Nobody wants to come back from a photo shoot empty-handed, but it happens.
Nature photographers can't control the conditions, after all. Sometimes there just isn't enough to work with.
I used to consider a session like that a complete bust. Then I began to realize there's almost always something positive about time spent in the field - whether or not I make a photograph. Of course I'd prefer to get the image(s). But I've broadened my definition of what constitutes a successful outing. There is value in the experience, too.
"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
Simply being out in the natural world is, for me, a win.
Take early morning shoots, for example. I love them - and not just because of the good light! I'll admit the 0-dark-30 starts can be tough (especially when the temperature has plummeted overnight or I've had little sleep) but there's something exhilarating about being out there to witness the darkness giving way to dawn, wherever "there" might be.
I'm often alone. It's quiet. In the hush of those early hours, it's amazing what you can hear. The water lapping. The whooshing sound of a bird in flight. Elk bugling in the autumn. The hum of a lobster boat heading out from a distant harbor. A beaver swimming by. The loon's call.
Some mornings - especially in the dead of winter - you hear nothing at all; it's completely, utterly quiet.
I always hope to walk away with a photo, but whether or not things pan out it's not a bad way to begin the day.
Interesting random encounters can also qualify as positive outcomes. I've met a lot of people while working in the field over the years. Some have ended up becoming photography buddies: both local and long-distance.
More often it's a single meeting - someone I'll never see or hear from again - but remembered for some reason or another. Especially when hunkered down waiting for better conditions or if I'm finishing up and there's no hurry to get to another location, there's time for conversation. We end up talking about equipment. Or other shooting destinations. Maybe we trade scouting information. Tips. Advice. Anecdotes.
On occasion you end up shooting for a while with someone you've just met - like the time I hiked high up a steep hillside one early autumn morning to try to capture foliage in the Tetons from a more unusual vantage point. With animals in the back of my mind I wasn't sorry to see two guys follow not long afterward; some company would be okay. With persistent fog obscuring the mountain peaks, I knew I was going to have to hang around and wait for it to lift. It became obvious they were going to do the same. We began to chat. The three of us ended up parked there, shooting the breeze while hoping to be rewarded with a clear view of the entire face of Mount Moran.
The fog toyed with us. For hours. We joked that outwaiting it had now become a matter of principle. Nobody was going anywhere! Finally, with hungry stomachs demanding to be fed, they gave up and bid me farewell. Not ten minutes after they left, the last of the fog lifted and I was able to make the photo - but I would have considered it a positive experience either way.
Even if a shoot fails to yield a photograph, you might learn something new. About the location. About other locations. About your equipment. You might think of and experiment with a new creative approach. You might make a new friend.
So, is every shoot a success? Not in the literal sense. But even if you don't make a photo there's a good chance you'll walk away having gained something.
The Tidal PoolRye, New Hampshire This large tidal pool along the Atlantic Coast is one of my most often-visited early morning shooting locations in New Hampshire because it's near where I used to live. And - for my money, anyway - it's tough to beat watching the morning unfold at the seashore.
I've spent many hours there over maybe a dozen years, and return whenever I'm back visiting my old stomping grounds.
In all that time I can think of only a few rare occasions when anybody else showed up; it's typically just me and the lobster boats out at sea. Combine this view, the sound of the water and the wonderful solitude, and it's a special way to start the day...photo or no photo.
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