Photographer Steve Zamek Gets His Decisive Moment

October 9, 2013

The October-December Bay Nature magazine cover features a common nature theme—life, death and survival. As the silver three-spine stickleback hangs in midair before a hooded merganser’s open beak, it is difficult to decide whether to feel happy for the bird’s catch or sorry for the fish that’s about to become lunch.

Behind the photo is Bay Area-based photographer Steve Zamek, who also photographed a Clark’s grebe at Clear Lake for our April-June cover.

For over two hours on a winter’s day in 2011, Zamek sat photographing birds near Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. Despite having taken few photos that he really liked, he decided it was time to leave.

“I was packing up and at the very last moment, the bird began thrashing about, catching fish, and I was just constantly clicking, probably seven frames per second,” he said. “Usually I’ll take a quick look at the photos I’ve taken so that I have an idea when I get home. But I was on my way out and had taken so many photos that I didn’t check.

“When I got home, I saw that the photo was taken at the right distance and in focus and I thought, ‘Wow.’”

The photo is featured in Zamek’s online favorites gallery along with others taken everywhere from Clear Lake to Costa Rica. With the multitude of birdwatching locations in the Bay Area, it’s hard to pick a favorite, Zamek said.

“And as for a bird photography wish list,” he added. “I pretty much take them as they come.”

Though he had gone bird watching with other photographers for many years, it wasn’t until 2008 that Zamek decided to pick up a camera himself.  Already a seasoned birder, photography deepened Zamek’s appreciation for birds and improved his ability to simply watch and wait.

The October—December cover photo of a hooded merganser contemplating lunch — or a stickleback contemplating mortality. Photo: Steve Zamek.
The October—December cover photo of a hooded merganser contemplating lunch — or a stickleback contemplating mortality. Photo: Steve Zamek.

“Nowadays, I can sit in one spot for hours on end, hoping and waiting for something to happen, and I’m perfectly happy doing that,” he said. “Before, when I was looking through binoculars, I certainly didn’t have that level of patience.”

Coincidentally, it was a bird sighting at Lloyd Lake some 35 years ago that inspired Zamek to pick up a field guide and binoculars.

“One morning, while out running near the lake, I spotted a very striking bird (which I later learned was a wood duck) on the pond and was blown away by its beauty—I could hardly believe that such an amazing creature existed,” he said. “When I returned home, I grabbed my roommate’s field guide to look up the bird and learn its species name.”

In the early 1950s, the French photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson coined the term “the decisive moment”: the ability to capture a fleeting moment in time in a harmonious photographic form. When it comes to nature photography, decisive moments, like Zamek’s meeting of hooded merganser and stickleback, are hard to capture.

“You can’t plan something like the hooded merganser photo,” Zamek said. “You just have to be at the right place at the right time, put in a lot of hours, and get lucky.”

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