Faced with serious medical issues, Jason Hahn feared he'd have to give up photography—until Tamron lenses helped him reboot his approach.
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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Jason Hahn
Ask Jason Hahn what he thinks about being a nature photographer, and he'll tell you, without reservation, that it's "the coolest job on Earth." And beside his love for the image-making part of his craft, he's also learned to appreciate being a naturalist. "It's not only about using your camera, but also learning how the natural world works," he says. "You improve your chances of getting the photos you want not just by understanding the animals you're photographing, for example—you want to learn about the full ecosystem and how everything works together. You want to know exactly when the tide will be out to reveal those rocks, or when an egg is due to hatch so you can capture a precious moment in the nest."
Jason is also adamant about respecting nature and its accompanying boundaries. "No photo is ever worth hurting a subject," Jason says. "You don't disturb a nest or break off parts of a plant to isolate a flower. All of these things help sustain the natural order of things, keep everyone safe, and provide for better nature photography overall."
Which is why some may be surprised to hear that Jason nearly gave up on photography. Even though he'd been passionate about wildlife photography since his son, Adam, was a baby—when he'd take Adam out on bike rides and witness the beauty of the world around him—he was suddenly confronted with serious medical issues a few years back, and he wasn't sure he could physically manage to accomplish what he wanted to do photographically.
"I'd narrowly defined myself as a wildlife photographer, as well as what it meant to be a nature photographer," he says. "Then, suddenly, I was at a point where I was basically living on the couch. It was pretty rough—there was a lot of uncertainty in terms of my health, and I was in a pretty bad place. And I'd already convinced myself that I was a wildlife photographer who had to go out with as much gear as I could and basically carry a camera store on my back, so I could get to the most remote places to take pictures of rare animals."
But at some point during his health troubles, Jason's philosophy shifted and he began to experiment with different photographic genres, which helped him redefine his nature photography as well. "While I still love the wildlife aspect of my photography, by labeling myself as that thing and only that thing, I was creating a situation for myself where I couldn't be successful, because my body just wouldn't let me do that," he says. "I had to look at what I used to do and say, 'Look, this is my new reality—I may not have the endurance I used to have, I may not be able to carry as much weight as I used to. What can I do now? What is it about photography I love?'"
The common thread he came up with was a passion for creating and coming up with new concepts, which led him to start thinking: What lenses would fit into this new reality? That's where Tamron came into play. Over the past year, Jason has switched entirely over to Tamron lenses, including the SP 150-600mm VC, the SP 180mm Macro, the SP 70-200mm VC, and the SP 15-30mm F/2.8 VC. "I'd been introduced to Tamron by a friend of mine who had an older 24-70, which I was impressed by," he says. "Then Tamron sponsored one of the Black Hills Photo Shootouts my wife Nicole and I run in South Dakota, annually, and I had the chance to check out more Tamron lenses. Now I can say I'd put Tamron lenses up against any others I've ever owned. As I dealt with my illness, I realized I needed to change the lineup of lenses I had to better fit the kind of photographer I am now."
The 150-600, for example, now covers the range of three lenses Jason would've carried previously. "I can carry one lens, in a much lighter package, and still do the things I love," he says. "And instead of limiting myself to, say, only taking pictures of birds in a particular location, I can also take pictures of tiny critters and the landscape. I also love the 15-30 so much—it opens up so many possibilities for me. These two, in addition to my other Tamron lenses, helped me fall back in love with photography. Instead of worrying about the shots I couldn't take, I simplified what I was using and started finding new opportunities."
Here, some of Jason's recent photos with his Tamron lenses and the backstory for each, in his own words:
Every year for the past eight years, we've done the Photo Shootout in conjunction with Black Hills State University. A former student who's now a fantastic photographer in her own right also works for a ranch, so we had the opportunity during our last shootout to head over to this real working ranch, with authentic cowboys and cowgirls. She set up four sessions for us at the ranch, each with a slightly different theme: one was focused on portraits, another was more of a cattle drive, one was geared toward horse photography, and the final one was deemed "the end of the trail": The cowboys had a real chuckwagon and set up camp, just as they would if they were on a pack trip.
At the end of the ride, the cowboys took a break to talk and laugh around the campfire before dinner. It was a perfect evening, with a beautiful sky as the sun was setting, a lightning storm in the distance, and the Milky Way overhead. Capturing a low-light image like this is technically very difficult, which is why I love the 70-200: It's so sharp and offers such wonderful low-light performance.
Also, as an organizer for the shootout, my priority is that everyone there gets awesome images, so my photos always come second—I grab my own images in between helping everyone else. The cowboys here were interacting with each other, and the light was changing rapidly. There were tremendous numbers of opportunities, but they were also very fleeting. The 70-200 being so flexible with its focal-length range was ideal, as I was moving around, jumping from spot to spot. I needed a lens that would allow me to immediately grab a photo as soon as I caught a scene out of the corner of my eye, which is what happened in this case.
70-200mm (147mm), F/2.8, 1/30th sec., ISO 800
I'm a big believer in previsualization: seeing a photo in your mind before you take it. I'm still trying to work on shots I've had in my head for years. In any situation, I try to have a grocery list of potential shots, and this image of the cowboys' chuckwagon was definitely one of them on my shootout list.
I'd long harbored the idea for a photo like this, and I was able to use the 15-30mm to create it. We knew as long as the sky stayed clear, we had the potential for the Milky Way, which I really wanted to appear over the tent. It was a busy evening with people moving all around, but when it's previsualized, you're always subconsciously on the lookout for it. Once I spotted it, I was ready to grab the picture almost immediately.
15-30mm (15mm), F/5, 25 sec., ISO 3200
We spotted this pair of wild horses, a stallion and a mare, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. My wife Nicole and I had driven up there to do a workshop right after the Black Hills Photo Shootout, and before we met the group we did a quick run through the park to scout it out. I've been there many times over the years, but I always like to take a drive through to see what the current conditions are. It's a dynamic landscape in the Badlands: Winter storms come through and resculpt everything, so you never know what to expect.
The mustangs there are constantly on the move, but they're very territorial. Once you establish where the different bands are hanging out, you can often go back and find them no further than about a square mile from where you last saw them. During our first scouting before the workshop, my wife and I came around a corner and spotted this pair. We were about 50 feet away from them. The 150-600 allowed me to zoom in close enough to capture this intimate moment.
150-600mm (350mm), F/5.6, 1/500th sec., ISO 800
On one of my first days out with my first-generation Tamron 150-600, I really put it to the test down at the Myakka River in southwestern Florida. I was itching to shoot wildlife, and the Myakka is excellent for that sort of photography. On this river, there's a small creek that flows into a larger, shallow lake, and the river emerges from that lake. Alligators like to hang out there because fish come out of the lake to go downstream. And so that's what this alligator was doing. They're opportunistic predators and can stay very still for long periods of time, until something swims within their reach. This one was simply floating on the surface, waiting for prey to swim by.
When I first saw the gator, I didn't know it was blind on that side until I circled around the bank to get a better angle. That's when I saw the eye: When I zoomed in on it, the blue swirls reminded me of the planet Earth. The dragonfly on the snout was a nice bonus, too. I'd hiked out to the spot where I wanted to shoot and hadn't brought a tripod, so I had to brace the lens on my knee because of the low light to get the shot. I'm still blown away by how well the Vibration Compensation (VC) feature came through for me in this situation—the image is so sharp.
150-600mm (600mm), F/8, 1/500th sec., ISO 1600
When my son, Adam, first started taking up cross-country, there was a nature preserve near us that we often frequented. I had had an image in mind that I wanted to capture, and I started off hiking just a half-mile in with one lens. Then, each time I went back, I went a little deeper in, with more lenses. By the time I captured this shot of a country road within the preserve, I had been back out in the field for about six months and had worked my way up to carrying a full pack of photo gear—something that wouldn't have been possible without my light, compact Tamron lenses.
I took this image at first light. It was one of those mornings where everything just came together: It was the right light, a perfect amount of fog—just a great morning to be out there with my camera.
15-30mm (19mm), F/11, 1/25th sec., ISO 100
We're very fortunate down here in Florida. Not only do we have our resident birds, we also have migratory ones that travel back and forth between here and Canada during the summer. In Florida, we have local sandhill cranes that live here year-round, but also huge flocks of migratory ones.
I'd photographed sandhill crane nests before, but the big question is determining when the eggs have been laid. I spotted this nest 30 days or so before this photo was taken, and luckily, some folks who'd frequented the area had a pretty good idea when the eggs were laid and when they'd hatch. I went back every day until the hatching—while it wasn't as bad as actually sitting on the eggs, it was a long month!
There are a lot of intimate moments that happen early on in the chicks' lives, so via previsualization, I knew some of the photos I wanted to capture when the chicks finally emerged. There's a moment, for example, when the mom feeds eggshells to the chicks, or when the chicks climb all over her to find a spot to hunker down for protection and warmth. I love being able to tell the whole story, from the time the chicks hatch to the moment they fly away when they're ready to leave the nest.
The long zoom on the 150-600 helps me stay at a distance for those more-sensitive moments. And the focal-length range enables me to zoom in to the extreme to isolate just the chick and a parent, or pull back when I want to capture a wider environmental scene of the whole family building the nest or catching bugs. If I didn't have the versatility this lens affords me, I'd have to walk forward or backward to change the scene in my frame.
150-600mm (600mm), F/8, 1/1000th sec., ISO 800
Few places have such ever-changing and beautiful skies as Florida. We're in what's termed "Lightning Alley," a stretch from Tampa to Titusville that has the most lightning strikes per square mile of anywhere in the US. So we get some very dramatic, dynamic skies. You never know what to expect—I've learned never to guarantee a sunrise or sunset, but we do see some of the most intense skies anywhere on the planet.
In the summer months, afternoon rain showers often create the optimal conditions for rainbows, like this double one I spotted. I took this photo during a storm delay at one of Adam’s cross-country meets. Having a set of versatile lenses I can take anywhere really paid off that day.
15-30mm (18mm), F/14, 1/200th, ISO 400
To see more of Jason Hahn's work, go to www.hahnnaturephotography.com.
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