This post is completely different from what I normally post. Instead of 4 to 6 photos and comments there is only one photo and almost two dozen paragraphs. If you’re in a hurry you may want to come back to this later when you have more time. I hope you enjoy it.
This photo of a woodpecker was taken very recently but this post is not about this woodpecker, it’s about a photo I took of a woodpecker several decades ago.
You know what a fish story is don’t you? It’s always about the one that got away. Photographers have fish stories too, stories about the one that got away. Stories such as: just as you were getting ready to push the shutter release for that 16 point elk filling your view finder, a small tree limb snapped, fell to the ground and sent your prize running. All you got was the fuzzy rear end of what appears to be an elk. That was the one that got away.
So what do stories about the one that got away have to do with the woodpecker? Like I said at the beginning, that photo reminded me of a photo I took a long time ago. A photo that I got; not the one that got away. I didn’t really need the new woodpecker photo to bring back that old memory because I think about that exciting day thirty plus years ago every now and then when I’m out shooting. I don’t know if fish stories about the one that didn’t get away are a thing, but I have one. It’s a tale of perseverance, planning, patience and success.
From the early seventies through the early eighties I was very “into” photography, but not like I am today. The two main differences: (1.) no such thing as digital, just film and (2.) 99.999% of the time my subjects were photos of friends or family. Despite the fact that I rarely took anything other than family and friends snapshots, I somehow ended up with a Vivitar Series 1 200mm prime lens for my Minolta SRT 101. I soon realized the lens was of no practical use for me and the type of photography I did, but given what I paid for it and how much I had begged for it, I carried it around for several months like it was an item indispensable for taking pictures, but rarely took one with it. Remember film and processing costs money so you didn’t shoot like you do with digital. I know you’re still wondering what the heck all this has to do with the woodpecker photo; the one that didn’t get away.
Okay, here’s the thing. One day, in what seems like a different life, I happened to look out a back window in our house and I saw a woodpecker clinging to the side of a large oak tree trunk in our neighbor’s backyard. Even on the huge tree trunk the bird looked large. I walked into the kitchen to fix lunch and saw that the woodpecker was still on the tree. One of those cartoon light bulbs went off in my head and I realized here was the perfect opportunity to use my spiffy Vivitar Series 1 200mm lens. Finally I had the chance to show I was not that big of an idiot because I now had an actual use for the lens.
I went to the bedroom and got my camera bag and checked the camera to see if there was any film it in. It looked like I had about 12-14 shots left on my role of Kodachrome 64 slide film. I took off the Rokkor 55mm lens with the attached Vivitar 2x teleconverter and mounted the 200mm. My hands were shaking as adrenaline had already started pumping through my body.
My biggest fear was that the bird would fly away before I even got outside. Also I had to figure out how I could get up to it without spooking it. The back door wouldn’t work, that would definitely scare it off. My plan was to go out the front and over to the side yard and get a picture. I would then work my way up closer for another picture. First I went back into the kitchen to see if the woodpecker was still on the tree and he was. Great, now if I could just sneak up on him without scaring him off.
As planned, I went out the front door and over to the side yard. I stood facing the woodpecker which was about 50 yards away. Even for a 200mm this was too far for a good shot but I thought it might be my only one so I very slowly raised the camera to my face, manually focused, manually set the aperture, and then pressed the shutter release. Alright! I got one picture and he didn’t fly away. (One of the nice things about the Minolta SRT 101 was that it was known for its relatively quiet shutter.) Okay, what do I do now. About 40 feet in front of me was the chain link fence enclosing the backyard.
I decided that I would very slowly walk toward the fence with the camera to my face in case he got spooked and took off. I got to the fence with no problem and took another picture thinking it might be my last but no , he didn’t take off. The extra few feet didn’t really do much as he was still just a very small item in the frame. Now I had to decide how I was going to get into the backyard without scaring the woodpecker and I needed to do it soon because I had no idea how long he would stay on the tree trunk. I figured that with the metal latch and hinges using the gate would be too noisy. The only other alternative was to “step” over the 42 inch fence. Hmmm … I have a 32 inch inseam. Step over is a misnomer. I decide I would stand with my left side up against the fence and swing my left leg over it, then inch my body over the top until my left foot touched solid ground, and then swing my right leg over; all the while holding the camera to my face because I was certain now that he was going to take off at any moment.
So I have my plan to breach the backyard, what can go wrong? Well … I could fall … and I did, and it hurt trying to inch my body over the ends of the chain link fence, and it hurt when I smashed the back of the camera into my nose. But I looked up and the bird was still there. I sat up, put the camera back up to my face focused on the woodpecker and took another picture. I was less than three feet closer but I still had quite a few shots left. Have I mentioned I was afraid he would take off at any moment?
I stayed sitting there with the camera to my face for several minutes hoping the bird would regain whatever sense of insecurity it might have lost when I fell. I am proud to say that, other than the light thud of my body hitting the ground (I was much lighter back then) and a little chain link noise as my rear end and leg drug across the top of the chain link, I made very little noise with the fall. After a couple of minutes of sitting there motionlessly I very, very slowly stood up very and got the camera back to my face.
Now it was time to really see how good of a stalker I could be and how much patience I really had. Still pointed toward the bird, I briefly looked down at the area I intended to walk through toward my subject. I didn’t see any sticks that would make a noise if I stepped on one and I didn’t see anything that would trip me. Things were serious now. I had gotten this close but still needed to get closer for a good shot. Very carefully, with the camera at my face, I took three very slow steps. Nothing happened, the bird didn’t flinch. This was good. But, if I was going to get a decent picture I had to get closer and I was still afraid the woodpecker would take off before I got close enough for a good picture.
I formulated a new plan. I would start moving forward in increments of five steps, take a picture and then pause a bit before the next five steps. I figured that after about four of these five step progressions I would be close enough for a really good shot and still have a few frames left for multiple shots at the end. Assuming my subject would still be there.
I remember my heart was really pounding and I wondered, could the woodpecker hear that? Do they have good hearing like a dog or am I just being paranoid because of all the adrenalin pumping through my body. I was nervous and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold the camera steady enough. Between the nerves and fatigue of constantly holding the camera with its heavy lens in the ready to shoot position I was shaking pretty bad and this was before image stabilization. Regardless I slowly, and I mean slowly, and carefully took the first five steps and snapped a picture and froze. I stayed frozen for what seemed like ten minutes but was probably less than thirty seconds. Then, when I sensed everything was calm, I took five more steps, snapped the picture, and froze. As I recall at this point I was starting to feel kind of cocky thinking I was some sort of modern day mountain man skillfully stalking his prey. Also at this point the woodpecker was starting to fill a decent portion of the frame but it could still be a lot better.
I took five more very slow steps and snapped a picture. As I mentioned earlier, the shutter on the Minolta SRT 101 was relatively quiet but still, I was afraid the next little sound was going to send the woodpecker flying. I was really worried. If I take another five steps I may be so close that I spook him. Do I play it safe and take another picture from where I am with the risk of the bird taking off, or do I go five more steps?
My thought was the picture I just took was probably pretty good but not a not a nice fill the frame photo. Rather than settle for two pretty good pictures (when one pretty good is enough) I decided to risk the closer approach for potentially something much better; the winning photo.
Obviously for these last five steps I was going to have to become the Natty Bumppo of photographers. I would have to be one with my environment, a “a knight of the woods”, and highly skilled with the long knife (or long lens). I took a couple of deep (silent) breaths put the camera up to my face, adjusted the aperture ring, and positioned my hand on the focus ring to constantly adjust focus as I got closer. I told myself that things had gone too smoothly, no way was I going to be this lucky. My new attack would be to take three steps and start snapping away as I walked closer and closer to the woodpecker.
The adrenalin really kicked in now and I was fearless. Throwing caution to the wind I almost ran up to the tree. My stealth, patience, perseverance, falling over the fence, and nerve racking risk taking had paid off. At last … I was going to get the shot I had worked so hard for. As I fine tuned the focus for another shot, the lighting was so good and the focus so spot on that I could see that finally I was about to capture a large, frame filling, head and shoulders shot of a beautiful plastic woodpecker.
You might think that at that point I was angry, but no, I wasn’t. There was no anger at all. I had no room for anger because I was so overwhelmingly and completely filled with embarrassment. I tried to nonchalantly walked back to the house as if nothing had happened, in case anyone had been watching. The embarrassment lasted for days and days and days.
That is my story of the one that did not get away, probably one of the top three embarrassing moments in my life.
Thank you to those who read everything and made it to here.