I recently had the opportunity to visit the island of San Juan off Washington state with friends to camp, kayak, and shoot wildlife photography. I’ve been doing photography in various capacities since I was 8 years old, but never got very involved with photographing wildlife for a number of reasons. First, the gear and telephoto lenses required to get close enough are extremely expensive. Second, I’ve never had the interest in pursuing the knowledge required to know where to go to “stalk” subjects properly. Besides, more interesting subjects require expensive travel. On San Juan island the Orca whales travel and feed up and down the west coast of the island daily this time of year, so the opportunities to photograph them are plentiful. I rented what I thought was an adequate telephoto zoom lens, and when chores around the campsite were done went off to the cliffs and shoreline to photograph whales.
The first thing I learned about wildlife photography is you can never be close enough to your subject. You can only zoom in so far with photoshop without all your work looking like a blurry sighting of bigfoot in the wilderness. The second thing I learned is the minimum shutter speed should be approximately the same fraction of a second as your focal length. If you’re shooting a 400mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400th of a second to avoid blurring due to the great magnification. The third thing to know about wildlife photography is if something interesting happens and the subject is not in your viewfinder at the time it happens, the opportunity is almost certainly lost forever and it is better to observe the moment, rather than scramble to try to get a bead on it with your camera after the fact. This can be extremely disappointing, especially when you’ve spent a good part of a day waiting for a good shot.
Like meditation, I found wildlife photography requires intense awareness, concentration, and patience. If attention wanders or gets scattered, you can miss out on the very thing you set out to accomplish. Meandering thoughts and attention distract from the objective of being present and aware. In nature photography, we need to keep one eye on the big picture and the other fixed to the viewfinder. Similarly, in Vipassana, one must remain aware of what is going on in the big picture of one’s mental state while remaining diligent about scanning the body for sensation. Am I remaining focused, or are ancillary thought patterns interfering with the goal of staying with the sensations of the moment?