Going Deep

Take the time to study and learn about your subjects for more meaningful wildlife images
Along the edge of Montana's Bowdoin Lake in springtime, American avocet males face off in a territorial challenge.

Along the edge of Montana’s Bowdoin Lake in springtime, American avocet males face off in a territorial challenge.

If you’ve been reading my columns, you may have learned that I am a proponent of getting well acquainted with your subject. And by that I don’t mean that you’re befriending or habituating it in any way. I mean that you’re making an effort to learn about the animal’s natural history and preparing a well-thought-out plan for observation and photography that avoids disrupting or interfering with that animal’s life processes, such as mating, nest building, parenting, hunting or resting.

This is particularly important if you’re hoping to depict things unfolding naturally. Maybe you want to document a particular stage in the life cycle of a bird or other animal. You’ll of course need to learn what time of the year that behavior occurs and in what kind of habitat. What are precursors to that behavior, telltale gestures that signal a behavior is about to occur? Above and beyond these questions, you have to accept that you need to spend some serious time with your subject.

It might seem pretty obvious that an investment in time pays dividends. But I think in this madcap world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “more is better.” I see a lot of photographers running around trying to shoot as many species as they can, ticking things off a list. Much of the time they aren’t coming up with anything that hasn’t been done a thousand times before. I’ve done it, too, trying to be everywhere at once, giving short shrift to my subjects because I’m not willing to put in the time to sit still and go deep. And then I look at my photos and realize they have nothing new to offer. It’s very difficult to get unusual poses or interesting behavior from an animal in just a few minutes. If you want to take compelling pictures and share engaging stories, you have to be willing to invest the time—days, weeks, sometimes even years.

With this in mind, three years ago I planned a trip to northeast Montana with a single-minded purpose: to photograph the highly-ritualized breeding behavior of American avocets. I did a lot of research online first to figure out where in the country I might have a very good chance of photographing this beautiful shorebird in the spring, at a spot that would be fairly remote and free of other people. I contacted a photographer whose images of avocets I had long admired, and he tipped me off to Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Montana, where he had taken many of those images. I called the refuge and spoke to their biologist, who kindly answered all my questions, including when the best date range might be. And then I made travel arrangements for the upcoming spring.

Mated American avocet pair pause during their nest building on a saline flat in northeast Montana.

Mated American avocet pair pause during their nest building on a saline flat in northeast Montana.

When I arrived at Bowdoin, I scouted the entire refuge for a day or two. I finally settled on a small area along the lake where a pair of avocets had established their nesting territory. I worked my way forward slowly, keeping a low profile until finally lying prone at the edge of the water. The birds soon became accustomed to my presence. I spent most of the next few days returning to this exact spot, documenting these avocets building nests, repeatedly mating, and sparring with various winged intruders.

Those pictures ended up paying off in spades for me, both in terms of print and editorial sales. More than anything, I am proud of them in my portfolio because I felt I had attained what I was after. Because I had invested so much time in these birds, I had photos of them in every kind of behavior at this stage in their life cycle. I had them in all kinds of wonderful light, from the golden low light of dawn and dusk, to the midday gift of bright overcast light, and I had them in some spectacular, unusual poses.

This trip provided a wonderful lesson in going deep into a subject. I remember during slow moments with those avocets thinking, “I should be driving around trying to get other species—I might be missing out on so many things!” But I forced myself to stay, and to be patient through those slow spots. Often, before long, action would break out or one of the avocets would strike a particularly beautiful pose, and I knew I had made the right decision.

What I find really exciting about this strategy is that it can create a body of work that can potentially inform conservation. Some of the best photographers I know invest years in one species, such as black bears, sandhill cranes or river otters. Because their knowledge of the animal becomes so deep and comprehensive, and their photographs effectively tell stories from that animal’s life, these photographers become respected spokespersons for those animals when they need help.

You, too, can become a spokesperson for a species by “going deep.” Your accumulated understanding of it will give you a voice of expertise and experience, and your photos help to inform any discussion that takes place around the preservation of that animal and its habitat. It doesn’t have to be a large, charismatic mammal—it could be a threatened amphibian or insect. Or it could be an animal that is poorly understood or misunderstood, even persecuted. Where possible, show the animal’s family relationships; depict its struggles and small victories. Our photographs can become a voice for our subjects, capable of informing scientific knowledge, changing attitudes and even affecting policy.

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.