Awesome Light!

Last week I had about an hour left of daylight and decided to take advantage of it. I was not sure if I would even see any wildlife since I was heading back out so late into the evening, but I thought I had nothing to lose so I went for it. And did it ever pay off!

Light is required in photography or else we will not be able to create an image. “Photo” is light, so “photography” is the study of light. We all know how to properly expose for an image. This is one of the basic standards in our toolkit as photographers. However, there are certain types of light that can make an image stand out above all the rest. Utilizing the light in this way will help us advance as wildlife photographers.

Moose Peterson is the one who I am learning this from. I read his book, “Captured,” which explains how to use light in great depth. I also enjoy reading Moose’s quarterly magazine, “BT Journal.” Hearing Moose explain his perspective on light and then seeing his images are enough to whet the appetite of any striving wildlife photographer, of which I am one. So I am paying attention to this teaching and trying to incorporate it into more of my wildlife photos.

I remember learning from Lennie Rue III, and Len Rue, Jr. in a workshop that capturing the highlight in an animals eye is very helpful in making a photograph. The viewer’s eye is first drawn to the brightest and lightest part of a photo. So if you catch the highlight in the eye it makes the animal almost come to life in the photo. This requires noting where the sun is shining and in which direction.

Fortunately, on this particular evening, I saw rays of sunlight being cast into the field in wide streaks. Once I saw this awesome light, I moved into the right location to take advantage of these light rays.


Noticing the light and getting into proper position is only part of the battle in capturing the light in photographs. The next step is to set up the camera correctly to replicate digitally what we are seeing with our eyes. I was shooting in Aperture Priority and had -1/3 exposure compensation dialed in but it wasn’t quite enough. Another half-stop made the elk pop a bit more and helped highlight some of the detail in the elk hides. This adjustment also helped to downplay the background slightly.

All-in-all I really like the results I got on this short hour of remaining daylight. Watch the light around you and especially on your subjects. Every once in a while the light will be awesome!

Amazing Encounter in Elk Country Pennsylvania

This week I had the privilege of being in the Elk Country of Pennsylvania with my good friend and fellow photographer, Dick McCreight, of Bluestem Photography. Dick is an amazing photographer and I always enjoy our photo times together as we learn and stretch one another. This week was a prime example of this collaborative learning experience.

We saw and photographed a lot of elk over the past four days. Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from joining Dick on the first day, so he had a nice head start on me. It is always difficult to hear about and see photographs that are captured in your absence! I was encouraged that Dick was seeing and photographing elk and I hoped it might continue. It did!

Dick had to leave a little earlier than me, so we said our goodbyes. There was still about an hour of useable daylight, so I headed back out to try my luck.

Light is a funny thing and unpredictable at that. One moment the light stinks and then the next it is absolutely gorgeous! This evening out on Winslow’s Hill was no exception. The day was mostly overcast but as the sun began to make its way to the horizon, some of the clouds parted, creating streaks of sunlight onto the scene I was photographing. It didn’t take long for me to get into the right position, and as you can see in these first two photos, the elk cooperated as well! The first photo is my favorite so far, but I still have more photos to sift through and edit. By the way, all these photos here are completely unedited and straight out of the camera. The light was so good!

I also need to thank Moose Peterson who through his book, “Captured,” and his magazine, “BT Journal,” is teaching me to see the light! Sorry for the bad pun; but since my family is tired of me trying to be funny, I thought I’d try it here! Anyway, I am learning from Moose about the different qualities of light and how to use light in my photographs. Thank you Moose, I think these photographs show that I am learning from you!

This particular evening was the third time I photographed elk in this same field. I guess they were getting used to me and realized that I was presenting no danger to them. I walked onto the field after spotting the elk, walked down the dirt road toward them and they readily accepted me. You can always tell a lot by the little behavioral signs an elk portrays. Ears, eyes, tails, and general body movement are like reading a book. Every detail is important so the photographer has to pay attention to all this!

My general procedure when photographing the elk of Pennsylvania is to approach slowly and very casually. Lennie Rue III and Len Rue, Jr. taught me to act as unconcerned about the elk as possible, almost like you don’t even care about them. This nonchalant attitude helps the elk realize that we are not hunters who are going to shoot them. Rather, we are photographers who are going to shoot them in a much different way and over and over again! I approach the elk, reading all their signs. Then, as I get closer, I only approach when their heads are down while they are eating. When they look up, I stop, look around and act as causal as possible. This approach and a great deal of patience helps me get closer to the elk.

On this particular evening, the elk readily accepted me. I literally had elk all around me at one point! They were busy eating a new crop of hay and they were feeding in every direction possible. Once in a while, they would look up to study me, but for the most part I was just like another tree to them.

Then something happened.

I was photographing this cow when it started looking intently in a direction beyond me. As you can see in this photograph, the elk is looking in my general direction but somewhere behind me. It took me a while to really notice this, but then, as if on cue, all the elk began to exhibit an uneasiness that I could not explain. It is always amazing to me how wild animals communicate with each other. This time, the warning sign of alert was communicated and every elk stopped eating and was staring in the same direction. Something of interest was happening behind me; but what?

I thought that maybe another elk was coming into the field out of the woods behind me because I observed this earlier in the morning. There was a loud clashing as an elk bumbled onto the scene and the elk in the field looked in her direction when they heard the sound. But this was different. The intent stares of the elk and their body language indicated to me that something was wrong.

I even spoke out loud to the cow I photographed in the above photo, asking, “What’s wrong?” Yeah, I do talk to the animals. They never talk back, but Lennie Rue III teaches that he learned a lot while growing up on a farm. One time he came up behind a horse and surprised it so much that it kicked him square in the chest with both hind feet! He learned an important lesson. Talking to animals in an almost monotone and comforting manner is often helpful, and so I practice this every time I am in the field with the Pennsylvania Elk. “Hi, there. Don’t worry; I’m not going to hurt you.” Call me crazy, but sometimes I even think they understand me!

Something was wrong behind me this evening and every elk in the field knew it and saw it before I did. So after, asking, “What’s wrong?” I turned around to see this:

A black bear!

Now I knew what the elk were so intently looking at and it was obviously cause for great alarm to them. Some of the cows are now on the brink of giving birth to their calves. Black bears in Pennsylvania pose a definite threat to these baby calves. The Pennsylvania Game Commission conducted several elk calf studies over the years. You can read more detailed information about these studies and their findings here: Richardson, Lori D. Pennsylvania Game News November 2007: 31-37.

This recent study revealed that bears are not as big a threat to Pennsylvania Elk as they are to the Rocky Mountain Elk. Some of this is due to the mere numbers of the elk out west compared to the relatively lower numbers here in the east. Whitetail fawns are much more at risk here in our state. Nevertheless, a cow elk will definitely pay attention when it sees a black bear.

So here was the subject which attracted all the attention of these elk. I was the last one to realize it!

Now, I’ve been in the wood and fields of Pennsylvania all my life, so I know full well that predicting the size of a bear is anything but an exact science. I’ve seen the bear check stations where hunters bring in their bears to be weighed and studied by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Seeing is not always believing because what oftentimes looks like a huge bear simply is not. This is particularly true when a bear is by itself with nothing which to compare. I will suffice it to say that this bear was no cub.

I also know enough about bear behavior that black bears pose very little threat to adult humans. Grizzly bears and Polar bears are much different! So, even though I was in the middle of this field and a bear appeared out of the woods on the field’s edge, I was not concerned. I started photographing the bear, overjoyed to be experiencing this amazing encounter in elk country!

But then something happened that caught my attention again!

The black bear started walking right toward me!

(To Be Continued…)

Great Photography Resource

If you are a wildlife photographer then you no-doubt heard of Moose Peterson. He is a well-known wildlife photographer who lives in the Sierras of California. His website is chock-full of photo tips and lots of useful information. You can check out Moose’s website here:

Moose also wrote a book on wildlife photography entitled, “Captured.” I highly recommend the book because I keep going back and rereading it many times over. It really is really, really good!

But in addition to his website and his book, Moose also publishes a quarterly publication entitled the “BT Journal.” I found the current issue, “Yosemite’s Winter Wonderland” extremely valuable and useful because Moose goes into detail on how to stay warm on cold weather shoots. The amount of detail and the helpful and practical suggestions are typical of Moose. If you don’t already subscribe to this photo resource, give it a try. I find it not only helpful but incredibly entertaining, too!

Photo Tip Thursday (since I forgot on Tuesday) – Working Out of Your Vehicle

Last week I mentioned that your vehicle makes a great blind. This is definitely true, but what is the best way to work out of your vehicle?

I’m not sure of the exact best way, but I know what works for me. First, when driving around from location to location, I keep my camera within arm’s reach. You just never know when wildlife is going to appear, so being ready is paramount! I keep my camera on the console between my seat and the passenger seat. I figure my photo partner or my son can keep his camera on his lap, so I claim the console. Anyway, I’m driving so I get dibbs! I use a hand-towel to lay the camera on thanks to a suggestion from Moose Peterson. The lens cap is off and the camera is on. Again, readiness is next to godliness!

Next, my tripod is lying on the back floor. I have an extended cab, which is really nice to store my photo gear in until I need it. So the tripod is on the floor and extended as much as possible and yet so it still fits in my truck.

My camera bag is on the back seat and ready to be opened at a moment’s notice. In addition, I keep my flash cards in a LowePro case, which is always in my pants pocket when I am out shooting. There is nothing worse than havingĀ  a flash card full and not having an empty to replace it with. I also carry my spare battery in my pants pocket, too. Oh, I also have a pair of binoculars (we call them binos) on the front floor just below my console. I have bought them after checking a review at Outdoor Spike website.

Here is my procedure when doing an “elk run.” (That’s what we call our early am and later pm photo trips when photographing the Pennsylvania elk.) We drive around looking for wildlife. This is not a haphazard affair or route because our experience in finding elk is now more than two decades strong. We know where the elk are most likely to be found and if they are not there, we have other places to check. We are very successful in finding elk. Basically the only question that comes up is where to start. So we drive around on our experience-driven route looking for wildlife. When we spot an elk or another wildlife species, we make sure to get off the road. This is imperative because we do not want to block traffic, cause an accident, or ruin the experience of others by getting in their way. All four wheels are off the payment and we stop the vehicle and turn off the engine. If we can shoot from the vehicle we will. Otherwise, we carefully and quietly get out of the vehicle, grabbing our camera and tripod, and being sure not to slam the doors or making any other unnecessary sounds. Then we set up to photograph our subject. We repeat this process every time we come across wildlife to photograph. It works for me!

A couple additional notes… I keep an inverter in my truck to charge camera and flash batteries and to run my AC adapter for my MacBook Pro. The inverter is plugged into a power port in my truck and has two outlets to plug chargers and my AC adapter into when needed. This is extremely helpful, especially on long trips when I am away from home. I can charge batteries when needed and I can also power my laptop so I can upload the photos from my flash cards onto my computer. I also have an OWC portable external drive to backup my Lightroom catalog and all the photographs. With these helpful tools I can empty my flash cards either overnight or even during the day while out on a photo shoot.

Well, this is my procedure for working out of the vehicle. I’ve adapted and changed some of the details over the years and this is what I currently do when out photographing with my vehicle. What do you do? What tips for shooting out of a vehicle do you have to suggest and share?