Bull Bison in Grand Teton

This may be my favorite thing to see in the winter...a big bull bison covered in frost. The winter coat of a bison is so well insulating that there isn’t enough heat escaping their body to melt the frost. I’ve been able to photograph this bull several times over the last couple years. His exceptionally red coat, and the red patch on his face, make him easily recognizable.

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Red Fox in Grand Teton

There are few things I find more visually striking than a red fox against the white snow. I found this fox as it was hunting for rodents under the snow. The fox will listen carefully for movement under the snow, turning its head back and forth to pin point the sound before leaping into the air and diving head first into the snow.

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Summer Elk Behavior

While the cow elk are busy raising their young, the bulls stick together in small bachelor herds. Thanks to the nutritious grazing opportunities summer provides, their antlers, covered in velvet, begin regrowing up to an inch per day.

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A cow elk walks the bank of the Madison River with her newborn calf.

A cow elk walks the bank of the Madison River with her newborn calf.

Two newborn elk calves prepare to cross the Madison river to join their mothers.

Two newborn elk calves prepare to cross the Madison river to join their mothers.

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:

 

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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.