Getting Closer by Eric Meola
Robert Capa once said “ If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough,” and Henri Cartier Bresson, with a somewhat different metaphor, echoed that same thought when he said "You have to try and put the camera between the skin of a person and his shirt."
I think photographers are often intimidated--intimidated when walking around the streets of a third world country where they
don't know the customs and don't speak the language; but also intimidated when photographing wildlife, when they try to anticipate their subject's next move and at the same time feel the guilt of intruding on the sublime world of nature.
As in life, becoming comfortable with that dichotomy only comes with experience and with time, but learning how to co-exist in another world where you don't belong can be exhilarating, and there is no formula for it--what works for one person often doesn't for another.
But if you take Capa literally and apply it to wildlife, you can enter a world that's right in front of you but that you didn't realize was there. Nature is extremely colorful, but when we think about nature we usually think of browns and greys and ochres. Enter the chameleon. Enter the parrot. Parrots ? Everyone photographs parrots, as in #1.
But one day, I decided to put on a 12mm extension ring and get extremely close to the intricately detailed feathers of a parrot's wings. At first I was very frustrated--as the parrot moved the focus went way off. But eventually, I anticipated the movement, and with a modern, high res digital SLR (a Canon EOS 1Ds), I bumped up my ISO, moved in tight and closed the lens to a smaller aperture (# 2).
Suddenly, my subject is not the parrot, but color itself. We see something obvious, but that doesn't come thru in #1; it can't compete with the incredible variation in hues and subtlety of detail that getting closer makes evident. Now the subject is not the "bird," but the glory of nature, and suddenly (without getting too religious here) the hand of God becomes apparent. To quote William Blake: "To see the world in a grain of sand..."
Once, one deathly cold morning in Yellowstone, in the predawn darkness, I fell thru a thin crust of frozen snow and found myself buried to my chest in a frozen quicksand of ice and snow. Then, I heard a snort, and froze as I realized that just a few yards away was a bison. Terrified, I held my breath, and then became mesmerized at the abstraction of his ice-encrusted beard, a dark diamond-specked mass of frozen snow, snorting at me as I tried to calm my growing
Then, I did what any photographer would have done--I raised the camera to my eye and made a shot (see#3). It was a once in a lifetime chance encounter, and sometimes it happens like that. You build blinds, you wait, you travel to the ends of the earth, but sometimes it all comes down to luck.
I've never been particularly drawn to photographing wildebeest--we've all seen shots from the annual migration in the Masai Mara. But one day, while in a Land Rover in Botswana, heading back to camp in a ferocious sandstorm we came across a group of wildebeest huddled in a dense cluster against the wind (#4). I put on a 400mm lens and began to shoot, knowing I would never again see such a primeval scene. And then, I remembered I didn't reload as we were heading back at the end of the day. I hesitated for all of 2 seconds, and then opened the camera back--aaahhh, the days of film!--knowing that in doing so I'd get the shot, but lose the camera. The sandstorm was blinding, biting into my skin and as the camera back swung open, the filmgate and chamber were peppered with sand...but, it was worth it!
So sometimes "getting close" can mean simply using a longer lens, or an extension tube. Or having the luck to fall thru the ice and come face to face with a beast from the American West.