Photography In The National Parks: Blending In To Capture The Best In Wildlife
At this moment I am in the forests fringing Yellowstone National Park sitting in a blind, which is a camouflaged colored tent with windows that the camera lens fits through, hoping and praying that nine or ten little fox kits will come out and play. Or that their mother will return to the den with a fat juicy vole and teats filled with milk, because there is nothing like watching 10 babies running to greet mom.
The whole idea behind the blind is to hide in close proximity to the animals so that you can photograph them acting in a normal way while in their natural habitat without disturbing or scaring them. The animals know that the tent is there, flapping in the wind, but they get used to its presence and it becomes a part of their environment.
Until, that is, foxes hear the click of the shutter or the whir of the fan on my friend's fancy Red video camera. Despite the constant background noise of traffic, the foxes hear everything, but for the kits having the paparazzi come for a visit is just another day, and they pay very little attention to us. For the vixen (female foxes are vixens), it is a different story - nothing escapes her attention because it is her job to assess danger, feed, and protect. And, in the case of this particular fox, love her children. We don't see her often but she is a good mama.
There doesn't appear to be a male (reynard) head of household at this particular fox den, and so a skinny little mom feeding and caring for 10 youngsters is quite a feat. Well, today we have only seen nine kits, but a few days ago there were 10 and all looked healthy. Not all of the kits come out of the den to play during playtime, so it is difficult to get a count until mom comes home, but she is pretty unpredictable and we can't rely on seeing her.
The whole idea of sitting and waiting for animals to appear in hopes of getting a photo is tough on many photographers who want to be everywhere at once, without missing any of the action. But, the truly good photographers learn the art of picking and choosing a place to wait and take the gamble that the reward will be a great photo, which sometimes pays and more often does not. But, it is like fishing; you will never know what could have been if you don't sit, wait, and try for the best.
Blinds, the tents, are not legal in national parks, but most photographers will tell you that the best blind is your car. Many of the animals are used to vehicles going by, and if you are able to pick a spot that is likely to have high yield in wildlife activity and stay still and wait, luck might just happen your way. The animals get used to the car sitting there and let down their guard and go about their business, sometimes allowing for great photos, particularly of birds. When it comes to bears, wolves, coyotes, and foxes, the car also adds another layer of protection for you and the animal.
When sitting and waiting in the car, make sure you are ready to shoot when they appear because any sudden movements of grabbing cameras and bean bags will spook the animal. Speaking of bean bags - do you have one? If not, get yourself a bean bag from a camera store and fill it with black oiled sunflower seeds and watch your photos get better and better. The bean bag absorbs the camera motion and makes it possible to get sharp shots, even in low light. And, I've said this before but will just throw in a reminder to shut your engine off to reduce the vibration and steady the camera.
If you are not in a situation where sitting in the car is possible, the you might have to improvise and find a place where you can sit and blend in with the environment. Just the other day I saw a photographer along the Yellowstone River, wearing camo, squatted in the weeds between two trees, and waiting for some swans and eared grebes to float by. His stillness was quite impressive and I feel certain his photos reflected his patience.
Quiet, sneaky, and patient are definite virtues of the great wildlife photographer.
So, you might ask, how is she sitting in a blind typing this column and watching for the foxes to come out? Well, I lead a busy life as a wildlife photographer and journalist and there are never enough hours in the day. And so, I asked myself, how can I streamline my "work" responsibilities and still have time to be out in the parks photographing wildlife. Well, since I spend a lot of time waiting, the answer was easy - an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard case and Wi-Fi. Yes, Wi-Fi is difficult, to say the least, in the park, but there are areas where either Verizon or AT&T might work and so the iPad has one carrier and my portable hotspot has another.
Unfortunately, while I want to be out in nature and hiking or taking photos, my ability to do so is dependent on the business end and selling photos as prints or for editorial purposes. I can't tell you how many times I have been out in the park when an email came through from an editor with a request for a photo when their deadline is looming near. That little hotspot and being semi-connected, while out in the park has saved me many sales and so is worth its weight in gold.
Now, if only the foxes would come out...they were out a while ago until a herd of curious deer decided to go through and sent them back down into the den. And playtime was just getting good! The waiting game - will it be worth my time?
After 12 hours in the blind today I can say that the wait was worthwhile, not only because of good photo ops of the fox kits playing and mom coming in with lots of food, but for the chance to watch the natural interaction of the animals. And, when you share a blind with good friends, the conversation is fun also. The fried chicken at a local establishment where they are having a raffle for an AK-47 was a great end to another day of wildlife photography.