At dawn, he appears. I see his ears first, then his golden eyes and pointed nose just above the tall grass. He trots along the top of a hillside, revealing his sleek coat and fluffy tail.
Slowing his pace, he stops and cocks his head to one side. Looking. Listening. His tail jerks as he curls and springs into the air in a spectacular leap down the slope, landing nose-first into the thick grass. He emerges triumphant with a mouse that disappears in one gulp.
As I watched this spectacle unfold in slow motion for what seemed like an hour or so, I realized it probably was only a matter of minutes between my first sighting of the coyote and his successful hunt.
Funny thing how our minds work. Different parts of the brain play a role in how we perceive time and feel about space. It’s helpful to picture yourself in a few scenarios from different time periods—the hunter-gatherer days and today. Let’s say you’re out hunting for food, and a tiger starts to chase you. The brain’s neocortex kicks into gear, helping you think on your feet and make split-second decisions. A burst of mental energy dictates your physical actions, and when it’s over, you’re exhausted and hopefully safe. In this state of mind, time flies, and your sense of space narrows.
Now let’s say you’re out looking for wild plants to eat. The primitive brain, not the neocortex, is at work evaluating the big picture—weather conditions, sounds, sights, animal behaviors—information that helps guide your decisions and actions. You’re aware but not in any immediate danger. In this state of mind, time slows, and your sense of space broadens.
Fast forward to today. If you’re sitting in an office listening to a conference call, responding to emails and texts, editing photo files and having a side conversation with someone who has entered the room, then the neocortex is hard at work. The tiger is chasing you in your head. Your mind pinballs from one thought to the next, time races from the small confines of your office space, and at some point you’re exhausted despite a lack of physical activity. Not a great way to live.
But what happens when you venture outside with a camera? You start looking around, evaluating—time of day, weather, light, animal behavior and more. In the primitive brain, the tiger is taking a nap. Time expands, and space feels infinite. Is it any wonder why nature photography is a popular pursuit?
Early in my career, I probably spent 20 percent of my time looking for subjects and 80 percent of my time photographing them. Today, those numbers have flipped. Why? Spending more time looking allows me to get out of the neocortex and into the primitive brain. I slow down. I’m able to take in all of my surroundings and be discerning. I see…really see. Everything becomes a potential subject. I notice details, light, patterns, reflections and more.
In this state of mind, devoid of the charging tiger, I can also feel inspired. And that’s when the magic happens, that moment when everything comes together, resulting in a great image. And I’ll let you in on a little secret—there are days when I don’t care if I even trip the shutter. Just being outside looking, noticing and pausing, I feel great even if I come back with zero images. Yes, it’s always nice to create rewarding photographs, but I’ve learned that the process—the journey—can be just as fulfilling.
In the golden glow of early evening, I see him again. A coyote silhouette moving with purpose, the tips of his fur illuminated by beautiful rim light. He passes close by and stops. Ears at attention, nose alert, he’s focused. And so am I.