Hummingbirds are pure motion. In the spring and summer, my yard is full of the buzz and whirr of Allen’s hummingbirds (which looks very similar to the rufous that Sophie sees). I have failed miserably in my attempts to photograph them.
In To the Bright Edge of the World, Sophie Forrester becomes a bird photographer, and her first true success comes from photographing the nest of a rufous hummingbird. The book is set in 1885, so this was not an easy feat. Photography was still quite cumbersome – there is some mind-boggling talk of dark room chemicals. But there had been several advances that help – she purchases a smaller camera for use in the field (still much larger than a lot of those used today), and soon obtains a pneumatic shutter since her subjects often move. Even so, her patience in waiting for that perfect shot is amazing to me. She speaks of the pull of birding, even when one hardly sees enough to identify: “That is the excitement. We catch only glimpses, a burst of movement, a flap of wings, yet it is life itself beating at shadow’s edge. It is the unfolding of potential; all of what we might experience and see and learn awaits us.”
I have become very much a digital photographer. I find a subject – say an unfamiliar bird while on a trip – and I take hundreds of photos, clicking almost constantly, hoping that the bird will turn, or the wind will move the leaves just so, allowing the sunlight to hit it just right. Usually, using this “technique” I come away with one or two decent shots. Occasionally it’s a great one. Sometimes I have nothing but shadowy blurs or pictures of the rounded shoulder of a bird who refused to turn.
I’ve also been looking through the picture albums from our family’s cross-country camping trips. Some of the photos are awful. Some are pretty good. This was in those middle years, when the cameras had become small enough and cheap enough for everyone to own and carry around with them. But we were still using film, so you had a limited number of exposures – a limited number of photos you could take, so you saved them, waiting for the perfect shot. Then you sent the film to a lab to be developed and crossed your fingers.
Another modern tool I’ve gotten familiar with is Photoshop. Zooming and cropping can make a big difference in a photo. Where Sophie had to move her blind closer to her bird’s nest inch by inch in order to get her photos, I can stay where I am and zoom in later if I have to. (Actually, I found a nice article on taking hummingbird photos, and the author also talks about inching his equipment closer and closer.)
You can even play with the light and colors, making things brighter, removing all but a particular color in a shot for dramatic effect. But there is still something almost magical about that perfect shot. The composition and, in the case of birds or wildlife in particular, I think, that sense of motion interrupted. Truly capturing a moment in time, even in a still-life, is magic. I doubt I will ever capture something like this, but perhaps Sophie might have.