Angry Squirrels

Throughout the year my time is mostly consumed with various photography projects and specific image goals. In these instances I know what subject I am photographing, and even the exact shot I am going for, such as the elk crossing the stream in the fog, or a Great Grey Owl flying in the snow. These images require excessive time scouting in the field to get one shot. I call this style “proactive” photography. In this proactive mindset I envision a scene I want beforehand and then go after it. I may not have control over all the elements, but I use research and knowledge to reduce as many variables as possible, and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image. However, this thoughtful approach to photography requires a lot of time, and some days I find myself playing catch up in the office and may only have a couple hours at the end of the day to get out in the field. Plus, there are times I just like to get outside with my camera and see what I can find. There is something about going out to photograph the unknown with an open and creative mindset that is relaxing. 

On these days, while I may not have a specific subject in mind to photograph, I do have a plan; I listen to the squirrels. 

Red Squirrels spend the summer and fall months harvesting pine cones and storing them in a cache known as a “Midden”. The Squirrels, being highly territorial and intolerant of any other creature in the vicinity of their middens, and also very small, resort to the best defense they know, an incessantly loud and obnoxious chatter.  I realized the relevance of this knowledge for photography last year when I was looking for Great Grey Owls. I had just about thrown in the towel when I heard a squirrel alarm call which led me directly to the owl. Then it dawned on me…squirrels will bark at anything. If I simply wandered the woods following the sound of squirrel chatter I would likely have a higher success rate in locating owls, but I wonder what else I would find? 

The next day I entered the woods armed with my new tactic. Eyes closed, I stood in silence and listened. No more than a minute had passed and I heard it. The angry squirrel. I followed the sound to the scene where I discovered two squirrels fighting. Entertaining to watch, but not what I was hoping for. A few moments later the sound of another defensive squirrel came ringing through the woods from the east. I arrived at the scene and found the squirrel barking up a storm from its lofty perch in a lodgepole pine, but was clueless as to what set it off. As I spun in another circle scanning the area, the culprit emerged from behind a log. A pine marten! The initially timid weasel was now overcome with curiosity and began to approach me. I stood still until it was comfortable with my presence and resumed the evening hunt.

After an hour of tripping over logs trying to keep up with the marten, I decided to put the last hour of light towards finding another angry squirrel. I slowly walked along a stream bank about 300 yards, and heard another alarm call to the south. The call led me to the edge of a small meadow where I found a Great Grey Owl intently focused on a light rustle in the grass.

Here are a few other recent highlights from my outings in the woods following squirrel chatter:



Photograph the Improbable

Now it is time to incorporate some of the insights we discussed in the previous posts into our own photography.

As an example, here is how I did it: 

Many of the paintings I was drawn to featured various wildlife in a dramatic setting that told the story of where they live and evoked a mood. I decided to try a new approach in my photography. In this proactive, rather than reactive, mindset I would envision a scene I wanted beforehand and then go after it. I may not have control over all the elements as a painter, but I could use research and knowledge to reduce as many variables as possible and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image.

It was September and the peak of the elk rut, so I chose to focus on bull elk with their harems. Creating an image of elk on an dramatic landscape would require some knowledge of animal behavior and environmental factors. Fog always helps to add mood to an image, so water was an important element of the scene. With the basic knowledge that the elk use fairly consistent places to cross the river every morning in order to enter the tree line for cover during the day, and that cold autumn mornings often result in fog covering the river bottom, I was able to significantly increase my chances of getting the shot I envisioned.

Next, I scouted out the scene for several mornings in a row, and even got a few nice images of elk crossing. I still didn’t have the image I envisioned, but the insight I gained from being out in field was invaluable and increased the probability of my vision becoming a reality even more.

A few days later I set out, in the dark and through the woods, to my new location on the river. The plan was to photograph a bull with his harem crossing towards me. Of course, there were still several variables that would need to come together. For example, there would need to be enough light when they crossed, the elk would need to cross at the same time rather than sporadically, and I would need to remain undetected and hidden in the brush on the other side lest the elk become nervous and cross elsewhere. This morning it all came together.

I still wanted one more. All my time photographing these elk in the river was under the mighty shadow of Mount Moran, but none of my images up to this point conveyed that. I wanted a scene that provided the viewer with a perspective of the dramatic landscape in which these creatures live. 

This would be a much different and more difficult shot than the previous elk crossings. For starters, I would need to shoot with a wider focal length in order to include the mountain in the scene. I also would need the extremely wary and intelligent elk to cross very close to me so that they would stand out against the rest of the scene. On the tenth morning of sitting in a hunting blind I could hear the sound of hooves behind me. In the moments that followed over one hundred elk crossed in front me.

My aim in sharing this is to inspire you to be intentional with your photography. I want to see more photographers thinking creatively about their work. I would encourage you that it is better get a couple shots that truly stand out over the span of a month, than a thousand that resemble everyone else’s work. 

You have your own unique perspective and passions. Let that come to bear on your photography.

Cultivate Your Vision

You may be asking: “Why would I look at paintings to improve my photography? Wouldn’t I be better off drawing inspiration from other photography?”  

Yes, drawing inspiration from photography is important, but not at first. Photography is too easy to copy without much thought. The value in drawing inspiration from a different medium is that it is not immediately replicable. Much thought is required to incorporate elements from a meaningful painting into your own photography. The process forces you to be creative. 

Remember, we want to be creative, not merely emulative. I could spend all my time giving you technical advice, camera settings and photoshop tips (all of which we will get to), but it would be in vain without first cultivating your own creative vision and artistic eye.

I mentioned earlier that my time in the Wildlife Art Museum challenged me on a fundamental level. Few, if any of my photographs evoked emotion, told a story, or conveyed a mood like these great paintings. Sure, there are obvious differences between photography and paintings. One of which is that the painter has total control of the elements and creates art from a blank canvas, while the photographer is often reacting to the elements unfolding before them. Truly, what the painters envision they create. As photographers we don’t always have this ability, at least not fully.

But rather than allowing that to become an excuse, I let it be a challenge.

What if I envisioned the scene I wanted beforehand and then went after it?

What if I poured my time into making a couple images of wildlife on a dramatic landscape that told the story of where they lived and evoked a mood?

What if my approach to photography was proactive, not merely reactive?

What if, accepting I may not have control over all the elements as a painter, I use research and knowledge of my subject and setting to reduce as many variables as possible and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image?

These were just a few of the take-aways from my time in the museum, and in the weeks that followed these thoughts produced some of my best work.

Feeling Stagnant in your Photography?

Now is an exciting time to be photographer because it is so accessible, but it’s also harder than ever to stand out. Why? 

I see 2 reasons:

  1. The obvious…there are more photographers now than ever before. Whether your photography is professional or recreational this can be daunting…how can your work stand out amongst so many others? 
  2. Most photography is emulative, not Creative. Look around, the vast majority of photography you see looks the same. We see a beautiful image and want to copy it. How many photos have you seen of the same waterfall in Iceland? Getting inspiration from other’s work is good, but we need to bring our own vision to bear in our work. We will touch more on this in the near future. 

If you are reading this, then chances are that photography is your creative outlet. I want to help you develop your own style as a photographer, whether professional or hobbyist, by sharing what I’ve learned in my career. But be forewarned, this process may require you to forget everything you ever thought you knew about photography. 

Are you ready? Lets begin…

A pivotal moment in my photography came years ago when a mentor of mine and fellow photographer suggested we walk through the world-renowned National Museum of Wildlife Art here in Jackson Hole. I had visited the museum before and enjoyed it, but this time he suggested we approach it differently. I was getting bored with my photography. For years I had drawn inspiration from other more experienced photographers and my aim, whether I realized it or not, was to develop my own collection of images that could stand up next to theirs and be virtually indistinguishable. With time I developed the portfolio I dreamed of…and I was bored with it. I slowly began to realize that by copying others photography I had stifled my own creativity. 

Here is what I want you to do: 

1) Take some time to look at famous paintings. Click here to view a compilation of paintings online. Of course, if you have access to a museum or gallery, then do that. 

Forget everything you thought you knew about photography and allow your assumptions to be challenged asking these questions: 

How does the painting guide the viewers eye thorough the scene to the subject?
How does the artist utilize light and shadows? Composition? Space? Detail?
What is the perspective? Is the viewer looking down on, or up at the subject?

2) Tell me about your experience. What stuck out to you regarding the questions above? How were you challenged? You can tell me over email.  

How to photograph the sun without permanent eye damage

- Snake River Fog -

Yellowstone Photography

One of the first rules people learn in photography, to which they have unwavering fidelity, is always to photograph with the sun at your back. While this a helpful concept in the beginning, the rule, like most "rules" in photography must be broken in order to advance your work beyond the standard family vacation portrait. What sets an experienced photographer apart is not that he/she simply breaks the rules of light, the rule of thirds, etc, but that they have discernment to recognize the situation in which breaking the norms will transform a photograph into a piece of art. Experimenting with frontal light, side light, and back light is an essential step in taking your photography to the next level.

In the case of the image here, I was not simply photographing towards the sun (backlight), but also the sun itself. Properly utilized, this approach can create a dynamic and captivating image. Poorly used, this technique will not only ruin your image, but also your eyesight and thereby future in photography.  Here are a few things to consider when including the sun in your photography:

  • It can't be the whole sun. I find this really only works in scenarios where the sun is at a low angle (sunrise or sunset) and is partially obscured. My favorite circumstances for this are fog and clouds. In the image above the rising sun was breaking through a fog layer on the bank of the Snake River. 
  • Underexpose the Image. If you've spent much time dabbling in landscape photography you will have inevitably heard the phrase "always preserve the highlights." This is true...for the most part. Essentially, this means that you always want to expose your image for the brightest part of the scene so that you don't blow out the highlights. However, when you are including the sun itself in the image there will be an inevitable hotspot the blows out the right side of your histogram (as seen below). In this instance I am not concerned with containing all the highlights, but rather I am focused on how large I want that bright spot to be. In this scene I wanted the hotspot to take up roughly a third of the sky. This required me to underexpose the image 2.5 stops. 

Phantom of the Wild

“Well…what…are we just going to walk until we step on a wolf?” My friend had a point, this seemed like a real long shot, and there wasn’t a concrete plan. Calculating various factors like time of day, observed patterns, and topography may help increase the probability of wildlife encounters, but in the end a wolf just walks wherever it pleases. I just laughed in response because we both knew this. However, at the same time, we were both compelled to make the grueling bushwhack in the rain. While we fully understood our improbable odds, we also knew that our most memorable and unbelievable moments in the wild only occur when we are actually in the wild. 

See Yellowstone Wolves

Only ten minutes had passed and I could no longer resist the urge to stop and set up my camera. The large lens I use travels better in a pack than on my shoulder, but then I am guaranteed to miss the first minute of any photographic opportunity due to the set up time. As I opened the legs of my tripod I heard “There’s a wolf! On the ridge…a white wolf!” What ensued was 45 minutes of the most remarkable individual wolf encounter I’ve ever experienced.

The pursuit of a vision against all odds is at the heart of wildlife photography for me, and no doubt the principle here applies to all facets of our lives. Often the primary obstacle in capturing the most “improbable” moments is not the odds, but myself. It may take time and persistence, but the odds can almost always be overcome. The moment I tell myself “there's no way” it is over before it begins. I encourage you to take some time this week to reflect and identify the “wolf” in your life. What is one thing you are passionate about doing or attaining that seems impossible. If upon mentioning it to most people you receive wide eyes and gaping mouths, then you are likely on the right track. Think big and get out there!

You can only see a wolf if you’re in the wild.