Walk quietly but carry a big lens. And be patient. And quiet. Oh and bring your breakfast, maybe lunch or dinner too, depending on the time of day. Don’t forget the bug spray. And wait—before you swat that greenfly—take his picture first! Flies or no flies, Herb Houghton must “get his man,” or in this case a bald eagle or a fly or even a tick.
Towering over the interviewer like a graceful pine, this gentle giant, throws his enormous camera and 800mm camouflage lens attached to an equally sturdy camouflage tri-pod, over his shoulder like a small child going for a piggy back ride with his Dad. Houghton chats amiably, his clear brown eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.
A slight shadow passes momentarily over the sun and those same eyes narrow, darting towards a fleeting image fluttering across the field. Hands like lightning fire away at the shutter which responds in multiples like cards shuffled in a deck.
Within milliseconds the image of an ordinary spring bird comes up on the screen, with every feather illuminated at just the right exposure. Houghton makes magic from the ordinary, bringing up close and personal, what the average observer would never even notice. Houghton smiles, almost bashfully-he is modest but thoroughly knowledgeable and extremely accurate in his portraits of the wild.
Houghton is so good that the State of NJ and the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the NY State Dept of Environmental Conservation rely on his photography to track species of birds and fish, recording their behavior, migration activities and habitat preferences, for example capturing nesting peregrines on the cliffs of the Palisades or Minks frolicking on the rocks at the Barnegat Inlet. DeKorte Park at the Meadowlands, the Edwin P Forsythe Natural Wildlife Refuge in Brigantine, the Celery Farm in Allendale are other favorite places to capture eagles, owls, herons, egrets, butterflies and so much more.
“My job is to inform the public of our vast resources available in the nation’s wild-life refuges,” says Houghton, whose passion for nature began as a very young child growing up in the wilds of Franklin Lakes, a town many gravitate to today for its acres of woods and lakes and preserved wetland areas.
The youngest of five children, Herb was in one of the first grades to attend Indian Hills High School in the Franklin Lakes split, graduating from Woodside Ave, Franklin Middle and Hills (1982). Siblings Katherine, Timothy, Michael and Claire all attended Ramapo.
Houghton’s father Thomas was an Electrical Engineer with a passion for HAM Radios. He taught his son the intricacies of the electronics involved in being a HAM operator; skills which made his current profession of wiring homes in new construction seem like child’s play. Houghton’s Mom Angela still lives in the family home after a long career with an Oakland Bank.
Houghton spent a great deal of his childhood wandering around in his neighborhood woods and ponds, so fascinated with sightings and the songs of birds, dreaming of a career as an ornithologist. But life got in the way and he ended up scaling the walls of the recently framed, rather than mountains, lakes, rivers and trees which were his preference.
Oddly enough, it was a back injury and two resulting surgeries that stopped him in his tracks. Seven months of couch rest can do that. Luckily, Houghton was fortunate enough to convalesce in front of a picture window, overlooking a lake, very much alive with all manner of birds and fish and bugs and mammals of all kinds. Prohibited from hiking, but determined to do something, Houghton ordered in his first camera-a lightweight Canon Rebel Xti with a 300mm lens.
“Wow,” said Houghton, admiring his first shots, “these photos are amazing.” His growing fans which include friends, family, neighbors, fellow photographers and a fiancé named Susan and three young children agreed. Houghton laughs good-naturedly today, realizing how far his skills had come from those first memory cards during his confinement.
Today, the photographer is proud to have four books published of his works: pictorial essays entitled “Peregrine Falcons,” “The Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge,” “The Edwin P Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge,” and an exquisite leather-bound book called “Bald Eagles.” And his photographs are selling from his website like hotcakes at a firehouse breakfast!
After viewing these books and the prints online, it is hard to believe that he is self-taught, learning from websites, forums and tips from fellow photographers in the field. Houghton has many admirers who write glowing comments on his website but he is also a fan of some of the greats whose individual legacies have proved inspiring: outdoor photographer Rich Sammon and Art Morris whose work can be seen at www.BirdsAsArt.com.
Houghton sells his work online and also at shows and exhibits such as the one at the NJMC Flyway Gallery Lyndhurst. He is also happy to give workshops and is often found at local birding haunts such as the Celery Farm in Allendale. You cannot miss that lens. Houghton’s work was also seen at a recent exhibit at the Valley Hospital in Ridgewood.
For techies Houghton shoots with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera and Photoshop on his 24 inch screen IMac, publishes books at www.mypublisher.com where his fiancé works in customer service. (Susan also doubles as his assistant, which often means equipment carrier and good natured board secretary of the Friends of the Wallkill River where Herb serves as a board member).
An avid outdoorsman, and fisherman, Houghton will often snap a few shots of the Marlin, Tuna and Sailfish he reels in. He once discovered a tick on his leg and pulled it out, throwing it overboard to its watery fate. Along came a fish who jumped up, caught the tick in midair and Houghton, with that equally famous lightning speed, got the shot, capturing the image on his every ready camera, just in time.
A good photographer has good equipment and is quite capable of producing a good photo—the great ones have all of that plus the patience and a little bit of prolonged luck at being at the right place at just the right time, having their wits about them when the moment, which is often fleeting, comes. Photography like Houghton’s is art. His images have been compared to those of the painterly recordings of the Hudson River School. The Thomas Coles and Alfred Bierstadts who roamed the woods looking for the ”golden light;” Houghton’s Photograph of a group of Eagles perched as if in conference on a bank of rocks nestled into a golden fall scene, is more a painting than it is a photograph.
Snowy Owls staring with human eyes, every feather illuminated for posterity in a soft blue light. Eagles with talons poised to snatch an unsuspecting fish and a red hawk circling high above the timberline-each and every photograph a story of a specific task of a day in the life of the feathered and furry and ok, scaled. The viewer will be amazed at the accuracy of Houghton’s portraits.
“Technologically, I am weak," says Houghton to a discerning doubter, “but I am strong on getting the shot.” And he is, at least NJ Audubon thinks so, one of the periodicals that regularly uses his work. His prints hang in places too numerous to list and the books, well, they are piling up on coffee tables as fast as they are printed. (That leather bound book on Eagles would make an awfully nice Father’s Day Gift.)
There will be an opening reception with refreshments this Saturday, June 11, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the NJMC Flyway Gallery located at the Meadowlands Environmental Center, 1 DeKorte Plaza, Lyndhurst. Houghton will be on hand to talk about the 50 to 60 photographs in the exhibit, many of which were taken in DeKorte Park. Although this show depicts wildlife and their environs, Houghton has also photographs landscapes, seascapes and magical sunsets.
“Traditionally, many people are busy and overlook their surroundings,” says Houghton, who misses not even one feather.
The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.