Moving to the Pacific Northwest changed nearly everything about my photography. When we left San Francisco, I consoled myself with the idea of photographing species I’d never seen in the Bay Area — like Bald Eagles and Orcas. I anticipated tramping along the shoreline trails of Puget Sound as I did around San Francisco Bay, finding my way in a new landscape and ecology. I envisioned the Salish Sea bubbling over with pinnipeds, whales and salmon, all there for the photographing with just a launch of a kayak.
Some of those visions did, indeed, manifest. The Bald Eagle flyover is no longer an anomaly for me. It’s so common, in fact, that I recognize the familiar rumblings among other birds before the eagle even enters my periphery. During our first trip on the Salish Sea, a pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales unexpectedly changed course and sped toward our silent zodiac so close that I missed the best shots for not having my wide angle lens. Then, for two winters in a row, we were gifted with a Snowy Owl irruption that dropped Snowies into fields and onto urban rooftops for the duration of the season. These are all magical encounters I now can’t imagine my life without.
There’s a Reason It’s Green
The flip side is that in the Northwest, you’re also working with multiple environmental factors when making wildlife pictures. From a technical standpoint, the most dramatic adaptation in this gorgeous green zone is light — both quality and quantity of light. You’re always playing the odds with rain, clouds, diffusion, and time.
Seattle doesn’t win the prize in terms of annual rainfall. The Emerald City gets 37 inches of rain each year — easily dwarfed by a city like Miami which gets 61 inches. But Seattle excels at the drizzle effect. Where huge downpours in southern towns will drop an inch of rain in one spurt, Seattle wallows in the slow soak. It ranks in the top five towns nationally in terms of overcast, with Seattleites living an average of 226 days under clouds each year. And Seattle also gets about 140 days of measurable rain. Many of those days are functionally unusable from a wildlife photography standpoint, with even more days iffy because of variable light.
You then have to factor in days or hours off. Will your day off or your free lunch hour coincide with one of the 139 sunny days? And, in my case, will one of those sunny days off occur after hunting season and before the winter birds take off for northern breeding territories? Anyone looking at probabilities can see how this might affect opportunity and outcome.
Proof of Life
Hugh and I came up with a term to describe this routine: Proof of Life Photography. That’s the baseline. Did we enjoy the experience? And, as a bonus, did we capture any proof of life? Beyond that, image quality and expectation becomes icing on what we consider the crux of the endeavor: the story.
In this way, the Pacific Northwest has changed my framework from the acquisitive — the photo as goal — to the experiential, the journey as reward. It’s also caused me to rethink my role as a photographer by forcing me outside the box of photographing wildlife straight on, while finding ways to employ the atmospheric elements into my own creations.
Have I embraced this idea entirely? Let me put it this way. As I pointed my lens at Bald Eagles tussling on the shoreline just across the Squamish River, with Hugh shielding my lens from rain, and me shooting at a minimal speed of 1/500 at ISO 2000 — knowing full well what my image quality would be at the end of it all, especially with my teleconverter attached — did I think about how pristine those shots would be with just one godly beam of sun through broken clouds?
That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
But, I’m becoming more adaptable — a bit less enamored of California light, a fraction less photo-intensive, and a lot more likely to put down my camera and just enjoy the visions before my eyes. I like to say it’s a form of surrender, not defeat — like the lyric from John Mayer’s song 3 x 5:
Today I finally overcame
Tryin’ to fit the world inside a picture frame;
Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to
Lose my way but let me say,
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life;
You’ll be with me next time I go outside
No more 3×5’s.
In Part 2, I’ll post about our cloudy, drizzly trip to see eagles in British Columbia. For now, here’s one of my better Proof of Life images from our travels northward into the deep forest, low light, and constant drizzle among men in camo.
Short-Eared Owl in the Mist – Boundary Bay, British Columbia
ISO800 • 1/500 • f/4.9 • Olympus OM-D E-M1 + Zuiko 50-200mm + EC14 Teleconverter
3×5 Audio on YouTube