We would like to welcome you back – after a hiatus – to the Photographers in Focus feature. It’s International Bird Rescue’s tribute to wildlife photographers who inspire our passion for aquatic bird rehabilitation.
This time around, we are pleased to showcase the work of Ingrid Taylar, a San Francisco Bay Area nature photographer. We hope you enjoy her work as much as we do.
Question: How did you get into wildlife photography?
Answer: I’ve loved animals for as long as I can remember, and my interest in photography began early as well. My parents bought me my first camera in grade school, a Kodak Instamatic to document our lives overseas. I made earnest efforts in photography and was thrilled to get my first SLR at 18. But those early skills were inconsistent because I never had a lot of money for film and developing.
I got my first digital SLR while volunteering at Lindsay Wildlife in the Bay Area. The hospital experience helped me understand more intimately the challenges wild animals face — and that understanding grew into a passion for their protection and conservation. The telephoto lens gave me a way to connect, observe, and document while minimizing my intrusion.
I’m grateful I was exposed to the ethical framework and mentorship of a wildlife rehab setting before I became serious about nature photography. I learned at the outset to put the welfare of the animal above the image. We all face ethical decisions in the field: How close do we move in? Are we disturbing or endangering the animal? Are we interfering with their feeding or rest? I know that any choice I make for the sake of a photograph can potentially change an outcome for that animal. So, although I make mistakes or miscalculations like anyone else, the modalities of care I learned in the wildlife hospital are at the foundation of my field practice.
Q: Your photo of the Stilts is simply amazing. How did you come to capture this beautiful image?
A: Thank you. I shot it at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I didn’t actually expect to have a salvageable image from that day because the light was challenging. So, I was looking to capture the basis of something artistic and ethereal in nature, rather than a straight-forward documentary photo.
I didn’t see the chick at first. S/he appeared in my periphery as I was snapping silhouettes of the adult birds and their reflections. It was one of those serendipitous and lovely moments that occur sometimes in the stillness. I took a few shots before a heron passed overhead and the parents hustled the chick under safe cover. I walked away at that point.
I’m very careful about photographing baby birds and will avoid it if my presence might cause stress or draw unwanted attention to the babies. I know it’s hard enough for parents to protect their chicks from daily hazards without the distraction of a photographer.
For the final image, I developed it in post-processing to bring out more of the ethereal quality. The original frame was a tad under-exposed, so I intentionally over-exposed it, and added a low-opacity vignette to accentuate the lightness.
Q: What camera do you use? What is your favorite lens for wildlife photography?
A: I shoot with Olympus gear. I photographed for years with an Olympus E-3 DSLR, then switched to the first OMD E-M1 “micro four thirds” camera when it came off the line. The E-M1 is mirrorless technology, and the smaller size and lighter weight of the Oly gear suits my shooting style, which usually involves walking or hiking or being en route from one place to another. I also had a long-standing, unrequited love for the Olympus OM film system, so I was finally able to replace that nostalgia with a digital model. My favorite wildlife lens is my newest, the Olympus 300mm f/4 (2x crop factor). [I have no commercial affiliation with Olympus.]
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of what you do?
A: The biggest challenge for me is dealing with some of the disregard I witness in the field. I see more harassment than I wish I did, especially of birds, and it takes an effort to retain equanimity in those situations. It’s easy to get upset. When I do need to intervene, I try to find a portal through which I can educate at the same time. A lot of people simply don’t know how to interact (or not interact) with wild animals, and then all it takes is a nudge in the right direction. A camera with a wildlife lens tends to attract conversation and questions, so I take advantage of that opportunity to share my own appreciation for these animals. Sometimes it works. At other times it can be an exercise in exasperation.
Q: Why birds?
A: I love photographing animals in general, and I tend not to discriminate, but birds are natural subjects because of how regularly their lives intertwine with ours, existing above and within our paradigm. They are accessible to us in urban, rural and wilderness settings. Seeing them up close through the telephoto — the eyes, the subtle expressions, the details of their feathers, their social interactions — I am awed by that gift every single time.
I’m particularly fond of the more common species, the ones frequently overlooked. I have a soft spot for pigeons, for instance, having rescued a couple of racing pigeons years ago. One of my favorite photo shoots was documenting a small group of Glaucous-winged Gulls nesting on a downtown Seattle rooftop. The gulls were ubiquitous in the area, but I always refer to these species as “gateway birds.” They are often the first wild birds that city dwellers or children encounter, the first birds they start to care about, and sometimes, the first they ever rescue or bring to a wildlife hospital. They were for me. I see these species as liaisons and emissaries of sorts, bridging the chasm between the urban and the wild.
Q: Who are some of your favorite wildlife photographers?
A: My earliest ideas of craft came from photos that helped me understand visual storytelling: documentary and war images like those of Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White, and, of course, the pages of National Geographic with iconic shots like the van Lawick photos of Jane Goodall interacting with chimpanzees. Photojournalism, in particular, had a huge impact on me, and it’s probably why I’m in nature photography, I’m so drawn to the grittier urban or industrial juxtapositions.
In terms of creativity and composition, two well-known nature photographers whose images were formative for me were Frans Lanting and Art Wolfe. I draw inspiration and hope from conservation photographers like Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen (among others) who bring critical attention to ecological issues through their work.
It’s also encouraging to see so many more female photographers influencing the profession, and two women whose images I’ve come to know and love through our mutual interest in wildlife ethics are Melissa Groo and Mia McPherson. I am constantly motivated by the care they show for their subjects, and the high ethical standards they promote in the field.
Q: How has working in nature enhanced your life?
A: It’s made me more patient and more present in the moment. It’s helped me become more conscious of how my own everyday choices affect other species. Several years ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to take an orca photography excursion with an experienced naturalist. The conversation veered toward how difficult it was to find a mattress or sofa that didn’t contain environmentally damaging chemicals which then pollute marine mammal habitats. I think once you become aware and care, that type of concern informs your decisions, even in tangential ways. At the same time, I’m not exemplary in this regard. If anything, it’s made me more conflicted to be cognizant of my own, unavoidable impact as a human.
My aim as a photographer, outside of the personal fulfillment it brings, is to help offset some of that impact through advocacy, by promoting an appreciation for the diverse lives around us. If someone notices the beauty of a bird because of a photograph they see, if they treat a wild animal with more kindness and respect because of a story we tell, or if they care more about their environment because of how we portray it, that to me is the highest reward. Although I have my moments of cynicism and despair, I still hold out hope that person by person, we can transition to a world where compassionate coexistence is the norm.
It’s difficult to overstate just how much I’ve learned from other animals. They have an innate ability to move with the flow, to transcend hardship, to tune into the rhythms and natural cycles that are often overrun by our city lights and soundscapes. I’m still amazed at how specialized and perfect they are in their individual niches. Watching wild animals navigate their existence is a lesson in both the humility and grandeur of our short time on this earth. I’m working to be worthy of the knowledge I’ve gained through them.
All photos © Ingrid Taylar