The Dragon Photographer

In our early days of nature photography, long before I had any right to be that way, I was very competitive. I wanted the awards and accolades. If someone took a good shot of something, I wanted a better photo of the same subject. Most of the time I didn’t succeed in capturing one, but I certainly tried. I have mellowed somewhat as I’ve gotten older—perhaps I can even say “matured” now. I no longer need to have the best photos of everything, which makes life much easier. Not that I ever truly had the best images of any subject, but that task would be virtually impossible now.

Bull elk in velvet
Bull elk in velvet sniffing the flowers, Rocky Mountain National Park

Never mind the fact that no two photographers can even agree on which image is best, there are simply too many great photographers as well as quite a few lucky ones taking pictures of pretty much everything these days. It’s almost overwhelming. And the images that are being captured…all I can do is look and stand amazed by what I see today. Many of these photographers are going to lengths I just don’t feel up to anymore, so I almost humbly say, “Kudos and well done.”

Autumn creek
Autumn cascade, Rocky Mountain National Park

Some might say I’ve gotten old and lazy. I can’t argue with the old part, but I prefer to think I’ve adopted a zen attitude, where it’s enough to experience the wonders of the world without necessarily coming home with award-winning photos. Oh sure, I enjoy taking a great picture as much as the next guy, but my photos no longer have to be among the best. It’s enough to feel the wind, smell the air, hear the songs/cries/growls/roars/bugles, and simply bear witness to the miracle we are a part of. Using terminology from the movie Kung Fu Panda, I have become the Dragon Photographer—able to see the grandeur of lions making a kill in a life and death struggle in my urban backyard, and able to subsist on granola bars alone…at least until meal time.

Bryce Canyon
Morning hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

I still maintain that while the Earth doesn’t need any more people, it certainly needs more nature photographers—not necessarily even good ones, just people who care enough about wild places and their residents to want to capture them in pixels. Even though some of our favorite spots might become more crowded, we just might create a demand for more protected habitat. By sharing images of our experiences, we might even influence those who rarely come in contact with the natural world. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. So keep sticking your noses deeper and deeper into the mystery and majesty of the wild, recording it on whatever medium best suits you, and by all means, share it with the rest of us.

Bald eagles
Roosting bald eagles and snowy mountains, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Alaska

The Value of Uncomfortable

Yellow warbler bathing

This blog includes a couple of excerpts from our latest book, Worshipping With A Camera, for several reasons. The excerpts fit the subject well, it gives me a chance to promote the book again, and all but one image was taken on our Texas Birds Photo Tour—we’re going again in May—come join us!

Gull eating brine flies

The water of California’s Mono Lake is too salty for humans, but brine flies in untold billions find the habitat ideal. And because the brine flies are here, many birds consider this desolate place a land of milk and honey. Mono Lake was obviously created with species other than humans in mind. Does that mean we should drain the lake, desalinate the water and treat the land until it does make a comfortable environment or humans? The brine flies and the gulls certainly don’t think so. And just perhaps, neither does the power behind the lake’s creation.

Baby javelina

Humans seem unable to survive without altering the landscape, and not just altering it, but doing so violently and on a massive scale. Just how did our species survive long enough to overpopulate the Earth? It turns out we’re tougher than one would guess from our climate-controlled, hyper-sanitized dwellings. Somehow though, regardless of the conditions we can easily endure, our comfort and safety have taken precedence over everything else in the world. No matter the conditions outside, we want to wear the same outfit summer, winter, spring and fall. If an animal is potentially dangerous to us or even our pets, it must be eliminated. Entire ecosystems are smothered in concrete and asphalt just so we can be comfortable and safe. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s nice to see that in some places people are making an effort to save some uncomfortable pieces of habitat.

Roadrunner with lizard catch

South Texas scrub in its natural state is a harsh environment, a place of hellish heat and vicious thorns. The weather has been described as perpetual drought interrupted by periods of flood. The vegetation is usually drab-colored and has all joined in a common vendetta against all things that bleed. It doesn’t look like the kind of place colorful birds would call home. You can’t see them. Their calls seem to originate in thickets and brush. Spend some time at a waterhole though, and the most amazing things materialize around the edges. It’s as if something breathed life into tiny pieces of the rainbow and set them flitting through the underbrush. This is alchemy of the most powerful kind, changing thorns and dry seeds into living colors, drinking and bathing in the shallows.

Green jay pair

Something like 98% of Texas is in private hands, and that includes nearly all of the scrub in the Rio Grande flood plain. Many of the ranchers here live on huge tracts of land that have been in the family for generations. Most of them are not wealthy, even though their property is worth a fortune, and the temptation to subdivide and ruin the land must be enormous. The nature photography contests that brought photographers to these ranches, and if possible, made the ranchers love their lands even more, were a Godsend. Because of these contests, many ranches in the area now have blinds on waterholes with feeding stations. They have opened up an entire ecosystem to nature photographers, an ecosystem in which we had almost no access previously.

Desert tortoise and cactus flowers

South Texas scrub is about as nasty an environment as one could imagine, and yet people are doing their best to ensure it isn’t bulldozed aside. Here’s hoping they succeed. Here’s hoping South Texas will continue to be uncomfortable long after we’re gone.

Painted bunting bathing

A Thanksgiving Get Together

The day before Thanksgiving we took a short drive hoping to see some bighorn sheep. Maybe it was because we were already in holiday mode, maybe it was just nice to lie in bed on a cold morning. Whatever the reason, we ended up sleeping in and eating a leisurely breakfast. By the time we made it to the Waterton Canyon trailhead it was already 11 a.m., and we had a couple of miles to walk—not exactly the behavior we endorse in our wildlife photography lectures. Do as we say, not as we do.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

However, even though the sun was high and we didn’t expect to come home with any great shots, it was nice to get out and walk. About 21/2 miles up the road we spotted the sheep feeding on a hillside. We climbed about 100 feet above the road, trying to guess which direction the sheep were feeding, and then we sat and waited. Sometimes the magic works. In less than 20 minutes, the sheep fed their way right past where we were sitting. And even though the light wasn’t great, we congratulated ourselves on being accepted so close to the herd.

Bighorn sheep herd

We thought our day with the bighorns was pretty much over, but by the time we picked our way back down the hill to the road, the animals were standing beside it only 1/4 mile away. We worked our way up to the herd, shooting as we went, and stopping when they looked up at us. Before we knew it we were a part of the herd. We worried a bit about disturbing them, that is until they walked right up to me as I was kneeling beside the road. To top things off, the light changed. Heavy clouds, the forerunners of a Thanksgiving snowstorm, swallowed the sun, giving us even light with very little contrast.

Bighorn sheep & photographer

For more than an hour we had bighorn sheep on all sides of us, sometimes close enough to touch. The rams were touching noses with the ewes and checking to see who was ready to mate. The ewes were concentrating on eating for the most part, although a couple of them were flashing encouraging glances at the rams—probably just teasing. The lambs of the year seemed caught up in the overall excitement, trotting back and forth from one group to another. Rodney Dangerfield once said, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a group that would have me as a member.” Even though we were obviously the deficient members, it was incredible to be accepted, even as only honorary members, by a group like this. When we turned to walk away, we had bighorns walking all around us for the first 50 feet or so, as if they actually enjoyed our company. Most likely we were so unimportant they were just ignoring us, but it’s nice to pretend.

Young bighorn sheep

It ended up being the most productive bighorn shoot we’ve ever had, but that was secondary. It was the experience, the unlikely opportunity to be an uncoordinated member of the herd, that was so special. The most important thing the cameras did was drag us out of the house, giving us a chance to see something so wondrous. I want to reiterate that we advocate getting up early and trying to capture your subject in that golden sunrise light. However, sleeping in apparently works for us…no, no, no. That’s not the lesson here. The lesson here is that if you can only get away in the middle of the day, go then. You never know what treasures are waiting for you.

Bighorn sheep mating behavior

Don't Worry, Be Happy

“Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway.”

—Tom Petty

Another sleepless night, tossing and turning, worrying about a seemingly endless supply of uncontrollable factors. Will the weather cooperate with our group of photographers? Are we going to have an aurora? Is a spirit bear going to show up? Will the filling in my right, rear molar last until my next visit to the dentist? The list goes on and on. Why do we worry so much about a future we cannot control? Why is it so hard to simply prepare as best we can, leave the future in the hands of the fates, and sleep as if we had no cares in the world? Sometimes having a big brain is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Orca spyhopping

While photographing orcas along British Columbia’s Inside Passage we happened upon a pod of transients. Transient orcas survive by eating other marine mammals, and the pod needs to average one or two kills each day, depending on the size of their prey. Usually transients are always on the move, making them difficult to keep up with and photograph. However, this particular pod was loafing in the same area for the entire morning and early afternoon. These orcas had just made a kill that morning and they were in high spirits, especially the two juveniles. We watched them for almost five hours as they rubbed against each other, spyhopped, tail-lobbed, breached and rolled on their backs. Sometimes they would approach right up to our boat or to a researcher’s zodiac (a researcher was usually with the whales), and it looked like these intelligent creatures were showing off. Many times they would leap out of the water and then poke their heads up to make sure we had seen what they did.

Orca tail

It’s understandable that the orcas were jubilant after having fed well, and were able to keep flesh and spirit together for another day or so. But what about tomorrow? Tomorrow meant another patient stalk in pursuit of seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and small whales, all of which are wary, hard-to-catch prey. Shouldn’t they be worried about making it through tomorrow…and the day after that, ad infinitum? Or just maybe the orcas have it right, and humans need to learn to lighten up.

Orca breaching

Granted, as intelligent as they are, killer whales have nowhere near the brain power humans do, and rather than being a handicap, this seems to give them an advantage in the worry-free nights department. It’s another example of humans using their brains for the wrong purposes. A lack of genius has allowed orcas, and by extension every wild thing, to stumble upon the enlightened path, something spiritual humans have been seeking for millennia. The answer we’ve been searching for appears to be the fact that every day on this side of the dirt is a day for celebration. Any day that finds you looking at the natural world through a viewfinder should be greeted with spyhops and breaches.

Orca checking out researcher's boat

We're All In This Together

There’s always something new under the sun. There are always surprises waiting for us
in the most unlikely places. Recent studies are showing plants may be far more than the
yard decorations and colorful picture elements we’ve taken them for. These beings that
we’ve always considered to be merely ground cover are capable of movement,
communication--yes, they can talk to their neighbors--and even arithmetic--some
species need to know the hours of darkness and calculate if they have enough starch to
survive the night. Charles Darwin recognized intelligent, purposeful movement in plants,
and he even wrote a book on it. The scientific community ignored his findings for more
than 120 years.

Bull ekl with vegetation in antlers

It’s not like we’re the only ones who don’t consider the feeling of plants in our daily dealings with them. We all do what we have to do in order to survive, and sometimes the plants suffer.

We don’t even know how intelligent plants are because we are not smart enough to
communicate with them. The problem is they use chemical cues rather than auditory
ones to talk to the plants and animals around them, and this is a language Rosetta
Stone© doesn’t cover. Plants are as aware of our presence as any animal, more aware
than many. They are even self aware, which puts them way above most animals in
intelligence, at least by the way we measure such things. There is also considerable
evidence they feel pain. Any time plants are wounded, they emit ethylene, a familiar
pain killer. There may another answer, but it seems logical to assume they emit a pain
killer when they feel pain.

Bugs on flower blossom

If only we could decipher the chemical language between plants and their environment, who knows what wonders we would discover.

What are the implications of these discoveries? Well, one of the big arguments for the
vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is that it is kinder to feeling creatures, and that was a valid
point until these recent discoveries. It turns out that even though plants don’t have
faces, and even though their seat of intelligence may not be a brain per se, they do feel
and they are aware. Harvesting fruit or grain may be just as painful for them as plucking
off pieces of us would be. We raise many plants just to kill them so we can survive.
There is simply no getting around the fact that for one being to live, other beings,
whether they are animals or plants, must die. We are utterly dependent upon other
living beings paying the ultimate price so that we may live. We are more closely tied to
the rest of creation than we can possibly imagine.

Rock squirrel & blossoms

For us, flowers are nothing more than ornamentation, and for many species they are only nourishment. But who knows how much more they truly are. Keep in mind that for tigers humans are merely tiger food.

Whether we are aware of it or not, almost anywhere we point a lens in the natural world,
we are photographing a life and death struggle. The struggle may not be obvious. It may
even appear completely harmless--a porcupine nibbling on a flower or a field of many
species in bloom--but there is a struggle occurring. Of course, just to make things more
complicated, at the same time as this struggle for available resources is going on, there
is also a constant discussion or dialogue between the protagonists, establishing
boundaries, making or breaking treaties, and deciding who to cooperate with and who to
fight tooth and nail.

Cow elk eating flowers
Regardless of their other qualities, flowers brighten up and make just about any image more interesting.

The idea that we are better or more evolved than other species because we don’t need
to kill thinking, feeling beings no longer holds water. What’s more, the knowledge of
whether it’s better to kill animals or plants to survive is forever beyond our grasp. The
fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden to us, and consequently,
just like every other plant and animal we see, all we can do is muddle through as best
we can. For me at least, being a nature photographer helps. The camera lens makes
me an intimate part of the ongoing conflict/cooperation, and makes it easier to rejoice in our connection to it. This is what makes the world go round.

High mountain wildflowers
This is so much more than a colorful meadow. Complex struggles are in play here, partnerships are being forged, decisions are being made to help one’s progeny. And we are totally oblivious to everything but the pretty colors because most of the action is occurring at the root tips.

It's Not Rocket Science

Some time ago, during one of our presentations, an audience member floored me with the question, “Why did you keep that particular photo?” As if we could possibly have any photos that were not masterpieces. The image in question was a wide angle shot of a hummingbird hovering with the Costa Rican rainforest surrounding it.

Hummingbird and scenery, costa rica
White-necked jacobin photographed with wide-angle zoom and
single flash to show the bird and where it lived.

It’s not that our questioner considered the image a bad one, but he could not think of a reason to keep it. It probably would not do well in a photo contest or club competition, and it would not make a wonderful print. The person was not necessarily wrong. The image would not make a good, stand-alone print, and it has certainly never won any awards. However, that’s not really why I worked long and hard to take the photo.

Leaf cutter ants
Leaf-cutter ants are an integral part of the rainforest, and their parades are common sights. This was taken with a 180 macro, a flash in front and a flash behind to show the translucence of the leaves.

Why do we photograph, and perhaps more importantly, why do we keep the photos we do? Why didn’t I delete the hummingbird photo after seeing that it didn’t meet the obvious criteria for being a “good” photo? Allow me to wander off topic for a moment and talk about octopi--believe me, it all ties together. An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium has been taught to photograph the visitors that come to see and photograph it. Cephalopods do appear to be a good fit for photography. There are times when I thought an extra arm or two would come in handy. The point is though, this boneless creature is taking perfectly acceptable photos. Granted, octopi are the Einsteins of the mollusk world, but it’s still pretty obvious that taking pictures is not exactly rocket science. All photographers are doing pretty much the same thing. Among the few variables we can play with are: where we point the lens (even the octopus could figure that one out), when to push the shutter button, how much to include in the frame, shutter speed and aperture.

Sloth in tree
Whether you see them or not, the rainforest is full of creatures big and small. Even though it was at eye level,
this sloth had to be pointed out to me. Taken at 100mm, ISO 1600.

We’re not doing this because it’s an intellectual challenge. We’re doing it because it’s a creative challenge. In spite of the rules of composition, it’s still an activity of the heart more than it is the head. Regardless of our intentions, most of us will never do anything truly meaningful with our photos, like convince the powers that be to preserve and conserve, or change the mindset of environmental villains. Most of us will always concentrate on taking pretty pictures. The pretty pictures are an end in themselves, and there is nothing wrong with this. Many people, like Cathy and myself, find that they are compelled to make an effort to capture the beauty around us. The universe pretty much demands it. We find that we are dragged into the cold, the hot, rain, snow and sometimes even pleasant weather, just to witness and record that beauty.

Costa Rican landscape
Of the few variables we can play with, where we point the lens and what to include in the frame are two of the most important. The colorful blossoms beside a cascade in Costa Rica almost dragged me to this spot.
5 second exposure at f22.

The beauty surrounding us exists on so many levels we find that we are constantly stretching the limits of what we can do and what our equipment can do just to get to the core of the miracle, just to show what it means to be a part of the biosphere, a part of the universe. In Costa Rica it’s relatively easy to get great hummingbird photos--great bird photos in general, but they don’t show the relationship between the rainforest and the animal. That’s what I wanted. That’s why I worked so hard to get the hummingbird photo. There was no way I was going to discard it.

Aricari eating coffee bean
This aricari eating coffee beans had a serious caffeine addiction. Taken with a 100-400 zoom.

Green honeycreepers eating berries
Juvenile green honeycreeper begging to be fed even though it’s standing next to the berries.
Taken with a 500mm and 1.4x teleconverter.

Back in the film days, a very popular environmental writer wrote an article that questioned the necessity of capturing any more wildlife images. His argument was there were already plenty of hummingbird photos, or elephant photos, or whatever photos. We didn’t need anymore, and all of this photographic attention was stressing the creatures unduly. How idiotic. If anything, this planet needs even more people immersing themselves in the core of the miracle, and it doesn’t matter if they are doing it mentally, visually, with paint and easel, hammer and chisel, or with camera and lenses. No, this isn’t rocket science. It’s much more important than that. It’s a pursuit of the heart and soul.

Rufous-tailed hummingbird at flower
Rufous-tailed hummingbird feeding. Taken with 100-400 zoom, 1/1250 sec, ISO 800 and no flash.

In The Beginning...

Late at night, when the campfire burns low, old timers still tell almost unbelievable stories about the days of yore. Once upon a time, the story goes, a nature photographer could make a decent living simply by selling photos to publications and commercial interests. Cathy and I got into this business just as those days were ending. Suddenly there was too much supply and not enough demand as new photographers appeared on the scene, anxious to sell their photos. The old timers probably considered us interlopers, as contributing to the decline of their industry, and we probably viewed the even newer photographers the same way. However, nothing lasts forever, and change is the only constant. All of us must adapt to the changes or step aside.

As we watched the stock photo industry shrink, we asked ourselves why we got into this business. We came to the somewhat surprising conclusion that for us selling photos was not the most important consideration. Neither was winning awards in photo contests. The most important thing was the sheer joy that experiencing and sharing the natural world gave us. We realized most of our favorite photos will never sell, and will never win a photo contest. Granted, we would prefer that they did, but that is not why we made the effort to capture the images. We made the effort because we were compelled to do so. Our cameras opened the door to the mystery and the magic of the universe--who could resist that?

Sandhill cranes, full moon, Bosque del Apache

The more we thought about it, the more we saw that what we were doing was kneeling, often literally, before the altar of creation. It took almost a decade for our philosophy to coalesce, and it turned out that our cameras played a key role in our religion. Not that we worship our cameras, even though it might appear that way to onlookers. It is the natural world and the Creator behind it that are the central figures in our religion. Our cameras are simply intermediaries that give us access to the objects of our devotion, kind of like a deacon opening the doors to a church.

When we understood that we were worshipping with our cameras, we felt we should share this concept. Not just because there was the possibility of making a buck, but because we were sure we were not alone. There are countless photographers who get their primary inspiration from the natural world, who are captivated by the miracle and the majesty of this tapestry we’ve been woven into. Our first ebook,
Worshipping With A Camera, Other Nations; The Creatures Who Share This Planet With Us, is dedicated to you.