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  • Writer's picturePayton Pan

‘On Water and Air’ | Advancing Photography through the Art of Shelter-Building

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

In just about every photography masterclass, the ‘professional’₁ will tell you the same important point. They could be phonies who make a living ripping off amateur photographers, or geniuses like Steve McCurry. It doesn’t much matter, because everyone has been told: “You can’t just click the shutter trying to make a pretty picture; You have to personally connect with your subject matter.” I do agree. Whether it be the land you are fighting for, the person whose story must be heard, or even just a stranger standing in the rain, the connection gives photos a purpose, separates the goods from the greats. In my opinion, the better the photo, the longer the story is behind it. This is easier said than done. I’ve tried countless times, and failed almost as many. But throughout this journey I have stumbled across one rough and rugged way to ensure that special connection and long story.

Before I go into my fatuous technique, I have to drop a disclaimer. This account would be impractical, and usually illegal, to be put to use for street photography. The following narratives all occurred in pursuit of either landscape or wildlife shots, which is what I will begin with. Many wildlife photographers make use of camouflage tents, blinds, or even ghillie suits. Partly due to that fact that I own none of this, but mostly for the ‘connection,’ I have used a slightly less civilized method: improvised shelters. The connection, in this case, is meant to be solely with the animal. Once you enter into their world, and focus on life the way they do, there is an organic interaction between the animal and the photographer, and the camera becomes merely an extension of the photographer to document this interaction. I have used natural shelters to attempt this, and it has given me some valuable experiences:

(outside/inside veiw of my tipi shelter)

However, there is one problem. Nobody can force the wildlife to join you. In the case documented above, the only animalia seen were bugs on the ground and some flight overhead. But the lack of success here symbolized the most valuable principal in wildlife photography. Unlike portraiture, you are at the mercy of mother nature, and can only return with photos if she wills it so. Not that this lesson turned me off from wildlife photography, because it did effectively the opposite. Inspired to improve upon continued attempts in other locations, I was eventually able to fill up the Animalia collection.

('Mama Bear' and 'Duo Deer' from the Animalia collection)

Landscape photography certainly demands distinct techniques and mindsets, along with a unique use of these improvised shelters. The connection needed here is with the land, so it is imperative not to stay in a manmade structure. Usually tenting is wild enough, but occasionally it helps to go the extra mile. A resident knows the ins and outs of their home city, so they have specific quirks they would focus on when doing street photography there. In the same way, understanding the land you photograph can be a huge help. Not to say that Steve McCurry couldn’t go to any city and come back with amazing shots, or that most landscape photographers use natural shelters: they definitely don’t. But it works for me. The example below is a landscape I shot of a lake at dawn that I had spent the night next to in an improvised shelter. And let me tell you, it is far easier to time the sunrise shot when you spend the night awaiting it.

('On Water and Air' and the shelters behind it)

The parting thought I had when writing this was of the female black bear shown above. When I saw her and took that shot, she had been walking near a road in West Virginia with her two baby cubs. The three of them were eating trash off the ground, picking at old plastic bags in search of some human food scraps. It would break anyone’s heart to see a baby bear cub look at a straw and think about eating it, so this is what I will leave you with. It doesn’t matter if you are an environmental photographer. It doesn’t even matter if you own a camera. No matter who you are, having a personal connection with the Earth is paramount if we want to say here. So look mama bear in the eyes and think twice about it next time your indifference litters the ground.

₁ I put ‘professional’ in quotations because, as I argued earlier, photography is all about the narrative. In this sense, I would rather pay mind to the photos of a six year old with a story than a celebrity with all the newest cameras out there. That’s why ‘pro grade’ cameras, or photographers ‘going pro’ is all nonsense to me. We all share the human experience, and we can all share art.

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