Decent Bull, Bigger Sky

I photographed this decent bull in the last week of September on our Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience. He is a decent bull, about average for the current elk herd in Pennsylvania. There is a lot of talk in the area that we just don’t see the bigger bulls like we used to see. I tend to agree with this sentiment, but now that we have a hunting season for the elk this makes perfect sense. Both hunters and photographers like to target the bigger bulls!

On this particular evening the sky was dropping down some precipitation, which was the norm for the last week of September this year. The produced the grey sky. I typically like these sky shots, with the bull on the horizon in front of the big sky. A nice blue sky or even an orange setting sun sky is preferred, but you can see how this shot separates the bull from the background and really helps to emphasize the detail of his rack.

The goal of separating an animal from its native background is always the goal of the wildlife photographer. Animals often blend into their backgrounds, which is part of what keeps them safe from predators. Large apertures are helpful in creating a shallow depth of field for the photographer, but there is nothing quite as effective as an animal placed right on the horizon to separate it from its environment. The next time you are out in the wild, try to position yourself below the subject and aim for the sky in the background. I think it works well and makes for some stunning wildlife photographs! What do you think?

Big Bulls Close-Up

When I was a teenager the television commercial for Close-Up Toothpaste had me convinced that if I bought their specific brand I would have girls close-up. I will not reveal any more of my teenage thoughts, but there is one thing I know: You don’t have to use fresh-smelling toothpaste to get close-up to the Pennsylvania elk!

What is the perfect perspective in wildlife photography? Do you work hard to include every antler point in your image? There is nothing wrong with this full-view perspective, but challenge yourself some time to zoom in and get up close–real close! Most people know what the whole animal looks like, so our mind will usually fill in the missing parts. The close-up shots can be intriguing and provide an interesting perspective!

I have a saying I developed for elk photography. You will find a short chapter with this title in my book, “How I Photograph the Pennsylvania Elk.” The saying goes like this: “Don’t just shoot the bull!” I mean it. Many, if not most, photographers get so geared up at the prospect of capturing a big bull with their camera that they sometimes forget the beauty of the cows right in front of them. Take this next image for example, if I had only focused on shooting the bulls, I would have missed this great shot. Don’t just shoot the bull! Be creative and photograph the cows and calves, too.

The next time you are out shooting an animal. Think about zooming in and taking some close-up shots. It might even change your perspective on wildlife photography!

Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience #7 – Fall Rut

The last week of September greeted us with spectacular fall-like weather. The temperature was cool and the elk were clearly in the heat of the annual rut. The breeding season for the Pennsylvania can run from mid-September through mid-October. The last week of September is generally near the peak of the action and we were there, ready with our cameras and lenses to capture the action!

The first day was the only clear day. The clouds and rain took over but this did not hinder the elk action at all. It was a very active week and we saw plenty of elk to photograph. Several fights broke out as the bulls were vying for dominance among the cows. I absolutely love this time of year and the fall rut is always filled with action and many photographic opportunities! There is no better time to be in elk country in my humble opinion, and I prefer to be no where else at this time of year!

This was our seventh Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience. John arrived on Monday evening and we started with a basic wildlife photo workshop. This is always a good start so we can dial in our camera settings to more adequately and more easily capture the beauty of these elk. The next morning started with a real early breakfast and out to find the elk just as light was beginning to make its headway into the day. Elk, like most mammals, are most active at dawn and dusk, so we always are out in the mountains at these times. The light tends to be best at these times of day as well. Many times the activity slows down sometime between 9am and 11am. So we break for lunch and a short rest before heading back out of the early evening opportunities. I just cannot get enough time with these amazing animals! They are fascinating!

The Pennsylvania Elk Photography Experience has several goals we have in mind for all participants:

  • Provide an exciting experience with the Pennsylvania elk
  • Teach basic and advanced photography techniques to capture the action of the wildlife
  • Create breath-taking wildlife photographs that capture the essence of this experience
  • Learn from each other
  • Have fun

This fall trip was exceptional in terms of the rutting and elk action. I think it is fair to say that we accomplished all five goals on this trip.

I can’t wait to be back in elk country again!

The Bugles of Fall

If you ever heard a bull elk bugle in the fall, then these photographs will hopefully illustrate these exciting sounds! The bugle of an eager bull in the rut is an undistinguishable and sometimes ear-piercing sound. Some people drive many miles just to hear this musical sound of the fall in elk country.

A bull will bugle for several reasons. First, he will try to show dominance and intimidate competing bulls for the cows that are ready to be bred. Bulls will answer each other even from hills some distance away just to be heard and remind other bulls that there is already a big bull to contend with on this hill. These competing bugles can be quite a chorus! A second reason a bull will bugle is out of sheer frustration. A bull will follow a cow, hoping for her to be ready, but then be sadly disappointed. As the cow moves away, the bull will bugle in frustration.

Bugles can be heard any time of day or night. It can be pretty cool, and even a little eerie, to be out on a full moon night and these shrilling sounds! Careful observation and close listening skills can reveal the variety and unique bugles of different bulls. Some are deeper and some are more high-pitched. Still other bugles can be long and drawn out, while others are more short-lived and concise. Each one has an important message!

Bugles and bulls come in all sorts and sizes. The next time you are out in elk country, listen carefully and listen hard. These unique sounds are sure to bring a smile to your face and perhaps a bit of warmth to your heart. The sound of the bugle indicates the bulls are healthy and active. They have one thing on their mind during the fall season and they are making their presence known–all with the shrilling sound of their bugle!

Hike to Stafford Beach

Prior to my arrival to Cumberland Island I was not sure how long my hike in was going to be to get to my campsite. The way it works on this National Seashore is entirely dependent on the exact order of the phone calls. I called pretty late in the game to make my reservations and was worried because back country campsites cannot be reserved until you arrive on the island. The nearest back country campsite is 3.5 miles from the Ranger Station, but the farthest site is 10.6 miles!  So I held my breath and hoped for the best!

I arrived at the second dock on the island where the primary Ranger Station is located. All back country guests are required to attend a short informational meeting where some precautions are laid out and safety information is provided. This requirement was helpful to me since I had never been on the island before and didn’t know exactly what to expect. Fortunately, I have a lot of back country experience, so some of the information was redundant and routine to me as well. But information is always a good thing and I was glad to be at this mandatory informational meeting. We also heard that the mosquitoes were really bad. I took a mental note of this, but had no idea how true this would turn out to be! It was also here where we received our campsite assignments. I was still holding my breath when I heard the ranger say that the Stafford Beach campsite was available, so I only had to hike 3.5 miles to my destination! Whew! With my 55-pound pack, this was a relief to hear!

I left the Ranger Station to locate the trail head for the Parallel Trail, which parallels a dirt road on the island and is a more quiet and serene route–well, usually. On this particular day the mosquitoes were swarming like mad! I no sooner found the trail head when I was bit on the lip by either a mosquito or spider. I am not exactly sure but my lip immediately started to swell! I continued hiking the trail fighting the swarming mosquitoes and feeling the overwhelming humidity on this hot summer day. I kept checking my lip, which continued to swell at a somewhat alarming rate. Eventually the swelling leveled off and I was relieved to know that this minor annoyance was going to be just fine.

Arriving at the campsite was a relief of sorts but the mosquitoes continued to swarm all around me! Have you ever experienced this? I mean I’ve been around mosquitoes a lot before and I seem to be a magnet of sorts for them. I guess they like the taste of my blood! But this was unlike anything I saw or experienced ever before. When I saw “swarm” I mean it! There was simply no relief and it was a constant fight trying to perform any task. Setting up a tent is a routine procedure and one I’ve done many, many times in the past. The mosquitoes made it a little more challenging this time and I even spotted a tick as soon as I had the tent erected. Life in the outdoors if full of adventure!

I didn’t think of it at the time, but I ‘m pretty sure I could have captured some amazing mosquito photographs if I just tried. But their constant swarming and biting were more than enough to remember them! I will never forget this mosquito encounter! It was so bad that I actually thought about returning the next morning to the Ranger Station and cutting my trip short. I was glad, however, that I stuck it out because I ended up having a good experience overall and was able to capture the bobcat photographs!

 

Cumberland Island Bobcat

One morning while on Cumberland Island, a beautiful barrier island off the coast of Georgia, I was heading out to the beach and was greeted by several horses. I will share¬† more about that encounter at a later time. I situated myself in the sand beside a tree. Several horses came out in plain view and after they moved on I thought, “Let’s stay here and see if anything else comes into this opening.” Sure enough another horse came out just minutes later. I photographed this horse and he meandered over the sand dune and out of sight. I sat tight, waiting to see if anything else would come out of the opening. Sure enough, not even two minutes later I saw this bobcat!

And what a beautiful bobcat it was! Just look at it! Now I’ve been in the outdoors enough to see bobcats in the past, but never when I had my camera ready for the action. Bobcats are very weary and leery creatures. They do sneak around often at dawn and dusk but want nothing to do with humans or any other potential threats. It is indeed a rare sight to even see a bobcat, let alone be fortunate enough to photograph one!

As you can see, this bobcat carefully checked its surroundings before coming completely out into the clearing. It didn’t stay in the area long either. It was a very fortuitous experience for which I was extremely thankful! My only worries were, was the light enough and did have the bobcat in focus? It all looked decent in my camera’s LCD screen, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I got home several days later. The suspense was killing me but gladly the results were fairly good and I am very happy to share these photos of a special encounter with you. Spend some time outdoors and you never know what might happen! Isn’t wildlife photography great?!

Getting Excited before a Photo Trip

Do you get excited before embarking on a photo trip?

If you do then you have company! I leave tomorrow to take our son, James, to the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia, for submarine training. My wife, Denise, found a photo destination for me to do some wildlife photography on Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. I am hoping to see and photograph alligators, sea turtles, birds, turkey, and more.

The planning and packing are nearly finished now, but I am still a little nervous about this trip. I will be camping and hiking in the backcountry wilderness and the island doesn’t have any stores or anything to buy in terms of food or essentials. You have to pack it all in and out yourself! this obviously requires adequate and complete planning. Many years ago I did some extreme backcountry hiking and camping but that was many moons ago. Will I remember all I need to survive comfortably?

Also, I never encountered an alligator in the wild. I saw some at an alligator farm one time in Florida but that is completely different. I also heard there are three poisonous snakes on Cumberland Island. To make matters even more interesting, I just weighed my backpack today and it weighed it at exactly 55 pounds! Hmmm, and this is supposed to be fun? Yes, it will be fun; loads of fun and I can’t wait! I am extremely excited before this photo trip!

Weather

Anytime we are outdoors on a photo shoot the weather can change. At the very least, we need to be prepared for this change by being sure to have extra clothing. I like to say, “prepare for the worst and hope for the best!”

I actually enjoy the weather changes we experience in the outdoors. I used to sit with my dad on our front porch watching the lightning hit the power line towers in the field across from our house. I guess my fascination with weather changes does come from my dad.

The other great thing about these weather changes is they make great photographic subjects!

Most photographers like good weather, especially when we are out in the elements. We also know, however, how a cloudy day can create better lighting situations on a mid-day scene. One good rule of thumb for wildlife and nature photographers is to stay out when the weather changes. Caution is certainly to be advised in extreme weather, but when the clouds do come they can create some interesting photographs.

The next time you are out and the weather begins to change, consider sticking with it to capture the weather changes with your camera.

Talking Elk?

These photographs appear to suggest that the elk are talking!

Elk, both cows and bulls, do make audible, verbal sounds. Bugling and barking are just two examples. Photographs obviously do not let us hear these sounds, but the expressions and details of the elk do reflect some of the energy behind these sounds.

Sometimes an elk is eating food and it just looks like the elk is talking when its mouth is open between chews. Other times we are actually able to photograph an elk making a sound. A bull’s bugle is probably the most sought after example of this.

The next time you are watching or photograph the elk, pay attention. They just might be doing some talking!

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!