The Process of Amazing Wildlife Photography

The word “process” is defined as: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.  In wildlife photography the particular end we are seeking is capturing amazing moments – with the word “amazing” defined as: causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing.   So we are looking for a process to create astonishing images that evoke surprise and wonder in the viewer, with the main viewer being ourselves.  When I shoot an image that surprises me I realize there has been a long process I have followed to achieve that moment.  While I never want to discount luck for the success of any single image, success on a regular and ongoing basis can only be achieved by the process that is being followed.  It is that process I want to talk about some today.

Within my own career I have considered the word “process” in wildlife photography to describe areas of expertise, that when combined, form the foundation I follow in my photography.  There can be a few others, some slightly redundant and some more personal, but the four I keep coming back to, in no particular order, are (1) camera knowledge, (2) subject knowledge, (3) time commitment, and (4) critique.  These four areas of expertise form my foundation for the process I use in capturing amazing images. Luckily, I don’t have to please anybody but myself with my own photography, but for my skill level to increase to the point where others value it, critique is a much valued step in the process.

A brief moment in time when everything comes together.

A brief moment in time when everything comes together.  Diving Bald Eagle.

CAMERA KNOWLEDGE

No matter the level of equipment you start at, whether it be consumer grade, advanced amateur,  semi-professional, or professional grade cameras and lenses – knowing what your equipment can and can’t do is vital to the process of wildlife photography.  I teach many classes on digital photography, mostly to beginner through intermediate level folks, and I always start with asking everyone to get out their camera manuals.  Why?  Because I don’t know all the nuances of any camera that I don’t actively shoot.  I shoot Nikon, and like Canon shooters, I’m use to the controls and menus being a certain way.  So I can take a Nikon D3100 consumer grade camera body and locate many of the features we talk about in class, but I’m going to struggle some.  Pull out a Canon 6D and I’m going to struggle a bit more because I’m not an expert with the setup and menus of these cameras. You have to learn about your camera, and there is no better way than reading the manual a couple of times, cover-to-cover, with your camera in-hand.  In addition to reading the paper manual, I would encourage you to download the pdf file of your camera manual (sometimes its a smart phone app) onto your phone or i-pad for quick reference.

Some things you have to know at a second’s notice:

a. how to change exposure compensation (eV) without looking away from the viewfinder
b. how to change the ISO setting without looking away from the viewfinder
c. how to change the f-stop without looking away from the viewfinder
d. how to change from auto-focus to manual focus without looking away
(fill in your own blanks for the others you have discovered)
e……
f……

You have to build up a certain level of muscle memory so your fingers and eyes know right where to go to facilitate quick and accurate changes to the running of your camera. Shooting situations can change rapidly in the field, and you have to change settings just as rapidly in order for the equipment to not slow you down.  Muscle memory can only be achieved by hours, maybe hundreds of hours, of actively shooting the camera. Becoming competent with your camera equipment is no different than a typist, cook, a carpenter, a seamstress, a car driver (at any level), an engineer,  or a computer programmer becoming competent with their equipment.

Anna's Hummingbird amid cherry blossoms.

Anna’s Hummingbird amid cherry blossoms.

When I lead photo safaris I try and talk folks through preparing their cameras to be immediately available to shoot.  I talk about the lighting we might be in, a suggested ISO to start out at, an appropriate f-stop, motordrive setting, possibly an exposure compensation setting – or at least upcoming situations where changing the eV might be needed.  Yet, no matter how detailed I am in preparing others I will invariably shoot quicker and more accurately than they do … at least at first.

SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE

Subject knowledge is a product of many variables, but probably the greatest source is your own past experiences with that subject.  In recent years I have become known for the bobcats I photograph, so I’m going to use them as an example.  While I grew up in California, lived in Montana, Colorado, and then 28 years in Utah, I never saw a bobcat before moving back to California in 2008.  It was a cold afternoon, following a morning of rain, just after Easter when my wife and I, and my son Evan and his wife, went for a drive up into Sequoia National Park.  On the switchbacks above the Three Rivers entrance, heading towards the Giant Grove, I spotted a bobcat sitting in the sun warming itself.  I didn’t have my 500mm lens handy, so the images I captured were with a 80-200 f2.8 lens, handheld.

That first bobcat back in April of 2008.

That first bobcat photo back in April of 2008.

From that very first encounter I started learning about bobcats.  Bobcats can be found active mid-day, contrary to written information I had read about bobcats being nocturnal, and thus impossible to photograph.  This particular bobcat was clearly sunning itself and warming up, which taught me that bobcats are temperature sensitive, at least in California’s moderate climate.  This female bobcat did not run away as I began taking photos, and when she walked back into the forest I followed.  To my amazement she jumped to the top of a moss covered boulder and began cleaning herself, in plain view of me, maybe 35 feet away.  Her actions showed me that not all bobcats will run away, and that some bobcats are relatively habituated to people and vehicles and choose to ignore them rather than see them as a danger.  The grass was still wet as I followed her into the thicker forest, but she immediately stopped and began to clean her feet – and this taught me some behavioral aspects of bobcats.  I learned a lot.

A few months later I did my first photography seminar in Tulare and one of the guys there, named Allen, mentioned photographing bobcats.  A short time later he and I went looking for bobcats in Yokohl Valley, about 25 miles due east of Tulare in the Sierra Nevada foothills.  On our first trip we spotted a bobcat at about 4pm, belly down near a squirrel hole, patiently hunting on the squirrel to stick his head out of the hole.  When we exited the vehicle to shoot, the cat slithered away into a small creek drainage and vanished.  I learned what bobcats looked like when belly down hunting, the mid-day encounter reinforced to me that bobcats (on cooler days) will hunt during the day, getting out of the vehicle ended the encounter – which meant that while some bobcats can be habituated to cars and people, it depends on where (national parks versus ranch lands), and that bobcats use ravines and creeks to travel to and from favored hunting grounds, thus staying under cover for the most part.  I learned a lot more.

December 14, 2014 was a day I was waiting for.

December 14, 2014 was a day I was waiting for.

Experience after experience taught me where to look (favored habitats), when to look (times of day differ by season and weather), what to look for (squirrel populations and other prey density), how to spot them (by movement, by color, by contrast), when to shoot from my vehicle and when to tripod-up to photograph them (determined by body language and proximity), and what to anticipate next (stalking behavior that could lead to a kill, cleaning behavior, mating season behavior, etc).   Bobcat safaris in 2012 lead to 80 encounters, 94 encounters in 2013, 152 encounters in 2014, and then I stopped counting.

I googled bobcat information and research in California, checked out state government websites for information, and looked at other photographer photos that appeared, and read their encounters.  To say I acted like a sponge for bobcat info would be an understatement.  I talked to ranchers in the areas where I see bobcats whenever the opportunity presented itself, passed out business cards, e-mailed bobcat photos to ranchers who provided me with an e-mail, and generally sought information everywhere.

As the experiences piled up I learned a lot of valuable information about bobcats, information that has served my photography well.  While your hands and eyes gain muscle memory in manipulating your camera, so your eyes gain sight recognition in spotting bobcats, even with only the slightest clues.  For me, the number of bobcat sightings tripled from those early days.  Uncanny is defined as: having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable ability; beyond the ordinary or normal; extraordinary.  I have an extraordinary ability to spot bobcats in the field.  Sometimes its a slight movement (going belly down, ears changing direction), sometimes its mismatched colors (a gray/brown bobcat in a green field), or even mismatched contrast (sharp defined grass and a smooth, furry bobcat) – and sometimes its nothing at all, just a sense that I saw something different that causes me to stop my vehicle and back-up to take a look.  A friend of mine, Gary, says I’m a savant when it comes to finding bobcats.  Savant is defined as: a condition in which a person with a mental disability (me),  demonstrates profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal.  That’s great, and I’m sure my personal record of 16 separate bobcat encounters in one day is reflected in that description.

Anticipation got me this shot of a fly-by feeding by this Vermilion Flycatcher.

Anticipation got me this shot of a fly-by feeding by this Vermilion Flycatcher.

On March 10, 2016 I was leading a northern pygmy owl safari in the foothills near Sequoia National Park (3 pygmy owls that day).  I was just telling the group about other wildlife we could encounter at anytime, including bobcats, when I drove by a bobcat so obvious that I could not believe I missed it. It was laying on a rock, sun-bathing, on a cool morning not 30 feet off the road in plain sight above the level of the grass.  I backed my truck up and the others got great shots. I’ve concluded that I missed that bobcat because my eyes have been trained to spot the impossibly camouflaged bobcat, not the amazingly obvious ones. It seems there are drawbacks to everything.

How much do you know about the wildlife you photograph?

How much do you know about the wildlife you photograph?  San Joaquin Kit Fox.

TIME COMMITMENT

This is where the rubber meets the road, literally.  I drove 51,000 miles in 2015 on photography safaris around the American West.  Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California…..whew!  In January of 2015 I did 5 days of bobcat safaris, in January of 2016 I did 11 days, just for bobcats.  I have committed a tremendous amount of my time to photographing bobcats.  That commitment has resulted in not just the ordinary (by my standards) bobcat encounters, but the amazing encounters that continue to form the process by which I do my bobcat photography, and lead my bobcat safaris.

I've shot 700 days in Yellowstone to get this mousing red fox.

I’ve shot 700 days in Yellowstone to get this mousing red fox.

Another friend of mine, Bob, likes to tell the story of a friend of his who came to his house and was amazed at all his wildlife photos, framed, hanging on the walls under spot lights. I love photography, stated his friend, and I could take photos like these.  Bob asked him when was the last time he went out to shoot.  I went out for a day about four months ago, he replied.  Without saying it, Bob knew this guy would never take even a single image to rival those on his wall … because the friend wasn’t committed to wildlife photography and the time it required.  He wanted it to come conveniently, and easily.

The time commitment wildlife photography requires is a powerful source for those subject experiences that form the basis of your level of wildlife knowledge.  With that time commitment, and the hours in the field it generates, both camera knowledge and subject knowledge rise rapidly – and your ability to produce amazing images increases.  These three concepts of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, and time commitment are inter-related and bound together, clearly synergies of each other.  A synergy is defined as: the interaction or cooperation of two or more … agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.  Hmmmm.

CRITIQUE

There comes a point in your photography labors when the kind words of a unknown stranger about your image, means nearly as much as the efforts you made to capture that image.  There are many different ways to get critique’s of your images, some are accurate and some are not.  Friends and family are not accurate, as they are bent and twisted by personal likes and dislikes for you and photography in general.  For the same reason your general Facebook post replies are not accurate, hey, they are mostly friends and friends of friends.  Many a poorly executed, poorly processed, badly composed, and slightly out-of-focus image is met with a chorus of “great image”, “wow”, “what talent”, “you have a great eye”, “beautiful”, “superb”, etc. etc. etc.

There is no room for exposure and camera mistakes in capturing this image.

There was no room for exposure or camera mistakes in capturing this image.

Critique is defined as: evaluate in a detailed and analytical way.  This can only be done by your photographic peers or betters.  My philosophy on critiquing an image is to find something good, find something bad, clearly state the obvious, then leave it and move on.  When I began my career in photography doing freelance magazine submissions the harsh reality that great quality matters was driven through me like a stake through Dracula’s heart.  With each slide submission rejection I got better.  After a dozen or so submissions  the magazines started retaining images, after a dozen more I started getting an occasional published credit, two dozen submissions after that I started getting regular photo credits.

There are many avenues photographers have for getting good, valid, helpful critiques of their best images.  Critiquing less than the best images is a waste of time, your time and the judges.  I want my best images to get better, not my average images.  I delete average images regularly, they do nothing but clog up my stock library if I were to leave them in.

There is no luck without prepartion.

There is no luck without preparation.  2010 Quad Grizzly Cubs on Swan Flats.

 

There are groups that are dedicated to making you a better photographer through evaluation of your images.  Camera clubs come to mind first.  This is a great way to not only get out to shoot more, but to have your techniques critiqued.  When four or five images get critiqued a certain way, you (I) become very alert to not repeating that particular mistake.  We learn from it, and our depth of photography understanding grows. Everyone needs their images to be critiqued, only the most vain and ego driven photographers think their work is above critique.  A critique is not necessarily criticism and shouldn’t be taken that way.  Criticism is usually unfair and biased, a critique is an evaluation of techniques.  You can shoot with a tripod or not, but slightly blurry images or those not capable of being printed large, or published – should push you towards using tripods and improving the quality of your images.  That’s a critique.  You may feel differently and decide your hand-holding techniques could be improved and that would mitigate some of the quality issues, but regardless, the critique caused you to change and improve some photography technique.

There are also many large organizations like PPA, PSA, NANPA, and others that can provide you with a source for critiquing images.  There are online groups that will also critique (not criticize) your submitted images.  When my images are critiqued I tend to feel a tingle of disdain go down my back – that’s natural for all of us.  But I try and see the point being made, and get a feel for whether the solution offered is truly viable.  Sometimes I explain the reason I did something, or did not do something (especially in processing), and let it go so maybe the other viewers who might agree with the critique will see why I did it. I’ve learned many valuable Photoshop techniques by following through with tips I received from critiques.

CONCLUSION

The photographers out there who produce great images on a regular basis do so through a continually refining process of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, time commitment, and critique.  Many photographers specialize in particular areas of photography, and there are many!  But great wildlife photography is extremely difficult and requires all of its practitioners to hone a set of skills particular to this genre.  The process I describe here covers my perceptions on what leads to better wildlife images.  There are many other nuances not mentioned and many other skills not detailed – but this process will get you started in the right direction.

Probably the finest flight image I've taken of a Great Gray Owl, in Island Park, ID.

Probably the finest flight image I’ve taken of a Great Gray Owl.

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My Favorite 25 Wildlife Images of 2015

This is one of my favorite tasks each year, cull through the tens of thousands of images that made it into my stock library from all the photo safaris – and pick my favorites.  If you are a Facebook friend or subscribe to my blog then you have seen most, if not all, of these images so there won’t be too many surprises.  You might pick a different 25 images, everyone see’s the world around us differently, but these are mine.

While I still have bobcat safaris scheduled before the end of the year, I am going to go ahead and pick my own favorite top images from Dec 2014 thru Dec 2015.  And while the choices might seem obvious here, it is also important to know how critical I am of my own images.  Yesterday I got back from my safari to Bosque del Apache NWR with 7500 images – and of all those images I will whittle them down to a few hundred that I consider keepers that improve the visual value of my stock library.

These images will come with a brief story about the subject.  I hope you enjoy them, this has been an amazing year, better than I ever could have hoped for.  Photography in the American West is unparalleled, and California never has been better for wildlife photography

#1  Male Vermilion Flycatcher Feeding His Fledgling On-The-Fly

01-D72_2657-webThis is my favorite image of the past 12 months.  It was taken on my Morongo Valley Bird Safari at the end of April.  High winds kept dad in the air (my guess anyway) as he fed this fledgling (of three) by doing a fly-by feeding, never stopping to land – he just stuffed the insect into the fledglings mouth and continued on.  I have never witnessed this type of behavior before, and I was just amazed by the moment.  Over the next hour or so I shot at least a thousand images – as fast as I could.  These male vermilion flycatchers are just spectacular little birds, the females being a gold color – and both were active in feeding the three fledglings.

#2  Cinnamon Black Bear Cub Resting In A Pine

02-D-57657-webWe had worked our way around the spring meadow following this sow and her three cubs until they finally rested at the base of this pine, in Sequoia National Park.  Another male bear wasn’t far away and after a few minutes she sent two of the cubs up the tree, while she guarded the base, the other cub snoozing by her.  This 2 year old cub changed position a few times until it got comfortable, eventually taking this position, head on its paws, occasionally looking at us.  The cub would look at us at times, but was clearly use to park visitors and far more interested in the threat of other adult bears.

#3  Mother Lynx in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains

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If I voted my heart, this would be the image of the year for me.  The last time I saw a Lynx it crossed the road in front of me in Glacier National Park in 1980.  Thirty-five years later this mother lynx and her two kittens of the year also crossed the road in front of my safari group, about 8 miles south of Telluride, Colorado.  For 5-6 minutes she cajoled the kittens, trying to get them to cross the road, one did and one didn’t.  Her guttural cries were eerie to hear, and the kittens answered right back.  While this is just a typical portrait type image without any action, I am drawn to the rare and unique encounter with one of the three animals I thought I would never photograph in the American West … the other two?   A Wolverine and Pacific Fisher – oh, and there are fishers in Sequoia National Park.  I’m still waiting for that encounter.

#4  We Called Him The “Bull” Pika

04-D72_7022-webAfter photographing Pika in the rocks the day earlier in less than ideal light, my safari group was amazed when this guy came down into the grass near our feet and began to eat grass and wildflowers. Overcast skies added this beautiful soft light to our images.  This dandelion went down quickly, but the images we shot, taken on the May-June Yellowstone Wildlife Safari, will last forever.

#5  Bobcat Descending A Fallen Oak Limb

05-D-54508-webPhotographed in December 2014, this bobcat image was taken after I published my Favorite Images of 2014 – so it is included here.  I had driven by this amazingly gnarled fallen oak a hundred times, always thinking that one day there would be a bobcat climbing on it eventually … and my patience was paid off.  The bobcat began in the grass and climbed up the branch, going behind the stump and out-of-sight.  Minutes later it reappeared and retraced it’s steps back down the branch … wow.  I was speechless.

#6  Black Bear Cub Having A Dream At Nap Time

06-D72_4402-webThis cub, its sibling and mother, took a noon time siesta on this pine log along the edge of a meadow in Sequoia National Park.  Moving off the trail and into a better shooting position, my bear safari group got amazing images for an extended period of time.  The cub was very animated as he was asleep dreaming, moving his paws around, acting like a little person having a nightmare – making me feel how similar this type of moment was for both people and bears.

#7  Cherry Blossoms And Anna’s Hummingbird

07-D-56896-webThis image, and the others that followed, came as a complete surprise to me.  This was taken on one of my Southern California (SoCal) bird safaris.  After we had got through at Bolsa Chica and had traveled the short distance to the Library/Park Complex in Huntington Beach, where we were initially after the Orange Bishop (songbird), the cherry trees were in full blossom … and they were being worked by many hummingbirds.  Getting sharp focus on these active little birds, within the blossoms, was no easy thing but the reward where images of great texture, color, and energy.

#8  Mule Deer Buck Framed By A Sequoia Window

08-D72_4747-webHiking with my safari group back into a couple of popular bear meadows in Sequoia National Park, we startled up a couple of mule deer bucks which ran away, but stopped here – framed by this burned out window in a giant Sequoia tree.  The buck’s antlers stand out from the burned bark and another buck is nearly invisible at the bottom left of the image.  I was only able to get five images before the bucks moved away, but the colors, texture, and layering of the image really appeal to me.

#9  Black Bear Cub Wet From The Morning Dew

09-D-61037-webAfter moving towards us the black bear sow and her cubs stopped only 40 feet away, next to a small pine, amid a carpet of soft ferns.  The cubs, like all cubs, wouldn’t stay put and moved around in the ferns giving my safari group moments for clear images.  Of all the images I took of this moment, the expression on the cubs face in this image was what got my attention, and propelled it into my favorite’s group.

This was a stellar year for photographing black bears in Sequoia National Park with a number of black and cinnamon sows with cubs – many of them represented in the images here.  About 60 different photographers joined me on seventeen bear safaris – and except for one slow day, came away with amazing images.

#10 A Grizzly Coy (cub-of-the-year) Creates A Moment

10-D72_8710-webYellowstone National Park never ceases to amaze me.  In my Favorites of 2015 the park is represented by the Pika image already show, as well as this grizzly cub, a harlequin duck, mule deer doe – and about two dozen others that nearly made the cut.  This image was taken on the Fall Wildlife Safari.  This cub was fattening up along with it’s mother on a hillside near the road along Yellowstone Lake.  The plants were deep and tall, not giving us many good angles until the cub climbed and perched on this log to have a look at the large group of photographers maneuvering for a shot.  That was the moment

#11  Great Gray Owl Fly-By

11-D72_0378-webPhotographed a few miles outside of Yellowstone in Island Park, Idaho – this set of images of this great gray owl came after my spring Yellowstone safaris had ended and I was headed to a cabin for a family reunion.  This great hunter was two hundred yards from the cabin on a solitary perch in the middle of a vibrant green meadow, just begging to be photographed.  After fifteen minutes it finally took off and gave me a great series of flight shots – this being my favorite.

#12  Northern Shoveler Crash Landing

12-BRP_0654-webWe, or at least I, always think of wild animals and birds as being in complete control of their movements, graceful and powerful, yet delicate and determined.  Not so here.  This drake northern shoveler (commonly known as a spoonie) came in to this pond with about a dozen others, some landing close by, others circling for a second pass before landing. When this guy came in he crashed into the back of a hen (the splash), and as shown here with full flaps extended (tail feathers), tried to regain his balance before hitting with a belly flop worthy of the largest kid at the city pool.  This image shows him just a split second before hitting the water, his left wing just beginning to dip in.

#13  Cinnamon Cub Just Hanging Out

13-D72_8147-webThis cub is one of the siblings of the cub in image #2.  While that cub went and stretched out on those branches, this cub found a comfortable seat amid the branches and just watched the nearby meadow and the other bears.  For a time I thought this was the better image, but image #2 won a photo contest with California’s Watchable Wildlife (May-June 2015 Contest) and I’ve had more positive remarks about it – but that doesn’t lessen (much) the impact of this image.  I love the eye contact, the unobstructed view of the cub, as well as the claws being out front, and the seeming comfort and ease the cub was showing at being thirty feet up this pine, other bears in view, and mom below.

#14  Mule Deer Doe Fighting For Her Life

14-D-56304-webI was touched by this severe moment in the balance of life and death in Yellowstone National Park.  On my winter wildlife safari this past February we came upon this mule deer doe in distress.  Two nearby coyotes had clearly attacked her, driving her into the Lamar River (near the confluence with Soda Butte Creek) on a frigid, sub-zero winter afternoon. She was covered in ice, clearly freezing to death – but momentarily safe from the coyotes who were nearby rolling in the snow trying to dry their own fur.  It is a struggle that is played out every day, in every part of Yellowstone … and while a difficult moment to photograph, it is nonetheless a privilege to see how strong and vital these prey animals are as they fight to survive against odds we would feel are insurmountable.  Her courage displayed here got this doe into my favorite images of 2015.

#15  Barn Owl Exiting The Old Grain Silo

15-BRP_1127-webI have to thank my safari folks for helping me capture this shot.  Taken at Antelope Island State Park in Utah, I got set up on the silo, prefocused on the silo wall, and then a well placed rap with a rock on the silo wall (done by a park ranger the first time) got me this shot.  There were a couple of owls in the silo and they would scatter when alerted, rising up from below to exit this storage bin opening.  When I saw them start to fly up inside I would hit the motordrive and rip off a dozen or more frames as they exited.  The owls would do a few fly-bys around the silo before going back in as quietly as they had left.

#16  A Le Hardy Rapids Harlequin Drake

16-D72_1531-webEveryone (well, almost everyone) who comes to Yellowstone in the spring has opportunities to photograph the harlequin ducks that come to these rapids on the Yellowstone River.  I have shot them many times, normally in lousy dim light.  The light was the same in this image, but I knew if I shot enough long exposure images the duck would have to be sharp in at least a couple.  This image was shot at f16 to give me a shutter speed of 1/20 second at ISO 100.  The slow shutter speed emphasized the motion of the water, while the f-stop provided the depth-of-field for a sharp rock and duck.  Some of my favorite all-time images combine blur with sharp subjects.

#17  Cinnamon Black Bear Up Close And Personal

17-D72_2201-webYes, another Sequoia cinnamon black bear.  This was truly the year of the black bear.  This male bear and I agreed to disagree about how close I should be as he browsed his way across one of the many meadows located a few hundred yards off the park roads.  This was one of the few times I have had a bear click his teeth at me – kind of a vocal warning not to get any closer, and I didn’t.  Though his mouth is partially blocked by the plant, I think the teeth make his point clearly.

#18  Belly Down Bobcat

18-D72_0735-webI photographed this bobcat just two weeks ago on a bobcat safari, at the beginning of December. Like most bobcats do when a close encounter is imminent, she went belly down in very little grass, hoping I would drive by without even seeing her.  Not only did I see her, but I maneuvered around the slight hill she was on to get a clear shot with no grass or weeds across her face.  Thirty seconds later she casually walked away, leaving me with some great bobcat face shots and a great moment to remember.

#19  Male Allen’s Hummingbird Sipping Nectar

19-D72_0130-webThe hummingbird safaris that I do in March and April never fail to produce great images, and this particular image of the male Allen’s Hummingbird is one of my favorites.  I have to thank my fellow photographer Steve for allowing me to bring safari groups to his avocado ranch in Santa Paula to photograph the dozens and dozens of hummers that come to feed on his property.

#20  Drake/Hen Northern Shovelers Mirror Each Other In Flight

20-BRP_0903-webThe light was difficult (dull) at the San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge in Irvine when my safari group showed up.  Ducks and other birds filled the sky and the ponds, but it was difficult shooting these fast moving birds.  Panning with flying birds is an art that I have to spend hours practicing (lots of blurry images) in order to get just a few quality images.  I like the dynamic nature of these two ducks in this mirror image – and besides the harlequin in the Yellowstone River (image #16) – this was my favorite duck image of 2015.

#21  Snow Goose As Art Form

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It was only two days ago (December 11) that I shot this image of a snow goose coming into land at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.  This image came at probably the most intense hour of photography I have ever done.  The wind changed directions and was coming from behind me, which means the snow geese were landing directly into me and the camera lens.  Not a few geese, but thousands were coming down to land over an hour in which I’m sure I shot 3000 images.  My fingers were cramped, my shoulders and back ached, my feet were sore … but my cards were full of these graceful geese putting on an aerodynamics show.

#22  Black Bear Cub Portrait

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Another shot of the black bear cub (see Image 9) encounter in the ferns near the trail in Sequoia National Park.  The morning dew gives evidence that this sow and her two cubs had spent the morning working the nearby meadow for breakfast.  This image is not cropped, it is just an intimate view into the world of these little bears.  Only about half the cubs survive their first year, even under the best conditions, and giving me even these few seconds just seemed special.  The little bits of grass, the little drops of dew, and the intent look made this image a favorite of mine.

#23  Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Fluttering

23-D72_4241-webI selected this image because its a moment of action that appears quiet and still.  These little Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are beautiful birds that are exceedingly difficult to photograph.  They flit among the bushes and trees and only rarely come to any kind of stop.  If they are more than 25 feet away you don’t even see them, they have to be close to be seen at all.  I shot this image on my southern Utah (May) safari at the base of Pine Valley Mountain, along Leeds Creek.

#24  Cinnamon Sow And Her Cubs On A Sequoia Log

24-D-60542-webI was lucky to catch this moment.  While the two little cubs strolled back and forth along the fallen sequoia log after climbing up, I was surprised to see the sow suddenly hoist herself up as well.  The sheer strength of the sow was remarkable.  The sequoia log was about ten feet to the top and she climbed up the side easily, joining her cubs, before climbing down the far side and vanishing into the forest in Sequoia National Park.  This image has color, texture, action, and interactions – all valuable ingredients in a great image.  This is my last bear image … I promise.

#25  Mule Deer Buck in Velvet In The Sequoia Forest

25-D72_0460-webThis is just a very clean portrait of this mule deer buck in Sequoia National Park.  Subtle morning light was filtering down through the canopy of the forest, and with no distracting bushes around, this portrait head shot just demanded to be taken.  This could be the same mule deer buck in Image #8 as the racks are very similar, though the images were taken several weeks apart, and in different areas.  In my former life when I spent a great deal of time shooting wildlife portraits with the thought of magazine covers on my mind, I shot images like this far more often.  Today, I look for combinations of different elements in my shots.  This image has great fur texture, eye shine, a nice rack of antlers, and a colorful background of sequoia trees … and as a vertical image has a chance (a better chance if it was bigger) at a cover.

Check out my Favorite 25 from 2014 (LINK) to compare the years.

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I hope you have enjoyed this visual summary of what I feel are 25 of my best images taken from Dec 2014 to today, Dec 2015.  Every year the subjects differ, the moments of action contrast to the straight portrait shots, but I think the wildness comes through.  Clearly, I shot a lot of black bears up in Sequoia this year, as well as the usual bobcat images – but overall it was a great mix of moments, and many moments I won’t forget.  BRP

Posted in Photo Safaris, Photography Skills | 1 Comment

My View: Wildlife Photography Culture

Decades ago in the fall, while on a photo safari in Yellowstone, I came across a group of wildlife photographers at a pullout in Willow Flats, just south of Swan Flats.  This was the best prime moose area (pre-1989 forest fires) in all the park back in those days, and a morning destination for many.  There were no wolves, and bear populations hadn’t rebounded yet, so moose and elk were prime subjects.  The willows were twenty feet high in places, the narrow valley was marshy with a creek running north through it, ending in Indian Creek.  I pulled over and joined the group, anxious to see what this gathering of big glass photographers was all about.

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Brent in Yellowstone. 1987

I parked my ’82 S-10 Blazer and walked up to the group of about fifteen guys, all dressed in camouflage, all talking loudly and telling stories.  I casually asked if “… anyone had seen any bulls this morning?”  A couple of them turned and asked me who I was, where I was from, and finally … where I had been published.  They looked me up and down – no camouflage.  The talking quieted down, and then I asked about the morning success with bulls again.  No one answered, and the group began to disperse.  Ok, whatever.

Later that day I was photographing a small group of elk on Mt. Washburn.  There was a bugling bull elk nearby in the forest, but he hadn’t made his entrance yet, so I was waiting for him.  I wasn’t far off the road when I noticed another photographer walking up, tripod and lens over his shoulder.  He asked me how long I had been waiting and after a few minutes asked me if I had been down to shoot the pronghorn antelope along the back road from Mammoth to the Northwest Entrance Station just outside Gardiner, MT.  This road was a mystery to me back then (this was about my 3rd or 4th photo trip to YNP) and he told me he could show it to me, and I was welcome to ride along with him.  I left my vehicle at Tower and we headed back towards Mammoth Hot Springs.

Shooting along the Yellowstone River in 1993.

Shooting along the Yellowstone River in 1999.

Over the next four hours he educated me about Yellowstone, where different animals were commonly found, when to be where, where not to waste my time, and some tactics on approaches.  During the drive I mentioned my encounter that morning at Willow Flats, and the stand-off nature of the group.  His words ring just as clearly today, “That is the culture of wildlife photographers.”  Hmmmm.

I remembered classroom discussions about corporate culture in an Organisational Behavior class I had taken at BYU.  IBM was called “big blue” for a reason, and it had to do with culture.  The word culture isn’t too tough to understand, and I think most people would come up with a reasonable definition.
Here is a definition I found after googling the word “culture”:

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

Wildlife photographers, a subset of nature photographers, have a unique culture.  That culture is never more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.  Defined visually by camouflage clothing, big glass telephoto lenses and Wimberley heads, big groups of photographers, to the vehicles everyone drives (those are just some of the symbols) – the culture is defining. Behaviors range from mildly hostile to very hostile to obvious newcomers (me at the time of Willow Flats), to a pack mentality that attempts to enforce compliance of beliefs on others.  I have never seen a time when verbal intimidation is used to force compliance among a group at an animal event in YNP more than happens today, or when social media is used to bludgeon others who dare to speak up.  Sometimes it is in response to just a joke, sometimes it is a response to a photo, sometimes only words.  It makes my blood boil.

Autumn in Yellowstone, about 1998

During the autumn elk rut in Yellowstone in 2002.

Those that know me well know that I am all about the photography, not the culture.  The cliques of wildlife photographers who have found a Cause célèbre band together to create an alternative truth, one that promotes their culture and themselves as being pure in thought and intent, essentially better than everyone else.  In those cases wildlife photography moves away from being a visual art form that displays beauty, grace, and wildness – to a bullhorn that pushes an agenda of compliance upon those both inside and outside the wildlife photography culture.

That bullhorn screams animals are more important than people, it yells that they decide who is following the rules and who isn’t, it screeches the anointing of some newest, greatest photographer based on their friendships.  Social media is rife with photographers portraying themselves as the best and most popular, who has the most likes or shares.  In some ways it makes me long for the day when most of the wildlife photographers knew each other by the byline credit on their published photos, or their books, but not anymore. Now it is about social media.

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While its difficult to see the camera angle in this cinnamon black bear cub image, I was 35-40 yards away on a paved trail, and on the ground, not in the tree. The sow was asleep with other cubs at the base of the tree. Danger level: 1.

While I belong to a community of wildlife photographers I am about as far from the culture of wildlife photography as you could be.  I sometimes wear camouflage, I own a big glass telephoto lens, I drive a suitable (cool) vehicle, and am mildly hostile (ok, possibly more than mildly) to others outside my safari groups – but in most regards I just want to be left alone to be a photographer.  I lead by example – helping those photographers with me to push themselves, anticipate movement and behavior, and to shoot and maneuver – never forgetting that we all want to return home safely.  I try and provide a wildlife learning curve enhancement to other photographers who don’t have the time or opportunity to learn the curve for themselves.  Wildlife photography is a privilege for everyone who wants to venture out.

I have my own personal rules in the field and I reject those that attempt to force me into compliance to their rules.  The rules I live by are to do no harm to my subjects, to not kill one animal to photograph another, to photograph wild subjects, and to shoot safely so I return to shoot another day.  Different locations have their own rules and while I generally follow those, I don’t consider them set in stone.

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Photographed at about 12-15 yards. She brought her cubs right to us, then rested in the ferns next to a small pine tree. Too close? The bears were calm, knew we were there, approached us without exhibiting signs of stress or danger. Danger Level: 2

For example, the hundred yard bear/wolf rule in Yellowstone is almost never enforced unless you are close (within sight) of the road, and even then the rule is often ignored.  I have been shooting with a ranger standing next to me, while a grizzly sow (followed by her male suitor) strolled by twenty yards away (below).

Brent Paull Photography

Male grizzly following a sow during breeding season, near Tower in Yellowstone National Park. Danger Level: 2

On another occasion I had two-and-a-half year old grizzly cubs about 15 yards away (below), the mother a bit farther, with a ranger next to me.  He was calm and let me shoot, I was calm but excited, the bears ignored all of us – I called that event my “bears-in-the-mist” moment.  Hundreds of times I’ve seen the rules bent by circumstances, or just by the personality of the ever-present rangers.

Grizzly Cub takes offense to the Warning Sign mentioning dangerous bears

Yellowstone grizzly takes offense to the sign mentioning dangerous bears.  Swan Flats on a blustery day.  There were about five cars (including mine) at this pull-out when the bears showed up in the mist and drizzle, and one cool headed ranger.  Danger Level: 3

I learned wildlife photography off the road and out-of-sight of the crowds, in the fields with bull elk, moose and grizzlies.  Nothing can replace those experiences today.  You can’t learn to be a wildlife photographer if you have never left the road, never ventured into the distant meadows and forests, and never pushed.  Carrying grizzly mace is a level of protection, but nothing works better than experience to keep you out of trouble in the field.  Today, the culture of wildlife photography demands you don’t get that experience, that to learn in the field is unethical, or irresponsible, or harmful to wildlife.

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Mojave Green Rattlesnake in goldfields wildflowers in the Antelope Valley, CA. Danger level: 7  This is the most dangerous image I have ever taken. I was instantly sweating, muscles twitching, dry mouth, heart racing – partially because I was using a 60mm macro lens.

This is kind of a side note, but I resent pet names for wild animals.  Bart, the actor brown bear in The Edge and The Bear, as well as in Legends of the Fall and others – can have a pet name.  He was a pet, trained to act – yet always a brown bear.  Some folks use the animals collar, ear tag, or park identification number, like Bear 399 or Bear 610 – frequently spotted grizzlies in Grand Teton National Park.  At least that’s a better alternative.  Pet names rob a wild animal of its wildness. Photographers in the culture might say it is for an easier ID of the animal, but I don’t believe that.  They want to form a personal bond with an animal they frequently see and photograph, and to speak of it in human terms, applying human emotions and thought processes – in order to form their own personal symbiotic relationship.  If they do that then they feel they can rightfully speak for the animal.

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Snowshoeing on my winter safari in Yellowstone in 2005.

Here is a definition I found by googling the word “symbiotic”:

Biology; symbiotic refers to any diverse organisms that live together, but in this (parasites and prey) case, the relationship is not necessarily beneficial to both.

The culture of wildlife photographers has changed over the decades, especially with the advent of digital photography, and not for the better.  There are tens of thousands of new photographers, well equipped, everywhere in the national parks.  While the majority are great folks with a love for their subjects, many have moved the culture farther from the hunter/photographers that initially formed it.  They are the arrogant, condemning, and spiteful folks who demand all photographers adhere to their world view of wildlife photography, and their demanded mores – or face intimidation.

To cross these folks means being deluged with nasty comments in social media, to be photographed and pointed out for derision, and to hear lies about yourself.  I have been yelled at, threatened, had complaints filed against me (to no avail, sorry.) with the park service, lies told to rangers, my vehicle window spit on (when I wasn’t in it), etc that it has almost become a running joke among friends and clients.

Sunrise behind Sow Grizzly and cubs - Yellowstone National Park

Sunrise behind a sow grizzly and her cubs on Swan Flats, Yellowstone National Park. She walked right to my group, and with my mace in hand, she thankfully made a sharp  left turn and moved around us and the vehicles.  Danger Level: 5

One year I was up in the park photographing bears just out of hibernation.  The road south into Swan Flats was partially open and there was a bison carcass three hundred yards off the road.  I came back early in the morning, parked, and got set up.  A van pulled up and eight similarly dressed folks stepped out and set up their telephoto lenses and spotting scopes.  I walked past and headed out to get a closer shot, not much closer, but from a better angle with the light.  I was immediately swore at by someone in the group. I set up my tripod down, removed my photo vest, and walked back to the group.

“Who said that?”  This little group of cowards suddenly went silent.  “The rules are 100 yards, if you clowns want to stand back 300 yards, that’s your business.”  Again, silence, then I headed back out.  Due to the angles of trees, shadows and light, and drifting snow, I stopped about 200 yards away and shot what I could.  When I returned to my vehicle the van with the clowns were gone.  I headed back up Swan Flats and was coming down into Mammoth Hot Springs when I was pulled over by two ranger vehicles (as if they needed two).  When I asked why I was pulled over I got the usual lie “… you were speeding, I got you on radar.”  I laughed, my radar detector had gone off long before I saw the ranger and I was doing the exact limit.  “Not a chance” I said.  He saw the radar detector, still beeping, and decided to come clean.

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Big male bobcat eating his captured ground squirrel in the crotch of a big oak tree, about 100 yards off the road. We crossed the fence and took our images near minimum focusing distance. I was more worried about a rancher encounter than the bobcat encounter.  Danger Level: 2

“I pulled you over because we had a complaint that you had a approached the bison carcass on Swan Flats within 50 yards, and harassed the animals.”  I told him that I had never got closer than about 200 yards, and my boot tracks in the snow leading up to where I shot from would prove that.  He thought for a minute.

“I would be happy to show you where my tracks are.  Those guys that filed the complaint had cursed at me when I started out there, but I didn’t let them stop me.”  Apparently, that was good enough.  The rangers returned to their vehicles and drove off, no ticket and no warning, but I had endured the usual harassment.  Since that time they have changed the rules somewhat about moving towards any carcass, but at that time they hadn’t.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows.

A bull elk moving through heavy timber near Norris Meadows. Bull elk have consistently been the most dangerous animal I photograph, especially during the rut. Danger Level: 3

I’ve got to the point where I have one response to people who yell at me, or others, to back away from an animal – “I want to see your badge.”  Most just shut up, one drove away as I approached him in his vehicle, one ran away when I turned and walked up to him.  Other folks can decide for themselves how close to get, or what position to take.  I am not the great bear whisperer, nor does my knowledge give me some level of quasi-authority to decide what others should, or should not, be doing.  However, I never see that attitude among the true shooting professionals – the photographers who make their living at photography, just among the cultural bigots.

Owl Hunter Brent Paull-website

Stalking Great Gray Owls in the mist in 2015 near Tower in Yellowstone National Park.

During those years when I was lower on the learning curve I was lucky to have some experienced outdoorsmen and hunters as friends and fellow photographers.  I learned a great deal about animal behavior, body language, and learned field tactics in photographing them.  There were a few times I drew bluff charges, mostly from elk, but also from bison, moose, bears, coyotes, rocky mountain goats, and once from a male spruce grouse.  They weren’t serious, sometimes just taking a single step in my direction, but it was enough that I learned something each time.

My point is that you can learn first hand, without being told or yelled at, about the creatures you photograph. You can venture out without fear of others, and should you encounter those folks, you are welcome to use my comeback: “I want to see your badge.”  They don’t get to decide how close, when, where, or anything else when it comes to your photography. While a part of wildlife photography is certainly the moments of high anxiety, maybe even a tingle of fear – the other part is getting great images of that great moment.  Don’t let others influence you, don’t let others lessen your experiences, and don’t let others decide when it is ok for you to be a wildlife photographer.  BRP

Posted in Photography Skills, Stories from the Field | 3 Comments

Classic Moments: Vermilion Flycatchers

On a recent safari to Morongo Valley this past April my group had an amazing experience. Like everywhere else in California spring had come a couple of weeks early – even to these desert Vermilion Flycatchers.  As we moved through Covington Park, next to Big Morongo State Park, I was looking for the Vermilion’s nest I had photographed successfully for many years, usually located in the lower branches of one of the cottonwood trees.  After a few minutes with no success we walked out through some of the bordering trees and brush and within seconds spotted both the adult Vermilion’s feeding their fledglings on low, open branches.  And while it doesn’t happen often enough – we had the morning sun directly behind us and a fair amount of wind whipping through trees.

The blowing wind created an elegant ballet that the flycatchers had to negotiate as they hunted, caught, and fed their fledglings.  The tree limbs dipped and rose as the fledglings balanced on different branches, forcing the adults to perform acrobatic maneuvers to bring them food.  It also allowed the flycatchers to hover for seconds at a time – allowing me to lock focus on them and fire off as many shots as I could.  It was definitely a fast and furious shoot-out.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher maneuvers through the wind hunting for insects.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher maneuvers through the wind while hunting for insects.

The adult Vermilions would land on the top of small shrubs, and sometimes perch on the lowest tree branches, picking off small insects with ease – both flying and crawling.  The female Vermilion would land next to the fledglings to feed them, but not the male.  He would return to the fledglings with a beak loaded with food and literally ram it down their throats without landing – kind of a fly-by feeding.  I was amazed at what I was seeing and recognized how rare an opportunity this was.  While the other photographers wandered away photographing the other birds, Chris Gardner and I spent at least two hours jockeying for position as the birds positions moved.

Leaning into the wind, the male Vermilion hunted non-stop for his fledglings.

Leaning into the wind, the male Vermilion hunted non-stop for his fledglings, as a bug in his beak indicates.

Once the male Vermilion made his first aerial pass feeding his fledglings we knew what to look for in the moments leading up to the passing of the food.  These flycatchers are incredibly fast and can vanish from sight in a few brief seconds, but the fledglings from their higher perch could see them coming at greater distances.  As the parents would approach, the fledglings would open their mouths wide – begging to be feed.  All I had to do was lock focus on the fledgling and wait for the adult to flash into the scene.  I typically got about 8 shots off from the adult’s first appearance through their exit.  After that first hour the male began to land next to the fledglings after feeding them – no doubt to rest for a few seconds before heading off again.

This is one of my first attempts, though I was blocked by the adult  on this pass (faces are important!)

This is one of my first attempts, though I was blocked by the adult on this pass (faces are important!)

Even though I had great light and could have shot at a relatively low ISO (like 200) I chose to guarantee high shutter-speeds (ss) for these incredibly quick feeding passes.  From past experience I knew I needed a minimum ss of 1/1500 second – preferably around 1/4000 second to 1/6000 second.  This was my first safari with my new dx-sensored Nikon D7200 and I changed settings often looking for the correct balance of depth-of-field (dof) and movement-stopping ss.  I shot most of these images at ISO 800 and depending on the fledglings position (so I knew if the adult would approach parallel or fly past me) I chose to shoot from f4.8 to f8 with my Nikon 500mm lens.   Some images, like the one above, were shot at f8 to maximize dof.  Dof is always narrow when shooting a large telephoto lens.  We were shooting at about 25 feet, which meant less than an inch of dof at f4, and about three inches of dof at f8.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher does a fly-by feeding of one of his fledglings.

The male Vermilion Flycatcher does a fly-by feeding of one of his fledglings.

The moment of feeding.  This image was shot at 1/6000 second at f4.8 at ISO 800.

The moment of feeding. This image was shot at 1/6000 second at f4.8 at ISO 800, on an Indura tripod.

Again, and again, the adults made feeding passes for the fledglings giving us many opportunities to photograph these amazing moments.  I shot about 1200 images in those approximately two hours of shooting the Vermilions – of which 206 made the final cut into my stock library.  I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the images.

The male Vermilion comes in fast to his begging fledgling.

The male Vermilion comes in banking hard against the wind with food for his begging fledglings.

Perched on some dried out plants, this male Vermilion keeps a lookout for his fledglings next meal.

Perched on some dried out plants, this male Vermilion keeps a lookout for his fledglings next meal.

This was one of those wildlife photography experiences where everything worked as advertised.  The D7200 had an improved focusing system (over the D7100) in continuous focus mode … which worked perfectly.  Panning with the tripod made focusing that much smoother and quicker.  In crop mode the motordrive shoots a bit faster – at 7 fps.  When I got out of the truck that morning I almost put my pro body fx-sensored D3s on the big lens, but the light was great and I didn’t think I would need to be shooting at any high ISO’s or even high fps rates – so I figured this would be a great time to run the 24mp D7200 through its paces.  Everything worked to perfection, including these little flycatchers.  Thanks for some great moments! BRP

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

2015 Spring Wildlife Yellowstone Safaris

Driving north on I-15 the countryside slowly changed hues, from brown to green, to vibrant green.  Through Utah, and then through southeastern Idaho into Montana the green only deepened, the grass was longer, the air crisper.  By the time we got to Yellowstone a fresh, thick green carpet covered every meadow, valley, and mountainside.  Nearly everyday thunderstorms built in mid-afternoon and washed and watered the park with rain.  By early evening the storms broke and calm had returned.

I spent 11 days shooting in Yellowstone this spring – the day before the safaris started, two back-to-back four day safaris, another day with my wife, and one last day with two of my sons and their wives and families.  By the time I left that final morning from Island Park, ID, to head home to California my spirit was certainly refreshed and my cameras had shot just over 11k images.

Over the decades of shooting in YNP I’ve learned to identify the common scenes quickly, scenes that will present themselves nearly everyday that can be passed by with little worry of not seeing it again, and anticipate the uncommon photo opportunities.  We had some tremendous uncommon opportunities on this set of safaris, opportunities that I probably won’t photograph in such depth again.  The pika images at the Hellroaring Trailhead, the harlequin duck in Soda Butte Creek, mallard ducklings in Lamar Valley, newborn pronghorn fawns in Little America, the sheer volume of black bears and cubs in the Tower area, the great gray owl in Island Park – to name a few.

A pika downing a dandelion at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A pika downing a dandelion at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A drake Harlequin duck along Soda Butte Creek.

A drake Harlequin duck along Soda Butte Creek.

A mallard hen and her ducklings in Lamar Valley.

A mallard hen and her ducklings in Lamar Valley.

Newborn twin pronghorn fawns stay close to mom in Little America.

Newborn twin pronghorn fawns stay close to mom in Little America.

One of three 2 year old black bear cubs from near Tower.

One of three 2 year old black bear cubs, covered in dew, from near Tower.

This great gray owl was photographed just 200 yards from our cabin in Island Park.

This great gray owl was photographed just 200 yards from our cabin in Island Park.

The traditional subjects were all there, though we struck out on Badgers (extinct according to Gary) and saw and photographed few grizzlies.  We shot traveling red foxes, mousing coyotes, and gray wolves on a bison kill, as well as spotted baby elk, excited red dogs (baby calf bison), and the always entertaining great horned owls around Mammoth.  The trees were full of cavity nesting birds, like tree swallows and red-naped sapsuckers, and we saw grouse but never had a good opportunity to photograph them.

A red fox traveling by us near Roosevelt Junction.

A red fox traveling by us near Roosevelt Junction.

A coyote performs a mousing jump in Lamar Valley.

A coyote performs a mousing jump in Lamar Valley.

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A group of bison charge (tails up) after a gray wolf in Lamar Valley at about 600 yards.

A spotted elk fawn charges blackbirds as it learns the world around it.

A spotted elk fawn charges blackbirds as it learns the world around it near Mammoth Hot Springs.

Red dogs play on a cool, brisk morning in Little America in YNP.

Red dogs play on a cool, brisk morning in Little America in YNP.

This adult great horned owl keeps watch on its fledglings in a nearby tree in Mammoth Hot Springs.

This adult great horned owl keeps watch on its fledglings in a nearby tree in Mammoth.

A red-naped sapsucker cleans out wood shavings from its cavity nest.

A red-naped sapsucker cleans out wood shavings from its cavity nest.

These images give you a taste of what we photographed over all those days in Yellowstone.  I would like to thank Gary, Ron, Dave, Clay and Jody, Chris, and Box for their enthusiastic attitudes.  We spend a lot of time chasing for those moments, we start very early each morning with sleep at a premium, and all of you really performed well.  Also, thanks to old friends Butch, Karen, and Steve for spending some time with our safari groups as well.

We did have one experience that taught us all something about grizzly mace.  In one of the vehicles a can was punctured by a power seat moving over it, leaking mace that caused quite a danger in that vehicle.  While lots of water, towels, and some helping hands kept the incident from getting out of hand, it still incapacitated one safari member enough that they missed a couple days recovering.  So for those of you with mace, especially the more powerful grizzly mace, take extra precautions in their storage.

Here are some more image from the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari:

A white-tailed deer fawn near Petrified Tree.

A white-tailed deer fawn near Petrified Tree.

Over the years I have seen a few white-tailed deer in YNP, but never very many.  So I was surprised when this spotted white-tailed fawn and its mother appeared suddenly in the meadow near the Petrified Tree road.  After a few shots the mother laid the fawn down in some heavy grass and it literally disappeared from view.

 

Two of four coyote pups at a den near Phantom Lakes.

Two of four coyote pups at a den near Phantom Lakes.

For 9 days I looked hard to find an active coyote (and badger) den.  Like needles in a haystack, at times they seem impossible to find – until you literally step on one.  I found this coyote den on the last day near the Phantom Lakes, about 150 yards uphill from the road.  There were four puppies playing and wrestling around the long grass and dirt pile, but never at once and never in the open very much.

A bald eagle take-off from the Slough Creek area.

A bald eagle take-off from the Slough Creek area.

We saw many eagles, including one Golden Eagle, as well as osprey in our travels around the park.  One bald eagle flew by with a large trout in its claws, though I didn’t see it in time for images.  And like all eagles and osprey, getting close is much more difficult than you would expect.  These fish eaters are active throughout the park and along all the rivers and ponds.

 

A grizzly charges across Swan Flats one morning before sunrise.

A grizzly charges across Swan Flats one before sunrise.

Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, is one of my favorite grizzly search locations because if you do see one they are usually pretty close.  It is also the area where I photographed the quad cubs from 2010 extensively.  We spotted this bear before sunrise a few hundred yards off the road -by the time we stopped and got set up he was moving across the flats and crossed the road on a run

 

A pika takes a look at us at Hellroaring Trailhead.

A pika at Hellroaring Trailhead.

We had four different opportunities to photograph the elusive and beautiful Pika, a chinchilla sized animal – the smallest member of the rabbit family.  They love the piled up rocks on talus slopes, and one of the best piles of talus is found next to the Hellroaring Trailhead.  On two of those encounters we had completely cooperative pika who didn’t seem to care that we were standing 15 feet away, photographing the heck out of them.  We came to calling the slightly larger male pika – the “bull” pika.  He ran around more, called out warnings to the other pika more, and seemed a bit more reticent.  At one point the pika ate a dandelion (top photo of this article), slowly sucking it down like a piece of spaghetti – and providing us with one of the unique photo opportunities we had

A Harlequin duck at Le Hardy Rapids.

A Harlequin duck at Le Hardy Rapids on the Yellowstone River.

Probably the finest flight image I've taken of a Great Gray Owl, in Island Park, ID.

Probably the finest flight image I’ve taken of a Great Gray Owl, in Island Park, ID.

As you can see from the images, we had some great wildlife moments.  During the slower afternoons we shot landscapes, wildflowers, mushrooms, and chased songbirds.  I did miss one spectacular morning light scene at the south end of Swan Flats while looking for grizzly bears on our first morning out.  Layers of mist were rising up from the flats as the sun began to break the horizon line, shafts of light filtered through the mist turning it shades of gold and yellow, and a solitary cow elk stood silhouetted a hundred yards off the road right in the middle of it … and I kept driving looking for grizzlies … arghhhh.  My bad.

My next safari to Yellowstone is October 1-4 for the fall wildlife and bugling bull elk during the annual rut.  That safari is preceded by my southwestern Colorado Landscape Safari in the San Juan Mountains from September 27-29.  Come on along for some great adventures, and moments never to be seen again.  BRP

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2015 Southern Utah Spring Safari

The thunderstorms that swept up into Southern Utah in early May provided our safari group with the towering cloud formations that landscape photographers dream of.  That was the good news.  The bad news was a bit too much rain came with those clouds, and the number of closed roads on BLM land leading to Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument.  We worked around the weather, but were stymied by the BLM road closures.

BRP_9241-webThe Saturday night (May 2) before the safari started, after settling into our hotel room in Hurricane (pronounced Hurricun for those not accustomed to Utah speech patterns), we headed up to Gooseberry Mesa, directly south of the southern border of Zion National Park.  This twilight image (above) shows Smithsonian Butte (bottom right in image) getting the last few rays of a fast disappearing sun.

All the back-roads and scenic byways we traveled during the safari reminded me of the years I lived in St. George (1985-1990) and countless hours I spent discovering a new country of red rock and desert wildlife.  Those early formative years were filled with photography experiences that built a foundation of knowledge for me that I’ve drawn from ever since.

On our first full day afield found us spending the morning in Zion National Park (ZNP) chasing images of desert bighorn ewes and lambs of the year.  Unlike bighorn lambs in Yellowstone – born in May, these little desert lambs were probably born in March and had already grown into strong and sure rock climbers.

D72_3383-webIn this image (above) five of these lambs of the year follow each other across steep Navajo sandstone gradients.  Many times they were a bit too close to us as we tried to stay in front of them.  A lamb easily leaps up to another level (below) of the rocks, the other playful lambs following after him.

D72_3534-webI call the area above the long tunnel, heading east towards the east entrance, the “roof” of Zion.  It’s amid these amazing rock monoliths that the desert bighorn sheep have flourished.  Prickly pear cactus was blossoming in a multitude of colors, there was blooming agave, and many colorful wildflowers – not to mention the massive distraction of huge mountains of solid rock.  There were photography subjects in every direction.

The Beehives at sunrise.

The Beehives at sunrise.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

As the morning wore on we drove the short distance to Bryce Canyon National Park (BCNP) traveling to the far end of the park – to Rainbow Point.  Brilliant rays of light danced through the clouds, filtering through the rock formations while off in the distance dark, powerful thunderheads built to the north and east.  Rainbow Point is just over 9000 feet in elevation, and temps had certainly dropped into the low 40’s – and with the wind the cold was bone chilling.

We stopped to photograph the Utah Prairie Dog village near the intersection of the highway and the Sunset Point Road.  There were about a dozen out moving around – I’m sure the cold and wind keeping many of them, including the babies, deep inside their warm burrows.

BRP_9327-web

View north from Rainbow Point.

A light rain began to fall as we headed in to eat lunch at Bryce Canyon Lodge.  I usually stop at Ruby’s Inn near the BCNP entrance, but I had never eaten at the Lodge so we gave it a try, and discovered we should have eaten at Ruby’s Inn….

Back in ZNP we continued photographing sheep, cactus, and wildflowers.  For sunset we drove up the Kolob Terrace road out of Virgin, UT, past the North Creek Trailhead that leads hikers to the Subway slot canyon, to the meadows where scenes were shot for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”.  The views back southeast to the West Temple were obscured by dust from the winds and mist from the lowering clouds.

On day 2 we headed for one of my favorite bird, butterfly, and wildflower locations – Leeds Creek.  The road rises from the town of Leeds on I-15, goes north through the upscale community of Silver Reef (an old silver mining town), then continues as a dirt road north about 6 miles to the Oak Grove Campground at the base of towering Pine Valley Mountain. Those six miles and about 3000 vertical feet take you through a number of life zones. From cactus and yucca, to oaks and lupines, and finally to pines and monkeyflowers.  I wrote an article a decade or two ago for the Deseret News (in SLC, Utah) about the amazing selection of butterflies along this stretch of road called “Jewels on the Wind”.

Virginia Warbler

Virginia Warbler

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

We got near the end of the road at Oak Grove Campground and found the gate locked … with just 500 yards to go.  Up in the pine/oak forest surrounding the campground I usually photograph tanagers, woodpeckers, orioles, etc.  In the thick Gambel’s Oak woodlands we made the best of it.  To my surprise we got a whole new assortment of songbirds that I hadn’t photographed along the road before.  We shot Virginia’s Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Plumbeous Vireos, House Wrens, Northern Flickers, and other woodpeckers.  We pulled into a small campsite just off the road, but inside the 20 foot tall thin Gambel’s Oak forest the bird song was deafening.

Plumbeous Vireo on nest.

Plumbeous Vireo on nest.

For a few hours we were shooting song birds almost non-stop – especially the house wren, which showed no lack of courage in fluttering around our heads and landing just a few feet away – forcing me to back up again and again.

Singing House Wren.

Singing House Wren.

Prairie Clover

Prairie Clover

Eventually the birds quieted down and we began shooting wildflowers and cactus.  It was probably too cool for reptiles to be out, though I have shot many varieties of snakes and lizards on this road in the past.

After lunch we headed back to ZNP.  We had more sheep encounters, shot landscapes, and when the wind wasn’t blowing as hard I shot a number of wildflowers I hadn’t shot in the park before.  There were tourists around but the park certainly wasn’t crowded.  The road into Zion Canyon had just been closed the week before, and the bus service is great for tourists but not for photographers – so we skipped the canyon.

We ended the day in a light drizzle back in Hurricane for the night.  The following morning we were out the door about 4am for the long drive out to the Tuweep section of Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP).  This amazing overlook in GCNP is about 62 miles directly south, cutting across the Arizona Strip, from Hwy 9, near Pipe Springs National Monument – on a dirt road.  It’s a well maintained dirt road, even to the ranger station, but the last mile is tough – and not for those afraid of banging the bottom of their vehicle.  My truck has pretty high clearance and I nailed rock ledges twice.

It was a bit overcast and cool, which didn’t detour the guys from shooting overlook images along the canyon’s rim.  No trails, no protective fences – just straight down 3000 feet to the Colorado River far below.  I shot some videos of the moving storm clouds and of the “tanks” which were all full of rainwater.  Tanks are rock pools, eroded down through thousands of years, which provide water to desert wildlife in this sparse country.

After lunch in Kanab we headed for Sidestep Canyon in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  That was disappointing.  The BLM, which manages the national monument, closed off the roads leading to the canyon to restrict visitation.  While I had photographed Sidestep Canyon a half dozen times, I was disappointed for the guys – disappointed they wouldn’t see this amazing spot.  We passed on hiking the final two miles in with all our gear and settled for wildflowers.  We got into Monument Valley late that afternoon amid thunderstorms and wind – and got a good look at where we would spend the morning.

The West Mitten and the East Mitten at Sunrise.

The West Mitten and the East Mitten at Sunrise.

The clouds were perfect for our final day.  We shot the famous rock monoliths in Monument Valley throughout the morning, only getting around the road twice.  We had spotted wild horses (all wild horses in North America are actually Feral horses, escaped from the Spanish, or the Mexicans, or the pioneers or farmers who first colonized these areas after the Native American Indians) the night before and were determined to find them again to shoot them among the dunes and desert scenes along this area of the Utah-Arizona border.

View north with Yucca's in bloom.

View north with Yucca’s in bloom.

We wanted to get into some of the locked off areas that require an Indian Guide but were unable to come to an equitable arrangement.  The fees to go into these areas, like the totem poles, is steep.  I always find it kind of commercial that “sacred” ground has a price to make it accessible.

Stallion

Stallion

Mare and Foal.

Mare and Foal.

We spent a couple of hours working these horses in the Monument Valley sand dunes.  Until I saw desert bighorn in ZNP eating yucca spines I didn’t think they were edible, but these horses all ate the sharp spines on the available yuccas as well.  We worked our way back across southern Utah and entered ZNP for one more crack at the desert bighorn sheep.  For all our success on the previous days we were shut out this time.  The small herds of sheep had vanished from the areas we had photographed them in just days before.  The rams, so much more visible in the fall (November) when the rut begins in Zion – also escaped from our lenses.

My F-150 Truck.

My F-150 Truck in Monument Valley.

The Group - Brent, James, Rick, and Marv.

The Group – Brent, James, Rick, and Marv.

I’m glad to say that my new truck worked as I intended it.  I had the shell customized so the side windows flip up, and then in late April I customized (with Bob Sutton) the truck bed interior with shelves and storage.  The windows on the side open and we built shelves just inside for cameras, tripods, and stuff so we would have quick access. All our suitcases and camera bags fit easily into the center area for storage, with room for more. After returning from the trip I found a little dust had entered the shell around the tailgate so I bought insulation tape and hopefully solved that.

Even with four in the truck and all our stuff it was comfortable to drive and still averaged about 20mpg – going anywhere we needed it to go.

I shot just over 4200 images for the 4 day safari.  Normally we shoot about 75% landscapes and 25% wildlife, but with all the songbirds and desert bighorn we had encounters with, I would say the numbers were exactly opposite.  Everyday there was some driving to be done but everyone had fun – and I enjoyed the photographers that came along.  All have gone on safaris in the past with me and all of them are just good guys, easy to travel with, excited to see and photograph new subjects – and they made this a great experience for me – I hope I made it a great experience for them.  BRP

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My 25 Favorite Images of 2014

The end of 2014 has come quickly and it’s time to pick my favorite shots.  A slew of bobcat safaris and an extended trip out to Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico and to Laredo in South Texas have made the month of December fly by.  This has been a tremendous year for me as a photographer.  I’ve had great experiences in the field – thanks to many of you who have both participated in the photo safaris and directed me towards some great wildlife locations!  I know that while many of you shooting next to me have the same images – photography is a shared experience from which we all benefit.

93 Safari days
144 Bobcat encounters on 19 bobcat safaris (7.6 bobcats per safari)
140 Black Bear encounters in Sequoia NP
45,000 miles driven (383,000 on my 4Runner now)
27 New bird species added to my stock library
28 Magazine photo credits (2 Covers: Outdoor California, Yosemite Visitor’s Guide)

Here are my favorite images from 2014, with a short description of each.  I hope you enjoy viewing these as much as I did taking them.

#1BisonA brief moment that I anticipated coming.  This calf bison was moving up the other side of its mother when it crossed, protectively, underneath her chin and glanced out.  So many times before I had envisioned this image without the calf following through … always so close to crossing under – but this time the calf did, and mom struck a stern pose.  Two seconds later it was over but I had my shot.
Spring Yellowstone Safari – June.

#2BlackBear-5The black bear sow and her cub were moving around this old sequoia log with this large burned out window when I thought there was a chance she would go in.  I moved up closer and got into position if she did.  I was practically screaming at her (with my mouth closed, of course) to go in when she hesitated, turned around, and walked into the dark interior.  I dialed in -1 eV of compensation to offset the dark interior and waited for her to reappear.  After twenty seconds she moved back out to the window and posed for me … I guess mental screaming worked.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

#3BRP_1262-webAll I can say is I was lucky … again.  This bobcat was isolated in a meadow, hunting squirrels, away from heavy cover and decided on its own to go up the nearest oak tree.  Thank you.  The Italian safari group I was guiding followed me over the barbed wire fence, waded across a shallow creek, and got the point-blank bobcat shoot of their lives for fifteen precious minutes.
Italian Photo Tour Bobcat Safari – October.

#4
D71_9248-web
Summer Tanagers are just plain difficult to photograph, and getting a male and a female to sit and talk back and forth was just amazing.  I had played my Summer Tanager call from my Sibley (full version) App, linked to a louder blue-tooth speaker – and the male answered immediately.  Then the female (yellow) moved up through the cottonwood and began to scold the male (red) … at least it appeared that way.  I can only imagine the conversation … “you will stay right here!”
Morongo Valley Bird Safari – April.

#5
SandhillCranes-2I was lucky enough to shoot Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico twice this year, once in early January and then again here in December.  Bosque is a target rich environment where you have to control your desire to just hold the shutter release button down with the motordrive set to scream speed!  Afternoon light and a partially disc’d cornfield provided the perfect backdrop for these Sandhill Cranes to come gliding into.  Your skills at panning are really perfected here.
Bosque del Apache NWR Safari – January.

6.
AllensHummer-3I love this male Allen’s Hummingbird image because it is so clean, and close.  I shot a bunch of images as it scanned left, then right, trying to get the gorget feathers glowing just right in the overcast light.  Incredible detail and color make this image pop.  Personal Safari with my friend Dave Collins.
Sepulveda Basin Bird Safari – March.

7.
SJKitFox-3Another friend of mine, Allen Round – a ret’d game warden from Wyoming, has put me on location for this den of endangered San Joaquin Kit Foxes for the past three years.  The difference this year is the parents were around, especially the vixen.  Laying down on my stomach in the dirt I got this image, hand-held (a rarity for me) of the vixen just moments after the sun rose, and between her chores of cleaning and tending to each of her three kits.  Photographed east of Bakersfield.
Custom Kit Fox Safari – June.

 8.
D71_6931-webI was headed over to Cambria in the early morning to do a Photo Walk along Moonstone Beach when, as I turned north onto Highway 1 from Highway 46, this hunting male bobcat came into full view.  Like shadow boxers we moved back and forth through openings in the trees next to the road … there wasn’t a minute he didn’t know I was there.  But while he caught a large vole, which I got images of, this is the image I have liked so much.  It is just a classic bobcat “I’ve been seen” belly crawling away pose.
Lucky Bobcat Encounter – April.

9. 
AllensHummingbirdAnother male Allen’s Hummingbird, this time in flight hovering near a feeder.  I never get tired of shooting these brilliantly colored and feathered little birds.  Friends Steve and Debra Cummings have allowed me to bring photo groups to their Avocado Ranch to shoot the dozens and dozens of hummers that call their bushes and trees home.  Long lenses, short lenses, flash, no flash, tripod, or no tripod – it is exciting and I love this no-flash image.
Hummingbird Safari – March.

10.
Bobcat-9
This large male bobcat hunts across a maze of squirrel holes looking for its next meal.  This image has become one of my favorite bobcat images because it shows the tomcat in its preferred habitat.  Taken on the first nice day following several days of storms, I set a new personal record of 13 bobcat encounters in one day, photographing 11 of them.
Bobcat Safari – November.

11.
PacificWavesI took this image on the Moonstone Beach photo walk, just up the coast a few miles near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.  I love to get out on a bluff sticking out in the ocean so the waves have to go by me, allowing me to shoot inside the curl as it passes by.  This isn’t a big wave, just an ideal curl that my 500mm lens captured perfectly.  You never know what subject will present itself on a safari.
Moonstone Beach Photo Walk – April.

12.
BlackBear-3What a story this cub could tell.  On a bear safari to Sequoia we encountered a black sow and two cubs.  When a nearby male bear approached and charged at the cub, who ran up this broken pine tree, the sow took off after the male.  I got no sharp images of that, but the cub stayed at the top (about 20 feet up) of the tree for a bit before climbing down and rejoining its mother and sibling.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

13.
BlackBear-6This is the same cinnamon black bear as the sow shown in image #10.  I love this image because its showing behavior I had never seen before from a bear.  The sow, with the cubs nearby but out of frame, stood up against this pine stump and began to tear into it – the early morning light highlighting it perfectly.  The smell of termites or ants was just too irresistible for her to pass up.  The sows claws were the right tool to penetrate deep into the stump in seconds.
Sequoia Bear Safari – August.

14.
BRP_5995-webI’ve added thousands of bobcat images to my stock library this year.  This has been the year of the bobcat (and black bear!) for me, that’s for sure.  This big male bobcat tree’d itself with it’s California Ground Squirrel lunch firmly in its jaws.  As my safari group jumped the fence and maneuvered for position around the oak tree, the cat took its time eating the squirrel – a moment we all captured in great detail on the backroads near Pinnacles National Park.
Bobcat Safari – December.

15.
BRP_6772-webGiant sequoias are a difficult subject to photograph.  The trees climb so high that to capture it all removes it from the forest.  I was fortunate to shoot this image on an overcast day where the lush greens of spring dominated the foreground, and the tree trunks just rose out of the image.  The light colored spots in the lower middle of the image are dogwood blossoms.
Sequoia Spring Safari – May.

16.
BRP_4626-webI’ve seen Harris Hawks before I shot this image, but I never had a image that showed as much feather detail and energy as this landing image does.  The overcast light helped evenly light the hawk, instead of the usual blue sky shadows.  I have to thank my friend Butch Ramirez in Laredo, TX for guiding my safari group to some great photography locations in his area, including on his own ranch.
Texas Wildlife Safari – December.

17.
BRP_3593-webThere are times when you are at the right place, at the right time, armed with the right photo equipment to capture stunning images.  This shot, just north of Silverton, CO was one of those amazing moments.  We had already spent hours driving forest backroads shooting everything we saw when, heading to Ouray for lunch, this colorful scene opened up before us, right off the highway.  An amazing mountain of autumn aspens, blue sky, and puffy clouds.
SW Colorado Safari – September.

18.
BlackBear-9
This little black bear cub game me one more look as it’s family of bears headed up the paved trail and eventually into the forest at Crescent Meadows.  This cub stopped to watch me again and again – never getting too far behind mom.  The image was shot early in the morning before the sun began to angle through the trees.
Sequoia Bear Safari – July.

19.
BRP_4725-webThis image takes me back to my beginnings as a wildlife photographer, back to the 1980’s when I was doing image submissions to big-game magazines – and chasing bull elk like this.  There is something primal about an elk bugle, a challenge to all bulls willing to battle for breeding rights, reverberating around the mountains – answered within moments by other bulls.
Autumn Yellowstone Wildlife Safari – October.

20.
ZereneFritillaryWhen I lived in St. George, UT back in the late 1980’s I spent a lot of time honing my butterfly photography skills.  Over the years I’ve shot nearly a hundred different species (of the 850 found in North America) and had an article published that I titled “Jewels on the Wind”.  This Zerene Fritillary shot in Sequoia National Park combines great color, sharp spotted eyes, and an active tongue as it sips nectar among the bright yellow California Coneflowers.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

21.
CaliforniaHarebell I stumbled upon these tiny flowers, California Harebells, while I was photographing much larger lupines on the Crescent Meadows road in Sequoia NP, in between bear encounters.  The delicate flowers have a soft purple/blue color and, of course, are found in moist areas of the forest close to the ground where the light is very low.  While I’m a believer in tripods this image was handheld.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

22.
CommonYellowsthroat-2I added several dozen new birds to my stock library this year, including this beautiful Common Yellowthroat doing a balancing act in the brush.  Small bird photography is tough and aggravating – with countless near misses and many almost successful stalks.  It seems like successful images like this are few and far between, and only come after many hours of chasing them.
Sepulveda Basin Bird Safari – March.

23.
BlackBear-10I got a toothy smile from this black bear as he stripped berries off this raspberry bush in Sequoia National Park.  The bears don’t want to wait for the berries to get fully ripe, maybe thinking other critters would come along and eat them first.  We were very close to this bear – but he was calm and hungry, and unconcerned with us or our cameras.
Bears and Butterflies Safari – July.

24.
BRP_2678-webAnother image from south Texas.  This huge whitetail buck, by far the biggest I’ve ever photographed, appeared before dawn for just a few minutes, wandering among does and other bucks about a hundred yards away, before heading back into the thick mesquite brush.  At ISO 3200 and a slow shutter-speed of 1/80 second, I shot a lot of frames to get a few sharp ones.  The noise of the motordrive kept him from getting closer.
Texas Wildlife Safari – December.

25.
Lazuli Bunting-2A male Lazuli Bunting stops to rest for a few seconds in some wild mustard plants.  These birds seem to have an unlimited amount of energy – flitting from one bush to another, one perch to another.  This trip into the hills between Ventura and Ojai proved to be a “blue” bird safari – with Lazuli Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, and Western Bluebirds – among the many species we photographed that day.
Custom Songbird Safari – May.

I hope you enjoyed my Best of 2014 images.  I look forward to 2015 and the adventures it will bring in the field.

One nice thing about photography is that you only get better as your experiences grow.  You shoot a little quicker, compose a little better, practice better processing skills and techniques, improve your equipment, learn new locations, learn more about your subjects  – and just become a better photographer.

And lastly, thanks to everyone who took a day or more to shoot with me, I’m a better photographer for our adventures together.

Regards,

signiture-only

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A Sequoia Bear Safari

I realize that many of the safaris I do are subject oriented – like bobcat safaris, bird safaris, or safaris to Yellowstone or the Tetons, or Zion – but in reality I look for the best photography that can be done during any of these safaris.  There are no confining safari parameters – just a chase for the best images.  Now, I do photograph bobcats on a bobcat safari, but there is always so much more to tell the story of that day in the field.  Such was the case yesterday in Sequoia National Park.  I had a planned portrait workshop at San Simeon that got shifted to a bear safari up to the park.  Clients who had to reschedule caused me to offer a bear safari to others … and off we went.

Wake up calls come early on safari days, and I don’t know how many times a year I’m up at 4am or earlier, but yesterday, August 12th, 2014 was a typical early rise.  We got into Sequoia about 6:15am and climbed the General’s Highway through the maze of switchbacks.  Construction is a never-ending process on park roads these days, but we sailed through unopposed.  There were no tourist vehicles on the road that early as we began a creeping surveillance of the road to Crescent Meadows.

At 7:09am a dark shadow disappeared behind a large Sugar pine trunk about 50 yards off the road in the dim forest interior – and the bear safari was on.  Speed in setting up the camera and tripod and getting into position is the key in that first minute of an encounter, because it could be your only minute, but in this case we got to maneuver.  The bear moved through the forest chewing up sugar pine cones and finally stopped long enough to get a clean image – even if it was at ISO 5000, my typical go to ISO in dark conditions.

Black Bear with Sugar Pine cone.

A black bear grabs a sugar pine cone during a morning searching for breakfast.

BRP_7835-web

Back and forth the black bear went searching for pine cones on the forest floor.

Up and over rocks and fallen pines the bear led us around, at each pine cone stop we attempted to improve our position, trying to get around distracting branches and bushes.  After spending some time with him we moved back several hundred yards to my vehicle and were just setting the cameras down when we spotted another bear on the other side of the road, and somewhat below us.  This cinnamon black bear had a more pronounced color in his mane.  As the bear moved towards the road we took up a position to get him crossing through some small pine saplings.

Like the first bear, this cinnamon black bear was hunting pine cones.

Like the first bear, this cinnamon black bear was hunting pine cones.

 

After he crossed the road we followed him back up into the same area where we had photographed the first bear.  With the possibility of a bear vs bear encounter we stuck with him, but never relocated the first bear.  This bear worked the cones on the forest floor and gave us some good images.  He was a good bear and allowed us reasonable approaches for the images we were trying to get, never exhibiting any signs of being stressed.

Another shot of the second black bear - the remains of a pine cone on his paws.

Another shot of the second black bear – the remains of a pine cone on his paws.

Those two encounters led to us not getting into the Crescent Meadows parking lot until about 9:30am.  We headed out along the Crescent Meadows trail and set up at a good location to do some bird photography.  I’m always surprised by the number of birds in this area, and there always seems to be one or two I’ve never photographed before.

White-headed Woodpecker

White-headed Woodpecker

BRP_8534-web

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Identifying some birds is tough – the white-headed woodpecker was easy, the pacific-slope flycatcher (right) was hard.  For only the second time I had a Northern Goshawk land 30 yards from me near the trail, but it departed quickly.  I realized a few minutes later why it had left.

A California Gray Squirrel hangs upside down on a Sugar Pine trunk.

A California Gray Squirrel hangs upside down on a Sugar Pine trunk.

While standing in Crescent Meadows attempting to shoot the little birds fluttering around in the flowers and pines, a shadow passed by in the out-of-focus forest in the background as I was looking through the camera lens.  I took my eye away from the camera and put my glasses back on … nothing.  With the glasses off I refocused the camera to the dark forest in the background and spotted two ears and a nose behind a fallen sequoia, maybe 120 yards away.  (I hate glasses!) Bears 3 and 4.  Without hesitation I moved towards the bear that had disappeared behind the giant fallen sequoia, its roots now vertical.  Just as I got into a reasonable position about 40 yards away the bear, now with a cub, walked out carrying a large California Ground Squirrel – and just as suddenly the Goshawk did a close fly-by.  I realized the bear had somehow stolen the goshawks breakfast.

The cub gets thrown as the mother yanks the squirrel back from him/her.

The cub gets thrown as the mother yanks the squirrel back from him/her.

The sow black bear turning the gray squirrel into a popsicle.

The sow cinnamon black bear turning the squirrel into a popsicle.

With the bears occupied I moved closer and tried to get in a better position.  The forest floor was completely shadowed and barren, some ferns near the sequoia trunk the only green around.  At one point the cub snatched the squirrel from the sow, only to receive a lesson in power as she yanked back the squirrel and through the cub a few feet through the air.  I missed the throw but caught the landing, as the cub skidded to a stop – still holding onto the tail.

The sow black bear and her cub pose for a few seconds.

The sow black bear and her cub pose for a few seconds.

There was a day when my heart would have been pounding out of my chest just witnessing this, much less shooting coherently.  And while it was exciting to see (bears doing bear stuff) I concentrated on focus, composition, exposure compensation, changing to vertical shooting – and back, changing focusing grid points, and stabilizing my tripod in the soft, spongy pine straw on the forest floor.  When this moment ended I realized that sometime over the past 30 years I had polished my photography techniques to a point where I could make critical, immediate, and calm  adjustments to the camera while detaching somewhat from the excitement of the moment.

With the squirrel finished an odd thing happened, the sow disciplined the cub with a quick bite to his backside.  Another light bulb went off.  On a safari to Sequoia three weeks ago I was shooting a sow with two cubs (the bear shredding trees for ant larvae) when the sow suddenly turned on one cub, grabbed it by the ear, and drug it about ten feet before releasing it.  This was the same sow, minus one cub.  The cub scampered back to the tree and climbed partially up, then came back down almost immediately – as if he had missed the que to climb the tree and the sow let him know it.

The sow suddenly turns on the cub.

The sow suddenly turns on the cub.

And delivers a bite to the cub's rear.

And delivers a bite to the cub’s rear.

During this whole event there was a great deal of growling and snapping.  The sow was aggressive with the cub (from a human point of view, of course) and smacked him/her a number times besides the toss and the bite.

While only about 50% of cubs survive to adulthood, I naturally assumed that was because in places like Yellowstone, which has lots of grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, etc – they were taken by predators.  It occurred to me that maybe some just didn’t survive their parents tough discipline.

Up the tree and away from mom.

Up the tree and away from mom.

 

 

 

 

But the fun and games with these two cinnamon black bears with the love-hate relationship weren’t over yet.  After the cub came back down he seemed a bit whipped and rested near the base of the tree.  The sow walked back to my right to the giant fallen sequoia and actually walked into a burned out, hollowed out area of the trunk.  Oddly, I knew this particular tree well.  I had been hired by Sequoia National Park to shoot sequoia seedlings (and other stuff) immediately following a fire in the area in 2010.  I remembered it so well because I had actually walked through this hollowed out area so I wouldn’t have to climb over it to get to the other side.  In the sow went … I was amazed.

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The sow starts to come back out of the hollow in the sequoia trunk.

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After leaving the sequoia the sow moved resolutely towards us.

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A look back by the sow was all it took to bring the cub to her.

After a few moments the sow exited the sequoia trunk and walked towards us, moving through the ferns and seedling pines.  She moved slowly, the cub still up by the tree, but her intention to push us back was clear.  There was no bluff charges, no huffing, no bow-legged walking, no teeth clicking, no raised hackle hair – just a methodical walk towards us.  We retreated back to the main trail.

The sow and cub  reversed course and headed away from us, parallel to the trail, over a small hill.  With the bears out of sight we had to carefully negotiate our way along the trail, which twisted through some 4 foot high shrubs and ferns, all the time being careful not to meet the bears face-to-face.  After getting around the hill I saw the bears crossing Crescent Meadows about 70 yards away, walking down the spine of a huge fallen sequoia, never having to get into the damp grass of the meadow.

A quick exit from the forest, across the giant sequoia trunk - and the bears were gone.

A quick exit from the forest, across the giant sequoia trunk – and the bears were gone.

We spent the next few hours driving some dirt backroads in Sequoia National Forest, just outside the park boundary – checking a large area of berries (snowberries, sierra currents, chokecherries, elderberries) for bear sign.  Pile after pile on the road indicated that the bears were active here, but this time we came back to the highway empty handed.

After lunch we drove back towards Crescent Meadows, stopping at Dorst Creek to check the meadows for bears.  No luck, though this has been a good spot in the spring for bears.  However, we did encounter a spotted mule deer fawn that worked with us for a few minutes of photos – before trotting off.

A mule deer fawn at Dorst Creek.

A mule deer fawn at Dorst Creek.

Headed south we re-entered the Crescent Meadows road, now teaming with tourist vehicles and park buses.  More eyes for the search.  After a few minutes Bear #5 appeared below the road, staying clear of the traffic jam above.  We decided not to photograph him and, instead, continued along.

We hiked out past the Dead Giant to Huckleberry Meadow and spent some time shooting golden-bellied marmots and butterflies.  The meadow is still thick with summer flowers and bear activity in the area was still very obvious in the form of bear piles.  I chased a dozen different species of butterflies – monarchs, swallowtails, admirals, zerene fritillaries, sulfers, checkerspots and some blues.  It was wet in the meadow and I hadn’t worn my plumber’s knee pads so my efforts were pretty tame and dry.  Butterflies are amazingly beautiful and I treat them as just as important a subject to be photographed as bears.  Out of the 800+ species in north America, I’ve photographed about 90 – so I have a long way to go.

A yellow-bellied marmot kept its eyes on us in Huckleberry Meadow.

A yellow-bellied marmot kept its eyes on us in Huckleberry Meadow, a sequoia in the background.

Monarch butterfly sipping nectar from some type of senecio flower.

Monarch butterfly sipping nectar from some type of senecio flower.

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This bear had a belly and some heavy muscle, easily the biggest of the day.

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I moved in as close as I felt I could for this tight shot of pine cone shredding.

I was pretty worn.  It was closing in on 4pm and my feet were beginning to ache some in my trail boots.  But there was no stopping the bears.  Bear #6 appeared below the road a minute or two after we had started back.  This bear was easily the biggest of the day and we spent some time working positions trying to get the best shot of him as he worked the cones across a sparse area of forest and burned logs.  A dozen or more tourists followed us, staying sufficiently behind us and not interfering.

What a day.  3300 photos, 66 gigabytes of images – and a worn out photographer.  I’m going back August 26.  Come along for the ride.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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