the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “wildlife



OF THE OVER 73,000,000 ACRES OF LAND IN THE STATE OF ARIZONA, only 43.2% is in private hands. That might, on paper, seem to weigh in nature’s favor, if “favor” means being protected from the more horrible by-products of human activity. However, from my the vantage point of my twenty-three years in Phoenix, the state’s largest urban concentration, it can seem like nature is either whipped to a draw by civilization (on a good day) or bound, gagged and locked in a dark closet by it (on all too many other days).


A bald eagle finishes a meal atop a concrete platform, just yards away from the 202 freeway in Tempe Arizona.

Nature photography in such a conflicted reality can be a challenge, but not because wildlife cannot be found near Arizona cities. In fact, rather than fleeing to the open desert or mountain ranges, it often thrives literally feet away from the most invasively harmful aspects of what we term “civilization”. No, the problem with making pictures of Arizona wildlife is in being tempted to do what I call “template photography”, to take the expected route toward idealization of animals, displaying them in the pristine conditions in which we wish they lived all the time. And yet, if we are to follow any tendency toward photojournalism, toward honestly chronicling the lives of these creatures in such a place, we must also make images of their struggles and triumphs within the world we have actually made for them. And that can be heartbreaking.  

This is especially true in the case of birds, and most dramatic with larger varieties like raptors. The bald eagle you see in these images has learned to make his way alongside freeways, electrical wires, air traffic and other delights of the modern age, choosing, as seen here, the concrete footing for a bygone bridge over an urban stretch of the Salt River as the roosting point for enjoying a fish captured from what was, very recently, a dry bed deliberately replenished and stocked by the same governmental agencies charged with making the desert, well, “livable” for humans. It’s a strange and sad symbiosis, but it makes for enduring images. An eagle left to his own devices exists in an interlocking gearbox of interdependent ecosystems. It exists in balance. It’s brushing up against us that makes his life more hazardous than anything encountered in the wild. 

Strangely, we begin to address this problem by addressing our own. If power grids go down because of birds becoming entangled in our wiring systems, those systems need to be re-designed, which has the dual effect of protecting more birds while guaranteeing that we keep our lights on. People are becoming more aware of how our own lives are impoverished if we make it impossible for creatures to grow and hunt and prey as nature intended, but, my God, the learning curve has been slow. How many of the motorists seen here, made aware of the majesty couched just yards away from their elevated roadways, might pull over, park, gawk and wonder? How many beating wings and hearts throb on, outside the scope of our impaired hearing? And how can we point our cameras at the wildness left in the world without also showing how our own untamed selfishness threatens that divine, raw beauty? 





SHORTLY AFTER THE TURN OF THE 21st CENTURY, SCULPTOR TODD McGRAIN completed a series of wondrous statues dedicated to the memory of five different birds rendered extinct not in antiquity, like the prehistoric dodo, but by the encroachment of human excesses of the fairly recent world. In all five cases, the subjects of what would become known as The Lost Bird Project were hounded into oblivion by over-hunting, loss of habitat, and other charming habits of the planet’s dominant and negligent stewards. This quintet of quietly minimal monuments, as magnificent as they are as art, were fated to become even more important as carefully placed reminders of what we have done, and what we must not fail, going forward, to do. 


The Heath Hen, one of five Todd McGrain sculptures memorializing recently extinct species of birds. 

Not content to merely let the statues remain in some permanent gallery setting, McGrain set about on a nationwide odyssey to identify the locales where the birds* were last seen before vanishing, and to convince the current controllers of those lands to accept the statues as living history lessons, by  permitting their permanent installation at, if you like, the scene of the environmental crime. He soon learned how hard it is to give someone a gift they never thought to ask for, navigating the ebb and swell of the tides of diplomacy, federal red tape and even active opposition to the bequests. Finally, he was able to find homes for all five statues, visually recording the quest and eventually becoming a documentary film maker in his own right. 

The Lost Bird Project is still an active endeavor, continuing to fund conservation education through sale of that resulting film. Even at that, McGrain had to admit that the statues’ impact was limited to whomever might visit the installations in person, and so, to keep the works from being caged off, away from the general public, he also cast a duplicate set of the figures, and has sent them continually around the country on loan to a variety of venues, such as the Phoenix Zoo, which is where I made the above image.

I feel that photography can serve as the third leg of the visual testimony that McGrain has now carried on for nearly a quarter of a century. The reasoning goes that, if the copies are less limited in their ability to teach and influence than the originals, then it is through photographs by thousands of us, in dozens of locales, that the word can be spread exponentially. The camera helps us bear witness, teaching history by lighting, annihilating both time and distance to extend the wingspan of these essential messengers, canaries in a the coal mine of our collective neglect. 


*the birds and their last known whereabouts: the Great Auk (Fogo Island, Newfoundland), the Labrador Duck (Elmira, New York), the Passenger Pigeon (Columbus, Ohio), the Carolina Parakeet (Okeechobee, Florida), and the Heath Hen (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts).



HUMILITY IN AN ARTIST IS NOT ONLY ADMIRABLE, but, for purposes of growth, absolutely essential.

We’re not talking here about a kind of polite, “aw shucks” modesty, which is usually staged for the benefit of others anyway. No, being humble does not mean disowning honest achievement, in photography or any other field. It consists of putting a dot on a line to show your position, where you stand versus where you stood and where you need to eventually stand. And in the making of images, as with many other endeavors, it’s about acknowledging that some of your worst failures and your best successes alike are totally accidental.

When shooting in the moment, conditions converge in milliseconds to either push us forward to completion or block us utterly from it. The losses are easy to see as “rotten luck” that we somehow didn’t deserve but can learn from. However, it’s the unearned wins, the pictures that fall into our lap despite everything, that truly aid the ripening of humility. We get great shots that we didn’t, in some way, “deserve”, although that’s an odd way to phrase it. And, in our gratitude for our occasional (and inexplicable) fortune, we can really learn something about not taking ourselves too bloody seriously.

Wood Duck EFthis male wood duck was the gods’ gift to your humble author, on a day on which I could certainly use one.

This duck is luck, and nothing more. It’s more clearly described as a sort of inheritance.

There is no other way to describe the success of this picture. I did, certainly, travel to his regular habitat with the intention of shooting him, but any vain thought I had of proceeding from a deliberate plan or program evaporated when I finally caught a glimpse of him. Within seconds of his calmly sailing out of his secluded lair under a large shrub, he became part of a blurry mob of hunger-crazed mallards who thronged around him in a desperate bid for food that had been tossed into the pond by a kind visitor. The frame you see here was a desperate and quick click just insta-seconds before the starting pistol, and there was only time for this one frame.

Certainly, other attempts were made, once the melee ensued, but, trust me, they were as appallingly fruitless as this one shot was miraculous. This was not a case of my lifetime of experience and instinct coming to the fore in a grand blend of skill and judgement. This was click-like-your-life-depends-on-it- and-hope-like-hell. The important thing is to accept the fact that all the stars and planets lined up correctly and gave you a goodie, and that all your preparation and focus could be surpassed in a second by something this random. If that doesn’t inspire humility, then you’re probably beyond hope.

Part of artistry is embracing the ineffable quality of not being in total control, of being worked by the process as well as working it. Because once you know how little you are actually in charge, then you actually stand a chance of being used in a meaningful way. Whether it’s the flautists’s breath or the flute itself that makes the music, the melody is just as sweet, and keeping score of who’s the boss in an artistic endeavor is beyond useless.



THIS MORNING, AS I WALKED THROUGH A LOCAL PARK, my “poster child” for this current phase of the pandemic became, in essence, a poster bird.

One thing is certain about predators: they’re not crazy about hanging with humans in close quarters, certainly not at a distance of little more than twenty feet, which is where I found this red-tailed hawk staring back at me on the edge of a suburban park, only ten yards away from the nearest house and barely fifteen feet off the ground. Raptors typically keep their distance and maximize their stealth in heavily peopled areas, and so I was quite astounded that this fellow was remaining within camera range for what seemed forever.


Then I noticed his left foot….or, rather, his lack of one.

A million different scenarios zipped through my brain as to how this elegant hunter might have been rendered, in the worst case, unable to hunt, to feed himself. A fight? A storm? A birth defect? All roads led to the same conclusion… that an intervention of some kind was needed. A call was made to the local wildlife rescue agency, and the street coordinates were reported. Stay there, a volunteer said, and we will call you back in a half an hour….

And so we walked….literally “once more around the park”. As we killed the clock, I began to think of the bird as emblematic of where we all are at the moment. Technically, we still might have wings, but can we fly? In the wake of our various recent “injuries”, can we protect ourselves from the possibility of even worse harm? Can we keep our balance, adapt, adjust? Which skills are most crucial to the new “us”, and which of us might prove too damaged to make the transition?

Upon returning to the tree just ahead of the wildlife agency’s return call, we found that our charge had already answered most of those questions: he was gone. The agency told us that many such hobbled birds manage, and that, once on the wing, no rescuers could capture our hawk anyhow. Its survival was completely a product of its own actions from here forward. Just like us. God, just like us……



“You’re taking your camera with you? TODAY?”

WHEN PHOTOGRAPHERS SPEAK OF A “LEARNING CURVE” for either techniques or gear, they’re actually talking about the process in which you make a whole lot of bad pictures on your way to good ones. Mastery is about of lot of things, but it’s mainly about lousing things up for a good long while and using the negative feedback to figure out what to do right by doing a whole lot of things wrong first.

The reasonable goal, therefore, in trying to get to the next level with your photography, is to do any and everything to speed up that curve…. to, in effect, tunnel toward your goal by getting all those transitionally wrong pictures past you. Being impatient in this regard, I have developed the habit of taking along whatever camera I’m currently trying to tame at every available opportunity, especially if there will be “nothing worth photographing”, whatever that means. I call such outings “burner days”, as I have no expectation whatever of producing any keepers, but am merely making myself shoot enough with the gear in question so that mental and muscle memory are built up more quickly, leaving me readier at an earlier stage to do something of consequence when it really matters.


The hungry woodpecker seen here was the product of a burner day, as I figured that a June morning in Arizona was too hot for any birds to venture out. I was wrong, and I took home a little miracle, not because I’m amazing, but because I was available.

Shooters who have never known any other realm than digital are already a little mentally ahead in the burner game, in that they are already accustomed to quickly firing off and evaluating lots of blown shots on their way to the final product. Those trained inititally in film were hemmed in by how many shots they could financially afford to attempt; moreover, the time-line of their failures was also drawn out by the unavoidable waiting period between snapping and processing. Now everyone can afford to fail, a lot, very quickly, and that is a good thing. The break-in period for any approach or equipment in greatly foreshortened in the digital era, with the added plus that many shots that might have been total flops in analog days can now be instantly re-calculated and reshot in the field, and possibly saved. An amazing luxury.

And so, there is real educational value in shooting your little fingers off at every opportunity. First, there’s little cost in either time or cash in trying everything you can think of. Secondly, since no one knows for sure that there’s literally “nothing to shoot” when they head out on a given morning, the element of surprise is constantly in effect. Many days you will bring home both blown exposures and technically perfect shots that are devoid of impact. But each one of those misses builds the habits that eventually will produce a higher harvest of hits. Simply, you can’t be sure that the picture of your life won’t jump into your lap even under the most unpromising scenarios. Better to be present to at least make the attempt, because even the bad pictures are stepping stones to the miraculous ones.




IT NEVER FAILS. You go to the grocery store for a carton of milk and come back with salsa, canned pineapple and half a pound of bologna. You may not have even known you “needed” the additional items, but, son of a gun, that extra large salsa is on sale. And, just like that, a quick stop becomes a shopping trip.

Photography is sort of like that.

You head out with specific objectives in mind, not thinking that fate has other plans, and will gently incline you in their direction. “Gentle”…like a freight train. In the case of a recent bird walk, my photographic plan “A” may seem odd to the average observer, in that it was to walk around with birders and not take any bird photos.

In my defense, I was already halfway through an extended birding weekend, accompanied by my wife and other serious spotters in a variety of southern Arizona locales. Moreover, even though I possess zero talent and little inclination in the study of all things airborne, I had nonetheless nailed a few easy exposures of very tame birds in the habit of eating very slowly on feeders near very large throngs of people…..basically zoo shooting with better singing. But the morning in question was different. Spotting birds in the wild is for grown-ups, and my infantile attention span is often drawn off center by the woods or canyon or, in this case, woodsy canyon that houses the various winged wonders. The spotters can spend hours arguing over the nomenclature of whatever they’ve flushed out of the foliage. For me, the foliage is why I came.

1/400 sec., f/5.63, ISO 400, 195mm.

Thus, on this morning, I was sporting a 24mm wide angle to highlight the contours and curves of Ramsey Canyon, although I also had shoved my 300mm zoom inside a fanny pack as an act of pure superstition. Thus, the appropriate division of labor for the outing was established: Bird People watch birds. Tree Hugger tags along and shoots trees. Then we came upon a small footbridge surrounded by a small pack of mule deer, feeding at a level of relaxation that can only occur when you become accustomed to bipeds in goofy hats routinely traipsing through your backyard. One of the Bird People, knowing a camera nut was in their midst, gave me a heads-up. A desperate minute of crouching, zipping, fumbling and mild cursing later, I had managed to attach the 300, worrying all the time that something or someone would spook the group.

After that fear was allayed by the deer’s total state of chill, however, I was overcome by a new emotion, something I can only characterize as gratitude. I have had many encounters with deer in the wild over the years, but in each case I had only had scant seconds to try to capture anything. Here, suddenly, I was presented with a group so docile that I could walk to within twenty feet of them and have the most precious gift, the gift of time, with which to plan shots. The female seen here was intent on staying in clear sunlight next to a tree, while her male companions were gamboling inand out of the dappled shade at too great a speed for accurate metering, so, yeah, I went the easier route.

The point is that the situation allowed me to shoot twenty or more frames and have time in between to make an assessment as to what might succeed. It was an astounding luxury, a rarity among rarities, and my photos became my prayer of thanks.

Come for the forest, stay for the deer.

Or: come for the milk, stay for the salsa, pineapple, and bologna.



Zoom lenses, while great, price many shooters out of the market for making shots like this. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 300mm.

Zoom lenses, while great, price many shooters out of the market for making shots like this. 1/160, f/5.6, ISO 100, 300mm.


PHOTOGRAPHY IS ART’S GREATEST “DEMOCRATIZER“, a medium that levels the playing field for creative minds as no other medium can. “Everyone gets a shot”, goes the old saying, and, today, more than ever, the generation of images is so available, so cost-effective that almost anyone can play.

Yes, I said almost. Because even as cameras become so integrated into our devices and lives as to be nearly invisible, there is at least one big stump in the road, one major barrier to truly universal access to image-making. That barrier is defined by distance and science.

For those longing to bring the entire world ever closer, zoom lenses and the optics they require still slam a huge NO ADMITTANCE door in front of many shooters, simply because their cost remains beyond the reach of too many photographers. Lenses going beyond around 300mm simply price users out of the market, and so keep their work confined in a way that the work of the rich isn’t.

Look at the metadata listed in the average “year’s best” or “blue ribbon” competitions in National Geographic, Audubon, Black & White, or a score of other photo magazines. Look specifically at the zoom ranges for the best photos of birds, insects and general wildlife. The greatest praise is heaped on images taken with 400, 600, 800mm glass, and rightfully so, as they are often stunning. But the fiscal wall between these superb optics and users of limited funds means that many of those users cannot take those images, and thus cannot compete or contribute in the same way as those who can afford them. For an art that purports to welcome all comers, this is wrong.

The owl image at the top of this post fell into my lap recently, and I was able to take advantage of this handsome fellow’s atypical appearance at a public place with the help of a 300mm lens. But that’s only because (A) he was still only about forty feet away from me, and (B) he is as big as a holiday ham. If he and I had truly been “out in the wild”, he would have been able to effectively enforce his own no pictures today policy,  as I would have been optically outflanked. Two options would thus emerge: drop thousands for the next biggest hunk of glass, or take pictures of something else.

I am for anyone being able to take any kind of picture, anywhere, with nothing to limit them except their vision and imagination. Unfortunately, we will need a revolution on the high end of photography, such as that which has happened on the entry level, to make the democracy of the medium universal and complete. We need an “everyman” solution in the spirit of the Kodak, the Polaroid, and the iPhone.

The world of imaging should never be subdivided into haves and have-nots.

follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @mpnormaleye.