The word “process” is defined as: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. In wildlife photography the particular end we are seeking is capturing amazing moments – with the word “amazing” defined as: causing great surprise or wonder; astonishing. So we are looking for a process to create astonishing images that evoke surprise and wonder in the viewer, with the main viewer being ourselves. When I shoot an image that surprises me I realize there has been a long process I have followed to achieve that moment. While I never want to discount luck for the success of any single image, success on a regular and ongoing basis can only be achieved by the process that is being followed. It is that process I want to talk about some today.
Within my own career I have considered the word “process” in wildlife photography to describe areas of expertise, that when combined, form the foundation I follow in my photography. There can be a few others, some slightly redundant and some more personal, but the four I keep coming back to, in no particular order, are (1) camera knowledge, (2) subject knowledge, (3) time commitment, and (4) critique. These four areas of expertise form my foundation for the process I use in capturing amazing images. Luckily, I don’t have to please anybody but myself with my own photography, but for my skill level to increase to the point where others value it, critique is a much valued step in the process.
No matter the level of equipment you start at, whether it be consumer grade, advanced amateur, semi-professional, or professional grade cameras and lenses – knowing what your equipment can and can’t do is vital to the process of wildlife photography. I teach many classes on digital photography, mostly to beginner through intermediate level folks, and I always start with asking everyone to get out their camera manuals. Why? Because I don’t know all the nuances of any camera that I don’t actively shoot. I shoot Nikon, and like Canon shooters, I’m use to the controls and menus being a certain way. So I can take a Nikon D3100 consumer grade camera body and locate many of the features we talk about in class, but I’m going to struggle some. Pull out a Canon 6D and I’m going to struggle a bit more because I’m not an expert with the setup and menus of these cameras. You have to learn about your camera, and there is no better way than reading the manual a couple of times, cover-to-cover, with your camera in-hand. In addition to reading the paper manual, I would encourage you to download the pdf file of your camera manual (sometimes its a smart phone app) onto your phone or i-pad for quick reference.
Some things you have to know at a second’s notice:
a. how to change exposure compensation (eV) without looking away from the viewfinder
b. how to change the ISO setting without looking away from the viewfinder
c. how to change the f-stop without looking away from the viewfinder
d. how to change from auto-focus to manual focus without looking away
(fill in your own blanks for the others you have discovered)
You have to build up a certain level of muscle memory so your fingers and eyes know right where to go to facilitate quick and accurate changes to the running of your camera. Shooting situations can change rapidly in the field, and you have to change settings just as rapidly in order for the equipment to not slow you down. Muscle memory can only be achieved by hours, maybe hundreds of hours, of actively shooting the camera. Becoming competent with your camera equipment is no different than a typist, cook, a carpenter, a seamstress, a car driver (at any level), an engineer, or a computer programmer becoming competent with their equipment.
When I lead photo safaris I try and talk folks through preparing their cameras to be immediately available to shoot. I talk about the lighting we might be in, a suggested ISO to start out at, an appropriate f-stop, motordrive setting, possibly an exposure compensation setting – or at least upcoming situations where changing the eV might be needed. Yet, no matter how detailed I am in preparing others I will invariably shoot quicker and more accurately than they do … at least at first.
Subject knowledge is a product of many variables, but probably the greatest source is your own past experiences with that subject. In recent years I have become known for the bobcats I photograph, so I’m going to use them as an example. While I grew up in California, lived in Montana, Colorado, and then 28 years in Utah, I never saw a bobcat before moving back to California in 2008. It was a cold afternoon, following a morning of rain, just after Easter when my wife and I, and my son Evan and his wife, went for a drive up into Sequoia National Park. On the switchbacks above the Three Rivers entrance, heading towards the Giant Grove, I spotted a bobcat sitting in the sun warming itself. I didn’t have my 500mm lens handy, so the images I captured were with a 80-200 f2.8 lens, handheld.
From that very first encounter I started learning about bobcats. Bobcats can be found active mid-day, contrary to written information I had read about bobcats being nocturnal, and thus impossible to photograph. This particular bobcat was clearly sunning itself and warming up, which taught me that bobcats are temperature sensitive, at least in California’s moderate climate. This female bobcat did not run away as I began taking photos, and when she walked back into the forest I followed. To my amazement she jumped to the top of a moss covered boulder and began cleaning herself, in plain view of me, maybe 35 feet away. Her actions showed me that not all bobcats will run away, and that some bobcats are relatively habituated to people and vehicles and choose to ignore them rather than see them as a danger. The grass was still wet as I followed her into the thicker forest, but she immediately stopped and began to clean her feet – and this taught me some behavioral aspects of bobcats. I learned a lot.
A few months later I did my first photography seminar in Tulare and one of the guys there, named Allen, mentioned photographing bobcats. A short time later he and I went looking for bobcats in Yokohl Valley, about 25 miles due east of Tulare in the Sierra Nevada foothills. On our first trip we spotted a bobcat at about 4pm, belly down near a squirrel hole, patiently hunting on the squirrel to stick his head out of the hole. When we exited the vehicle to shoot, the cat slithered away into a small creek drainage and vanished. I learned what bobcats looked like when belly down hunting, the mid-day encounter reinforced to me that bobcats (on cooler days) will hunt during the day, getting out of the vehicle ended the encounter – which meant that while some bobcats can be habituated to cars and people, it depends on where (national parks versus ranch lands), and that bobcats use ravines and creeks to travel to and from favored hunting grounds, thus staying under cover for the most part. I learned a lot more.
Experience after experience taught me where to look (favored habitats), when to look (times of day differ by season and weather), what to look for (squirrel populations and other prey density), how to spot them (by movement, by color, by contrast), when to shoot from my vehicle and when to tripod-up to photograph them (determined by body language and proximity), and what to anticipate next (stalking behavior that could lead to a kill, cleaning behavior, mating season behavior, etc). Bobcat safaris in 2012 lead to 80 encounters, 94 encounters in 2013, 152 encounters in 2014, and then I stopped counting.
I googled bobcat information and research in California, checked out state government websites for information, and looked at other photographer photos that appeared, and read their encounters. To say I acted like a sponge for bobcat info would be an understatement. I talked to ranchers in the areas where I see bobcats whenever the opportunity presented itself, passed out business cards, e-mailed bobcat photos to ranchers who provided me with an e-mail, and generally sought information everywhere.
As the experiences piled up I learned a lot of valuable information about bobcats, information that has served my photography well. While your hands and eyes gain muscle memory in manipulating your camera, so your eyes gain sight recognition in spotting bobcats, even with only the slightest clues. For me, the number of bobcat sightings tripled from those early days. Uncanny is defined as:ability I have an extraordinary ability to spot bobcats in the field. Sometimes its a slight movement (going belly down, ears changing direction), sometimes its mismatched colors (a gray/brown bobcat in a green field), or even mismatched contrast (sharp defined grass and a smooth, furry bobcat) – and sometimes its nothing at all, just a sense that I saw something different that causes me to stop my vehicle and back-up to take a look. A friend of mine, Gary, says I’m a savant when it comes to finding bobcats. Savant is defined as: a condition in which a person with a mental disability (me), demonstrates profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal. That’s great, and I’m sure my personal record of 16 separate bobcat encounters in one day is reflected in that description.
On March 10, 2016 I was leading a northern pygmy owl safari in the foothills near Sequoia National Park (3 pygmy owls that day). I was just telling the group about other wildlife we could encounter at anytime, including bobcats, when I drove by a bobcat so obvious that I could not believe I missed it. It was laying on a rock, sun-bathing, on a cool morning not 30 feet off the road in plain sight above the level of the grass. I backed my truck up and the others got great shots. I’ve concluded that I missed that bobcat because my eyes have been trained to spot the impossibly camouflaged bobcat, not the amazingly obvious ones. It seems there are drawbacks to everything.
This is where the rubber meets the road, literally. I drove 51,000 miles in 2015 on photography safaris around the American West. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California…..whew! In January of 2015 I did 5 days of bobcat safaris, in January of 2016 I did 11 days, just for bobcats. I have committed a tremendous amount of my time to photographing bobcats. That commitment has resulted in not just the ordinary (by my standards) bobcat encounters, but the amazing encounters that continue to form the process by which I do my bobcat photography, and lead my bobcat safaris.
Another friend of mine, Bob, likes to tell the story of a friend of his who came to his house and was amazed at all his wildlife photos, framed, hanging on the walls under spot lights. I love photography, stated his friend, and I could take photos like these. Bob asked him when was the last time he went out to shoot. I went out for a day about four months ago, he replied. Without saying it, Bob knew this guy would never take even a single image to rival those on his wall … because the friend wasn’t committed to wildlife photography and the time it required. He wanted it to come conveniently, and easily.
The time commitment wildlife photography requires is a powerful source for those subject experiences that form the basis of your level of wildlife knowledge. With that time commitment, and the hours in the field it generates, both camera knowledge and subject knowledge rise rapidly – and your ability to produce amazing images increases. These three concepts of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, and time commitment are inter-related and bound together, clearly synergies of each other. A synergy is defined as: the interaction or cooperation of two or more … agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Hmmmm.
There comes a point in your photography labors when the kind words of a unknown stranger about your image, means nearly as much as the efforts you made to capture that image. There are many different ways to get critique’s of your images, some are accurate and some are not. Friends and family are not accurate, as they are bent and twisted by personal likes and dislikes for you and photography in general. For the same reason your general Facebook post replies are not accurate, hey, they are mostly friends and friends of friends. Many a poorly executed, poorly processed, badly composed, and slightly out-of-focus image is met with a chorus of “great image”, “wow”, “what talent”, “you have a great eye”, “beautiful”, “superb”, etc. etc. etc.
Critique is defined as: evaluate in a detailed and analytical way. This can only be done by your photographic peers or betters. My philosophy on critiquing an image is to find something good, find something bad, clearly state the obvious, then leave it and move on. When I began my career in photography doing freelance magazine submissions the harsh reality that great quality matters was driven through me like a stake through Dracula’s heart. With each slide submission rejection I got better. After a dozen or so submissions the magazines started retaining images, after a dozen more I started getting an occasional published credit, two dozen submissions after that I started getting regular photo credits.
There are many avenues photographers have for getting good, valid, helpful critiques of their best images. Critiquing less than the best images is a waste of time, your time and the judges. I want my best images to get better, not my average images. I delete average images regularly, they do nothing but clog up my stock library if I were to leave them in.
There are groups that are dedicated to making you a better photographer through evaluation of your images. Camera clubs come to mind first. This is a great way to not only get out to shoot more, but to have your techniques critiqued. When four or five images get critiqued a certain way, you (I) become very alert to not repeating that particular mistake. We learn from it, and our depth of photography understanding grows. Everyone needs their images to be critiqued, only the most vain and ego driven photographers think their work is above critique. A critique is not necessarily criticism and shouldn’t be taken that way. Criticism is usually unfair and biased, a critique is an evaluation of techniques. You can shoot with a tripod or not, but slightly blurry images or those not capable of being printed large, or published – should push you towards using tripods and improving the quality of your images. That’s a critique. You may feel differently and decide your hand-holding techniques could be improved and that would mitigate some of the quality issues, but regardless, the critique caused you to change and improve some photography technique.
There are also many large organizations like PPA, PSA, NANPA, and others that can provide you with a source for critiquing images. There are online groups that will also critique (not criticize) your submitted images. When my images are critiqued I tend to feel a tingle of disdain go down my back – that’s natural for all of us. But I try and see the point being made, and get a feel for whether the solution offered is truly viable. Sometimes I explain the reason I did something, or did not do something (especially in processing), and let it go so maybe the other viewers who might agree with the critique will see why I did it. I’ve learned many valuable Photoshop techniques by following through with tips I received from critiques.
The photographers out there who produce great images on a regular basis do so through a continually refining process of camera knowledge, subject knowledge, time commitment, and critique. Many photographers specialize in particular areas of photography, and there are many! But great wildlife photography is extremely difficult and requires all of its practitioners to hone a set of skills particular to this genre. The process I describe here covers my perceptions on what leads to better wildlife images. There are many other nuances not mentioned and many other skills not detailed – but this process will get you started in the right direction.