Nature Visions is a photography expo hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Photography Association (MAPA). In 2011, they set up at the Hylton Performing Arts Center at George Mason University's Manassas campus. The event lasted three days and featured lectures and workshops with professional photographers, an exhibit selling prints, a few businesses, and most importantly, the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia offered photo shoots of falcons, hawks, and owls for $25 an hour.
This was the absolute best and awesomest part. Now, it turns out that you had to choose between owls or falcons and hawks, and basically everyone picked owls. I picked owls. But as long as you didn't shoot any photos, it was okay to get out there during falcon/hawk time and observe. The falcon was so confident, so clearly knew that he was the shit. He really seemed to be posing, maybe aware that people wanted to take pictures of him. The other bird out at that time was half Merlin and half something else. It was a bit shy.
For my time, they started with two Eastern Screech Owls, one grey and one red. The red one kept winking each eye, looking around with interest at the photographers; one of the handlers mused that the lens looks sort of like a big eye, and also that it was probably seeing itself. The grey one was shy. After around half an hour, they brought out the Great Horned Owl and the Barred Owl. They were always kept separate, as the former could get a little violent and tends to bite, and would scare the latter. The Barred Owl was so calm. She kept nodding off, and the handler had to nudge her a bit. The handler said that any owl in this species can be calmed by just scratching their head, just above and between the eyes. She wouldn't let me get a picture of that, being afraid that kids would think it was a pet. I got a lot of great shots of this owl, and a few of her handler smiling at her, playing with her, treating her exactly like a pet. It was so cool. And this is the species we have around here that calls in the night and hides in the woods. The handler said they imitate the noises of dogs, pigs, or whatever they're near.
I can't really recommend the workshops. I paid for two and they were both targeted at more of a novice than I expected. The lectures, included with the purchase of an all-access pass, were far superior. I only attended Sunday, so I saw Lynda Richardson's How to Create A Dynamic Photo Essay and part of Joe Rossbach's Impressions of Nature - Creating Dynamic Images. Lynda's had a lot of insight into shooting for magazines like National Geographic. See, since their pictures are illustrating a story, they have to have kind of a story structure themselves, at least in the vaguest sense of opening hook, setting, climax, and resolution. In order to meet that, they write up shot sheets and sketch storyboards before they ever reach the location. They'll sketch out most of the shots they intend to have, figure out how to do it, then travel out to whatever third world country and actually set it up. It's partly to have something to pitch to the magazine editors (or whoever is in charge of that stuff) and partly for personal organization. In the times of film cameras, it was also useful to keep track of which shots had been taken, since it'll be months before they're developed.
Joe Rossbach mainly said to find the hardest, most dangerous places to get to and then take pictures of it. Most of his work was in parks and reserves, but sometimes canyons and dunes as well. I learned you can get Allstate to insure your camera equipment, which he recommended as a person that wades through chest-high water to take pictures behind waterfalls. His other big insight was this. The man is taking photos in the field 180 days a year. Out of that, he gets 20 or 30 decent shots. His standards are clearly very high, but still. Quantity wins.
I also attended Steve Gottlieb's Flash Magic, but most of it wasn't that new to me. The cool trick I did learn was that you can turn your flash head backwards, aiming away from your subject, dial up the ISO and it'll still be lit, since light is getting thrown in basically every direction. Also, there was a wall behind him. (It might not work outdoors). It was really cool to meet him, though, don't get me wrong. He has these awesome books of his photos out, I think mainly focusing on urban exploration and abandoned places. He just had to dumb things down far too much for my taste.
In conclusion, that was pretty sweet. The only problem is, the longer you stay, the less the experience seems to be worth. I had to get out of there before the value trickled down to nothing. If you ever go, then shoot the birds and catch two or three lectures, and ideally pack something for lunch.