For Melissa McGaw, life could hardly be better. She claims the perfect job as photographer of Wildlife In North Carolina Magazine.
“I’m very lucky,” she said. “I’m in my dream job. And basically photography is my hobby, too.”
For 22 years, McGaw has been traversing the state photographing fishermen and hunters and critters of all description. The result – boredom is not in her vocabulary.
“No day is ever the same even if the subject matter is the same,” she said.
McGaw researches and studies every subject and creates a mental storyboard of what she wants to accomplish on an assignment.
“If the story (for the magazine) is done, I read it and make notes of photo ideas. If the story is not ready, I talk to the writer and anyone associated with the story,” she said. “I always go out with a plan.”
McGaw’s love of nature and photography had its birth when she was growing up in Raleigh.
“My mother exposed me to fine arts and encouraged me to record the world around me. I grew up with TV shows like Jacques Cousteau. My first camera was a point and shoot when I was 12.”
McGaw majored in fine arts at Meredith and experience an epiphany of sorts her senior year.
“Something clicked in me and I knew I wanted to be a photographer. And along with my interest in biology and the natural world it was a perfect fit for me.”
So much goes into creating (a good photo.) My goal is to make it look natural. For me it comes as second nature. I know when it feels right.
Wildlife photographer Melissa McGaw
After an internship and a couple of years in commercial advertising as a photographer, McGaw felt a need to change her career path.
“I knew in my heart [advertising] was not for me. And when I learned about the opening with wildlife magazine, I jumped for it.”
It is difficult for McGaw to select her top photograph or shooting situation. Here are a couple of her favorites:
“I was doing a shoot on a scientific illustrator at the museum of natural science and he pulled out his pipe and lit it. I wasn’t expecting this and when the smoke curled around his face…I knew I had a great shot...
“On another occasion when the magazine was doing a story on the illegal trade of reptiles and amphibians, I had a feeling of it all coming together successfully. The light was fading and I shot this grimy guy holding a snake and in the background someone pulling out turtles. I knew it was a great shot; it was exactly what I had imagined.”
McGaw, who rarely hunts or fishes, sees her work as similar to hunting.
“Lots of photographic skills overlap with hunting. Use of camo and blinds and getting closer to animals than most hunters…”
Long days are not a stranger to McGaw. She may start her morning before sunrise in eastern North Carolina on a fishing shoot. At the end of the day she is in the mountains flying over a controlled burn.
On another day she may spend hours in her office-studio at the wildlife commission planning a still life shoot.
“I make it look easy but it is hours of work arranging subjects, lighting and angle positions. It just doesn’t happen.”
McGaw tags lighting and composition as two of the most important elements of photography.
“So much goes into creating (a good photo.) My goal is to make it look natural. For me it comes as second nature. I know when it feels right.”
Her advice to budding photographers is to know your equipment. Understand how it works, especially shutter speed, aperture and ISO. She emphasizes going beyond snap shots by exploring angles, viewpoint and different lenses.
“Always be aware of the quality of light because light is everything. Do your research, know you subject, have a plan but be open to serendipity.”
McGaw has an intriguing interest in her work and a philosophy to back it up:
“…I love being quiet, with my mind only focused on my subject, the light, etc. Even when I don’t have a camera in hand I still find myself noting beautiful light. Maybe that is where the camera will evolve one day – we can just see and image and blink and a photo will be captured the way our mind sees it.
“In my job, photography is a way to connect our readers to the subject matter on a different level from the written word. When I am on assignment I have to be very focused to make sure I come away with the images that will work for the story – which adds a bit of stress – not quite sitting in a blind.
“But photographers in general and wildlife and photo journalists in particular have the potential to make a difference by bringing attention to an issue or introducing the public to something that they may not have thought of or been exposed to before.”