Challenge Yourself


Set Aside Time for Photographing Local Wildlife
by Joe McDonald

It’s no secret that New Year’s Day is the time when folks make promises and resolutions that they rarely keep. I made one myself this year, but my resolution, a challenge for myself, is one that you too could make right now, despite the current date that you are reading this. I’ve heard that if you do anything consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit and part of your routine. So, if you challenge yourself for just one month, you may follow through for the rest of the year. And I’m not talking about dieting!

My challenge was to post at least one new photo a day, taken that day. I started, appropriately enough, on New Year’s Day, and I must admit that when I started my enthusiasm and my sights were pretty low. On Day 4, for example, I posted squirrel tracks in the snow. Pretty lame! However, as each day passed, I found that I was raising the bar, trying for new subjects or improving on images that I made earlier during the challenge, documenting my progress not only in pictures but also in words. Sometimes the post would end with a pledge to try again, a vow that I’d still get the shot I was after.
And in doing this, I found that I was using all of my creative tools, not only with my photo equipment but also with my imagination. I also discovered that “the shot” became a compelling part of my day, and some days, when errands, business, or other assorted life demands constricted my time, I’d be thinking of “the shot” and what I could still do to get it in the little time remaining.

One example of this ended quite nicely. My wife, Mary, and I drove a total of 145 miles on a Saturday outing to look for a rare species of bird that had been sighted in a state park and through the drive we assumed something would appear that would make a nice photo. Nothing leaped out at us, and I was considering taking a macro shot of a feather when we reached home as a last resort. But at mile 143, just two miles from home, we spotted a pair of Bald Eagles perched in a dead snag, and I got the shot.

Prior to the almost complete curtailment of travel, Mary and I would be on the road, leading photo safaris and tours for as much as thirty weeks of the year. In the time we were home, sometimes just a couple of days between trips, we seemed swamped with office work, doing correspondence, attending to the business, and editing the images we made on the last trip. Work never seemed to stop and I found it really hard to justify going out and shooting my local wildlife when there was so much work to do. Thank you, COVID (I guess). For the first time, I had plenty of time for local photography.

I know I’ve benefited from taking on this challenge. My file of local species has expanded greatly and now includes species I’ve had at our bird feeders for over thirty years but that I never took the time to photograph. The challenge has forced me to step outside, regardless of the weather, and by so doing I’ve captured evocative images that, without the commitment to the challenge, I’d have missed.

My challenge could be adapted to your style of photography as easily as your imagination permits. Portrait and wedding photographers probably would not have handy subjects for a daily challenge, but that might be a great excuse to explore other subjects like landscapes or macro or still lifes. For wildlife and nature photographers, the possibilities are endless. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where the climate allows, you could easily alternate between landscapes, birds, and macro. I live in Pennsylvania and, as I write this, we’ve just had 12 inches of snow and freezing temperatures. So, unless I’d find a house spider somewhere in my basement, my wildlife macro possibilities are pretty slim. Of course, there are always feathers.

The important point is that the challenge, if taken seriously, can really push you to take more and better photos, and quite possibly this will expand your horizons as you do so. Today, for example, I tried for a different species of songbird that visits our yard, and I wasn’t successful. I did manage a very nice shot of a species I’d photographed earlier and posted, but I was a bit disappointed as I did not want to be doing the same thing over and over again. Instead, I was hoping for something new, challenging myself, and as I persevere I’m sure I’ll eventually succeed.

For me, I can’t wait for the warm weather to arrive and the almost endless possibilities this will offer. Honestly, my biggest concern is what will I do when (if) we begin traveling again? Will I have internet access for a posting? If not, how will I handle this? Uh-oh, I didn’t do this challenge to be stressed!

So, consider giving yourself a challenge. Maybe your time schedule makes it impossible to do a daily photo, but challenging yourself to make one every weekend – that is possible, regardless of your schedule and demands. I think you’ll find that the exercise was worth the effort, that your creativity has expanded, as has your portfolio. Go for it!

Joe McDonald has been photographing wildlife and nature since he was a high school freshman and was selling his photos to the National Wildlife Federation. He has been published in every natural history publication in the U.S., including Audubon, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birder’s World, Defenders, Living Bird, Natural History, National and International Wildlife, Ranger Rick, Smithsonian, Wildlife Conservation, and more. Joe is especially well known for his expertise in electronic flash and using equipment for high speed flash and for remote, unmanned photography. For more information, go to: