Photography aids observation: some thoughts

I get requests from people and groups asking me to take them with me while I photograph. I am truly honored at these requests — highly honored that they like the photos I have taken well enough to want to come along. However, I have to tell them that this “led safari” type of situation is not what I do. I take walks by myself or with my husband, and I have a camera. What I have come across I find by being outside and exploring. You have to love to be out in nature and be part of it, and you have to spend many hours in the settings where animals live. Ultimately, it is the wildlife that is so thrilling — the camera is a tool which enhances my participation in nature. Photography enhances my ability to see wildlife. It focuses my concentration and awareness. I bring it home where I study the details. It serves as my notebook. When I’m done, I post some of my “stuff” so others might enjoy what I have been able to observe. Right now I’m engaged in a study of coyote behavior, less for its usefulness than for my own curiosity and understanding. Practically, though, I might find something that could ease the coexistence issue. There are aspects of this issue, including dog and human issues, that have not been looked at thoroughly enough to reveal much understanding.

I do my photographing alone, because I try to become part of the space I am working with, actually studying situations and behavior, and I can’t do so with others next to me. Also, with fewer people around you become less intrusive for the animal. It is very important not to intrude on an animal you decide to photograph — you have intruded if you have caused it to change its behavior, flinch or flee. Also, to protect the animals, I never give the locations of any of the animals I photograph.  My ultimate goal is to try to photograph beyond what could become a “pretty picture” and grab the behavior, personality or character of what I find — it takes plenty of time and lots of awareness. I try to capture what the animals reveal to me about themselves, and I’m not always successful. This is not something one can teach someone else. One learns by being interested.

My suggestion to everyone who wants to photograph wildlife is to simply take walks and find your own mode that works for you. This way you will be growing into something that is exclusively yours. Start with any wild animal you see — even common starlings. Work with one animal, never interfering with its behavior, and try to learn its ways and capture this on film. I never took any photography courses — I just plunged into doing what I wanted to do and saved what I liked. Except for a good zoom lens, you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment, you just need to love what you do.

I like to crop my photos considerably — because I like framing them as “portraits”. The photos have to be really sharply focused if you want to crop. However, sharp focus can only be achieved when you have plenty of light. The left-hand images are versions of the same photo taken in fairly low light — notice that there is not a lot of detail. The photo on the right was taken in very good light, and the cropped version shows lots of detail and is sharp. Photography is about light. A lot of animal activity occurs during twilight hours, when the light is not good. When there is a distance involved, a flash does not work, and anyway it would be intrusive to the animals. Anything that interferes with the light, such as fog and haze and twilight, makes it harder to achieve a sharp photo.


Today I was met by a surprise — surprises are always thrilling. Early in the morning I noticed that at this park there were two coyotes on the horizon — this is not a very common place to see more than one coyote. One of the coyotes ran down to investigate from a distance, and the other remained up on the horizon. I adjusted my camera to an ISO of 3200 because there was so little light at this hour of the day before dawn. I do not like using this setting because of the graininess, but a grainy photo is better than none at all. With the camera I am able to record and magnify what I see, and therefore examine features that might distinguish one animal from another.  I was able to identify one of the coyotes! Shortly thereafter, it disappeared into the underbrush. Coyotes are not often seen by most people. Only a few of us have noticed that there even has been a second one in this area, not to mention a third one I’ve become aware of.

I decided to leave the park after this short glimpse of activity. As I left, I noticed that the one coyote up on the horizon was still there. As I came around a bend in the path, around some bushes, I was super surprised to see three more coyotes — this included the one which had disappeared in the underbrush a moment earlier! I looked back up on the horizon, and that one was still there. This is the first time I have seen four coyotes all at once in any of the parks. I was able to distinguish each coyote once I got home and looked at the photos. The “newcomer” was very similar in appearance to another coyote that I was able to identify recently. Of course, this is probably not a newcomer at all, these coyotes have been here all along. But this is the first time I have seen a fourth, and it is the first time I have seen four coyotes all at once.

The new coyote was more ill-at-ease than the others, and stayed out only a moment before hiding in the brush. Meanwhile, the other two continued to stare at me, very cautiously. After a few more moments, the one up on the horizon came running down to these two and the three trotted off together. This, too, was unusual for me to see: normally the coyotes disappear on their own into the brush area which is closest to them, but this time the one on the horizon seemed to need to move the rest of them on. I tried speculating as to why its behavior might have been different this time: of course, there may have been no reason at all; or it may have wanted the others out of the way because of all the aggression that has recently been aimed at the coyotes by a group of people in the park; or it may have seen a dog coming, or it may not have liked me looking at them for so long. My husband later warned me that I had inadvertently been between the coyotes. If you are aware of it, this kind of situation should be avoided, for safety sake. Also, a lone coyote or two might be different from a pack. Packs always consist of family members: pups, some yearlings, the parents. We might need to consider the possibilities of having a larger coyote population in our parks for a while. The likelihood is that a couple of them will disperse and move on because of territorial constraints — a territory will only support so many coyotes. I’ll try to find out when dispersal takes place.

Anyway, it is very exciting to discover everything that comes to light about coyotes, and seeing this foursome was, for me, a particularly spectacular discovery!

Field Notes on Photography

I was just thinking about how different it is to take photos of coyotes and, say, woodpeckers. One is not harder or easier than the other. They are just so very different.

Finding these animals in the first place could prove to be difficult in the Bay Area — these are rare animals to encounter in this area.  I’ve come across coyotes in some parks. Those that are less shy become the focus for my camera. I’ve seen a woodpecker only a few times in the last two years –  twice in the apple tree right in my front yard!

Both coyotes and woodpeckers involve a focus problem because of the long closeup lens which I use. Although the lens appears to bring the animal closer, the lens in itself cuts down on the amount of available light. Photography is about light — the more light, the better.

Coyotes are up at dawn when the light isn’t so good and they normally are on the move. Woodpeckers are hidden behind leaves and branches. These same leaves and branches obscure a lot of the light and create shade and shadows.

The secret to capturing these animals on film is to get in close enough without disrupting the animal’s activity: not so far away so as to loose all the detail, and never so close so as to interrupt their activity level. If the animal ignores you, you are at a safe distance. If you cause them to flinch, or flee, you have entered their “critical distance” — obviously at this point your presence has interrupted their life: you have interfered with wildlife which cannot be your aim if you are a wildlife photographer.

Once the photos are taken, how do you choose what to keep? For a coyote, I tolerate more blur, in favor of retaining photos with as many poses showing movement and expressiveness. A coyote is probably one of the most expressive critters you will ever find, with more choreography to its movements than any other animal. A coyote is so many things: nimble, delicate, rough, lithe, quick.  Facial expressions can be read: boredom, tension, alertness, inquisitiveness, anger, fear, compliance, curiosity, annoyance, etc. The features to capture are long: ears, snout, legs, neck.

Which photos do you keep of the woodpecker? A woodpecker can be found in all sorts of positions and orientations on a tree. Its extensions, unless you can get it landing or taking off, are of less interest than that of a coyote. However, first and foremost come  focus and clarity in the details — its eyes, feathers, and markings. The setting in which you find the bird counts for a lot when photographing them.

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