Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wanted: Mega-monopod

"Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do
and what is right to do."
(Potter Stewart)

Dear Ms. Manners,

My wife and I both pretty friendly. We love fuzzy animals, help elderly people cross the street, and do lots of community service. We have a little photography business that we work very hard at. My question is this, when I’ve spent a long time easing into position to photograph a shy bird, and someone with expensive camera equipment stumbles up behind me to take pictures of the same thing, but scares all of the birds away instead, is it wrong to beat him senseless with my telephoto lens?
-- Sincerely, Slightly Bent Out of Shape

Dear Slightly Bent,

I feel your frustration and I can tell that deep down you are a generous soul, and rather handsome to boot. But it would be wrong to beat this person with your camera lens. The business end of your monopod would be much more effective, and substantially less expensive. You obviously work hard for your money, but if you can afford a nice, heavy ball head, so much the better. Give it a try next time and, please, let me know how it goes. I care.   
-- Good luck, Ms. Manners


While driving our diesel-gulping truck camper a couple of weeks ago, all the way from southern Arizona to northern Montana, I passed a grand total of two cars and three semi trucks (yes, I counted). Based on this rigorous statistical analysis, there are approximately five people between Mexico and Canada who are more mild-mannered than me.

Apparently, they aren't photographers.

Aggression is a basic personality trait that reveals itself in degrees. While photographing birds on our Arizona trip, Tracy and I encountered lots of photographers -- most were considerate, but it wasn't always pretty. (Or maybe the four guys below were "picture takers." These days, most of the people walking around with expensive camera equipment are retired amateurs, not photographers working for a living.)

Sandhill Cranes and the full moon (c) John AshleyThe first guy was polite. We stumbled across him near a wooded trail that winds along a lakeshore. We waved silently to each other, and then Tracy and I slipped around him so we wouldn't disturb whatever it was that he was photographing. He saw our camera gear, but he didn't follow us.

This guy was the green farm truck that waves as it passes you, the one that pulls over to the side of the highway before making a phone call.

The second guy was slightly annoying. He was weilding a big Canon lens at a small desert pond full of ducks, where Sandhill Cranes return on winter evenings to spend the night. I had waited three years to return to this spot to attempt a photograph of the returning cranes against the full moon -- one of those ideas that gets stuck in my head and won't leave me alone.

Tracy and I were moving through the desert scrub together, a quarter-mile at a time, trying to align the scattershot cranes with the ever-moving moon. Looking back, we realized that Big Canon was following us. Looking at ourselves, I was wearing brown cammo but Tracy was wearing a red coat. Big Canon had spotted us from half a mile away, figured out what we were up to, and decided to join us. Fortunately, he stayed 100 yards back and didn't affect the birds we were trying to photograph.

This guy was the black sedan that rides your bumper, tailgating at 65 mph because he thinks you'll increase his gas mileage. Annoying, but not a big deal.

foraging Arizona Woodpecker (c) John AshleyThe third guy was clueless. Tracy and I were hiking into a wooded creek bottom of a popular, birding hotspot. Standing in the middle of my route, a fellow wearing about $20,000 worth of camera gear was working something in the trees. So we detoured quietly around Mr. Rich, circled behind him unseen and moved off several hundred yards into the woods. Well out of view, we started working with a mixed flock of interesting birds. An Arizona Woodpecker and Painted Redstart were feeding alongside a few more common birds.

After some time, the birds began to ignore our presence, feeding below eye level right in front of us. I was carefully working towards a clean background for the Arizona Woodpecker when I heard crunching noises behind me. Suddenly all of the birds flew high up into the tree tops, and I turned around to find Mr. Rich stumbling around a few feet behind us.

Bridled Titmouse foraging in thorny tangle (c) John Ashley
"Tracy. We have an interloper!" I spoke much louder than necessary, hoping the guy would get the hint.

No such luck. Mr. Rich refused to respond or even look at me, and was pointing his big lens almost straight up into the bright sky -- more than enough evidence that he was taking crappy pictures. I gathered my gear in a huff and hiked away into a mesquite bosque, where we enjoyed a flock of Bridled Titmouse in peace.

This guy was the yellow Hummer, passing in the no-passing zone, the one who forces you off the road as he casually swerves into your space just before causing a head-on collision.

But the forth guy was the worst. We were enjoying a guided hike with about a dozen happy birders with binoculars. A 60-ish guy with average camera gear walked straight into the middle of our group, interrupting the guide to tell everyone about his photos of an Elegant Trogon -- one of the local birds that we hadn't seen that morning. "I spent hours with him," he boasted. "Got hundreds of pictures. I bet that just makes you feel sick!" I couldn't believe my ears. We'd seen the Trogon a few days earlier -- completely surrounded by cameras -- and we just walked away quietly.

male Elegant Trogon (c) John Ashley
This guy was the red sports car driven by a trust fund teenager, the one who passes you without bothering to move out of your lane, both of his right tires on your side of the painted line.

You know the one.

Letting these guys get under my skin is just one of my many character flaws, I guess. Most people would just blow off these idiots and keep on photographing. I couldn't. I had to leave.

I'm not an aggressive photographer, not one of the "trophy hunters." Getting the rare, good image is invigorating, encouraging. But spending my time respectfully in wild places, with wild creatures, is my reward.

For me, photography is a meditation. Sort of like a quiet Sunday drive on a forgotten backroad to clear your mind. I enjoy the company of a friend or two, but if some aggressive hitchhiker pushes his way into the car, it ruins the experience.

Non-aggressive types like me tend to just walk away and avoid conflict. But the numbers of people carrying cameras is growing exponentially, and you can't teach ethics to some of these guys -- it just isn't a part of their personalities. At this pace, these people with aggressive tendencies will come to dominate most of the hot spots. Bosque del Apache has turned into a photographer freeway, and Yellowstone is not far behind. What's the point in standing in a crowd, capturing the same image as everyone else? I just don't get it.

How will considerate photographers adapt? As for myself, I'll keep searching out isolated backroads. And, I'm also saving up for a big, heavy ball head for my monopod.

1 comment:

  1. My latest monopod came in 12 gauge or 20 gauge. I got the 12. Recommend same.