A grizzly bear image led to an analysis of the art of wildlife photography

By July 22, 2014Wildlife Blog
Great Horned Owlets

Great Horned Owlets

About a month ago, there was a man who was stealing images of grizzly bears from an Alberta Wildlife Facebook group, superimposing words onto the images that portrayed  bears as vicious, human-eaters and re-posting. The people whose images he stole (many of whom I know) were understandably upset, and posted messages on his wall asking him to remove the images, as he did not have permission to use them. He did not remove them, using the argument that they are “public domain” because they are posted on Facebook  (which is NOT TRUE but I won’t get into that now). One of his supporters responded to a photographer’s request with something to the effect of, ‘why are you even upset? It’s not like you did anything special to get this image. It’s just nature, you didn’t have anything to do with setting up this scene.’

Needless to say, the whole scenario got my blood boiling – first the random stealing other people’s images, then using these images to portray grizzly bears as human eaters, and then this comment that basically dismissed the whole art of wildlife photography. Aside from annoying me, the comments got me thinking about the level of creativity and skill goes into capturing remarkable images of animals in the wild.

I believe creativity in wildlife photography boils down to one fundamental process – the ability to capture the beauty of the natural world in your own unique way. I know this sounds simple, but in order to do this well, you have to continually get out into nature and hone your creative vision. The more you do this, the more you develop an eye for seeing certain subjects or scenarios, and the more likely you are to capture amazing images. Our photographs say as much about us, and how we see the world, as they do about our subjects.

Great Horned Owlet and mom

Great Horned Owlet and mom

I’ve had countless examples of this process at play in my own photography, but the Great Horned Owlet and Shadow Mom is one of my recent favorites…

In June 2014, I was driving down to Lethbridge – and while it was a trip home to visit family vs. a specific wildlife tour, I had my camera and was watching for critters (I just can’t turn it off!) As mentioned in my Great Horned Owl post, most photographers and birders love to see an owl in a window, so of course, I am always watching for this scene. Sure enough, I noticed two small, white, fluffy figures sitting in the window of an old barn. Before I even stopped, I knew the scene had great potential: not only was it a Great Horned Owl in a barn, it was a Great Horned Owlet. And it wasn’t just one owlet, it was two. Awesome! I pulled over, got a few shots of the two babies through the trees, then moved in to get a bit closer. One of the little ones flew off – I didn’t want to stress them out so I was about to turn around when I noticed the ominous figure in the background. Momma owl was sitting on one of the rafters, keeping a close eye on me and her little ones.

This is one of my favorite captures ever. Not only does it illustrate the bond between parent and child, it shows how the subtle act of just keeping your eyes open can result in amazing scenes. So many things came together at the right time to allow me to capture this image – the owlet(s) happened to be framed perfectly by an old barn window, mom happened to be sitting in a spot where the light from an upper opening was just enough to highlight her figure, and I just happened to drive by at that time. The scenario would have occurred whether I captured it or not, so in that sense, I guess the grizzly image-thief supporter was right – but capturing this image involved a lot more that just happening upon an interesting scene.

I have spent a lot of time driving through the country side, constantly watching, imagining how certain subjects, scenes and lighting conditions could come together to create beautiful images. I had the creative vision to know capturing more of the window would create a nicer image, so I got a bit closer, which allowed me to see the figure of mom in the background. I of course had to balance the desire to get a good image with the welfare of the subject. That meant I did not spend as much time with the owls as I would have liked. Perhaps the most important creative aspect of this image is my undying gratitude for mother nature’s beauty and the steadfast knowledge that there are many more amazing pictures coming my way. This image did not ‘just happen’ – many would have missed the opportunity.

Great Horned Owlets

Great Horned Owlets

I’m not saying there isn’t luck and/or timing involved, because there is. In fact, I had a couple of photography friends say, ‘wow, you should buy a lottery ticket’ when they saw the photo. But the reality is, you have to put in a lot of time, energy and creative thought in order for timing to work in your favor.  For me it is countless hours of driving, and 90% of the time is spent just driving, not photographing. But I am always open to the possibilities and I am continually putting myself in a position where amazing sights can occur.

And this is just me. Driving can be exhausting, but it’s nothing compared to the photographers who are out hiking with 20+ pounds of camera gear on their backs, spending hours in the field, waiting for their visions to materialize. Plus, there is the immense amount of technical knowledge and experience needed to know your camera, settings, lenses, post-processing, etc…

So Mr ‘it’s not like you did anything special to get this image’ – put that in your pipe and smoke it! I know, of course, this nameless commenter will never read this, but I still felt the need to respond. In the spirit of all the passion and perseverance that goes into this craft, please take a moment to peruse some of the photographers I know and/or follow on my resource page. They are all amazing examples of the art of nature and wildlife photography.

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