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Turkey Prep

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, a day in which we pause to give thanks and then watch football. And turkey, we eat lots of turkey, too. (Except for the vegetarians, who have to eat "tofurkey," adding yet another thing for us omnivores to be thankful for.)

So on that note, thank you very much for being a reader of this site. Without you, this whole 2,300-post journey would be … awkward.

Today's Thanksgiving Day post is off-topic in that it has nothing to do with flash and everything to do turkeys. And with being a thinking photographer.

More specifically, being a photographer who thinks like a turkey.

"Be a Thinking Photographer"

I first heard that phrase in 1988 from my friend Chris Usher, who was at the time a staffer at The Orlando Sentinel in Florida. The idea has yielded some of my favorite photos, including the one above.

The gist of it is that assuming you have your fundamentals (f/stops, shutter speeds, etc.) down pat, the odds of getting a good picture are directly proportionate to the quality of thought you put into the process. Especially when things will be moving quickly, you should gather your info as best you can. Then take a breath and spend a little time pre-thinking your shot.

The alternative–just running around and vacuuming up lots of sub-par photos willy nilly—seems like you are playing it safe and covering your bases. But in reality, it is a trap that usually yields lots of weak photos.

The photo above was of a wild turkey about five seconds after he had been re-released into the wild at Huntley Meadows Park in Virginia. I had been shooting a story on wild turkeys in the mid-east Atlantic and had come to appreciate how wily they were as opposed to your typical bred-for-breast-meat domestic Butterball.

Unlike their domestic brethren, wild turkeys can not only fly (you were right*, Mr. Carlson) but are actually pretty darn good at it. They take off vertically, like a Harrier jet, and can be going 35MPH within a couple of seconds. And they're smart, too.

So just because a turkey was gonna come out of a box did not mean it was going to yield a good photo. So first step was to try to figure out what the turkey was most likely to do.

Find Somebody Smarter Than You

After spending 20 years as a journalist, I can say with confidence that this is pretty much what we do. Reporters do it because that's where their stories come from. PJs do it because that is where good photos are made. You are always looking for inside info to help you shave the odds of a good photo.

And talking to the lady who had rehabbed the turkey was the single most important step in getting my photo. That's where I learned about the vertical takeoff and near instant acceleration thing. So my working assumption was that the box would open, the turkey would take a moment to assess its new situation and then would haul ass into the woods.

The Scene

So here's a highly professional overhead diagram of the immediate release area. There will be lots of people, which will further freak the turkey out. Everybody, including a photographer from another newspaper, will be taking photos. And while I had to get a photo of the release for the daily story, I wanted a very different picture for my longer term project.

A long-time fan of CYA, I shot some close-ups of the turkey inside the cage and of the gathering crowd around it. This was just in case I got completely skunked on the release. (No matter what, you have to come back with something.)

Think Like a Turkey

Bases covered, I took a moment and tried to think it through. I stood at the cage and looked at what he would see when the door opened. He would see a big patch of inviting woods. He would also be hearing a lot of commotion (cheering, picture-taking, etc.) from right behind him. There was no question he'd head straight into the woods.

And from that perspective, I could clearly see two open paths into the trees: one barely to the right (at about 12:30 as the clock face goes) and one just to the left (about 10:30). There was a good chance the bird would take one of those open lanes. (I sure would if I were him.)

This is a little exaggerated for clarity, but you get the idea.

For my purposes, it would be better if he chose the right lane. The light, coming from about 9:00, would be in my favor that way. So I quietly walked off to the side for about 20 yards and then into the woods. Why not straight into the woods? Because I do not want the other newspaper photog to see me and duplicate my picture, is why.

I circled around and took a shooting position right about here in the left lane, roughly fifty feet from the release point, with a 300mm lens:

I ended up being just a little further away than I wanted to be, because there was a perpendicular visual lane open to the other (right) lane. If he chose my lane, I'd get a series of shots of a turkey flying right at me. Not bad. But if he chose the right lane, I'd have a nice, clean profile of him flying as he traversed the visual lane to my left:

This was my hope, because I'd never seen a clean, crisp close shot of a wild turkey in full flight. And that is what I wanted. I sat down in the woods and made every effort not to let the other photog notice me.

What the Turkey Saw

When the door opened the turkey, as predicted by the naturalist, flew straight up into the air. An impressive feat, given it probably weighed north of 20 pounds. A lot of flapping, people cheering behind it—a pretty cool photo from my vantage point on its own when viewed through the telephoto. This was already better than I would have gotten if I stayed with the herd.

Then he pointed towards the woods. It all happened very, very fast. There were two lanes. On the right, a clear path into the woods and to freedom. And just to the left, another clear path into the woods. Only this path had a photographer jumping up and down, wildly waving his arms like an idiot.

The turkey took the path to the right. I follow-focused as he approached and grabbed half a dozen frames as he passed through the visual lane to my left. Honestly, it would have been hard to miss him. More thanks to the pre-thinking than to my follow focusing skills.

I loved the photo, and it worked great with our story on turkeys and turkey hunting in the MidAtlantic. (We went with the contextual vertical take-off shot with people in back for the daily story.) But even more, I loved that the only reason I got the flyby photo was because I took the time to think like a photographer. And more accurately, to think like a turkey.

*Mr. Carlson was Right

For those of you to young (or too foreign) to get the Mr. Carson reference, it was from 1978 and a US TV show called WKRP in Cincinnati. The manager of the radio station, Mr. Carlson, decided to pull a publicity stunt and give away a bunch of thanksgiving turkeys at a big downtown event.

We pick up the story as it is reported live on the scene by intrepid WKRP newsman Les Nessman:

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone. Go Gators, beat Florida State. Enjoy your turkey leftovers, and we'll see you Monday.


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