In landscape and nature photography, the gold standard has long been National Geographic Magazine. Month after month, by dispatching photographers across the globe, this venerable publication fills its glossy pages with jaw-dropping vistas and eye-grabbing macro shots of nature’s weirdest and most wonderful creatures.
Patrick Zephyr, an independent nature photographer based in New England, has a different approach to the same goals. He rarely travels more than 30 miles from home, and his most impressive works — stunning landscapes and terrifyingly beautiful portraits of colorful creatures — are shot within walking distance of his house on a narrow country road in West-Central Massachusetts.
I catch up with Zephyr on a crisp December morning with the temperature at 12° F. We hike along an ice-crusted dirt road in Pioneer Valley, 70 miles west of Boston. The skies are a solid overcast of dull pewter, the bland winter light that mutes colors and flattens everything into visual pudding. Zephyr has already been on a dawn foray to the shores of the Quabbin Reservoir, hoping to catch the early rays that can transform a merely appealing shoreline scene into consummate visual magic.
After a brisk 10-minute walk, the quiet of the deserted road is replaced with the chatter of water and ice over jumbled rocks. This anonymous brook is one of Zephyr’s favorite spots, a venue he has visited dozens of times in all seasons. He takes particular delight in photographing the stream in winter. Yesterday’s free-flowing stream can become icebound overnight. A snowfall followed by a warming trend can blanket the woods in fog. A sunrise through distant clouds can set the fog on fire and send dark shafts of shadow across the scene.
As we work our way down the bank and along the stream, we break through crusted snow and navigate around glossy ice patches. The sky is not cooperating, but the stream has something unusual for us, something I have never seen before. Trapped in an eddy is a flotilla of “pancake ice,” thin, round patties like snow-white griddlecakes swirling in the water. Zephyr gets some establishing shots that will help him set up final shots later. He talks with energy and enthusiasm about his photography, his philosophy and his lifestyle, which are interwoven in a single strand.
Zephyr’s core philosophy in photographic art is that compelling images are to be found everywhere. A determined photographer does not need to travel the world in search of the remote and exotic to find natural beauty worthy of art. In his photography workshops, Zephyr teaches that capturing nature’s glory is less about technology and equipment and more about learning to see the picture as the camera sees it.
A deep understanding of light is at the heart of Zephyr’s landscapes. He returns again and again to a single lakeshore spot to get just the right color palette of very late or early sunlight — his favorites — or to capture a glint of sun spraying through precisely the right break in the tree line, or to line up the shadows in a way that leads the viewer to a fresh perspective. Some of his nature photos are majestic, some are playful and intimate — a few autumn leaves outlined with rime and backlit by sun at a perfect angle, a beach strewn with pebbles as varied as a 64- color box of Crayolas.
Although he traveled widely in the past, Zephyr now finds no shortage of fascinating subjects in his own backyard. On one end of the scale are panoramas of nearby forests and lakes; on the other end are intimate portraits of tiny creatures. His favorite macro subjects are tree frogs and jumping spiders — both of which are, in his view, not only colorful and expressive, but also full of curiosity and personality. For his close-up fieldwork, he constructed a custom flash diffuser shaped like a boxy, sawedoff periscope. Combined with one of two macro lenses, this is his portable studio. Many nature photographers turn to a ringlight for macro work, but Zephyr abandoned it because of the “weird and totally artificial” highlights it created in the eyes of frogs and spiders.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2015 issue.