Through the lens

Sandra Bilbo, nature photographer and the Director’s Assistant at Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, is our guest blogger this week.

The human eye and a camera have many parallels. But it makes sense, right? A camera is like an extension of your eyes and brain, a device that processes a moment in time and stores it in memory. Capturing images of our environment and the people who use it dates back as far as the earliest evidence of human existence. From cave drawings to complex paintings, and to the invention of the camera, we’ve always found ways to observe our surroundings and express our observations artistically. Today, with the accessibility of digital imagery in the palm of our hands, we have the tools to capture so many moments in time, whether it’s a spring bloom of wildflowers or a child’s joy of playing at the beach.

There is just so much to see and so many stories to tell, and the way I try to tell stories is through photography. I identify as a hobbyist photographer and a scientist who loves observing my surroundings. While I am not quite a ‘nature photographer,’ I like to think of myself as someone who does ‘photography in nature;’ this encompasses the intersection of humans and the natural environment. Some of my favorite subjects are people enjoying nature, landscapes, seascapes, macrophotography (for closeups of bugs, flowers, etc.), and people doing science in the field.

Photography is a vessel for observations. Oftentimes I can watch how a bird or butterfly moves and over time, I can predict where it might go. For instance, I can watch a brown pelican and know if it’s just flying to get somewhere, or if it’s flying in preparation of a plunge dive to catch fish. Or I know that I only have a few seconds to take a photo of an alligator before it dives down to get away from our boat.

Getting to a fiddler crab’s level on the salt panne with a zoom lens. If the crab waved his claw around, I would leave since that’s his defense signal. Photo by Sandra Bilbo.

In so many ways, photography has helped me become a better educator. Photographing nature and learning to identify the plants and animals I see is one of the best ways I can learn more about that species. I can use the information and my personal experience to re-tell my observations or narrative to others as a way of educating. By having real photographs and experiences, I can tell a story using imagery and descriptive explanations. A collection of observations through photos has even led me to writing and illustrating a storybook trail set at the boardwalk where I work, which features common plants and animals found there! The illustrations were based on real photos I’ve taken over a few years.

Adding human subjects to my nature photography helps others see how we recreate, study, and value the environment. It also places a person in the photo for scales, much like how you may need a human to stand next to a redwood tree or dive next to a whale shark to truly understand their magnificence.

Think of an image that comes to mind of a place you love, and it’s just the scenery. What do you feel? What are you thinking of? For me, depending on the season, I may imagine a chilly winter sunset at the Blue Ridge mountains, or the emerald green waters of Destin, Florida on a warm summer day. Those images actually exist on my phone, and when I look back at them, they bring me peace and take me back to great memories with close friends. Now, take that image and add a person in the image. What are they doing? Who are they with? Are they playing or working? How do you think they value nature?

Sandra’s brother Alex fishing in Destin, FL. Photo by Sandra Bilbo

Maybe you’re kayaking and you spot a couple fishing for trout in the bayou. Further in the bay, you see a crab fisherperson checking her crab traps. A small research boat is collecting water samples nearby. From one trip, you could have pictures of three groups of people using the water in different ways, yet one thing is the same: we all value the water. To the viewer, these photos could spark curiosity and maybe they want to know, “What’s the story?” And just like that, we can inspire a conversation and share experiences about how we value nature, even if those exact words aren’t said aloud.

Tips for Photography in Nature: Whether you’re using a cellphone or a professional camera, try these next time you’re out taking pictures in nature!

  • In a place where you can’t collect items to bring home, take a photo!
  • Think about your literal environmental footprint. Be sure to stay on trails and try not to venture too far and disturb habitats. Even the smallest of habitats are important and can be majorly disrupted by stepping on it.
  • Avoid manipulating nature to get that perfect shot. Oftentimes photographing plants can be difficult, and photographers try to move a plant to single it out against the backdrop of other green plants. Instead of moving the plant, bring a solid background item and hold it behind the plant. You can’t quite manipulate animals for the perfect shot, so try to think of the same principle when working with plants. Of course, you never know what defense mechanisms a plant could have, so it’s a good rule of thumb not to touch things.
  • Animals can get stressed, too! Keep your distance and observe from afar, if possible, to reduce your impact on the animal’s behavior. You might be walking in the woods and a cottonmouth snake opens its mouth signaling for you to go away. Take a picture of it if you don’t know what it is and want to find out, but also leave as quickly as you can for both of your sakes. This goes for animals on land and in the water.
  • Don’t forget to take a picture of yourself too, so that you can capture yourself and how you feel being there, even if it feels like a silly selfie you’ll never share publicly. When you look back on that memory, you’ll remember more details about that experience!

All photos in slideshow by Sandra Bilbo. For more of Sandra’s work, follow her @sandra_huynh_photos

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