Howard's Equipment List
Canon EOS 1D Mark III
Canon EOS 30D
Canon 50mm F1.8 II Lens
Canon 100-400mm L IS USM Lens
Canon 24-105mm F4.0 L IS USM Lens
Canon 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM Lens
Sigma 150mm F2.8 APO Macro Lens
Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4.5 DC Lens
Sigma 10-20mm F4-5.6 EX DC Lens
Kenko 1.4X Pro 300 Teleconverter
Kenko Ext. Tubes DG - 12, 20, 36mm
Sigma Macro EM-140 DG ETTL Ringflash
Canon 580 EX Speedlite
Better Beamer Flash Extender FX-3
Bogen 488RC2 Midi Ball Head
Bogen MagFiber 055M4F Tripod
Slik Sprint 3-Way GM Tripod
By Clay Carrington
There are places in Texas far from the lights and bustle of the city, where, if you are patient, nature will reveal her secrets. These are brief, wondrous moments that few people ever see up close. A songbird dives to steal a drink and skims the water, sending shimmering ripples across the surface. A male cottontail displays its prowess by bounding high above a potential mate in the sun-dappled grass. A damselfly warms itself on a tuft of grass, unaware of the spider lurking hungrily below.
For Howard Cheek, these moments happen every day in his backyard in the Texas Hill Country. And nearly every day, he captures them with his camera.
Howard’s photo of one such moment—a female cardinal with wings and feet outstretched in preparation for landing—recently won The Nature Conservancy’s 3rd Annual Photo Contest, competing with more than 14,000 other submissions. The photo, which was taken on his six-acre property outside the small town of Kempner, is a testament to Howard’s talent, ingenuity and incredible perseverance.
In 2003, Howard bought a simple point-and-shoot digital camera for a few hundred dollars. When he took it outside, what he discovered in his viewfinder was nothing short of a revelation. “I’ve always loved nature and been interested in shooting outside,” he says. “The level of detail in those first photos really got me excited.”
Inspired, he joined a global photo-sharing community called Trek Nature and began soaking up knowledge from more experienced shutterbugs. “When I started there were only 30 or 40 active members and they took me under their wings.” Howard began shooting outside nearly every day, getting feedback whenever possible, and his innate talent quickly blossomed.
A Hobby Becomes a Passion
Emboldened by his rapid progress, he decided to invest more time, money and effort in his hobby. He purchased professional-grade equipment and set about luring nature—the birds, mammals and insects he longed to capture—closer to him. He built raised beds in his yard and planted flowers and fruit trees to attract wildlife. He dug a small pond by hand, running a pipe underground to fill it and diverting the runoff to feed the surrounding foliage. And then he got to work sitting still, watching and waiting.
“To get good pictures of wildlife, you have to become an observer—you have to study behavior,” he says. “You watch and wait and try to catch the animal doing something unusual. A photo doesn’t have to be perfect technically if it has something special in it.”
He’s found the challenge of shooting birds and insects in flight to be particularly rewarding. “It’s a higher degree of difficulty that takes a great deal of planning and a lot of trial and error,” adds Howard, who prefers to shoot his subjects using manual focus and natural light.
“It’s a matter of repeated attempts—going out there every day for a week and shooting hundreds of frames at a time.” And since beauty is in the details, Howard believes the most revealing shots are tight close-ups. “It’s much easier to pull back and have the space to catch a bird coming or going. The trick is to catch it up close,” he says.
Patience, Preparation and Skill...Plus a Little Luck
For the prize-winning photograph, which will be featured in the Conservancy’s 2010 calendar, Howard spent a week shooting a birdbath in his backyard. So as not to scare away his subjects, he hid from view and used a remote to activate the camera, which was manually focused on a spot where he anticipated birds might land. While his camera’s continuous shoot mode captures several frames per second, Howard didn't trust it to catch or "lock on" to the bird fast enough. He opted to shoot the image by triggering the remote at the exact moment the bird filled the frame—a difficult enough feat when looking though the viewfinder but next to impossible when standing apart from the camera. “I guess 99 percent of the time I’d just catch a foot in the edge of the frame,” he says. “But then one time I got it just right.”
Howard has been ‘getting it right’ quite a bit since he began pursuing a hobby he hopes will mature into a new career. In addition to winning the Conservancy contest, Howard’s photos have been featured in magazines such as National Wildlife, Nature's Best Photography, Better Homes & Gardens and Nature's Garden. His photo of a male and female cardinal perched together will be part of a new photography exhibit at the McNeil Avian Center at the Philadelphia Zoo set to open in May.
The accolades are wonderful, but there’s always more work to be done—new birds migrating through, new behavior to capture. “There’s not a day that I don’t use the camera,” Howard says. “I wake up first thing in the morning and it’s on my mind. When I go to bed. I’m always thinking ‘can I do something better?’”
Hopefully, we’ll see.