Shifting Focus

Fringed Polygala (Polygayla paucifolia )

Nature photography, by the seat of your pants

“Can you back up just a bit, please?” I asked my wife who was driving the car that morning. “There’s a Hepatica on that bank that may be just what I’m looking for.”

It was early May, and we were driving along a quiet road near the woods in Tompkins County, checking to see which early-spring wildflowers were blooming and searching among them for those suitable to photograph.

The reason I was in the car (and not on foot) is likely all-too-familiar to many in my post-75 age group. In the last few years, due to a combination of arthritis and neurological issues, I have become increasingly unable to slog through bogs, or even walk through open-level woods without great difficulty. This condition has presented me with a pressing challenge – I am unwilling to give up my passion for nature photography just because it’s more difficult for me to get out and explore nature.

Not long ago, I discovered a simple strategy that should at least partially solve my dilemma, I hope indefinitely. As an added bonus, the cost is low, and – most importantly – it is adaptable to my increasing physical limitations.

I happened upon my new approach while travelling on
another dirt road, this time in the fall. I spotted a beautifully lit group of yellowing cinnamon ferns and spontaneously shot a burst of photos through the open car window. It worked.

Using a 70-300mm “new” Minolta lens on a 24-megapixel, image-stabilized Sony A65 DSLR camera, I had a picture that was of a quality I would expect to get from a carefully posed tripod shot. Upon further experimentation, I was convinced that I could achieve consistently satisfying results shooting through an open car window or door. I was off and running, while actually sitting comfortably in the front passenger seat of my Toyota.

It’s worth noting, photographing subjects at longer than typical distances may encourage a new way of treating them. For example, I had originally adopted a portrait style when shooting flowers, yet I found that an approach more akin to landscape worked decidedly better at greater distances. Therefore, I was pushed to grow in directions I may never have tried if conditions hadn’t forced a change in my stylistic approach.

While taking pictures from a car is accessible to almost anyone, I may have a slight advantage because I already know where suitable subjects are likely to be found. Fifty years of exploring my home territory, with an eye out for all things natural, has unwittingly well-prepared me for this new – at least to me – approach to nature photography.

It should go without saying that this style of photography is best pursued on lightly-traveled, preferably dirt roads. It would be suicidal to try this on the thruway, no matter how alluring the subject might be.

Few pursuits require less of the pursuer. Simply arm yourself with suitable photography equipment, plus a basic knowledge of your quarry and where to find it – and you are ready to start your quest.

Limited only by ones imagination, this approach to nature photography knows no season. Subjects are everywhere. Flowers are perhaps the easiest but animals, landscapes, butterflies and trees are also possible … you name it. The important part is getting out there. Start with a point-and-shoot camera, if that’s what you have. In fact, one of the newer, long lens point-and-shoot cameras may actually prove your best choice.  A friend who takes outstanding bird photos, and is a pioneer in the process of digi-scoping, recently told me that long lens point-and-shoot cameras are the “new normal” for long-range bird photography. Whatever equipment you opt for, the most important thing is to get at it and enjoy the ride.


story and photos by Bard V. Prentiss