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Philip Bena’s Photography of Small Things

Philip Bena takes monumental shots of tiny creatures. Here’s the unique story of how he learned photography.

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Keeping with our “quarantine” theme, here’s a nature photographer who started learning from a man on his deathbed.

Philip Bena is a master of going out into the field. He and his wife enjoy overlanding in their 1998 GMC Yukon. It’s carried them throughout the United States.

Their photo albums cover all the “American” stuff. Thousands of shots with mountains, canyons, bears and wolves. 

But, while Philip enjoys shooting rock formations and wildlife, his genius comes in matters much smaller than the Grand Canyon:

Philip likes the small things. In his photography, he invites us to discover intricacy in microscopic moments. And he has moments like these all the time. 

“A couple days ago, there were two beautiful birds fighting in my front yard, and I wanted to catch them on video,” he said. 

What’s striking about these visuals is that they capture more than just “what’s happening.” The photography reveals a meticulous yearning for texture and vibrancy. It’s truly more than a sentence can describe. 

“Anyone can see El Capitan and take exactly the same picture as me,” he said. “To me, a special photo reveals something you would otherwise walk by, seeing how complex a creature it can be when you look closely. You might not see it with the human eye.” 

You might also have to be relatively motionless, so as not to disrupt what’s going on. That could be what separates a tourist of nature from a direct participant. 

Seeing these tiny things up close, you forget they’re in your own back yard. You want to ask, “What country is that?” Unveiling the complexity of ordinary life is maybe one way to travel far.

Of course, doing this would not be feasible without sound fundamentals. This is something we covered in a previous article <link>. And it usually helps to have the right teachers.

How Philip Learned Photography

When Philip’s parents heard he was interested in photography, they pointed him to a photographer at their church, James Robert (Bob) Tomerlin. 

Bob made money shooting monuments in D.C, but he’d won awards for his nature photography. His passion was in the Southwest. 

He would sell prints standing on the MARC train platform, from Barnes & Noble, a couple of coffee shops in Annapolis, and online. Bob won prizes in several competitions, one of which was Nikonians – from the Nikon camera community. 

“He had a whole album from going out West, the Southwest,” said Philip. “It was kind of this faraway, unknown land to me.” 

Bob had been battling cancer around the time he and Philip met. But it didn’t stop them.  

Bob taught Philip how to use a camera from his bed. It was a digital point-and-shoot with a couple fancy settings. He taught him things like exposure, aperture and framing. They didn’t go outside even once.

“I remember I took a photo and brought it to him asking how I could make it better.”

That was their entire relationship. His parents would drive him to visit, and the two would spend the time picking apart the image.

Bob taught Philip he didn’t have to leave his subjects alone. He said you could always move the rock or subject to get the picture you want. 

It seems uncanny that Philip would remember this lesson, because his approach has almost become the opposite: be still, zoom in, and let nature do its thing. 

Bob died in a year. But his impact on Philip remained. He has since then made a favorite destination of the Southwest. He may move there one day.

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