Kneeling on a dirt path in Duke Gardens, I leaned close to the yellow flower. In one arm I held my camera, in the other a reflector I had borrowed from the photography instructor. If I held the camera still and balanced in just the right way, the reflector would diffuse the light, cut down the harshest shadows, and leave me with a great picture. As I was about to take the photo, a small bee zoomed in and landed on the bright petals, gathering pollen. Click click click click. My great picture had just become perfect.
A few months ago, I had no idea what a reflector was, let alone shutter speed, ISO, or f-stop. To take any picture I merely kept my camera on automatic and snapped away, hoping that by taking as many photos as possible I would hit on at least one or two that looked just right. I knew my camera had manual settings, but I had played with them for about, oh, thirty seconds before becoming frustrated and switching back to automatic.
Not this spring. I committed to fulfilling the requirements of Duke Gardens Nature Photography Certificate, which meant taking five required classes as well as thirty hours of elective class time. The best part? The instructors were right there to help when I needed to know why shooting on manual made my pictures dark or impossibly fuzzy.
Every class I have made a small improvement. I took pictures of flowers, people, birds, everything and anything within Duke Gardens. As I progressed, I slowly began to finagle the settings to get just the right light, just the right movement, with the absence of that annoying fuzziness.
And then, quite suddenly, I lost all fear of strange looks from passing pedestrians. I don’t know what it was about using manual settings that made me feel like a “professional” photographer, but in no time I found myself lying on my belly in the middle of a wooden boardwalk in the Outer Banks to get just the right photo of a few purple flowers. In Duke Gardens I contorted my borrowed reflector to ridiculous angles, sweating and grimacing as I tried to do with two arms what would have been much easier with four.
Though I may have looked silly, my photos were so much better! Changing my angles and paying attention to light gave me unique, creative images. Taking classes made me slow down, listen to advice, and think about what I was doing, and I can already see the results. Is every picture I take perfect? Definitely not, but I’m having more fun and taking better photos. I have half of the certificate down, half to go!