Crozet Calendar Clinic: Nathan Williamson

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Photo by Nathan Williamson

One of the most remarkable photographs to appear in the Crozet Gazette calendar was made by Nathan Williamson. The image—of a bobcat in the forest near Shenandoah National Park—helped launch Nathan’s successful career as a sought-after photographer of wildlife, landscape and cultures. Recently Nathan, who now works on TV specials and in film, returned from Egypt and we discussed his photograph.

What is the backstory to the making of this image? As I recall you were working on an independent black bear project and using a remote camera to, hopefully, get bear images. And you did. But you also got this unique image. How?

Wild raccoons that had been injured by cars were being released into their habitat again by a local animal hospital. It was a ‘soft’ reintroduction into the wild. The soft part involved copious amounts of dog food placed near a stream for the raccoons. The bobcat was attracted to this particular spot — likely because of the food or because it was on the hunt for animals eating that food.

A retired couple kindly allowed me to rig two remote cameras on their property where the stream was located. The cameras would be triggered by animals stepping through invisible infrared beams. I was anticipating images of raccoons and, hopefully, black bears. I got those. But also this bobcat.

What did you think when you first saw the image?

An unexpected image is one of the great treats photography can give — and of course with remote cameras every picture is somewhat of a surprise.  After all, you aren’t there when the animal walks through the beam. In this case I was dumbfounded to see a bobcat as they are so incredibly elusive. I kept looking at the image and flipping back and forth to the images before and after. The bobcat appeared out of nowhere. I never saw it again.

Do you select the camera site purely in terms of potential behavior, or do you also compose with esthetics in mind? This image looks thoughtfully composed. The head of the bobcat is in front of the of the tree which is exactly the ideal place for a portrait.

Remote camera photography is just like street photography. You find the composition you want, then wait until the moment when the right subject walks through your frame in just the right way. Its about pre-visualizing the photograph and being ready for an action to complete the composition. It’s studied serendipity. 

Wildlife is incredibly rare. We live with the illusion that there is a lot left on earth but in reality most of the time in most places there is nothing to photograph. So a camera trap must have something to draw the wildlife and to localize its behavior or you will make no pictures. Where water is scarce, water works. Where food is scarce, food works. In this case it was the food — dog food. 

What techniques and knowledge have you developed over years of making remote camera images? How have the techniques evolved since you began remote photography?

This picture is lit using several flashes that were triggered when the camera took a picture. It takes a lot of experience—trial and error— learning to set up the equipment in ways that look natural or artful. And the kit must also be durable. It must last weeks, or even months, outside. A lot of the skill behind this sort of photography is technical. It’s about mastering battery life, wiring, waterproofing,  camouflaging, masking your own scent, and understanding how animals behave. It’s about intuiting where and when they are likely to appear. 

The basic technique of camera trapping hasn’t changed much since the first images of white tail deer were made for National Geographic magazine using a remote camera 100 years ago. When I started at National Geographic we were still using film. So we wouldn’t know what the camera had captured until the film was developed – something that could take months if we were shooting in Africa. At that time the equipment was expensive and hard to come by. These days you can easily purchase a kit on Amazon.  But having the time to invest in making this sort of photograph is still hard to come by 

How satisfying is the result of such an image–compared to the satisfaction of making a ‘straight’ picture of wildlife? 

When I think about the photographs I’ve made that I’m most proud of there is really no difference between a camera trap image or a picture I’ve taken with camera in hand. Ultimately, the picture has to stand on its own. Sometimes pictures you worked the hardest to make—and therefore most want to share with others—are actually less compelling to others than photographs that were throw-away moments or required little effort to make. 

Some of Nathan’s past work can be seen at www.explorationstudio.com

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