Subjects and Interest in Wildlife Photography

Gray Wolf Jasper National Park

A wolf is one of those reclusive and rare animals that is not often seen around here. So when I got a chance to spend a few minutes with this wolf in Jasper, I was very excited. It was watchful and curious, but most of all it was very purposeful – it had somewhere to be.

I’ve debated posting this picture for a while. I think I’m a fairly tough critic of my own photos, and I don’t think this is an amazing photo. I think it’s okay. And I don’t like posting okay photos. I’d like to be known as a really good photographer, not an okay photographer. But the kid in me says “IT’S A WOLF!!! I SAW A WOLF!!!!” And that’s hard to discount.

While an interesting subject helps a photo, I don’t think it can make a photo on its own. I still think it has to have some appealing aesthetic value beyond an interesting subject to be a good photo. This creates a bit of a conundrum for the wildlife photographer in me. While I have taken thousands of wildlife photos, I generally have very little control over the backgrounds, the lighting, and the locations of the animals. And I don’t want that control. I want the animals to go about their lives undisturbed by me. I don’t want to force them into new places and to do things that are uncomfortable for them. That kind of behaviour can threaten their lives and make them less likely to reproduce.

Every once in a while, circumstances will align just right (and knowledge of animal behaviour can make this more likely), and I’ll be able to get a good wildlife photo. The more I’m out in the woods, the more this will happen. But for me there is beauty all around – both flora and fauna, and I’m content being a photographer of opportunity. I get to share incredible landscapes with these amazing animals, and I’m thankful for the odd encounter, whether or not I get an good photo.

Invitation — VAAA Gallery Show

Just a reminder — I have two prints in the VAAA Open Photo Competition. It is this Thursday, August 25, 6-8pm at the Kasaa Gallery in the basement of the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium ( 11455 – 87 Avenue ). I would love it if you stop by. There will be drinks, snacks, and a very wide variety of photographic styles to enjoy. All the artists will be there, and the results of the competition will be announced.

The show will continue until October 2nd, if you can’t make it for the opening.

Come take a look!

Wildlife and Wedding Photography

When you see an elk, what do you do? You stop and take a photo of course. And if the elk stays there, you get closer. After all, wasn’t it Robert Capa who said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”?

But for some reason your brain starts to throw up little red flags. Wait a minute, you also want context — the animal acting in its habitat. And maybe you don’t want a photo of an elk eyeball, maybe you want the whole elk. And anyway, isn’t it bad for animals to get accustomed to people? And dangerous for the people?

And then, for some strange reason, you start to think of photographing weddings, of posing and of lighting. Direct evening light is pretty good — it’s warm and lends definition to shapes, but what if you backlight this? That would wash it out and give it a dream-like quality. But animals are not as cooperative as people who hire you to take their photos. You have to do the moving, and there’s no adding light. You know that flash would bother this elk and disrupt his feeding, possibly making him aggressive.

So you do the moving, far enough away that the animal is not disturbed. You wait for the animal to move into a position that works, you get the sun at just the right angle, and you get a photo. You don’t know if it’s a good photo or a great photo, but you’re pretty sure it’s not a bad photo. And that is satisfying.

A Bear’s Life

If you’ve ever seen bears going about their lives, you have to respect them. The ease with which they turn over massive stones to search for grubs, the speed at which they can get across a mountain valley, the length of their claws — it all inspires respect. But they are not the fearsome predators they’re often made out to be. In fact, they pretty much ignore people when possible. They’re very focused on eating, much of which turns out to be grass and leaves.

I got the privilege of watching a few bear families on this trip, and though I’m not normally a wildlife photographer, I have to admit there’s a certain thrill to observing and photographing animals. Here’s a black bear mother and cub.


Beaver Pond

I find wildlife photography difficult — not necessarily the photographing of an animal, but the photographing of an animal artistically. I’ve been watching these beavers (Castor canadensis) doing all sorts of interesting things over the last couple of weeks. I’ve watched them chew through trees, drag them down to the water, talk to each other, slap their tails on the water, and all sorts of beaver behaviour. But photos of these fascinating activities often end up as a standard photo of a beaver. Even in beautiful evening light, a lot of shots seem to be average or only mildly interesting shots.

I’ve been trying to challenge myself to take an artistic wildlife photo. To mix my landscape aesthetic with animal subjects. This is what I’ve come up with so far. This beaver created some beautiful sunset reflections in his pond for me.

Friendly Wildlife

Some animals don’t require much of a telephoto lens. The chickadees at Elk Island (and almost everywhere else too) are a lot of fun to photograph, and are quite brave. They will come very close, even sit on you (briefly) if you stay perfectly still or if they think you have food. They’re also very acrobatic in the air, so it’s fun to try to catch them in flight.

This was taken with my slow-focusing and not very telephoto 150mm macro.

Moose Encounters

While hiking in Elk Island this week, I happened across this suspicious fellow. There were actually a pair of them, and of course the trail went right in between them. Between two moose didn’t seem like the safest place to be, so I stopped before I got too close. The one on the right ran off out of view, but I could still see the one on the left. It stopped, sniffed, eyed me, and the stalemate began. I stayed completely still, waiting for the moose to make its move. On the right, I saw some ears appear over the alders, and then disappear just as silently. I had no idea moose could be so sneaky in thick brush.

After about five minutes, the moose on the left started to move—tentatively at first, and then more confidently, chewing on a few available twigs. As it stepped out on the trail it looked me over and then moved off to do moose-type things. I was very happy with this development. Although moose are not generally agressive, the moose was very close, and I was very alone. And though I like to think that if I don’t bother animals, they won’t bother me, this only holds true until the first time it doesn’t. And that’s a little scary.

Disappearing Bison

(For full effect, please read in the voice of David Attenborough)

In the plains and woodlands of central Alberta, a most curious animal dwells. This animal swims through frozen water, easily powering its impressive bulk forward. At over 1 metric ton, it is ironically scared of most other animals, preferring either to be alone or to be in groups of its own kind. Behold the bisonshark. While almost impossible to detect when submerged, the bisonshark rises from the snow to move more quickly.

Taken yesterday in Elk Island National Park. The bison were only sometimes completely submerged, usually showing most of their top half. But yes, we do have a LOT of snow.

Palm Warbler in the Forest

I took my first Wildlife Biodiversity and Ecology class last night and it was fascinating. It was a three hour class on Ornithology (birds) and it seemed way too short. It’s always awesome to see a whole new world open up before you, that you vaguely knew was there, but had no idea what it involved. I hope I have the time and motivation to follow up on this brief introduction (although I suspect I’m going to hope the same thing for every other class). John Acorn is a very interesting prof, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of this class.

I thought I’d post a bird photo in honor of the class, but ironically I wasn’t able to identify it. I obviously need more classes and/or experience. So I suspect this is some sort of warbler (maybe a Palm Warbler? edit – yup, it’s a Palm Warbler — Dendroica palmarum). I found it in a poplar forest in northern Saskatchewan.