Wildlife photography

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

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.

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.

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.