Shooting nature in the city

I remember the week in March a few years ago when the photo challenge wasn’t fair.

A friend and I used to do a long-distance photo project, each of us taking turns choosing the theme and posting our resulting photos online. One week he chose “signs of spring.”

Not hard, you’re thinking. In March, the signs are there no matter how far north you live. Any field, any stream, any shoreline is loaded with spring things to shoot.

Unless, like me, you happen to be temporarily city bound. Not bound FOR the city; bound IN the city. The Big City. Concrete, tall buildings, lots of traffic, miles and miles of suburbs before the tiniest trace of anything resembling a field or a stream. This was the year I lived in Chicago.

Fine thing, I thought, putting on my photographer’s thinking cap and zinging up my imagination. Wet cement and a winter’s worth of litter aren’t terribly inspiring. Dead gray snow piles here and there crusted with grime, the smell of exhaust, the rushing sound of endless traffic–I had a challenge ahead of me.

I also had an advantage–one small beagle who needed walking several times a day, who stopped to sniff and squirt every few paces, forcing me to stop and take note of what was around me. While waiting for my beagle, I began to really look, and really listen.

In February I heard a robin. I could hardly believe my ears, but there it was one day, that familiar raucous call. Later, another familiar call, and–thanks to the beagle–time to scan the tree tops for what I knew I’d find: a bright red cardinal, claiming his territory and calling his love.

Too far away for photos, though. This week’s challenge meant taking a close look nearer to the ground. I wasn’t disappointed.

I remember the exact moment I spotted the tips of daffodils poking

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

through some black earth behind a fence in a front yard, their relentless push creating little fissures in the compacted soil. What a joyful spirit lift! In the same yard, I spotted a clump of tiny snowdrops, white buds still unopened, holding spring in their tightly wrapped petals. That, I decided, would be one of my photos.

Trouble is, these cute little flowers were on the other side of a chain link fence, a foot or so from the sidewalk. I didn’t want to shoot from above because the angle would have been all wrong. That meant shooting through the fence–and THAT meant getting down low.

I’ve always figured a camera lets you get away with doing things that might normally get you committed or arrested. So, with the beagle’s leash in one hand, I hauled out the Nikon D40, attached the 55-200 zoom lens, and laid down on the sidewalk. Please, I thought to myself, let every one of the people who live in these buildings be off to work somewhere.

It’s tricky shooting through a chain link fence, but with just the right distance and just the right angle the links will never show, and no one will ever know. Unless you tell them, of course, like I just did.

The other trick thing is holding the camera still while holding on to a dog’s leash. Lucky for me, my beagle was very patient. More important, he was very still while waiting. The photo was a success.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

I spotted another photo for this assignment when I was inside the house the next day, watching the rain fall. The sidewalk out in front had a large puddle, reflecting the overhead trees, and the raindrops danced across the surface, creating rings that expanded and disappeared and showed up again with the next raindrop, like a carefully choreographed dance.

I grabbed my camera, using the same lens, and went to stand in front of the puddle. What the neighbors thought, I can only guess. There I was, aiming at the sidewalk. I hope they chalked it up to the eccentricities of a true artist. Sounds better than being thought a nut case.

I set the focus to manual, because auto focus has a hard time knowing what to do with such ever changing images. I placed the reflection of a tree trunk in the frame to anchor the photo, set the aperture number as low as it would go, and focused on the rings, allowing the reflections to blur somewhat and provide a textured canvas. The expanding rings blurred as they moved away from where I’d focused, and I set the shooting mode at continuous to raise my chances of getting rings in focus at just that spot.

Out of a couple dozen shots, I got one I liked. Then I only had to decide which of those photos would be the one I submitted for my “sign of spring.” The important thing is that I successfully met the challenge, despite what I thought was a serious handicap. That’s the fun of photography. I guess the assignment was fair after all.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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2 Responses to Shooting nature in the city

  1. blb1 says:

    I grin at the thought of you laying on the ground angle through a fence. Afraid I can’t do that but the desire is there to get ‘down’ on shots.

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