Slowing down the game

Professional athletes talk about “slowing down the game.” What does that expression mean? In sports, the game seems to slow down when you are relaxed. Experience is the most common way to feel more relaxed, but knowing what to do in a given situation helps to reduce the pressure of split-second decision-making, and silly as it may sound, taking a deep breath also helps you to remain calm and in control.

How does “slowing down the game” apply to wildlife photography? The rush of adrenaline that you feel when you see something uncommon or make a new discovery can cause you to rush to shoot a photo without really seeing the big picture. In wildlife photography as in sports, experience — with both the subject and your photography gear — is the best way to slow down the game. The time to figure out how your camera works is not when a “once in a lifetime” shot presents itself! Know how to set-up your gear for every contingency, and try to anticipate the set-up that will optimize your chances for success.

For example, here are two photos of the same male Great Spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis) that I shot from two points of view. The damselfly is perching in a similar position on the same grass stem in both photos, but the backgrounds are very different because he is clinging to different sides of the stem. That’s a game changer. Although both photos show the damselfly clearly, the first photo “feels” more like fall; the second photo “feels” more like summer. Which photo more clearly conveys the fact that Great Spreadwing is a fall species of odonate? You know the answer!

For what it’s worth, the first photo was taken using Aperture priority mode; the second using Shutter priority. I rarely shoot hand-held photos using Aperture priority, but in this case I felt like I might need a little more depth of field and I knew there was no wind to cause the subject to move, so I switched to Aperture priority mode (already set for the ideal f/stop, based upon experience), took a deep breath to calm myself, and used every technique in my bag of tricks for avoiding camera shake.

Can you tell which photo is my favorite? Again, you know the answer. As a bonus, if you look closely at a full-size annotated version of the first photo then you can see one of the paraprocts, visible underneath the right cercus (pl. cerci). Remember, all male damselflies have four terminal appendages: an upper pair of cerci (“superior appendages”); and a lower pair of paraprocts (“inferior appendages”).

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “Slowing down the game”

  1. Mike Powell Says:

    I really enjoyed this posting, Walter. I often wonder what is going through the minds of other photographers as they take their shots and your narrative gives me some good insight into your approach. What are they focusing on, both literally and figuratively? Sometimes we have the luxury of a cooperative subject, which permits us to use different approaches, as you did here. Often, though, we wildlife photographers will get a single chance, and that’s when experience kicks in, as you so wonderfully suggest with your sports analogy. For what it’s worth, most of us would be thrilled with either of the two images.

    • waltersanford Says:

      I must admit this post didn’t turn out quite like I imagined it. Essentially I just wanted to convey the idea that sometimes I feel like I’m “in the zone” and shooting photos of wildlife feels much easier and is more successful — don’t think I did a good job of explaining what helps me achieve total focus (no pun intended). Nonetheless, thanks for the kind words, Mike!

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