A series of columns on outdoor photography
The f-Stops Here
Confessions of a Wildlife Photographer
In shame I admit to harassing a porcupine in a snowy Idaho canyon one winter while trying to get its picture.
by Sharon Watson
Porcupines always "turn tail" -- then wait till youíre close enough to smack you with it! A photo of its backside wasnít the ideal angle (but I took it), so I chased this one in bristling circles until he climbed a tree in order to get away from me.
With camera in hand, I once pursued two semi-tame mule deer through McCallís suburban streets and private yards, only to make the animals run faster. Iíve caused Yellowstone elk to charge after me, been threatened by a black bear in Canada, and provoked a baby rattlesnake to finally strike as I endlessly repositioned him for a photo (It missed me). In photographic exasperation, I once even grabbed a BIG rattler by the tail, breaking off part of its 13 rattlers. No real harm done the snake, but I felt as though I had disfigured him.
The first time I took a camera to Yellowstone, I was so excited I could hardly breathe. I wanted to get close to the animals so bad I didnít care about anything else. I maneuvered my way past and around other photographers in order to "fill the frame" with my quarry. Besides endangering myself and upsetting the animals, I made enemies of those other photographers. I hope they donít remember me, but Iíll bet they do.
When you do something embarrassing, the shame stays with you forever. Though I canít get rid of the guilt, I can correct the disgraceful behavior. Iím at least "educable."
New Rules and Restrictions Became Necessary
In some areas, wildlife photographers have gained bad reputations as pushy, inconsiderate, deceptive, cruel, break-the-rules loonies interested only in getting a "story" or photo at all costs. This renown is beginning to elicit restrictions, both reasonable and unreasonable, on photographers in parks and refuges.
For example, A Yellowstone regulation now says visitors may no longer get closer than 100 yards to a bear or approach within 25 yards of any other wildlife, especially nesting birds. If birds and animals are disturbed in any way, approach distances are even greater. Given growing photographic activity in the Park, I guess it had to come to this.
I once sat near a buck and doe antelope in Yellowstone. Gradually accepting me completely, they walked around me and fed and napped just a few feet away for an entire afternoon. It was an extraordinary experience for me. The parkís distance-restrictions mean I can never have this again. Worse, additional regulations are likely as parks become even more crowded with unruly photographers and tourists.
Outside the parks, in our own Idaho backyards, photographers are beginning to realize the need to think of animals and environment first, potential photos second.
Some photographers no longer pursue animals in stressful, vulnerable situations -- nesting birds, for example, or animals weary from winter survival efforts. Any time photographersí actions cause a change in animal behavior, weíre being too aggressive. Be like a nearby squirrel tending to its own affairs, not like a wolf edging ever closer, making the animals attend nervously to you.
Even fish photos are touchy these days. Fighting in a fish stresses it enough. Upon release, it may die from exhaustion alone. Keeping it out of the water for lots of photos nearly guarantees its death, especially for steelhead and other trout. Idaho steelhead can stand only 90 seconds out of the water without brain damage. My own personal dilemma is that big fish make the best photos, but itís precisely those fish that I most want to (link to new article on releasing fish) release safely. My fish photo sessions are now shorter than Iíd like. I try also not to prolong the fight.
Your "Fellow" Photographers
With other photographers around, common courtesy is the rule. Before working in closer to Idahoís winter-fed roadside deer and elk, consider that spooking the animals away means no photos for anybody. Getting in front of photographers puts you in their viewfinders. Non-photographer animal-watchers donít like the game run off by an over-zealous photographer either!
Perhaps our biggest problem is that photographers are indeed a passionate (greedy?) bunch. We canít get enough. It sometimes makes us stupid. We hang from trees to get good angles, we edge closer to dangerous game, we grab rattlesnakes.
Besides close calls with three Yellowstone elk, I was once "charged" by a western rattler. Since Idaho rattlesnakes are normally very passive, I can only guess this one was bugged by a pushy photographer when it was a mere babe.
Copyright © 1998 Spring Creek Communications