Q&A: How important is knowing your subject or location to getting a unique image?

There is an old saying for photographers -shoot what you love to get get your best images.  Why is that?  Assuming you have a achieved a high level of proficiency with a camera,  why are knowing your subject and the environment you shooting key factors to getting a unique and memorable images?  As a skilled photographer, shouldn’t you be able to capture a great image of any subject, at any time, in any location?    Well that depends on many factors.

Often times,  thoroughly knowing your subject and/or the location where you are photographing can enable you to capture images that even a professional photographers could envy.    It can give you a huge advantage for knowing where to stand relative to the view or action to get a unique perspective.  Prior knowledge on how the weather impacts the light in the area so you know where to focus on a foggy day vs. a sunny day.  Knowing how far you can walk out into the water at a beach or in a lake before you are treading water with your camera, is pretty important some days too.  Or if the area you are going has a large quantity of snakes or gators, I find that very important also before getting out of the car.

Black Caped Chickadee

So for example,  lets take a look at something simple like bird photography.   OK.  I hope you didn’t just spit up your coffee.  But some kinds of bird photography can be simple, maybe you have a feeder at your house and are popping random snapshots out the back window to show a friend.  Or you could be taking Birds of prey photos at the local Birds of Prey Center  Photography day where they bring out 20-30 birds and parade them around in front of you, super close, so you can get great photos.   If you are a photographer and they put something in your face for 10 minutes, then you are likely to get a shot you would not be embarrassed to show your friends.

So taking photos at a planned event is easier than, when you come up on a bird on by chance.  You are on your way to take photos of some event, at the beach,  or your kids baseball game and you come across a bird of prey just sitting on the stairs going out to the beach.

Hawk on the stairs at Folly Beach, Washout.
Photo at Folly Beach S.C. before surf contest.

Now things are not as simple as the backyard shot or a set up situation where you can take 100’s of pics of a bird sometimes tied to a person’s hand.  In the wild you might only have a few seconds to get the shot, or if you ran up camera in hand to get the shot, even less than a few seconds before you scare off the wild animal in front of you.   This beach shot was one where knowing my subject mattered.   First I took photos from far away, then got a little closer and took some more photos, then very very slowly inched my way closer.  I was in plain view he saw everything I did.  But by taking 15 minutes and taking photos the entire time along the way inching towards the hawk and literally crawling up close to him at the beach, I was able to get this shot and many more.   Then the sun got a little higher and a few beach goers just walk right up to him and try to use their phones for a selfie and scare him away.

If you don’t pay to see your subject or just happen to come upon them, then you have to go where the subject lives and go into their space.  Here is where knowing your subject becomes really important.  It helps if you know someone that knows where the birds are and that you can follow around until eventually you learn about your subject yourself.  That is what I did for birds, I made some great friends that I would follow around and they would teach me about the birds and then I would go to the places where the shots were easy like I mentioned above also.  You learn how to move really slow and quiet, and where the birds live and then you go into their homes or close to them and wait for them, to just do their thing.


The great thing is that you don’t have to really go into the deep woods to find birds of prey, they are everywhere and just doing their thing.  Above I was at a local plantation and I knew that a pair of owls had made a certain area their home, so I would go every chance I had for weeks and try to get there early and be quiet.  Then one day he came down at eye level and I have a 20×30 print of this photo of this one that is one of my favorites.  Have I captured images of owls other places?  Sure, but most of those were just snapshots that I could share with my friends.

20180722 Bear Island 20187771
Tricolor heron at Bear Island WMA near Greenpond, SC.

And then there is the “hunting” expedition where you go to the Wildlife Management Areas or out in the real woods to find your subject.   The expedition could be to drive across the state to sit on the side of the road at a watermelon field where you heard that some birds have been frequenting.  Every year for the past five years, I’ve been doing the trek across the state in search of the swallow-tailed kites.  I hear from friends where they have been spotted and I drive across the state to see them and take some snapshots.  This year, I spent two weekends or about 15 hours driving for three trips and about 30 hours out taking 4500 photos of swallow-tail kite performing an aerial display performing fabulous tricks capturing bugs out of the air and eating them on the wing.  Most days, when you do something like this, you get there and you may see a few birds, but somedays you are blessed to have a hundred birds zooming around hunting for hours.

Swallow-Tailed kite

One day I got really lucky.  I was sitting on the side of the road and a super nice guy stops by and says, do you want to see them drink?  After studying these guys for years, I knew exactly what that meant.   They drink on the wing, just like they eat, flying down close to the water and skimming by take a sip or wash their feet off.  Got to get the bug guts off somehow, right.   So I followed this guy off into the woods on some private property where he called the owner and got permission.  So I sat out there for five hours and watched a pond on the chance that some kites would come by and get a drink.

20180728 Alandale Kites 20188107

A few hours later one came by, but at that time, there was no wind, so the kite’s strafing runs were all over the place and I was lucky to get the shots I did.  If a cloud had come over and defused the light, I could have gotten a really cool shot, but I had to make do in 45 seconds from the time I say the bird circling above the pond to him flying away, with 4 diving runs at the water in various direction.  I knew my subject, my camera was preset and tested repeatedly and I got the best shots I could given the circumstances that were less than optimal.   I needed more lens and better light but I got to see something with my own eyes and capture something I’d never captured before.

Knowing your subject allows you to get ready for shots or capture your subject with a different perspective than someone that doesn’t, and it gives you and advantage to know where to stand.  Scout your locations, go multiple times, get so familiar with your camera it is like a part of you and find something you enjoy and go get some photos.  Get to know how your subject moves, hunts, sleeps, and preens.  You will get more unique photos and not miss those moments.

Please leave a reply and let me know what you think.

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