I was exercising Butters yesterday—he has me trained to do up to four sessions of "fling the ball" every day—when I looked up and, in the crease between two banks of trees, I saw four huge raptors wheeling lazily in the sky. I stood there stupefied, staring, as Butters patiently waited.
Despite being very visual in my thinking, I'm bad at taxonomy. I learned in Boy Scouts that I had no aptitude for identifying trees, and despite a love of typography and a fairly sizeable little collection of wonderful books on printing, I have little ability to identify fonts. It's an odd sort of blindness. I'd never make a good birdwatcher.
But I think the birds might have been eagles. Later, I caught a brief, several-seconds-long glimpse of one of them from much closer, near treetop level. I didn't get a good look. But it was very large.
It might surprise you to learn that many of the "wild" animals you see in "wildlife" photographs actually have pet names. Here, for instance, is a great article about a cougar named Jewel who has a trainer named Logan.
Audubon has sent me to lots of wild places over the past 31 years, but I’d seen only one wolf and three cougars (a litter) until December 8, 2009. On that day, before noon in the Glacier National Park ecosystem of northwestern Montana, I encountered not just one wolf but two and not just one cougar but two! What were the chances of that?
Well, they were 100 percent, because I’d rented the animals for a photo shoot. As a photographer I’ve done my best work with Kodak disposable cameras, so advertising photographer Andrew Geiger would do the shooting under my direction. By his own admission Geiger lacks the patience to be a wildlife photographer, but that was okay because our subjects weren’t wildlife. “Captive wildlife” is an oxymoron.
—Ted Williams, from his article "Phony Wildlife
Photography Gives a Warped View of Nature"
No doubt thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have seen breathtaking closeups of Jewel's beautiful face under the blissful but mistaken impression that the photograph was taken in the wild and that Jewel is a wild cougar.
Photography of oxymoronic captive wildlife is probably hard enough, and photographing real wildlife must be even harder. I never have my camera out with me in the back yard when I'm out there making Butters happy, because "nothing ever happens there." Even if I did have my camera with me, the longest lens I own is a 23mm*. The four birds were all visible for, I don't know, maybe 20 seconds. And if I had a camera around my neck, and if it had the right lens on it, would I have had the skill to set the camera, focus the lens, and photograph those birds in time? If I'm honest, I'm not entirely sure I have the chops at this point. I probably would if wildlife were my passion. But even those guys must do a lot of waiting, and occasionally get taken by surprise.
In other words, I have lots of respect for wildlife photographers.
I imagine it's very difficult to find real wild animals and make interesting photographs of them. Outside my window as I work are several strands of power and telephone lines at about the height of the second floor. Occasionally, I see a squirrel hop along the lowermost wire, using it, no doubt, as a bridge or a thoroughfare to get from the trees on one side of the house to the trees on the other. I sometimes ponder how hard it would be to get a good shot of him. It's not like I can stand there and wait—I don't see him every day or even every week. I estimate that I'd have maybe eight or nine seconds from the time he first comes into view until he moves past where I sit—at which point I'd be taking pictures of his tail end as he moved away from me. I'm no wildlife photographer, but a squirrel picture from the wrong end sounds even less promising than...well, a squirrel picture.
Probably what I'd have to do is to keep a camera with the right lens on it, charged and ready and at the other end of the porch from where I sit. As soon as I see the squirrel, I'd move quickly to the other end of the porch, which would give me a few extra seconds with him coming in the right direction. I'd have to be sure to keep the windowpane clean. Then I'd have to get lucky and see him soon enough...often I'm concentrating too hard on the computer screen. I'd hope to get lucky in terms of the light and the weather in the sky that would be the background. Might take a few tries.
...And then, even if I were successful—and here's my basic problem with wildlife photography, at least when I do it myself—I'd have a picture that dozens of people have already done better. But at least I'd know the subject was actually wild and doesn't have a pet name.
Lest anyone miss my point, what I'm saying here is, if it takes planning and forethought to photograph a squirrel out the office window, and if professionals have to hire half-tame captive non-domesticated animals as models, imagine how hard it is doing actual authentic wildlife photography in the wild. (I'll never know.)
I sure wish I had a photograph of those four eagles though—if that's what they were. What an amazing sight, and a privilege just to see.
*I know, that's ridiculous. I really should do something about that.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Tony McLean: "I've photographed wildlife seriously for the past eight years. It started as a whim but gradually took over my life. I have foresaken the exotic and now spend most of my time at a local reserve a few miles from my home in East Yorkshire. Concentrating on local wildlife has been a wonderful experience. I've seen more sunrises and sunsets than most people experience in a life-time.
"I have my own ethics: I don't bait or chase and stay away from those who engage in lists. My advice, for what it's worth, is to forget about cameras and super-tele lenses. Buy a cheap pair of binoculars from a second-hand shop and enjoy the experience. Dawn and dusk are the best times of the day. Just sit, listen, observe and relax.
"Photographing wildlife has also helped with my second passion—street photography. Animal behaviour is not so very different from human behaviour."
Dave Stewart: "Your wildlife photography has featured here before, 'Ahab—er, Mike.'"
Mike replies: Ah, I'd forgotten all about that! Thanks for the reminder.
Steve Rosenblum: "In the early to mid-'90's I went through my Nature/Landscape photography phase and schlepped 40 pounds of Canon L glass and tripod around places like Yellowstone in a backpack. I did capture a couple of decent wildlife photos (landscapes were definitely easier) but eventually concluded that I didn't have the knowledge, patience, or physical endurance to really move the needle in that area. My hat is off to those who do. These days, because I still hike and fish in remote, beautiful places, I still encounter magnificent animals and birds along the way. However, instead of focusing my attention on how to get the perfect shot, I focus my attention on being in that moment and really seeing those miraculous creatures with my own eyes (which can capture a remarkable range of colors and contrast) and my brain (which has an amazingly large storage capacity). No special equipment needed for me to 'review' the images either!"
Harold: "I shoot wildlife. That is, I shoot red deer in a forest with a two-meter-high fence around it. It's a project, set up in 2005 to re-introduce red deer into the wild in the south of the Netherlands. Politics and such got in the way, and the deer are still behind the fences. Numbers have to be regulated by a hunter. So, they are kept animals like cows or horses. Therefore I can't enter my pictures on many websites about wildlife, or enter wildlife photo contests with rules about captive animals. Pity of course, but such is life."