Photography and Research

January 12, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

After taking a break for the holiday season I’m back to writing posts and picking the camera up. I hadn’t really used my camera since finishing shooting some of the High School football state championships in Winston-Salem back on 13 December.

About a year ago I saw some amazing shots in a book I picked up of birds and waterfowl wintering at lakes in the south.  I was excited to learn that these photos were taken at lakes right here in North Carolina. Tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands of snow geese, tundra swans, red wing blackbirds and countless other types call the lakes in central- and north-eastern North Carolina their winter home. I decided that this year I was going to get shots of these creatures. I couldn’t fathom seeing tens of thousands of geese on a single lake. It also happened that the weather for the day I was planning was absolutely perfect for some astro-photography. Bonus! I tried talking a friend of mine to go with me but he (smartly) said, “It’s too frickin’ cold man. Let me know when it’s warm and we can drink beer.”  You’re on buddy. ;-)

I won’t delve into the specifics of the swans and geese in this post. Honestly I know next to nothing right now anyway. It didn’t even occur to me that they have to eat and wouldn’t be at the lakes during the day. Duh. Anywho.. this post is about doing your research BEFORE you commit time to doing something. If you plan to go somewhere just to photograph it that’s one thing but if you’re going somewhere to photograph something specific, it pays off to do some leg work in advance. Otherwise you may walk away disappointed. I write this based on my experience this past weekend. I wouldn’t say that I walked away disappointed but my intent feels unfinished to say the least. I had fun, it was cold but I came prepared for that and for the first time in my life I saw a black bear in the wild. Granted he was about a 1/4 mile away, but still. That was pretty damn cool.

Thinking I’d done all my research I was satisfied. Aside from checking and re-checking the weather, my research amounted to calling the ranger station at the state park and asking, “Are the birds there?”  Yeah. I’m pretty sure I sounded like an idiot. One might say, even a redneck, but I lack the proper accent for that so we’ll settle on idiot. At any rate, the ranger informed me that if I meant the geese and swans, yes they were at Phelps Lake but typically left the lake during the day to eat and returned in the evenings to sleep. Perfect! Sunset shots! Given the weather I figured I’d fit in some shots of the Milky Way too and then call it a day. Below are some questions I probably should have asked and sought the answers. Again I share this to get people thinking about what they should ask themselves before going somewhere to get shots of something specific. To illustrate why I should have answered these questions I’ve provided the answers that I’ve learned (so far).

  1. What are the typical habits of swans or geese? They leave mid-morning to feed in nearby fields and return to a lake (not necessarily the same lake) to rest and do whatever they do when not eating.
  2. How big, exactly, is the lake I’m going to? In the case of Phelps Lake it’s 5×7 miles. Soooo… not possible to see them on the opposite side of the lake no matter how many of them there are. Phelps certainly doesn’t look that big on a map but it’s deceiving.  
  3. When would be the best time to get photos of said water fowl? Well, according to the ranger, I should have been at the lake about 9-10 hours earlier. Apparently they like to sleep in and have a leisurely morning before going off to seek food. That sounds a lot like a 13 year-old girl, I may or may not know.
  4. Which lake would be the best to see them at? While they were at Phelps Lake, Pungo Lake is the more popular spot for many of the water fowl. Dammit.
  5. Is the Milky Way decent to shoot this time of year? Well, I already knew the answer to this question but had forgotten. No. No it’s not really decent to shoot this time of year given that the galactic core (i.e., the brightest part) is not visible during the night hours. Ugh! Why did I not remember this? I’m quite glad I didn’t drag my friend three hours away to say, “Oops. Did you bring the beer?”
  6. What else might be interesting to photograph at the lake if things don’t work out? Well, probably lots of things and I know that the Cypress trees (I think that’s what they are) would’ve made some really cool photos (had I brought my waders with me). If I’d asked the rangers, they probably would have gladly given me some suggestions as well. Something to follow up on.

There are probably some other questions I haven’t thought of as well. On the bright side, like I said above I still had fun. I got to see stars reflecting off water which I haven’t seen since I was a kid. I saw a black bear in the wild. My kids had fun. I taught my girls how to use their night vision and I did have a reason to actually use my new “lens muff” though I didn’t actually use it. Thanks, Jackie! I’ve also decided that the Pocosin wildlife area is somewhere I plan to return to much more often. It’s a very cool place, not many people around and it’s dark as hell at night. One of these days I’m going to drag my telescope out there and do some proper astro-photography.

So before you head out somewhere regardless of how close or far away it might be try to plan ahead. If you’re just doing general landscape you may not need to do much planning other than accounting for the weather. On the other hand, if you’re going somewhere to photograph an event or something more specific than just general landscape then doing a little more planning will be worth your while. What questions should you get answers to? What about access? Is there an ideal time of day? Will you need to hike very far and then need to bring some food and water? Just some thoughts on questions you may want ask yourself and of course every situation is unique.  Hopefully this is helpful to others!

Where are the !#@&#$!! Snow Geese??

Where are the !#@&#$!! Snow Geese??



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