting part of the workshop is witnessing the bears hunting for salmon in the river. This is an adrenalin filled experience as these apex predators charge through the surf at top speed, tracking a fish as it swims. You realize the incredible strength and power of these animals and it leaves you in awe. The bear’s sense of smell is exceptionally keen, aiding them in locating and capturing the fish. The average dog is said to have a sense of smell 100 times better than humans. The bloodhound is in exclusive company with a sensitivity 300 times better than that of humans. Estimates of the sensitivity of a bear’s nose vary widely, but many say bears beat all the competition boasting the ability to smell 7 times better than a bloodhound. I’ll do the math for you, if true, that means a bear can smell 2,100 times better than you and I can! When you watch them fishing you easily accept that as fact, despite how crazy it sounds.

Sometimes while the bears were fishing they would chase a salmon in the general direction of where our group was set up. Watching this drama unfold through the viewfinder on your camera makes these moments all the more intense, as it can appear that the bear has nearly reached you when looking through a 600mm lens! However their sole focus is on catching as many fish as possible and they rarely even afford us a passing glance while we are out photographing them. The Lodge has been established here so long the bears simply treat the people as part of the landscape.

Full Tilt | Alaskan Brown Bear

Chasing Fish Tails | Alaskan Brown Bear

Missed Opportunities | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Pursuit | Alaskan Brown Bears

The River Of Life | Alaskan Brown Bear

Catch Of The Day | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Plunge | Alaskan Brown Bear

The Trophy | Alaskan Brown Bear

An Alaskan Brown Bear casually strolls past a group of bear watchers as it heads into the river to hunt for salmon.

LAKE CLARK, A HAVEN FOR WILDLIFE

Though the bears in Alaska are one of the biggest attractions, my workshop participants were treated to a wide variety of other subjects. For the past couple seasons a few Wolves have been frequenting the region and they were hanging around while we were there. Regrettably we didn’t get any pictures of the wolves, but we did find some of their giant tracks in the sand on the beach. The presence of these wolves just further lends to the attractiveness of this Lodge for nature photographers. We also spent time photographing Trumpeter Swans, Red Foxes, Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles and other Birds of Prey. All of the other subjects were a nice bonus and provided diversity to the images the workshop participants captured for their portfolios. It was an incredibly rewarding trip and my guests all produced exceptional images. We watched the forecast for the aurora borealis each night, but unfortunately it didn’t peak while we were there.

Massive Wolf Tracks In The Sand

The Long Road Home | Sandhill Cranes

Newton’s Law | Gull and Sea Shell

Potential For Mischief | Red Fox

The snow capped top of Iliamna Volcano is an impressive sight on a clear day when you can see the steam rising up from the volcano’s mouth.

Heading South | Trumpeter Swans

A Jellyfish stranded on the sand, waiting for the incoming tide to wash it back out to sea.

Lord Of The Skies | Bald Eagle

Nathaniel offering instruction to the workshop participants in the field.

Paradise Found | Alaskan Brown Bear

FIRST CLASS STAFF AND GOURMET MEALS

My workshop participants enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of life in the wilderness, detached from their own daily schedules and demands. You may not travel to a remote region of Alaska expecting to experience culinary delights, but we looked forward to our meals in the Lodge as much as we did photographing the wildlife each day! The Lodge is world renowned for the delicious food that they serve. The daily, personalized touches by the staff were greatly appreciated. Fern was our own dedicated server at meals, by the completion of the first day at the Lodge she had memorized all of our dietary preferences and ensured everything we desired at our place setting before we walked into the dining room!

The Lodge chef, in his element.

My workshop group posing with Fern, our incredibly competent server. This photo shows the incredible view from the second floor deck outside the dining area.

My workshop group posing with our knowledgeable and friendly guide under the Lodge’s giant bear sculpture.

The best Alaskan Brown Bear photography location in Alaska… Lake Clark National Park.

Our group had a fantastic time sharing this amazing trip together and collectively built memories that we will treasure forever. The fun didn’t stop with the photography either, we spent our spare time relaxing around the outdoor fire pit or editing our images together in the lounge. The time we spent eating meals together were just as special, and the view from the second floor dining room is epic! We often watched bears stroll by while we were up eating our meals and a Red Fox also paid us a visit. There simply is no substitute for this unique location. If you want to truly experience photographing Alaskan Brown Bears the only place to do it is in the Land of the Ggagga!

I’ll be returning to Alaska again this year in September to lead my Wonders Of Alaska Photo Workshop. There are currently only two spots left, you can find more information about the workshop here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from our recent trip please visit my Alaska Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. ~ Nathaniel

Until we meet again…

 

Captive Emotions

On Monday March 6th, 2017 poachers broke into a French zoo, shooting a four year old White Rino and sawing off its horn. Officials say this incident is the first of its kind in Europe. A Crocodile at the Belvedere Zoo in Tunisia was brutally stoned to death by a group of visitors on March 1st, 2017. Earlier in that same week a horrific incident at the National Zoo in El Salvador resulted in the death of a Hippo when it was attacked by a group after dark with metal bars, knives and rocks. Obviously the management at these facilities didn’t participate in these heinous crimes, but you have to wonder if there are sufficient protective measures in place for the animals if this is happening in the first place. These are not isolated incidences in remote corners of civilization either. Every day wild animals are mistreated at captive facilities throughout the western world.

In 2013 Sea World was exposed in a shocking documentary titled Blackfish. As an organization that had been viewed for generations as a destination for clean family fun, Sea World turned out to be anything but.
Many animals are bred illegally without proper monitoring of genetics, causing all kinds of complications for the baby animals and a deterioration of the species gene pool. I’m pleased that the local Phoenix Zoo here in my home state of Arizona is fully accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for 29 different species. AZA accredited zoos that are involved in SSP programs engage in cooperative population management of various endangered species and conservation efforts. These include research, public education, reintroduction, and on site or field conservation projects. There are currently 172 species covered by 116 different SSP programs throughout North America. The goal of the SSP is to engage in animal husbandry and research projects for selected species that are in need of conservation efforts. SSP programs focus on animals that are in danger of extinction in the wild, when zoo conservationists believe captive breeding programs may be their only chance to survive. These programs also help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community.
Captive wild animals at non accredited facilities are often used for “shows” to perform in front of audiences, sadly there is one of these located right here in my home state of Arizona. To find an accredited facility near you search the database on the AZA website. Game Farms (where many photographers go to quickly pad their portfolios) are some of the worst offenders. Animals often have food withheld so that they can be manipulated more easily with bait by their handlers in front of the throngs of photographers that are paying big money to photograph them. Another atrocity of these game farms in the euthanization of healthy animals. As pointed out by Ted Williams in his article, a Montana game farm euthanized eight wolves in one year because they were “dangerous.” In other words, their behavior was too wolflike. Thomas Mangelsen, one of the world’s most respected wildlife photographers has been speaking out against game farms for years. Those leading photography groups to photograph in game farm settings are equally guilty as the people running the facilities. They vehemently defend this robust revenue source of theirs, much like those that are profiting from photographing baited wild mammals and birds do.
All too often today wild animals are used as a source of our entertainment, like some extension of the internet or television, instead of being respected as the amazing and intelligent creatures that they are. The images in this article are from the new ‘Captive Emotions‘ series that I’m currently working on to illustrate the lives and behavior of captive wildlife species.
Please know what you are supporting before you go to your next captive wildlife facility. We should respect, love and protect the natural world, not exploit and seek our entertainment from it.

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If you’d like to view the growing collection of images from my Captive Emotions project please visit this link.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

The Cycle Of Life

A  GLIMPSE  INTO  THE  AFRICAN  MIGRATION  SEASON

I recently returned to Africa in August to lead my second safari of 2016. This trip was for the incredible migration season, arguably the greatest annual event in the animal kingdom. No matter how many times one has witnessed the migration it fills you with awe. Each day brings with it new adventures and a glimpse into the real life behavior and challenges of animals that call the Masai Mara their home. Despite the greatest efforts of directors, I have never seen a TV program or movie that comes close to duplicating the experience of witnessing this adrenaline filled action first hand. A poet writes a verse, but the reader does not see the mind of the author, they only catch a glimpse. So too it is with any attempt to convey the true African experience in a video production, no matter how well it is executed it still falls short. Certainly one can get a sense of it, but it just simply cannot do it justice. Knowing this and in full disclosure of the same, I will share with you in brief some snapshots from my experience of life in the Mara. Though it is certainly not sufficient, one cannot help but try to convey the marvel of this exceptional event.

Here in the African grasslands great misconceptions are proved false, Lions once thought to be the king of the jungle are shown subject to the gentle giants that we call Elephants.

 

Scale becomes relative to your perception when a towering Masai Giraffe walks into the scene, dwarfing the Zebras that just a moment before seemed so large.

 

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

 

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and without the Crocodiles the plains of the Mara would be over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would starve.

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and the absence of Crocodiles would lead to the plains of the Mara being over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would assuredly starve.

 

The incredibly well camouflaged Leopard is a challenge to locate due to a stunning vanishing act, it merely walks into the tall grass and disappears into its surroundings, lost from sight.

 

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rain that has fallen.

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior, one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rains that have fallen.

 

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Should you have the chance I cannot encourage you enough to embrace the opportunity and go experience this incredible event. You will see the cycle of life as it unfolds and write your own story to share once you depart. I’ll be returning there again next year to lead my Premium African Migration Safari, if you’d like more information you’ll find it here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Masai Mara Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Scars of Life | Lion

Scars of Life | Lion

Whispers In The Grass | Leopard

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

 

This Is Africa

Chronicles of Nature

A  DAY  ON  THE  CHOBE  RIVER

The Greeting | African Elephants at Dusk

Life on Safari is never dull and the memories you return home with are unrivaled. I recently traveled to Africa for my 2016 Chobe River Safari and wanted to share a glimpse into what a day on the river was like in my newest trip report.

Feeding-Frenzy-_-Hippo

Feeding Frenzy | Hippo

I arrived in Botswana under sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 80’s following a brief flight from Johannesburg. Our group boarded a hotel shuttle for the ten minute drive to Chobe Bush Lodge and got checked in. As I walked to my room I was surrounded by a varied chorus of birds singing in the canopy above me. A group of Baboons scuttled under the boardwalk as I passed by. The youngsters cautiously hid in the under growth until I was past and then raced to rejoin the adults. A couple of large Warthogs rooted in the trees behind my room before roaming further on in search of better feeding grounds. I could hear their squeals as they lumbered along in the mid-day light. The rustling sounds and branches swaying above me was a reminder of the local monkey population, yet they remained hidden from my sight. Only an occasional cry would confirm their presence. I spent the next couple hours getting settled into my room and resting by the pool while I waited for our afternoon photography session to begin.

The-Shortcut-_-Baboons

The Shortcut | Baboons

Aguana, our river driver, was a large, stoic man with a eager smile. He expertly guided our boat on the river ensuring we were in the correct position for the action and to maximize our opportunities where the light was best for photography. Our dock assistant, was always there when we needed help loading our gear onto the boat in the morning or carrying it back to our rooms at the end of the day’s excursion. As we made our way out onto the water that first day we were almost immediately met by a pair of Carmine Bee Eaters that entrained us with their acrobatic flight patterns. Their behavior of tossing bees into the air before eating it was fascinating to photograph. Beyond them we came across a small, but colorful Malachite Kingfisher hunting for its next meal. It’s larger cousin, the Pied Kingfisher, had large colony nesting in the river bank nearby and numerous adults were in the area showing off their striking black and white plumage.

The Song of Africa | African Fish Eagle

We also encountered a elusive Green-backed Heron who posed boldly for us on a sunken log. Every 500 yards or so a majestic African Fish Eagle could be seen in the trees or high in the sky above us. As we traveled further up the river we found Hippos with their young feeding on the lush grasses and we saw our first elephant herd along the shoreline. A number of Marabou Storks could be seen as we made our way further into the park. Despite their unflattering appearance they were incredibly striking birds. Pied Kingfishers continued to dot the shoreline as we moved further up river. A pair of African Skimmers put on a stunning aerial displayed while feeding along the waters surface. As the sun began to descend to the horizon we turned the boat back towards the lodge just in time to see a large herd of Cape Buffalo making their way onto one of the large grassy islands in the center of the river. The young Buffalo calves interspersed in the herd made for great subjects. On the opposite bank crocodiles lurked in the shadows regretting lost opportunities of the day. As the setting sun merged into the horizon the whole sky became a blazing shade of red and the gigantic orange sphere slowly faded way giving place to the rising moon and the creatures of a cool Botswana night. The food buffet at each meal was incredibly diverse and the espresso ice cream was impossible to refuse. Perhaps my favorite day was when a local, traditional African dance troupe performed at our evening meal. I was caught off guard by how beautiful their singing was. While sitting eating my meal, it occurred to me that it would be impossible to feel sorrow while hearing their joyous voices. This is Africa. I’ll be returning there again next year to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, if you would like more information you will find it here at this link.

If you’d like to see a complete collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Botswana Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Chain-Of-Love-_-Elephants

Chain of Love | African Elephants

 

Award Winning Bird Photography

Chronicles of Nature

Nathaniel Smalley speaking at Audubon Arizona in Phoenix on the topic of Award Winning Bird Photography.

Recently I was requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.

Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), Viewbug.com and others.

Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:

– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –

Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.

Great Blue Heron – This bird in flight image utilizes action. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-5.6 | 1/1600 sec. @ 400mm

To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.

  •  -This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
  •  -It has been shared to every corner of the world.
  •  -Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
  •  -Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked models.

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – Iso 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link)I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise!

Songs Of Spring | American Redstart

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

  Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.

Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally . This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.

Brown Pelican - This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens - Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in describing it:

  • 1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
  • 2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
  • 3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.

Sunset Salute | Great Blue Heron

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron on the right and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.

That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.

Sunset Magic | Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm

Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.

Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves  that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler – This image utilizes habitat & light (soft). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 800 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 850mm

Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.

American Robin – This image utilizes nostalgia & habitat. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/200 sec. @ 600mm

This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image below is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your father when he’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.

Sea Lion & Cormorant – This image utilizes friendship & habitat. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

The Height Of Audacity | Elk and Magpie

Elk & Magpie – This image utilizes friendship & humor. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 400 | f-4| 1/350 sec. @ 600mm

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.

The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This image is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did in 2012, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.

Sandhill Crane -

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image.  After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Magee Marsh – An Avian Kingdom

Chronicles of Nature

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula WarblerBirds were my first love. I became captivated by the avian world at the tender age of eight. Growing up in Maine I was in the great outdoors at every chance watching these masters of flight and identifying new ones to add to my life list. Today birding has become a far more main stream hobby than it was back then.

Sunset Salute | Great Blue HeronIn those days the bird watching field trips that I went on were attended by elderly birders – and me. I didn’t care though, those folks thought it was great to see someone from the younger generation as passionate as they were and they eagerly shared their knowledge. I studied everything about my feathered friends and was inspired to draw pictures and even wrote some poems about them.

As I became more serious about my artwork I wanted to ensure that my drawings were my own rendering from start to finish. So I saved my money for a few years and bought myself a Pentax K-1000 camera and a Sigma 500mm mirror lens which allowed me to capture an image of my subjects to draw from. During the next couple years my love of photography continued to grow, eventually overtaking my interest in drawing. I had hopes of one day embracing this hobby as a career and in time I set aside my sketch pad altogether and jumped into my new found passion feet first.

Fast forward a few decades and my love for birds is still as strong as ever. I‘ve since realized those childhood dreams of becoming a full time nature photographer. These two factors led me to visit Magee Marsh this spring during The Biggest Week In American Birding  to participate in one of the largest birding events in the world  and in hopes of expanding my portfolio with some of these colorful songsters. I returned home two weeks ago and the very thought of this place brings a smile to my face. Known as one of the birding meccas in North America, Magee Marsh covers a vast area on the shores of Lake Erie and is the perfect combination of marsh, wooded areas and open water, with a variety of fringe habitats that attracts songbirds by the thousands. The neo-tropical migrants (some from as far as South America) stop there to feed and rest up, awaiting the ideal weather conditions so that they can finish their journey across the vast expanse of Lake Erie up into Canada.

Songs Of Spring | American RedstartThe variety of species is astounding and bird lovers come from all corners of the world to witness them, particularly the warblers. It was quite a spectacle. As a photographer I prefer to shoot alone most of the time, but I have to say that it was an incredible experience being surrounded by hundreds of other people that all shared the same passion and appreciation for birds that I do. We all automatically had our love for birds in common and conversations flowed naturally and easily between complete strangers. At any time I could easily find solitude by walking off onto one of the quieter trails, and often did so, those  locations yielded some of my best images from my trip.

During my visit I met a number of other photographers and bird enthusiasts that I am connected with online, but had not yet met in person. I also had the honor of exchanging a few words with Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman. Kenn is universally known as one of the world’s most renowned bird experts and his wife Kimberly is the Executive Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory . The Black Swamp Bird Observatory works through research and education to promote bird conservation, is responsible for organizing  The Biggest Week In American Birding  and conducts regular bird banding sessions. I’m proud to call them both friends and greatly respect their talents and efforts. They were both wonderful event hosts.

I still remember my first experience of a warbler migration in my youth all those years ago in Maine, it was wonderful… this was spectacular. There were birds absolutely everywhere you looked. I would arrive each morning before dawn and not leave the Marsh until after sunset, back at my hotel room the songs of the birds would still be echoing in my ears until long after dark.

Pools Of Sunshine | Prothonotary WarblerIf you wish to experience the thrill of the Spring songbird migration I encourage you to add this destination to your future travel plans. I intend to return again next year, until then I’ll enjoy reliving my time there as I continue to process more image files from Magee Marsh. Be sure to watch my Newest Images Portfolio  for additional photos from this trip.

Happy Birding!

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

 

* Natural subjects in their natural habitat – All of these photos were taken in the wild on natural perches, none of the birds were called or fed.

A moment with Kenn & Kimberly Kaufman

A moment with Kenn & Kimberly Kaufman at Magee Marsh

Review: Naneu Adventure K5-v2 Hiking/Photo Pack

Chronicles of Nature

Field Test of Naneu’s Adventure K5-II at White Sands, New Mexico

I recently took my Naneu Adventure K5-v2 hiking pack out on the road for a field test. My destination? New Mexico’s White Sand Dunes under a full moon. In this particular Park you have two options to access the Park outside of normal hours of operation;

1). Pay the Park Rangers to access the Park after or before its normal hours of operation at the rate of $50 per hour.

2). Pack your gear in to one of their remote campsites and spend the night in the Dunes to experience sunset, the night sky and sunrise.

I chose option two as I wanted to take full advantage of my time in the Park and get away from the casual tourists on the main road. In packing my gear I need to be prepared for a 50 degree temperature swing with highs in the 80’s during the day, and lows dropping all the way down to the 30’s at the coolest point of the night. I also had to consider the possibility of rain in the forecast. Unfortunately the weather was uncooperative on this trip, but I was still able to enjoy the versatility of my new pack. Heavy rain showers blew in one of the days I was there, but the Adventure K5-v2’s rain cover kept all my gear dry. Besides my camera equipment I was also carrying a 2-man backpacking tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, rain jacket, change of clothes, water and food for two or three days. Fully loaded my pack weighed over 50lbs, and distributed the weight exceptionally well. While it certainly isn’t weightless, I easily could have carried more gear if needed.

The 80 liter capacity the Adventure K5-v2 offers more space than any other technical, hiking camera pack available. I was pleased to find that its internal frame and ventilated, padded back support was designed with photographers in mind. The spacious main compartment can be accessed from both sides, as well as the top and the bottom. The numerous external pouches and pockets afforded me plenty of additional space to stow a wide variety of items and keep them readily accessible. I like to always have a designated location to store my wallet, keys and smart phone on these trips, the waist straps pockets were perfect for this. An interior pouch on the left side of the pack is designed to hold a large volume water bladder and one elastic pouch on either side perfectly accommodated two Nalgene bottles allowing me to transport plenty of water even in a desert climate. There is a built in system that secured my tripod and didn’t allow it to shift around or hit me in the head.

Wanderlust | New Mexico

There were a few features that really sold me on this pack, but perhaps the most notable was the removable camera pod. The Adventure K5-v2 has a dedicated center compartment that fits a separate camera pod for storage of all your fragile camera equipment on long treks. This center compartment is accessible from either side of the pack and is fully collapsible once the camera pod is removed. The pod’s padded interior easily provides storage for my pro DSLR with my 70-200mm lens attached, spare batteries/memory cards, filters, cable release, flash and three additional lenses. The pod’s shoulder straps allowed me to use it as a day pack for shorter hikes and leave the main body of the Adventure K5-v2 behind at my base camp. The pod also clips to the front of the Adventure K5-v2 allowing it to be transported attached on your chest and quickly accessed without having to remove the hiking pack from your back for shooting on the go.

My initial response to this pack is nearly all positive. I will say that if you are not going on an extended, multiple day trek this bag may be more than you need, however that is not to say the Adventure K5-v2 couldn’t be used on single day trips as well. I advised Naneu that I’d like to see the hydration bladder pouch be designed in future production to be a zippered compartment as opposed to a sleeve style pocket. They have taken that feedback and are researching what can be done to address that request. I noticed some shift of the chest strap at times, but have experienced that with other packs as well, so that might just be the nature of life on the trail with 50lbs of gear on your back.

Naneu Adventure K5-II Camera Pod

One of the common complaints made by photographers looking for a good hiking pack is that there are few technical, hiking packs designed to properly carry camera equipment, and camera backpacks are certainly not designed to offer balanced weight distribution for your body over long distances, much less transport camping gear. Naneu left no stone unturned in the design of this pack and the result is an intelligently crafted pack in a class by itself. The Adventure K5-v2 is the perfect fusion of a top of the line camera bag and a technical hiking pack in one. If you’re in the market for a new, large volume, hiking pack and looking to transport your camera gear in a safe, secure way this pack is the answer. If you choose to order one be sure to mention my name at checkout to receive 15% off your order and free shipping.

Visit Naneu’s website  for more info.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

Nathaniel

The Image Of Success

Chronicles of Nature

I frequently receive emails and messages asking for direction on how one becomes a successful nature photographer. There’s a lot of discussion between photographers on what makes a successful image. While there are many well tested practices for creating great photographs with which to build a beautiful portfolio, that is only half of the recipe to success. Successfulness in any field is defined by many other important factors. If these factors are ignored you may cripple your attempts to build a career; regardless of the quality of your images. In answer to those that have asked for my advice on the subject I’ve compiled my thoughts into the following ten points.

1). Life Isn’t Fair.  Successful photographers don’t waste time wallowing in self pity. Take responsibility for your actions and be thankful for life’s lessons. If something doesn’t work out as you’d hoped, just accept it. Perhaps the negotiations with a potential client that you were excited about fell through. Realize that life is full of mistakes and that this is how we learn. Success is about not being deterred when your plans don’t come to fruition. Evaluate what you could do differently the next time and move on.

2). Stay Focused. You will be challenged at every turn, so be ready for it. Always be in control of your emotions and actions, if you let others put you under their thumb you may never get up again. Don’t allow the rejection of a handful of envious, disgruntled peers send you into fits of depression. If you’ve been used by another photographer or client for their personal gain, remove yourself from the situation and never look back. Always keep your goal in your sights.

3). Change Is Inevitable. Nature photographers are constantly confronted with change, so embrace it. It could be a change in the weather when you’re all prepared for one type of shot, or something more technical like film cameras being replaced by digital. I remember hearing so many photographers say they’d never switch from their 35mm film cameras to digital when that transition began. They all shoot digital now. Our fear should not be of the unknown, but rather of getting stuck in the same routine. Force yourself outside your comfort zone; that is often when we accomplish our greatest work.

4). Don’t Fight It. The only thing you can control in life when faced with a difficult situation is how you respond to the problem. If you drop your lens and it breaks you can respond by getting really pissed off and say your whole trip is ruined, or you can be thankful for the images you were able to record prior to the accident; I’m speaking from personal experience here. If you were responsible and carried insurance on your multi-thousand dollar gear then you wouldn’t have to fret so much. (Now we’re getting back to point number one about taking responsibility for your actions). Points one and four are closely linked. When life hands you rain clouds instead of sunsets, take pictures of the rain clouds and hope for rainbows.

5). Embrace The Challenges. Every successful photographer has taken chances on something at some point in their career, some more than others. Running a profitable business requires you to. I am certainly not saying that you should just recklessly jump into anything, but even buying equipment is a risk. Do you have a business plan before you go and drop five, ten or even fifty thousand dollars on camera gear? If you’ve invested the time in creating a plan to determine the consequences of your decisions before you act, then they become a lot less fearful. A successful photographer is not afraid of uncharted waters.

6). Live In The Present. Living for yesterday is one of the greatest pitfalls for anyone trying to build a future of any kind. While there are certainly valuable lessons to be learned from our past life experiences, you should be careful not to waste too much time and energy in ‘times gone by’. If you want to be a successful photographer put your effort into what you are working on today and tomorrow, not in what you did yesterday.

7). Learn From Your Failures. Not much mystery here. Have you ever gone out and shot a few hundred frames only to realize you forgot to put a memory card in your camera? Don’t do it twice. Even the most successful photographers make mistakes; they also learn from them. You should view every failure as an opportunity to improve yourself. To be a successful photographer you must be willing to correct the future by what you’ve learned in the past.

8). Celebrate The Achievements Of Your Peers. Successful photographers are not afraid of another’s accomplishments. It takes a person with confidence in themselves to find happiness in another’s success. They are not envious or spiteful towards their peers and/or competitors. Congratulate your peers on their achievements, you will draw more people to yourself as a result. There is a vast difference between arrogance and confidence; you never need to apologize for confidence. I’ve seen too many talented, but insecure photographers out there. Don’t be one of them.

9). Be Prepared To Earn It. Don’t expect anything to come to you on a silver platter. Even if you have a beautiful portfolio and have invested thousands of dollars in gear, it doesn’t make you any different than the other millions of photographers out there that have done the same. I’ve heard photographers bitch and moan bitterly that essentially ‘one day the world will recognize them ’. They will be waiting for a long time. Those that are successful make themselves thus and don’t wait for society to realize what a gift they’ve been given by their existence. Do something noteworthy with your work, make your images uniquely your own. Successful photographers don’t wait for the world to recognize them, they are too busy living their dream.

10). It All Takes Time. It has been said that there is no shortcut to success; truer words were never spoken. If you’re expecting to ‘make it’ overnight you should consider a different career path, maybe fast food is more your speed. To be a successful nature photographer you must have commitment and dedication. Your dedication will be tested repeatedly along the way. Keep your head down and work hard. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your achievements, but be humble about them. Realize that this is a journey, not a destination. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

 – Nathaniel Smalley