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Monthly Archives: February 2014

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As the day comes closer, I grow anxious. I start to worry about what to pack. I make checklists and go over them repeatedly. I start to have dreams about missing the plane or arriving without any batteries for my camera. But I am happy and thrilled to be so close to the Okavango. I read books, I watch photographs by Franz Lanting, I watch BBC shows about the largest wetlands on the planet and I imagine myself right in the heart of it. I try to imagine the feeling of smallness and amazement when faced with such immense nature.

Packing for Africa is not easy. On the one hand, I want to keep it as light as possible. After all, there are weight restrictions on every flight between the air strips I’ll be using, but on the other I must make sure I have everything I need and replacements for it. There are no Wallmarts in the Okavango. On the one hand I’ve been dreaming about this assignment for over a year, but on the other I’ll miss my wife and kids badly. Conflict seems to accompany me everywhere I go. But I keep packing and it makes it more real, it makes it imminent. These bags that I now stuff with all my equipment, will be my only companions through 14 days of travel and adventures.  I stop for a while and go over my schedule, my checklist and my documents; everything seems right. Got my visas, got my yellow fever shots, got my malaria pills and permits in order. I make sure I have enough batteries for everything and I weight my equipment once again. I still dream of Africa.

This trip will complete my project “AFRICA: field notes of a traveler” to be published at the end of this year for three great sponsors: Travelwise, Autohaus and District & Co.. The book will include photographs and notes from Cape Town, Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Victoria Falls, Okavango, Central Kalahari and Sossusvlei.

I’m very excited about this project. Africa gets under your skin and you surprise yourself always wanting more. Always dreaming about going back. But I also feel afraid. Afraid my kids won’t be able to experience all this beauty. Afraid we will destroy a place we have been lucky to enjoy and admire. If we keep behaving like we are, there will be no more rhinos or lions left, there will be no more water left, there will be no more paradise. I am afraid we are going to lose it all for the sake of profit. I want my kids to see Africa and understand our place in the world. I want them to understand we are not the owners but only visitors, and as such we have the responsibility to protect the place that has given us so much and be able to pass it forward in better shape than it was passed down to us.

As I get ready for Africa, I pack not only my gear but also every dream and fear I have. One thing is for sure; no matter what happens, this will be a trip to remember.

To see more images of my journeys in Africa and other trips please visit www.mariodavalos.org

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Recently my good friend Matthew Studebaker “almost” won Audobon’s Magazine grand prize. Matt’s image was disqualified by the judges for being a composite of two images, a horizontal and a vertical one. In the image below, you can see the redline where the two images were blended together. For those of us who know Matthew, it is clear his intentions are clean. He is not only one of the most talented nature photographers out there, but also a stand up guy who truly loves and respects nature as he does his craft. I don’t think his actions can be considered cheating, because in my opinion there was no intent to deceit. His original image, before the merge, is as good as the one submitted and both images were taken at the same location and in the same session. No significant alteration was made. matt compos

It is not the same to do a panoramic image of a single scene (which for me this is what Matthew did) than to combine images that don’t necessarily belong with one another. A panoramic photo is a way to extend the sensor’s format capabilities. A composite is a new reality blended from two images.  But even when I think Matthew’s case is perfectly understandable and I am Ok with it, I am against allowing composites or merges in nature photography competitions.

Matthew’s image was a very straight forward case, but if allowed this opens the door to a whole universe of possibilities that could end up transforming the spirit of any competition and ultimately, of our craft. We would not be judging the best photographer, but also the best post-processing technician. I mean, where do we draw the line? How many images can be blended together? Two? Three? Four? Eight? What if the blend happens right down the middle of a lion’s face? Is it ok to add a wing to an eagle shot from another image? What about if a copy an eye from a shot I took last year and paste it into this portrait of a Puffin? It would definitely make it a lot better… What if I blend two images not taken in the same place nor the same day? The possibilities are endless, and there lies the danger.

Photography, at least as I see it, is a medium to capture reality. What, how and when you decide to do that, is what gives it a voice, your voice. When we decide to change reality in a way the structure of what we see is altered, we enter a realm beyond photography.Of course it’s still art and it can still be beautiful and valuable, but is not photography in the traditional definition of it. I am aware “traditional” is the word that will bring conflict, after all, is there a place for “tradition” in the 21st Century? I don’t know, but I like to thing the nature of photography should remain intact even if the mediums evolve. I often think of intervening my images with paint, I haven’t done it yet, but someday I will and I am sure the outcome will be at least interesting. But it should not be submitted to a photography contest, even though it could be submitted into an art contest. Or maybe we should have a new category in contest. A “composite & merges” category? Something to think about.

There is a lot of opinions  and conversations on this subject from a lot of talented and diverse people. I am not sure who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I am sure this issue will be coming up very often in the next few years and a balance between the evolution of our craft and the nature of photography itself will somehow merge with each other. Now, that is one merge I am looking forward to.

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1. People love to make rules. It’s ok to listen, but it’s also ok to totally disregard them.

When I first started making nature photos, I ran into many rules and rule keepers. Everything was already laid out: – this is not allowed, this is allowed.. if you want to be one of us that is – . I did not understand what was all of about nor why. Trained as a contemporary painter I was taught to break all the rules, as long as you knew why you were breaking them. In other words, know the theory but in practice try to achieve your own voice, your own artistic statement. When I looked around at all the photos I was exposed to back then, they all looked similar to one another. Luckily I was eventually exposed to great wildlife photographer (Vincent Munier, Markus Varesvuo… ) that were doing whatever they felt like and doing it in an amazing way. I don’t think I have achieve a unique voice… yet. But I’m on my way!

2. Loving and respecting nature is more important than getting the award-winning shot.

I have met wonderful people traveling the world, but I’ve also met people willing to do anything to get a shot, including destroying nature or disturbing it. I love nature first, I love photography second. Is that simple. The end does not justify the means, not in life and certainly not in nature photography.

3. There is natural beauty all around us, you just have to learn to observe.

I now walk any street, anywhere, at any time and I see beauty. Just as a lawyer sees liabilities anywhere he goes or an architect sees design in every corner, once you learn how to see, things pop-up everywhere: bird songs, tree roots, rainbows in oil stains, fungi in the sidewalk… you name it! Learning to really “see” the world is the most valuable thing I learned in art school.

4. The decisions you make editing your images are as important as the decisions you make taking them.

Lately I find my self spending almost as much time in front of the computer as getting the shot. Editing your images is a second stage in the creative process. As photographers, our format is predetermined by our camera’s sensors, so within certain boundaries, you can be very creative when it comes to editing. I never add anything o remove anything from my photos, I think ethics are a big part of my love and respect for nature and my craft… but I think cropping can be a great way to tell a story within the story. I mean, photography in itself is the art of cropping.  I also think playing with your white balance can create atmospheres to enhance the narrative in your image. So go ahead, play around.

5. There is too much information out there. Learn to filter.

Wow!! Every where you look there is a guy telling you 10 things he learned by being a wildlife photographer!! WTF!! Anyways, read, but filter… no one has an absolute truth. If you pay attention to everything you read you’ll never have time to make photos. Get inspired, not psycho!

6. Dare to try different things.

Sometimes is an image that was incorrectly exposed or an egret that was blurry in your shot.. All I’m saying is, do not become an expert in your own style, do not set your self too many personal rules or boundaries. Experiment! Try to feel uncomfortable by trying things you thought you would never try (and I only mean that in photography, do not come blaming me if you apply this rule to your personal life and wake up in a traveling circus wearing flippers and spooning a clown).

7. The story behind an image is usually greater than the image itself, so savor the moment and become a good story teller. 

Being out in the big outdoors is the most rewarding feeling I can think of. The only reason I take nature photos is so I can be out there as long as I can and try to capture a little bit of that feeling in an image. Do not obsess over the perfect image, but rather over enjoying the place and the moment.

8. There are two kinds of wildlife photographers: those who focus on collecting species and those who focus on the beauty of an image. Both are correct!

I know examples of both. Personally I am more on the second group, but I think either one is fine. I have a lot of very good friends and fine photographers that enjoy what I call photo-birding; keeping lists of species and obsessing over growing that list… just as birders do, but by taking the image, not just the note. I rather make a beautiful image in a beautiful moment of a very common bird than to capture a rare species in an ordinary moment and an ordinary image. Photos are a tool to tell stories, and I like to tell stories, not to keep lists.

9. Traveling is one of the best ways to learn how to love nature.

What can I say? Traveling is the most enriching experience a human being can have. It will make you smarter, it will make you more humble and grateful. Traveling feeds the souls. Traveling expands your capacity to be amazed and enjoy the natural world. There is no other activity in life that contributes more to making you a better human being that to travel. And by travel I mean to take a journey into the place but also into the culture.

10. No, the eye does not have to be sharp and the background does not have to be totally clean to make a great photo.

Ah! This rule… I couldn’t leave it alone could I? I was so close!!!!

I hate this rule. I really really do. Every one obsesses about getting eye contact and a sharp eye. You will read this over and over again on forums and photography groups:

– Great eye contact -, – Very sharp eye.. congrats, great capture –

I don’t know who made that rule, but it is stupid and arbitrary. An image is an image, it may be well crafted or not, it may be beautiful or not, it may be inspiring or not, it may be provoking or not… but trust me, there is no body part that HAS to be sharp to make it any of those things. Do not let rules kill your voice!

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