“Last night I wanted some inspiration, but I didn’t have any dreams…” – Prince, “3 Chains of Gold”
Quite the contrary, I’ve had some doozies of dreams, recently, but none of them have translated to anything remotely similar to a good photograph. In fact, most of them have just caused a slight curiosity, mostly confusion, a few grumbles, and a return to sleep. So, I’ve been in a self-imposed rut, recently, and I wanted to get out. What kind of self-imposed rut? The most dangerous kind — self-doubt.
Self-doubt is the submarine that lurks beneath the surface just off the shores of any person in a creative field — or any field, for that matter — but I’m talking about creative outlets, here, so that’s our point of discussion. I did myself both a world of good and a great disservice by going online and looking at other amateur’s photographs. Specifically, I looked at the nature/bird photographs. They were beautiful and inspiring — I wanted to get out and photograph birds, right then. That’s when the self-doubt started creeping in. I look at these pictures of perfect birds in perfect focus with perfect light and I start to get discouraged. I start to wonder what I’m doing wrong. I start to feel uninspired because, really, if this is my competition, what’s the point, right? I suppose, if you’re a quitter. I’m not a quitter.
It does make one stop and think, though. It makes you think about your equipment — is my glass good enough, my sensor big enough (6.1MP doesn’t seem so high-resolution, anymore) — and your location — Ohio is so damned boring in the winter, no light, etc. Reassessment is good. Overthinking is bad. There are times when it’s just a matter of getting out there and doing it and seeing what you get. For me, my biggest challenge seems to be focal planes. With the new lens, the Tamron 200-500 f/5.0-6.3, I find that I have more out of focus pictures than not at the extreme focal length, which, I suppose, is to be expected. They’re not hideously out of focus; it’s usually a matter of the branch about 2 inches in front of the raptor’s head is sharp as a tack, but head of the raptor…not so much. So, it’s just repetition and practice to get that sweet spot where you can see in your viewfinder that perfect balance of bird and feather and have it translate to a clear, sharp, perfect picture. What about that PERFECT picture that’s either out of focus or so soft-focus that it might as well be out of focus?? In my experience, it’s “too bad, so sad,” or “better luck, next time.” There’s also, “get it right the first time.” That’s where the practice comes in.
What does this have to do with either inspiration or desperation? Everything. When you have confidence, it’s all inspiration. When you’re confidence has taken a hit, you tend more towards desperation. What’s the difference? Inspiration is when you go out in the field and you look around and everything is beautiful, perfect and new — you can just look around and see hundreds of perfect pictures but, more importantly, the two or three perfect PHOTOGRAPHS that you didn’t see the last time you were in the same spot. Desperation is when you have gone to this same spot and you’re looking around, trying to find that new angle, that new interpretation, and you’re trying to FORCE creativity. Ask thousands of corporate managers out there — forcing creativity is a lot like strapping a Spider monkey to a skateboard and expecting Tony Hawk.
I went to Buck Creek State Park (by way of downtown Columbus and beyond…from Dayton…a little frustrating in and of itself…) full of desperation. I’ve photographed at BCSP MANY times, somewhere in the low 30s, I think, and seem to have gotten into a predictable pattern: walk the beach, hope for a close Ring-billed, Franklin’s (rare) or Bonaparte’s Gull, Sandpiper or two and some smattering of either Meadow- or Horned Larks interspersed with Sparrows of various types and maybe a warbler or 2. The last time I had gone out, it was 15 degrees with a wind coming off the lake that, by my guesstimates, was close to 30mph. It was brutal, and not conducing to creativity, really, other than how quickly I could back to the car. That said, today was going to be different. I knew it — it HAD to be. I was going in with the mindset that I was GOING TO BE CREATIVE, DARN IT! Yeah, right. As soon as I stepped out of the car, the Ring-billed Gull started teasing me, flying within mere yards. I hadn’t gotten any of my gear out, but that changed quickly, and I was able to snap off a photograph of the gull almost directly overhead (against the bland, irritating Ohio grey that is the winter sky). I made a quick check to the LCD and saw that it looked really good — sharp, good composition and, despite the nastiness of the boring grey sky, good color. Maybe, today would be different.
My intentions of being “inspired” and taking specific photographs that I had already composed in my mind disappeared completely as I looked over to my left and there, in the tree, not 100 yards away was what turned out to be a juvenile Red-Shouldered Hawk. That made the inspiration melt away to “let’s find out who’s the better tracker, here…” By the way, if you’re going to play this game with a raptor, get a big lens, some camouflage (which I don’t have), and hope for good ground cover. This time was already different — I STARTED inside the 100-yard threshold. In crept a different type of inspiration.
Instead of filling my head with questions like, “will this be the perfect shot?” or “will this shot be comparable to those I’ve seen on the net?” or “will this win any prizes or sell any prints?,” my head started filling with a single thought, “Red-Shouldered — 100 yards and closing, 500mm and f/6.3; slow and low — get a good angle.” This turned into an almost-mantra, with “slow and low, get a good angle” being the focal point in my mind. I FELT inspired. I felt that rush. I felt alive. I also felt connected. This bird, just a bird, had brought out what had been missing about 20 minutes ago as I was grumbling in the car about the sunlight retreating behind the clouds. There’s your inspiration — when you’re out doing what you love, in a situation that’s the same as it was 2 weeks ago, with new vision, new energy, new intensity.
I rattled off 30 shots in 5 different locations, following this raptor from stump, to ditch (meal, that I missed because I was coming over the hill right as he made the kill and there was no angle for the shot through the 5′ grasses), to tree, to tree and, finally, to tree where she finally ditched me. Of those, I have 4 that I’m happy with and 2, so far, that other people might get to see. That was a lot of gas, time and energy for one shot, right? Yeah, it was, EXCEPT, it’s that one shot that matters, isn’t it? It’s that one shot that reminds you why you do it and reminds you that you’re skilled, technically competent and, above all, a good, if not great, photographer. Remember, your happiness comes first. When you’re happy, confident and inspired, the rest will fall into place. Case in point? As I was walking away from the Harrier as she finally eluded me, I took some of the sharpest photos I have of a handful of American Tree Sparrows. It just fell into place.