Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s my own photography was an exercise in patience. This was the pre-digital era when every squeeze of the shutter was an opportunity taken and an opportunity lost. As the image count climbed towards 36, the potential to make one more photograph also diminished. The cost of film and processing was a deterrent to mashing the shutter, and choosing to take a five frame burst was a carefully measured decision. Shooting at the maximum five frames per second seemed to be like traveling at light speed, a journey that only took seven seconds to reach the destination. I can recall the calculus when the frame counter hit the number thirty; there are only six or seven shots left and if something really unique were to occur, I’d have to get it before the counter hit thirty-six. These were wasteful days, as there were no histograms to check exposure, no LCD’s to check composition and no memory cards to hold a near endless set of images.
Is there discipline in the digital era? As I wade through the 850 photographs made during a five hour period that began at 5:00 p.m., was paused for dinner and sleep, and resumed at 5:00 a.m. the next day, I can’t help but wonder how I might have handled this opportunity in 1995. In that year, I made my first trip to Costa Rica armed with a manual focus Contax RTS and 300mm f4.0 Carl Zeiss lens. Not the typical gear for a travel and wildlife photographer, I was behind the curve foregoing autofocus for optics that I believed to be superior. With camera and tripod in hand, I was limited to 15 rolls of ISO 50 and 100 slide film. The investment in the emulsion coated celluloid set me back about $350 dollars, and I would need to spend about as much to process these precious rolls. With ten days of shooting in front of me, I was like a miser with a penny, disciplined, stingy and patient; these were the essential cognitive tools of the successful nature photographer. I repeated the following mantra in my head… ten good shots in ten days is all I want or need.
Two weeks ago I joined my good friend in a blind that he had constructed near the southeast corner of Minnesota. The Costa Rican birds that I so covet were now migrating north to where I live today. We began our shoot at 5:00 P.M., paused to eat dinner at 9:30, enjoyed the company of friends and family until midnight just to awaken before sunrise and resume the shoot. The birds landed on the sticks and we mashed down on our shutters. Bursts of ten frames per second shattered the records of the past, histograms verified exposure and LCD’s refined our compositions. So as I wade through these 850 images, I reflect nostalgically on that trip to Costa Rica and can’t help but wonder how I actually managed to make ten good pictures in ten days.
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