The Waiting Game
Travel photography isn’t all about the quickness of adventure. With the advent of digital SLRs, many of us became over-shooters, myself included. I often snap away wildly, quickly popping off exposure after exposure with slightly different angles, composition shifts and focal points, knowing that hard drives are cheap and decisions can be made later. This style has been working quite well for me. Especially if there’s a moving element in frame, an animal or person, some changing clouds, crashing waves, it feels important to use my full 7 frames per second in the hope that just one of those hundreds of frames will be perfect, or at least that there will be a clear winner.
However there are other times as a travel photographer, when the most crucial skill is knowing how to sit still and wait. Unlike a studio portrait photographer, who has control over their subject and lighting, I am always finding myself at the mercy of nature. It is at these times when I remember my old film shooting days. Film was expensive and limited in a way that digital will never be. You only had as many opportunities as there were frames left on your roll and the extra rolls in your pockets. Wasting exposures to test lighting was out of the question, and chimping after each shot was not possible. It was exceptionally important to take the time to carefully set up every composition, meter light and set a manual exposure, and wait for the exact right moment before plunging the shutter button. You wouldn’t even know for sure until probably days later if you’d done it all right.
Now, in the moments when I have something wait for, I am transported back to those film days. Everything slows down. Like entering a deep meditation, my breathing subsides and I become aware of every movement, every sound in the world around me. I see the photo before it exists, and then wait for the world to catch up. Often this is a sunrise or sunset that I know will take an hour or more for its colors to reach full bloom. Sometimes it is an urban scene, one whose humor or eccentricity will only be revealed when a passerby dressed in a certain way completes the composition. Like observing animals in the wild, I sit in wait, letting them all go about their business undisturbed until I’ve recorded all my findings. And sometimes, it is in fact wild animals I’m waiting for.
The yellow-eyed penguin, or hoiho in Maori, is among the most endangered penguins in the world, and they’re having a particularly bad year. They don’t breed in captivity, are exceptionally afraid of humans, and seem to be dying off not only because of predators and direct human intervention, but for other health related reasons we’ve yet to determine. In better years they can be seen returning to their nests from the sea in multitudes every evening in certain locations along the coast of New Zealand, but after two separate visits to these popular destinations, I’d had no luck at all. Even at the conservation center, I only got either a very distant view, or ones in nests, covered by dark shadows. It was with a certain lack of expectation, then, that I had made my way to a tourist-free, secret beach one evening. I had searched for yellow-eyed penguins the way one might search for a buried treasure: questioning locals, following clues, hunting for hidden roads that don’t exist on the maps, and picking up one bit of information at a time just when I thought the trail had gone cold.
This would be my last attempt, so I arrived at the beach at 4:30pm, knowing full well the penguins could take as long as sunset, 4 hours later, to return home. I was definitely in for some waiting. I brought my kindle and a jacket. I’d forgotten my folding chair in the car, but didn’t want to risk the 10 minute walk back to get it. The beach was long, and there was no way of knowing where or when a penguin might ride in on the waves, if one would at all. In my head I plotted all the best positions to shoot from along the shore. I tried to enjoy my book, but was so afraid of missing the penguins arrivals, that I could only read in three sentence increments, jolting up from the screen each time to peer carefully in every direction for movement. This inspection is difficult because there are other birds on the beach, and from hundreds of meters away it can be difficult to tell the difference between a white dot that is a seagull and one that might be a penguin. They’re almost always seagulls. And so it was a huge surprise that while inspecting one of these white dots from afar, I saw it turn black. A penguin is the only animal on the beach white on one side and black on the other. I snatched my telescopic lens to confirm, and there it was! One, lone yellow-eyed penguin, just washed in, searching around for predators, of which it would consider me one, and preparing to cross the sand. Tide was high which meant beach was short, so there wasn’t much time. But I was far away, and running hundreds of meters across the beach was sure to alert it to my presence and scare it off. I tried to stay out of site and kept myself around jogging speed, but as I crossed the territory of some toreas, they started sounding off like fire alarms. The penguin looked up, freaked out, and ran (if you could call it running) back into the ocean. Not only had I missed the shot, but even worse I’d possibly interrupted this endangered penguin’s mating or the care of its child. I slowed to a walk, and continued dejected. I checked down the beach in the other direction, but there were no more penguins to be found. It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I looked out to sea and noticed something surprising. A bobbing penguin head was about 50 meters offshore, not heading back out to sea, but mostly staying in place, diving under every wave and reappearing. The penguin hadn’t left at all! He was just waiting me out, planning to try again once the literal coast was clear. Perfect. I moved up closer, crawling on my stomach to hide behind a mass of beached seaweed. I spied through my 400mm as the head kept bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the waves. Now we were both waiting. It would be another twenty minutes before I noticed a 2nd penguin near him, doing the same. Eventually the wait was over for us both. The first penguin waddled onto shore, took his time looking around for dangers, and cautiously hopped his way towards the rocky crag he would to climb to find his nest, all trespasses forgiven. The second did the same another 20 minutes later. I had gotten the shot.
It is during these moments of waiting that I connect the most with my subject as a photographer. Contrary to the idea that we experience the world less when we are constantly sticking a lens in a front of it, I feel the most intimate relationship with the clouds, the sun, the animals and environment when I’m inspecting them, pixel by pixel, as they move and change over time. This is my meditation.