LARAMIE, Wyo. — The broad-tailed hummingbird that encountered a feeder near Curt Gowdy State Park one afternoon last summer probably didn’t notice the click of Mark Mass’ camera as it hovered in the sunlight.
The interaction between the two lasted a thousandth of a second, but it was long enough for Mass to snag a single frame with the bird’s head in perfect focus despite the dizzying swirl of his wings. Iridescent green feathers atop his head and a modest pink patch on his throat, indicating his gender and young age, glowed as he floated in front of deep shadow.
Look closely and you can see the horizon line reflected in his eye.
Staking out a bird feeder at his parents’ house near Granite Springs Reservoir, Mass waited until the time of day and the weather were just right for the effect he wanted, with the bird moving through sunlight against a background of shadows.
“It’s all about the lighting,” he said.
Mass’s photo appears on the cover of Wyoming Wildlife Magazine this month. It was chosen from more than 3,000 entries to headline the magazine’s annual photography issue, which features images of the state’s wildlife, plant life and landscapes. The magazine is a publication of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Laramie residents Carolyn McDonald and David Rule also had photographs appear in the magazine.
For Mass, a mathematician and biologist by training, photography is a meditative process of discovering patterns, texture and color hidden from the human eye. He specializes in macrophotography, which is close-up photography of very small subjects.
“I love finding beauty in things where you wouldn’t look for beauty,” he said.
Take, for example, a dragonfly wing. It’s not an unimpressive specimen in its own right, but under Mass’s careful observation, one can see the way light reflects off the minuscule veins that branch like stained glass.
In his studio near downtown Laramie, he demonstrated his process for shooting insect wings, which he compared to solving a math problem.
“I love being methodical about setting up a photo,” he said.
He secured his camera body at one end of a metal rail. Stacked in front like train cars were an accordion-like piece of equipment called an articulating bellows followed by two different lenses. Beneath the set-up, a dial allowed him to adjust the focus in fractions of a millimeter. At the other end of the apparatus, the tiny insect wing waited in a slide.
The bellows — like much of his equipment, they’re vintage pieces no longer in production — allow him to make adjustments to the angles between the planes of the subject, lens and film.
He might spend hours or days setting up the shot and looking for the right composition.
“I have the tunes going and just get into that creative zone,” he said.
Another favorite subject to photograph is wildflowers, and Mass has a favorite meadow to visit near Lake Marie in the Snowy Range.
Besides the work itself, Mass said he loves the opportunity to spend time in the mountains. He doesn’t rush the process — when shooting an extreme close-up of a flower, only a beauty queen will do.
“It took me three days of crawling through a bog to find the perfect specimen I was looking for,” he said of one photo.
He uses a light tent with a hole in the bottom, which he sets over his subject, to soften the sunlight and block the wind. Reflectors further redirect the light, which can appear harsh on camera under extreme magnification.
“By diffusing everything, you’re able to get these amazing colors,” he said.
He calls himself a “purist,” in that he eschews the use of Photoshop and other digital tools.
“I can do the exact same shot with film,” he said.
Mass grew up in locations around the country but returned to Wyoming every year for family vacations with his Casper-native parents, who later retired in Wyoming. He returned to the Cowboy State for good about six years ago.
He first picked up photography a couple decades ago for fun, documenting vacations and the like. Gradually, it became a passion and then an outlet from his other job as a contractor for the Department of Family Services in Cheyenne, where he works with children and families in the foster system.
“Being able to do my little part to try to make their lives a little bit better is something that gives me a lot of satisfaction,” he said.
Last year he decided to turn his hobby into a side business, and he currently has work on display at Works of Wyoming, 300 S. 2nd St. The non-profit gallery sells art produced in the state, and Mass credited store manager Lorena Patzer with helping many local artists further their careers.
Mass has a website with more work in display at www.markmassphoto.com.
Amy Bulger, editor of Wyoming Wildlife Magazine, said Mass’s hummingbird photograph stood out to the six-person judging panel as having potential for a cover image because of the bright subject framed against a dark background, not to mention the technical mastery demonstrated by capturing the shot in the first place.
“It’s just begging to be on the cover,” she said.
The judges chose the cover photo last, after selecting all the images for the magazine and choosing winners in several categories. Bulger said they debated between Mass’s photo and a photo of the solar eclipse before settling on Mass’s photo.
“The hummingbird was the absolute winner,” she said.
Mass said he was happier to appear on the cover than he would have been with any other honor in the contest.
“Just thinking about it blows me away,” he said.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com