Bull Moose - Denali National Park, Alaska

Locating Acrons On A Consistent Basis
by Weldon Lee (photos and text) 

            Just about anyone can occasionally come up with a fairly decent wildlife image. All it takes is a little luck. I know this must be so, because growing up in southeast Texas as I did, I frequently heard these words of wisdom: “Sooner or later even a blind hog’s gonna find an acorn.”

            While acorns may not be on your agenda, producing award-winning wildlife images on a consistent basis may be your priority. If so, then settle back into your favorite chair as I share some of the techniques that have allowed me to find “acorns” more consistently.

Bull Elk and Cow - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Getting Close

            A super telephoto lens is not always the final answer in getting those frame filling images so desired by art directors for use on magazine covers. You still need to get close to your subject.

            The secret of approaching any wild animal is for it to accept you as part of its natural surroundings and not feel threatened by your presence.

            Grazing approach.  When approaching members of the deer and sheep family, I often use what I call the “grazing approach.” It’s a technique I developed from observing herds of elk. Individual animals would constantly move about, yet the herd appeared to stay in one location. Despite appearances, the entire herd was advancing toward ungrazed areas.

     Once your subject has been sighted, remain where it can see you. Don’t attempt to go any closer. Sit down or mill about, but stay where you are for at least five minutes; then you can begin your approach.

            Never walk directly toward your subject. Pick a direction of travel that will take you past the animal. After going some distance, turn around and walk past the subject again, altering your direction of travel so you pass a few feet closer. Continue this zigzag approach until you are within photographic range.

            While zigzagging, act as if you were grazing. Walk slowly, stop often, and mill about, occasionally even sitting down for a minute or two. Watch for any change in your subject’s behavior while at the same time avoiding direct eye contact. Stop the moment you see a change. You will avoid stressing your subject as long as it can anticipate your actions and not feel threatened.

            While on the subject of stress  it is best to approach most members of the deer and sheep family from the downhill side. Since they tend to escape predators by fleeing uphill, this avoids cutting-off any potential escape route that can cause them to exhibit signs of nervousness. I have found mountain goats are often the exception to this rule, appearing to be more comfortable when approached from above.

            Blinds.  Unlike most members of the deer and sheep family, other species can sometimes be more easily photographed from a blind.

            Devices used to conceal photographers range from a simple, camo cloth draped over some type of support, to the more elaborate, permanent blinds.

            Regardless of the type, you’ll want something to set on while you’re in the blind. An old, 5-gallon paint can or folding camp stool works well. However, I prefer something providing back support, such as a folding lawn chair, particularly when attempting to sit for any length of time. Who knows, you may want to take a nap. A word of caution: avoid chairs or stools with legs that can sink into soft ground. A folding chair with a cross brace at ground level is ideal.

            Consider the types of blinds most commonly available as well as the pros and cons of each.

  • Camo Cloth - A 5x12 piece of camo cloth, thrown into your camera pack offers a simple and inexpensive means of concealment. Drape it over yourself, or use it as a portable blind suspended between a couple of trees. If you want to get fancy, sew a 10” square of camo netting near its center. The netting will allow you to see your subject without being seen. If you really want to go first class, sew strips of hook and loop fasteners, such as those made by Velcro, along each side.
  • Camo Clothing - This provides one of the easiest methods of avoiding detection but does not conceal movement. You must remain motionless. Don’t forget to cover both your face and your hands.
  • Temporary Blind - A simple blind constructed of grasses or reeds supported by a dead limb takes only a few minutes to put together. It’s great for breaking your outline and has the advantage of being constructed from natural materials.
  • Portable Screen - A portable screen 4’ tall and 8’ long works well when photographing some species. Use PVC pipe for the frame and suspend camo material across the opening. I use the vinyl-coated type with cutouts that create shadows and movement, simulating real foliage. I have used this type of blind to photograph red fox at their den and sage grouse on their lek.
  • Portable Blind - These are made to carry with you and erect on location. They take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes to erect. You can purchase a ready-made blind, or make your own using a simple box frame made from PVC pipe. It’s easy to work with and takes only minutes to erect. For the covering, use a solid, neutral-colored cloth. If you want to get fancy, use camo material.
  • Permanent Blind - I have observed this type of structure made of everything from plywood to concrete, to a steel tower overlooking a raptor nest. They are ideal when working predictable subjects: for example, animals that return time and again to a particular waterhole or nest site.
  • Vehicle As A Blind - My vehicle has allowed me to take advantage of countless photo opportunities  opportunities that would have vanished had I opened the door and stepped outside. Using a long lens from your car requires some type of camera support. One solution is the economical bean bag. However, they have two major shortcomings. They do not provide the necessary support at slow shutter speeds, and it’s almost impossible to adjust a large zoom lens resting on a bean bag. The solution is a sturdy window mount. I use the Kirk Multi-Purpose Window Mount. It also functions as a camera mount for close-up macro work.

            Luring Wildlife.  Once you’ve erected a blind, the work is still not over. You need to lure your subject within photographic range. Even when you’re successful,  photo opportunities are usually brief. Most animals have an amazing ability to hear even the slightest sound. Wait until you have the perfect pose before pressing the shutter release. The following methods can be used to attract wildlife:

  • Baiting - No topic is capable of stirring up controversy more than baiting. Nevertheless, when done responsibly, luring wildlife with various forms of bait can be highly effective. First, make sure baiting is legal where you intend to photograph. Even when it is illegal for most purposes, it may still be possible to obtain a special permit to accomplish your goal. Corn works well for most prey species, while road kills will attract predators. Either tie
    or stake the roadkill where you want it, otherwise your subject may drag it away. Dead
    livestock also works and may be more convenient. In some states, it may illegal to pick-up road kills unless you have a permit. Contact your state wildlife agency regarding your intentions. Most agencies are willing to help wildlife photographers who conduct themselves in a professional and conscience manner.
    There are several things to consider before you begin. Will the intended method cause the subject or other species in the area  to become dependent on you for their source of food? Will the method used cause your subject to associate the bait with humans? If the answer to either question is “yes,”  it is generally best to avoid baiting. Do not bait dangerous predators in close proximity to human habitation. You do not want to increase the chance of potentially dangerous encounters.
  • Calling - Almost any animal will respond when properly called. While the most basic method is to produce a squeaking sound using your mouth, an almost endless array of manufactured calls are available. Cabella’s fall catalog, for example, describes over 60 different calls, everything from duck and goose calls, to bear and moose calls. All predators will respond to the distress call of an injured rabbit. More often than not, your subject will circle downwind when coming to the call. Keep this in mind when positioning your blind. Volume is extremely important. When you first begin calling, turn the volume down  much lower than what a rabbit would actually produce. Call for 30 seconds, then wait in silence for 5- to 10-minutes. Repeat this process, increasing the volume a little each time. If you have not had any success after 45 minutes, move to another location. Calling can be legally conducted in most locations as long as you are not hunting and do not carry a hunting weapon. However, it is prohibited in most national parks. Check the laws concerning the area you plan to work.

Warning:  When calling wildlife, you become the hunted. Take protective measures as you work areas inhabited by potentially dangerous animals. A blind placed against a large tree or boulder will protect you from the rear.

  • Cover Scent - Used to mask human odors, such products are especially useful when calling predators. Use the scent near your blind as well as along side the bait. I use a skunk scent sold in a two-part solution; it does not activate until both parts are mixed together. Cover scents may be purchased through the mail from Johnny Stewart. You may also want to check with your local sporting goods store.
Fighting Bull Elk
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Other Considerations

            Your best photo opportunities typically occur early in the morning and again just before dark. This is when most animals are active and light quality is at its best. Early mornings often find mists rising from lakes and streams, and low-lying valleys enshrouded by fog.

            You should typically focus on your subject’s eyes. However, when photographing animals head-on, this technique may render an image with eyes that are “tack-sharp” while the nose is so out of focus that the image is unusable. To understand and correct the problem, it is important to know something about depth of field.

            The area of sharp focus, or depth of field, extends twice as far behind the focal point, as in front of it. When photographing a subject head-on at close range, take advantage of this phenomenon by focusing approximately half-way between the subject’s eyes and the tip of the nose. This will produce the desired results  an image with both the eyes and nose in acceptably sharp focus.

            Catch light can add life to your wildlife images. This is the tiny white speck of light reflected in your subject’s eyes. Watch for it to appear as the subject moves its head. If you fail to observe any catch light, you might try repositioning your camera closer to the ground. This will often produce catch light when all else fails.

            Last, but not least, take advantage of bright overcast days. The “soft” light produced is great for close-up portraits. It also increases the intensity of autumn’s colors.

Conclusion

            It’s the time to get out those long lenses, dust off the camping gear, and head for the wilderness. Autumn has no equal when it comes to photographing wildlife. And remember, no picture is worth more than the well-being of your subject.

Bison
Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone
© Weldon Lee/All Rights Reserved
You have to EXPERIENCE IT . . .
to BELIEVE IT!