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Photographer of the Week: John Gavin

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  July 7, 2009 02:35 PM

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Great Egret Preening
Great Egret preening / Photos by John Gavin
Nikon D80, 1/1000 sec. at f/11, focal length 280mm, ISO 800

By John Gavin

I discovered my passion for photography by accident - or should I say because of an accident.

When I was 27, I was in a serious car crash. I broke almost every bone in my body and was in double traction for 13 weeks. I spent 7 months in Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester.

While there, I ordered a Pentax camera from Hong Kong and lay in my bed, shooting out the window at a cemetery! I focused on one gravestone; 6 months later, when I was finally wheeled out of the hospital, I had my family take me to the cemetery so I could read the name on the headstone I had been shooting.

Soon after, for some reason I started to notice wildlife. I had a small 135mm lens, but soon bought a 300mm lens. I didn’t know anything about photography at all, but taught myself as best I could. The more interesting things I saw, the more I became hooked. I never had any desire to photograph people. My subjects had to have fur, feathers, or scales. Nothing else interested me at all.

Osprey taken in Swan Valley, Idaho as it approached a nesting platform. Handheld.
1/1600 sec. at f/10, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

Over the years I got a Nikon camera and some Nikon lenses and was in heaven, making sure to teach myself about wildlife as well as about the camera. I never was involved in wildlife groups or camera clubs. I am a loner, and that is what wildlife photography is all about. It is not a group experience.

I now have gone digital with the help of my daughter, Jennifer. I use a Nikon D80, and have just two lenses: an 80-400mm and an 18-200mm. At this point, that is all I can afford and they have served me well. In my opinion, to capture great wildlife shots, a photographer must have at least a 400mm lens.

Green-backed Heron
Green-backed Heron with bullfrog in Salisbury
1/640 sec. at f/9, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

What attracts me to this type of photography? Who knows? But wildlife is my whole life. I come alive out in the woods, swamp, or wherever. I am happiest when I am with these wildlife subjects. I don’t always have to be getting images; it is the experience of seeing stuff most people only see on TV. I can’t even begin to relate all the incredible moments I have had with wildlife. If I come home with an image, great. If not, well, that’s okay, too.

Red Fox
Red Fox near Plum Island airport
1/1000 sec. at f/16, focal length 270mm

I just love being out with all kinds of nature no matter what it is. That is the exciting thing -- when you leave home, you never know what you might see, unlike other kinds of photography. Wildlife is unexpected and cannot be planned.

Stuff pops up when you least expect it and you have to be ready, quite fast. In most cases, you don’t have time to check settings or plan a shot; you have to do it all on the fly. Experience pays off.

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing in Newburyport. An unusual winter visitor and stunning bird.
1/200 sec. at f/10, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

Unfortunately, too many people I encounter in the field don’t have a clue about understanding a particular species or its behavior. It looks good, so get an image. You have to study wildlife as much as the camera. I hate to be negative, but since digital cameras came into being, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of photographers literally stalking wildlife and unfairly disturbing them out of ignorance.

For example, one thing that shows me right away that someone is not familiar with wildlife is if their first reaction when they spot an animal or bird is to jump out of the car! Inevitably, the creature runs off or flies away. Remember: a car is an excellent photo blind.

This past winter, there was a snowy owl spotted around here. People came in droves on weekends to see it -- they chased this poor owl all over the place, stressing it out beyond anything I ever saw. I spent 3 months with that bird and saw behavior by so-called photographers that went off the charts. I get pretty angry at that. People have to understand they cannot get prize-winning images like they see in magazines without some expensive long lenses, a lot of understanding, and, more than anything, patience. A good wildlife photographer needs to know when to back off and not pursue the animal. The image is not more important than the animal.

Snowy Owl
Female Snowy Owl on the beach at Sandy Point, Plum Island on a cloudy day. At the time this was the best image I had ever gotten of a snowy owl, which is my favorite bird. Little did I know I would spend the entire winter with other snowy owls at very close range.
1/800 sec. at f/8, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

Example: I was spending hours watching another snowy owl when a guy pulled up, shot a few images, then got out of his car and approached the bird to spook it into flight. I asked him why and he claimed he had to get to a bathroom and didn’t have time to wait for the bird to fly off. I almost hit him. Birds in winter are stressed out already and to keep spooking them is bad, period.

I spend most of my time on Plum Island and the surrounding area. I have been going there for 30 years. Back when I was working I used to go to northern Maine twice a year to work on moose and other deep woods species.

Bull Moose.jpg
Bull Moose taken at West Branch Pond in Greenville, Maine. Scanned from a 35mm slide.
No settings available, but it was shot with Kodachrome 64 slide film and a 400mm lens (uncropped) from a rowboat at close range.

My daughter lives in Idaho, and when I can afford it I go out there. We team up like partners and shoot ‘til we drop. We go to the Tetons and Yellowstone in the off-season, as well as some Idaho locations. We have the same equipment!

I am in my twilight years, so dreams of traveling to faraway places for wildlife photography escape me. I went to Kenya years ago and that was the highlight of my life. I could write a book about that -- I had to use a crutch all over the country! In fact, one of my guides there is a very close friend to this day, and named his first son after me. Quite an honor for a Maasai. I have been to the Everglades a few times.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of health problems, from arthritis (and joint replacements) to pulmonary and cornea issues. So I am not in the best of shape to be chasing wildlife. It has limited my activity, but I still go out to take photographs almost daily. My obsession cannot be deterred. I still think the way I did when I was 30.

Female Merlin photographed at Salisbury State Reservation during the winter.
1/400 sec. at f/14, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

My daughter is a huge inspiration to me. She got into this all on her own without any prodding from me and she is incredible. Good wildlife photographers have a natural talent that in most cases cannot be taught. You either have that “eye” and become excellent, or you don’t and become a “weekend warrior” who is able to get some good stuff from time to time.

I also have give credit to two people who have been of great help to me: Bob Secatori (a biologist) and Sue McGrath of the Newburyport Birders.

Great Egret
Great Egret, Newburyport
1/2000 sec. at f/8, focal length 400mm, ISO 800

Over the years, I have laid in swamps for hours, been chased by moose, beaten by a swan, and bitten by insects so badly that I had to swat them out of the camera while changing film. I could tell you a million stories over the years of “uncomfortable” filming experiences -- and I would not change one of them.


John Gavin
About John
John Gavin grew up in Manchester (Mass.) and moved to Newburyport in 1987 to be close to his beloved Plum Island. His wife Pat is a nurse at Union Hospital. His disability payments make it impossible for him to afford better gear, but he’s not complaining: “I have done quite well for what I have."
After much prodding from friends over the years, John finally set up a Flickr account to display his wildlife photos. “I just was never in this for the publicity or the public exposure,” he said. He continues to visit Plum Island and to make it out West to shoot with his daughter. “I know I will never get back to Kenya,” he says, “so I would be very happy to take my last breath somewhere in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone.”

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