From time to time, I will post interviews with adventurous people who have recently done something they had Never done B4. With over a year of Never B4 adventures under my belt, I've learned that my biggest motivator for seeking out new experiences comes from hearing the exciting adventures of others.
I've known Robert Stave for many years, as a friend, a scuba diver, a boater, but one of his greatest passions is photography. His interest in photography started at an early age when he came across his parent's old Bell & Howell camera and began snapping wild action shots of his pets and brother. In college he took a a few photography classes to increase his technical knowledge but he's primarily self taught. Today he's focused on developing his own style and with that in his mind, and his camera in his hand, he sought out a Never b4 photo shoot with wolves at the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem, New York.
Rob shared his experience and his photos with me and now I'd like to share them with you.
CB: You've taken pictures of many different places, people, animals and things so what made you seek out this Never B4 photo shoot and these particular subjects?
RS: The secret to impactful photography is to have a compelling subject. Wolves are an apex predator that are still misunderstood and feared by man. Yet these deeply intelligent creatures have no malice toward us. I’ve loved wolves since I was a small child and was also greatly influenced by Jim Dutcher's documentaries for the Discovery Channel in the 1990’s. When I look at a wolf, I feel no fear. I feel a direct connection to nature and the world we both share.
CB: How did you go about setting up the shoot? Can anyone do it or do you need special credentials/experience?
RS: Anyone can do this. It is not strenuous and doesn’t involve a long journey into the wild. All it really requires is your interest in wolves. You are right next to the enclosure that houses four wolves. There are special platforms and holes cut in the fencing that allow unobstructed photography. Any camera will do, but to get beyond a snapshot level, you need at least a 35mm camera that allows the use of interchangeable lenses. I found my 70-200mm zoom lens to be a good option, although there were times I wished for a longer lens to get a tighter composition. You should also plan to reserve your spot a month or two in advance. Photo sessions require a $100 donation and run from October through March. These events are quite popular.
CB: How close were you able to get to the wolves and how did they react to your presence?
RS: You can be literally “nose-to-nose” with them! Only the enclosure fence separates you, and they tend to be curious. You are cautioned not to put your hand or camera through the viewing ports during these moments. No sense in risking a misunderstanding in pack hierarchy with body parts or expensive equipment, right!
I experienced several magical Never B4 moments. I was alone in a corner of the fence area with two of the wolves, Lukas and Apache. Each was going about his business, yet my desire to interact with them was overwhelming. I called Lukas’ name as if he were my dog. Each time I called him; he would stop and look at me inquisitively. I spoke to him softly and got some beautiful photos of this encounter before he moved off into the underbrush.
The second moment happened in the same spot, but this time with Apache. He is the alpha male of the pack, yet is so unassuming in this role given his one bent ear. He sometimes looks like your friendly neighborhood dog. Apache is the talker of the bunch, so I overcame my foolish feelings and began to howl to him. It took less than 10 seconds and he responded right back, arching his head into the air and letting out that wonderful sound. Pretty soon, all four wolves got going in a pack howl and everyone else came running to take pictures. It is a cherished experience I’ll never forget.
CB: Was there anything particularly challenging or surprising about your experience photographing the wolves?
RS: I found two things challenging. Unfortunately, both are critical to making outstanding photographs; light and composition! Light is the most pleasing at sunrise and sunset. The warm temperature of light at these times of day can make an average photograph extraordinary. And while this was a “sunset” photo session, the sun didn’t cooperate as best it could. A haze in the sky muted a good deal of the warmth. Composition is also extremely important. Yet with wolves, there is very little staged and you have to always be ready to push the shutter button when the moment happens. But, that’s what makes it challenging and all the more rewarding when you finally get that special shot.
I have to say, digital photography has really changed the way you do things. You have instant feedback on the choices you make, and the best part is that you have the option to try again if it wasn’t what you had intended. However, a solid understanding of photographic principles is still key. More of your shots will turn out right the first time. So, on this day, I dealt with the light I was given as best I could, and tried to let the wolves’ personalities make up the difference. I think they did.
CB: In some cultures, people believe photographs capture the soul. Is there any one picture you took that you feel captures (in a proverbial sense) the soul of any one wolf?
RS: For me it’s their eyes! Wolves’ eyes are alive with communication. You feel as if they are looking into your soul and asking themselves if you are worthy of their consideration. It can be exhilarating and a little eerie at the same time. It’s as if there is no secret you can hide from them. I felt that Lukas gave me a glimpse at his soul during our solo encounter. But, just a fleeting one.
CB: I've read that some photographers take notes on the various exposure settings and shutter speeds they're using as they take pics so that they can learn what works best. Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to better your skills?
RS: I find that if you are shooting a static image like a landscape, it is feasible to keep notes. And this definitely helps as you move on to other projects. But, light is something that constantly changes. In fact, shooting at sunrise is probably the most dynamic time. The light changes by the minute, and so do the various exposure settings you will use. So capturing that special moment may be fleeting and you will not likely have time for detailed notes. However, with today’s digital formats, all that information is captured as part of the image file so you can review it later at your leisure. I try to have an idea of what settings I expect to use in regard to white balance, depth of field, aperture and shutter speed ahead of time. It gets you into the ballpark and then you can spend more time on composition of the subject and fine tuning the correct exposure which is critical.
I typically try to find the middle-gray in the scene and meter for that. If you get this correct, all the other highlights and shadows tend to work out pretty well. But, again, I think the beauty of digital technology is that you can now play around with these various settings to get just the right combination without sending the film to a lab and waiting for the results. And as you gain more experience, you find that you will start nailing the exposure settings more quickly and you can get down to shooting. But, you know what, I’m still learning this just like every photographer. Photography closely follows the saying “you learn something new every day”. That’s what keeps it interesting.
CB: Is a photo shoot the only way for people to get to meet these wolves or are there other ways?
RS: No. Photo sessions are just one of the programs offered by the Wolf Conservation Center. They also hold educational talks throughout the year on weekend days in which they provide a full history of the wolf and their struggle as an endangered species. And of course, these talks culminate in a visit with the wolf ambassadors at the enclosure. Remember, you must make a reservation to participate in any of the programs. Group sizes are small and the classroom is intimate. I highly recommend it. They can be reached at http://www.nywolf.org.
Click here to enjoy more of Rob's photos and please leave a comment on your reactions to his work. Or, if you or someone you know would like to be interviewed about a Never B4 experience, mention it in your comment or email me at email@example.com