Thursday, October 28, 2010

That Last Two Percent

One thing that many folks don’t know about me— unless they’ve seen one of my keynotes— is that I am a photographer. I’ve been taking photos since I was 11. Decades of travel have given me a library of 60,000 wildlife and landscape photos from Madagascar to Michigan. But until recently, they only appeared as small spot photos in my book. Words are a passion and I’ve been working professionally mostly in that realm; it wasn’t until scanners and iphoto became available that I could efficiently organize my photo content.

Still, even though I’m now doing several books illustrated entirely with my photos, I’m not sure I’d say I’m a master photographer. I’d say I can get 98% on a photo. Solid focus, composition, inspired subject, and sometimes fortunate timing. But then, there’s that 2%. Ah, that last 2%. That’s what takes time–gobs of time. Most of a photographer’s time.

What does that extra 2% look like? Take a peek at the kingfisher diving photos/article by Andy Rouse. Click on the photos to see larger versions of his exquisite work. The dripping bird clutching the fish. The water droplets. The water entry. Ahhhh. You are there.

That last 2% is what makes a master photographer. That extra boost of quality is what takes the most skill and preparation and dedication. It’s the days/weeks/months spent in those waders, setting up blinds, studying behavior to catch just the right moment. Those photos are nonfiction dreams. They are beauty. I think lots of us, with our fancy digital cameras, great lenses can do such consistent good work that we’ve forgotten what GREAT work is in the photo world.

Sometimes I pause to look at the Outdoor Photographer’s Network ( just to appreciate what photo artisans on this level can do. The group includes passionate amateurs and professionals; some of the photos are glorious.

What does it take to get that extra 2% in the world of photography? Andy Rouse describes the work he did just to set up and photograph kingfishers on the nest in this article.

And his preparations are relatively tame compared to the stories you hear about photographers trying to photograph elusive bears or cats.

Jeff and I sometimes come across these same folks in far flung birding hotspots. Like us, they know the right time of year, the right marsh to photograph a Blackpoll Warbler, or whatever else is “in season.” They are putting in the time.

Meanwhile, I am putting in my time, to do that extra 2% on my nonfiction writing. Oh, I can get to the 98%. Solid content, specific details, fluid writing. But the extra something—the voice, the surprising details, the joy, the propulsion in the writing—is what is sometimes elusive, even for seasoned writers like me. That’s where skill, passion, time, and pure doggedness are needed.

In the last few days, my 2% has been some endmatter for a book no editor has seen, and perhaps no one will every buy. Who knows? It is not finished yet. I’m not letting it out of my hands until I can make it sing.

Oh, that main text came in a great whoosh, like a gift, fully formed. But I want more for this book. I am weeks in, deep in to the endmatter: consulting world experts, experimenting with ultraviolet lights and magnifying glasses, emailing people in small towns in Wisconsin and Michigan who mentioned something on the Internet about . . . well, about the subject of my book. Here we go. I am diving in.

Of course, I might be convinced to take a break late next year to write text for a certain photographer’s kingfisher book should some editor ask me . . . ;-)

Uh oh, distracted from that last 2%. Don't abandon ship! Focus. Focus. Finish!


Rosalyn Schanzer said...

You managed to zero in on my main addiction, April. Photography it is, and landscape and wildlife photography are way up there at the top. We'll be stalking snow geese, swans, eagles, and various waterfowl on the Del Marva Peninsula in a couple of all I need is a high-quality 600mm lens and the last 2%.

Melissa Stewart said...

I love what you have to say about the last 2 percent, April. I have no doubt that extra energy and effort and dedication is what makes your books so amazingly special.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Thank you, Melissa! I know you put in that extra for your wonderful books, too.
Oh, and Rosalyn, have fun. All you need is that 600 mm lens...and someone who will carry it for you! Those 600mm lenses plus tripod are hefty. I saw one older, famous photographer who had an assistant carry it for him. I'll stick with the 300 for now--maybe a 500 next year. . .

Michelle Cusolito said...

April, I'm so aware of that last "two percent" in your books. I read them over and over and just revel in your level craft. It's inspiring.

(Melissa... what April said!)

April Pulley Sayre said...

Wow, thank you, Michelle!