When You Have to Get the Shot

As I drove into the forest service recreation area, I saw all these white spots on the hillside next to the road. Flowers! I wanted to know what they were, so I had to stop and check them out.

They were Mariposa lilies! Several species are common throughout California and a great sign of the California spring (also called calochortus after the scientific name). I had never seen so many at one time! Usually I had found one here and there through a landscape, but not like here. They aren’t as spectacular as the California poppies or the “superbloom” that sometimes occurs after a big winter rainy season (like this year), but there is something about them that makes them so beautiful, especially when you get close.

I knew I had to get some photographs. The problem was that it was about 11 AM. The sun was high and the light was not overly attractive, especially for anything beyond a close-up.

Close-ups often work well at any time of day because you can always control the light by moving around your subject, shading it or the background, and so forth. You can’t do that with bigger scenes and here was a big scene of Mariposa lilies.

I know, of course, the story for a nature photographer is that you always “have to” photograph at sunrise and sunset or near those times. Of course, those are great times to be out and photographing because the light can be absolutely beautiful. But nature doesn’t just exist at those times. So how do we get interesting photographs of nature when we aren’t there at the “right” time?

Early in my career, I worked as a staff photojournalist for the publications at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. As a photojournalist, my job was to go out and get the picture. I could not go back at another time or anything else like that. I had an assignment to get out and get a certain photograph at a certain time, when a highway engineer, for example was only available at a certain time, or a state legislative transportation committee was only meeting at a certain time. It was my job to get an interesting and engaging photograph that could be used in our publications. No excuses. This is true of any photojournalist.

I think this definitely colored my approach to nature photography. Even though I have been photographing nature since I was a kid, this photojournalistic approach made me think about how I did my nature photography. I photographed for one of the state maps while at MN/DOT, and I only had a certain amount of time to go around the state doing that. I was photographing nature for the map, but if I came into a location and the weather wasn’t perfect, I had to find a way to make an interesting photograph.

I think sometimes nature photographers get trapped by the “rule” that you can only photograph at certain times. There is no question that there are times where nature photography is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So back to my Mariposa lilies. I started photographing them in different ways. First, I used a telephoto to isolate the flowers against out of focus flowers behind them. The telephoto also compressed distance to make of the flowers in the background look more plentiful. That type of closer work often does give you interesting pictures when the conditions aren’t ideal. However, I wanted something that gave a feeling of where these flowers live, which was up in the Southern Sierra Nevada mountains.

I tried some wide angle close-ups, which as you know I love to do, but the light wasn’t quite giving me what I wanted.

What to do?

One thing about finding a photograph in difficult conditions is to really have a mindset that you are going to find a photograph. Notice I did not say that you are going to take a photo. Find a photograph means that you can’t simply point your camera at the subject and snap a shot because that’s all you’ll get, a snapshot. And it probably won’t be very interesting as a photograph. To find a photograph starts by taking a mindset that you are going to find an interesting, engaging photograph, maybe even something a little different than what you even expected.

So I started looking at these flowers again and realized that if I laid down on the ground, I could get a dramatic shot of the flower against the sky with mountains in the background. So I laid down on the ground and started shooting. This was not a simple thing either. I worked the shot to find the best photograph I could, so I kept looking at the background to see where the mountains would show up, how the flower in the foreground would relate to them, and what showed up in terms of out of focus flowers on the hillside as well. But as I worked the scene and played with it, I found a shot that I really liked. The light actually made the flower look great even though the overall scene didn’t have the drama of other times of the day. But it didn’t matter. I still had my shot.

Sometimes you have to think beyond simply finding a beautiful scene and capturing that. It can help to think about how can you make an interesting photograph with what is in front of you. That could take some work and some time to do. But it can be well worth doing.

About Rob Sheppard

I'm Rob Sheppard and my mission is to connect people and nature through photography with celebration and joy. Nature photography, for me, is about finding ways to create meaning and joy in your photography and connecting people with the natural world. I consider myself a naturalist, nature photographer and videographer. I have been busy over the years creating many books related to photography, including Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, and the National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography. A Nature Photography Manifesto and Reports from the Wild are available from Apple’s iBookstore. I get around as a speaker and workshop leader, and I am a Fellow with the North American Nature Photography Association. I was the long-time editor of the prestigious Outdoor Photographer magazine and presently am a contributing editor. My education was both as a photographer and a naturalist specializing in ecology and botany.
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4 Responses to When You Have to Get the Shot

  1. Anita Bower says:

    Great photos and excellent discussion.

  2. Richard Hawley says:

    What was the photo length of the lens for the great shot?

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