Photographing Otters in Morro Bay

(you can see all images from this trip on my Smugmug site)

I don’t know about you, but my tendency when I travel to a place with my camera is to see how many locations and situations I can cram into the trip. I think too often the result is I don’t cover any location as well as I want, and I often start trimming the plan on the fly, and just as often return from the trip thinking I missed some key locations. This is called, um, planning. And I also often return home tired and stressed, which seems counter-productive to a trip aimed at letting you rest and recharge.

So this trip to Morro Bay I did something different: I turned it into a big sit, where for about half of each day I headed out to the waterfront along the harbor near the rock, pulled out the camera and camp chair, and just hung out to see if anything interesting showed up. It did help that I set up overlooking where the raft of otters was hanging out.

And the result? I’m pretty happy. I put in some time shooting the various otter behaviors that happened, especially between a mom and her rather large pup, as well as other things that caught my eye as the days moved forward. It gave me a chance to experiment with the Fuji lenses and try out different focusing modes to see what worked best for me, and the pelicans flying around made for good aiming practice.

And mostly it gave me a chance to sit, relax, unwind, and reflect, with no goals, no pressure, no plans, and no worrying about whether I was missing out on a great shot somewhere or even if I came home with anything.

A common question I get when people look at my work is how do you get those shots? — and the answer is really simple:

I sit around for hours watching nothing happen so I’m watching and ready when something does

and there’s an important second aspect to that:

I throw out all of the other pictures where nothing’s happening.

That’s really something non-photographers have trouble understanding: without saying that gear doesn’t matter (it does, but not as much as photographers like obsessing over it implies it should) but it’s an investment of time and knowledge that leads to a payoff with interesting images.

You need to learn about the subjects you’re planning to shoot so that you know where to be and when to be there to have the best chance of the kind of images you want to take. And you need to be willing to put in the time to wait for interesting things to happen.

Without the knowledge, you’re guessing and just hoping for random luck that you’ll run into something worth shooting; which happens, and we’ve all run into that perfect situation — but to bring home good images reliably, you need to study your subject to better your odds; this is just as true of a good sunset as an interesting otter or flying birds.

And without investing the time, instead of coming home with a picture of a mother otter chasing after junior when it gets it into his head to go chase some of the other otters across the harbor, you end up with a picture of floating brown blobby shapes that look a lot like blobs of kelp.

And here’s a hint: I take those shots, too, but when I get home, I throw them out. Because nobody wants to wade through your 400 images for the 15 good ones; that’s your job as photographer to do that editing for them.

This was part of a conscious decision to try to reset and reboot my photography; anyone reading my site the last few months has probably figured out I’ve been arguing with (and mostly losing the fight with) my camera gear for a while. This trip was set up to encourage me to think about photography rather than spending my time and energy trying to get the shot, since the latter simply hadn’t been working. I’ll talk more about the process I went through later, but the goal was to focus on seeing opportunities and options, rather than diving into the gear from the start, which limits your options and views.

And I think it worked. This may have been consistently my best shooting in months, in large part because I stopped putting expectations on myself and went off to see what might happen.

Morro Bay Harbor, California

Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Heermann's Gull, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Heermann’s Gull, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Western Gull, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Western Gull, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Brown Pelican, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Brown Pelican, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sea Otter mom with a large pup, Morro Bay Harbor, California