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The Hunter in Me

The other day a very dear friend of mine said… “your blog is terrible”. My eyebrows lifted. “You never write in it!”. She was right. All of my good intentions about keeping up my blog somehow got lost in life’s hustle and bustle. It was embarrassing to hear. So today I decided to reverse (hopefully) that pattern.

I am not a game hunter. I have many friends who are… good friends, good hunters… the kind that do TV shows about it and end up on the covers of magazines with their latest kill. But it’s not for me. Before anyone gets political.... I’m not anti gun, anti second amendment or even anti hunting. I understand the argument that since we eliminated most of the natural predators in the world it’s now up to us to cull the wildlife herds or risk them to become victims to disease. I get the argument that most hunters eat what they kill and don’t just kill for sport and I know that hunters are ironically some of America’s best wildlife conservationists. And yes, I get the American tradition of spending time in the woods with your son , daughter, dad, or grandfather. That bonding time is priceless. Especially in the age of video games. And finally, I’m all for having a gun to protect yourself and your family. But for me, shooting an animal is just not on my to-do list.

In college at the University of Montana there was a big "wild west" gun mentality. On the weekends, some of my friends would go out onto the big ranches with 22 rifles and shoot prairie dogs. The ranchers hated the prairie dog. They were digging holes that their cattle and horses often broke their legs in. So the ranchers paid 50 cents for each prarie dog you eliminated... and I tagged along a few times. One day I hit one and didn’t immediately kill it. I watched it die. I still remember it. That was the last day I ever shot at an animal.

With that said… I am a hunter. I just don’t use a gun… I use a camera. And in many ways, I think hunting with a camera is more difficult than hunting with a gun. And when it’s over, a 2-dimensional image of the animal hangs on my wall … instead of it’s head. Hunters will probably balk at my "difficult" statement. But humor me for a moment.

Wildlife photographers walk the same trails as the wildlife hunters. We wear the same boots, the same jackets, the same camo. We wear the same scent repellant, carry the same type of backpacks and eat the same kind of food in the woods. We use the same binoculars, the same trail cams, the same hearing enhancement equipment. We camp in similar campsites and we spend about the same amount of time in the woods, maybe even more. I’ve sat in the cold just like the gun hunters do… and I’ve fought off the same insects.

But once we find the animals… the similarities stop. For the gun hunter, all he or she needs is a clean shot. I’m not saying that is easy because I know it is not. But with drones, high powered rifles and magnified scopes, the odds are increasingly in the hunter’s favor.

For the photographer, it’s a different deal. Finding the animal is just the beginning. We too need a clean shot, but that means seeing the animal in all of it’s glory. For starters, it needs to be a magnificent specimen. The first wolfe I shot, in retrospect, was ratty looking. Later in life I only shot beautiful wolves. Not every animal is photographable. Then you have to get the right angle. This is critical and often trying to get this loses you the photo. We (photographers) want to eliminate most of the foreground objects that will prevent an audience from truly seeing the animal. We also want a meaningful background. The environment you photograph an animal in is almost as important as the animal itself. Is it too dark? Is it too light? And sometimes, the perfect angle is not upwind… and the animal runs when they catch our scent. We have to get close. Yes, we have some monster lenses and they do help for sure. But they are not always practical. And finally, there is the light. Photography is about light. The light is everything. When you first start shooting you are just happy to get the shot. But as time goes on and you get better at your craft, you begin to examine other people’s photos and you question yourself about what you like about them. Nine times out of ten it’s the light. Sometimes you want the light around the back of the animal, sometimes around the front. Sometimes you want to see the “catch light” of the sun in the animal’s eye. And finally, you have to focus… just like the gun hunter has to pull the trigger. Sometimes the animal is moving, other times the light is too low, sometimes your hand is shaking because you are either cold or nervous.

Click!

What I love about wildlife photography, or perhaps photography in general, is that we get to freeze time. When we click that shutter we freeze that moment. If the shot turns out... if it makes it into a book or a video or onto someone’s wall, you get to see exactly what the photographer sees at that moment.

And nothing dies.

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