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Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer: In All Honesty, This Is Really Just a Starting Point

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While the most important pieces of photography equipment lie between your ears and in your chest, there is other gear to consider. Wildlife photographer Moose Peterson passes along some advice on the camera gear that works for him.
This chapter is from the book

“What the hey? What’s with the Moose history lesson?” Well, looking at other photography books, and looking at my own from the past, they all have the same basic thread to them: f-stop, shutter speed, Nikon or Canon, this lens or that, blah, blah, blah. There is so much more to photography, and that’s what I want to bring to you. As Sally Field said, “People are meant to grow old, and with that age comes wisdom meant to be passed along.”

There is a history that comes into play with every click, no matter whether you’ve never made a click before or you’ve been doing it for decades. If you don’t understand where I’ve come from, you surely won’t get where I’m at, nor where I’m going. You especially won’t understand where I want to take you.

It’s the logic behind my thought process that I need you to understand (that’s a scary prospect!). To do so, you’ve gotta know the facts on which I base that logic, hence the history lesson. I only have so much space here to share my experiences—ones on which my logic is based. Hopefully I’ve chosen correctly, so they illustrate my points.

Remember, you’ve gotta be true to your own images. The last thing I want to create is a bunch of Moose clones (God forbid). It’s very important that you read what I have to offer, take what works for you, and apply it to your photography. Everything else? Throw it away, fast! I’m not an expert, don’t pretend or want to be, and I certainly do not have all the answers. I do have answers, though, that work for me, and that I’ve learned up to this point. That’s what I’m sharing here with you (it means I’m constantly learning, which is cool). You shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel in this day and age.

I bring this up because I’m about to delve into camera gear—photographers’ favorite conversational topic. I’ve actually been talking about it from the beginning, but not in specific terms, and certainly no recipes. You have to understand that, from where I sit, I feel the best, most important pieces of equipment lie between your ears and in your chest. The first few chapters were all about your mind and heart, and making them the best they can be, setting the groundwork for the years to come. Someday, we’ll insert a little card behind our ear, pull on our ear, and we’ll be able to record what we’re seeing and feeling. But for right now, we have to depend on camera gear, so that’s where the story heads next.

The lessons I learned from my early years (and learn to this day) prepared me, so when I go out to photograph birds, mammals, landscapes, people, fashion, products, planes—you name it—I do a good-to-great job. Each and every time I pick up the camera and venture out with it, I have (and still do) learned something new. I don’t have all the answers, but without this foundation, I have no way of improving—I have no comparison to see if I improved, how I improved, and what needs improving. And without this foundation, there is no way you’ll understand what I’m talking about from here on in. It’s one of the most important lessons the biologists taught me, and it’s simply called baseline data.

The Bag of Confidence

I coined this phrase back in ’94, when I was the nature columnist for Popular Photography. The camera gear you take with you on your adventures, that you labor so hard to buy, is the vehicle for capturing what you see and feel, so you can share your visual journey with the rest of us. This is not to be taken lightly—this is a big responsibility not to be left to some review on the Web (or video on some guy’s blog). This is a very personal thing that your photography demands you think through, so you are true to your own visual belief.

  • “If a piece of gear isn’t producing, just like an employee, it has to be reviewed and the decision made to keep it or let it go.”

“Yeah, yeah,” you say. “You’ve got all that gear, so it’s easy for you to say.” The reality is that I don’t have all that much gear quantity-wise. But, what I do have is the top of the line, so it cost me dearly. When it comes to the number of lenses and bodies I have in my camera bag, I don’t have much. That combo of being costly and not having much means that each piece of gear that I do own has to pull its weight and then some. What do I mean by that?

When folks look at my blog, or BT Journal, or even this book, it’s easy for them to lose sight of the fact that I am a businessman, and that my images provide the income to keep a household running. Like any business, expenses and investments must be scrutinized so the business keeps moving forward. The capital investment in equipment gets the most scrutiny, because of both its expense and its role in producing the images required to keep the business going. If a piece of gear isn’t producing, just like an employee, it has to be reviewed and the decision made to keep it or let it go. This is one of many reasons I envy the “weekend warrior” at times, because he can buy what he wants and have no financial stake if the lens or body isn’t pulling its weight.

When I leave the office to shoot, be it around the corner or across the country, I have to have the gear I need to make the images happen. This is obvious. What is not obvious is just what that combo of gear might be. What’s also not obvious is that the answer to this question comes over time.

“Whoa,” you’re saying. “Time? I never saw any camera manufacturer selling that” (I wish someone did). Time, which really means: the compacting of all the experiences you’ve learned from and can repeat again and again successfully. The size and content of my camera bag has the normal ebbs and flows, like that of any photographer, starting with just one lens, then getting overinflated with way too much, to the size it is now, which is just the right amount (see Appendix 1). Getting a bag of confidence to that size requires that hidden ingredient of success: time.

So when I leave on an adventure or project, I have with me the gear I require for the task at hand (I do have those senior moments when I forget something. But I do have it to forget). That’s the place I want to help you get to. Time, and money for that matter, is too precious to be wasted with the silly games of “this piece of gear or that brand” is better than the other. When you move beyond those games and read every review on a piece of gear is when you’ll know you are at a good place in your photography and you have in your camera bag what you need. You need to know that what’s in your camera bag is the gear for you and your photography. It’s gotta be your bag of confidence.

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