Episode 15: Nature Photography: Transcript

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Nature Boost Podcast
Season 3, Episode 1
Nature Photography

SMM

[Intro music.]  

Jill Pritchard:  Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost.  I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  

Today, we're talking about a great activity that allows you to get creative while exploring the outdoors.  I am talking about nature photography.  Here with me is one of MDC's very talented staff photographers, David Stonner.  His striking images of Missouri's wildlife and natural areas are featured in a number of MDC publications and on our social media accounts as well.  

So David, I'm so thrilled to talk about this topic because this is such an accessible that I think everyone can enjoy while out in nature.  But before we dive into that, I'm really interested to hear more about your position here as a photographer at MDC.  So give us a little background about you, like what drew you to this, to photography?  

David Stonner:  Well, my parents are actually photographers.  Both my mom and dad were portrait photographers, wedding photographers.  So growing up, I've got pictures of myself as a 3-year-old with these really fancy German cameras and stuff, peaking through the lenses.  So it's always just been around me my entire life.  My mom was a journalist.  She went to MU Journalism School and she was a photo journalist.  So it's been all around my life, just ever since I can remember.  

I went to college for photography and minored in journalism.  So my goal immediately after college was to get a job at a newspaper.  I freelanced for the Kansas City Star for a few months after school and then got a full time position down at the Joplin Globe.  I worked there for a few years, and just kept kind of developing my nature photography and building up a portfolio of nature work that I like to take on my vacations and trips and personal stuff.  So when the opportunity came to come over to the Missouri Department of Conservation, I put in an application and wasn't really expecting any -- I wasn't expecting anything.  But when I got an invite for an interview, I thought that kind of validated myself.  I thought, that's good.  I got an invitation for an interview.  No way I'm going to get the job.  

[Jill laughing.]  

[2:22]

But that kind of validated me as a photographer, and I went back down to Joplin and then got a call a couple of weeks later, and they said, "We'd like to hire you."  And I was just absolutely floored.  It's been an amazing, an amazing journey.  I started here in 2007.  So . . .

Jill Pritchard:  I would think that would be kind of a dream position, especially just kind of being paid to just be outside and take these incredible images.  And I'm sure you've had wonderful experiences, too, just across the state.  

David Stonner:  Yeah, absolutely.  I never really, I knew Missouri was a great state.  I've lived here my entire life.  But since starting with the Conservation Department, just getting the opportunity to travel to all the corners of the state, and just see the beautiful spring-fed rivers of the southern Missouri Ozarks, and the windswept plains, and the upland birds up in northern Missouri, and just all the insane variety of stuff that Missouri has to offer is something that I never appreciated growing up, but I've really come to appreciate in the last decade and a half.  

Jill Pritchard:  And I will say, we share a lot of your pictures on our social media accounts.  And something that I think is a real benefit to your position is that while you're taking these pictures, you're also educating people about hey, we actually do have these really cool areas.  And a lot of people comment, and they say, "I didn't know Missouri had that!"  

David Stonner:  I didn't either.  I didn't either.  

Jill Pritchard:  You're really exposing them to that, and how all the variety of landscapes and wildlife that are in Missouri.  

David Stonner:  We have a pretty cool thing going here, for sure.  

Jill Pritchard:  Agreed.  Absolutely agree.  

You produce, like we were saying, these beautiful snapshots.  Tell us what a typical day looks like for you out in the field.  I'm really curious, do you kind of start these expeditions of years with, okay, I'm going to get picture of songbirds?  Do you have that in mind, or is it kind of you're just working with Mother Nature and kind of just taking whatever she gives to you?  

David Stonner:  It's about half and half.  I work with the editorial staff at the magazine.  We plan out pretty far in advance what we'd like to feature from landscapes or upcoming regulation changes, habitat improvement, all kinds of different facets of conservation.  And as we plan out, I start to kind of compile ideas of photos that I think would be good to complement the stories or the regulations booklets, stuff like that.  So about half the work I do is assigned, or it's specifically, "Hey Dave, we need you to go get pictures of this quail habitat restoration," or we're doing an article about spear fishing for fish down on the Currant River, like that kind of stuff.  

[5:00]

So about half my work is assigned, and then the other half is, I'm trying to fill in the holes of what we've got, of what we're missing in our archives for future potential use.  So if I'm going to go down to Eminence for pictures of elk, while I'm down there I'll try and get some really pretty pictures of the conservation areas that have springs on them, or you know, if it's fall time, I'll go out and get some pictures of autumn color.  So I'm really trying to hit more than just one target while I'm out.  

Half of it's focused and half of it's a little loosey-goosey because it does depend on Mother Nature.  We're recording this in January, and just last week we had a big ice storm that hit all over Kansas City over to north central Missouri.  So I just grabbed my camera, jumped in the car and went out and got some really pretty sparkly ice pictures of some conservation areas around central Missouri that we don't necessarily have an immediate use for, but I know that we'll be able to use them for years going forward.  

Jill Pritchard:  I think that's great that you're passionate about it because it seems like you kind of have to be ready, maybe, at the drop of a hat, just like that, you know, to go out and take advantage of the outdoors and what's going on.  

David Stonner:  Yeah, absolutely.  And I feel like I'm always in planning mode.  I mean like plan, you know, I wake up, I make a cup of coffee, I open the computer, check the weather, looking at maps.  I'm like, okay, checking my work list.  Okay, what is the most efficient use of my day today, or this week?  Where can I travel and get the best shots that will fulfill the mission of conservation as well as maybe give some extra photos in the bag for future use.  

Jill Pritchard:  You've been doing this for numerous years working with MDC.  Do you have any interesting or funny things that have happened to you out in the field, any fun stories you'd like to share?  

David Stonner:  Well, I wouldn't say funny stories.  I've had some pretty cool interactions with wildlife.  My favorite stuff is going out with the, uh, wildlife biologists, whether it's the elk researchers or turkey researchers.  My favorite was going out with the bear researchers down in southern Missouri and working on some bear den research a few years ago, and just being so close to such a huge creature.  And they were checking their blood, and changing the batteries on her radio collar.  It was amazing to be so close to such a wild animal.  

Jill Pritchard:  Well, that was going to be my next question.  Do you have, other than that, other favorite images, things that you're just like, oh, you look back, and you're just like, oh, that was a great shot?  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  I love going down to Peck Ranch and getting pictures of the elk in autumn when they're bugling.  The bulls are fighting.  I love getting pictures of the bulls fighting, blowing snow in the winter, just kind of the rugged, iconic pictures of wildlife, I really like to get when I can.  One thing about the elk I'm still trying to work on is I'd love to get some babies nursing on the mother.  

Jill Pritchard:  Oh, that would be incredible.  

David Stonner:  I'd like to see that.  That's what keeps me coming back for more.  Even though I may have been to a place 20 times, there's always another, a new day.  So there's new pictures to be taken.  

Jill Pritchard:  Oh, I'm sure.  I'm sure, especially as you go throughout all the different seasons, and you know.  Have you ever done one of those where you go back and you kind of take those pictures of the same location whenever it's in different times of the year?  

David Stonner:  No, I haven't.  And that's been on my list.  I kind of keep a running list of, you know, future story ideas that I want to do.  And that's one.  I'm just trying to find the right angle, the right place, the right story to tell.  But that's definitely been something I've wanted to do for a while now.  

[8:33]

Jill Pritchard:  Do you care to share any of the other items on your list?  

David Stonner:  Right now, I'm working on a story, a photo essay, about the interaction of, uh, hunters and their dogs.  

Jill Pritchard:  Oh, I bet that would be incredible!  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  So I got to get out with a good friend of mine who has, um, an amazing uh, labrador retriever.  We went out for a bird hunt up at Grand Pass.  It was on New Year's Day.  That was right when the ice storm started.  There was nobody out there, and usually Grand Pass is full to the gills with everyone.  We had almost the whole place.  There were only three other hunting parties on the entire area.  The ducks were flying.  The snow was flying.  The ice was falling.  I was soaked.  

[Jill laughing.]  

The dog was on, just on fire.  It was a fantastic day.  And so that was, just those kind of interactions of the elements, you know, hunter and dog.  I'm looking for people who have a really good bird dog, or a racoon-hunting dog, or upland game, you know, just I'm looking for some different angles, but I'm looking for interesting people who have like an uncanny bond with their a animals.  

Jill Pritchard:  Oh, and I'd imagine that is an incredible bond that they would have with their hunting dog.  It reminds me, I was lucky enough to go on a hunting workshop last year.  I'm sure you've heard of this program.  It's this great national organization that identifies people who work for conservation departments who aren't really hunters.  And it kind of takes them on a crash course of hunting.  

David Stonner:  Um-hmm.  

Jill Pritchard:  At the very end of this program, we went on a pheasant hunt with dogs.  And that was just incredible!  Those dogs get so excited!  

David Stonner:  Yup.  

Jill Pritchard:  And they are just about to crawl out of their skin.  

[Dave laughing.]  

They just, you know, they want to get those birds.  

David Stonner:  They want to hunt.  

Jill Pritchard:  Yeah.  So I would imagine the excitement kind of, just a buzz in the air on one of those hunts is just something really cool to witness.  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  And that's the story that I'm just getting started on.  It'll probably be a couple of years before I can flesh it out fully, because you know, I just want to make sure I kind of hit all the angles I can on it.  That's just one angle of a photo idea I'm working on.  

Jill Pritchard:  I think that's something interesting to note, too.  We have a lot of readers who, um, just really enjoy the Missouri Conservationist magazine and the incredible pictures you contribute to.  Just really interesting stories to read about conservation and Missouri's outdoors.  I think that's something that a lot of people don't realize, that it can take a few years to get these pictures and these stories out.  And it's not something that, oh, they just wrote the other day.  

David Stonner:  Yeah, exactly.  I was out at, I was in St. Louis at Busch Wildlife taking some pictures of urban trout fishing people, and um, they were like, "So when are we going to see these pictures?  Are they going to be in the magazine?"  

And I said, "Maybe."  

"Well like, are they going to be in the next issue?"

"No, man.  It's going to be like maybe a year, maybe two years, maybe five years."  

Jill Pritchard:  Right?  Right?  Yeah, it's kind of up in the air, the timeline of that.  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  

Jill Pritchard:  I always thought that was interesting to note with people.  

So David, we are going to take a quick break.  

[Bumper music starting.]  

When we come back, we'll talk more about photography.  So stay tuned.  

[11:29]

Male:  The Outdoor Report, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation.  From across the state [birds chirping], here's what some of our residents are saying about our nature centers.  [Turkeys gobbling.]  

[Several animal sounds.]  

From hatcheries to trails, exhibits, programs and events, you can go wild with family and friends at a conservation center near you.  All season fun for everyone.  Discover more at missouriconservation.org/naturecenters.  

[Birds chirping.]  

[12:04]

Jill Pritchard:  And welcome back to Nature Boost where we're discussing nature photography with MDC staff photographer David Stonner.  David, taking pictures during a day in nature I think is amazing because it really allows us to look back and appreciate that moment in time.  We talked about this during the first season of Nature Boost, about how being in nature is just great for your physical and your mental health.  But there's even been studies that show that even just looking at pictures of nature kind of just decreases your stress a little bit.  And I just, I've always loved that.  

And the really great thing is, is that, you know, we live in the age of advanced technology, with smart phones, and now our phones have these amazing camera capabilities.  So really, anybody could take awesome pictures while they're outside.  So do you have any tips for people who'd like to kind of boost their Instagram followers and you know, take some awesome pictures?  

David Stonner:  One of the biggest things is finding the right light.  Even if you have a camera phone or something less than like a super high quality professional camera, if you can get the right light, you can really enhance the quality of your pictures.  They call it the golden hour.  It's just right around sunrise or right around sunset when the light kind of drops real low in the sky.  Everything kind of starts to glow and the shadows don't get so harsh.  It's really hard, even for me with all the great gear I've got, to get really cool pictures in the middle of the day.  So searching out the right light and interesting angle on your subject is far more important than whatever equipment you're using.  

And like you said, cell phone technology is truly - it was unfathomable five or definitely 10 years ago, the amount, the quality of pictures that we can now get out of cell phones.  So the limitations of the gear are still there with a cell phone, but now you can really quit worrying about the technical aspects of it so much and just start focusing on the artistic aspects of it.  It frees up a lot of room to explore and experiment visually.  

[14:08]

Jill Pritchard:  You mentioned light, and I just have to laugh because we recently just got done with the holidays, and you know, it was obviously, the holidays didn't look like they usually do this past year.  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  

Jill Pritchard:  We did kind of have a lowkey family get-together.  [Laughing.]  My mom was trying to take a selfie with me and my sister, and uh, she says, "Okay, girls, get in the frame here."  And the way we were standing, you know, the light was behind us.  And I'm like, "Mom, this isn't going to look good.  You know, we have to face the light."  I think that's something that people, it just goes over their heads sometimes to get that good picture.  

David Stonner:  Yup, yup.  Yeah, paying attention to the light, paying attention to the background.  Even I accidentally mess up now and then, where I have like a tree branch coming out of somebody's head, or just, you know, power lines going through the middle of my picture.  But I was so focused on the flower or the furry animal that I failed to pay attention to everything else.  And so just little details like that can . . .

Jill Pritchard:   . . . make a difference.  

David Stonner:  Make a big difference, for sure.  

Jill Pritchard:  So you mentioned taking pictures of wildlife.  Those are such lucky moments.  Whether it's birds, or whatever you see out there, keeping your distance is still a major thing to keep in mind.  

David Stonner:  Absolutely.  I really try and keep my distance, just because they are wild animals and I really don't want to affect them too much.  I don't want to spook them, or push them, or do anything untoward to them.  So I have the benefit of having access to some really great lenses.  So I can be really far away from wildlife.  But on the occasions when I'm hiking with a, just like kind of a normal lens that doesn't have such an extensive zoom, in the spirit of keeping my distance, I'll try and just make like an environmental picture, kind of a landscape picture with the animal as a focal point or subject within the broader landscape.  And sometimes, those are, those can be more impactful and effective than just the super tight head shot portrait.  You know, the subject in the environment can sometimes, oftentimes, be way more appealing and interesting than, you know, the super tight portrait, which just proves that you don't always need these insane, super long lenses to get wildlife pictures.  You can do it with just the cell phone in your pocket.  

Jill Pritchard:  Yeah, absolutely.  

Missouri is blessed with so many incredible conservation areas.  I think it is important to note if you do want to trek out to one in hopes to get a great picture, it's always important to check area regulations before you head out.  

David Stonner:  Yup, yeah, check area regs.  I also check the hunting seasons.  We have a really long, great, long deer season here.  Archery starts the middle of September and runs till the middle of January.  And so partially, I don't want to interrupt somebody's hunt.  And I also don't want to accidentally get mistaken for wild game.  So especially during the deer season, I throw an orange hat on when I'm out hiking.  A lot of times, that area will be closed if there is a managed hunt going on, or something like that, which kind of takes it out of your hands.  But if I, I think it's good to just be aware of what could possible be going on on, on any of our conservation areas just so everybody can have a good experience out in the wilderness.  

[17:10]

Well said.  And something else to note as well, I think there's this misunderstanding, we've talked about this a lot during this podcast, to enjoy nature and to really immerse yourself in it that you have to be in the middle of the woods or something.  But you can also be out in nature in your own backyard, if you have one.  And I'm sure take cool pictures bak there, too.  

David Stonner:  Oh, absolutely.  Absolutely.  I've seen some of the best bird photographs I've seen are just people in their back - people have taken in their back yard at the bird feeder, or you know, they just kind of hang out and wait and let nature settle down and get used to you.  They sit on their deck and sip a cup of coffee with their camera ready, and the bird perches.  So you can still get great stuff in your back yard.  You know, rabbits.  I've seen lots of rabbits in urban settings.  Just because you're not out in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean that you couldn't potentially get some really cool photos.  

Jill Pritchard:  Yeah, that you don't have access to nature.  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  

Jill Pritchard:  But if you do happen to want to travel somewhere, wearing the right attire is really important.  

David Stonner:  Yeah.  I think just being prepared for the conditions is really important, having the right footwear and the right pants or something.  A lot of our areas have mown trails, but then the trails just kind of get narrower and narrower and brushier and brushier.  And so having sturdy footwear, definitely grab an area map before you head out onto the trails, because some of our places are thousands of acres in size.  And so having the ability to know where you are, have some water, have some sturdy footwear, that can just make for a much more enjoyable trip.  

Jill Pritchard:  And have fun.  Don't get discouraged, too, if you go out with something in mind.  You kind of just have to, like we were saying earlier, just experience it for what it is, and kind of just take the opportunity to see what you can see out there.  

David Stonner:  That's a great way to put it.  I always try to go out with a goal in mind.  The goal I left the truck in the parking lot with almost never happens with what ends up inside the camera.  

[Jill laughing.]  

But it's always, it's a fun day.  It's an enjoyable, productive, anytime you're out on the trails, out in nature experiencing, is a good day.  

Jill Pritchard:  Something we didn't talk about was the rule of thirds.  

David Stonner:  That is a really good, uh, kind of rule for, that has been around for a long time.  It basically, if you took the camera frame and you divide it into thirds horizontally and thirds vertically, so you end up with nine squares, if you can put the subject at the intersection of two of those lines, it tends to enhance the dynamic feel of the photograph rather than just putting the subject right in the center.  If you look at a lot of photographs on the covers of magazines, or you'll see that like the horizon line is almost never smack in the middle of the frame.  It's either down at the bottom, so you're getting more sky, or the horizon line is more up at the top, so you're getting more of the wild flowers or grassland or whatever.  

The same goes for people.  You know, you don't put the face just smack in the middle of the frame.  Usually, if you actually pay attention, it's going to be a little bit higher in the frame where the eyes are going to be on one of those thirds divisions of the frame.  So just little details like that can help just enhance the unspoken feeling of how the image affects you.  

[20:20]

Jill Pritchard:  Make it more visually interesting.  

David Stonner:  Yeah, exactly.  Yeah, yeah.  

Jill Pritchard:  Something I wanted to ask you is, do you have any favorite nature photographers that you would encourage others to check out for inspiration, or just to look at really incredible photographs?  

David Stonner:  Yeah, some of, a lot of my nature photographers that I followed are from when I was in college in the late '90s and early 2000s.  Art Wolfe is one of my all time favorites.  He's based up in the pacific northwest.  Galen Rowell, he was really, really good.  He passed away in a plane crash out on a, I think he was on assignment a couple of decades ago.  But his work from the '90s and early 2000s is phenomenal.  Bob Krist, he works a lot for National Geographic Traveler.  And he does some amazing like on-location travel photos and nature.  Those are a handful of the people that I still enjoy watching.  

Jill Pritchard:  Anything else you'd like to add for people who'd like to get into this hobby?  

David Stonner:  I think just get out there and do it.  Just like I said, search for the right light, search for the right subject.  It doesn't cost anything to click a picture anymore.  When I started, you had rolls of film that were 24 or 36 pictures.  And every time you pushed a button, it was like a quarter, or 50 cents or something was being spent.  And now it doesn't cost anything.  I can go out and I can take 300 pictures of, of booming prairie chickens and not feel like I'm wasting anything.  So I'm just always searching for the right angle, searching for the right light, the right expression.  

So my biggest tip is just get out there and just try and be critical of your work in terms of, you know, this was close but not quite what I was looking for.  What can I do to do it better next time?  So just always refining the process and trying to strive to get some really cool shots.  

Jill Pritchard:  Very nice.  

Well David, I appreciate you taking time to speak with me today.  

[Bumper music starting.]  

I strongly encourage everyone to check out David Stonner's work in the Missouri Conservationist or on MDC's Instagram page @MOConservation.  

I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.  

[End of recording.]