Leaving school, I had every intention of driving the 40 minutes to my home, changing quickly and then heading up to Berlin Pond, one of my very favorite places to photograph. About halfway home though, a lingering back injury--which has been wreaking havoc with me lately--briefly convinced me otherwise and I began to think it best to simply go home and get rested for the weekend.
Arriving home, the late afternoon light and my healthy case of spring fever overtook my lingering back pain and I resolved to get changed quickly, bear with the pain and head up to the pond to photograph. I couldn't have made a better decision.
I've been scouting Berlin Pond in recent weeks for signs of open water, for where there is open water, there are likely to be ducks, one of my very favorite varieties of birds. In the last week, I saw several pairs of Hooded Mergansers, Black Ducks and numerous Canada Geese and I have been eager to capture photographs of them, particularly the Hooded Merganser. Up until last summer, I had never seen a Hooded Merganser--or a "Hoodie" as I've heard birders refer to them. They are simply glorious. And skittish.
Arriving at the Pond I was glad to see that there were growing areas of open water on the north end to accommodate more ducks, but not SO much open water that they could disperse over the Pond's 286 acres. This was a day that would not disappoint. I immediately saw numerous Canada Geese, several pairs of Hoodies and even a Bonaparte's Gull, a small gull which summers to the north of us in Canada.
Most of my experience in photography has been with landscapes and flowers. Bird photography requires an entirely different set of skills and patience, both of which I've been practicing early on this spring. Before going to the Pond on Friday, I decided I would focus my efforts that afternoon on practicing and trying different camera settings to see which yielded the best results. By putting myself it the "practicing" mindset, I removed any pressure from feeling like I had to capture a "perfect image" if there is such a thing.
I found a great spot not too far from where the Hoodies were swimming but not so close as to scare them away and began my practice shoot. As I worked, I briefly pulled my eye from the view finder to check a camera setting. By the time I settled back into the view finder, I noticed a fresh ripple in the water on the edge of the receding ice. Thinking it the result of a Hoodie diving for dinner, I homed in on the center of the ripple and awaited my opportunity.
All of a sudden from the center of the ripple appeared a large, smooth head, with gleaming black eyes and wet whiskers glistening in the afternoon light. I thought the obvious to myself: "That's no duck!" In fact, I had no idea what it was at the time and rather than trying to figure it out, I settled into my viewfinder and started capturing images. As I photographed, I did begin to wonder if it might be a beaver. As it rose in and out of the water I caught glimpses of the creature's tail and its open mouth which showed no signs of a beaver's telltale front teeth. I was able to quickly eliminate that as a possibility but soon found myself distracted by trying to figure out what it was rather than simply enjoying the experience. Thankfully, I realized this, set aside my attempts to identify it and concentrated on watching, capturing and enjoying. Then, almost as quickly as he appeared he disappeared under ice's edge. I watched patiently and hopefully for another chance to see him.
Soon, he dove below water and I again waited in anticipation of what more, if anything, I might see of him. I scanned patiently, smiling all the while, hoping to see him once again.
He didn't disappoint.
I've previously had unexpected experiences like this when photographing and unfortunately, sometimes the act of trying to capture the moment diminished my opportunity to take in and experience the moment as it happened. Thankfully, this was not the case on Friday. Perhaps because I'd arrived at the pond with the mindset of just practicing technique I was relaxed enough to enjoy the experience as it happened while knowing that I was as prepared as I could be for whatever presented itself. I've not always been able to strike that balance but, thankfully, I've learned a lot in the year or so since I start photographing regularly.
There are times when weather conditions, light or just my own mood don't make for ideal conditions to try to capture the beauty before me. When I first began photographing, I wasn't able--or willing--to admit this and as a result there were a few occasions when I was unable to fully appreciate what I was seeing or experiencing. In these few instances I walked away with both poor photographs and a poor memory of the experience as it happened. There's nothing joyful about that. I learned from these times and I now know enough to put the camera away when the time just isn't right.
I've also come to accept that there's only so much within my control on any given shoot. I went to the pond on Friday intending to capture Hooded Mergansers. I did do that, but not terribly well. I captured some acceptable images that I can learn from but nothing that I will publish and that's okay. What I did do well was put myself in a relaxed mindset to be open to whatever presented itself. When I saw that ripple in the water I expected one thing but experienced another. My mindset allowed me to be present enough to both enjoy the experience as it happened and capture it photographically.
Photography teaches me things and reminds of valuable life lessons all the time. On Friday, I was reminded that it's all too easy to pack it in when you're not feeling your best and tell yourself, "Oh, I'll do it tomorrow." Well, had I heeded that initial advise, I would have missed out on an experience I'm likely to remember for a long, long, time. We only have so many todays and who knows how many tomorrows. Best to act when given the opportunity.
Finally, being present for all that life gives us is incredibly important. Again, as a photographer there's only so much I can control. The rest is all in the moment. All I can do is be open to experiencing it and being present for it when it happens. My good friend, Anne, whom I've known for over thirty years and who is a photographer herself, put it best in a comment to the first image of the River Otter above when I posted it to my Facebook page. She said, "These are the moments that will propel you as a photographer, being there for a moment. And especially with wildlife. The truest pictures can't be posed."
Well said, my friend. And, as in photography, being present for all the moments in life can propel us and even inspire us as people, too.