By Doug Wechsler
Well before Sir Isaac Newton got hit on the head by a falling apple, many great ideas originated from observing nature. The same holds true for writing nonfiction books.
Literature research is vital to any nonfiction book, but direct experience is more likely to lead to inspiration. Photography has been a great tool for me to experience my subjects in depth.
Whether you intend to illustrate books with your own photography or take pictures to document your subject, photography can be a great tool for writing nonfiction. Good photography, like good nonfiction writing, takes a subject and expresses a concise idea about it. The process of getting that photograph may teach you a great deal about your subject and inspire your writing.
The most obvious benefit of photography to the writer is as a memory aid. Having a picture can help you describe details you had forgotten or missed. The date and time stamp can help you keep events in sequence. Keeping track of places you visit and experts you meet can be greatly aided by well-labelled photographs.
My photography and writing revolve around nature, but if you are writing a book about a machine, an historical figure, or a scientific principal, photography can help you to understand your subject.
The important thing is the thought that goes into getting the shot and what you observe in the process. To capture the action on camera you must study your subject in the field and through literature. My work requires a great deal of patience to wait for an animal to perform a certain behavior. Meanwhile, I am observing everything that animal does, watching its behavior patterns, and looking to see how it relates to its environment. My observations, experiences, and emotions will not only be reflected in my photography, but also in my writing.
In the classic stereotype, the nature photographer travels for days to a cliff, hides in a blind for hours and in the end finally catches the perfect shot of the endangered foo bird. I have had analogous experiences, but I have also had eureka moments photographing in my own basement.
Firsthand observations while waiting for the shot have saved me from inadvertently creating alternate facts. My research and photography for The Hidden Life of a Toad included raising tadpoles. I wanted to describe and photograph all stages of metamorphosis from egg to tadpole to toadlet. Over the years, I had seen tadpoles in various stages of development. I had noticed how legs start out as stubs at the base of the tail, then grow toes and lengthen. I assumed the arms would do the same.
Researching the topic, I could not find a clear description of how the arms develop. One of my tadpole subjects was starting to bulge in front. The next day it had arms. This led me to photograph another bulging tadpole, lighting it from below. My x-ray-like photo showed a well-developed arm beneath the skin.
Another time I waited for hours to photograph a captive tadpole pop its arm through the skin. At one point it disappeared into the corner of the fish tank and emerged moments later with one arm out. With these observations and photographs, I was able describe and illustrate for kids something that had probably never been seen in a children’s book.
If you are not going to illustrate your books with your photography, you don’t have to go to the lengths that I do, but photography can still be an essential tool in writing nonfiction.
Imagine yourself writing a book about someone or something close to home. Take a photo of that someone or something and write down any observations you make while setting up the photo and arranging or waiting for the shot.
What did you learn about your subject in the process of getting the photo?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Doug will be giving away a half-hour question and answer session by Skype or Zoom.
Those little arms! What a beautiful photo and fantastic post. Makes me want to dust off my "real camera." :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for clarifying the difference between the way the leg stubs develop and the arms emerge. I wondered if the arms develop inside at the same time as the legs outside?ReplyDelete
This was absolutely fascinating. I don't think of myself as a photographer, but I will start taking more photos and incorporating them into my notes. I loved the ideas of photos as memory aids and as a tool for tracking places and experts. Thanks!ReplyDelete
What an incredible picture of those froggy arms! Thank you for sharing.ReplyDelete
Your patience allows you to see the things others don't. Your commitment to sharing your research with us, the readers, is truly inspiring. Those little arms are marvelous and such an amazing peek into how a tadpole develops. So interesting! While I'm not a photographer, my nonfiction manuscript is using real pictures of my subject. I'm excited to try your activity with one of my pictures to see if the observations that I make will enhance my writing. Thank you for your post and thank you for loving nature!ReplyDelete
Thank you for the kind comments. Good luck with your manuscript.Delete
Love that eureka moment (preceded by lots of hard work in observation)! I'm reminded that I need a better camera. :)ReplyDelete
I love that picture of you and the frog. So cute! I am not sure I have your patience, but I suspect not all subjects require it. However, I would truly enjoy spending a day with you during your research to see just how it is done. Thank you!ReplyDelete
My wife, Debbie Carr, will be pleased that you like the photo of me and the Toad. You are welcome to watch me do my research some time.Delete
great post, Doug - and I remember you giving a photography talk at Highlights a few years ago. I use my camera to document stuff I see - mostly as a visual journal so that later I can look at the photo and jot down the notes. I've been surprised, too, to discover something in the photo that I hadn't noticed at the time (which ALWAYS leads me to ask: gah! what sort of biologist am I that I missed that?!?)ReplyDelete
Thank you! I like the idea of using photos as memory enhancers! You also brought back fond memories of raising tadpoles with the kids in my life.ReplyDelete
Amazing patience, and in the end getting the results you were hoping for. Thanks for your photography and research post Doug Wechsler. The frog picture formulating his arm is really amazing!ReplyDelete
I love taking photos. Often use photos as inspiration, even if they're not mine. Thank you sharing yours with us.ReplyDelete
I thought your book was amazing. So detailed and truly the photos told the story.Your passion for frogs came through clearly.
i want to use my camera more to capture detaills I am missing.
Hi Doug, I'm not much of a photographer, but what you learned and passed on about frogs is amazing. I'll try to put your tips to good use! Thanks for the post.ReplyDelete
Great thoughts! Your post made me reflect on the book I just read about Maria Merian, "The Girl Who Drew Butterflies." She shared your patience!ReplyDelete
It is hard to imagine what she experienced to make her illustrations. I am sure she would make my trips to the tropics seem like a daytime excursion in the neighborhood.Delete
Thanks, Doug. Your photographs are breathtaking!ReplyDelete
thanks for the complement.Delete
Doug, I recently read and LOVED your book Hidden Life of a Toad. It was gorgeous and entertaining. I've recently had the chance to start using a great camera and I've learned a lot about observing nature with it!ReplyDelete
Thank you for your excellent taste in literature :-) Send me your best shot.Delete
Great photos and advice! Even though I'm not a good photographer, I can see the advantage to taking photos alongside doing my research and writing, when possible. Thanks for the inspiration!ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing your expertise!ReplyDelete
I really connected to your post today. I love taking pictures of things in nature and like the tips you shared about how to use the pictures to improve your writing resonated with me. When you said photographs keep you from "inadvertently creating alternate facts" was one of those statements that seems so obvious after you hear it. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for your kind comments, Cindy.Delete
I already set a goal to start carrying my phone when walking to photograph and record things that catch my eye. I have yet to do it, so your interesting post has motivated me to be intentional about taking photographs.ReplyDelete
Love to see one of your intentional photos!Delete
Wow talk about committed to telling the story! How fascinating.ReplyDelete
Doug we speak the same language. Ribbit! I think in images all the time and my hiking companions and family are always waiting for me to catch up. Great post!ReplyDelete
Or Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr... as the toads would sayDelete
Great advice and wonderful photos.
I really enjoyed learning from this post! Thank you!ReplyDelete
Love these insights! And as a science teacher, your discovery of the arm development is fascinating! Going to have to add your book to my classroom library!ReplyDelete
Every author loves to hear that!Delete
Doug, thank you for sharing your insights for using photography to bring your nonfiction front and center. Amazing photos!ReplyDelete
I love nature too, Doug, and how you capture it is very cool.ReplyDelete
Thanks, that's the first complement I've had from an unrelated Wechsler!Delete
Thanks for sharing you photography, especially the tadpole.ReplyDelete
I too love capturing nature. Today on my walk I filmed a circling hawk, took a photo of a sedge of cranes and captured some beautiful NM clouds. I look forward to adding photos to my NF project. Thanks for the inspiration and tips of observation.ReplyDelete
I have never heard of a sedge of cranes. Is that like a mob of crows. I would love to see that photo.Delete
The dedication of photographers amazes me. But I guess it does parallel the work of writing: waiting for hours for the right moment, LOL. Thanks for the insight into your work!ReplyDelete
Sometimes I have to wait for hours for the right word too!Delete
Thanks for posting this. I'm so used to seeing PB that are illustrated that it's important to expand my scope & check out more photographic books.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the interesting insight into how you get your photos. I'm inspired to take our my camera also.ReplyDelete
WOW. What an amazing observation you made about tadpole arms, by not assuming you already knew! A gift to the kidlit world. Thank you.ReplyDelete
Very kind complement. Thank you MarianneDelete
I love nature photography (my obsession is tide pools!) but had never thought of using it as a tool for writing, so thank you for giving me a new approach and something to think about.ReplyDelete
I love those West Coast tidepools too. I almost wrote a book on sea slugs.Delete
Thanks for your novel insights about the uses of photography to inform our nonfiction writing.ReplyDelete
Such great insight into your work - thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the good ideas!ReplyDelete
Thank you for this reminder, Doug, that much patience and observation go into the beautiful photos we see of the natural world.ReplyDelete
Wow! I've never thought about how a toad's arms grow. That is so cool. I love taking pictures of birds & patience and a bit of luck are really needed. Thanks for a great post. Love that bottom lit photo.ReplyDelete
Thrilled to share your toad observations with little ones and with my Nature-loving husband. Your focus on photography will help me see it in a whole new light. Thank you!ReplyDelete
This is a great way to learn more about my subject, and to keep track of my research!ReplyDelete
As I'm learning more about frogs, this fascinates me. Yes. Getting up close always helps. I can't wait to see your photpgraphs!ReplyDelete
Thank you for a wonderful post. Your patience has certainly paid off!ReplyDelete
I am currently surrounded by the wonderful salt marshes of Glynn County, Georgia. I just put a hold on Marvels in the Muck - can't wait to read it! Your post challenged and encouraged me to use my camera (even if it is just on my phone) to help document and delve deeper into subjects I want to explore and write about. Thank you!ReplyDelete
I envy your environs. Writing Marvels in the Muck brought me some great adventures in salt marshes from NJ to TXDelete
This is imply amazing!!ReplyDelete
Fully formed frog hands! How cool is that! It would be interesting to watch a clip of the hand then arm coming through the skin.ReplyDelete
It happens very fast. I would like to see that clip too.Delete
Your discussion of toad arms was wonderful! I can imagine the excitement! Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences.ReplyDelete
This was so informative. I hadn't considered using photography for my books. Thank you for the idea and the realities of what it takes. I am a fan of frogs and vernal pools! Thanks for spending time exploring them. :)ReplyDelete
I loved everything about this post! Copying and saving it.ReplyDelete
Being a scrapbooker and paper craft, I LOVE these ideas! I always relate my instagram to my writing (TonyaAnnP on insta) but now I think I'll add photos to my novel journals.ReplyDelete
How cool! It's a great way to gain intimate knowledge of our subjects. Thanks, Doug.ReplyDelete
Your photography captured nature up close and amazing, Doug.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this informative post.
Thank you for pointing out the connection between the writer/observer and the process of taking a photograph. I really like the idea of developing a better relationship with your subject via photography. Can you recommend any good ways to become a better wildlife photographer? I like to take photos of insects, especially dragonflies in flight and would like t obe better at it.ReplyDelete
In general, participating in a photo workshop is a good to improve you wildlife photography skills. For dragonflies, it's best to use the longest lens you can hand-hold. I use a 100-400 zoom lens. You probably have already found out that you need to anticipate the action. Watch for patterns in their flight. They often return to the same perch, so you catch them in the air as they are about to alight. The also slow down when they are laying eggs at the surface of the water. Pan your camera to follow the action. Check out this: https://bugshot.net/workshops/ I participated in one - great experience.Delete
The photographs in your toad book are fantastic! Your patience was well-rewarded with those outstanding images.ReplyDelete
Thank you Linda, so glad you like the book!Delete
Thank you for sharing your insight in using photography to learn something amazing.ReplyDelete
I agree photography is the window into other worlds. While I'm not a great photographer myself, I enjoy studying old photographs of both nature and birds, wondering what secrets they might hold.ReplyDelete
I love how you are able to capture the minute moments of life in your photography. Magical!ReplyDelete
Great ideas: photos as memory aids and for step by step development. Thanks!ReplyDelete
This is a great approach! Thanks for sharing your process and what it has taught you.ReplyDelete
As a nature photographer, you have such patience! But I must admit, knowing that a frog's arm just pops out gives me the willies, LOL!ReplyDelete
Love your portrait! Do you train frogs, too? How did that big lens not scare that little critter back into the water? And someone else had to take your photo with the frog, too. I’m awestruck. And I miss my Pentax P3. There is a lost art with the convenient iPhone or I may need to learn more how to use the latest technology.ReplyDelete
Krissy, No, I don't train frogs, but I do get to know their habits and patterns. Not much will deter a male toad from singing once breeding season gets started in earnest. I do have to move slowly and be patient if he stops momentarily. My wife, Debbie Carr, took the photo with my other camera.Delete
I printed out the photos I had recently taken of a small bird that would show up on my deck and "Tweet, tweet, tweet" to the point that it felt like it was reprimanding me for not filling up the bird feeder--I'd supposed that it was hungry and calling me to duty! Lol... My curiosity now is to find time to research bird behaviors in the winter--are they really that smart to know who is feeding them and to come and call my attention to it?? Oh my!ReplyDelete
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Priscilla, Judging from your description, I am going to take a wild guess that maybe your bird is a Carolina Wren. If that were the case, since they don't visit feeders very often, it might not be reprimanding you. I am not aware of song birds that do behave in that manner--calling for food in that way--but I wouldn't be surprised if that happens. In Ecuador, at the Buenaventura Reserve, they feed hummingbirds by the dozens. If the feeders run out, the birds will fly right up to you and in one case one stuck its beak in my ear. I think there was a message there. If you don't know what the bird was that you photographed, you could send me a photo.Delete
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What AMAZING photos! I wish I had that same kind of patience to wait for the perfect moment to capture some of those pictures. Truly, an enviable trait! Thank you for sharing your passion with us!ReplyDelete
Love your book! I also enjoy photography, but strictly for my own enjoyment.ReplyDelete
Wow--thanks so much for this post. So informative! I love how your passion for your subject shines through--and what a discovery about the toad's arms!ReplyDelete
What a helpful post and amazing tadpole photo! Thanks, Doug!ReplyDelete
Your wife did capture your glee well, made me laugh, you & Toad, as I sit here listening to the frog chorus in the creek across the street. Your activity suggestion has helped me evolve my story idea involving my favorite wild pals, foxes, who i do have numerous photos of.ReplyDelete
Wow! That is fascinating about the toad's front arms. Do you know if it's the same for frogs? I wish I had your book when I was still teaching. I may just have to get it for my own bookshelf. Thanks for sharing, Doug!ReplyDelete
Yes Terri, Frog arms develop in the same way. I sent you a photo by messenger of a green frog arm popping through the spiracle.Delete
Thank you, Doug!Delete
Doug, photography is such a useful tool for documentation! With digital photography, the possibilities are endless.ReplyDelete