with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Battling the Dot Animal

With all the excitement, this is what we thought people were seeing. Photo by Lorelle VanFossen, Olympic Game Farm, WashingtonThe commotion was contagious. Shouting, screaming, jumping around. People with their hands pressed to their mouths, others with hands on their heads, while some just shook their heads. Like the people who arrived before USA, we couldn’t resist the magnetic pull of "something happening." Parking along the edge of the busy road, we walked down the line of cars abandoned by those who were attracted to the "happening" before we arrived. Following the pointed fingers and screams from young children, we looked down into the grassy green fields far below. There, not 200 yards away in the valley, was a huge black bear snuffling around in the grass. Every once in a while, he would unwind a huge paw and long claws to scratch at the ground and sniff around, looking for a treat in the dirt.

From the carrying on, you would have expected a car wreck, but for most visitors to Mt. Rainier National Park, the sight of a black bear in the Paradise Valley is a new and thrilling adventure. Cameras of all shapes and sizes come out and go off, desperately seeking to capture on film the visitor’s close up encounter with a giant bear. One car even drove by with a man standing up on the front passenger seat, hanging out of the sun roof, snapping off a picture with a flash and a whoop -the car never slowing as it passed the crowds. The bear wasn’t as fascinating to watch as were the people’s reactions to the bear.

As nature photographers, it’s our job to record the images of nature and introduce them to the world through books, magazines, and newspapers. One of the first lessons in learning photography is understanding how your camera works and how it sees. We learned a valuable one that day.

The human eye has an almost magical ability to zero in on what is the "center of interest" and enlarge it. Ever been at a party and been able to pick out individual conversations? Or in a crowd and zero in on your friend? What capacity we humans have to eliminate distractions and focus on what’s important. The camera doesn’t have that ability.

When we arrived at the scene of "The BEAR", we realized right away we didn’t have a picture. The bear was just too far away for our lenses. We even did a test and took a photograph of the bear with 700 millimeters of lens (see below right) The dot bear is in the green circle. Taken with a 50mm lens. Photo by Brent VanFossenand still got a black dot in the photograph. We knew that those with the small point-and-shoot cameras typically had 35mm lenses or maybe zooms of 105mm, and they would get an even smaller dot than we did. It’s hard to explain that a dot animal is a ferocious bear. We knew those people would walk around with their prints showing their friends the bear and telling them how it "was THIS big! Really! You should have seen it!"

The excitement of seeing the bear and wanting the picture outweighed the reality that there was no picture. The human eye saw the bear and magnified it. The lens can’t. Be careful to really see how large the subject is in the viewfinder. Take your eye away from the center and look all around the edges. How large is the subject in proportion to the other elements in the image? Is what you are seeing magnified by your mind or your camera? Take time with your subject and slow down. See what the camera is seeing and ignore what your amazing brain wants to enlarge.

Even with 700mm, the bear is still a dot. Photo by Brent VanFossenSometimes the magical video camera in your mind is a better camera than the one in your hands. You don’t always need a picture to tell the story. If you do, make sure it tells the story you really want to tell and not the old story about "the one that got away."

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