Have we reached a point in wildlife photography where it can't get any better? With the ever crashing prices of high quality digital gear, the pursuit of wildlife imagery has become "every man's (or woman's)" game. In 1994 I spent $2000 for a previously owned Carl Zeiss 300mm f/4.0 lens because I desperately wanted to photograph the wildlife of Costa Rica, Minnesota and the West Coast. A fortune to me at the time, the choice to buy the lens translated into real sacrifices. Rather than splurge on a nice car, an apartment in a trendy neighborhood or pay off my debts, I chose to embellish my photographic and travel desires.
In stark contrast to when I began taking my photography seriously, today I could spend the same $2000 and purchase an amazing 150-600mm lens and prosumer DSLR camera with a wide-angle to mid-range zoom lens. What's more, rather than risking the unknown of the used market, all of my gear would be new and under a manufacturer's warranty. The obstacle that was once the price of quality gear, is not an impediment to making quality images today.
In 1995 I took my first of ten trips to Costa Rica. As a formally trained ecologist and evolutionary biologist, a trip to the tropics was high on my "future travels list." Even by the mid-90's Costa Rica was less exotic than other destinations, but it remained a relatively low-touristed hot-spot for photography. With one bag packed with thirty rolls of film and the other with quick drying clothes, I can still recall that primitive outdoor airport the greeted us in San Jose. A trip that might cost $1500 per person today was about double the expense in 1995. So, much like the democratization of gear, travel to lesser-visited wildlife destinations have become easier to find and increasingly affordable.
And what of the art in image making. Quite honestly, the photographs I see today during a random Google Search, on forums and on blogs match or surpass what was once the "gold standard for nature photography,..." National Geographic. Digital image making rewards those willing to engage in trial and error and inquiry-based learning. It has never been easier to take a picture, review the product and modify the process on the spot. No more waiting for film to be developed by a lab, the digital artist is free to experiment, invent and grow faster than I ever could when analog (aka film) was king.
So, can it get any better? Well at this point, I am not sure that the answer is yes. Every day people are producing photographs of hummingbirds where every feather can be visualized with light refracting through prismatic barbs, while others capture lions (or insert the predator of your choice) leaping, biting or chasing their quarry in a display that was once only producible by the "professional" nature photographer. While I am beginning to doubt that images of the future can get better, I do believe they will be different. Every photographer sees and interprets their world through their eyes. While many try to emulate the "masters," it is still the individual image maker who decides to snap and share or withhold a given picture. Even if nothing new can be made, anyone who holds a camera and treasures the image making process has the capacity to see "it" and photograph "it" before "it" or they are gone. So, it is likely that my initial query is not the question that needs be asked, rather than "Can it..., maybe I'm wondering... "Does it matter if it can't get any better?"
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