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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Summertime Photography Slump

Two young bison calves in the grass. bison calf kicking up. Yellowstone National Park | A. Bender Photography LLC
"Flop" (2021)

It happens to the best of us. Regardless of profession, passion, or preparation it happens. Slumps or ruts as they are frequently called. When you feel like you’re just treading water in your skills or lack creativity for your next photo (or whatever it is you create). These can be brought on through excessive energy being spent on something that has turned into work - aka burn out; or external factors such as health or family issues; or even if we have felt we have somehow faltered or failed in some way. However, we get there, the result is about the same, a complete lack of mental and sometimes physical energy to pursue what, until recently, brought us much joy and sense of accomplishment.

For me, most years' summers are the slowest time of the year for photography. Maybe it’s because I typically live in really warm places (hello - San Antonio is going on over 50 days of 100°+ temperatures with 60+% humidity). But I love the heat truth be told. Or maybe it’s because I have hesitated to travel during the summer as I don't like dealing with the "school's out" crowds.

Regardless, this summer I was going to try something different. I planned a trip to Yellowstone in June to finish up a project piece for the Journal of Wildlife Photography and then would have almost two weeks in New Brunswick (Canada) for some wildlife photography there in July.

Well...things were not to be (as you might suspect from the start).

Firehole Falls waterfall in Yellowstone National Park on the afternoon of June 13, 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
Firehole Falls, Yellowstone National Park, 12:30PM June 13, 2022

Arriving in West Yellowstone after dealing with a canceled flight at 3pm and having to scramble for an alternate to get me into Bozeman, MT on time, my first day in the park was June 13th. June 13th will go down in the historical records of the park for it was on that day that the 500-year flood crested, wiping roads, bridges, and buildings away and altering the river's course entirely in places. It was also the start of the first complete closure of Yellowstone National Park since the wildfires of 1988. Yeah, that was my first (and last) day in the park for the trip.

A cinnamon black bear, wet from rain, in Yellowstone National Park June 13, 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
A recently independent (of mom) cinnamon black bear two year old that we crossed paths with on our way out of Yellowstone. Photo taken from in the car as the bear looks for traffic before crossing the road. His momma taught him well. Also note how wet he is from the rain and from trying to cross one of the swollen rivers.

Unable to complete my photography story, I explored areas outside the park that I might not have otherwise. It was a pretty part of the country but hunting pressures make large mammals and many birds wary of humans. I did venture down to the Tetons on my last day in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Despite the fact it is based out of West Yellowstone, it was a very long day where I was not able to catch the sunrise or sunset over the mountains but I did have an encounter with a grizzly bear and later a herd of pronghorns. The downside to these were that as much rain as Yellowstone was receiving, the Tetons were in a drought. Heat waves played havoc with my images, but it was still nice to be able to observe these creatures in the wild.

A pronghorn doe among heat shimmers and dandelions in the Tetons June 2022 | A. Bender Photography LLC
The air shimmers around this pronghorn doe in the Tetons.

Returning home, my family and I prepared to attend my brother-in-law's memorial service over the Fourth of July weekend in Asheville, NC. His unexpected passing and the long process to return him from an overseas location where the incident took place was a continuous "back-burner" subject and the memorial finally gave us, as a family, a bit of closure. Traveling over a holiday weekend has been a thing I have avoided at all costs in the past but this could not be helped. Extreme crowds in the airports with few masks and limited spacing only made things worse.

A couple short days after getting home from the memorial, the thing I had done everything I could to avoid over the past two and a half years happened. I became another statistic, struck down by Covid. Thankfully it was only mild to moderate symptoms not requiring hospitalization but it meant I would not be making my flights the following week to Canada. Between coughing fits and naps, I contacted all the vendors who I had reservations through for activities, lodging, and transportation. This is the third time I have had to cancel this trip due to Covid. Maybe next year will be the year?

Two Atlantic puffins on a rock, one with a fish. From a trip in 2014. | A. Bender Photography LLC
From the last time (2014) I was out in US/Canadian waters to photograph puffins. I was hoping this would be the return year.

Beyond the travel aspects that turned out less than desired, this summer at home in San Antonio, TX has not been ideal either. At the close of July, we had hit three straight months with record high temperatures. That has not happened at any time in the past. We have also now had a recorded 50+ days with temperatures over 100°F. The current record is 59 days in a single year of over 100°F for San Antonio that was hit in 2011. Considering August is the warmest month of the year historically, I have a feeling we will break the record before the month is half way out.

I bring this up to make the point that even at home, the photography subjects and conditions are scarce for nature photographers here this year. My garden, full of established Texas native plants, has even suffered under these extreme temperatures and the corresponding drought conditions. This has led to fewer photography opportunities due to fewer plants flowering and fewer pollinators. Many bees and butterflies find it harder to fly when temperatures are above 100°F.

A long-legged fly on a vitex leaf | A. Bender Photography LLC
A long-legged fly finds shade in a Texas lilac vitex. Originally thought to be from China, India, and Southern Europe, the vitex has been naturalized in North America for over 300 years. It is a star shrub/small tree here in Texas as it a extremely drought tolerant and heat tolerant. One of the few plants that is showing no effect from the current conditions.

As all these things added up, combined with other smaller pieces of "stress baggage" from earlier in the year, I found it became harder to create.

At some point you have to lay all the cards out on the table in front of you and be honest. Sometimes life is just harder than other times. And while I absolutely and fully comprehend that there are many other people who have been weighed down by much larger problems, that does not negate the impact that these experiences had on me.

But, just as the seasons change, I think we must, as artists and creatives, give ourselves a bit of grace when we find ourselves in a slump. Sometimes it can mean we just need to rest for a bit. Other times it can mean we need to look around and find a different path to take around an obstacle to get out of the rut. Or we move forward, taking smaller steps yet understanding that a small step forward is still a step forward.

For me, this summer's obstacles not only forced me to take a break but also acknowledge that, even with these trials and tribulations, I still want to create. I just don't have to create right now. My small step forward looks a bit different than just putting together another collection of new images. This summer has been about becoming comfortable with change and reevaluating processes.

One of the items that was reevaluated was my current camera kit. There have been signs for a while that mirrorless is the way of the future in this technology. Rarely am I a first adopter to technology or gear and this was no exception. If my DSLR was working for me, why change?

As an educator of nature photography, it is essential that I be able to assist my clients in the field. With the popularity of mirrorless cameras having exploded and many more clients choosing those as their tools of the trade, it only made sense that I needed to finally make the switch in order to provide a better experience for those who look to me for guidance in the field. So, while my summer slump had me taking a break from creating, I used the opportunity to do some learning.

My new camera kit includes the Sony Alpha 1 and Sony Alpha A6600 camera bodies that are paired with the Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8 Di III-A RXD, Tamron 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 Di III-A VC VXD, and Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD lenses.

Two lesser prairie chickens fight on a lek in Western Kansas | A. Bender Photography LLC
One of a series of images from my first trial of the Sony Alpha 1 and Tamron 150-500mm for Sony e-mount. This trial field session in April 2022, as well as reassessing if I am meeting client's needs for education, led me to make the switch.

Tamron's mindfulness in lens construction to increase the end-user's experience has led them to maximize the number of lenses they create with the same front element diameter. Meaning that the majority of my Tamron lenses now all utilize a 67mm filter size. No more step-up rings or having filters that won’t work with the lens hood attached. Because of this, I have also invested in a set of Kase magnetic filters which will hopefully be much easier to use in the field when I have gloves on. I cannot tell you how many times I have dropped filters trying to screw them on in cold or windy situations. Then there was the time I watched my 10-stop neutral density filter roll over the cliff edge in the Faroe Islands. But I digress...

This change in camera kit has given me a renewed sense of energy and has helped feed the internal ember of passion I have for the craft. Feeling physically better now after my bout with Covid, I am prepared to take on my very busy travel schedule between now and the end of the year. I am excited to see how these new cameras and lenses perform and what I can create utilizing new features like a live histogram and bird-eye focus tracking.

My excitement extends beyond the physical tools and files I will be creating to those that I have been able to connect with over the last several month. The Sony communities have been extremely welcoming and it is clear, through Sony's Alpha Female program, that they value and recognize female photographers. Additionally, the connections I'm able to create with participants in the field and seeing them light up as they capture beautiful images brings me great joy. With the new knowledge I have learned about mirrorless systems, especially Sony, over the last months I feel better prepared to assist my participants while we are creating together.

So, if you have found yourself in a slump this season, know you are in good company. Also don't give up. Energy and passions can wane but they do come back with a little TLC. I will close with a saying that I have framed on my bedroom dresser as it helps remind me of my place in Nature and grounds me when things seem chaotic.

"Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars.

In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul."

~ Max Ehrmann

A set of Tamron lenses with Sony Alpha 1 and Kase filter set | A. Bender Photography LLC
My Tamron Trio for Sony e-mount bodies along with my new case filters.

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