the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Animals


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Wide lenses can capture a lot of data. Sometimes too much.


A FULL YEAR AFTER SWITCHING FROM CROP SENSORS TO FULL-FRAME SENSORS, I am still getting my bearings on some elements of composition, at least as I had grown used to them. To greatly over-simplify, the focal length of my lenses has, for more than ten years, been magnified by about 1.5x, so that, for example, a 35mm lens would “read” on a crop sensor as a 50mm. That determined what I’d would or wouldn’t see in the frame, with the biggest cramping occurring in wide-angle shots, where I live about half of the time.

The result was that my mid-70’s 24mm, a real- go-to for me, was actually delivering the aspect of a 35mm; still wide, but not really panoramic. This was no big deal, since I got used to composing and cropping for what my camera was seeing and shot accordingly, as we all do. The real difference is being felt now, when my 28mm on a full-frame is really 28mm, meaning that a whole lot more…..stuff is being included in my wide shots than before, stuff that I must police much more stringently than I might have done in the past.

Take a look at the shot up top, taken inside a stable, empty except for a single horse. There is so much space within the frame, all chock-full of equipment, gravel (so much gravel) and other atmospheric elements that the purpose of the shot, right out of the camera, can easily be interpreted to be, aww…the poor horse is all alone in this huge building, as if that’s the “message” of the picture. Now, from my vantage point, I could not have framed any tighter; my location was dictated by barriers that held me back at quite a distance. And, since I’m shooting with a prime lens, I can’t zoom, so all compositional control defaults to how I will crop later.


The horse, not where he lives, is the real story.

Turns out that it takes very little extra space around the horse to sell the idea that he’s “all alone”, so I can easily cut stalls, hay bales, and other filler off on both sides and still easily convey his “solitude”. But here’s the deal; once I started cropping, I began to observe a different story emerging in the picture, since now I was actually seeing the small arm that’s coming in from the right to pet the horse. Now the image is about He’s Not Alone, that, in fact, someone cares about him enough to stop and offer a bit of tenderness.

Wide-angle shots can sometimes keep us from getting into our pictures, and, if we change the way that we see what we shoot, such as the revision of “what is a frame” that I’ve been dealing with recently, our viewpoint can be modified in subtle ways. Shooting wide is a great tool, but only if we reserve the option, upon further thought, to think narrow as well.




Wild Mustangs graze in an eastern section of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.


HUMANS, ALL TOO OFTEN,  ARE PATHETICALLY INEPT AT VIEWING THE NATURAL WORLD through any lens of experience outside their own. We define things as being relevant or irrelevant relative only to our own needs, operating under the idea that the whole works is somehow put here for us. The wider universe of breathing, thriving, feeling things only becomes visible when it crosses over into the realm of our wants, our concerns. We are predictably, often fatally, clueless about life except as it pertains to us; we act as if someone left us in charge.

Obviously, this affects the kind of photographs we make of our interaction with nature. But seeing nature only on our terms shapes the images that we seek, providing only a narrow frame of reference. How to make a picture of something that we barely apprehend? How to capture the essence of a thing that strikes us as exotic, even alien?

Acting yesterday on a tip as to the whereabouts of a sizable herd of wild mustangs in the part of the Tonto National Forest near Fountain Hills, Arizona, I found myself, like all the other travelers pulling off to the side of the Old Bush Highway, struggling to apprehend the existence of a horse stripped of any connection with man. These gorgeous animals would never know the sting of a bit between their teeth, never wince from the pain of a branding iron, never labor under the weight of a rider or the cinched constriction of a saddle. That is, they would live their entire life as horses among other horses, with no thought of any other life or task beyond just being a horse. They looked like the “nature” we thought we had seen a thousand times, and yet they lived in a world defined by their priorities, not ours.


Guides in the area were on constant alert to make sure that we gawkers maintained a respectful distance, lest our presence violate the terms of the very special audience we were being granted, with most of the horses within fifty feet from their visitors. Some interpreted this as a way to safeguard our safety, but I chose to believe that it was they who needed protection from us. Our smells and sounds; our energy, our intrusive humanness. For one of the only times in our lives, we were in the presence of something innocent, something raw, unrefined. Unmolested. The wise thing was to remind ourselves that we were guests, not masters, awed children, not cowboys. Here was a chance to slow down and learn something.

Taking pictures of the natural world is never a single, simple thing. Many of the problems we have created for this tired old planet stem from the fact that we are increasingly estranged from most of the beings that we share the Earth with. Too often, we spurn true partnership between our realities and those of other creatures. How can our cameras be trained to tell the truth when we still know so little of what that truth looks like?



AS MUCH AS WE’D LIKE TO PRE-VISUALIZE OR PLAN OUR IMAGES, the practice of photography is still chiefly a test to see how well we calculate and react in the moment. We all love to map out the various itineraries for our respective photo safaris in advance, but are also keenly aware that everything, literally everything in our blueprint can, and should be, blown to bits the moment magic is afoot.

The image you see here is the product of such a moment.


Officially, on the day this was taken, I was at the Coon Bluff Recreation Site in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest to scope out new birdwatching sites. I was a first-timer on the property, wandering pretty much in whichever direction my friends decided to drift. At some point, a smaller portion of our party decided to trek along the edge of the Salt River, in search of what I had no idea, or design. Half a mile or so later, I was surprised to have our point man remark that he had seen two horses wading and munching along the shore.

Barely five more minutes went by before it became clear that an entire small herd of wild mustangs had decided to cross the river from the far shore toward where we were standing. In what swiftly became something out of my own personal chapter of Lonesome Dove, I scrambled for an open space on the river’s sandy beach and, without thinking very much, cranked out as many frames at as many different exposures as I could. The entire parade got across in the space of barely two minutes. There was no way to plan: this was the frontier equivalent of what urban street shooters call “run and gun”. All in or all out.

But here’s the deal: while the appearance of a clutch of wild horses during a casual stroll certainly exemplifies the There Are No Second Chances rule in a very obvious way, all photographers are operating under that same rule all the time, in every situation. We may not be at risk of missing our own personal Wild West Fantasy, but there are thousands of expressions, variances of light, rapid transitions and other immeasurable changes that we stand to lose in every single shooting scenario. We are always being challenged to detect and isolate such moments-within-moments, with big events or small, and we need to calculate and click before the horses reach the opposite shore.



PURISTS IN THE ANIMAL PHOTOGRAPHY GAME OFTEN DISPARAGE IMAGES OF BEASTIES SHOT AT ZOOS, citing that they are taken under “controlled conditions”, and therefore somewhat less authentic than those taken while you are hip-deep in ooze, consumed by insects, or scratching any number of unscratchable itches. Editors won’t even consider publishing pics snapped at the local livestock lockup, as if the animals depicted in these photos somehow surrendered their union cards and are crossing a picket line to work as furry scabs .

This is all rubbish of course, part of the “artier-than-thou” virus which afflicts too great a percentage of photo mavens across the medium. As such, it can be dismissed for the prissy claptrap that it is. Strangely, the real truth about photographing animals in a zoo is that the conditions are anything but controlled.

We’ve all been there: negotiating focuses through wire mesh, dealing with a mine field of wildly contrasting light, and, in some dense living environments, just locating the ring-tailed hibiscus or blue-snouted croucher. Coming away with anything can take the patience of Job and his whole orchestra.Then there’s the problem of composing around the most dangerous visual obstacle, a genus known as Infantis Terribilis, or Other People’s Kids. Oh, the horror.Their bared teeth. Their merciless aspect. Their Dipping-Dots-smeared shirts. Brrr…

In short, to consider it “easy” to take pictures of animals in a zoo is to assert that it’s a cinch to get the shrink wrap off a DVD in less than an afternoon….simply not supported by the facts on the ground.

Captured live in the gift shop: 1/40 sec., f/2. ISO 100, 35mm.

Captured live in the gift shop: 1/40 sec., f/2. ISO 100, 35mm.

So, no, if you must take your camera to a zoo, shoot your kids instead of trying to coax the kotamundi out of whatever burrow he’s…burrowed into. Better yet, shoot fake animals. Make the tasteless trinkets, overpriced souvies and toys into still lifes. They won’t hide, you can control the lighting, and, thanks to the consistent uniformity of mold injected plastic, they’re all really cute. Hey, better to come home with something you can recognize rather than trying to convince your friends that the bleary, smeary blotch in front of them is really a crown-breasted, Eastern New Jersey echidna.

Any of those Dipping Dots left?