A Thousand Words – Reminiscing and Mineral King

My photography heart resides in the American West, from border to border, Canada to Mexico – from the Rockies west to the California Coast.  My first photography trip to Glacier was in 1986, my last was two years ago. My next should be in July 2021 and I’m looking forward to it.  My last trip near the Mexican border was to Laredo two years ago to shoot with my friend Butch Ramirez, and hopefully, the next trip will be next April.  From Colorado and New Mexico, through Utah and Wyoming, my photography passion wanders through the West.  While most display their love of the West through dramatic vistas, my artistic preference is to photograph the wildlife.  I can pass by a hundred gorgeous sunsets without a twinge of remorse, but you will never find me passing by a wildlife encounter of any note.  There is just something inside me that yearns for a wild encounter – to share, via photography, a few seconds or maybe even a few minutes – or more, of the life of a wild animal.  With every encounter, I absorb a little more knowledge about that animal or bird, how it fits into its world, its environment, and how privileged I feel to record what I see as best I can.  The results are a few images that may have no value beyond what I see in them, but they might have a great deal of value to others I will never know.
That value is something so intrinsic to each person, so personal, that no two people will respond to the exact same thing with the same feelings or emotions.  I can literally keep an encounter going for hours if I think there is even a remote chance of activity or behavior that might be unique.  While that may sound like patience, that’s not what I mean.  I am not a real patient photographer who can stand around for hours to see if the afterglow from a sunset strikes the clouds a particular way.  That is not me.  But wildlife photography generates an excitement that isn’t easily ignored or pacified with a few images – even a few hundred images.  That excitement reverberates through me and suddenly I can be a waiting man, a patient photographer – waiting for a remarkable moment to occur.  Most of the time the patience pays off with images of something I have never seen before or photographed poorly before, that now I have a chance to record with greater accuracy and beauty.
And sometimes those moments don’t pay off.  I’ve always liked the saying that God doesn’t reduce a fisherman’s life by the hours he spends on the water.  I would like to think the same is true about wildlife photography and the hours we spend in the field.  Tomorrow morning, like thousands of mornings previously, I will get up at 4am and prep my stuff and head out into the cool darkness.  My truck is a smooth ride, quiet, with everything I think I might need in the field.  I like to crack the window and let the chill of the air blow through the cab, sometimes music, sometimes quiet – but it gets me in the right frame of mind.  Whether I’m driving east from Tulare and the first rays of light are just starting to glow along the crest of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains or heading south out of Socorro on a frigid morning into light snow, or west from Tulare into my favorite bobcat country – the mornings are all the same, dark – but full of anticipation.  No matter how few hours of sleep I just had I’m wide awake, and anxious to get started.
On my last safari, last Wednesday, July 29th, there was no one along.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter, sometimes it does – this was one time when wandering alone in the mountains appealed to me.  I understand that no one gets too excited over butterflies or wildflowers – but it doesn’t dissuade me.  Four miles up the Mineral King Road out of Three Rivers, the light at about 8000 iso, a gray fox was trotting along the road.  He stepped off the road and down the hillside.  I slowed and stopped at that spot, looking down the steep hillside.  Just 20 feet down the hill the fox was standing on an oak branch about 4 feet off the ground, his thick tail hanging over and down more than a foot below the branch.  Magnificent.  I didn’t even flex for my camera, just watched the fox as he watched me.  The dim light made this a photoless encounter – but I didn’t mind.  A beautiful gray fox standing up in a tree … it was enough.
     It is a slow, tedious drive into Mineral King – the poor quality of the road hindering a quick trip for me but also having served as a protection in the past.  At one point Disney wanted to build a destination resort in the Mineral King Valley, but the huge cost of building an all-weather road sunk the project back in the mid-1960s.  On my hike to Black Rock Falls, I stumbled on a Sooty Grouse (fka Blue Grouse) and her chicks and was able to shoot a couple of minutes of video footage that I turned into a short movie.  (LINK)  The falls were gorgeous, still showing off colorful summer flowers and cascading water.  Meadows near the road provided other wildflower hotspots that proved very active for butterflies.  For several hours I worked the meadows for butterflies using both my 70-200 and my 60 mac lenses.
     The East Fork of the Kaweah River was flowing through boulders as it passed by me, headed for some serious waterfalls below Silver City.  It was early afternoon when I headed back down from nearly 8000 feet into the heat of the San Joaquin Valley.  It was a satisfying day of photography for me, because, after all, who knows how many more days like this I get.  I can only hope God doesn’t subtract days like this from my life.

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A Thousand Words – From Low Days to High Days

On my worst day in the field, chasing a particular animal that I can’t find (usually bobcats), I am rewarded a number of different ways.  First, I’m spending an entire day out in nature.  Every day that I spend out in the country makes me a better wildlife photographer.  You might wonder how I’m a better wildlife photographer if I haven’t found the target animal?  Fair enough.  I’m better because the intensity of the search increases as the day goes on, I’m looking harder and covering more ground.  Sometimes it leads me to areas I don’t shoot often – and that broadens my understanding of the species, it’s range, activity habits, and general areas of success.  That day becomes a data point in my memory to learn from, and there are thousands of those data points just for bobcat safaris.

2019 was a year of great successes, photographically speaking, but it was also a year when I had a number of difficult safaris that didn’t pan out like other safaris (at the same time) in previous years.  January 2019 brought my biggest single day for bobcats (12) for the entire year.  When November and December have always been peak months during my bobcat season (Sept to early March) it was January that brought the high day for bobcats. Yet, my second January Safari into Yellowstone in 2019 was disappointing as a near-continuous line of snowstorms brought animal activity to a standstill.  The first January 2019 Safari in Yellowstone was amazing, with lots of wolves and red foxes, but two weeks later things had stalled under an avalanche of snow.
Second, slow days afield cause me to reflect more on past safaris weather (good safaris and slow safaris) as I try to formulate a successful day.  A dry January and February in 2020 led to some very slow bobcat safari days, while lots of rain and storms in 2019 led to many very good days. While that might seem like a trend to seriously consider, a very dry 2014 (the California drought was in full swing) didn’t stop from providing me with 9 bobcat safari days of 10 bobcats or higher – and my all-time high day of 16 cats.  So, while the weather can be a factor in bobcat safari success, plainly, sometimes it’s not.
Besides weather, there are other factors that play upon the success of any particular wildlife safari.  Animal populations have highs and lows, expanding when conditions are perfect, and contracting when they are not.  The population roller-coaster is an undefined parameter of wildlife photographer success.  Some year’s birth rates are up, other years they are down – and in some years older animals leave the population, sometimes due to illness or disease, or just due to an aging population.  None of these factors can be anticipated, nor factored into a wildlife safari.  Except in the case of animal populations being closely monitored (like gray wolves in Yellowstone), the likely hood of information about these factors being made public is extremely low.  No matter the information, I am going anyway.
Third, and possibly the most important thing to learn from a bad day in the field – you have to pay your dues.  Unlike all other types of nature photography, wildlife photography is never a sure thing. Other than in some locations, like Yellowstone, where particular animals can be counted on regularly – wildlife photography success comes after countless hours are spent in the chase.  After leaving Yellowstone on the January Winter Safari we headed down to Jackson for the 3 days in Grand Teton National Park – and hardly got out of Jackson due to the mountain lion on a hillside next to our hotel.  That was an opportunity that doesn’t come around often … like never it seems.  On the first January 2019 Safari in Yellowstone we photographed a mountain lion, now this January we photographed another one.  What are the odds of that happening?
Lastly, by spending a day chasing you give yourself an opportunity to come across a completely unexpected encounter.  Besides the mountain lion encounters mentioned previously, the list of unexpected encounters is long and dramatic.  On the September 2014 Colorado Fall Landscape Safari we photographed a lynx mother and her two kittens.  On the same safari, in 2016, we ran across the largest mule deer buck I have ever photographed in Mesa Verde National Park.  In the Winter 2005 Yellowstone Safari, I had an encounter with a black wolf and a pregnant gray female.  Interactions between the male black wolf and the coyotes is one of my all-time favorites.  Later, in the fall 2008 Yellowstone Safari came the encounter with the Canyon Pack wolves eating on an elk they had killed.
The 2018 Klamath Safari led to a mink encounter, the 2019 Utah Raptor Safari led to an amazing ermine encounter and more daylight hunting barn owls than you could count – while warm weather in 2020 wrecked the Utah Raptor Safari.  I do all these safaris, always refining dates and specific locations, with the knowledge that in a high majority of the days we are on a specific safari – we will have some tremendous successes.  I’m not afraid to call my bobcat safaris “Bobcat Safaris” instead of something more general, like “Wildlife Safaris in Bobcat Country”.  I want my clients to know what my Number One target is.
What stands wildlife photography alone at the top of Nature Photography is the level of difficulty involved.  To capture an amazing encounter can be as simple as being in the right place at the right time – by accident, or that amazing encounter can be the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of data points of information gleaned from a lifetime in the field.  That information leads to hundreds, maybe thousands, of amazing encounters – while luck only leads to a few.

Lastly, I would like to say there is no coronavirus in nature.  While the virus spreads through our population like the flu, only more virulent, and practicing social distancing seems to be the current catchphrase – the virus is not out chasing photographers chasing wildlife images, stay safe and shoot.  BRP

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My Top 25 Images from 2019

This has been a year of improving animal portraits for me.  As wildlife a photographer it is always nice to shoot a new species, but for me, 2019 has been a year of improved encounters where I’ve been able to capture wildlife portrait images that were big improvements over past images.   12 of my top 13 images are vast improvements over previous images of the same subjects.  While behavior and interaction are defining parameters in great wildlife images, so many of my top 25 also include a calm resonance of emotion and action.  8 of my top 25 are birds, 14 of the images are of furry subjects people probably most associate with my photography and safaris, and 3 are landscape moments that just had powerful impact and color at locations I’ve photographed before.  12 of the 25 were shot on Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safaris.  So let the count down begin.

#25  Yellowstone’s Golden Gate in Golden Light
Climbing up the switchbacks out of Mammoth Hot Springs going south you pass through  Yellowstone’s Golden Gate and enter Swan Flats.  I’ve driven past this spot a million times and never seen it lit up like it was this late afternoon autumn day during the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari. Fresh snow created a nice counterpoint of color to the glowing rocks.

#24  The Bald Eagles Are Back In Utah For The Winter
After a couple of years where hundreds of bald eagles died from west Nile virus carried by pied-billed grebes from the southeast US to the Great Salt Lake in Utah (then eaten by the eagles) – bald eagle numbers have rebounded dramatically.  February 2019’s Utah Raptor Safari proved to be one of the best ever as we photographed hundreds of bald eagles, barn owls, raptors, and ermine at different locations around the Great Salt Lake.  4 of my top 25 for 2019 came on this amazing safari.

#23  Barn Owl On The Hunt In Utah
Another image from 2019’s Utah Raptor Safari – this barn owl hunts in the early morning light.  The frigid cold nights around the Great Salt Lake mean mice are frozen in beneath the snow, making for a hungry population of Barn Owls who normally hunt at night.  When the sun begins to warm the snow, releasing the voles to forage, the barn owls, northern harriers, falcons, and ermine are ready to pounce.  The very white chest, with small tan spots, of this owl indicates it is a male owl, while females have more tan/brown on their chests.  We were shooting about 50 to 60 encounters with these hunting barn owls each day.

#22  A Majestic Bull Moose Crossing The Gros Ventre River
Another image from my Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari.  This shot ranks so high because of the huge rack and body, beautiful afternoon light, and splashing action of the bull crossing the Gros Ventre River, on the south side of the campground of the same name.  Another image from this encounter is #4 on my list.  While I have other bulls in ponds and rivers, all the elements came together in this image – making it one of the best in my stock library and an improvement over all my other similar images.

#21  Sunrise Through The Mist On Yellowstone’s Swan Flats
I mistakenly passed up an image similar to this a few years ago (I was overcome with wildlife anxiety) at the same location and vowed I would never make that mistake again. Up before dawn and on the prowl, my safari group and I were ready when this scene presented itself to us on a frigid fall morning this past October.  I like the layered subjects showing through the fog at different intensities, the nearly silhouetted foreground trees, and the blast of orange sunrise light cutting across the scene.

#20  A Mountain Lion To Remember
This female mountain lion rests in the warming sunrise light on a bitterly cold winter’s day on my Yellowstone/Grand Teton Winter Safari this past January.  Out early in the Soda Butte Valley, near the parking lot with the bridge that crosses the Soda Butte River, we encountered only my second mountain lion in Yellowstone, just above the road on a small hillside.  In talking to the rangers the next day it seems this cat was at the end of her life – teeth worn down by age, emaciated from lack of food, half a dozen porcupine quills stuck in her cheeks.  She would lift her basketball-sized head and look around, but appeared no longer able to move.  She died later that morning, on that small hillside overlooking the wild country she had lived her life in, no doubt her genes passed down to other mountain lions roaming the wildest country in North America.  Just the sheer excitement that I felt (initially upon seeing her) gets her on my list for 2019.

#19 A Bobcat Shows No Fear
This bobcat image, taken in January after some extensive rains in California (thus the green grass), reminded me of some of the “glory days” of bobcat photography back in 2014 when bobcats were seemingly jumping off the hood of my truck. In 2014 I averaged 7.2 cats per day, while in the Sep 2018 to March 2019 season we averaged a paltry 3.3 bobcats per day.  But this big tomcat was an old school bobcat, not showing any fear of me just 30 feet away.  First, he strolled back and forth as I did my best “wrangling” imitation trying not to let him get by me, then he sat, then he laid down and stared at me like this.  The squirrels were close by – so maybe he didn’t feel like leaving this great hunting meadow.  We played this game for a couple of minutes before he tired of me, and casually left.  This point-blank encounter was just fun for me.

#18  A Townsend’s Warbler Shows Himself
I’ve chased these gorgeous little warblers before through thick brush, tree branches, without ever getting a real quality image – until now.  At the end of April and through early May I do a series of bird safaris to Butterbredt Springs, a peak birding location in the eastern Sierra’s about 30 miles north of Mohave, CA.  The springs bring an assortment of birds to this location, some vagrants, some locals – all busy with the coming of spring.  This brief encounter gave me another opportunity to improve on the images I already of this gorgeous warbler – one of 10 warblers I’ve shot there, and one of 40 other species I’ve regularly encountered and photographed there.

#17  A Male Ruby-Crowned Kinglet Flashing
I’ve got hundreds of images of these beautiful little Kinglets, all without the ruby crest flashing in the sun like this.  Many of you know that I shoot in bursts, usually taking 5-15 shots at a time, because things can happen so fast you can’t push the shutter-release in time to get something that occurs quickly.  This occurred during one of those bursts of shots and lasted for a brief second before the ruby crest disappeared.  As I was shooting I never saw the crest pop up, but my camera did.  Luckily, I was fairly close so at least some of the background blurred out saving this image from being too “busy”.  Just an amazing shot that I had sought for many years.

#16  The Bison Carcas Conquering Black Bear
This black bear was actually on an elk carcass just a few minutes before this near the top of Slough Creek on my Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari.  We watched him swim Slough Creek, which was running pretty high and fast this past spring, and get on top of this bison carcass in open view.  I’ve photographed black bears eating berries, pine cones, grass, squirrels, elk, mule deer, and moose – but this is the first time I’ve photographed one on a visible bison carcass.  We watched him for quite a while as he stripped small pieces of meat away from the bones and fur.  With no dramatic foreground obstructions, and with him standing up on the carcass a little, the elements came together for a very clean image.

#15  The Safest Place On The Planet Earth At That Moment
We encountered this grizzly sow and her cubs near Roaring Mountain one early morning on the Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari.  Dew was still on the grass as this little cub maneuvered between its mother’s front legs to eat the same grass she was eating.  Not just great interaction and behavior, but this image brings forth a certain amount of mother/child emotion and intensity with the cub in this protected position.  I’ve seen this type of interaction before, but due to the bear’s position, or my position, or poor light or possibly distracting elements (like long grass or sagebrush), this is the first time I got a great image of it.  It still could be improved, with both sow and cub facing into the sun for better exposure and detail – but we all walked away alive so I’m good with this.

#14  Peregrine Falcon Bringing Food To The Fledglings
Again, a vast improvement over other images I have of peregrine falcons.  This was an amazing summer of falcon photography along the California Coast.  July and August gave me multiple opportunities to photograph these peregrine falcon families in San Pedro and Rancho Palos Verdes.  Because the nests were below in cliffs that we photographers could stand on above them, over the course of a morning there were hundreds of opportunities to shoot fly-bys, with the parents bringing in food as in this image, as well as the food hand-off between the parents and fledglings, and the constant aerobatics being performed around the cliffs.  These were stand-there-and-shoot encounters, where your ability to scan for the quick flying falcons, get them in frame, and pan with them at high speed while blasting through long sequences of images made all the difference.  I love this shot which is clear and sharp, shows nice flight motion and positioning, shows the prey (a dove) clearly being held in the talons as the parent dives towards is flying fledglings.

#13  A Father’s Tough Love
I had never seen this kind of behavior before among pronghorn.  We spotted this fawn along with its mother and sibling in a meadow just off the road in Yellowstone.  As we photographed them, the fawns laid down in the long grass as the mother walked away to feed nearby.  Slowly, a buck pronghorn wandered into the same area as this fawn as it fed.  When it got close, maybe twenty feet away, the fawn stood up, probably thinking that it was its mother returning.  The buck and this fawn had about two minutes of amazing interactions.  The fawn would walk right up to the buck, who would put his head and horns down as this photo shows – corralling the little fawn in between.  There was no aggression or danger apparently, the little fawn would back up and the buck would continue to stand there looking at what may have been its own off-spring.  We got wonderful images of the doe and her fawns, but this was interaction and behavior at its best.  This image was also taken on this year’s Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari.

#12  Bull Elk Doing The Dance Of The Rut
Locking horns is just elk rutting behavior at its best.  On the August Wildlife Safari to Mt. Evan’s to photograph goats, and Rocky Mtn National Park to shoot elk and other wildlife – each year we have had encounters with bull elk just entering the rut.  At the end of August, the bulls are sizing each other up, carrying out brief fights – preparatory to the full-scale battles that will take place when the rut fully kicks off.  I’ve shot brief skirmishes from a distance, but never with a close, unobstructed view.  That changed on this encounter with these bulls (two of the nine bulls nearby).  I’ve shot fights in the water where I couldn’t even see the bulls due to the massive spray of water in the air, shot them end-on fighting – but this time I got this classic composition of two big mature bulls heads cocked and horns interlocked, performing a seasonal behavior that is millennia old.

#11  The Ferocious Short-tailed Weasel / Ermine
After years of having ermine (winter white-coated weasel) encounters that were more running and chasing than shooting, I finally got a hunting weasel who didn’t push my running stamina to the limits.  This year’s Utah Raptor Safari provided us with a unique and long ermine encounter which gave us all the images we could dream about.  In this image, the ermine has paused (these suckers move quickly) for a brief second as it hunts through some granite rocks along the marshy border of the road through the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in northern Utah along the shores of the Great Salt Lake.  I’ve seen weasels here before, for mili-seconds, but this time we spent more than an hour with this hunting weasel.  They are amazing killers dressed in this coat of pure white, looking peaceful and serene, moments away from biting through the skull of another vole. So close in fact that I shot this with my 70-200 f2.8 VR2 Nikon lens and D4s body.

#10  A Winter Ruffed GrouseDelicate, detailed, and beautiful – those are words that come to mind when I look back on this Ruffed Grouse Image.  It was about -19 degrees as we cruised near the Pacific Creek Road along the main highway in Grand Teton National Park.  It was still dark when we encountered a covey of these grouse on and around the road.  The grouse moved around the road, in and around the tree trunks of the pines bordering the road – and this male even did some strutting with his gorgeous black feather collar extended.  Like so many other animals on this top 25 list for 2019, I’ve photographed ruffed grouse before, but never with them so close and approachable.  Maybe it was the unbelievably cold air that kept them calm and close, or maybe they had come to the road to pick up sand and grit to digest their food with – but whatever the reason I was grateful for the encounter and images.

#9  A Boar Cinnamon Black Bear And His Stump
First, it is important to note for scale that this broken pine stump stands about 8 feet high, well above my head.  We found this browsing black bear along the upper edge of Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park on a June Black Bear Safari.  For about an hour we followed him, getting some normal log walking shots, some normal grass-eating shots – before he finally did something truly interesting.  He stood up against this broken stump and began to smell into its bark, no doubt trying to find the scent of a termite or ant nest to dig into.  Unlike milk-producing black bear sows with cubs, boars will spend far more time outside of meadows looking for termite nests to supplement their food sources.  I like the pyramid composition of this image, the soft light on the bear, and the detail in its fur – even though I have a brighter background.

#8  A Picture Perfect Mousing Coyote Leap
Another shot from this year’s Yellowstone/Grand Teton Winter Wildlife Safari, this co-operative coyote gave me the perfect opportunity to capture a near-perfect mousing leap in the snow.  I mean, it could have been better if he had glanced at me mid-leap, but then that would be asking the impossible.  I’ve photographed hundreds of coyote mousing leaps like this – probably on every single Yellowstone Wildlife Safari I’ve done in the past 37 years – they are just very predictable when it comes to mousing jumps.  You can see them suddenly concentrate on a spot, ears revolving, body muscles tensing – before the jump takes place – so plenty of time to get the camera framed, focused, and rolling.  The overcast light gave me a near shadowless shot – common light in winter.  But all the reflected light kept my exposure at iso 400, f6.7, at 1/2000 second, +1 exposure compensation – a perfect speed and f-stop to capture the motion sharply, with enough depth-of-field.  I’ve got plenty of profile jumps and jumps right at me, but this was a perfect composition for showing his entire body and leaping form.  Thanks, buddy.

#7  Rushing Western Grebes And The Dance Of Spring
It was having these rushing western grebes come almost right at me, rushing into the light, and having three of them up in-frame that pushes this image to #7 on my list.  Up until a couple of years ago, I had never seen this behavior with an opportunity to photograph it.  Lake Hodges, near Escondido where we stay during the San Diego Wildlife Safari, is one of California’s great locations for shooting this late winter event.  And like all wildlife encounters, some are better than others – and this one was great.  Dozens of grebes paraded around on the lake in front of us, every few minutes a couple would rise up and rush, mostly far away.  But these birds came towards us, rushing about 60 yards in one burst, and there were three of them.  Behavior and Interaction personified.

#6  The Black Wolves Of Lamar Valley And The Death Of A Pronghorn
The caption on this image says 3 of 5 black wolves, but there were actually 6 – I miss-counted.  Driving east past the Buffalo Ranch, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye racing towards us.  It turns out a black wolf was chasing down a pronghorn, closing the distance, and then dragging him down about 200 yards away in the sagebrush.  I never got a clean shot of the chase, even though I leaped out of the truck and snap-shot a bunch, my focus point being a piece of sagebrush half-way in-between us and the wolves.  But minutes later after parking and climbing the steep hillside next to the road, we had a perfect angle on the comings and goings of the 6 black wolves as they came to the carcass to feed.  I like this image of the two black wolves running back to the carcass with the middle wolf firmly feeding on it.  FYI – I have to admit that my client and friend, John Klenke, shooting from the backseat of my truck – got an amazing shot of the chase, with the black wolf just feet behind the running pronghorn.  It would be my #1 image if I had taken it – so well done John!!  Taken on the Fall Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safari.

#5  Golden Eagle Glory
This image, and the sequence of images it came from (about 12), have vastly improved my library of Golden Eagle images.  We were photographing bighorn rams on the side hill about 50 yards from where this eagle landed, down closer to the road.  As I wandered towards it, it began to fidget around nervously, so I got my tripod legs set up and got ready.  Being only 30 yards away (and shooting a 500mm lens on my Nikon D4s body) and having the bird on the sidehill from which it would have to leap downhill towards me in order to get lift and fly – put me in the perfect position for this image.  By far my best Golden Eagle image.  It combines a cool subject, nice eyeshine, flight motion, and near-perfect light all in one image.

#4  What A Massive, Gorgeous Bull Moose
This is the bull moose crossing the Gros Ventre River in #22.  Taken on the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari this year, this beautiful beast appeared out of the cottonwoods just before sunset.  We had actually been photographing a different bull that was coming towards us, tearing up willows and cottonwoods, acting very rutty when suddenly this bull appeared out of a line of Cottonwoods.  I could see immediately that this bull had a larger rack, though he didn’t appear to be interested in fighting the other bull – though maybe they already had a fight or two.  As he stepped out of the shade of the background cottonwoods into perfect low-angle, late afternoon light – he just resonated with color and vibrance.  He was about 80 yards away when I took this shot, and then as the first bull approached they both walked off, eventually crossing the Gros Ventre River giving me image #22.  The massive size of this rack and the perfect light make this a tremendous image.  I started out shooting big racks for nature and hunting magazines back in the early 1980’s and this certainly reminded me of those days as I worked for position to capture as many images as I could.  I’m glad I wasn’t limited by film (36 exposure rolls of film back in the day) because I tore through hundreds of images in a couple of minutes, buffering my camera several times, as I killed it.  (Killed it: a friends term for getting great images – I like it and use it now….lol).

#3  Navajo Tribal Park – Monument Valley Sunrise
Cropped to a panoramic composition, this pre-sunrise shot of the buttes along the western edge of Monument Valley (taken from just off the highway leading to Monument Valley near the entrance to the Tribal Park) holds a kind of hypnotic energy as I look at it.  It started out being in the bottom of the top 25 but as I reconsidered the images, again and again, it moved higher and higher.  I was shooting 7 shot brackets starting at -2 stops eV and of the six to eight sequences I took of this far off line of buttes, this image stood out the most.  Maybe because it screams the desert southwest to me, or maybe it reminds me of watching all those old John Wayne movies that were filmed in Monument Valley, like the movie “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” or “Fort Apache” when I was a kid.  Either way, this image ranks high because I just can’t stop looking at it.

#2  The Adventures Of A Young Cinnamon Black Bear Cub
We worked hard to get this shot.  After finding the sow and two cubs (one cinnamon and one black) we followed her up and down the sidehills as they stopped to chew on sugar pine cones and play.  We finally ended up down along the edge of Huckleberry Meadow in Sequoia National Park on a typical black bear safari, where we got to witness the two cubs play king of the log – on the log this cub is laying on in this photo.  The black cub was pushed off the log after a tussle, then as it stood on the ground next to the log (the log is about 3 feet thick) the cinnamon cub reached down and tried to choke it.  I got a nice sequence of choking and fighting images – but this image had more strength than the playful ones.  After releasing the black cub the cinnamon cub laid on the log like this carefully staring at me.  It is a calm image, almost serene, but there is a depth to the bear’s face and eyes as he ponders my presence 35 yards away.  We had been with them an hour by this time, and he had heard the camera whirring many times, heard us stepping through the underbrush and setting up tripods – but this moment of contemplation, of me the photographer – pushed this image to near the top of my top 25 list.

#1  The Killer Weasel Revealed
It was tough to decide between my thoughtful, gazing cinnamon black bear cub and this image of the killer weasel after a successful vole hunt.  This is yet another image from this past February’s Utah Raptor Safari and the same weasel from #11 in my list.  I ended up choosing this image based on the years of struggle to find a damned weasel, and an ermine at that, that was successfully hunting and had a captured victim in its jaws.  For the time we followed this weasel he successfully hunted and killed 6 voles, caching them in the reeds at a certain spot each time before returning to hunt.  Maybe he had a nest of babies there to feed, or maybe he was stocking up for a coming snowstorm that would limit his hunting  – but this little beautiful creature was as much a killer as anything I have ever photographed.  Other predators are much bigger (like grizzlies), or more graceful (like red foxes), or more feared (like mountain lions), or maybe even more prolific killers while hunting (like barn owls) – but no animal combines beauty with ferocity like this short-tailed weasel, this ermine, did on this day in February 2019 in northern Utah on the Utah Raptors Safari.  He wins.  BRP

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A Thousand Words – Utah

For over 28 years I lived and worked in Utah, and in that time I learned most of what I know about photography.  Beginning after my 2-year church mission to Montana, first in Provo (BYU) and Utah County, then St. George and southern Utah, and finally Providence in Cache Valley – I spent tens of thousands of hours exploring every back road I could drive on, every canyon, and every valley in those areas.  I learned about the wildlife, the wildflowers, the scenic vistas, the state parks, and national parks.  Along with my sons and friends I hiked famous trails like the Lefthand Fork of North Creek trail to the Subway in Zion, descended the Navajo Loop trail in Bryce Canyon to shoot among the hoodoos, and ventured out along the sheer cliffs that dropped to the Colorado River at Tuweep, 3000 feet below – in the extreme western edge along the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

As the safari trips piled up over the decades in the American West, so to did the experiences that I had on those long days that began hours before sunrise and didn’t end until late at night.  I felt an urgency to search, though I’m not sure what I was looking for then – yet, I knew something was out there waiting.  I felt an anxious determination to discover what was around me, maybe to see what others had already seen, but to photograph those experiences with my own eyes, my own interpretation.

Even on my church mission in Montana on our half-day off (Monday), we hiked, fished, and explored the areas where we lived.  I learned the forest service roads around Bozeman, Stevensville, and Whitefish; fished the Bitterroot, the Blackfoot, and the Flathead rivers; hiked high into Glacier National Park, Lolo Peak, and the Gallatin Mountains; and explored the infamous Missouri Breaks country of Eastern Montana where the mighty Missouri river serpentines through the bluffs and plains heading east.  

It was in Utah where discovery met photography.  I bought my first SLR 35mm Camera (an Olympus OM-10FC), grew out of that camera (Olympus OM-4T), then grew out of that Camera and System (Nikon F5) over the course of the next decade.  My first photographs were published (Deseret Newspaper Sunday Travel Section Cover Story – 1985) and I began to get images accepted by magazine photo editors.  Images being held turned into images being published.  I photographed my first wedding in 1988, shot my first commercial job (Great Western Savings of California – starring Dennis Weaver) in 1988, had my first magazine cover (St.George Magazine) in 1988, and my first national magazine cover (Audubon’s American Birds) in 1989.  Publication credits and author credits piled up over the next two decades.

It was also in Utah where my passion for wildlife photography began.  It began with Lyman Hafen, then the editor of St.George Magazine, spotlighting a wildlife image of mine on the back page of the magazine each issue. While the quality of the landscape photography in the magazine was impressive, as was the writing – showing off a wildlife image was something new for this blazing red rock country magazine.  My first images for that feature were ok, but not great.Each wildlife encounter led to another, and another.  I began looking for wildlife first, and landscapes second.  While living in St. George I began making trips north to Yellowstone National Park – mainly in the fall for the bugling, rutting bull elk – a key publication species for hunting and nature magazines, like Field & Stream and Ranger Rick.  It was only a decade later when I made a spring trip for baby animals and realized what I had been missing.

After moving to Providence, in Cache Valley in Northern Utah, the quality of wildlife encounters really increased.  Besides the local moose, elk, and mule deer – there were large populations of red fox, sage grouse, and raptors of every kind.  My photography expanded into portraiture (weddings, families, seniors) and more commercial shooting (products, brochures, stock) to go along with the nature (landscape, wildlife, macro) photography I was already involved with.

For those 28 years I lived in Utah I was only been able to photograph about 20% of the state’s amazing beauty, whether landscape or wildlife.  The state is a vast space that refuses to give up it’s treasures to just an occasional visit.  Without living in Moab there is no way to discover all the intricate beauty surrounding eastern Utah.  While I did my best to find those amazing spaces in southwestern Utah, northern Utah, and along the Wasatch Front – so much of the state’s beauty eluded me.

Now in California where I grew up, my trips back to Utah are more selective.  While I do my Utah Raptors Safari every year in mid-February, I alternate years doing a Southern Utah Spring Safari and a Fall Safari.  Some of the amazing spots I’ve found and photographed just don’t lend themselves to being part of those three photo safaris – and now it’s been years since I’ve shot them. Luckily Salt Lake City is my major layover location for trips north to Yellowstone and Glacier – and with one of my sons and his family living in Logan in Cache Valley, I have more reasons to stop and linger on my trips through.

On those layover trips through SLC, Antelope Island State Park is a usual morning destination before heading north.  It is part of my Utah Raptor Safari trifecta of winter shooting locations.  After the fall’s Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safari I come south from Jackson via Bear Lake and Logan Canyon into Cache Valley, then south to SLC.  I know where every dirt road leads, I know where the cool barns, waterfalls, or stands of colorful aspen are – and I know where to look for which animals.  It takes a lifetime of photo safaris to learn that information about a state as vast as Utah, and then, I really only know about 20%. Now I live in California, and that anxious determination to search continues to bubble up within me.  BRP

 

 

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A Thousand Words – Photoshop Processing for Forest Images

I spend a lot of time shooting black bears in forests, dark forests with bright light filtering through trees creating a puzzle-like effect of light rays on the forest floor – one of the most challenging environments for image processing.  Without writing a whole blog article on the art of exposure compensation, I’m going to explain the processing that I did in one interesting cinnamon black bear image I took recently in Sequoia National Park. This image was shot on a Nikon D4s body, at f4, 1/640 second, iso 400, on a tripod.

When I found the bear working through the side of a meadow, shaded by pines in afternoon light – I safely followed him hoping for a more interesting image.  He (no cubs, so assuming a boar) crossed the northern border of the meadow back into the forest and then began working west, directly into the light.  As he crossed through bands of light I continued following and shooting, but the best moments came in full shade with a bright background.  He stood next to an eight-foot-tall broken pine stump and began sniffing at the bark for lunch, in this case, insect grubs.  He had stood so quickly that I hadn’t adjusted my compensation to account for the deep shadows.  In the previous set of images he was in the sun frontlit, so there was no compensation set.  I shot off a dozen images before taking a second to dial in +1 compensation (eV) for the rest, but by then he had bent over some and began digging into the stump, about 4-5 feet up.

So I got the image I expected, a shadowed-out, nearly silhouetted standing bear image with some burned out background highlights.  See the original file below as seen in the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) Converter in Photoshop CC.

There was a time when, if I had shot this on film or in the early digital photo days, this image’s final look would have looked just like this.  Yes, I could have filled the shadows a little even back then, but the Photoshop processing platform is so much more powerful today.

I began by entering the Lens Corrections dialog box in ACR and clicking on “Remove Chromatic Aberrations” and “Enable Profile Corrections”.  Since my Nikon 500mm f4 SWM lens is pretty old I have to select “Nikon” in the Lens Profile: Make box before the program selects the correct lens and applies the correct lens profile to the image. This is an important step in flattening the image, removing barrel distortion found in the unprocessed raw file.  Every lens has distortion issues, and using the correct lens profile will mitigate the image damage they casue.  For my lens I noticed a small wrinkle is flattened and the outside edges of the image are brightened.  Many types of lens distortions can be fixed by using the lens correction dialog box as illustrated here.

In order to keep this blog post to 1000 words, I’m going to skip other, more detailed exposure corrections I could have used in  Curves, and just go with the corrections I used for this image in the Basic dialog box.
Shown in the image below.

 

Here are my adjustments for each exposure control in the Basic dialog box.  Nothing complex.

I moved the Exposure setting to +.95.  I should have been shooting at +1 eV compensation anyway, but now I’m making up for that here by brightening the overall image.

Brightening an image globally tends to wash out the blacks some, so by adding some contrast I’m moving more light pixels back to the dark side from the middle of the histogram, and more light to the light side from the middle of the histogram.

In most cases, especially here, the already shadowed side of the bear, as well as the bright background, are too extreme after adjusting the contrast.  So to counter that, I moved the Highlights slider far to the left to bring back the highlights so no clipping occurs, except for some tiny spots.  I also moved the Shadows Slider far to the right, in order to brighten just the shadows.

To remove the bright spots being clipped, I slid the Whites slider to the left (-28) until the clipping stopped.  It shows as a red overtone when the clipping warnings are on. Likewise, I brightened the dark areas by moving the Black slider (+29) until I felt like the overall image exposure was more balanced.  These 6 controls are critical to making the image exposure appear the way I remember seeing it.  Our eyes are vastly more powerful than the camera in providing our minds with a useful image – so my goal is always to return the image to what I feel was what I saw at that moment.

The Clarity slider (+13) adds contrast between colors, something I refer to as increasing color sharpness.  Backlit subjects can lack clarity in the colors on the shadow side of the image. I also increased Dehaze, a form of mid-tone contrast (+17). I pushed up the Vibrance (+9) until I began to get color clipping in the background highlights. I tweaked up the color Saturation slider (+7) until I noticed more color in the coat of the cinnamon black bear.

These corrections are based on image looks, not on any pre-determined amount.  I’ve heard people say an image needs “so much” of this or that, but I make my processing decisions based on the image in the workspace I’m viewing. You can also tweak individual colors in the HSL Adjustments dialog box in ACR, but I didn’t do that in this image.

This is the completed image out of ACR, prior to final adjustments in Photoshop.  The background lacks some contrast, giving it an HDR effect, but in my final steps of processing it was easy to paint in some extra background contrast using a mask.  I don’t do any sharpening in ACR, so I selected the bear and tree trunk for image sharpening, inverted the selection then did some noise reduction on the background.  BRP

 

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A Thousand Words – Butterfly Photography

As a wildlife photographer, some subjects are easy (bigger, like bears, eagles, or moose), and others not so much (smaller, like butterflies, lizards, and wildflowers).  While reptiles are pretty active anytime it is warm, butterflies and wildflowers are mostly spring and early summer subjects that fade out as the season moves forward towards fall.  There are some tactics that can be used for all small subjects, so I’m going to illustrate some of the equipment and tactics needed for butterflies.

Butterflies

A few decades ago I wrote a newspaper article for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City called “Jewels on the Wind” about butterfly photography.  At that time I was spending many hours per week haunting the backroads of southern Utah, specifically targeting butterflies – I wanted to photograph them all.  I didn’t have great equipment … as a matter of fact, my go-to lens was an old 100mm Vivitar Macro lens with the ability to achieve 1:1 life-size magnification – though I never focused it to its minimum focusing distance.

Another important piece of equipment was an Olympus T-28 Macro Twin Flash system that attached to the end of the lens.  The control unit attached to the camera hot shoe while each flash could be rotated and positioned independently.  Normally I had the two flash heads angled in a bit, giving even light to my tiny subject at about 18 inches, which was a magnification ratio of about 1:3, or third life-size, with the Vivitar macro lens I was using.  The flash operated on TTL (through-the-lens) light metering that required me to turn the power down slightly if I was shooting within that 18 inches. Nikon and Canon make similar units today.

The image above is a perfect example.  The lighting is very even, with enough light spilling into the background to give detail and texture.  I could shoot at f16, pushing it up to f22 if I got closer than those 18 inches.  While the Olympus flash system cost me about $400 back in the late 1980s, Nikon, my camera system of choice today, offers a similar twin flash system for shooting these difficult macro images for about $700 now.

The Nikon R1C1 is shown above.  After a bit of experimentation I learned the best distance to be at, the proper flash settings to use at that distance, the flash angles for the subject and background, and how important it was to get parallel to the wings/body of the butterfly to get the maximum dof (depth-of-field).  Even at f16, dof is extremely shallow at these greater magnifications.

I don’t want to get too technical about lens magnification ratios, but it’s important to know the basics.  While many lens makers might say a lens is a “macro” lens, closer reading might find a ratio of just 1:6 or 1:8 – not a true macro lens which can shoot lifesize at 1:1.  Photographing a penny produces an image on the sensor (or film) that is the size of a penny – that is 1:1.  If the penny is only half it’s original lifesize on the sensor – that is 1:2, etc.

Another important factor with a macro lens is “working distance”.  How far away from a subject do you have to be to achieve a 1:1 ratio?  Whether it is 8″ or 16″ might not seem like a big concern … until being 8″ away from a creepy spider sends tingles down your spine. Then working distance is important.  A  100mm 1:1 macro lens has twice the working distance from the subject as a 50mm 1:1 macro lens. The drawback to the 100mm 1:1 macro lens is the size, weight, and cost (usually more of all three) versus a 60mm 1:1.  After owning both, I prefer the 60mm 1:1 f2.8 macro lens because I found myself carrying it more often, thus using it more often.

One of the drawbacks to using a flash is the light fall-off darkening the background.  Since these systems use TTL light metering, once the correct subject exposure is reached, the flash shuts off instantly.  If one of the flash heads is not aimed towards the background the result is a black, or near black, background that I find distracting (see the image above).  Even in full daylight, shooting with flash at small f-stops and high magnification does not lend itself to fully lit backgrounds because of the working distance.

One way to avoid this is to use telephoto lenses without flash.  While this might seem an obvious move, many butterflies are found in shaded areas where, without the flash, movement from the wind or the butterfly itself would ruin the image.  I’ve successfully used my old Olympus 300mm f4.5 lens (before I moved to Nikon) as well as my Nikon 500mm f4 telephoto lens to capture remarkably sharp butterfly images, in full sun as the image below illustrates.

Finally, understanding habitat and environmental traits of butterflies can lead to better images.  While butterflies like most flowers, they like some flowers more than others.  A simple rule to follow is if the bees are active on certain flowers, the butterflies will be as well – they are good sources of nectar.  Also, some plants are “hostplants” that butterflies will lay their eggs on, and thus be more active around them.  Back in southern Utah, I found that one of the best plants to find was Yerba Santa or the Great Herb.  These bushes would be covered in butterflies throughout the spring and early summer before they tended to dry out.  See the image below.  The Great Blue Hairstreak, aka the Great Purple Hairstreak, is resting on a Yerba Santa bush.  You can see the sticky-looking leaves pretty well.  In the photo above, of the Red Admiral, the meadow of American Bistort flowers provided a great source of nectar – notice the bees in the image.

Lastly, having a great guide book to identify the butterflies is a must.  While expensive, my personal favorite is “The Butterflies of North America” by James A. Scott.  Not cheap, but it has color images of all the species, and their sub-species, and ranges, hostplants, etc.
Good Hunting!! BRP

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2018 Top 25 Favorite Images

What a year!!  I’ve added tens of thousands of images to my stock library this year, but some stand out – at least to me.  The top 25 list is very selective and represents my personal favorites.  I had 8 more days in the field (125) this year than last year and had some new safari locations as well: San Diego Wildlife Safari, Mt Evans Rocky Mtn Goats, Rocky Mtn National Park, and So Cal Peregrine Falcons.  Eight images were shot in my favorite park (Yellowstone) while 13 images are of birds.  So here we go:

#1 Rocky Mtn Bighorn Sheep Head shot              YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Not a lot of drama in this tight crop of a bighorn ram head shot, but I kept coming back to it as I tried to rank the images.  The eye connects me to the animal – to the winter weather – to the struggle to survive, while the horn damage shows power and dominance. The circle of background snow shows the circle of life.

#2 Male and Female Vermilion Flycatchers   Morongo Bird Safari (LINK)
Could well have been my favorite shot.  Over the years of bird safaris to Morongo I’ve shot many vermilion flycatchers and this image displaying behavior and interaction is certainly at the top.  The eye contact between the female (perched) and the displaying, calling male pushes this image to the top.

#3 Yellowstone’s Most Famous Grizzly Family    YNP Spring Safari (LINK)
This sow grizzly (right) with her nearly adult daughter interacting just weeks before they separated shows the familial connection between parents and young – as easily ascribable to wildlife as well as humans.  I don’t name wild animals, but I think everyone knows their humanized names by now.

#4 Red Fox Sleeping in Winter in Yellowstone    YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
This image is all about behavior.  It was viciously cold and windy on this January day in the park and after giving us many opportunities, the red fox curled up on the edge of a rocky cliff, wrapped his tail around his face, and fell deeply asleep – no doubt knowing that many tough, cold, hungry days lie ahead.

#5 Peregrine Falcon Take-off                          Peregrine Falcon Safari (LINK)
While I’ve shot many peregrines, this morning of photography in Rancho Palos Verdes was different. Adults and juveniles filled the air, zooming and doing aerobatics in the updrafts of wind rising up the cliff face.  Landing, calling, and then leaving were just a bonus to photographing this powerful bird.

#6  Tundra Swans and Storm Clouds           Klamath Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Lower Klamath NWR that covers the Oregon/California border has become one of my favorite safaris.  While I started shooting as the swans took off, it wasn’t until they happened to pass in front of the distant mountain and storm clouds that the image really came alive.  I like the energy (flight and weather) the image shows.

#7 Rushing Western Grebes                     Oso Flaco Lake Bird Safari (LINK)
Santa Margarita Lake is the afternoon half of the Oso Flaco Lake Bird Safari in March. We happened upon a series of Western and Clark’s Grebes performing their amazing mating season water dance – known as rushing.  Behavior and Interaction mixed – couldn’t be better (well, they could be coming right at me…..maybe next time).

#8 Red Fox on a Wintry Day                                      YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Without the snow falling this is just a very standard red fox image.  But the wintry conditions tell a tale of survival.  The fox’s heavy winter coat and its blazing eyes shows it will survive and flourish.  The bright snow is reflecting light up into the fox’s body and face, giving me a nicely exposed shot (+1 compensation).

#9 Baby Least Terns Huddling Together           Snowy Plover Safari (LINK)
The 2017 Snowy Plover Safari became known as the Ventura Death March. But in 2018 we had comfortable conditions with a little breeze and low humidity as we walked the shoreline photographing snowy plovers, least terns, sanderlings, etc. Not only are these chicks hard to find, but they are hard to photograph.  They wait for their parents, camouflaged in the sand, to bring another minnow.  These two were probably born a few days apart given their different coats of fluff.

#10 Pied-Billed Grebe Family                                  Snowy Plover Safari (LINK)
Another family shot from the same safari.  This pied-billed grebe family poses together around mom.  Like shooting on snow, this image was taken at +1 compensation and the overcast conditions game me some beautiful reflected light detail.  Fighting over who rode on mom’s back, the chicks jockeyed for position and attention.

#11 Bald Eagle Enduring                                             YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
Winter safaris just have so many opportunities for unique images.  This bald eagle sits above the Lamar River, not really hunting for fish in the river below him, more just enduring the high wind and blowing snow. Sometimes its about survival at below zero temperatures.

#12 Channel Island Gray Fox            Channel Island Gray Fox Safari (LINK)
On the ride out to Santa Cruz Island from Ventura we photographed whales and saw dolphins – and it was just a beautiful day. Within 5 minutes of arriving at Scorpion we were photographing these small, calm foxes.  They eat insects, grubs, and small rodents – but with no other predators they are at the top of the food chain, and are very relaxed. This image demonstrates that as this fox snoozes in the late morning sunshine.

#13 Dreamy Aspen Glade                 Colorado Fall Landscape Safari (LINK)
After shooting along the Delores River we came upon this Forest Service Road that I had never been up before – in the San Juan National Forest.  Every curve was dramatic color and amazing landscape views. As we crept higher up the road photographing mule deer bucks and dusky grouse we happened upon this stunning scene. Even a wildlife photographer like me recognized the scene as remarkable. The bed of ferns changing colors just made it that much better.

#14 Grizzly Squeeze                                            YNP Fall Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Four months after shooting image #3, I was lucky enough to encounter this sow grizzly again, just a few hundred yards away from where I had shot her previously.  While the image is a bit cluttered with branches and brush, watching this 350 pound grizzly squeeze through this opening between fallen logs was a joy to watch.  Later she laid her head down on a log, in full view, and took a nap – great image, but didn’t make the top 25.

#15 Little Bighorn Rams Playing              YNP Spring Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Taken in late May high on Mt. Washburn near Dunraven Pass, these little rams enjoy themselves jumping, dashing, and running around the little remaining snow along the road.  They practiced some light head-butting, bent over a few small pines for fun, and just generally played all around us.  Just a 70-200 lens here.

#16 Delores River Magic                    Colorado Fall Landscape Safari (LINK)
Every Fall Colorado Safari I stop at this point along the Delores River to photograph these blazing cottonwoods.  The aspens on the mountainside behind the river are still green, but the river just glows in cottonwood color.

#17 Aerobatic Male Allen’s Hummer                  Hummingbird Safari (LINK)
This safari, in Santa Paula, CA – is just hours of non-stop action. This aerobatic Allen’s Hummingbird, among the 35-40 others, gave me dozens of opportunities to shoot unique flight action.  Here in full sun, no flash was needed to get reasonably sharp wings.

#18 Baby Bobcat Butt                                             Bobcat Wildlife Safari (LINK)
This little bobcat gave me just seconds to get a few shots before he vanished into the brush.  I used my trusty squeaker to get his attention back. 2018 has been a very good year for bobcats.  I’m writing this on December 16, so I still have a few bobcat safari days coming up before the end of the year – but activity and encounters are definitely up over 2017, a year when I got skunked a couple of times.  The other day we had 12 bobcat encounters in one day, a record since 2014 when I had 16 encounters in one day.

#19 Singing Green-tailed Towhee                              Black Bear Safari (LINK)
Photographed during a black bear safari high in the Sierras in Sequoia National Park, this green-tailed towhee has been a long sought after subject for me.  Finding them isn’t that difficult, photographing them is.  They are an energetic, quick moving, ground feeding bird that tends to stay in deep brush … until I shot this image near the Crescent Meadows parking lot.

#20 The White Weasel of Death                               YNP Winter Safari (LINK)
The definition of “chase” wildlife photography is getting shots of these amazing little predators.  Short-tailed weasels in winter coat are called ermine.  On both the winter safaris this past January we had numerous encounters with them.  They can move incredibly fast, snow or not.  They disappear into the snow, popping up 20 yards away just seconds later. We would race back and forth, hand-holding (which everyone knows I hate to do) our lenses, trying to stay up with the perfectly blending-in predator.  Without the dark eyes and tail tip most encounters wouldn’t happen at all.  This little guy just leaps through the snow as I pan and shoot, completely relying on my equipment to keep up.

#21 Varied Thrush in Storm                     Northern Pygmy Owl Safari (LINK)
 We were busy working on Northern Pygmy Owls when this Varied Thrush showed up as snow flurries drifted down.  Though a bit obscured, I love the color pattern on this bird and while it’s common, it is difficult to photograph.  I shot this image along the General’s Highway before getting to the Giant Grove.

#22 Ring-necked Pheasant explosion          Klamath Wildlife Safari (LINK)
We had been seeing dozens of pheasants along the Lower Klamath NWR road network when we arrived on the east side, near the northern road intersection.  A truck ahead of us let out his Labrador to run in the bushes along the canal and field. I guess it was a training run for the dog, as no one was hunting and few folks (none) were around besides us.  The dog flushed hundreds of pheasants in just moments, sending a cloud of birds passing over us and across the road.  Pan, back-focus, and shoot – and keep shooting.

#23 Nanny and Kid Goat on Mt. Evans               Colorado Goat Safari (LINK)
This nanny Rocky Mountain Goat is shadowed by her kid wherever she goes. At an elevation of 14,271 Mt Evan’s is one of Colorado’s fourteeners.  Luckily for us, the paved road travels all the way to the top – the highest paved road in North America, and the 5th highest paved road in the world. These goats are feasting on dwarf willow that appears as a low growing mat between granite rocks; other food includes Rocky Mountain columbine and dwarf alpine sunflowers. We also encountered bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, pika, and a number of small birds (brown-capped rosy finches, pipits, rock wrens, etc).

#24 Drake Ring-necked Duck                        San Diego Wildlife Safari (LINK)
Getting a shot like this is more difficult than it looks.  The number of birds, wind direction, sun direction, and lake orientation all come into play.  One of my favorite spots to shoot on the San Diego Wildlife Safari is Santee Lakes east of San Diego.  Wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, wigeons, osprey, white-tailed kites – and many others make this a great birding destination.  One of 8 spots we shoot on this safari.

#25 Orange-crowned Warbler                     Sequoia Black Bear Safari (LINK)
Last but not least.  The meadows we photograph the black bears in are homes to a myriad of small birds and woodpeckers, and my list of birds is extensive. This little bird was shot rocking on the parsnip stalk in Huckleberry Meadow.

This list came from about 200 images I flagged from images I processed after each safari I did this year.  It is completely subjective – with half the photos being birds.  I could have included elk, gray wolves, coyotes, great gray owls, etc – except those images I shot this year were distinctly familiar with images from past years – so I just passed on all of them.

From winter safaris to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, to National Wildlife Refuges, to animal specific safaris (peregrine falcons, hummingbirds, black bears, bobcats, etc) we who live and photograph in the American West are truly blessed with a lifetime of amazing locations and critters.  BRP

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When Wildlife Photography Fails

As a connoisseur of wildlife photography I’ve been disappointed lately by much of what I see online – both in my own images and in others.  It doesn’t take a genius to build up a friend’s list on either Facebook or Instagram that brings some of the finest wildlife images to your computer monitor – instantly – changing every few seconds with more images, more beauty, and sadly, more craziness.  Some photographers post to show off a great encounter, some post to show any encounter, some to build their brand for greater financial gain and fame, some post in order to make political statements and exhort others to action – putting wildlife right in the middle of the most recent, ongoing, and bitter battles of right vs left and hunter vs non-hunter, among so many other diametrically opposing views.
Most of the wildlife photographers I know, amateur and professional alike, see something in a great wild image, or encounter, that transcends any simple definition – and portrays some unique wild moment. There is no “we” love wildlife, while “you” hate wildlife – because in that moment that is always too brief – we all stand in awe of the scene before us.  Our hearts race and our hands begin to sweat, it seems our nerves immediately fray, time flies and creeps at the same time.  We all try and use our camera equipment in the most efficient, productive, and skilled way possible – but we get what we get.  Some more talented folks get better images, some just get good images – but that moment is etched in our consciousness in it’s purest, most unspoiled form. We all have that image forever. We share that with those standing next to us, and we share it with our image viewers.  The moment is the same for all of us.

Wildlife photography fails when we, the image viewers, fail to appreciate or understand the process of experience that went into that image.  No one just starting out will take a magazine cover quality shot first time out of the gate. It can’t be done because so many of the variables involved in producing that image only come from experience and luck – the right kind of experience, and those experiences cascade you forward in your photography skills. Your “luck” increases as your experiences lead you forward.

I recently stood with others photographing a famous grizzly sow in Yellowstone, near the Lake Butte Overlook.  I’m sure some of you were there, or had been there over the past years she called this area home.  She and her newly kicked loose adult cub stayed within a half mile of each other – though their familial relationship was over, and grizzlies are notoriously unsocial animals – you just never know, events might bring them back together sometime in the future.  They are both beautiful bears, but capturing images that portray behavior is extremely difficult. I had shot these bears over the past 3 years, each encounter was an opportunity to record the life of a grizzly in some small way.

Wildlife photography fails when we only examine the photo aesthetics and fail to understand the complexities of the subject.  It’s a great image of a bear in a meadow versus a great image of a grizzly sow eating clover roots during a period of hyperphagia when it’s life depends on how much weight it can put on before winter.  One of the hardest things for wildlife photographers to do is to say to ourselves “what do I see.” The inexperienced see only that moment. They see how close you are, or how sharp the image is, but not how much behavior you captured in any particular image. Behavior and interaction are the only two characteristics that separate good images from great images. Other factors like action, color, contrast, background, etc can add to an image – but it’s behavior and interaction that push it to be a great image.

Wildlife photography fails us when it doesn’t portray respect for the subject.  While it’s pretty safe to say everyone respects grizzly bears, it’s another aspect of great photography to show that respect in images. Well, the closest images  (an end goal born into every wildlife photographer apparently, me included) portray the least respect for our subjects. I hate saying that, but it is true. Head shots are portraits of wildlife, just like headshots for business executives that go on the company website or a business card. While sometimes dramatic, they are one dimensional and shallow – while wedding, anniversary, family, b-day parties, social event images, etc show life, character, and interactions.

One of my many pet peeves are parents that take images of their kids while standing up, high above them, shooting down (putting the subject in an inferior position) – instead of getting on their stomachs or kneeling – and shooting at eye level.  You can change the perception (by the viewer) of the subject (dominant verses submissive) by simply shooting up or down.  You can change the perception of the subject (advancing verses retreating) by being in front or behind a subject.  You can change the perception of the subject (aggressive verses passive) through implied movement and eye contact.  So in the field you look for moments that will exemplify those traits – you move, and move again, trying to position yourself for that moment, to capture that image.

Here are some chronic wildlife photography fails I see everyday in my photography and on social media online:

– animals doing nothing but sitting, standing, or walking. We need to photograph animals doing animal stuff, i.e. living their lives in the wild, eating, fighting, raising young, interactions with other species, etc.  While it isn’t always possible, that’s the goal.

– shooting from a terrible position.  While not always fixable, a bad position is your problem to solve – move your feet, move your car, wait for a better moment!

– less than sharp images.  Use a tripod whenever possible. A camera that can shoot at higher iso settings with good quality (normally an FX sensored camera body) will get you that little bit extra shutter-speed. Delete the damned blurry ones and be done with it. Move on, try harder, do better. Never publish your bad images online just because that’s all you got from the encounter.  Chalk it up to experience and get rid of them.

– don’t think being “cute” will save the image.  By cute I mean adding a vignette to a wildlife image (as if we didn’t already know where the subject is), over-sharpening (I hate high radius sharpening that leaves halos), over-saturation, or some bizarre negative space crop that will only confuse the average viewer. Excessive darkening, blurring, and all obvious Photoshop fixes need to be avoided. If you can’t make it subtle, don’t do it.

– I don’t see the world in black-and-white, or in sepia tone. If you want to impress me with an image I want to see it in it’s natural color state. Our photography viewer minds are such that I will look at an image, and immediately compare it to every similar image I have ever shot of the same subject in my mind, instantly – and none of those are in black-and-white or sepia either. BW is more of a landscape process than a wildlife process.  Some images can naturally appear to be monochromatic due to shooting conditions.

– Don’t be afraid to critique (different from criticizing) images, or to accept a critique. No one gets better without a little push here or there. I have a system for acknowledging images on social media – here it is: Good Image – a simple like. Very Good Image – a brief reply and congratulations. Great Image – longer reply.  Excellent Image – some kind of joke or teasing text to indicate I’m amazed by the image.  Like …. “did you take that?”

Back to our grizzly sow. We initially parked on the Overlook Road.  The sow was below us working through the old burned timber, pulling up roots here and there but consistently moving away.  At a point when I thought it was useless to shoot anymore from that position I saw that a small crease between little hills would eventually lead her down to the road. Bears will usually follow the course of least resistance, just like people, so we drove down onto the main highway and parked at the mouth of that crease, across the street, and got set up.  After a bit other vehicles began arriving – so apparently the bear was moving in our direction.  She suddenly appeared up the little draw and continued to grub for roots, moving down the draw towards us.  Perfect.  We couldn’t have been in better position to capture images of her feeding, moving towards us, climbing through the fallen timber, looking towards us, etc.  The ranger appeared and opened a section of road for the bear to cross, but that didn’t effect us much because we were by my truck which was one corner of the opening for the bear.

Up and over she went through the logs – and then I saw two logs laying near each other, one higher than the other.  I thought “please go between them and not over them” and she did just that.  Thank you. It isn’t a perfect picture, it has some weed obstructions, but it’s a great behavioral image of a grizzly feeding through her environment.  As the encounters pile up our shooting experiences get better, our images gain a certain amount of gravitas that others will notice.  You will begin to notice your own style and those types of images will come easier and more often. Avoid photographer fails, avoid the common, push for better.  BRP

Posted in Photography Skills, Wildlife Woodcraft | Leave a comment

Always Colorful Colorado

I’ve done many photography safaris to Colorado and never been disappointed, never. On my most recent trip a few weeks ago at the end of September we hit patches of mountains that still had more green aspens than yellow, but it didn’t take an hour of driving to find color that was at its peak. I define peak color as 75% of the trees are changed, with 25% in the process of changing or still green. But while color is important to fall landscape photography, it isn’t everything. Images that only have color have to have other landscape elements to keep a viewer’s interest – otherwise we look, admire, and forget. I would like to think that my landscape images have more elements than just color as a subject – with composition, contrast, foreground elements, subject interest, etc.

My anchor image for this article is the following high-key shot of ferns  and aspens changing colors that was taken along the Hillside Drive Rd, also known as National Forest Service Road 436, in the San Juan Mountains north of Delores about 15 miles.

We had already shot numerous amazing views from Road 436.  We had shot muley bucks and grouse off this road as well. But as we followed the road around the mountain ridges, up and over small saddles that passed us from one colorful canyon to another, we entered this small acre sized grove of aspens that were carpeted with ferns.  It took only a second to realize how truly gorgeous this small area was.  The morning sun had risen above the mountain ridge high above and was just beginning to filter through the tops of the trees, not yet striking the ferns. We all just stared in awe – and then got to work shooting.

I consider this to be my favorite landscape image from the 5-day safari.  It doesn’t show the most color, or the greatest or thickest grove of aspens – but has a symmetry that draws my eye back to it again and again. It does have flaws, not the least of which is the perspective being unchanged after processing, but I liked the inward leaning lines of the outside aspens going towards the main aspens in the center. There were amazing sights everywhere, as here along the Delores River about 12 miles north of the town of Delores on Highway 145. The first rays of sunrise catch the golden color of the Cottonwoods that line the river, while in the background a mountainside of green aspens are still waiting for their moment to turn to gold. I’ve stopped at this very spot over the years and each time those background aspens look different – varying from green to gold.

But with all the color, Colorado still provides an amazing assortment of majestic mountain peaks, glacier carved cirques, clear lakes, and old mine buildings that add important counterpoints and contrasts. Since going there last year the Crystal Mill, near the community of Marble, has become another must-stop location.  You can rent a jeep, quads, or razors in Marble to take you – or sit in my F-150 as we bounce in 4×4 mode over the rocks and steps for the 4 mile ride out to it. But it is absolutely worth it.
One thing you can count on is change.  And this year you had to pay the guy $10 and sign a liability release to go onto his property (which surrounds the road opposite the Crystal Mill) and under a cable to get down to the river. You could shoot from the road for free.  Petty, but still worth it. The Crystal Mill is an iconic Colorado location, much like Maroon Bells that we had shot earlier in the morning. The two are only 90 minutes apart, not counting the 4 mile dirt road.

On the other hand, if you arrived early enough you could drive right up to a parking lot that borders Maroon Lake, and the trail you shoot Maroon Bells from. Since we arrived on Monday afternoon and had shot Maroon Bells that late afternoon – we had a good idea of the need to arrive early, and we did at 5:30am. With sunrise 90 minutes away (not considering the mountain peaks/ridges blocking the sun) we kept warm in the truck until the sheer numbers of arriving photographers (who had to park much farther away) prompted us to tripod-up and find our initial shooting positions. Like the Crystal Mill, Maroon Bells is an iconic spot – but with far better access to the masses of photographers patrolling Colorado this time of year. Looking back, I think the fact that it was a Tuesday morning – and not a Friday – Sunday, is what got us a great parking space. I couldn’t imagine going there on a weekend.
This image, with the sun hitting the Maroon Peaks and reflecting down into the little valley is my favorite.  It is an HDR image composite made up of 5 images – otherwise there would be a washed out sky and peaks.  The lake was down 5 feet, leaving a considerable shoreline that had been roped off – for what reason I couldn’t imagine. I don’t think walking on dirt and rocks, that would normally be underwater, would be considered environmental damage. Just more fun changes from my last visit. The image below was taken in the late afternoon under flat lighting conditions … quite a difference.
We spent a couple of days shooting around both Telluride and Ouray – both of which have great eating locations (as does Silverton, south of Ouray). One of my favorite roads is Last Dollar Road, above the airport outside of Telluride.  The road crosses from the south up and over a pass leading through the Mt. Sneffels Range and exits onto Highway 62 near Ridgway.  Old western buildings, fences, and dense stands of aspen make for great landscape elements.

We shot seas of aspens, brilliant colors, just overwhelming colors – but the best images had iconic locations, western buildings, and mountain peaks. The final image was taken by Chester Jagiello of my truck on Road 436… no words needed.

Posted in Photo Safaris, Stories from the Field | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Goodbye My Friend – Fred Topalian

Only a couple of you reading this knew Fred Topalian.  Fred opened a camera store in St. George, Utah two years before I moved down there from Provo, UT – in 1985.  When I would travel to SG to work occasionally, while attending BYU, I would often stop into Camera Country on Bluff Street and buy film and camera equipment from Fred. When I moved to SG in 1985 I spent a lot of time at Camera Country, talking with Fred about all types of photography and running my personal strategy for becoming a full-time photographer past him. We where both raised in California, him in SoCal and me in NoCal, and while our personal lives weren’t that similar – our love of photography was. He had worked as a photographer in Las Vegas for awhile before moving to SG.  He was 7 years older than me and had insights into the business of photography and life in general, that I always had appreciated.

Fred later moved Camera Country to St. George Boulevard, then years later built a custom commercial building farther east on SG Boulevard. The walls of his store were lined with old cameras he had collected, local photos, and in southern Utah his store became the go to location for all things photography.  New and used equipment, lighting stands and strobes, tripods, bags, backdrops, and 1 hour processing – not to mention a source of information and experience. As I advanced in photography I met a number of people at his store that had a big influence on me – none bigger than the editor of St. George Magazine, Lyman Hafen.  SGM began running my photos and articles (2 Covers) and even had a “wildlife page” dedicated to one of my images each issue.  I owe my initial success in southern Utah to Fred, his friends and clients became mine.

Over the years we became fast friends.  We went out shooting together exploring the nearby mountains and the Arizona Strip country, played golf, water-skied, drove quads around Pine Valley Mtn –  and just had a good time.  Fred was always an upbeat person, telling stories, and commiserating when things weren’t going right for either of us.  When he left town on vacation or to learn about some new Noritsu 1 hour machine he was buying, I watched his store. He promoted me as a nature photographer and did everything he could to help me succeed – from slide film and processing at cost, to deals on equipment, and tips on business tactics. Even as late as 2010 he tried to put together a photography show for me to do in southern Utah for his old clients.

As the years passed our lives went in different directions, as they so often do.  I moved north to Cache Valley, Utah and eventually opened a photography studio in Providence to go along with my freelance magazine work, while Fred married Kim in 1993 and settled into a happy, fulfilling life. They traveled together, worked together, and enjoyed their cabin at Pine Valley Mountain.

Digital photography eventually did in the 1-hour printing business, and online camera retailers made buying equipment cheaper elsewhere.  After many decades in southern Utah, Fred eventually was forced to close Camera Country.  But Fred continued on successfully, building homes and flipping houses in the hot SG housing market – and then he ran into health issues.  Pancreatic Cancer isn’t kind or slow and it eventually claimed his life, just two weeks ago in St. George – surrounded by Kim and the kids and grandkids.

When I saw Kim’s Facebook post about his death I was deeply saddened.  It had been a couple of years since I’d stopped into his home in Washington, next to St.George, to visit about our lives and catch up.  For a decade after I had moved north whenever I was passing through for a photo safari in southern Utah, or on my way to California, I would stop by the store and we would go to lunch.  He had stories about his kids, I had stories about mine. But as life got busier even those brief visits gradually stopped. A couple of years ago we visited on the phone – so I knew about his health issues. He did all he could to stay with Kim and the kids for as long as possible.

Kim and Fred

There was no cell phone technology back in the 80’s and 90’s – so quick grab images and selfies that are so common today were non-existent then.  I looked through tens of thousands of images and found 2 of me – that Fred had taken, and one image of him and Kim that he had sent me as a Christmas Card – that thankfully I had kept.  I wish I had an image of the two of us.  One that Fred had taken was of me standing along a sandstone cliff where we were rappelling over the side shooting a great horned owl cave nest – one of my favorite images, taken in 1986. Thanks for not letting go of the rope, Fred.

Brent Paull, by Fred Topalian 1986

Our friendship was stretched out over 35 years, and has traveled through the national and state parks and dusty back roads of southern Utah, but it ended for now with that Facebook post. I attended his wedding to Kim at Pine Valley Mountain in 1983 and shot a few wedding images of them, it was a typically beautiful blue-sky southern Utah day.  Unfortunately, I missed his memorial service while in Colorado on a recent photo safari.  I feel a bit guilty now of not having told him enough how grateful I was for his friendship.

Fred was a great friend to everyone, but was an especially loving husband to Kim and to their kids and grand kids. There is no doubt in my mind that is how Fred would have wanted to be remembered by everyone.
Goodbye my friend.  BRP

 

Posted in Stories from the Field, Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments