The Prodigal Son Returns

Horses actually evolved on this continent. They made their way to Asia over the Bering Land Bridge as the first humans were walking the other way into the Americas. These first human immigrants may have had something to do with the extinction of horses here. However, when these animals returned with the conquering Europeans, they had circumnavigated the globe, an extreme case of the prodigal son returning. They were also much larger and more impressive than the dog-sized creatures that evolved here. There's a line in a John Denver song, "I had a vision of eagles and horses, high on a ridge in a race with the wind," and this kept running through my mind for 4 days. We didn't see a lot of eagles, but there were hundreds of wild horses thundering across the grassland. One band after another would come running past us, kicking up clouds of dust. If the scene sounds incredible, it was. In fact, it was photographically magical. The problems, such as they were, arose when the wind blew the dust our way.

Wild horse herd running across dusty prairie

Wild Horses in a Hurry

This part of Northern Utah was once the bed of an enormous inland sea, and the resulting soil forms a deep, talcum powder-like dust. A lone person walking through it creates a knee-high haboob. Our parking spot at the hotel looked like the chalk outline from a crime scene, and a herd of horses can create an almost impenetrable dirty fog that cameras could rarely focus through. The horses themselves were often dim silhouettes, even when the sound of drumming hooves was loud in our ears.

Wild horse herd & sunrise color

Breakfast With a View

Cathy and I have photographed wild horses many times in several different locations, but never have we had opportunities like we did here. For one thing, the numerous bands all stayed fairly close together, creating an enormous herd. Sometimes it took a bit of looking, but when you found the herd, the photography lasted for a long time. And, because there were so many horses clustered together, there was a lot of behavior, including fights. Most of the fights were short, only a couple of kicks, and afterwards the combatants would nuzzle each other like best buds. A couple of the fights however, went on long enough to obscure the battle behind a dust screen, making it almost impossible to tell the color of the fighting horses.

Wild horse stallions fighting

Kicking Up Some Dust

Our first experience with the horses was at a waterhole, and we were photographing from telephoto range to keep from disturbing them as they drank. We were a bit surprised to see them walking towards us after they had finished their drink, and they kept coming closer and closer until they were in wide-angle range unless you wanted face shots. We found that if we waited for the horses to approach us, they would continue right past, often feeding next to us without lifting their heads. I don't know what the horses were thinking. We obviously were not horses because we were far too slow and clumsy and we didn't smell quite right either (that was an understatement after days in the heat).

Wild horse herd

Checking Out The New Guy

Because the horses were so tolerant, we could often position ourselves to take full advantage of the sun and the scenery. A couple of times we were able to incorporate sunrises and sunset clouds with pieces of the herd. Listening to their soft neighs and whinnies as they munched the dry grass, made me want to respond in their own language, but I could only give thanks I was even privy to the conversation. It’s not something many people can say, and the magic didn’t stop there. The horses and the wild landscape took us back in time more than a century, and we were able to capture scenes from a West that disappeared long ago.

Wild horses & sunset clouds

Sunset Trail

Few creatures are the center of such intense debate as wild horses, but these rugged western landscapes would come up lacking without the thundering herds high on a ridge in a race with the wind.

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

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.

Whether We See It Or Not

It was late at night, and I was hunched over a plastic bowl, armed only with a long-handled, plastic spoon and a blacklight, when suddenly I was struck by an epiphany. The beauty of nature is all around us, everywhere, whether people are there to enjoy it or not. Think about birds of paradise displaying in the depths of the Papua New Guinea rainforest, or marine tube worms in some of the deepest parts of the ocean, or a fairyland of stalactites and stalagmites hidden so deep underground we may never see it. Why does this beauty exist if not for our enjoyment?

Scorpions are hardly what normal people would call beautiful.
Taken with a 180mm macro, nothing special.

The bowl I was hunched over contained scorpions, and I was wrangling them into position so Cathy could photograph them. Now scorpions are hardly what anyone would call beautiful. Interesting is about as far as I would go. One of the neatest things about these ancient creatures though, is they fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and glowing scorpions do have an eerie, almost other-worldly beauty about them.

Scorpion under uv light
Same scorpion and same rock as in the top photo only under a UV light.
180mm macro, f8, 2.5 sec, ISO 1600, +11/3.

We wanted to photograph glowing scorpions so Cathy could do well in a photo contest, and she did indeed get some great glowing portraits the first time she tried it. In the next contest everyone was shooting scorpions under UV light, so we had to come up with something better. Hence, the multiple scorpions eluding my spoon in the bowl before me. The photography was not terribly difficult once you came up with the idea and got the little beasts to stay still while you photographed them. The hard part was coming up with different ideas and concepts, such as shooting them with a rising full moon. Another problem was the fact that we were outside on a warm night in South Texas with a blacklight, and every flying bug in the county was zooming in on that light. We had bugs in our hair, bugs crawling down our shirts, it was quite possibly the longest 45 minutes I’ve ever spent while engaged in nature photography.

Two scorpions under uv light
It looks like there is interaction going on, but the scorpions were put together with my spoon,
and they ignored each other. 180mm macro, f11, .6 sec, ISO 1600, -1.

Scorpions have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and humans have been aware of them as long as we’ve existed. And yet, the beauty that was glowing before us was totally invisible to us until the invention of the ultraviolet light. Why do these pointy arthropods even glow at all, and if the world was created for us, why was this beauty hidden from us for so long?

Three scorpions under uv light
Another artificial situation created by my spoon. 180mm macro, f13, .6 sec, ISO 1600, -1.

There is only one explanation for this phenomenon. Beauty is important to the Creator, to God. Perhaps it is the most important thing. And that’s one of the reasons nature photographers are blessed. We spend our lives in pursuit of this beauty, whether it’s in our own backyards or in some far corner of the world. And more importantly, we go out of our way to share this beauty with others. We are rarely content with only capturing the obvious. We want to photograph landscapes and behaviors that no one else has seen or even knows the existence of. We squeeze through cracks in the Earth, trudge across ice flows, peer into the infinity of space and the invisible world of the unimaginably small. Our pursuit of this beauty knows no bounds or limits.

Scorpion and full moon
Scorpion under UV light with full moon rising. 180mm macro, f9, .6 sec, ISO 800, -2.

Another important inference we can make from these observations is that God is apparently quite fond of nature photographers. I can think of no other explanation for glowing scorpions, for beauty being anywhere and everywhere, enticing us into locations and situations that enrich both our lives and our souls.

Scorpion and full moon
Scorpion under UV light with rising full moon. 28-135mm @ 135mm, f5.6, 1/4 sec, ISO 400, -1.

How Close Is Too Close

The May/June issue of Audubon had an article on photographers getting too close their subjects and adversely affecting those subjects. In that piece, Arthur Morris was quoted as saying that wildlife researchers impact their subjects a whole lot more than photographers do. As someone with a degree in Wildlife Biology, I can say that Artie’s not wrong, although there is the question of motives. Since that article was released I’ve heard wildlife photographers coming down on both sides of the issue. Heck, I’ve been on both sides of the issue myself.

High Island rookery & photographers
These photographers are only about 30 feet from this rookery, but there is water between them so the birds feel safe.

There is no doubt that there are photographers out there who, through ignorance or lack of consideration, are willing to put their subjects at risk just so they can get the shot. I maintain their numbers are relatively small, and that the vast majority of us care deeply about the wild things in front of our lenses.

Photographer & wild horse

Some places definitely have more tolerant animals. This is a wild horse, and it also happened to be a bit of a photography buff.

There is also no doubt that our government does not want us anywhere near wild critters. We had a national park employee throw rocks at a coyote we were photographing from the car, saying, and I quote, “Photographing the animals is a bad as feeding them.” I’m not kidding. I thought Cathy’s head was going to explode. In their defense, they have to manage the resource for a whole bunch of idiots, idiots who are liable to sue them if they are hurt by a wild animal, or who might endanger the animal. So who is right, the government that sets limits for how close we can be to the wildlife, or the photographer who maintains that the animal could just leave if it was that bothered?

Grizzly bear & photographers

How close is too close? If the animal has not altered its behavior, you’re probably OK.

Of course, there is no answer that will be correct in every situation. One of the things that makes it tough to come up with one right answer is that animals are all individuals. One might tolerate photographers at point blank range, while its sibling may attack or take off running in the same situation. Back in the film days we were photographing a pair of whooping cranes in Florida, and we were shooting at extreme distances with long lenses and teleconverters--that is until one of the locals called them by name and they walked up to take almonds out of his hand. I’ve got pictures of Cathy feeding almonds to a wild whooping crane. We probably cannot plan on doing this with any other whooping crane we happen to find.

Whooping Crane Eating Almonds

All animals are individuals. This is one of two wild whooping cranes in the world that you could feed by hand.

It has become relatively easy for people to obtain the gear necessary for capturing wildlife images, but learning about your subjects still takes time and effort. Consequently there is an ever growing number of enthusiasts out there who want those great shots, and they’ve seen them taken by other photographers, but they don’t realize what was involved in obtaining those images. It’s a lot easier to buy the gear than it is to learn about your subject. Many of them do not know how to properly approach a wild subject.

Bald eagle & photographer

Sometimes the animals don’t pay any attention the distance limits. This eagle landed too close to photograph with a big lens.

Here’s the synopsis: Ideally you don’t approach the subject, you allow it to approach you. If you do need to move, move slowly. Zig-zag toward the animal, and don’t make eye contact. Smaller is better (Cathy can often get closer than I can unless I get down on my knees). If the subject alters its behavior, you’re probably too close.

Mountain goat & photographer

Sometimes the animals will trust you more if you’re close to ground.

The real bummer is that after you’ve allowed the animals to come close, or after you’ve successfully stalked it, some moron will come by, see you close to the creature, and walk right up to it, scaring it away. The park rangers will also not differentiate between whether you walked up to the animal or it walked up to you. If you are closer than the limits they set, too bad.

Tri-colored heron & visitors

If you want to get close to animals, visit the places where the animals are tolerant of people.

What we need is more people involved with wildlife, whether it’s with a camera, spotting scope, or radio collars, so they know the creatures intimately. Get enough people closely involved with our wild neighbors and there would be more places to photograph, more protected land and more protected species. That’s my 2 cents worth.

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.

Mine's Bigger, But Is That A Good Thing?

A wildlife photographer’s first instinct is usually to make the subject as large as possible in the frame. Let us see the whites of the critter’s eyes. And this is an understandable reaction when trying to compose images of subjects that often don’t want humans very close. However, it’s not your only option.

Let’s start at the beginning. Most animal photos do very little other than document the fact that the photographer saw an animal. This used to be enough to hold the viewer’s interest, but today’s viewers are a spoiled bunch. They’ve seen lots of animal pictures, and they’re a lot more sophisticated. If you want to get their attention you need to take your wildlife photos beyond mere documentation. And that’s what we’re trying to do by making our subject larger or smaller in the frame.

Wildlife images grab our attention with their beauty, cuteness, strangeness, the emotions they evoke, the behavior they show, the environmental relationships they portray and the details about the subject they allow us to see. In most photos, the wildlife subject is not tight enough to show us details about the subject or wide enough to show an environmental relationship. Unless it has something else going for it--maybe flowers or interesting behavior--it’s stuck in the no-man’s land of mere documentation.

Mountain goat in flowers
This size of this mountain goat within the frame would make it a documentary photo if it were not for the flowers and interesting boulders.

Mountain goat nanny & kidMountain goatsMountain goat nanny & kid
This first mountain goat image would only be documentary without the implied interaction between the nanny and kid. The second shot is tight enough to show some real detail, and at the same time it provides as much information about what’s going on as the first image did. The last photo is wide enough to show the environment these goats live in--it’s a world of rock and it’s way up above everything else.

Going beyond documentary by making the subject larger in the frame is easier to work with than making the subject smaller. It’s pretty easy to compose an image of an animal’s face. You can only move it around so much before you begin to chop off important parts. With this kind of image we’re trying to show the viewer details they may never have seen before--like what kind of flowers it’s eating or whether it’s a billy or a nanny (easiest way is to look at how wide the horns are at the base--the horns of billies are wider at the base).

Mountain goat
You can tell by its horns that this mountain goat is a nanny (the top photo shows a young billy), and it is eating spring beauties and dwarf clover. A wider shot would not have shown these details.

When you make your wildlife subject small in the frame--unless it’s small because you just couldn’t get any closer--you’re trying to show its relationship with its environment. This is a much harder image to compose, and the proper situation for creating a strong image with a small subject doesn’t arise all that often. First, most wildlife habitats are messy and cluttered, and it’s very easy to lose your subject if you make it small. Second, you often need to get close to your subject to create this kind of shot, and most animals don’t want you to get close. Places like the Galapagos or Falklands are great because many of their wild residents evolved without 2-legged predators. Mountain goats can also be a good possibility because they are often pretty tolerant of photographers and they live above timberline, so you don’t have a lot of vegetation hiding your subject. You want your subject to stand out even though its small, so you want to place light colored subjects against dark backgrounds and vice versa. Also, putting the subject at one of the power points (check the Rule of Thirds) usually helps make the image stronger.

Mountain goatMountain goat & mountains
Having a background that contrasts with the subject, and putting the subject at one of the power points can help draw attention to your subject.

Don’t automatically fill the frame with your subject. Think about what you’re trying to do when you’re deciding how large to make the subject within your frame. If the subject is in just the right spot (stranger things have happened), you may be able to shoot both tight and wide by simply zooming your lens.

These concepts are covered in more detail in our first book, Dynamic Wildlife Photography, which is still available at Amazon and the other usual outlets.

Think Wide

Wide-angle lenses have always been my favorites for landscape photography. I’m blaming it on David Muench. His trademark images featuring strong, point blank foregrounds with spectacular backgrounds were one of the big reasons I became interested in nature photography in the first place. I never got into large format equipment because I like the freedom of the 35mm format, and I’m too lazy and undisciplined for large format.

Grand Staircase Escalante NM
Taken at 10mm with small sensor camera. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for
getting close to foreground elements and still including the background.

The first thing most instructors tell aspiring landscape photographers is narrow your focus. Analyze the scene to determine what it is that makes you want to photograph it, and compose around that. This almost always means shooting tighter than you originally planned. And this is a legitimate technique to teach. Let’s face it, nature is messy, and a wide-angle lens is going to include more picture elements that don’t support your center of interest. The more you can tighten your focus, the more distracting elements you can eliminate, the stronger your photo is going to be.

Toadstool & Flowers
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera. I like to see the big picture.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that I like to capture the big picture. I want to see the immensity of the scenery, and this is where a wide-angle lens shines. It’s also easier to handhold a wide-angle lens if you’re traveling light (or if you’re just lazy), and because of this it’s easier to use a wide-angle lens in weird positions, positions that you may not even be able to get a tripod into. A wide-angle lens automatically provides more depth of field because it tends to make the picture elements smaller. These lenses are great for making sunstars and minimizing flares simply because they make the sun smaller.

Balanced Rock Reflection
Taken at 10mm with a small sensor camera.
The pothole is only a few feet across, but there are no distracting elements.

Desolate environments, places without a lot of vegetation to clutter up your image are ideal for using wide-angle lenses. Some of my favorites are Death Valley, the alpine tundra of the western mountain ranges, and the high deserts of Arizona and Utah. One thing to keep in mind is that wide-angle lenses emphasize negative space. If there is a blank spot in a field of flowers, a wide-angle lens will make that empty spot larger and more distracting.

Glacier NP
Taken at 17mm, the lilies in the extreme foreground were used to cover a blank spot in the field.

I should probably mention that Cathy prefers to shoot tighter, picking out details in the scene, and even in the most desolate landscapes, she comes back with more keepers than I do with my wide-angle lenses.

Set Your Images Apart

The November gathering of bald eagles on Alaska’s Chilkat River attracts photographers from all around the world--Denmark, Japan, Canada, not to mention nearly every state in America were represented in the five days we were there. During one period when the eagles seemed to only be catching fish in one 10-foot stretch of river, I counted 35 photographers standing shoulder to shoulder, and I’m sure I missed some of them. Every time the birds twitched, a thousand frames were recorded on media cards. Cathy and I have been places where the number of photographers was higher, but it was a certainty that a great many of the images captured here were going to be pretty darn similar. How do you make your photos stand out in such a situation? And more importantly, should you even try?

Bald eagle fight

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, 500mm + 1.4 teleconverter, ISO 1600, 1/800, f6.3

Many big name photographers, some that I respect a great deal, believe you always need to try to set your work apart from other photographers. I’m not so sure that’s always the best plan. I’ve always been a big believer in photographing the subjects you enjoy shooting without regard for what others are shooting. If this means taking pictures of the same things everyone else is photographing, that’s just the way it goes. And besides, there are so many photographers these days that almost no matter what subject you want to shoot, and no matter what style you use, you’re going to have plenty of company. One of the things Cathy and I most enjoy capturing is behavior, and that’s one of the most popular subjects on the Chilkat at this time of year. Consequently, even though nearly everyone was trying to obtain sharp pictures of talon-to-talon action, it didn’t stop us from trying to do the same thing. Of course, we also tried a few other things that perhaps not as many photographers attempted.

Bald eagle & mountains

Canon EOS-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@150mm, ISO 1600, 1/1600, f16, -2/3

Wildlife photographers are often obsessed with making the subject as large as possible in the frame, so we’ll sometimes go in the other direction. We’ll try to make it small. In the photo above, we could have made the eagle much bigger in the frame, but then the mountains would not be visible. The eagle alone would not have been much of a photo, and the mountains alone would’ve just been OK. Combine the two though, and you’ve got a much stronger image. We are always looking for opportunities to make scenic images with wildlife, even if it means intentionally making the subject small in the frame. With a small subject you emphasize the immensity of the landscape and the subject’s relationship with that landscape. The most important thing is that even though the subject is small, it is still easily visible.

Bald eagle blur

Canon EOD-1D Mark III, 100-400mm@400mm, ISO 200, 1/30, f8, -1/3

With moving subjects you have two main choices to make your images stand out--shoot faster than everyone else or slower than everyone else. Ultra fast shutter speeds are great for birds splashing in the water, and with these shutter speeds we can see details in the water drops that were previously invisible. Since we had low light conditions for pretty much the entire week we were in Alaska, it was easier to go the other route--use a low ISO and shoot with a slower shutter speed than everyone else. With a slow shutter speed the photographer is trying to give the impression of speed, and you never know what you’re going to get. On this trip I only designated an hour or so towards the end of the tour to experiment with slow shutter speeds, and the eagles happened to be rather lazy that morning so I didn’t get as many chances as I would’ve liked. The photographers around me probably took a hundred images with fast shutter speeds that stopped the action in the photo above. Are they better than this shot taken at a 1/30 second? That depends on what you’re trying to show. All I know is that I’m looking forward to trying this technique with eagles again.

There is nothing wrong with shooting the same subjects and using the same techniques as everyone else. The most important things are that you get to spend time in the natural world reveling in the grandeur around us, that you have a good time trying to capture that grandeur with your camera, and that you are happy with your images. If some artistic drive has you wanting to set your photos apart from the those of the masses, there are techniques you can try, and we’ve touched on a couple of them in this blog. Have fun experimenting.

Let The Games Begin

I’ve known photographers who were totally oblivious of this fact, and I’ve lost sight of it myself from time to time. It can be a difficult thing to keep in mind, and it was another photographer--thank you Valerie Millett--who reminded me. Nature photography is not a contest. It is not a game in which the person who visits the most locations or the most exotic sites wins. I have fleeting moments when I think it might be nice if it was a game, at least for a little while, but those thoughts are generated by a desire for financial security. Speaking as a photo tour leader, it would great if everyone was competing to see all the places we want to take them. However, for good or bad, it is not a contest, and it makes no difference if you’re photographing in Alaska or your own backyard, as long as you’re out there shooting.

The miracle that compels us to push the shutter button is not something that is only present in far away climes. The beauty, the life and death struggles we want so desperately to capture happen in our own gardens just as they do in the rainforest. This orb weaver spider laid her trap right beside our front door, and the fact that we didn’t need to travel to the far corners of the globe did not detract from the engineering marvel that was her web, the evolutionary miracle the stronger-than-steel gossamer strands represented or the deadliness of her attack.

Orb weaver spider and web

The poetic naturalist, Annie Dillard, once wrote, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.” And the same applies to spiders. Not only do they have way too many legs, too many eyes, fangs and impressive chelicerae, but their mobility on sticky strands of silk borders on the supernatural. It’s no wonder they feature prominently in many horror movies. For me, it is their method of eating that is most distressing. You see, spiders do not simply eat their victims. They inject a witches brew of poison and enzymes that paralyzes the prey and then reduces its muscles and organs to a protein shake that can be sucked out. Makes you hungry just thinking about it.

Orb weaver spider and prey

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to photograph exotic locations and the magnificent scenery, charismatic megafauna, colorful birds or whatever that make them a Shangri-La for nature photographers. In fact, our business depends upon it, and even though Cathy and I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of these places, there are many more that are still on our wish list. As you dream of far away destinations though, keep in mind the distance to the location often has little to do with the quality of the photos you may come home with. A photo of an iceberg from Antarctica or Iceland is not inherently better than one of a flower from a local garden. A photo of a grizzly bear is not necessarily stronger than one of a spider. Some of our strongest images were taken within an hour’s drive of our home. When we judge photography competitions, we’ve found that quite often the most ordinary and pedestrian images are the ones with the most exciting subjects. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the image is exciting just because the subject is. On the other hand, some of the most extraordinary images are composed of ordinary subjects. I’m not sure if the ones I’ve included with this blog illustrate this fact adequately, but you get the idea.

Orb weaver spider and prey

If nature photography is a contest, the winner is the one who gets to spend the most time immersed in the mystery and majesty that we are a part of, wherever that may be.

Photographing The Aurora

Photographing the aurora is actually quite easy once you get over the fact that you’re working in the dark. The only specialized equipment you need is a camera with adjustable settings and a decent tripod. A cable release can also be helpful. Since you’re often shooting a wide expanse of sky, a wide angle lens is usually preferred, and the faster the lens, the faster the shutter speed you can get away with.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
20mm, f1.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

To begin with:

Set your camera on manual mode.

Start with an ISO of at least 400, and go higher if you need to. Obviously, a camera that can handle high ISOs without much noise is a huge advantage. We often shoot with an ISO of 1600 or even higher.

Open the lens to its widest aperture, or close to it--4.5 or under should work fine. Faster lenses give you much more leeway. Our favorite lenses have maximum apertures of 1.8 and 2.8.

Set the shutter speed for around 15 seconds to start with. Make it longer if the aurora is not noticeable, or shorter if the aurora is over exposed. With an ISO of 1600 and a lens at f1.8 we can often use shutter speeds in the 4 to 6 second range. Sometimes the aurora moves a great deal, and a fast shutter speed helps capture the patterns. With a fairly wide lens, the stars will begin to streak if the shutter is open for longer than 25 seconds. And the longer your focal length, the less time before the stars begin to streak.

Pre-focus the lens to almost infinity--don’t go all the way to the infinity mark. After pre-focusing, switch the lens to manual focus so you don’t accidentally re-focus after you have your shot composed.

Use a cable release or self-timer to trip the shutter.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 6 seconds, ISO 1600

Things to keep in mind:

In most instances, a wide angle lens will give you the best results. If the aurora is wide enough, a fisheye can be fun to try, although it does make the stars even smaller.

Usually you can see well enough by the light of the aurora to compose your images.

Bring a small flashlight, and be sure not to point it at, or in front of your lens (or anyone else’s) while your shutter is open (unless you are painting some of the foreground elements).

If you use mirror lock-up, hesitate a second or two between raising the mirror and tripping the shutter or the camera movement will blur the photo.

The foreground is often what makes or breaks a night photo, although with the aurora, the patterns of light can overwhelm the rest of the composition. Still, if you include elements that are closer than 10 feet, they may be out of focus, and if you focus on them, the stars may be objectionably blurry. You just don’t have much depth of field to work with. Luckily, wide angle lenses offer more depth of field automatically, and the entire scene is usually in focus from 10 or 12 feet to infinity.

The more you know about operating your camera without having to look at all the buttons and dials, the easier it will be to work in the dark. Be sure you know where the button is that lights up the LCD panel, at least.

You probably won’t know exactly what you’ve gotten until you can look at the images more closely on your computer.

Aurora borealis, northern lights
17-35 @ 19mm, f2.8, 13 seconds, ISO 1600, taillights used to paint trees in foreground.


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.