Photo Tip: The Importance of Flexibility and Quick Reactions

In a recent Photo Contest at Outdoor Photo, I came across a series of excellent images … all by Miles Morgan.  I immediately googled the name and found numerous other great shots by Miles.  From there, we swapped a few emails resulting in this guest article.   Miles has a lot to offer, so we hope this post is the first of many by Miles.

Article by Miles Morgan

In wildlife photography, flexibility and quick reactions are critical.  Things happen fast, and trying to combine changing light, moving subjects (who aren’t interested in your direction), and safety creates a kaleidoscope of decisions that need to be made on the fly in order to make a successful image.  This is exactly why I’m a landscape photographer.

The preparation for my landscape images starts days, or months in advance.  After deciding on a subject that I would like to see for myself, I’ll scour the internet for information on the best time or day, the best season, the best tides (if coastal) and weather patterns, and the best composition.  Once I’ve settled on the time when all these things converge, I’ll arrive on scene early…. REALLY early… to set up and wait for my chance when the light is most ideal.  Having time is a landscape photographers luxury if he/she prepares properly.  Of course, any of you that have actually been in the field shooting are  putting a huge asterisk on that last sentence.  Some photographers are naturally flexible, and artfully maneuver from composition to composition during peak light, coming home with many different possibilities to process.  My preferred method of shooting is to spend quite a bit of time finding THE composition that I find most pleasing, and shooting images across the whole spectrum of good light.  That way, I am assured of having frames when the scene looks its very best.  But what happens when things are evolving differently from what you planned?

If the light is amazing in a direction different from the one you are facing, do you abandon the composition that you worked so hard to find and chase the light, hoping to quickly put together all the elements required to make a pleasing image?  Or do you stick with what you have, waiting and hoping that those same lighting conditions will migrate into your chosen scene?  The answer depends on several factors, and requires you to evaluate your personal strengths.  If you are also a wildlife shooter, comfortable with rapidly changing conditions, it might make sense to try to quickly create a new composition highlighting the best light.  I tend to be rather reluctant to change my original composition.   As an airline pilot, I’ve spent countless hours watching how light reacts to unfolding weather conditions, and I use that knowledge to constantly evaluate how I think the optimal light is going to look over the scene.  The combination of exceptional light and a sense that the conditions will never be ideal over my composition will finally be enough to spur me to try quickly putting together some strong elements in a new composition showcasing the great light.  An honest evaluation of your shooting strengths before arriving on location will give you the best possible chance of coming home with a memorable image.

Below is an example of a situation where I abandoned the composition that I had been hoping to shoot in order to take advantage of unexpected lighting conditions.  The story behind the image was so startling, that I thought I would include it as well.

Flexibility and an open mind can yield shots like this

Last night I finished my household duties a little earlier than I thought I might, and figured I had time to race to Kiwanda before sundown to try to catch the clearing storm that had been pounding Oregon the previous day or two. My friend Sonny had been anxious to see the Cape, so the extended invitation was quickly accepted and we were off. I’ve been trying to get a good image from here for some time now with little success on the light, but the conditions were ripe for another attempt.

Kiwanda Cliff

Climbing the dune and crossing the narrow paths proved entertaining, as Sonny is deathly afraid of heights. I should mention that Sonny is a friend of mine from flight school, and a pilot for UPS. I’ve thus found his acrophobia to be rather amusing, and I test it whenever possible. The last time Sonny and I went for a “hike”; we climbed Mt. St. Helens. At the summit, he had to lay on his stomach to feel comfortable peering into the Crater. When I asked him what he thought of the un-paralleled vista spread forth before him, he said, and I quote: “Well, I’d rather be changing the diaper on my 3 year.” There’s a man who is in touch with nature.

At any rate, we arrived successfully on the small cliff where I planned to shoot, and after setting up the gear, waited for the light. Sonny entertained himself by continuing out to the end of the rocky shelf to look for sea creatures. I was back on camera: focus, check. f-stop, check. polarizer, check. scooby snack break, check. While going through my settings I heard “WWWWWHHHHAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLEEEEEEEEE” and looked up to see a large Grey Whale surface not 100 feet offshore from where Sonny was standing. It was, without a doubt, the closest I’d ever been to a whale, and I was a good 75 yards further than Sonny. He screamed, I screamed, and we continued our vigil for quite some time as first one, then another, then another slowly swam south directly past the ledge. Massive and fantastic. Finally, Sonny walked back to my shooting area and stood watching for more marine life. I turned and saw this light burning from behind the clouds and faced my dilemma. I have a bad habit in photography.

Once I’ve found the comp that I like, I tend to stick with it throughout the best light conditions so I’m shooting from that spot at the ideal time. If I move from the spot that I want an image of, I might miss the optimal moment, and then I’ll be grumpy and generally make life miserable for all who come in contact with me. On this night, I broke from my comfort zone because the light was just too cool to pass up. I set up this image, and fired off a few frames.

I was just about to move to a different spot to improve on the too-centered comp when I heard a huge WOOSH from my right, just by the channel over which I was shooting. There, less than 30 feet away, was a Whale. I was so completely shocked that I forgot that I had a camera with me. I just stood on the ledge and gawked, watching the whale swim right up below the 10 foot ledge and roll around for several minutes. I eventually began to fear that he was stuck, as he kept bumping the side of the ledge, but I later learned that they will rub up against the rocks to clean barnacles off their bodies. His paw kept sliding up in the air and then down, (ok…. I’m sure they don’t call them paws – I’ve never been very good with animals) and he was close enough that clearing his airhole would have drenched us. I literally could have stepped off the edge and pretty much fallen straight on top of him. Finally, clean and satisfied, and probably wondering what this “OH MY GOD”; that he kept hearing from the two morons on the cliff meant, he slowly turned north and swam in front of the cliffs before slipping into the comfortable depths of his home.

For more of Miles’ photography, visit his web site … you won’t be sorry.  Great images and a blog that let’s you get into the mind of this talented photographer.

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