09 July 2014 E-mail Letter

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The First 15 Seconds

People are slow, and photographers seem to be slower.  Slow to identify a subject, slow to stop and explore, slow to retrieve their tripod, slow to anticipate exposure changes, and most importantly – slow to start shooting.  There have been thousands of times when I have been on a photo safari and was the first, sometimes the only, photographer to get images.  Lets talk about the steps needed to prepare for those first 15 seconds with a wild subject – sometimes you only get 15 seconds.

You need to anticipate the correct camera and exposure settings you might find your subjects in … before you find them.  Thus, the first step is to know your camera.  I’m going to make reference to the two camera bodies I normally shoot – the pro-build Nikon D3s body ($5200) with an Fx sensor, and the intermediate build Dx sensored Nikon D7100 ($1200).  Why two cameras?  The simple reason is financial: I don’t want to burn up my expensive D3s body when the situation doesn’t warrant it’s unique characteristics.

Gray Wolves

Shot at ISO 9000 with the Nikon D3s, this pre-dawn image wouldn’t have been possible with any other camera body. Exposure was 1/250 at f4 in near full darkness.  Careful sharpening and noise reduction produced a useful image of these gray wolves crossing Swan Flats in Yellowstone National Park.

The D3s with its large 8.4 micron pixels, 12.4 mp total, is the top performing camera body in the world when it comes to low light (high ISO) photography.  It’s better than the Nikon D4, and better than the Canon 1Dx.  If I’m heading out in the early morning on a bobcat safari where some of my imaging will no doubt be done in low light, then I’m prepared with the D3s – a camera that performs miraculously at ISO’s up to 9,000 in extreme low light conditions, and can shoot publishable quality images, fine art quality, at ISO 3200.  At shooting speeds of 9 fps in raw mode and a large buffer – this camera simply performs.

The D7100 performs well in average-to-good light conditions where I’m not pushing the ISO above 800, and preferably 400 or lower.  It shoots a 24 mp Dx sensor which multiplies my 500mm f4 lens into a 750mm f4 lens (great for small or distant subjects) but a reasonable 6 fps is hamstrung by a puny buffer … which holds just 6 raw files.  So that 6 fps can only be maintained for 1 second.  It has newer, faster technology that gives it quick, accurate focusing and file processing/saving, better than the D3s.  I bought this body because it is clearly the best Dx sensored camera Nikon offers.  My old D2x, another pro body Nikon D-SLR with a Dx sensor, had a poor high ISO rating less than half as good as the D7100.

D71_7345-web

Shot with the Nikon D7100 body, this image was taken in great light, on a tripod, at ISO 400, where the camera body performs well with quick AF and quick image-to-card downloading. The exposure was 1/1500 second at f6.7.

Given these two bodies, I always have the right camera on the lens for the best results.  Maybe some folks can have multiple long telephotos with bodies ready, but I have to think about the right body given the light conditions of the safari.

Once you know the best equipment for the situation, setting up the camera’s exposure parameters is the next order of business.  For this calculation I keep in mind many long-held beliefs in ISO, shutter-speed, and f-stop synergies.  Ideally, even shooting early morning high ISO settings, I want my shutter-speed to be close to the length of my lens.  In other words I want a 1/500 second shutter-speed when I’m using my 500mm lens.  I will sacrifice shutter-speed by a stop (lowering it to 1/250) to shoot at a one stop better quality ISO setting (1600 vs 3200 on my D3s body).  Well built lenses will shoot sharp images at wide-open f-steps (like f4 on my 500mm telephoto lens), while less expensive lenses might need some stopping down, say to f5.6 or f8 to perform equally as well.  Also, as ISO climbs images become slightly over-exposed, and this allows me to regain some of that lost shutter-speed by dialing in a -1/2 stop exposure compensation setting.  This, of course, increases the shutter-speed by 1/2 stop, going from 1/250 to 1/400 second approximately).  So, when I’m out looking for bobcats in pre-dawn light, my exposure setting on my D3s body is ISO 3200, f4, with a -1/2 stop of exposure compensation.  In Aperture Priority, where I shoot, I usually end up with a shutter-speed around 1/200 to 1/400 of a second.

Bobcat-2b

Shot under low light conditions, pre-dawn, with the Nikon D3s and 500mm f4 lens with an exposure setting in Aperture Priority Mode of ISO 3200, f4, 1/400 second, -.5 eV (exposure compensation).

Now that the equipment is ready to shoot my next consideration is bracing the camera.  Wildlife subjects like bobcats don’t allow for any type of personal close encounter, and will turn and flee (which they do many times anyway) should you exit the vehicle or attempt to set up a tripod.  So shooting out the window is your best option 90% of the time.  This is where shooting tactics come into play.  First, I like to drive with my window down, both for feeling more connected to the environment by listening to outside vehicle sounds, like birds and chirping squirrels – but also because it takes precious seconds to lower the window in the case of a close encounter.  Second, I don’t use a bean bag or window mount because of the time it takes to correctly position it – I simply lay my left arm across the window sill and lay my lens across my arm, raising or lowering my arm as needed for the correct angle on the subject.  Third, if there are two photographers in my vehicle we sit in tandem – me in the front seat driving, and the second person sitting behind me.  By both shooting out the same side of the vehicle there will be 50% fewer reasons I need to turn the car around to gain shooting position.  If the bobcat is on the other side, we casually drive by and turn around when out-of-sight, creeping back.  That usually works.

D71_1986-web

When the light improves I trade bodies on the 500 lens to the D7100. This relaxing bobcat thought I hadn’t seen him camouflaged against the oak tree trunk in late afternoon light. Heavy backlighting forced me to add some light to the basic exposure.  Nikon D7100 body, 500mm f4 lens, ISO 400, 1/1000 second at f4, +.5 eV, window rest.  Raw converted to jpg.

 Now, with your equipment ready and your shooting tactics refined a bit, getting off those first shots should be easier, and quicker.  If you are able to use a tripod, then keeping the legs extended in the backseat or trunk greatly speeds you up getting into action.  I use to have snow ski racks on my vehicle and I would use them to store my tripod while driving.  Another trick I find useful is to not stop where the animal is, but where the animal is heading – again, giving you extra seconds to get the camera on the tripod and get into shooting position for the oncoming subject.

Three final points.  First, in early mornings or cool weather, have a decent pair of shooting gloves on your hands (because the window’s down) or close by.  I’ve used many different kinds but recently I’ve been wearing Mechanic’s Gloves found at Lowe’s for about $15.

The second point is to drive slowly.  I spot a lot more wildlife at 25-30 mph than I do at 35-40 mph.  Check your mirror often and let faster traffic by, but go as slow as possible.

The third point is to refine your animal spotting skills.  I try not to look farther than 50-70 yards off the road.  Why? Because any bobcat that far away or farther is a bad subject.  I want to find bobcats (or birds, etc) close to the road within reasonable shooting distance.  You usually spot bobcats (and others) based on one of three methods: (1) you spot it via motion, (2) you spot if via a color change in the environment (gray bobcat on yellow grass), or (3) you see a change in pattern or contrast (rough grass, smooth furry bobcat).

Bobcat.  Yokohl Valley on March 31, 2012.

Motion helped me spot this bobcat.

BRP_4871-web

A color shift helped me spot this bobcat in a field of yellow flowers.

Bobcat in Yokohl Valley

A change in pattern and contrast made this bobcat easy to spot.

Whatever tactics you might glean from this article, combined with the tactics you currently use in the field – 15 seconds is all you usually have to get the camera going, subject in-frame and focused, and composing for effect.  Good shooting.

Posted in Photo Safaris, Photography Skills | Leave a comment

Adding a Signature to Photos

I have this question asked a lot, and I actually thought I had blogged or written about this previously, but I can’t find it – so here we go.

1.  Take a sheaf of copy paper and with a bold, black, Sharpie marker practice your signature until you have the one you want to use.  It took me about twenty pages to get it the way I wanted.  Carefully darken in any light areas of the signature.

2.  Scan your signature with a standard flat bed scanner creating a jpg file.

3.  Open the file in Adobe Photoshop Elements or CS and crop out extra space, leaving just a little around your signature.  See the example below.

4.  Using a selection tool, like the Quick Selection Tool or the Magic Wand Tool, select the black signature (or select the white paper and inverse your selection  Select>>Inverse to the signature).  Make sure you have selected all of it, get all the serifs and edges of each letter.

SIG-Signiture Only5.  Take the Paintbrush Tool, choose Black at 100% Opacity, and further darken in your signature until there are no spots or light dots inside the selection.

6.  Inverse your selection (Select > Inverse) so the white background is selected.  Choose the Eraser Tool at 100% Opacity and erase the entire white background so it shows the gray/white boxes (like in the example above) which signify that there is nothing there and the background is transparent.

7.  Create a new layer copy of the black signature (Ctrl + J for a PC or Cmd + J for a Mac).  Double click on the layer title and rename the original layer “Black”, rename the new layer “White”.  See the example below.

SIG-Layers Box8.  With the black signature still selected (and the “White” layer active – as shown at left) choose the paintbrush tool again and choose the color white.  Paint over the black signature to produce a white copy of it.  Hit Ctrl + D to deselect everything.

9.  If you want to add a website or other contact information just enlarge your canvas below your signature by going to Image > Canvas and increase the height amount as needed, and in the square with the arrows select the top square so the arrows point down, indicating the extra size will be added below the existing canvas.

SIG-Canvas SizeSee the example at left where I increased the size to 6 and touched the top square (with the dot) to add to the canvas area below.

10.  Choose the Text Tool, decide on a font and size (like 8 or so), click in the image location you want to add the text and type it out.  Adjust letter size and font as needed to give you the look you want.  TIP – Less is more…….

11.  Copy the text layer (Ctrl + J) and change the color so that you have a black text layer and a white text layer to go with the black and white signature layers.  Drag the black text layer to below the black signature layer, do the same with the white.

SIG-Text12.  Now simply merge down the Signature Layer to the Text Layer of the same color below it – select the signature and layer and go to Layer > Merge Down.  Do the same with the other two color layers.  Make sure they are named for their colors – white and black.  You should now have two layers with both the signature and any other info you choose to add.

13.  Save this file as a photoshop file (.psd) so the layers are saved with their transparent backgrounds.  Call this file your Signature-Master.psd file.

14.  Now comes the tricky part.  Change the size of the file so it is appropriate for the size of the images it is going on.  Do not use a signature file for a printed copy of the photo – it looks stupid and cheesy.  Use the signature file only for images meant to be shared on the web, or on Facebook, or Flickr, etc.  In my case, 150 px by 60 px is the final size, as shown here in the example below.

SIG-Final Size

15.  Now, rename this file: Signature-Web.psd   This is the file you will open in order to drag the needed color (black signature for lighter images, white for darker images) signature onto your image.

16.  TO USE:  Open both the image that’s been prepared for the web (72dpi) and the signature-web file.  With the signature-web image selected and it’s two layers appearing in the Layer’s Dialog Box, drag the black or white layer from the Layers dialog box on to the image you want the signature on.  You will see a new layer added to that image and your signature will appear.  With the Move Tool (letter V to select) or keyboard arrow keys adjust the location of the signature to your liking.  Merge the two layers (Layer > Merge Down or Ctrl + E) and save your image with the -web.jpg descriptor at the end so you know the image has the signature already added.

SIG-Final Image

The two photos are side by side here – the signature file and the bobcat image.  Just drag the black signature layer onto the bobcat image.

You can also tweak other aspects of the signature layer as you place it on the real image.  If neither the black or white signature stand out enough because of the tones, right click on the signature layer after you added it and select Blending Options.  Go in an add a Drop Shadow, and manipulate the settings to brighten or darken the transparent background of the layer so the text stands out more.  Fun.

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Dark to Dark: Oct 18th, 2013 Bobcat Safari

The safari day started as it usually does, very dark outside.  I left my home at 5:20am for the drive to Harris Ranch, meeting the folks on my safari, and heading into the foothills with Pinnacles National Park as my final destination.  After leaving Harris Ranch the moon was just setting over the western horizon, the first rays of light hitting the thin clouds high in the sky.  The Coalinga area is pretty ugly, oil derricks and cattle worn pastures with no grass – but the mountains to the west are a treasure trove of wildlife.  At 7:01am the first bobcat appeared in the dim light beneath an oak tree.  Even at ISO 1600 the shutter-speed was just 1/20 second – I should have gone higher but the moment came and went in about 6 frames, then the cat took off in a blur and vanished.

Bobcat-1a

Bobcat at 7:01am

Bobcat-1b
As the split second with the cat ended, I cranked up the ISO to 3200 in hopes that the next bobcat would be in better light – and he was.  Traveling down the road we saw a couple of coyotes out hunting, then at 7:40 we found our next bobcat, again stationed near an oak tree anticipating a squirrel hunt I imagine.  The light was a bit brighter and I was getting reasonable shutter speeds.  The cat didn’t run like so many others, but kind of sauntered along, giving me time to back-up and continue to compose images of him.

Bobcat at 7:40am.

Bobcat #2 at 7:40am.

The first rays of sun had penetrated the canyon and were actually lighting up the cat just a little bit for me and the photographer sitting behind me.  This was a pretty stocky bobcat that I assumed was a male.  Many of the largest bobcats I’ve photographed didn’t seem to run as quickly as the smaller bobcats I’ve encountered.  Also, the spot pattern between the first and second bobcats was striking, with the first animal heavily spotted.

Bobcat-2bThe cat never stopped looking at me, but he had moved out of the light unfortunately.  He kept moving along the treeline, giving us many opportunities to photograph him.  It was a cool 40 degrees when we shot this guy, and only 37 degrees for the first bobcat.

Bobcat-2aJust before finally moving up the hill and into the brush, this was a nice clean look framed by some pine boughs above his head.  As we moved along the sun finally shone brightly on the trees and shrubs.  The California buckwheat was bright red, and the sycamores, cottonwoods, and poison oak were all various shades of red, yellow, and gold.

When we reached Pinnacles we toured the usual areas, chasing quail and songbirds before finally finding the resident Red-shouldered Hawks – one near the entrance station and one farther west about 3/4 of a mile.  He was nice enough to land right above the vehicle and give us fairly clean shots.  In the past I’ve got good flight images, but I still haven’t got a image of one after a successful hunt.

Red-shouldered Hawk
We made several passes along the parks roads, with some near misses on animals.  The mule deer are entering the rut and were very active.  Over the course of the day I counted 85 mule deer – which tells me that one day this is where I will encounter a mountain lion.  Where there are mule deer in numbers there are mountain lions – and the time is coming.  The last mountain lion I saw had killed an elk in the winter in Yellowstone and I watched him through my spotting scope from about 450 yards – too far for images.  I spend a lot of hours driving the back roads here in California and feel I’m due for a good, close, wild mountain lion photography encounter.  I just want to be on top of my game when it happens.

The day had warmed up into the low ’80’s.  We stopped for lunch and relaxed for awhile – it had been a busy morning.  A couple of hours later we found ourselves under a thick pine tree only about a hundred feet from the car.  Up in the branches of that pine were three Long-eared Owls were peering down at us.  It was my first encounter with these owls that migrate south into these mountains to spend the winter.

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

It was a lousy shooting situation with the pine branches twisting through the owl at just about every spot.  We worked in circles trying to find a hole – and this was about the best I could do with one of the owls.  Of course, they were sleeping initially, which doesn’t make for good portraits, but stomping my boots on the ground livened them up and they took some time to look us over.  They are medium sized owls, smaller than great horned owls, but bigger than a burrowing or screech owl.  Their ears give them their unique look and name.  On the ground below the pine tree were about a dozen coughed up owl pellets, visual evidence to their hunting abilities.  I look forward to shooting them again, but in a better place.

As the afternoon wore on we began our drive back towards Coalinga.  At 3:48pm with the temp at 82 degrees we found our third bobcat, a gorgeous animal out in the full sun and on our side of the road (the drivers side with a photographer behind me) and close.  Instead of running like so many do, it just stared at us for about 45 seconds, more than enough time to rip off about a hundred images.  The grass and weeds were just back far enough to blur into a soft background, making the bobcat pop with sharpness.  It’s eyes just glowed in the light – I don’t know if bobcats can squint, but I’m glad it didn’t.  Also a good sized cat, like bobcat #2, and probably a male.  Last year I saw over 80 bobcats, this year with fewer bobcat safaris my count stands at 44, but I still have 6 weeks and at least 3 more trips left – so we will see.  It was hot when we stopped to shoot this cat, nullifying the belief that with a fur coat bobcats are mostly nocturnal – well, maybe some days, but here in the full sun and 82 degrees this cat was active and hunting.

Bobcat #3 at 3:48pm and 82 degrees.

Bobcat #3 at 3:48pm and 82 degrees.

The road winds along the San Benito River (really a creek, with only occasional water) and there is a spot where the road comes up to the edge of the bank and the river is only about 30 feet below and about 20 yards in, so I had a downward angle.  There were cottonwoods along the bank that partially blocked my vision, but I could clearly see ripples in a pool ahead.  We slowed and crept up to the edge of the embankment.  Below us 8 large wild pigs were in the water, splashing around, and rolling in the mud.  All of them were 200 pound pigs, and a number of them had small tusks.  It took them several minutes to figure out that the idling engine and crunching of acorns wasn’t their doing – and when the did, they made a mad dash up the hill and onto the plateau level with the road – and it was nothing but muddy pig butts after.

Wild Pig along the San Benito River.

Wild Pig along the San Benito River.

WildPig-3
FWildPig-2aces only a mother could love.   The creek bank adjacent to the water was turned into a muddy bog as the pigs rooted and rolled in it.  The pig, at left, had tusks sticking out from under his jowls and another pig had bigger tusks but he didn’t stare up at me like this guy did.  The pigs were very stocky and would have proved a tough kill for any predator – and I think only a mountain lion or a large black bear would even have a chance at one of these pigs, and even then maybe only at a small one.  The largest pig I’ve seen was about 300 pounds and it was huge, and I hear they get even bigger.  They moved surprisingly fast once they realized  that we were there.  This was the third group of pigs we had seen, and the only group we had a shot at getting some decent images of.

Again, we moved on down the road at slow speed, just trying to blend in and make as little engine noise as possible.  For many of you who know my vehicle, even at 335,000 miles it is dead quiet on a smooth road, and has got me very close to animals that were surprised by my sudden appearance.  The shadows in this back road canyon were getting longer now, and temps were starting to come down.  We cruised along scanning the brush and hill sides for a movement, a shape that didn’t belong, a color that didn’t belong – just anything out of the ordinary.  Three weeks ago on a similar safari we saw 7 bobcats, but never got a good shot at any of them – many were running when we saw them.  At 4:50pm a shape jumped out at me, a dark silhouette next to a wide, round bush – we had found bobcat #4.

Bobcat #4 at 4:50pm and 75 degrees.

Bobcat #4 at 4:50pm and 75 degrees.

It was a small bobcat, and not very close, maybe 40 yards away.  That silhouette is typical of a bobcat find, just something the wrong color, the wrong shape, and out of place.  I pulled over and shot some images, including this one.  She (I think its a she) didn’t move, just maintained a steady gaze.  I thought we might wait her out and see if she started hunting in the meadow but she wouldn’t cooperate, eventually laying down next to the bush.  She won the staring contest and we drove on.

She was our last cat of the day.  We did not see a single cat that was running away as we drove up – all four held their ground – at least momentarily.  Not a single cat on a hillside or jogging across a meadow – I thought that was odd.

By the time I was re-approaching Harris Ranch the sun had just gone down behind the mountains and the moon rose right in front of me – it was 6:25pm.  The moon that was in my face this morning before the sun rose and was in my face again tonight as I drove Highway 198 east to Highway 99 and then south to home, arriving at 7:30pm – a 14 hour day for me.  Sometimes these shooting days blend together and I can’t remember who was with me for which bobcats or hawks, which owls or which bears I might have photographed – all I know is the images come home with me – and the grand experiences are never to be forgotten because they live on in the images.  BRP

Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field | 1 Comment

A Chorus of Bugles

The majestic bugle of a bull elk has a primal, guttural scream to it that instantly grabs your attention, even from a mile away or more.  It is rips through the clean, crisp air and reverberates through the meadows high on the Yellowstone Plateau.  I always look in that direction wondering if the bugler is on his way, willing to engage in possible mortal combat with other bulls – all for the right to pass his genes on to another generation.  I wrote a blog article for Black Star Rising not too long ago that talked about what we could learn from the sounds of nature, and the ethereal bugle of a rutting bull elk was first on my list.  Even as far back as the fall of 1979 when I heard my first elk bugle, high in the Gallatin Mountains outside of Bozeman, Montana, it struck an emotional chord with me, it was like nothing I had ever heard before.

A bull elk bugles along the Madison River.

A bull elk bugles along the Madison River.

On a fall safari to Yellowstone in 2001 I had a rare experience.  My friend Jed Packer and I were heading south out of Mammoth Hot Springs before dawn looking for bull elk to photograph.  His father, Bryce, and another friend of mine, Bob Sutton, were riding in the vehicle behind us as we slowly moved south, first past Swan Flats, and then south past the Norris intersection.  It was a frigid late September morning with a low ground fog around Norris, but no snow on the ground.  When I’m out chasing like this I keep the music off and the window down, and the heater on low to keep us warm – because I want to hear what’s going on outside the vehicle.  We climbed the low hill south of Norris and headed towards Elk Park.

The sunrise catches a large bull bugling a challenge in Norris Meadows.

The sunrise catches a large bull bugling a challenge in Norris Meadows.

Suddenly out of the dark and mist a huge bull elk stood in the middle of my lane, gazing into my oncoming headlights.  I stomped on the brakes and stopped in time, and we watched him let out a mighty bugle.  For a few seconds he paused, then he finished crossing the road, going north, back towards Norris.  We immediately pulled over and parked.  Bob and Bryce didn’t want to head off into the dark so they continued down to the Madison Valley to look for the resident bulls that were easier to find – while Jed and I headed off into the dark trailing the bull.  Now, I don’t believe in pursuing animals to take photographs, they can move quicker through the countryside than we can and cross rivers with ease, and rear-end shots aren’t my favorite – but this bull was huge, and his continued bugling was beyond me resisting.  He had immediately vanished into the foggy darkness and left us behind.  As we stood at the trunk of my vehicle he ripped off another long, soulful bugle, maybe 100 yards away.  Ok, I thought, maybe we can get a distant shot of him if we parallel him – maybe crossing the Gibbon River would slow him down some.

For about 15 minutes we walked in the dark and fog, only having his bugles to guide our direction.  The Gibbon River meanders through Elk Park and that did slow him down as he waded through each switchback of the river.  We kept to the east side of the river, never crossing, and as the morning got lighter, the fog began to burn off.  Again and again his bugle kept us moving in the right direction.  Finally, he must have hesitated some because we caught up to him about a half mile north of the car.  The fog was melting rapidly as the rising sun began to burn through.  We continued to follow him, but he was moving slower now and stopping to browse.  Jed and I moved ahead of him a short distance, getting between the sun and the bullelk – in perfect position to photograph him from.

My foggy morning bull elk crosses the Gibbon River.

My foggy morning bull elk crosses the Gibbon River.

I began to shoot short sequences of shots as he moved towards us, first feeding – then bugling to some distant bull.  This was back in the days of film and I did my best to manage my shots, trying not to repeat shots of every motion and movement.  Back then I was shooting a Nikon F5 body and it could rip through a roll of 36 exposure Provia in just 4.5 seconds.  Rewinding took only a couple of seconds, insert a new film canister, power advance to the first frame in a second or so – and begin shooting again.  My gloved fingers moved through the motions with practiced expertise, and the exposed rolls of film began to pile up in my vest pocket.

The bull had moved directly across from us when he re-entered the twisting Gibbon, the cool water rising past his belly, and as if on que the moment we had been hoping for occurred.  He turned and glared at us, bugled, heard a bugle in reply, and then took to tearing up the river bank with his antlers, throwing chunks of mud into the air, all the while continuing to bugle.  Again and again his head swayed back and forth as he vented his aggressions, tossing mud and thrashing the bank.  It was a glorious moment to not only see and witness, but to capture on film.  For many years a matted and framed 20”x30” print of that moment hung on my studio wall – until it was bought by a client.

A frosty, rutting bull elk moves around his cows in the Madison River Valley.

A frosty, rutting bull elk moves around his cows in the Madison River Valley.

Like most wildlife photographers I have always been drawn to large bull elk.  Harem bulls are fearless in defense of their cows and they never seem to tire as they continually circle the cows, pushing them in one direction or another, pushing back the satellite bulls that are always lurking about hoping to drive off a cow or two.  Many of my first few hundred publication credits were of dominant bugling bull elk, bachelor herds with antlers still in velvet, cows and calf herds, and even a few individual calf images.  Two of my first magazine covers were in BUGLE Magazine, published by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, of big bulls.  One of the covers still remains my largest bull elk, an 8×10 point monster standing in the Yellowstone River at sunrise.  For a number of years I had credits in nearly every issue.

Monarch Bull (8x10 pts)in velvet antlers at sunrise.  The stars lined up.

A 10×8 bull elk in velvet escapes the summer mosquitoes in the Yellowstone River.  One of two BUGLE covers.

In 2006 I found myself cruising the south end of Swan Flats one cool September morning.  Elk activity had been slow so I parked and headed out east into the forest, angling towards a distant meadow I could see through binoculars.  Hiking in a Yellowstone pine forest isn’t so much hiking, it was more hopping and scrambling around fallen trees while trying to balance the big telephoto lens and tripod on first one shoulder, then the other – a habit that now causes me to roll from side-to-side when sleeping (or it could have been all the years of youth and school sports …) because my shoulders get sore now.  I don’t normally go hiking into the forests or valleys of Yellowstone alone, but my desire to find some elk got the better of me – and I had my grizzly mace on my hip.  When I was about a mile into the forest and nearing the meadow, but having lost sight of the Swan Flats meadows, I began to hear my first elk bugles.

A harem bull elk escorts cows back to the main group.   Swan Flats.

A harem bull elk bugles as he escorts cows back to the main group.  Swan Flats.

At first they were pretty distant, drifting through the trees to reach my ears every minute or two – but then the sounds picked up.  I was on a slight rise in a mid-forest clearing, and to my north I could see the top of Brunsen Peak through pine branches – it was a good spot for a break and some water.  I set up my tripod next to some rocks and found a flat one to sit on.  I had sweated through my jacket and photo vest so I took them off, and after a couple of minutes I began to cool down some.  The bugling got louder.  Not only did the bugling get louder, but closer – and closer still.  The small clearing was maybe fifty feet across, with the close trees creating a filtered light effect as they blended into darker trees farther back in the forest.  I was only a couple of hundred yards from the meadow I was aiming for, and I knew Swan Flats was a distance to my left, I could see Brunsen Peak – I was comfortable in knowing where I was.

The forest hides a bull elk as the snow begins to fall.

The forest hides a bull elk as the rain turns to snow.

When you spend time in the mountains certain smells draw your attention abruptly, and if you’ve photographed a fair number of wild bears, or been around them much, you come to find the smell of a bear to be an obvious odor.  It reeks with a pungent stench that screams bear to an experienced set of nostrils.  I can identify that smell at distance if the breeze favors me.  At first it was a faint smell that caused me to look up and glance into the trees, not really knowing why … but with the second breath I knew why I had alerted – there was a bear nearby, somewhere out in the trees, outside of my vision, and I could only assume the bear was getting closer.

A large bull elk moves through timber during the rut.

A large bull elk moves through timber during the rut.

I wasn’t really worried, just alert.  The bugling was still getting closer, and the number of bugles from different bulls had increased.  After a few more minutes a roaring bull elk bugle pierced the forest, seemingly directed right at me.  I put my coat and vest back on and got behind the camera, waiting to see if a bull elk would enter my small clearing – giving me a head shot if he did.  Within seconds another deafening bugle came from directly behind me.  I spun around and could only faintly see a bull elk run though the trees, angling past me.  Then a small group of cow elk ran past the edge of the clearing, and then another, the vibrations passing through the ground and entering my feet.  Now I could feel, see, and hear the elk, while still smelling the bear – taste was the only missing sensation.  It was too murky inside the forest to shoot anything, and the elk were moving too quickly anyway.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

The bugling was all around me, and the rutting bull elk seemed to be chasing each other around just outside my clearing.  They flashed by but never stopped.  I never took a single photograph.  The cacophony of elk bugles reached a crescendo, and then began to fade as the herd of cows and bulls moved farther west, back towards the road and Swan Flats.  It was only seconds later that I got another full whiff of bear, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I strained to look deep into the forest.  I took the safety release off my grizzly mace but left the can in its nylon holster – it was time to get out of that pine forest.

A bugling bull in a fire damaged section of forest.

A bugling bull in a fire damaged section of forest.

Obviously, I made it safely back to my vehicle, the trip out of the forest being far more exciting than the hike into it.  Maybe the close proximity of a bear had startled the elk; then again maybe the elk ignored the bear and were just in a rutting frenzy.  Either way, for a few seconds – maybe a minute, I was at the epicenter of the Yellowstone elk rut.  I will never forget the thick forest of pines, the volume of elk bugles reverberating through the trees, the thundering cows charging past my small clearing, me looking first in one direction only to spin back to look in another – all the time the smell of bear hanging in the forest around me.

An aggressive bull elk moves towards a rival.

An aggressive bull elk moves towards a rival.

For 27 years I’ve returned to those meadows in autumn, always anxious to hear the first bugle, always excited to shoot those first images.  Over the decades there have been changes to the elk rut in the park.  The re-introduction of the gray wolves in the winter of 1995-96 began a slow decline in elk numbers back towards historical populations.  The carrying capacity of the park, in terms of elk, had been exceeded for a long time, and many species had suffered.  Not only has the overall park forage improved, but the additional elk carcasses on the ground have fed countless predators – and one effect of that was raising the birth rate of park bears.  In the mid 1980’s photographing a bear, any bear, was a great day – now if I don’t see a half dozen bears in a day it’s been slow.  These days I see more red fox, more mule deer, and more beavers – while I see fewer coyotes.  The big dog of Yellowstone has changed.

A winter bull, antlers already shed, seeks safety in the Soda Butte river after being attacked by wolves.

A winter bull, antlers already shed, seeks safety in the Soda Butte river after being attacked by wolves.

Fewer elk have meant fewer encounters to take great images, but each year brings different opportunities.  I don’t worry about elk numbers, they will fluctuate over time and the park will continue to see changes as it works out its wild population.  The gravy days of every single meadow having bugling bull elk are over, and it was great while it lasted (for us elk photographers) – but there are still meadows, active harem bulls, and that ever resounding bugle still echoes through the Madison River Valley and across Swan Flats.  It isn’t the blazing aspens and cottonwoods of the Rocky Mountains that tell me autumn is upon us – it is that singular ethereal note, and the grunt that follows, that tells me the seasons are changing.

A harem bull elk crosses the Madison on a cold, crisp autumn morning.

A harem bull elk crosses the Madison River on a cold, crisp autumn morning.

 

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In the Midst of Eagles

When I lived in northern Utah I would hear a lot of stories from acquaintances about remarkable wildlife locations.  I have many friends who are nature photographers, and they have families and friends – and this web of people produced numerous possible locations for great wildlife photography: some were myths, but some were jewels.  Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Farmington, Utah was one of those jewels.  The name had been brought to my attention a few times before because it hosted a mid-winter eagle day, and of course, just the name made that very intriguing.  After chasing images at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (MBR) and seeing only occasional bald eagles (It is about 40 miles north of Farmington Bay WMA) I didn’t put much stock in the rumors.  I had been to Antelope Island State Park, west of Ogden, and other Wasatch Front Range locations and felt I knew the area pretty well.

On a frigid morning in mid-February 2008 I closed my photography studio for the day and headed south from Providence, Utah to see what Farmington Bay WMA was all about.  I had a map printed out with instructions to guide me there, as the roads were unfamiliar in this area between Salt Lake City and Ogden.  As I approached Farmington Bay WMA the area cottonwoods were covered in frost, a low mist drifted across the road, and occasional bald eagles were perched in the uppermost branches.  I wasn’t surprised by the eagles I saw, I had seen them for years along Willard Bay, out at Bear River, and at other locations near the Great Salt Lake.  The dirt entry road passes through the refuge’s management buildings and sheds, and then bends right before turning directly south.  At that corner there is a small hill with a parking lot on top and a couple of picnic tables.  This morning mist was just beginning to burn off when I drove to the top, parked, and stepped outside my vehicle binoculars in hand.  I was stunned.

Three bald eagles taking a morning break.

Three bald eagles taking a morning break.

From the top of that small hill I scanned in a 360 degree circle and counted 172 bald eagles.  Some were perched in trees near the management buildings, many were standing along the edges of the nearly frozen ponds on the east side of the road, many others were standing in fields on the west side – but what was even more startling were the numbers of bald eagles flying.  They criss-crossed the refuge, at different elevations, sometimes performing aerial acrobatics with other eagles, sometimes wrestling over caught fish.  From that perch I saw northern harriers hunting along the road, kestrels, ducks and geese in the ponds, and swans in a pond closer to the buildings.  Within a minute or two I was on the cell phone calling distant friends and telling them it was time to make a winter trip to Utah.

Bald Eagles flying over Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald Eagles flying over Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald eagles are drawn south to Farmington Bay WMA not to just by the brutal winters farther north in Alaska and Canada, but by the food.  The refuge is a series of long, fresh water ponds with interlocking flow gates to control water depth.  Those ponds are home to tons of carp, maybe hundreds of tons in each pond.  Each winter at least one of those ponds is poisoned to kill the carp, and a great feast begins in the dead of winter, feeding the eagles and thousands of other birds until they begin their springtime migration back north.

Since that first trip Farmington Bay has become a personal favorite wildlife location for me.  Day after day I would make the 65 mile drive south in the early morning dark to reach the refuge, and my preferred shooting position, before the first rays of light began to spray over the horizon, lightening the sky above the Wasatch Front mountains.

Diving towards other eagles and fish.

Diving towards other eagles and fish.

While known to many Utah locals for decades, Farmington Bay has recently become a national destination for wildlife photographers.  Social networking sites that favor photography, like Facebook and Flicker, and some pay sites like Naturescapes – have been flooded with fantastic images of bald eagles photographed at Farmington Bay.  And with those great images has come an influx of photographers.  The narrow dirt road that divides the ponds has become crowded with vehicles on good weather days in February, everyone hoping to shoot that iconic bald eagle image that is so difficult to find in 49 out of 50 states.  They come with video cameras, point-and-shoots, and wildlife telephotos – some shoot from their vehicles while others can’t help themselves and are overtaken by the excitement of so much raptor activity that they have to get that extra ten feet closer by exiting their vehicles – and giving up their best blind.

Bald Eagle fly-by, or maybe a float-by, at Farmington Bay WMA.

Bald Eagle fly-by, or maybe a float-by, at Farmington Bay WMA.

Like in Yellowstone, some photographer regulars take an ownership position in the refuge and seem unable to go about their business without tromping on the feet of others.  This manifests itself in verbal demands about parking along the road and in those who exit their vehicles.  I’ve never seen a visitor with a short or medium telephoto lens ever telling someone with a long lens what to do, or where to stand, or how to act.  I’m ashamed that those with big glass feel enabled in ordering others to change their behavior – as if the lens grants them some authority in the field.  I guess they have forgotten where they started, and the lenses they started with – or maybe they have forgotten the thrill of being in a place like Farmington Bay WMA for the first time.  When others respond to that amazing thrill, there always seems to be a guy with a long telephoto lens to bring him back to earth with a series of orders or mocking accusations, like “your scaring all the birds away.”  Whether true or not, there is a learning curve that all are allowed to follow.

A bald eagle flaring and going to full flaps for a landing.

A bald eagle flaring and going to full flaps for a landing.

In February 2009 my wife and I traveled from California (where I had moved to from northern Utah) back to northern Utah to see family and shoot the eagles.  Long before dawn we had parked and prepared to wait out the arrival of the eagles.  First one vehicle, then another parked near us.  Only a few minutes later I had a guy knocking on my window, in the pre-dawn darkness, aggressively telling me to stay in my vehicle and not scare the eagles.  I guess he thought my new California license plate was a badge of ignorance and warranted a warning.  The discussion that followed wasn’t pleasant, as I reminded him that he was the one out of his vehicle, making far too much noise, and that I would follow any style of photography that I deemed necessary.  The muscles in my jaw tightened, and remained tight.

Another close bald eagle fly-by.

Another close bald eagle fly-by.

Thousands of images later, as the morning action faded, a vehicle drove up and parked.  That man was clearly overcome with excitement at seeing all the bald eagles doing fly-bys and exited his vehicle and began to shoot over the hood.  While not ideal tactics, it was acceptable given the lateness of the morning, the number of parked vehicles blocking closer access, and more than expected from a first time visitor.  He had been shooting for only a few seconds when the man that had approached me, approached him – berating him loudly for exiting his vehicle.  This man’s euphoric moment of nature’s beauty was destroyed.  I left my vehicle and told the new guy to stand his ground, continue to shoot, and ignore the troublemaker.  This time I wasn’t so charitable to this guy, pointing out that he wasn’t a warden, a cop, or a ranger – and the noise and commotion he was causing was far more than the guy shooting over his car’s hood.  After going back-and-forth for a minute he returned to his truck and with two others began commenting loudly in my direction.  Normally, I could walk away from stuff like that, just chalking it up to folks having a bad day – but this was the second time he had accosted someone.  I got out of my vehicle and walked back to the three of them and said “Do any of you stooges have something you’d like to say to me?”  They stood silently, suddenly drained of their energy, not a word coming from them, and after a few moments of waiting I returned to my vehicle, grateful I hadn’t got beaten up.

I guess I relate that story because nothing gives one person the right to tell another what to do, or how to act, where to stand, or how excited to be.  When I’m leading photo safaris one of the truths I try to teach people is that photography is an individual art, not to be restricted by others, and their expression is as valuable as any others.  No amount of expensive camera equipment or finely matched khaki clothing gives another photographer the right to impede you in taking your images, or should create some kind of hierarchy in your mind that makes you less equal to them.   That attitude is rampant in the field, especially when groups of photographers form.  It reminds me of the tribal attitudes on display by local surfers in the movie “Point Break”.

A bald eagle floats in as a northern harrier hunts in the background.

A bald eagle floats in as a northern harrier hunts in the background.

Lots of amateur photographers, unskilled in the art of wildlife photography but wanting to be part of the culture, own big telephoto lenses and pass themselves off as professionals.  They seem to take great pleasure in telling others how to shoot, where to stand, when they can talk, etc.  No one without the proper authority (like a Ranger) gets to tell you anything in regards to your photography, not me, not anyone.  If a new photographer approaches a mule deer too closely and pushes the animal back, then they learned a lesson that a dozen drive-by pseudo rangers, screaming at them to back up, will never teach them.  Only in the most dangerous moments will I speak to folks not on my safaris.  They have the right to learn like I did … by experience.

It’s the one-on-one wildlife experiences that teach us animal craft, photo craft, and the amazing blessing we have to be wildlife photographers and participate in this art form.  I’ve lost many photo encounters to folks unskilled in the dual arts of animal craft and photo craft – but I’ve, no doubt, ruined experiences for others when I was learning.  I’ve had many bears run off when the giant tour bus grinds to a halt in Yellowstone and disgorges 60 excited visitors – it’s just part of the learning experience.  It’s their park as much as it is mine – just load up and move on.

Searching for fish at Farmington Bay WMA.

Searching for fish at Farmington Bay WMA.

OK, off the soap box.  Alongside the visiting bald eagles other resident raptors and owls hunt the marsh at Farmington Bay.  Two of my favorites are the barn owls and the northern harriers.  As I mentioned before, the winter of 2008 was particularly harsh.  It was so cold at night that voles were unable to break through the frozen snow and ice – and thus the barn owls that hunt them in the dark of night were starving.  After some weeks of this the barn owls began to hunt during the day when the voles were more active and above the snow and ice.

A barn owl floats through cattails at it hunts voles on a frigid day at Farmington.

A barn owl floats through cattails at it hunts voles on a frigid day at Farmington.

There is a parking lot at the end of the refuge road with a marsh on the north side of it.  It was so cold that getting out of the car was immediately numbing, but in order to pan with the owls I needed a bigger range of motion than shooting out the window would allow.  One barn owl after another flew southbound over the marsh, flying right at me and then veering east or west when they got to the gravel parking lot.  The males were very light in color, almost pure white – while the females had more brown on them with darker brown spots.  These owls have a peculiar flight pattern that makes them rise and fall amid smooth wing beats, occasionally diving into the cattails in closer pursuit of a vole.

Another evening light Barn Owl fly-by.

Another evening light Barn Owl fly-by.

Hovering Barn Owl at Farmington Bay WMA.

Hovering Barn Owl at Farmington Bay WMA.

For an hour this parade of hunting barn owls continued until the sun descended beneath a horizon line of clouds.  While I’ve shot barn owls frequently, I’ve never experienced this type of hunting behavior over such a sustained amount of time, in daylight, so close by.  Like the guy shooting bald eagles for the first time, it was a moment of prolonged awe for me at nature’s beauty.

A barn owl fly-by in the last seconds of light at Farmington Bay.

A barn owl fly-by in the last seconds of light at Farmington Bay.

The northern harrier is another beautiful raptor that calls Farmington Bay home.  The hawks seem to taunt photographers to shoot them as they hunt down the marshy sides of the main road, banking away only when you stop your vehicle and roll the window down.  From 10 yards away they move out to a maddening 30 yards away in just a brief second of flight.  These hunters are active all day long, and if you park in a good spot, one will be by within minutes.  On one windy day I was able to shoot out the window with my 500mm lens while another person steered my vehicle.  The images I captured are among my favorites because both the flight of the bird and the wind in the cattails make the motion seem mystical.

A northern harrier hunting near the road in high winds.

A northern harrier hunting near the road in high winds.

Female Northern Harrier hunts muskrats in the canal.

Female Northern Harrier hunts muskrats in the canal.

Many other birds and animals call these marshes home.  Striped skunks, short-tailed weasels, red fox, short-eared owls, American Kestrels, muskrats, ring-necked pheasants, rough-legged hawks, great blue herons, and numerous ducks, geese, and swans are all possible subjects.  I’ve shot songbirds, gulls feeding on fish, herons hunting in the grass, and Sandhill cranes.

An American Kestrel finishing off a vole at Farmington Bay WMA.

An American Kestrel finishing off a vole at Farmington Bay WMA.

My Utah raptor safari has become one of my favorites; it includes shooting in two other great locations besides Farmington Bay – Antelope Island State Park and Bear River MBR.  Except in the worst weather there is never a bad day on this safari, no matter how active or inactive the eagles are.  These other locations offer their own buffet of wildlife species.  Antelope Island is probably the most diverse, with big-game species like mule deer, bison, and pronghorn antelope.  I’ve photographed coyotes, porcupines, chukars, and great horned owls on the island as well.  Rotating through these three locations makes each day a photographic adventure.

Porcupine on Antelope Island State Park.

Porcupine on Antelope Island State Park.

American Kestrel and vole at Antelope Island State Park.

American Kestrel and vole at Antelope Island State Park.

Chukars in the rocks near the Antelope Island Visitor's Center.

Chukars in the rocks near the Antelope Island Visitor’s Center.

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Grizzlies in the Mist – Three Years of Experiences

From my first photo safari trips to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1980s grizzly bears where my number one subject, my most sought after of the park’s big predators.  Over the next two decades I had many encounters with single grizzlies, a few sows with a cub or two – but nothing that I thought was stunning.  On a beautiful spring day in June of 2010 on Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, that changed and I began a photography relationship with a sow grizzly and her four cubs.  She came to be known as the Quad Sow, mother of the famous Quad Cubs.

On this crisp morning these first year cubs came parading down a hillside about three hundred yards away, to the east of the park road, following their mother closely, angling towards the road.  I was stunned that there were four cubs; I had seen three cubs before, at quite a distance, but I had never seen four.  Cars were beginning to stop, with tourists and photographers lining the sagebrush border to the road.  With my heart racing I calculated the line she was taking across Swan Flats and drove to that spot, empty of other photographers or vehicles at the moment.  I could have been wrong about the spot, and she could have reversed back up the hill or angled directly at the road – in which case we would have only distant images of the bears, but luckily she didn’t.  She came straight to us.  When I say “we”, I mean the group participating in my spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari.  There were nine of us, including me and my other safari leader, Bill Singleton.

Quad Sow and Cubs in Swan Flats

Quad Sow and Cubs in Swan Flats

We got out the tripods and hurriedly set up along the road, close by the vehicles, hoping that she would continue to angle in our direction.  Every few moments the sow grizzly would slow her pace through the sagebrush to let the running cubs catch up to her.   She was a vigilant mother, not only keeping close to them, but scanning the meadows around her for signs of trouble.  In her world death was around every corner, behind every stump, and could come swiftly across this empty meadow in the form of a pack of wolves, coyotes, or even other grizzlies.  She was a couple of hundred yards from the nearest trees and I could tell she was nervous, her muscular head swaying back and forth on powerful shoulders as she surveyed the world around her – carefully.

Sow approaches the road as the cubs look on.

Sow approaches the road as the cubs look on.

We started shooting at about two hundred yards and never really let up.  She continued in our direction, closing the distance much quicker than I thought she could with the four cubs trailing behind her.  At about 80 yards she hesitated for a minute, the cubs gathering around her.  The road near us had filled with cars and photographers and she seemed to be judging the point at which she wanted to cross.  She turned back to the cubs and watched as they stood up, looking at the crowd of humans, and chasing each other briefly – before she resumed her march.  Apparently she had a particular destination in mind and she was an experienced road crosser.  She moved through the sagebrush in front of us and entered an area of small pine trees and fallen logs just 60 yards to our right.  This area was closer to the road and I had to step out a few feet farther into the sagebrush in order to shoot around other photographers standing along the curving road between us.  The sow faced us and stood with her front paws (and long ivory white claws) on the log, the quad cubs scrambling over or walking on the logs around her.  I was shooting a Nikon D2x body that didn’t have a large buffer, and it frustrated me by continuously buffering out.  Fourteen raw files in rapid order, at 5 frames per second, went very quickly with this scene before me.  I did my best to control my shooting, control my breathing, and concentrate on focus, action, and anticipation.

The four grizzly cubs watch their mother approach the road.

The four grizzly cubs watch their mother approach the road.

It was an amazing sight, incredible really, far more than I would have ever anticipated.  While she was closer to the road, maybe only twenty yards from pavement where she could have crossed easily, she turned back towards us, crossing the tree trunks and walking right towards us back into the sagebrush.  At about fifty yards, much too close to get the whole family in-frame with my 500mm lens, they paused.  The four cubs, who had been running together as a group, suddenly spread out a few feet apart – and just then three of the cubs stood up to look at their mother who was to their left closer to the road, and to my right.  Luckily, for me it came after the camera’s buffer was clear and I shot off my 14 raw images in a quick three seconds.  Those images could never be replaced.

Grizzly cubs log walking.

Grizzly cubs log walking.

The quad grizzly cubs of 2010.

The quad grizzly cubs of 2010.

The sow suddenly swung towards the road and walked boldly to the middle stripe, apparently to check on car traffic.  She paused and looked back at the cubs.  They immediately broke into a run and crossed the road after her, heading directly towards the far hillside, never looking back.  She never acted agitated by the humans, nor the cars, and seemed to have a system worked out with the cubs for crossing the road.  For a few minutes I waited to see if she would change directions, before I finally started to breathe again.  Others who also witnessed this said she had been working these sagebrush flats for a number of weeks, so I counted myself fortunate.

Following mom to the road.

Following mom to the road.

While this whole encounter lasted about fifteen minutes, it is forever recorded in my mind as the greatest encounter I have ever had with a grizzly family.  So it was with astonishment that I met the quad sow and cubs again the following June, 2011, in the flat, tangy smelling sagebrush meadows that make up Swan Flats.  But there was a difference.  Two of the cubs were missing from the original 2010 family group.  The runt of the litter, who, because of its size was the most difficult to photograph, and one other cub, had died.  I heard some different stories about their possible deaths over 2011, but in 2012 a ranger told me they thought one cub was killed by wolves, and the second just failed to appear from hibernation.  In reading literature about the lives of grizzlies a mortality rate of 50% is about average among grizzly young.  Yet, even with that knowledge of their natural mortality I felt the loss of these cubs.

The quad sow with her two surviving cubs in 2011.

The quad sow with her two surviving cubs in 2011.

One year later, and within two hundred yards of our previous encounter, we met on Swan Flats once again.  It was late morning when the quad sow and her two surviving cubs came ambling out of the eastern woods and headed west, directly for the road.  Within just a few minutes they were at the road and causing an immense bear jam, something only appreciated by regular visitors to the park.  Once again I was fortunate and exactly on location for their close approach and crossing of the road.  As had happened in 2010, the sow and cubs hesitated for a minute or two in the sagebrush barrow pit area right along the road.  The cubs stood often, studying the humans, and wrestled each other as they waited for their mother to decide when to cross.  Eventually, she walked between two cars and immediately stopped traffic.  She glanced back at the cubs, the signal to follow, and they ran the short distance and crossed the road, dropped off the roadbed and back into the sagebrush.  Again, they never looked back and trailed off towards the ridgeline west of the road, and south of Swan Lake.

Watching mom clear traffic for them to cross the road in Swan Flats.

Watching mom clear traffic for them to cross the road in Swan Flats.

Relaxing in the spring sun, waiting for mom to return.

Relaxing in the spring sun, waiting for mom to return.

You might think that I had some kind of inside knowledge about this grizzly bear family but she was just a creature of habit.  I like to stay at the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and even buy gas from the same stations.  On mornings when I’m not on a photo safari I start by reading the online news, check and answer my e-mail, shower about the same time, work through a to-do list, process images, before spending much of the afternoon writing.  I’m predictable, and to some degree, she was too.  The next morning before sunrise we crossed paths again.

Once again she was on the east side of Swan Flats working her way diagonally across meadows.  For the third time I parked at a spot that seemed likely for her to cross at, and she unswervingly came right to that spot.  At about 75 yards she turned sharply towards us, the sun beginning to rise above the horizon right behind her.  I only took a few images before it dawned on me that she wasn’t moving around us.  With friends around me shooting, all of us standing next to our vehicles, there was room on either end for her to get past us.  Even though other humans were walking up the road to be closer to the bears, she continued walking towards us, the two cubs trailing along behind her.  At 35 yards, and standing just feet from our vehicles, I drew my can of grizzly mace in case she came on in a run.

Sunrise, as the grizzly sow and 2 cubs walks right at my group of photographers.

Sunrise, as the grizzly sow and 2 cubs walks right at my group of photographers.

This was the first time I had ever drawn that can of grizzly mace from its holster with the close approach of a dangerous wild animal.  I had come to believe that two-legged predators were a bigger threat than the four-legged ones, and the mace just served as a visual deterrent.  Photography in the parks and foothills around my home in the San Joaquin Valley of California, areas known to be favored by marijuana growers, created more anxiety with me than any bear ever had.  The $20k dollars worth of equipment I normally carry could be a tempting target that I would prefer not to give it up easily – thus I always carry the mace in the field, and on some occasions I back that up with a firearm.  With both a Utah and California concealed carry permit, I’m good to carry in about 38 states.

As she approached to about 25 yards I walked a step or two in front of the others and aimed my can of mace at her.  At that same moment she turned 90 degrees to my right and calmly walked around us, crossing the road in an area clear of cars.  The mace would have dispersed at 10 yards so she would have had to get a lot closer before I could have used it, and her past behavior had shown her to be very non-aggressive towards humans – but its best to err on the side of safety.  I once saw a ranger near Tower in Yellowstone pull his mace as a black bear sow approached us as we talked.  She must have been maced before because just as he pulled his mace she retreated with her cubs.  Bears aren’t always inquisitive, or aggressive, but sometimes they just want you to get out of their way.

Sunrise light sweeps across a cub after crossing the road.

Sunrise light sweeps across a cub after crossing the road.

After crossing the road going west our photography improved dramatically now that we had the sun behind us.  She moved off the road about a hundred yards, maybe a little more, and began digging for roots.  There were a number of cow elk, without calves, another hundred yards beyond her.  They seemed to pay little attention to each other, but the bear and I knew one thing, there were elk calves bedded down in the sagebrush of Swan Flats, somewhere.  She started moving back towards us in the sagebrush, but now she wasn’t digging as much, and she was far more alert and attentive.

Park Rangers had arrived on location now and they made sure there was an opening in the traffic for the bears if they continued towards the road.  As the bears closed to about fifty yards the rangers asked us to stand by our vehicles to continue shooting.  The sow and cubs crossed the road in that opening going east, their rumps plainly visible as they moved through the sagebrush.

Sow and cubs hunting elk calves after crossing the road.

Sow and cubs hunting elk calves after crossing the road.

A year later, in 2012, the quad sow and surviving cubs crossed paths with me on the last two days of my early June safari.  After six days of searching for her, while still shooting amazing subjects in other park locations, I figured my run of luck with her was over.  I had crossed Swan Flats numerous times but with no luck.  On day 7 she came out into the flats from the direction of Electric Peak.  The sow and cubs walked up to the trail marker sign, about 250 yards from the road at the north end of Swan Flats.  Then they used the trail marker as a back rub and as a toy, each of them taking turns rubbing against the posts, followed by removing the paper warnings that had been stapled to the plywood sign.

The next morning the rains and wind had returned to Swan Flats and a cloud had descended right to ground level.  For a few minutes the bears appeared about two hundred yards away, then the cloud descended and the thick misting rain lowered visibility to just a car length or two.  There were few cars on the road and it was amazingly quiet.  After about a half hour I retreated to my vehicle to sit out the rain, hoping for another opportunity to photograph the bears.

When the storm cloud finally began to lift the quad sow and cubs appeared right in front of us, not more than a 70 yards away, and moving towards us in the mist.  The two large cubs, now two-and-a-half years old and only slightly smaller than their mother, played and wrestled, their wet fur throwing drops of water into the air.  Slowly they came towards us in the mist, taking on more shape and texture as the cloud thinned.  At about 40 yards the ranger moved us back towards are own vehicles, but allowed us to stand in the vehicle door and keep shooting.  The bears continued to come right to us.  The small parking area had room for about 6-8 vehicles, and I was about the third vehicle in from the right.  We were all parked perpendicular to the road, facing west.  Then the fun began.

Sow and cubs appear as the cloud rises.

Sow and cubs appear as the cloud rises.

The grizzly cubs play in front of the parking area before the sign attack.

The grizzly cubs play in front of the parking area before the sign attack.

Right in the middle of the parking area, just in front of the middle vehicle, a white sedan of some kind, was a 2×4 post with a 1×2 duct-taped to it, with a “Dangerous Bear frequenting this Area” sign attached to it.  First, a cub walked over to the sign, stood up, reached up, and took offense to the sign obviously meant to warn people about him/her.  With a whack of its paw the paper warning sign came down, then the bear ripped the 1×2 away from the 2×4 and began to peel off the duct-tape like he was shredding an onion.  Second, the other cub walked up to the white sedan, maybe forty feet from me, and stood with his muddy paws on the hood of the car.  The person inside seemed mesmerized, whether out of fear or fascination I couldn’t tell.  With a camper between my vehicle and his, I could just see over the camper’s hood to the bear.  The ranger was behind the camper and couldn’t see what the bear was doing.  He asked me and I told him, “The cub is standing with two feet on the hood of that white car.”  With that the ranger went around the camper and put his whistle to his lips and began blowing, walking straight at the cubs.

Grizzly Cub takes offense to the Warning Sign mentioning dangerous bears

Grizzly Cub takes offense to the Warning Sign mentioning dangerous bears

Now this was a big ranger, maybe 6’-4” and 235 pounds or more, early 50’s – I wish I had got his name.  He had driven up to our spot earlier in a white ranger truck and had parked behind our vehicles, parallel to the road.  He wasn’t excited, didn’t go for his mace (apparently I should carry a whistle as well as the mace) or gun, just blew the whistle and took big strides towards the bears.  Like children being caught doing something wrong by a parent, the quad sow and her cubs leaped away from the cars and scampered back into the sagebrush and off into the mist, disappearing from view at about fifty yards.  Once again the clouds descended and it began to mist and rain as our visibility was diminished.

The ranger drives the three grizzles away with a whistle.

The ranger drives the three grizzles away with a whistle.

Everyone exited their vehicles and we all gathered by the white sedan to view the muddy grizzly cub paw prints on the guys car.  Some were taking i-Phone photos.  I had kept shooting with the 500mm lens, not wanting to leave the door of my vehicle to open the back and get out a 80-200mm f2.8 lens from my bag.  I got great shots of the cub dismantling the sign but the cub at the car was too close.  Like kids we stood around chattering, relating our own view of events.  The ranger had walked down the road some distance but returned to view the muddy tracks with us.  It was an exhilarating moment, apparently even for him, as he high-fived me and others as we related our stories once again.  I told him that I appreciated how he had let us continue to shoot, even at that breath-taking close distance.  He said he had many encounters with the sow and cubs and they had never been aggressive towards people, and so he was right.  There, I said it, a ranger was actually right for a change.

Encountering the quad sow and cubs over three successive springs was a unique opportunity for me.  The sow would have kicked the cubs loose sometime after our last encounter, going into season and being mated by a boar grizzly – to have a new set of cubs born during her hibernation this winter.  As I write this in April 2013 that has probably already happened, and new cubs have been born, and the circle of life for these grizzlies will have continued.  I will be crossing through the tangy smelling sagebrush in Swan Flats this coming June looking for her, for her new cubs, and hoping for another encounter with a bear that will always be know as the quad grizzly sow of Swan Flats, or by my last experience with her as the grizzlies in the mist bears.

Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

2012 Paso Robles Safari

This city-sponsored half day safari was full of great subjects to photograph.  The fog had crept over the mountains from the coast during the night and had settled into the many rolling hills and little valleys that make up the west side of Paso Robles.  We headed west on Highway 46 and turned north when we hit Vineyard Drive.  This stretch of road meanders through the hills, rising and falling, twisting in the little valleys like a snake.  It was just made for photography in a foggy day.

We hadn’t traveled very far when our first opportunity to shoot the road and the fog presented itself.  We pulled over safely and got started shooting.

Vineyard Drive and fog just north of Highway 46.

On top of a small hill, the road drops away below us and curves off into the fog.  The oak trees, and their over-reaching branches, and the ever present hanging moss created an interesting landscape that looked mysterious.  My processing was very careful to not add too much contrast that cuts down on the look of the fog, and shadows out the branches.  I used a number of masks to add color, contrast, and sharpness to just the area around the road, but not to the road itself.

We crossed through a portion of downed fence and were able to shoot the fog as it drifted through the oaks on the hillside just beyond a small field.  This safari, primarily, was to teach the participants to see, to find subjects, and use their cameras to control the exposure.

Another shot into the oaks bordering Vineyard Road.

Oaks and Fog.

We moved a few miles farther down Vineyard Drive and found a gorgeous vineyard that not only had not been picked, but had a dramatic house rising just above the vineyard on a small hill.   We talked to a person we thought was the owner and he gladly allowed us to shoot not only the vineyard and the house, but to drive up his driveway, through a gate, and photograph the vineyard on the backside of the property.  The vineyard was called the “Hammersky Vineyard”.  The fog was slowly moving back across the property and beginning to thin a little as we began shooting.  It was a very cool subject and we worked it for over an hour and came away with some amazing images.  The owner said the grapes were due to be picked the next day – so we were just in time.

Hammersky Vineyards and the rolling fog.

Autumn leaf colors and dramatic grapes made for some incredible images.

More Zin (Zinfandel) grapes hanging in the Hammersky Vineyards.

After shooting the fog for several hours we moved back onto Highway 101 and traveled north a few miles to the San Miguel Mission.  We suddenly changed our shooting tactics from nature and agriculture to architecture.  The fog had burned off to an amazingly blue, clear sky.  We paid the $2 fee to walk through some of the internal rooms used by the Catholic fathers back in the day when the mission was a functioning unit in the chain of missions stretching north through California on the Camino Real.  We were able to shoot in some of the internal courtyards still used by resident mission employees and church ecclesiastical leaders.

A shot from the interior courtyard back to a passageway. I loved the colors and design elements.

There were more tourists at the mission than I would have thought, and some flea market or bazaar-type sale going on in one of the parking lots.  We had to be patient as we moved throughout the mission photographing key pieces of architecture, such as the entrance, the bell tower, gates, building damage (from an earthquake), windows, etc.  I had worn a long-sleeve undershirt with one of my normal long-sleeve shooting shirts, and now, with the sun out, I was beginning to heat up.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get access to the inside of the church and I’m sure, amazing stained glass and vaulted ceilings.

The sun slides behind the cross on the bell tower as I photographed it from the courtyard cemetery. This is a two shot HDR image that was processed in Photomatix Pro software.

The gate entry into the cemetery courtyard at the San Miguel Mission.

Overall it was a half-day full of amazing subjects.  You can’t photograph what you can’t see, or what you don’t identify as a photographic subject.  Everyone got to work out the kinks in both their equipment and in their vision – and we got to take some wonderful images.

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What Do I See?

More than a quarter century ago I was a senior at Brigham Young University, trying to finish up the business and accounting classes I needed for my degree in Business Management.  I enjoyed the economics classes the most, where we discussed current events and learned how to read the Wall Street Journal.  During my last semester I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong sovereignty returning to Chinese Communist control in 1997, after the 100 year British Lease on the islands expired.   While I was in the library one day doing research I asked a library worker for some help in finding micro films and old newspapers with specific articles.  After gathering dozens of articles, facts, maps, historical documents, etc I sat back and began to sift through it all.  I recalled a bit of advice the worker had given me … “when your stuck, step back and ask yourself, ‘What do I see?'”  My conclusion in 1985 was that China would be stupid to threaten the capital markets of Hong Kong in which they hugely benefited, and so through minimal political invasion, would allow many capitalist practices to continue – and they have.  That’s what I saw.

In the world of photography we sometimes have to step back and ask ourselves the same question – “what do I see?”  Of course, this is a rhetorical question, since no answer would be correct for any two people.  Each of us sees differently, and what we see makes us feel differently.  There are times when we see the obvious, without ever seeing the intricate layers below the obvious.

When I first began submitting images into the online photo behemoth called I-Stockphoto there is a point at which you keyword your images.  At first I had difficulty coming up with a reasonable number of keywords.  I read their little helpful blurb on key wording and I saw that phrase again – “What Do You See?”  I sat back in my office chair and gazed at my submitted photo and thought about those words.  I wish I could recall the first set of images (I could go research them up by date, but I don’t want too) – so lets pretend it is one of my favorites on I-Stockphoto, and a best selling image.  Here it is:

Sequoia Trees in the Mariposa Grove – Yosemite NP

As I was walking along the path leading down the hill from the Bachelor and 3 Graces sequoias back towards the parking lot I stopped in my tracks when I saw this.  It was an obvious shot – the powerful red bark glowing in the filtered morning light, other similar trees in the background.  I shot about ten variations of this image, all in five shot brackets to guarantee a close to perfect exposure of each set-up.  Then I moved on.

A few months later I had already sold this image as fine art four times (one a 30×40 print that really stuns the viewer) and was key wording it in I-Stockphoto (ISP).  The list of descriptive phrases that help buyers search for “the” image were slow in coming.  Forest, Sequoia trees, Yosemite, California – those were all easy enough.  Pine trees, Landscape Photography, Flora, Mountains – slowed me down some.  Then those words sounded in my head again – what do I see?

Ancient, Grove, Timeless, Stately, Old, Bark, Primordial, Ageless, Timber, Wood, Shelter, Animal Homes, Wilderness, Woodlands, and Monument.  My clumsy mental blinders seemed to be lifted and I was having a creative key wording renaissance.  Now, some of those terms would be rejected by ISP, but you see my point.  The obvious beauty of the shot, with its foreground ring of baby pines leading the eye up to rising red-barked Sequoias that are layered back in the image, was really a scene of subjects and ideas in depth.

That’s how I try to see now.  Nature photography is eye candy for the soul of both the photographer and the image viewer.  Using some of the simple compositional techniques that are common in photography, like: rule-of-thirds, foreground elements, color, patterns, depth, disappearing lines, etc  force us to look harder, and deeper, as we walk the forest floor hunting for images.  Others don’t see what I see, some are better at it, and some are less practiced – but photography gives us a place to start.  This journey can all begin with the phrase, “What Do I See?”

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Photoshop Tricks: Using a Threshold Layer to Balance Color

Sometimes you can just see that the color balance is off in an image, other times you can’t tell at all until you have corrected it – then it’s obvious.  In this image of the Yellow Warbler I shot yesterday in Morongo Valley the color seemed off.  In the shade of green and yellow trees there had to be a yellow bias in the image.  Here is the original image with its original raw file color temperature:

Yellow Warbler in an image with a yellow caste to it.

Threshold Icon

I used a Threshold Adjustment Layer to reset the white and black points in the image in just a few simple steps.

1- Create a new Layer – Ctl+J.

2- If the Adjustments Palette is not open, go under Window and select Adjustments.

3- In the Adjustments Palette, click on the Threshold icon, circled in red at left.

4- This will create a black-and-white layer that shows a histogram in the Adjustments Palette.  The single slider in the middle can be used to find the blackest point in the image, and the whitest point in the image.  In my workspace setup, this is how it looks:

Threshold and Layer View

5- With this open, you can now establish an actual white and black point in the image – resetting the image colors to conform to those points.  If there is a bias, in this case a yellow bias, it covers the current white and black points as well.  Move the slider (shown at left with a red arrow) to the left to find the very darkest spot in the photo.

6- Zoom in on that spot.  Activate Layer 1 by selecting it, which deselects the Threshold 1 Layer.  You are still looking at the Threshold 1Layer, but you will be working on Layer 1.

7- Open the Levels Dialog box by using the Ctl+L keys.  Select the black eyedropper on the right of the dialog box, and click on the image at the darkest point we just found.  Hit OK to close the dialog box.  You just reset the black point.

8- Now, reactivate the Threshold Layer and move the slider to the right to find the whitest point of the image.

9- Zoom in on that spot.  Activate Layer 1 by selecting it, which deselects the Threshold 1 Layer.  Again, you are still looking at the Threshold 1 Layer, but you will be working on Layer 1.

10- Open the Levels Dialog box again.  Select the white eyedropper on the right of the dialog box, and click on the image at the whitest point we just found.  Hit OK to close the dialog box.  You just reset the white point.

11- Select the Threshold 1 layer and delete it by hitting delete, or by dragging it to the garbage can icon.  Now you have your original color in the background layer, the reset color in Layer 1.  Flash the eye icon on and off to view the changes.  In my example of the Yellow Warble the changes are noticeable, and the reset colors much truer.

Corrected Color.

Since these images are far apart on this blog article, here is a section of the image, before and after the changes, shown side-by-side.

Original Color (left) and Corrected Color (right).

Notice that there is much less yellow color in the vertical tree branch, and the out-of-focus area above the birds back.  The image is slightly brighter as well.  I prefer the image with the color re-balanced.

Resetting the color balance of an image is a tweaky thing, but it can certainly improve the look of the image and return it to how you originally saw it.  BRP

 

 

 

 

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