This week I have the opportunity to present an interview with Michael D. Kern, reptile conservationist and photographer. Michael’s stunning photographs of reptiles have won him several awards, some of them being the 2007 Nature’s Best Photography Wildland Smith Rice International Award, the Exo Terra Nactus awards in 2005, 2006 and 2007, awards in the International Herpetology Symposium Photo Contest in the past few years. For those wanting to meet him, the Palo Alto Photo Club is a good place to discuss photography with Michael. Also, Michael has just published his book titled “Serpents and Dragons”, comprising of his fabulous photography of serpents and dragons! Do go here to buy his book.
Serpents and Dragons, by Michael D. Kern. Book Cover. Click here to order this book.
SU: Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get into photography?
MDK: My story is simple…. Corporate executive turned conservationist / nature photographer. It gets a bit more complicated and boring if you double click below that. Actually, I have been exposed to photography throughout my whole life, my father was a Doctor by trade but his passion was fine art photography. He exposed me to both the art and craft of photography as I was growing up. It’s a shame I didn’t pay much attention. So, except for a few fleeting moments in my life, I only seriously got into photography about five years ago when I started working with reptiles.
The reptile thing began when I was in middle school. A neighborhood school friend’s brother had an extensive collection of reptiles in their garage which fascinated me. After a lot of begging, I finally got permission to bring my own snake into our house… unfortunately I used one of my fathers flood lamps to heat the cage and on the first night and it warped the wooden cage cover, of course, the snake escaped. I still think my mom is mad at me about this.
I eventually grew out of this phase (i.e., I realized that girls were also biologically interesting) and my interest in reptiles went dormant. It wasn’t until my own kids saw pictures my father had taken of me with my snake that the passion returned. My kids asked for snakes of their own and when we finally felt they were old enough, we went to the local reptile store. I knew when I walked into that store, I was in trouble…. It all came back….. two snakes quickly became four, then a gecko or two, frogs, chameleons… it got so bad that my first web site was called the Kern Family Zoo. We have since downsized our collection and I use my photography to satisfy my craving to collect new animals.
I started taking pictures of my collection with a simple digital point and shoot camera but quickly got frustrated by the shutter lag and view finder alignment so I finally had my first serious talk about photography with my father. My father has been a great mentor and teacher, especially as I was starting out.
SU: What has attracted you towards wildlife photography, especially reptiles?
MDK: I have always been fascinated by the intricate beauty of reptiles. These creatures can be spectacularly rich in color, line, texture and form — classic elements of artistic style and composition. However, in many cases, appreciating this beauty requires one to get close enough to study the complex scale patterns, color palettes, and textures that nature combined in creating these species. Getting close enough to discover this beauty is difficult. Geographic distribution, animal disposition, and, for many people, fear of these animals prevents an appreciation from developing. This is where photography helps. It can provide an intimate view of these animals, and do so in a non threatening manner.
My primary objective creating my recently published book, “Serpents and Dragons” is to help people “find the beauty in the beast”. This is more important than you might realize. Reptiles and amphibians represent some of the most endangered species on our planet. I hope that readers of this book develop a better appreciation for these animals and support conservation efforts which protect their diminishing habitats. This is a critical step toward their ultimate conservation.
SU: Can you tell me a bit about your photography techniques on and off the field?
MDK: I work both in the field and in the studio. Due to the nature of the subjects I work a lot with macro technology. I am a big believer in post processing although I don’t alter the core representation of the subject…. Let me restate that…. that is unless I am working on a creative piece, then anything goes…
Like all photographers I pay attention to the light…. I work with natural and artificial lighting…. I also try to keep a photojournalistic point of view to my work.
In order to stay close to the action (i.e., interesting wildlife subjects)I have gotten very involved in conservation work. There is always a story that needs to be told, helping to get the story out is part of my photographic drive and passion. Documenting indigenous people or conservation in action (i.e., people shots) complements the images of the wildlife itself and makes for a better package of work.
SU: What does photography mean to you?
MDK: Of course it is a form of self expression. I want my pictures to cry out to the viewers “Look at me! Understand me! Appreciate and Protect me! Almost in your face….
The beauty of working with reptiles is that it isn’t a genre which is over done. There aren’t that many good photographers in this space. So when you have a compelling image, people will look, The subjects are that different and intriguing.
SU: You have won quite a few well-deserved awards and recognition for your photography. What is your secret behind this?
MDK: Both professionally outside of photography i.e., my previous life, and now… I think it is important to find a niche, and then become the best in that niche… From there you can grow out into other areas….So for me, by working in a niche, and one which is not heavily exploited, I am showing work that is not commonly seen…. They are fresh in the eyes of the judges…. It isn’t like I am showing them another landscape or flower shot…..
Also, I have a very critical eye. I always find the 10 problems with an image before I can appreciate the good aspects of it. This puts a strong filter on my images…. Only the best get through… There is an adage that your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest image… When you enter into competitions, you need to understand that the judges think this way too…. How else can they filter down to a few select images from a starting point of thousands…. They exclude based on flaws, once they get to the flawless images, they then look for merit…. I work like that when I am selecting images from my shoots to bring forward….
SU: Any recommendations? (like Photographers, Photo techniques, Music, Books, quotes, food..anything?)
MDK: Besides finding a niche and exploiting it and using a critical eye in judging your work, Be realistic, understand that there are thousands of excellent photographers our there looking for eyes and recognition…. make sure you have something unique to say so that when you get eyes on your work, they stick, remember, and want to see more….
SU: How can people interested in your work can contact you?
My website www.thegardensofeden.org. There you can peek inside my book, stroll thru my portfolio of work, and email me. My images are also available thru Nature Picture Library Stock Photography (www.naturepl.com).
Thanks Michael for this interview.