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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

12 Lessons in Nature Photography: 2023 Review


Sunset on Caddo Lake | A. Bender Photography LLC
Setting Sun

So when I first sat down to write this it was going to be a review of my statistics for this year, such as number miles driven, images taken, and presentations given. But reflecting on that, I don't think that is particularly helpful to those reading my articles. Yeah its a great way to show I'm "relevant" and "active" in the craft but really it is just a poorly vailed brag to be honest. I am thankful every day that my sponsors, collaborators, companies, and, most of all, clients and supporters such as yourself, who continue to view my work and allow me to continue to do what I do day in and day out in this amazing career as a professional nature photographer. Thus, I offer the following content and hope you find it more useful than a post reviewing where I have been and the annual statistical analysis of my business.


 

Here we are at the end of another year and I have had an absolute blast spending 120+ days of 2023 in the field for nature photography. It has been my pleasure to work with so many of you this year, whether it was virtually or in person, in the classroom or in the field. As much as I love being able to provide quality nature photography education as well as once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I also continue to be amazed at how much I learn each and every year while in Nature. If nothing else, Nature is sure to keep one humble in that way.


Reviewing what I have learned over the last year, here are twelve of the lessons in Nature photography that I was reminded of, some gently, some not so gently. They are in no particular order though I feel all are important to keep in mind in the coming year.


1. Don't Let "Bad" Weather Get You Down

I feel like this is a lesson learned time and time again. Arriving on location and we are hoping that the weather presents itself just the way we have it envisioned in our heads. Yet, in a world with increasingly unpredictable weather, this is getting to be a taller order each year. Add to the challenge, many tour guides, myself included, set dates two to three years in advance (even if we don't publish them right away)!


This said, some of the challenges this presents is photographing under "bad" weather conditions. Truthfully I don't actually believe there is "bad" weather, just weather that is not optimal for my primary subject. Take for example the first tour I did this season at Caddo Lake. We had challenging conditions for sure. Dark, overcast days with little to no sun and unseasonably warm, think mornings in the 50s versus the usual 20/30s, meaning no magical mist. Yet the colors were amazing and, in many areas, peaking while we were there.


It took quite a bit more effort to capture pleasing images during this block of time, but there were still images to be created. Not all was lost, just more challenging. And we need a bit of challenge sometimes. It helps keep the creative juices fresh and gives up the opportunity to grow in our craft. Below are two images I created during this first tour of Caddo. While not full of color, I love the detail and mood of the first image. For me, it reminds me of the true heart of the swamp where color is not the central theme and yet there is something peaceful about this scene to me. The second image is a minimalist look at one of the invasive lilies that covers large swaths of Caddo Lake. The overcast skies allowed me to underexpose and turn the water black to really set off the simplistic shape and pop of color the leaves offered as they rise from the depths.


Cypress trees at Caddo Lake Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC

Minimalist three water lily pads on black water in Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC

2. Patience and Persistence Pay Off

A novice photographer who joined me on one of my tours really brought this one home for me. At lunch, after a long morning session in the field, they asked, "What am I missing? We sat with our subject for over an hour and I had my images within the first five minutes, so why the additional time?" First off, kudos for being willing to ask as I feel many, especially beginners won't ask questions like this, mostly out of fear of looking somehow "less" in other's eyes. I was really caught off guard by the question - but in a good way. It brought me back to my own early days when I would show up at a place, not see my primary subject, get sad, and walk off in search of something else only to see images later from others that my subject had showed. Other times I would roll up, photograph my subject and start to roll back out just before the action got good and, by then, I was out of position. To this client I explained that while, yes, our subject was in front of us, we were spending as much time as we could to take the opportunity to potentially capture more interesting behavior. This takes waiting, and a bit of luck, since we can't sit with them all day yet we know they do more than slowly walk around grazing.


This lesson is also applicable to when on tour and targeting species that are yet to be seen. One of the highlights of visiting Grand Teton in the Autumn is to see bull moose with their huge paddles. To me, it is a quintessential part of photographing this area during the fall season. While guiding a women's only tour at the beginning of October this year, I was humbled by Nature and forced to acknowledge I operate on her timeline. For four days we had been scouring the park for a moose encounter and had only had fleeting glimpses at a distance. We had seen bears multiple times, bison, even the elusive pronghorn (this year only about 40 pronghorn made it back to the park after the extremely harsh 2022/2023 winter season), quality moose viewing still eluded us. Yet we continued to target the habitat and times of day that were most likely to produce the best viewing and were assessable to everyone in our group.


On the morning of our last full day in the park we opted to forego a sunrise shoot and continue to concentrate on finding moose. This persistence paid off as we finally had a wonderful encounter that lasted about 30 minutes as a bull tried to woo a female who had a calf from this last spring. They were positioned with beautiful backlighting filtering through autumn grasses and the yellow cottonwood leaves making for excellent images and plenty of opportunities to work with different backgrounds as they made their way along the forest edge.


Bull moose with backlit cottonwoods Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC

Female and calf moose in autumn colors Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC

3. Photograph For Yourself


I'm caveating this section with it applies to those not producing images to client specifications, such as commercial photographers. Starting out, many of us photograph to replicate our favorite artists or to create images that do best on social media or certain contests. I started out this way as well and it almost made me give up photography all together as I became so frustrated in not being able to create the images I was seeing from those I looked up to that I just became depressed each time I came back without the images I felt I was "suppose to have" created.


It wasn't until I started photographing for myself that things turned around. Sometimes I still question it though, especially when surrounded by leaders in the industry, such as when I attended the Tamron Pro Summit in Tucson, AZ earlier this month (Dec 2023). Tamron Americas hosted an amazing two day event for all their pros (ambassadors and image masters) with photography opportunities from sun up until well after sundown. They had field trips to local vista points for us landscape photographers and brought in models for those portrait and commercial photographers on the team. Encouraged to step outside our comfort zones, we had the opportunity to collaborate with each other and try different genres we may not have done before or that were outside our current repertoire.


I did a bit of this, as we will see, but the big thing that hit me was that having models in front of me did nothing for my creative mind. It was just meh and I found it hard to even consider picking up the camera. Models just aren't my thing and, in my mind, why should I expend energy to produce something I'm not going to like and when many of those present can do it so much better. It is not that I think I couldn't do it, I just wouldn't enjoy it and it wouldn't be me.


So I started looking for a "me" scene/subject. When I started looking, I didn't have to go far. We were all working out at this wonderfully rocky area with small pockets of desert vegetation. Lighting set ups were grouped around spots that offered beautiful backgrounds for the models and the vast majority of the pros were working with either the models or each other for portrait type images. Me, I asked the organizers of this whole thing to take a few steps to the left so I could lay down where they had been standing. Why? Because I saw a small patch of desert lichens that were shaped like leopard spots with a yucca just in front. The juxposition of sharp spines versus round spots, warm rock versus cool tones in the plant, had caught my attention and I wanted to capture that. One of the organizers came over and asked me to walk him through what I had seen and how as he, being from New York, laughingly admitted there is no way he ever would have been able to visualize what I was describing. Below is the resulting image.


Yucca against red rock with lichens in Sedona AZ | A. Bender Photography LLC

Shortly after I finished photographing the above scene, I wondered off to photograph for me. I stopped worrying about what the others might think and focused on my artistic voice. Afterall, it was that voice that had caught Tamron's eye in the first place so why did I need to change. Answer: I didn't. And you don't either! Make art that makes you happy. If you love an image, love it. Work with mentors to help you find and refine your artistic voice but not to the extent of parroting theirs.


Another image created after I wondered off.


Yucca impression Sedona AZ | A. Bender Photography LLC

4. Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone


I mentioned above that I did use the Tamron Pro Summit to get out of my comfort zone. Not only did I get inspired to try some fire photography due to a fellow participant's suggestion but, when we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona's famous house of worship that is carved into the landscape, I tried a bit of photojournalism. Only one image from this session turned out how I wanted it but I feel it was a good lesson and practice for some of my more urban explorations coming up.


A single candle is lit on an alter in the Chapel of the Sacred Heart Sedona AZ | A. Bender Photography LLC
Light in the Dark

Below are a set of the fire images I captured and now I have a reason for campfires again.


Flame photographed and looking like a phoenix rising | A. Bender Photography LLC
Phoenix

Flame photographed looking like a horse | A. Bender Photography LLC
Wildfire

Beyond this late year challenge, I have had a series of other situations that called for me to deviate from my standard image development process. While in the Tetons this fall, meeting up with some friends before my tour started, we were treated to some really moody weather. The drab colors in the final frames didn't do the scenes justice however. By processing in black and white, I felt the story and emotion I wanted to convey of the scene popped.


Black and white of Teton Range Wyoming | A. Bender Photography LLC

Black and white of Teton mountains in Wyoming | A. Bender Photography LLC

Black and white of clouds between mountains in Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC
Sleeping Dragon

These were not the only images I did in black and white this year and I found I had more top ranked black and white images in this year's collection than in previous years. Maybe my voice is changing slightly and/or more of my personal life is seeping into my work as is so common with artists. I mean have you heard Taylor Swift's work? With my husband stationed overseas, life get's more stressful and I sometimes think this influences not only how and what I photograph but also how I edit and the emotions embedded in images I create.


5. Change Your Perspective

During field sessions, portfolio reviews, and education session I preach changing up your perspective. Get low, look up, look down, just change your shooting posture from the typical "bring the camera to your face while standing" or setting up your tripod at chest height. This is not a new lesson. At least not for me and those I have worked with throughout the year. But what about changing the perspective you capture in your image? Finding ways to challenge a viewer and how they relate to the subject and how the subject is presented. This takes perspective to another level and is not necessarily applicable to all subjects or possible in all situations. But learning to recognize the situations when they occur can lead to more impactful images. This year I created one of my favorite whooping crane images to date. It captures the cranes in great storm-type light and, due to the positioning and of the cranes within the frame, forces the viewer to think just a bit longer when taking in the image. Using complementary "pieces" of each bird gives an almost Matrix quality to the image as if the head has been transposed off the legs, when in reality it is just two different birds.


Whooping cranes descend against smoke filled skies | A. Bender Photography LLC
Storm Cranes

The other aspect of changing perspective and a lesson I have learned hard this year is around the idea of "common" as it applies to wildlife. So many times contest results come out and the winning images are those of species such as elephants or cheetahs or polar/brown bears or other species that have arbitrarily been given the status of "exciting" or "exotic." Even within the bird communities it is the male Northern cardinal that is more predominantly featured in imagery for it's bright red plumage than that of the female and certainly more than the less flashy but arguably more charismatic Bewick wren.


When pointing out smaller species such as a chipmunk to a group, I'm frequently greeted with board expressions and maybe even a quip of "it's just a chipmunk." I think we need to change our perspective on what "common" species offer us as photographers and the important place that creatures great and small play in the environment around us. There are infinitely more images of African elephants out in the world than there are of actual elephants. The same cannot be said for many smaller species such as native bees, moths, flies, snakes, and amphibians (unless it happens to be a red tree frog, then maybe.) Change your perspective to find the uncommon in the "common."


Butterfly landing on wildflower in Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC

6. Diversify Your Portfolio

This year I have been working some on more environmental wildlife images. For many, myself included, we fall into the habit of always filling the frame with our subject. While there is nothing wrong with that and it is actively encouraged for certain images, if an entire portfolio is all full frame wildlife portraits it can hit one note. This is something I came up against with my own work this year after receiving several requests for images I was unable to fulfill. So I am making it a priority to try to capture more images that feature a landscape with wildlife. An example of that is this beaver image I captured while in in the Tetons this year.


Beaver forages along the Snake River Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC

Additionally, in line with the idea of changing your perspective to more "common" species, our portfolios should also be varied in species (unless specializing in a select species or set of animals). Not only does this challenge us as photographers but also helps us come home with more images at the end of the day. How is that you might ask? Because being open to other, frequently smaller, subjects gives you more opportunities to capture portfolio worth images, even if the subject isn't the original subject you were looking for at the start. An example of that is this image of a nuthatch I captured in the Tetons while out looking for moose. Because I was exploring on foot and allowing myself to take in really anything that moves, I was ready when this small bird perched for a brief moment in a shaft of light.


A nuthatch on the side of a tree trunk in Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC

Another example comes from when I was guiding one of my tours in the Tetons and while on the way to an overlook, we had a dusky grouse cross the road. I was ever so thankful that it then became very photogenic and staying posing on a log just off the road while my group and I photographed it before proceeding to the overlook for some landscapes.


Dusky grouse in Grand Teton National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC

All three of these images were taken in the Tetons and yet none of these species are never really held up as one of the key species that people associate with the Tetons. Yet, they are such important members of the ecosystem there in the Teton range, especially the beavers.


7. Say Yes To Opportunities

As much as I tend to wonder solo when scouting before groups get in, I still will strike up conversation with some of the other people I come across, be they photographers, landowners, or just others enjoying time outdoors. It is not something that everyone is comfortable with but I have found it has lead to some amazing opportunities. One such opportunity that came from striking up conversation this past spring was the ability to access the ever so coveted longhorns in bluebonnets that so many Texas photographers hunt for during wildflower season.


I had pulled over after spotting some beautiful longhorns that happened to be grazing in a wonderful field of bluebonnets. Spending quite a bit of time crouched by the fence, I noticed someone riding up the fence line towards me. I figure the encounter can go one of three ways: 1) they would just nod as they continued to check their livestock and fence; 2) they would ask me to leave for whatever reason; or 3) they would stop to find out what I was about.


Please note that at no time did I trespass and I was only photographing from the right-of-way,

all fully within my rights.


That said, I really appreciated the landowner taking the third approach and striking up conversation with me. Not only did he tell me more about his "pasture ornaments" as he referred to his small herd, but, after finding out what I was doing, invited me to come back with my group one morning and he would make sure that he fed the herd up by the flowers so they would be there for us. What an amazing find and such a generous offer!


With that opportunity, not only was my group able to get some wonderful images but I walked away with a few as well and a new location to return to in the future. This is one of my favorite images from my visits with the longhorns. No, it doesn't have horns yet, but this little 10 day old calf will someday.


Texas Longhorn calf in bluebonnets and wildflowers | A. Bender Photography LLC


8. Use a Long Lens

For anyone who has been following my work for more than a day, I'm sure you all have seen how much I love my long lenses. The Tamron 50-400mm for Sony E-mount has rarely left my camera body since I received a copy last year after its debut. But time and time again I am reminded how much a long lens can add even to a landscape photographer's bag.


Fall colors in the Wasatch Range Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC
Wasatch Range - Taken with the Tamron 17-50mm for Sony E-mount

This fall I was working with a new lens, the Tamron 17-50mm (which is an amazing complement to the Tamron 50-400mm), trying to capture some new images of autumn colors in the Wasatch Range. Yet, my eye kept being drawn up the mountain ridges to these small scenes that had light spots moving across them through the wispy clouds. Switching back to the 50-400mm I was able to focus on the scenes as I saw them in my mind's eye. It was another reminder that long lenses are not just for the wildlife photographer and have a distinct place in a landscaper's kit too.


Fall colors in the Wasatch Range Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

Fall colors in the Wasatch Range Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

9. Be Flexible

I found myself frequently uttering that "If I could control the wildlife and the weather, I'd have it set. But then I would be God and no one wants that." But it really gets down to the core of what tour leaders and nature photographers in general go through when in the field. We can have everything planned to the best of our ability but then Mother Nature decided she has different plans. I am always so very grateful to those clients and participants who understand this and are willing to roll with the conditions we find ourselves in the day or hour of activity.


And sometimes it is not even Nature that gets us as was the case with my time on the Onaqui Herd Management Area outside Salt Lake City in September. Early morning and we headed out to find the wild horses for sunrise when something nudged me to scroll through the information screens on the dash of my rental truck. To this day, I don't know what made me do that as I'm not in the habit of doing that while driving. Thankfully I did though as I rapidly realized we had a tire loosing pressure and fast. We were about 15 miles out from any pavement just at the edge of spotty cell service when I made the decision to flip around and see how close we could get back to the blacktop before the tire gave out. We can all agree it is easier to change a tire on pavement than gravel and sand. I also knew the pavement meant I would be at the entrance of a military base where, should worse come to worse, I could get assistance much more readily.


Onaqui wild stallion horse in Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

We did make it back to the blacktop and as we got ready to change the tire (so thankful that the rental had a full size spare, a rarity these days) an very kind solider getting off night shift stopped and helped us change it. He had all the things I usually carry in my roadside kit when in my own vehicle such as work gloves and a better breaker bar than the factory spec. In no time we were back on the road heading into town as I refuse to go out onto the rage without a spare of some sort. Another wonderful happening was there was actually a tire repair shop open on a Sunday in the small town of Tooele, the closest town to the range.


Wild sunflowers along the Pony Express Historic Route in Tooele County, Utah | A. Bender Photography LLC

While everything worked out in the end, it did mean we missed one of our morning sessions completely due to the issue and rural nature of the location. The Air Force says flexibility is the key to air power. I believe it is the key to life.


10. Use Your Histogram

These last several lessons are more reminders to myself and hopefully you. I bring them up because they are discussions I have had with many participants in the field this year and hope it might help those who have not joined me.


Learning how to read and use your histogram is so vitally important in my book. This one skill is a big marker on my personal photography journey map and I can say that, once I learned this skill, my photography grew exponentially in quality and number of keepers. Especially with mirrorless cameras and the live histogram many of them offer, it has become THE way I judge my images in the field for technical precision (with the other two factors being composition and focus).


As technology grows we continue to master our skills in capturing light. Histograms are a visual representation of the exact tonal data that has been captured (or will be captured with live histograms). No other time in history has it been so easy to be a photographer capturing well exposed images.


The image below would not have been so easily captured if I did not have or understand my histogram. When using higher ISOs and in low light situations, it is very important to "expose to the right" - meaning expose so your histogram is pushed to the right of the graph. Noise typically shows up first in shadows and under exposed areas, so if you under expose a dark image you will have more noise to contend with when developing the image. By having the live histogram, I was able to capture this low light image of a bobwhite quail coming into water, in what would be the first actual sighting of these birds on this property in years.


Bobwhite quail in Uvalde Texas | A. Bender Photography LLC

Need a reference to get you started leaning about your histogram? Here is an excellent article from Digital Photography School.


11. Better a Grainy Image Than A Blurry One

On the subject of high ISO, we have to realize that we are living in a world, photographically, where ISO 800 is respectfully nothing. For those who started in film this may be quite a jolt but when it comes to subjects such as wildlife or sports, use your ISO! It is better to have a bit of a noisy image and a blurry one. Look back at your old Nat Geo magazines. How many of those images have grain and are still considered top quality images? Another way to look at it is if a bit of grain is going to ruin an image, maybe you need a more interesting image?


With the Sony A1, I am frequently using 10,000 to 20,000 ISO values. Do the images have noise? Yes. But with programs such as Topaz DeNoise and DXO, noise is easily handled in the digital darkroom. Our calling as artists, as photographers, is to produce beautiful work using light-capturing techniques. Don't let the fear of a bit of grain that can be removed take away your opportunities to capture scenes as you want to showcase them.


Without using high ISO and denoise development processes, I would not have been able to share this touching image of a momma musk ox and her young calf. Taken at 3am in the morning outside of Nome, Alaska, this was shot at 12,800 ISO and I passed it through Topaz DeNoise during development.


Musk ox cow and calf outside Nome AK | A. Bender Photography LLC

Or how about this image from Caddo Lake this past November. Taken just as the sun was coming up and we had low light due to cloud cover. Additionally, being on a boat I was hand holding and having to counter movement of the boat from gentle rocking as my tour participants moved about capturing their own images. The ISO I needed to use was 16,000 and I processed through Topaz DeNoise.


Cypress trees in Caddo Lake with bright orange foliage | A. Bender Photography LLC

12. Archive Dives Can Deliver New Gold

BW Heron FL

File storage is relatively cheap today compared to even a few years ago. Because of this I rarely delete images unless they are completely out of focus (unintentionally) or have other huge glaring defects that compromise them beyond anything I might be willing to correct in the future. Yet, the vast majority of the images I take languish on my external hard drives never to see the light of day once captured.


However, there is reason for this. I'm not dead yet. LOL But in all seriousness, as our skills as a photographer develop, particularly when it comes to digital darkroom skills, we never really know when we may have overlooked a portfolio worthy image in our first haste to work through a batch of images. Considering today's batches often include hundreds, if not thousands, of images, it is no wonder that we may still have a bit of gold there in those hard drives.


Not only do our skills continuously improve but our editing styles can also change, lending themselves to different images than when we first culled through a batch. This image, taken this past spring while visiting family and scouting for my North Central Florida Spring Wetland Bird Photography Tour went overlooked until I was reviewing images for a presentation and found this one lurking, having not been processed. So I decided to develop it. Again, another black and white for this year so a bit of a change to my style but I really like how this treatment allows for the feather details and light reflecting in the eye to stand out as well as the shadowy feel of the image to be reflective of the birds posture.


Black and white image of a heron in Florida | A. Bender Photography LLC

BONUS: Format Your Cards - EVERY TIME


Baker's dozen anyone? Okay, so this one comes from having found out that several participants over the last several tours and workshops were scaring me with their image handling and I was unaware that it was such a rampant issue.


Your memory cards that your camera saves your images onto need to be formatted when they come out of the box. This basically lets the camera and card talk to each other in the same language, for the lack of a better layman example.


When you remove your memory card from your camera and plug it into your computer (either directly or through a card reader), your computer starts reading those images in another language and translating them to show on your computer. It is hard work and residual data can be left on the memory card from your computer's "language." This is especially applicable if you transfer the files or delete images from the card via your computer.


Now, if you take that memory card from the computer and put it back into your camera and just start shooting again, you can have bits of left over computer "language" in the same space that you are now writing new images to on the card. This can corrupt your images!!!


Does it happen every time? No. But do you really want to take a chance at loosing images of family, friends, vacations, assignments, ect because you didn't bother to format your card when you returned it to your camera so they could "speak" cleanly?


I know what you are asking now: "But I have a 512GB memory card and I'm on vacation. I want to back up my images each day but also don't want to delete them from the card until I'm home. There is so much space left on the card and I need to use it. What do I do?" My answer is buy smaller memory cards if you are not going to back up your images to multiple places while in the field. That way you can have one backup copy and the card as a secondary copy. Or find a field workflow that allows for both a hard and maybe a cloud backup so that you feel more confident in formatting that card when it is returned to the camera. Carry two external drives and back up to both, packing them in different locations within your luggage would be another potential option.


Note: Deleting images (such as using the delete button) is NOT the same as formatting and can lead to more issues with fragments of data being left behind.


Whatever you decide, just know that if you are removing your memory card from your camera, downloading images, and reusing the card before formatting in camera, you risk corrupting your card and loosing your images - the thing you were trying to prevent in the first place.


Sunset over the Tetons from the banks of the Snake River | A. Bender Photography LLC

And with that I have rounded out the (baker's) dozen of lessons I have taken away from this year in the field of nature photography. I'm sure there are others but these are the big ones. Do any of these resonate with you? Have any lessons you learned this year that aren't on this list? Would love to hear about them in the comments so we can all learn together.


May everyone have a safe and happy New Year and may 2024 be filled with adventure for us all!


Two puffins tap beaks together in the Faroe Islands | A. Bender Photography LLC








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