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As the day comes closer, I grow anxious. I start to worry about what to pack. I make checklists and go over them repeatedly. I start to have dreams about missing the plane or arriving without any batteries for my camera. But I am happy and thrilled to be so close to the Okavango. I read books, I watch photographs by Franz Lanting, I watch BBC shows about the largest wetlands on the planet and I imagine myself right in the heart of it. I try to imagine the feeling of smallness and amazement when faced with such immense nature.

Packing for Africa is not easy. On the one hand, I want to keep it as light as possible. After all, there are weight restrictions on every flight between the air strips I’ll be using, but on the other I must make sure I have everything I need and replacements for it. There are no Wallmarts in the Okavango. On the one hand I’ve been dreaming about this assignment for over a year, but on the other I’ll miss my wife and kids badly. Conflict seems to accompany me everywhere I go. But I keep packing and it makes it more real, it makes it imminent. These bags that I now stuff with all my equipment, will be my only companions through 14 days of travel and adventures.  I stop for a while and go over my schedule, my checklist and my documents; everything seems right. Got my visas, got my yellow fever shots, got my malaria pills and permits in order. I make sure I have enough batteries for everything and I weight my equipment once again. I still dream of Africa.

This trip will complete my project “AFRICA: field notes of a traveler” to be published at the end of this year for three great sponsors: Travelwise, Autohaus and District & Co.. The book will include photographs and notes from Cape Town, Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Victoria Falls, Okavango, Central Kalahari and Sossusvlei.

I’m very excited about this project. Africa gets under your skin and you surprise yourself always wanting more. Always dreaming about going back. But I also feel afraid. Afraid my kids won’t be able to experience all this beauty. Afraid we will destroy a place we have been lucky to enjoy and admire. If we keep behaving like we are, there will be no more rhinos or lions left, there will be no more water left, there will be no more paradise. I am afraid we are going to lose it all for the sake of profit. I want my kids to see Africa and understand our place in the world. I want them to understand we are not the owners but only visitors, and as such we have the responsibility to protect the place that has given us so much and be able to pass it forward in better shape than it was passed down to us.

As I get ready for Africa, I pack not only my gear but also every dream and fear I have. One thing is for sure; no matter what happens, this will be a trip to remember.

To see more images of my journeys in Africa and other trips please visit www.mariodavalos.org

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Recently my good friend Matthew Studebaker “almost” won Audobon’s Magazine grand prize. Matt’s image was disqualified by the judges for being a composite of two images, a horizontal and a vertical one. In the image below, you can see the redline where the two images were blended together. For those of us who know Matthew, it is clear his intentions are clean. He is not only one of the most talented nature photographers out there, but also a stand up guy who truly loves and respects nature as he does his craft. I don’t think his actions can be considered cheating, because in my opinion there was no intent to deceit. His original image, before the merge, is as good as the one submitted and both images were taken at the same location and in the same session. No significant alteration was made. matt compos

It is not the same to do a panoramic image of a single scene (which for me this is what Matthew did) than to combine images that don’t necessarily belong with one another. A panoramic photo is a way to extend the sensor’s format capabilities. A composite is a new reality blended from two images.  But even when I think Matthew’s case is perfectly understandable and I am Ok with it, I am against allowing composites or merges in nature photography competitions.

Matthew’s image was a very straight forward case, but if allowed this opens the door to a whole universe of possibilities that could end up transforming the spirit of any competition and ultimately, of our craft. We would not be judging the best photographer, but also the best post-processing technician. I mean, where do we draw the line? How many images can be blended together? Two? Three? Four? Eight? What if the blend happens right down the middle of a lion’s face? Is it ok to add a wing to an eagle shot from another image? What about if a copy an eye from a shot I took last year and paste it into this portrait of a Puffin? It would definitely make it a lot better… What if I blend two images not taken in the same place nor the same day? The possibilities are endless, and there lies the danger.

Photography, at least as I see it, is a medium to capture reality. What, how and when you decide to do that, is what gives it a voice, your voice. When we decide to change reality in a way the structure of what we see is altered, we enter a realm beyond photography.Of course it’s still art and it can still be beautiful and valuable, but is not photography in the traditional definition of it. I am aware “traditional” is the word that will bring conflict, after all, is there a place for “tradition” in the 21st Century? I don’t know, but I like to thing the nature of photography should remain intact even if the mediums evolve. I often think of intervening my images with paint, I haven’t done it yet, but someday I will and I am sure the outcome will be at least interesting. But it should not be submitted to a photography contest, even though it could be submitted into an art contest. Or maybe we should have a new category in contest. A “composite & merges” category? Something to think about.

There is a lot of opinions  and conversations on this subject from a lot of talented and diverse people. I am not sure who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I am sure this issue will be coming up very often in the next few years and a balance between the evolution of our craft and the nature of photography itself will somehow merge with each other. Now, that is one merge I am looking forward to.

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1. People love to make rules. It’s ok to listen, but it’s also ok to totally disregard them.

When I first started making nature photos, I ran into many rules and rule keepers. Everything was already laid out: – this is not allowed, this is allowed.. if you want to be one of us that is – . I did not understand what was all of about nor why. Trained as a contemporary painter I was taught to break all the rules, as long as you knew why you were breaking them. In other words, know the theory but in practice try to achieve your own voice, your own artistic statement. When I looked around at all the photos I was exposed to back then, they all looked similar to one another. Luckily I was eventually exposed to great wildlife photographer (Vincent Munier, Markus Varesvuo… ) that were doing whatever they felt like and doing it in an amazing way. I don’t think I have achieve a unique voice… yet. But I’m on my way!

2. Loving and respecting nature is more important than getting the award-winning shot.

I have met wonderful people traveling the world, but I’ve also met people willing to do anything to get a shot, including destroying nature or disturbing it. I love nature first, I love photography second. Is that simple. The end does not justify the means, not in life and certainly not in nature photography.

3. There is natural beauty all around us, you just have to learn to observe.

I now walk any street, anywhere, at any time and I see beauty. Just as a lawyer sees liabilities anywhere he goes or an architect sees design in every corner, once you learn how to see, things pop-up everywhere: bird songs, tree roots, rainbows in oil stains, fungi in the sidewalk… you name it! Learning to really “see” the world is the most valuable thing I learned in art school.

4. The decisions you make editing your images are as important as the decisions you make taking them.

Lately I find my self spending almost as much time in front of the computer as getting the shot. Editing your images is a second stage in the creative process. As photographers, our format is predetermined by our camera’s sensors, so within certain boundaries, you can be very creative when it comes to editing. I never add anything o remove anything from my photos, I think ethics are a big part of my love and respect for nature and my craft… but I think cropping can be a great way to tell a story within the story. I mean, photography in itself is the art of cropping.  I also think playing with your white balance can create atmospheres to enhance the narrative in your image. So go ahead, play around.

5. There is too much information out there. Learn to filter.

Wow!! Every where you look there is a guy telling you 10 things he learned by being a wildlife photographer!! WTF!! Anyways, read, but filter… no one has an absolute truth. If you pay attention to everything you read you’ll never have time to make photos. Get inspired, not psycho!

6. Dare to try different things.

Sometimes is an image that was incorrectly exposed or an egret that was blurry in your shot.. All I’m saying is, do not become an expert in your own style, do not set your self too many personal rules or boundaries. Experiment! Try to feel uncomfortable by trying things you thought you would never try (and I only mean that in photography, do not come blaming me if you apply this rule to your personal life and wake up in a traveling circus wearing flippers and spooning a clown).

7. The story behind an image is usually greater than the image itself, so savor the moment and become a good story teller. 

Being out in the big outdoors is the most rewarding feeling I can think of. The only reason I take nature photos is so I can be out there as long as I can and try to capture a little bit of that feeling in an image. Do not obsess over the perfect image, but rather over enjoying the place and the moment.

8. There are two kinds of wildlife photographers: those who focus on collecting species and those who focus on the beauty of an image. Both are correct!

I know examples of both. Personally I am more on the second group, but I think either one is fine. I have a lot of very good friends and fine photographers that enjoy what I call photo-birding; keeping lists of species and obsessing over growing that list… just as birders do, but by taking the image, not just the note. I rather make a beautiful image in a beautiful moment of a very common bird than to capture a rare species in an ordinary moment and an ordinary image. Photos are a tool to tell stories, and I like to tell stories, not to keep lists.

9. Traveling is one of the best ways to learn how to love nature.

What can I say? Traveling is the most enriching experience a human being can have. It will make you smarter, it will make you more humble and grateful. Traveling feeds the souls. Traveling expands your capacity to be amazed and enjoy the natural world. There is no other activity in life that contributes more to making you a better human being that to travel. And by travel I mean to take a journey into the place but also into the culture.

10. No, the eye does not have to be sharp and the background does not have to be totally clean to make a great photo.

Ah! This rule… I couldn’t leave it alone could I? I was so close!!!!

I hate this rule. I really really do. Every one obsesses about getting eye contact and a sharp eye. You will read this over and over again on forums and photography groups:

- Great eye contact -, – Very sharp eye.. congrats, great capture -

I don’t know who made that rule, but it is stupid and arbitrary. An image is an image, it may be well crafted or not, it may be beautiful or not, it may be inspiring or not, it may be provoking or not… but trust me, there is no body part that HAS to be sharp to make it any of those things. Do not let rules kill your voice!

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Lots of people ask “what is like to be out there?” Or, “how do you take those pictures?”

It’s hard to explain exactly what goes on once you get there and you star making decisions. There is a lot of preparation before arriving to the first shot: research, light assessment, understanding behaviour… I guess everyone develops their own style and system. It’s easier to show than to tell.

But anyways, for those who have asked me that, I have two images I want to share from last week at Jones Beach:

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For more images of my adventures in Wild NYC click here: http://mariodavalos.org/index/#/the-other-nyc/

 

In 2013 I pressed the shutter over 75,000 times. I travelled to 8 different countries to photograph nature and I spent an average of 650 hours sitting at the computer editing images. All this, while keeping up with a full-time and very demanding job as CEO of Capital DBG plus enough time to fully enjoy the treasure I call family. It was a busy year, no doubt. A year filled with challenges and lessons that only now, when I pause and look at it like a closed period of time, make sense in the broad scheme.

Choosing my top 20 shots of the year was nearly as hard as achieving them. I tend to like an image a lot and the next week I completely change my mind and prefer the image I had discarded. So, this selection, may not be the same in a couple of weeks, but here it goes:

20. Southern Double-collared Sunbird, taken in Cape Town, South Africa. 

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19. Two Least Sandpiper, taken in Las Calderas, Dominican Republic. 

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18. Great-horned Owl, taken in Arizona, United States.

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17. Male Lion, Taken in Maasai Mara, Kenya. 

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16. Keel-billed Toucan, taken in Boca Tapada, Costa Rica. 

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15. Leaf-cutter ants, taken in Asa Wright, Trinidad & Tobago. 

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14. American Flamingoes, taken in Las Calderas, Dominican Republic. 

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13. Brown-hooded Parrots, Taken in Boca Tapada, Costa Rica._MGL7580

12. Composition of Zebras, taken in Maasai Mara, Kenya. 

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11. Giraffes, taken in Ngorongoro, Tanzania. 

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10. Oilbird, taken in Asa Wright, Trinidad & Tobago. 

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9. Scarlet Ibises and Great Egret, taken in Caroni Swamp, Trinidad & Tobago. 

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8. Tropical Screech Owl, Taken in Aripo Savanna, Trinidad & Tobago. 

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7. Migrating Wildebeest, taken in Serengeti, Tanzania.  

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6. Palm Tanagers, Taken in Boca Tapada, Costa Rica. 

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5. Little Bee-eater, Taken in Lake Manyara, Tanzania. 

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4. Sunrise and myst over Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. 

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3. Elf Owl, taken in  Arizona, USA.

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2. Brown-capped Rosy finch, taken in Colorado, USA.

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1.Common Starlings, taken in Colorado, USA. 

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I remember when I thought being a wildlife photographer was completely out of my reach.

I remember when I thought of photography as a lower art form. A way to cheat.

I remember being 4 or 5 years old and for the first time trying to live in a tree.

I remember being 6 years old and wanting to be a dolphin.

I remember being 7 years old and my dream of owning a museum.

I remember being 12 years old and wanting to be a rock star.

I remember dreaming about being Tarzan all the way from 3 to 13 years old.

I remember the joy of picking strawberries with my mother.

I remember the first time a crab bit me and left it’s claw hanging on my thumb.

I remember writing my first short story about a pig that fought the family that wanted to eat him for Christmas.

I remember the first time I saw snow.

I remember publishing my first book.

I remember the innocent desire of becoming a famous painter when I was in art school.

I remember my first painting. A complete failure.

I remember my first photograph. A complete failure.

I remember the day I realised I was not a teenager anymore (it happened last month).

I remember the first photograph I was proud of. It was a Broad-billed Tody and it was taken in Jarabacoa, 2011.

I remember thinking happiness was a made up fantasy.

I remember when I thought I would never get married.

I remember vividly the first time I saw my wife and knowing she would be my wife.

I remember not knowing how strong and powerful and overwhelming it is to love one’s children.

I remember my first trip to Yellowstone. It felt like finally arriving home.

I remember the first time I dared to call myself a “photographer”.

I remember always having the desire of traveling the world.

I remember when “a year” was such a great piece of eternity. Now, 2013 has already gone by and all it took was a quick jump and a lot of remembering.

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CF6A3442Right now, I am probably sitting down for Christmas dinner with my family in the beautiful mountains of Jarabacoa. Most likely, our small little cabin has been turned into a noisy and crowded little space. Family is noisy, but it is family. And there is nowhere I rather be right now than here, looking down upon the marvelous hills and funny little clouds while up here is 10 degrees Celsius colder than Santo Domingo.

But I did not want to let this night go by without thanking all of you for your support to my blog this year. Thank you for your comments. Thank you for your likes, your feedback and your time. So while this post was schedule yesterday morning, I wish you are too enjoying with loved ones this night.


Merry Christmas and Happy Festivus!

 

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My first day at Altos de Chavon/School of Design was nothing short of special. I felt I was finally on the right track of becoming an artist and had left behind all the law school/psychology non-sense that had briefly crossed my mind. It was a great day in a great school that made me great friends. But I also remember when I first walked into the classroom and was told by my drawing teacher to put all color paint away. – You don’t need color, hell, you don’t even know how to use color.. just bring black paint, white paint and charcoal and we’ll talk again next semester – . And there, with a quick sentence, most of the fun disappeared. Or so I thought.

That first semester back in 1997 was all about composition, tonality, contrast and what we called “ the architectural structure” of the drawing. It proved to be not only a lot of fun, but also the basics of everything else I’ve done.. art related or not. Loosing color for a semester taught me to focus in the essence, not to get distracted and really think about composition, to see the world in a kind of x-ray mode, seeing lines, shapes and shades beyond any disturbance or temptation. And Montesinos, our dictator-like instructor really nailed it, we were not ready to use color, but after his class, we soon were.

Forward a bit more than a decade and I am holding a camera in my hands and not a brush, but the principles are the same and the lessons learned are still fresh and valid.

Black & White images convey a powerful sense of both intimacy and drama. When color is removed, only the essential remains. As color can enhance an image, it can sometimes distract from the core narrative as well. Black and white photography requires a whole different approach, specially if your subject is nature. Of course after Ansel Adams we all look at it with more confidence, but still, removing colors from nature and producing a pleasing and interesting image requires talent and experience.

Yesterday I finally got the courage to put up an extensive selection of B&W images on my website. These images depend on shades, shapes and design to tell their story and engage the viewer. Go ahead, check the gallery out and tell me what you think.

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_MGL4967When Columbus first arrived in what is now called the island of Hispaniola, wildlife was rich abundant; manatees thrived in the fresh water streams, trogans could be plucked like ripe fruit and parrots and parakeets where as common as insects in the lush Caribbean forests. Today everything is threatened, including us humans. We have managed to destroy one of the most beautiful places in the world and most of the time feel proud of what we call “progress”. Our greed and disregard for the place we live in, is driving every species to extinction including our own. But in that sad and terrible reality, there are some odd and positive stories.

Such is that of the Hispaniolan Parakeet ( Aratinga chloroptera). This emerald-green and noisy little fellow was heavily hunted down for its feathers and for the illegal pet trade. Along with the Hispaniolan Parrot (Amazona ventralis) the Hispaniolan Parakeet is sold to adorn houses and learn curse words. It is smuggled into US cities where dominicans live to remind them of the beauty back home. It was first described in 1856 by the french ornithologist Charles Souancé, which seems very surprising since such a pretty and obvious bird should have been noted much earlier. It is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List and populations are way down. Flocks of this amazing bird that could be seen flying over the mountains no longer are common… except in the city of Santo Domingo.

For some reason Parakeets have adapted quite well to the noise and activity of Santo Domingo and can be seen everyday flying south-north in the morning and north-south in the afternoon to roost in almond trees all over the city. To see them come in by the hundreds to their roosting spot in Hotel Embajador is a feast to the eyes and a nightmare to the ears (specially for hotel guests). So if you are ever in Santo Domingo, take a moment to enjoy these beautiful birds, and if you’re really into birding, choose to stay at El Embajador, order some dominican rum and enjoy the show.

More of my photos can be seen in my website mariodavalos.org

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