Win the Image Processing Battle

There is nothing easy or quick about doing a reasonable job of image processing.  But fully 50% of the quality of your image comes from correct processing, or you lose that 50% doing only a fair job . Once I get talking about image processing I can rattle on for hours – which reminds me I’m doing a Photoshop for Photographers class at my home in Tulare, CA on Friday, April 27 from 11am to 3pm. $60.

Adobe Photoshop CC can be streamlined to work quicker – so here a couple of ways:

1. Set up and Save your Desktop so the important things are quickly available – this is called your Workspace.  Here is a screen grab of how I set my working palettes up in Photoshop. My Actions Palette is open as shown.  The middle strip contains more seldom used tool palettes – like History (top), Character, Paragraph (because I add text to a lot of images), Notes, and Swatches. On the right are the working palettes as shown.  Now, you can drag palettes you don’t need out of the original palettes when they open and click on the X to close them.  You can always reopen them by selecting them under Window, then dragging them back to a palette you want to add them to.  The edges will turn blue to show the program is ready to add an individual palette – like Navigator, to the the existing palette, like Histogram – as shown here.  This is just the first step in preparing your Workspace.

Workspace Figure 1

The second step is to go through your menus and assign a color (I use red) to menu selections you frequently select.  For example, I almost never “Save” something, I’m always using the “Save as…” command so I don’t overwrite an original photo file. So, I went into Edit > Menus and assigned the “Save as…” command which is found under File,  the color red:

Workspace Figure 2

Then, after closing Menus and going to the File > the “Save As…” looks like this:

Workspace Figure 3

The advantage here is your eye goes right to it, allowing you to choose it quickly and accurately to save time.  Now you could remember the shortcut key to that command (Shift+Ctrl+S), but most people don’t seem to want to remember short cut keys. I have about 15 commands “red” so I can select them quicker.  Now, in both the Edit > Menu and Edit > Toolbar palettes you can tweak not just colors, but shortcut keys, as well as the layout of your toolbar, which is on the left side of the screen for me.

Workspace Figure 4

Now comes the final step to laying out your workspace so it is more functional for you. Go to Windows > Workspace and click on “New Workspace”. Give it a name, as you can see in my screen grab I call mine “Brent’s Workspace”.  In the New Workspace palette make sure you check the boxes for saving the Keyboard Shortcuts, Menus, and Toolbar settings as part of the Workspace.  Tricky.

Workspace Figure 5

Workspace Figure 6

You can always make changes in the future, more tweaks, and then go to New Workspace again and give it the same name, and click “yes” when it asks you about over-writing your old workspace.  For those of you who spend a lot of time going beyond just photography into the graphic arts, etc – you might have a different workspace for each of your different applications. Every time Photoshop opens it will open with your last Workspace ready.

2).  The second way to speed up image processing so your workflow doesn’t become an almost instant headache – is to use Actions in your workflow for the repetitive/common keystrokes you perform on most images.  At the top of this article in the first image example you saw my Action Palette with a lot of individual buttons, all color coded, again – so my eye goes immediately to the set of Actions I need – like Blue for Exposure Actions or Red for Sharpening Actions.

For those of you who Don’t want to learn how to create Actions (it is simple, but just another thing to learn) I have a version of my Actions available on my website on the Tips and Tricks page – here is a link to that page:  LINK

In the center column, second selection down it says “Download Actions”, click on that and the Actions will download to your computer’s download folder, found on your computer. The file is the AWP Actions file, which is a .ATN file, just 16kb in size.  See example below:

Actions Figure 1

Once downloaded, the process is just another series of steps in order to load them into your existing Actions palette. They will appear below the “Default” Actions that Photoshop has included for you – they are basically worthless for photography processing – so I just deleted the whole folder “Default” and only have mine there now. Just close the “Default” folder and drag it to the garbage can at the bottom of the Actions Palette. This is done after taking it out of Button Mode.

Ok. So let’s take a look at the Action’s palette with it’s control box open, to open the control box you simply click the button at the top right, here it is in a red box.  To make changes to your Actions you MUST take it out of Button Mode. If you haven’t messed with Actions before it probably isn’t in Button Mode anyway, but if it is, click Button Mode so there is no checkmark by it.

Actions Figure 2

Now it should look like this (Figure Actions 3.

Actions Figure 3

My personal set of Actions (Brent’s Actions) has many more Actions than the set you can download (AWP Actions.atn) because many of my Actions are specific to me, some for cropping to Instagram size, some for templates, copyrights, etc.

Now, with Button Mode unchecked, go down to the “Load Actions” (See Figure Actions 2) and click on it. When the dialog box opens, go find the AWP Actions.atn file in your download folder. Click Load when you are done.  If you want to see the steps included with each Action, click on the arrow next to the name to see what it is doing.

Now the Actions will appear. Go back to the control tab and click on Button Mode.  Now the Actions will appear as color-coded individual buttons.  You are welcome to add to, delete from, create new – or do anything you want with these actions.

Actions Figure 4

To delete the ones you may never feel you will use, just highlight it, and drag it to the Garbage can (in red box) at the bottom of the Actions Palette.  (See Actions Figure 4).

These two steps – Creating A Workspace and Actions – will greatly speed up your workflow  and you will Win the Image Processing Battle.  I will go step-by-step over how to create new Actions in my next blog article.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – The Wolves of Yellowstone

Over the years since the gray wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone – the winter of 1995, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of encounters have occurred with photographers. I have seen many amazing images and always get a tad jealous of those who live close to the park and are able to put in enough days to be rewarded with great wolf images. In the 23 years between then and now I’ve seen the wolves at least a hundred times, usually at an unphotographable distance. But occasionally, just occasionally – they come into range. For us wildlife photographers those moments are gold – an instant adrenaline rush that causes us, or at least me, to immediately leave the road, park the vehicle, exit and shoot – in one blur of motion.

Here is my anchor image for this article – it comes from my very first quality wolf encounter in March of 2005. This black male wolf and it’s very pregnant gray female partner (not in image) were kept from an antlerless bull elk that the black wolf had killed in Soda Butte Creek. During the night 6 coyotes moved onto the elk carcass and would not give it up.  Had the female not been pregnant then the odds would have favored the wolves reclaiming the elk, but in this image two of the coyotes kept up a harassing action and the wolves left unfed.
My very first encounter was during the winter of 1996. I was in Lamar Valley chasing river otters when the first echoes of wolves howling reached my ears. It was a sound the mountains in Yellowstone had not heard in about 80 years, but I’m sure they had never forgotten. As I faced east at the far west end of Lamar Valley, just outside Lamar Canyon, the Druid Pack was running the ridge to my left, coming west – while down along the Lamar River the Rose Creek Pack was running east. In one broad panoramic I could see more than a dozen wolves, from two different packs, heading in opposite directions.
Scanned from a 35mm slide, this was about the best image I got of that first encounter. Over the years from 1996 to 2005 I had other encounters, but none close, and none produced the kind of images I wanted.  Wildlife photography is a fickle thing – one day serving up encounters that simply stun us with their beauty, while leaving us barren for years (unfortunately) with just a hope for an encounter. Some photographers are on a quest to shoot certain species, and some have a bucket list of species that they can only gaze at longingly. I’m just lucky – you spend enough hours in the field and you get lucky. Skill comes into play during those lucky moments – testing our ability to remain calm, shoot with a purpose, make the right exposure moves, trust the equipment, and endure until the encounter rightfully ends.

In late May 2006, I had another good wolf encounter along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley. A pack of wolves were spread out along the far bank of the river but traveling in my direction.  Snow had fallen that night and blanketed the river’s shoreline giving the images a wintry look, though snow was gone by 1pm and the green grass of spring was evident. I saw them at enough distance to race to a spot, park, and get down to the bank of the river on my side in order to give myself at least a chance at some good images.
More encounters followed until September 2008 when I had an encounter that finally added some behavior/interaction images that I had long sought. My safari group was traveling south from Swan Flats, close to North Twin Lake, when we encountered a pack of wolves feasting on an elk that had evidently been killed earlier that morning. The road was somewhat elevated above the meadow and the ranger kept us fairly close, standing on the forested hillside indicating the line we couldn’t cross – so we shot through tiny gaps between pine branches down to the meadow.  All I know is somehow it worked.
There were about 5-6 wolves working the carcass and moving around, sometimes out of view, dissecting parts of the elk to eat at leisure somewhere off in the tall autumn grass. They were wandering around, eating and resting, when the Alpha female and her 5 month old puppy paused for only a moment next to each other. It was a striking image. While the Alpha male had a collar, the female did not – her size and strength apparent in every step.
Over the next five years I had about two dozen other encounters – some defending carcasses in rivers, some following other wolves through valleys or up hillsides, a couple of wolf in far meadow kind of moments – but nothing close and nothing that really was a story-telling encounter. In June 2012 my safari group and I were returning to the park from Cooke City and breakfast when, about 300 yards from the Soda Butte picnic site and bathroom we encountered a lone gray wolf, standing in the willows by Soda Butte Creek. Standing only 25 yards away, across the river from us, it seemed oddly lackadaisical – giving us not much more than a glance.  Later that day we saw the wolf in the meadow opposite the picnic site, but across the river.
About a month after this safari I saw an article about the death of a Yellowstone wolf. It stated that wolf 271M had died of natural causes in early June, 2012 – one of the first wolves to die that way, and not from inter-pack disputes. It had a photo of the wolf, this wolf, 271M and easily identified by the fur color around his eyes.
The dates is wrong it was taken June 6, 2012 – this wolf’s last full day on earth, dying in the spring grass and sagebrush, under a warm sun, in an area that had always been his home. It was the kind of story-telling image I had always hoped for.  BRP

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My 2017 Favorite Photos of The Year

While this is always a fun blog post to create, scoring my own shots is difficult to do – not because I’m easy on myself, but because I’m extremely critical of my own shots. After judging so many contests my own images seem to pale a bit. I had originally edited out of the mass of shots about 68 images to pick my favorite 25 from – and while many of those not selected are very good images – they lack the kind of impact that I would expect in contest submissions – so I graded them out, just like I would others. Remember, these are my favorite images – you might have others.

As would be expected, my Yellowstone (spring, fall, winter) safaris added the most images to the top 25 – at 7, while my other frequent safaris (bobcats, Sequoia bears, and Bosque del Apache NWR) added 3 each. There is no doubt in my mind that if I could get to Texas more often it would place more images into the top 25 than the 2 that are represented here. The degree of difficulty in photographing birds resulted in 11 images in my favorite 25. Here are the images, in descending order, with a brief description of each:

#25  Cinnamon Black Bear Sow in Grand Teton NP.
We encountered this sow and her two cubs along the Pacific Creek backroad in Grand Teton National Park – and after about 25 minutes shooting the cubs she decided to come and check out her cubs and the photographers to make sure we were all playing nicely. The next day we encountered a boar grizzly in the same area, justifying her concern for her cubs safety.

#24  Cinnamon Black Bear Cubs scooting down a tree in Sequoia NP.
We literally stumbled upon these cubs high up this pine after we saw the sow guarding the bottom (ok, she was sleeping initially) of this pine tree near Huckleberry Meadows. There were three cubs, but the third was a quick climber and beat the other cubs to the bottom.

#23  Red Fox eyeing the mouse he had just captured in Yellowstone NPThis image, and the image selected #13, are part of the same encounter, shot just seconds apart near Pebble Creek, in Yellowstone’s Soda Butte Valley. The degree of difficulty in which these foxes hunt in winter just makes you want to applaud them for their successes.

#22  Sandhill Crane landing in a pond at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.
Taken this past January (I just got back from another safari to Bosque a week ago) I like the strong graphics in this image. Sunset light reflecting on the pond surface and the wide wing stretch make this a fun, dramatic image.

#21  Great Horned Owl take-off at Butterbredt Springs, CA
My late March, early April safari to photograph these owls is difficult at best.  Shooting inside the trees is an iso challenge that requires exact panning in order to limit not just camera vibration but subject movement as well. The owl looks serious as it leaps off a branch with blood from its recent snack still staining the feathers around it’s beak.

#20  Vermilion Flycatcher on the Morongo Bird Safari, CA.
High winds and swaying plant stalks created a lot of blurry images while I was attempting to shoot this male Vermilion Flycatcher – but I’m persistent, and I shoot an incredible number of images in each attempt – hoping for a successful shot like this.

#19  Full Moon and Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM
Sometimes you have to stretch your camera’s abilities a bit. We arrived at a sunrise pond in the darkness, lit only by moonlight, and found these geese flying through. It took only a few seconds to determine iso 25,600 and +.5 eV would at least give me a chance.  Some lucky manual focusing (to dark for AF) resulted in an image impossible to capture at night in any other way. Remember, to my eyes we were in complete darkness except for the light from the moon.

#18 It’s Never to Cold for a Coyote to be out Hunting in Yellowstone NP.
What attracted me to this particular image was just how healthy this coyote appears at the most brutal time of the year for Yellowstone wildlife – the dead of winter. The late afternoon sun gave me just a little color to pop his face and neck as he smelled for voles and hunted for his next meal near the Phantom Lakes area of the park.

#17  High Key Tundra Swans in Lower Klamath NWR, CA.
A classic white-on-white image taken of these Tundra Swans as they set their wings inbound for a frozen pond filled with their friends. This image was taken at +1 eV (exposure compensation) to keep the whites white. I really like how the exposure turned out, with just enough color to detail the swan’s chests.

#16  Beautiful Morning light on this attentive Sow Black Bear in Sequoia NP.
This is the sow from selection #24 of the cubs descending the pine. There is no hiding or sneaking up on these animals – be who you are and the animals will except you or not, but pretend to be a predator and they will flee for sure. The meadow behind her was full of purple shooting star flowers (which overexposed somewhat) and the rising sun lit just a bit of her face adding definition to the image.

#15  One Coyote’s Dominant Behavior on the Utah Raptors Safari, UT.
The other coyotes in the pack are out of frame, but this guy wanted to demonstrate his best, most aggressive game face should any of the others decide to compete with him for food. Antelope Island State Park in the middle of the Great Salt Lake is one of many great wildlife locations in northern Utah in the winter.

#14  Grizzly Mom and her Cubs watching us in Yellowstone NP.
I like this grizzly family image because it portrays them how they are – sometimes they aren’t on the hunt or search for food – sometimes they just want to relax and watch the world around them. Shot above Mammoth Hot Springs on the terraces.

#13  Skydiving Red Fox in Yellowstone NP.
These creatures are amazing. This red fox triangulated the distance under the snow to the deer mouse he could hear eating or scratching on the unseen sagebrush.  He calculated the height he would have to leap to in order to penetrate (with his nose and face) the snow that deep to have a successful capture – which he did, as seen in selection #23. Amazing.

#12  Crested Caracara coming around in Laredo, TX
I shot this image just a few days at my friend Butch’s Rocking R6 ranch about 25 miles north of Laredo. We had up to 6 Caracara’s flying around at one time, interacting, fighting, and doing aerobatics – so I like this moment a lot.  Most raptors don’t give you the time of day, and your encounters are measured in mili-seconds – but this encounter was much better and longer.

#11  Western Bluebird take-off on a Bobcat Safari, CA
These colorful, quick little birds – common throughout the west – make for great subjects that can test your quickness and accuracy with a camera. The only way to capture images like this is to shoot in bursts and cross your fingers.

#10  Black-crested Titmouse in Laredo, TX
These two images (selections #10 and #11) are partially included because of the degree of difficulty in capturing songbird images that are more than just snapshots. This titmouse is not only displaying his magnificent crest, but the moment he moved up the branch into the light amid the armored thorns of this mesquite tree made the image that much more impactful.

#9  A winter Weasel (Ermine) in Yellowstone NP.
There is no way to just find these little guys – you just have to get amazingly lucky. We stopped to ask some guys relaxing along the frozen road in the Soda Butte Valley if they had seen anything interesting when this weasel suddenly appeared surprising all of us. I parked and began shooting as fast as I could, handheld, knowing that the encounter would only last seconds. I’ve never seen a faster animal move through snow. We got about 2 minutes before he disappeared in a blur.

#8  Lunchtime for a Bobcat on a bobcat safari in California.
This Botta’s pocket gopher proved to be no match for this bobcat.  After a quick attack and kill, the gopher proved to be a mouthful for this bobcat to gag down right in front of us. Photographing action like this is rare, so getting a good, clean image of it boosted this image high into my list of favorite 25 images.

#7  Sandhill Cranes facing off at Bosque del Apache NWR, NM.
This is a shot that is difficult to get, even with 20,000 cranes flying around Bosque every day. Moments of behavior in perfect light seem to last a second or two, but these two put on an amazing display of mating behavior and exhibited their dancing talents, fanned feathers, and jumping ability over-and-over again. The intricate feather colors and detail make this one of my favorite shots.

#6  Snow Plover Chick and Camouflage – Ventura, CA.
Among those participating in this safari, the beach hike of about 1.5 miles came to be known as the Ventura Death March. It was about 82 degrees, 100% humidity – and just exhausting at the time.  However, this was the reward – a brief minute or two with a newly hatched Snowy Plover chick that had followed its parents down into this particular stretch of beach. The extremely small size, camo patterned back and head – and the degree of difficulty in carrying a big lens/camera/tripod – make this one of my best. Only a mother feeding it a minnow could have been better (which I’m sure someone reading this probably has – but don’t send it to me…….lol).

#5  Drake Ruddy Duck mating behavior at Kern NWR, CA.
Slapping his blue beak on the water, tail feathers erect, and “bubbling” means this drake Ruddy Duck is trying to show off for the ladies nearby. Again, perfect light and interesting behavior go well with excellent color.

#4  Sow Black Bear defending the tree her cub are up, in Sequoia NP.
A male bear (a boar) had made a nearby appearance and that prompted this sow to climb the same tree her cubs were up, both for her own protection and to protect them. The size of the tree and the bear put a certain perspective on this forest scene.  At the time I shot this we had not seen the cubs yet, who were much, much higher and invisible to us.

#3  Stalking Bobcat on a bobcat safari, CA.
I had seen a bobcat about 125 yards away in a thicket of willows near San Benito Creek. Instead of driving away, I stopped in the shade of a handy oak tree and began using my little mouse squeaker to try and entice the bobcat out of the heavy brush. Surprisingly, it worked and the bobcat came towards my truck full of loud shooting cameras – and it kept coming. The squeaker (now held inside the truck and squeaked less often the closer it got) made the bobcat overlook the people and their loud cameras ripping off hundreds of images for an almost certain squirrel meal. As the bobcat approached to  about 25 feet another car passed us on the road and scared the bobcat back to the willows – but we had an amazing encounter.

#2  A Happy Summer Red Fox in Yellowstone NP.
The only reason this isn’t my #1 favorite image is that I started out in wildlife photography shooting big-game animals for hunting/nature magazines. This red fox, probably the most photographed red fox in Yellowstone (near the Yellowstone Picnic Site), decided to permit us a few minutes at point-blank distance.  After shooting this image I changed over to video and shot a great 45 second video of him rolling over and pawing at his head, cleaning his face, etc.

Here is a link to that 45 second  video on Youtube:  LINK

#1  Bugling Bull Elk in a Yellowstone Snow Storm.
There are few encounters more dramatic than a rutting bull elk, bugling, amid a snowstorm in Yellowstone. With his harem of cows nearby, this bull trotted to-and-fro driving off satellite bulls that tried to separate cows from his group. The grittiness of the rut is shown in the snow and mud on his antlers, spiked there during moments of rutting frenzy tearing up trees and bushes, but also in the falling snow and blanketed background. This image was taken below Mammoth Hot Springs in the meadows adjacent to the campground there. The piercing, guttural bugle makes the hair stand up and the power and stamina of these animals is evident as they move easily through their environment. Getting shots like this reminds me of why I became a wildlife photographer, and of many of my first published images back in the ’80’s.

Fun stuff.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – The Crystal Mill (CO)

If you haven’t photographed the iconic Colorado location, known as The Crystal Mill, then you have missed out on one of western America’s most classic shots. To be honest, I photographed it for the first time last year (2016) as part of my Autumn Colorado Landscape Safari. While I’ve done many of these autumn safaris in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (Ouray, Telluride, Delores, Silverton, Red Mtn Mining District, Million Dollar Highway, Ralph Lauren’s Double RL Ranch, Last Dollar Road, etc) – I had never ventured farther north until 2016.

We headed north out of Ouray to Delta, Colorado, then turned northeast on Highway 92, in Hotchkiss we turned north on Highway 133 – eventually crossing scenic McClure Pass and dropping down to County Road 3, turning south to the community of Marble where the road to the Crystal Mill begins. This is a small community that has a nice little lake next to it, Beaver Lake, with Osprey and fisherman both doing the same thing. The road leads around the lake and then signs direct you to continue on County Road 3 towards the ghost town of Crystal.  Before you get that far you will have traveled about 4.5 miles to a wide spot in the road, wide enough to park 8-10 vehicles, locates you on a bluff directly opposite the Crystal Mill.  Here is my establishing photo for this blog article.
When we first got to the lodge where we were staying – the guy parked next to it stealing there wifi signal – told me my 4×4 Ford F-150 would never make it. We went to visit with a Quad/Jeep Rental business specializing in Crystal Mill visits and that guy told me we would make it just fine. That’s all I needed and we were off. It was a brutal road to say the least. While most of the road just requires very slow speeds and 4-wheel drive to negotiate the ledges and rocks, there were stretches where the road side bordering the Crystal River was precipitously vertical down to the river.  Hmmmm.  Heights and narrow roads don’t stop me so we ambled along, being tossed to and fro inside the truck, until an hour after starting we reached the parking area for the Crystal Mill.

While the nearby Crystal River is extremely scenic, arrayed with the yellows and reds of a brilliant autumn, I never for a second thought to stop and shoot anything as I was white-knuckling the drive.  On the trip in and out I bottomed out the skid plate only once or twice and didn’t rock scratch the sides even once – not sure how I avoided that but I did. The road is so tight that other vehicles coming in my direction required both of us to perform amazing auto gymnastics in order to pass. At one point an old woman driving a quad – possibly drunk, stoned, or both – or just a local infuriated by visitors – came at me head-on stopping close enough to smack my bumper and yell for me to back up. Since I was coming down a steep grade and turning sharply to the right, I think it was her job to backup the quad. She cursed me, and my friend Gary Kunkel talked me out of drawing my Beretta and returning fire (just kidding here, calm down) and we motored on with a simple bird sighting.
There were about 6 vehicles parked in the small parking area, which did have a bathroom, and everyone was concentrating on their photography – the Crystal Mill was stunning. The Crystal River wraps around the old compressor station, previously known as the Sheep Mountain Power House – which supplied compressed air for machinery operations at the nearby Sheep Mountain Mine. At one time a turbine of sorts was located down the wood funnel and in the river – but it no longer reaches the river.  The building has been restored somewhat, which cables and pilings keeping it on the cliff above the river, but the turbine is long gone – and probably the compressor inside as well.

Behind the Crystal Mill is a gorgeous forest of aspens, displaying amazing colors at this time of the year – and they lead back to mountains and snow-capped peaks. When we first arrived the scene was absolutely breathtaking, and we just kind of stood there in awe. The clouds crossing the sky brought full color, then shaded color to the old mine building. But  the quality of light didn’t seem to matter – the quality of the scene was worth every foot of the rough drive and ferocious quad crazies. While we had heard it was run down and not visually stunning anymore (clearly another unemployed local trying to deter visitors and their money) it was anything but that. Other than standing at the Grand Canyon and witnessing rising thunderheads and a lightning storm at dusk … I have never seen any landscape as cool as this.

The photography was pretty straight forward. I used both my 18-35mm wide angle and my 24-120mm medium zoom on my Nikon D4s body (FX sensor), along with my ever present Induro Tripod. Since there is water in the image I used a polarizing filter to minimize reflections in the foreground pool – and this rendered the green in the water perfectly. As is usual for me, I used 5-shot bracketed images that were 1/2 stop apart, editing out the close-but-no-cigar images and keeping the close to perfect ones. There is no hdr imaging here, I’m just not a fan of that look. Processing the digital raw files in Photoshop was also straight forward. I selected the correct lens profile in Adobe Camera Raw (the program probably picked the lens for me), adjusted the shadows and colors a bit and then opened the file in Photoshop. After some sharpening, the only additional step I took was to create a new layer, lighten it about 1.25 stops, hide it with a black mask, then paint in (with white) the heavily shadowed areas of the building until I thought people might notice my work. BRP

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A Thousand Words – A Gray Fox to Remember

Surprise is a common occurrence for wildlife photographers, maybe the most common occurrence. While you can make educated guesses based on past experiences, about timing, or locations, or weather – still, the shock of a great encounter always amazes me, and this gray fox encounter was no different.

After living in St. George, Utah from 1985 – 1990, and making a hundred photo trips to Zion National Park – spending hundreds of days shooting landscapes, slot canyons, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, songbirds, butterflies, cactus, and wildflowers over the course of 35 years (today) – it wasn’t until November 3, 2011 that I finally ran across an elusive gray fox. My anchor image for this post is the image below.
Most folks know that gray foxes are almost, almost entirely nocturnal. Hunting, mating, raising young, or just schmoozing with other foxes is all done in the dark. While populations exist throughout north and south America, the western United States have really become a dominant area for this fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus – the widest ranging member of the canid family and the only member of the dog family that can climb trees.

Given that I have spent thousands of days in the field I would have thought this moment would have come earlier, however, gray fox weren’t on my radar that day in Zion, so I was surprised when the encounter happened. I had just arrived in southern Utah that afternoon, the day before my photo safari was set to begin – and after dropping off my luggage at the hotel in Springdale I headed into Zion for a quick look.  My intended subjects were mule deer bucks and desert bighorn rams – both of which were entering their respective rutting seasons. As usual I headed up to the roof first to check on the bighorn sheep. Zion’s “roof” is the area that runs along the highway east of the long tunnel, through the short tunnel, and out to the East Gate of Zion.  The road passes the entrance to Zion Canyon, then switchbacks as it climbs past the East Temple, through the tunnels, along the White Cliffs, and past Checkerboard Mesa to the entrance gate.

There were sheep about, though I didn’t see any large rams and I didn’t take any photos before heading back down the mountain to turn into Zion Canyon.  The shuttle service into the canyon either hadn’t become mandatory yet, or had ceased operations for the winter season because I drove in. The road curves along the Virgin River for a ways, passing the massive rock monoliths of the Court of the Patriarchs and entering Zion Canyon proper.  Meadows filled with cottonwood trees are to the left and right, and after a short distance you pass the Zion Lodge on the right, and the old horse tie-ups on the left, leading to the bridge over the Virgin that begins the Angel’s Landing trail head.

In early November Zion Canyon shadows out early in the afternoon, the sun retreating west over the ridge formed by the West Temple, Towers of the Virgin, and the Court of the Patriarchs – by mid-afternoon the light becomes dim. I headed into the canyon about 4:15pm, there wasn’t much traffic, and I was completely absorbed in my search for mule deer.  Sometimes the bucks will be laying down, resting, alone or near their does – so my attention was both to the meadow grasses and into the cottonwoods, oaks, and maples that line the canyon.

At about 4:24pm I had just passed the Lodge and was nearing the Grotto when I saw unrecognizable ears off in the grass. The ears screamed “bobcat” at first, but within a minute I had parked, tripoded-up, and closed the distance on those ears. At 4:25 I took my first shot (below) of a gray fox, turned away from me laying in the grass, but with his ears rotated backwards to listen to me coming towards him.
The color and shape of those ears were wrong for a bobcat (though I can spot bobcats at pretty good distances when only their ears are visible) and I began shooting this gorgeous gray fox.  When I realized what it was I got that nervous, heart beating faster, energy coursing through me.

At about 30 yards the fox got up and meandered through the cottonwoods away from me, did some log walking, and crossed the empty road, moving into heavier cover. Given this was my first gray fox there was no way a little movement was going to slow me down. I kept a respectful distance but didn’t allow the fox to loose me in the gathering darkness. I think the fox had been asleep when I found it, and now it was casually looking for a new place to bed down to await full darkness with fewer people.
We crossed about 50 yards of meadows before reaching the cliffs, cliffs that go straight up 2000 feet or more. At the base of the cliffs, before climbing up a ledge, the fox paused to watch me continue my approach – it was my first really clear shots. It was so dark by now that I was up to iso 3200 on my Nikon D3s body, and shutter-speeds were continuing to drop.
After a few minutes of posing and contemplation, the gray fox expertly climbed the sandstone cliff above the valley out-of-sight.  Thinking my encounter had ended I waited a minute and was about to leave – when to my utter astonishment the fox reappeared, curled up right on the edge of the ledge, and with his face wrapped up in his tail closed his eyes and went back to sleep. He was 18 feet above me.

My camera wouldn’t focus in the increasing dark so I quickly went to manual focus and ripped off another sequence of images. When I stepped on a stick the noise got the fox’s attention and up popped his head, eyes open for a brief second, giving me my anchor image. I left him as I had found him, asleep.  It was 5:10pm, encounter over.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – Hiking the Subway (Zion NP)

It’s been a decade or more since I last hiked into the Subway, a curving slot canyon a bit more than 4 miles from the North Creek Trailhead parking lot. Prior to that last hike I had done the journey about a dozen times with a variety of friends and fellow photographers, and a variety of cameras – from medium-format 120mm film, to 35mm film, to digital. There were no restrictions on the hike back then like there are today. We would typically hit the trail in the dark of morning in late October or early November, taking about 2.5 hours to hike in – shooting while we hiked – and then about 3.5 hours hiking out, shooting anything we had missed or bypassed. Photographing the Subway itself, to do it thoroughly, would take another hour depending on the the size of my group, and whether others had beat us in. That is a basic description, but there was so much more to the actual hike. Here is my anchor image.

This image is from the front of the Subway looking back into the chamber. It is my favorite view because it shows the wrap-around eroded rock feature that gives the Subway it’s name, as well as the step-down pools inside. The Subway can also be reached from above, coming down the Wildcat Canyon Trail and descending into the Subway via ropes and some technical climbing. Since I’ve never been into technical climbing I chose to hike up.

Back in the late 1980’s, when I did most of my trips in, the trail was only intermittent at best – being washed out each spring due to flooding. The trail begins easy enough, following the top of the bluff for a quarter mile before suddenly dumping you at the top of a high ridge face that you must descend. I don’t know how far down you go, maybe 600 feet to the river – possibly more, but only previous hikers boot tracks and some thin dirt trails give you some sort of map to follow down. Once at the river you begin to hike upstream, sometimes on sandy trails, sometimes over boulders and logs, and many times it was easiest to go straight up the creek – wet boots and all.

There are dozens of little pools and waterfalls as the canyon around you gets narrower the farther you go. There are times when the canyon walls pinch in, forcing you to climb up and around impassable boulders and deep pools. After a couple of miles, but still short of the Subway, the marvels of soft rock (Navajo Sandstone) erosion are all around you. The first couple of times through it was difficult for me to pass these amazing natural formations knowing something better was at the end of my journey. One location stands out, Archangel Cascades – and it is impossible to pass without shooting. The Left Fork of North Creek comes down stair-stepping waterfalls for about 35 yards, and since the only way by is to hike right over it, I always stopped to shoot it. (below)

Knowing the weather the previous day and at the time of my hike was critical, since making a mistake could cost me my life. Sudden thunderstorms, especially during the monsoon season in late summer, would send torrents of water down the creek giving hikers little time to get to high ground. Lives have been lost on the Subway hike, and there is no “escape” from the tight canyon once you begin to get close to the Subway – other than going straight up the side canyon walls.

Once I hiked it in the middle of a hot southern Utah July day with a friend of mine (1988). Being young (29) and mostly swimming back down the creek to keep cool saved us – but it was a near thing. Going in the fall usually means the weather is cool, the leaves are changing colors adding another element to the images, and the creek is low – revealing all the little twists, turns, and pools along the creek. But I’m not the only one who knows that, and in recent decades an online sign-up to limit entry is now in place making it difficult to get a permit at certain times – like October/November.

This is the view from inside the Subway, out. There are some photography skills you need to have to properly photograph the Subway and the Left Fork of North Creek. (1) It is dark inside the Subway, and along much of the trail due to the high ridges blocking the sun – so shooting with a steady, sturdy tripod is an absolute necessity. As an example, the anchor image was a 30 second exposure – and Archangel Cascades (above) was a full second. You can’t hand-hold at those slow speeds given a quality iso of 100. I don’t shoot for the album, I shoot for the wall – so quality is what it’s all about.

(2) Proper use of a polarizing filter is important to knock down the water reflections that would normally ruin these types of reflective images. The polarizer is usually a 2-stop loss in shutter-speed and requires you to continually check it by rotating the outer glass to make sure the correct angle is being used for each different composition. (3) Because these are slow shutter-speeds, using your camera’s self-timer (I use 2 seconds) eliminates the need to lock the mirror up to reduce vibrations. (4) While I’ve shot perfect exposures using a hand-held meter like a my Sekonic light meter and a gray card, bracketing is probably the safest way to guarantee yourself a near perfect exposure with each composition. Due to the darkness inside the Subway, I normally bracketed around -1. That keeps the shadows where they should be and doesn’t turn the image into a neutral gray (dull) image with no shadows.  A test image can help.

Looking back on my images I’ve found myself at peace in knowing I’ve done a decent job of photographing this unique geologic feature – and that I will probably never have to hike into it again.

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A Thousand Words – Last Rays on a Bighorn Ram

For several years shooting in Yellowstone I had trouble finding the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Rams that others seemed to photograph often. I would find sheep on Mt Washburn, sometimes down the mountain at Dunraven Pass, around the Golden Gate, and on winter trips in the cliffs near the confluence of the Lamar River and Soda Butte Creek. A few other spots were hit and miss.

One day while driving the dirt road between Mammoth and the park gate at Gardiner (I think it’s called the Old Gardiner Road, but I call it the Pronghorn Road after previous photo encounters there) I saw movement a mile east, on the ridge that leads up to Mt. Everts.  Mt. Everts borders the Gardiner River on the east side, opposite Mammoth Hot Springs, and rises several thousand feet, with mostly rugged looking bluffs along the river – nearly to Lava Falls.  I was at the top of the the dirt road leading from Mammoth, which gives you a level view directly across the Gardiner Canyon to the slopes of Mt. Everts. There is a large bench that rises about 50 feet above the Gardiner River, right across the river from the parking area at the 45th parallel, called the McMinn Bench. On the bench a large group of bighorn ewes and lambs of the year were milling about.

With the help of binoculars I could just make out a number of small groups of rams moving up and down the ridges that lead to the top of the mountain – some were feeding and some were bedded down, chewing their cud. Along with my friend Bob Sutton, of Apple Valley, CA – we saw what appeared to be a possible, but steep, approach up the mountain that would lead close to the rams. We got back on the highway next to the entrance station and drove a half mile towards Mammoth to the small pullout. We crossed the bridge at Rescue Creek and climbed up to the flats, then began a long walk east across the meadow to the foot of the steep slope leading up the mountain.

Climbing the initial 300-400 vertical feet wasn’t too bad, but then the feeder ridge we were following began a very steep ascent … very steep. The kind of steep that you can only go 30-40 steps at a time between breaks. We had our tripod mounted 500mm lenses and cameras over our shoulders, a photo vest with film (hey, this was about 1996) and water. I was shooting the finest 35mm camera ever made, the Nikon F5, but it was a heavy beast and I was paying for that weight now. After about an hour we were closing in on the long rounded ridge coming down the mountain that we were aiming for. The grade of that ridge was less steep, and thirty minutes later we struggled up to it. Though it was September the grass was still thick and green, the result of afternoon thunderstorms we had seen nearly every day. When we reached the long ridge I had sweated through my shirt and vest, cooled down a couple of times, only to sweat through them again and again. The weather was crisp and clear, and breezy – the sun getting lower in the western sky.

Now we headed slowly up the long ridge, not able to see the rams, but knowing they were above us. Angling southeast and climbing, Bob about 100 feet away going up on the north side, hiking parallel to me, while I was hiking up the south side – giving us a broad view of both slopes. I can still remember the wind whipping up the mountain from the Gardiner River, maybe 1500 feet below.  Parked in the small parking area just off the highway my vehicle was just a speck.

I knew from the wind direction there would be no surprising the rams – they had to smell us coming even if they didn’t see or hear us. After a few minutes we came to a small acre-sized level spot on the north side of the ridge, out of view of the road we had used to spot the rams.  There in the small meadow were a dozen rams, all looking at us instantly. We sat on some nearby rocks shooting our initial images – just in case they ran.  Over time we caught our breath and they got used to us being 40-50 yards away – and the whine of our cameras.

The biggest ram had a large, dark body and a full curl set of horns. He was my target. At that time I was shooting freelance for hunting magazines – so small rams, ewes, and lambs were just not on my subject list. I remembered reading once that you should never get above animals that climb to escape their enemies – so we stayed either at eye level or just below them on the mountain. Slowly we moved closer, 10 steps at a time, angling slightly past them so as to not make a direct (predatory) approach. They seemed unconcerned, though they were certainly alert.

Finally, I moved to a position directly west of them, the late afternoon sun casting its light directly on them from over my shoulder – a perfect shooting position. The big ram kept his head down a lot, feeding, moving slowly, glancing at the other rams in his bachelor herd – but never looking directly at us. Having climbed that far we were going to be as patient as we had to be. As they moved slowly uphill I stayed parallel to them, not allowing them to get above me too much, not wanting my background to be the rising mountain behind them.

Then it happened. The big full-curl ram changed direction and crossed behind us to the western side of the ridge, in full light. I ripped through that roll of Kodachrome 64 in 4.5 seconds – 8 frames per second. Then 2 seconds to rewind, 4 seconds to change film canisters, 2 seconds to auto-advance the next roll, then another blur of images.

I got the shot.

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A Thousand Words – The Wild Urban San Joaquin Kit Fox

When I lived in southern Utah in the late 1980’s I spent a lot of very early mornings driving out across the Beaver Dam Slope to photograph at the Lytle Ranch Nature Preserve. On nearly every drive I would encounter Kit Fox wandering through my headlights. After moving back to California I read about the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox living in the valley, from Bakersfield north to Merced, or thereabouts. Finally, a photo safari client and friend, Allen – a retired (to Bakersfield) Wyoming Game Warden, spotted a den near his home on one of his early morning walks – and called me. This is my key image to this article.
What I found out about these beautiful little foxes is that while other animals have failed to adapt to the encroaching human environment, they have developed a unique urban aspect to their lives that has allowed them to, while maybe not flourish, continue to survive and successfully raise their young.  The last article I read, published by CF&G, said their was about 7000 of these foxes living in the San Joaquin Valley. While their natural habitat has shrunk due to the valley being an agricultural oasis, they have adapted their behavior to fit into their evolving environment.

While their predators, mainly coyotes, but historically bobcats, mountain lions, golden eagles, and bears have had their habitats reduced and their populations more isolated to the rugged parts of California – the San Joaquin Kit Fox has remained in much of its historic territory, right amid the orange groves, grape vineyards, and dairy cattle of the San Joaquin Valley.

So after Allen called me I immediately set up a date to meet the following morning, well before sunrise, at his home east of Bakersfield. We walked to a spot not far from his home where, even in the dim 5am light, I could see young fox kits strolling around, waiting for their parents to arrive with their next meal.

I find photographing predators, especially ones I hadn’t previously photographed, to be an exhilarating experience – and I felt that way each of the dozen or so mornings over the next couple of years I had opportunities to photograph them. Each time Allen spotted a den or area where they were visible, usually in June, I was their the next morning – and then each morning until they vanished to a new densite. The parents seemed to move them often, but the amazing thing was how the parents chose their den sites. Time and again the foxes were living in water pipes, some housing and some irrigation, as well as light pole standards, unused concrete sewer lines, etc.  There behavior was unique.  After all, it’s not like a hawk building a nest in a tree and it just happens to be in a park or along a road – the hawk is still using a tree. These foxes were using man-made holes to den in where their natural holes would have been covered by orchards, vineyards, or other crops. There they would have run afoul of farmers, and I’m sure many did – thus their ability to adapt and remain in their historic ranges is remarkable.
Arriving early in the morning and being quiet, moving little, it seemed that the foxes became quickly used to our presence.  It was clear from the area of the den that some of the local gardeners might have been feeding them when they arrived early for work – and while I don’t condone feeding wildlife, clearly these foxes were a mix of wild and urban – well adapted to humans as a possible source of food, and to the manicured lawns and gardens of housing developments that seemed overrun with squirrels and cottontails. It must have seemed an equitable trade-off to the wild foxes to use the humans, who had encroached on their historic grounds, as a source of food and shelter, which enabled their continued survival.

As we photographed the foxes, usually before sunrise, I was grateful to being shooting a camera that excelled at low light photography, the fx sensored Nikon D3s.  The main image (top) appears to be taken after sunrise, but it wasn’t. The bright light in the fox’s eye is actually the brightening sky to the east, prior to sunrise. Many of my images were shot in the iso 1600 to iso 6000 range before the sun came up, and usually iso 400 to 800 as the sun rose in the sky. I went back and checked my images and I never had the foxes in the sun (if at all) for more than 30-40 minutes – then they would disappear into their holes for a daytime of sleep after a long night of activity.

This image, above, shows an adult fox watching us from the safety of an unused sewer pipe. Sometimes left above ground for years between construction projects, concrete pipes like this, as well as irrigation pipes and steel light standards, shown below, provide protection from predators, temporary homes, and cover from the extreme heat that blankets the San Joaquin Valley in the summer.
Over the years I’ve seen kit foxes along Interstate 5, Highway 99 and 178 – and 223 along the north side of the Tehachapi Mountains, Highway 58, and inside of Bakersfield and Delano. I’ve never seen a fox, other than these in the early morning, during the day.  They are nocturnal but still active for a few minutes after sunrise. These foxes are opportunistic and relatively fearless of people, this probably accounts for the den on the UC Bakersfield campus, and other dens I’ve heard of in heavily traveled urban areas.

Over the years I’ve shot thousands of kit fox images, and been able to do very limited photo safaris (1 or 2 people at a time) when dens are discovered by Allen. They always seem to be on the periphery of developments, at least giving me a chance at wild looking images, not shot on lawns or with building backgrounds.  But I have to say, I admire these foxes for their ability to adapt and survive.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – Mesquite Dunes / Death Valley

Of all the colorful locations within Death Valley National Park to photograph, none gets me more excited than a hike into Mesquite Dunes, either at dawn or sunset. Because Mesquite Dunes is such a park attraction, most visitors spend at least some time out tromping around in the sand, taking some photos, maybe sliding down the dunes on a piece of cardboard or plastic. I’ve heard the dunes called many things – Stovepipe Dunes, Mesquite Flat Dunes, etc.

This kind of attention leads to the human factor being present in just about every section of the dunes. It seems that no dune is without it’s hiker, or hikers, becoming ever present moving monuments on top of the sand – like gargoyles on a tall building, it is hard to hide them. This essay is about Mesquite Dunes, and the photo below is my anchor image for this article.
It’s not a perfect image, none usually are, but it minimizes some issues of human traffic without having to spend a lot of time copying them out of the image. People love the park, especially in the spring when temperatures are moderate and inviting and there is a chance of wildflowers.  The dunes, however, are ever present at anytime of the year – making them an attractive target.

The first few safaris I did to Death Valley brought me to the dunes near sunset, when the receding sun cast off warmer and warmer light. The golden glow of the light created an intense color in the dunes.  The lower the sun sunk the greater glow, the greater the color – until it reached a point of total saturation.  If I was judging an image like this on its merits I would probably score an image like this down for the photographer adding too much color, too much saturation … just too much intensity.  The colors overcome the subject and become the subject.

Here is the original image, with the color fully shown and not reduced at all.
Scroll up and down and look at the two images.  First, ask yourself which image grabs your attention the quickest.  Second, ask yourself why.  These are subjective questions – and most people will probably like one or the other – and they might have a number of reasons to support their opinions.  All those reasons are valid, that’s photography. But there are reasons why I prefer the black-and-white version over the color version and I want to go over some of those reasons.

First, there is a starkness to the bw version. It seems more foreboding, more dangerous, maybe more wild. There might even be a twinge of nostalgia, taking us (who are older) back to the days of black-and-white movies and TV, back when Tri-X was the dominant film in photography.  The color version is a variation on the thousands of other images that I have seen of Mesquite Dunes. I don’t get the same feelings by viewing it. It seems a more common vista, easy to look at and not really examine.

Second, the darker shadows in the bw version seem to start at the mountains and come down into the shadow side of the dunes – almost like a continuous tone going vertically through the image.  In the color version there is blue in the sky, and a blue/gray color in the mountains. The colorful dunes seem to caste a bit blacker shadow behind them than the tones in the background mountains and sky. None of that was done intentionally – it is just how it looked in the final jpg image after being converted from the original raw file.

Third, when I first looked at both images my eye spent more time examining the texture of the dunes in the foreground. I looked quicker at the color version before looking away. Our minds are extremely powerful, taking time to examine details and texture in one image, while overlooking (…the “I’ve seen it before” judgement) those same details in another image. I noticed right away how much longer I looked at the bw version.

Clearly, you can see how subjective my view is, and how your view could be different.  Or, you might agree on all three points – but still like the color version better. There is another important principle that I have only touched on – and that is timing.  Those first few spring safaris to Death Valley saw me in the dunes towards dusk, and I knew what to expect: intense light (given a clear sky), some wind and blowing sand, human tracks, and dunes marred by human gargoyles. (LOL) Thus, I came prepared to build on the images I had previously taken.

In 2010 I broke with my traditional timing and hiked out into the dunes before sunrise, mainly because I was frustrated by all the people.  During that night the winds had scoured the dunes clean of human tracks, every ripple and wave in the dunes seemed to stand out in tremendous contrast – all the signs of human beings were gone.  Campers at the parking lot indicated to me it wouldn’t be long before others entered the dunes as well – so I didn’t waste any time finding my subject and shooting series after series of images through the sunrise.

To be honest, I was surprised by how the dunes looked at sunrise.  The gold hue of the dunes during the day and into dusk was changed, noticeably, to a whiter tone.  The golden hue wasn’t completely gone, but it was considerably minimized. The dunes were pure in the sense that all the vestiges of man were gone. I thought this is how the dunes must have looked to the local Indians, hard rock miners, or pioneers crossing Death Valley for the first time – on horseback, in wagons, or walking – always in the cool of morning, climbing either Towne Pass or WildRose Pass to head into beautiful California.

I hope this will inspire you to challenge your favorite destinations at a new time – in order to see with new eyes.

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A Thousand Words – The Quad Grizzly Cubs

The world that most wildlife live in is not a particularly forgiving environment. There are many factors that come into play in an animals survival – quality of food, parental care and upbringing, environment, and luck.  There are others as well, but luck plays a huge role. In 2010 I was fortunate to have several encounters with a grizzly sow and her four cubs in Yellowstone National Park.  Over the next 7 years I photographed either the cubs, the sow, her adult cubs, or the sow with her new cubs.  This is the main photo for my thousand word essay.
I can still recall the first encounter as if it was yesterday. I had 2 vehicles of photographers following me one morning at the end of May 2010.  We had driven out of Mammoth Hot Springs, past the Golden Gate, and out onto Swan Flats heading south. I’ve photographed many bears in this area so I wasn’t surprised to see a large grizzly heading down the hill east of the road, 300 yards out, just past the pull-out near Swan Lake.  We pulled over and set up to await the bear heading directly towards us. At a little over 100 yards we began to see the grizzly cubs running through the sagebrush following their mother. I don’t know about everyone else but my heartbeat and blood pressure rose immediately.

At about 40 yards she moved towards some fallen trees to our right.  That is the moment I took the photo, shown above. For a brief millisecond all four cubs stood up to watch their mother, just out-of-frame to the right, but before I could get the camera going one crouched back down – an opportunity lost.  Still, the resulting image is one of my personal favorites – and has sold as a fine art image as well as a stock image. We had two more encounters with the sow and infamous quad cubs on that safari, but not to the degree of the first encounter.

In 2011 I had heard that the sow lost two cubs (of the four) towards the end of 2010, one to a wolf, the other died in hibernation. Of these four shown in the image above, the two cubs on the left survived, the two on the right did not. Again, we started up to check Swan Flats in 2011 and encountered the sow with her two surviving quad cubs very close to the road – so close that we had to remain vigilant to her every move.
She and the cubs worked their way to us digging roots, before the sow stepped into the road stopping traffic, then waited for the cubs to cross – just like a crossing guard would do at an elementary school. A few days later we found them again, just after sunrise, working the west side meadow of sagebrush. While we saw the grizzlies digging roots, the sow was also very aware of the elk cows roaming just a hundred yards away – they were no doubt paying attention to how close these grizzlies were getting to their newborn calves, bedded down somewhere in the sea of sagebrush. Grizzlies find calf elk delicious.
In 2012, now with the cubs in their third year, I knew that they would be kicked loose by their mother when she went into breeding season. We happened upon the whole family in Swan Flats once again – on a wintry, wet, cold spring morning in early June when the clouds were at about sagebrush level and we were driving in heavy mist.

Bears, like people, have their favorite places to eat, to sleep, to drink, and to live out their lives.  Swan Flats was in the middle of this sows world and as long as she is alive she would return to this area over and over-again. Spring grasses must be succulent here, summer probably takes her to higher elevations for nutritious food, while autumn brings a smorgasbord of ripe berries, insects, and pine nuts – all that a bear needs (along with wolf-killed elk carcasses) to fatten up for a successful hibernation.

Anyway, about a hundred yards out into the heavy mist I saw dark shadows moving through the sagebrush. We pulled over to check it out.  It was the grizzlies yet again. This time we were in for a point-blank encounter that for a few moments forced us back into our vehicles. The sow and cubs mischievously moved close to the vehicles, one cub standing up to tear down the dangerous bear sign right in front of my vehicle. Without time to change lenses I had to shoot it with my 500mm lens. It then stood up tall, balancing itself with its muddy claws on the hood of a sedan one car over from me. The driver was clearly terrified and didn’t see the humor of his situation. Photographing his face in the car was a missed opportunity that just didn’t occur to me until later.  Darn!

The bears moved off, playing grab ass with their mother who swatted at them over and over again.  I knew this would be the end for this family, as June begins the breading season for bears – but we got this last opportunity with them.

The following year, 2013, we ran across the two cubs, still together, still working the areas their mother had taught them were good sources of food. You might think it’s difficult to tell bears apart, but it isn’t. Fur color, light chest patches, scars – all make identifying them easier.  In that brief 2013 encounter I got this final shot of both the surviving cubs.
I possibly saw one cub in 2014, it was hard tell.  The sow showed up in 2016 with two brand new cubs for us to photograph – and in 2017 we ran across them again, this time on the slopes descending Swan Flats into Mammoth Hot Springs. This shot of the sow grizzly, in 2016, with cubs just out of frame, is my favorite. The fresh forehead wound was from defending her cubs from an attacking boar grizzly – apparently she won the fight.

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