Rocky Mountain Arsenal

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For the last couple of years, I have been on a quest for big mule deer bucks. Now, living in the West as I do, mule deer are absolutely everywhere. On every pasture, in every wheat field, along just about every dirt road through open lands, you will find Odocoileus hemionus. But thus far, monster sized mule deer have always alluded me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have been fortunate to have some incredible experiences chasing after this species each November. Crawling my way around the Wind River Range in four-wheel drive, hiking through the sagebrush of Grand Tetons National Park, or putting mile after mile under my tires cruising the endless labyrinth of dirt roads across Montana. There are still so many places left across Wyoming and Montana for me to search.

In the meantime, I found myself down in Denver picking up a 1991 fj80 Land Cruiser (AKA cool old truck) to bring back to Bozeman and decided to check out a place I have heard much fanfare about: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. Situated along the eastern edge of Denver and the northern edge of Aurora, this National Wildlife Refuge is, well, a bit more urban of an experience than I am used to. Now that is not to say that it is in the middle of the city, but let it suffice to say that the Denver skyline sits as the backdrop to the west, and a sprawling sports complex to the south.

Upon entering the refuge, I was immediately greeted with a black tailed prairie dog town, complete with chunky rodents running all over the place. Per the refuge biologist, this prairie dog town is also home to a couple of black footed ferrets – one of the most endangered species of mammals on the planet.

At first I was a bit disappointed. This IS a National Wildlife Refuge we are talking about. This means expansive protected and exquisitely managed land for maximum wildlife. And complete with little white signs everywhere stating Unauthorized Entry Prohibited. But then the deer began to appear.

Posted in Trip Reports, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Crocodiles of the Cuero y Salado Honduras

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Floating down the Rio Saluda in a small native boat in Honduras, I found myself searching for crocodiles at high noon. This wasn’t exactly the time of day one expects to do any serious wildlife photography. Underwater is a different story, but above water, well, it was hot, bright, and contrasty as hell.  Yet, here I was.

The last three days had seen a major cold front stall out over Honduras. Thick clouds and dropping temperatures meant that for the crocodiles of the Cuerro y Salado region, their black water home fringed with lowland rainforest would be something of a prison for them as they worked to regulate their body temps during the front. By the fourth day the unusual cold that had settle over the usually hot country had moved on.

I had been on the water since day break in search of these hold overs from the age of dinosaurs but with no luck. Finally, as the sun reach overhead it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Hundreds of crocodiles began to emerge as they hauled themselves out onto downed trees, dense clumps of floating vegetation, and whatever else they could find. This was what I had been waiting for.

Given that crocodiles live in the water, they need to climb out into the sun to rid themselves of parasites – as opposed to bathing themselves in water like we do. At high noon, with the intensity of the sun at its apex, the crocs all began hauling out to burn off three days worth of funk that had begun to build up on their bodies.

Despite the intensity of the harshness of the light, all I had to do was find a bit of dappled lighting to work with. As the river narrowed and the forest began to close in around us, bright shafts of light were contrasted with the deep shadows that the gallery forest cast across the water. All we had to do was to keep paddling until we found a crocodile in one of these shaft of light with an appropriately shadowed background. Given that the dynamic range of the scene was too great for the camera to record detail across its full spectrum of tones, I was able to create this chiaroscuro lighting scenario in the middle of the day.

Posted in Technical Skills, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Swimming Horses

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Along the coast of North Carolina, there is a population of wild horses thought to be the oldest in North America. It was here where Western Civilization first crashed into mainland North America, and these horses are thought to be the result of these very first attempts and exploration and colonization.

This breed is known officially as the Banker horse, and unlike those wild herds of the west, the two populations of these mustangs are federally protected due to their historical significance.

For the last 400 years, these horses have adapted to a world of sand and salt, of hurricanes and nor’easters. Surviving on salt marsh grass such as spartina, and digging their own wells in the by pawing down to through the sand in low areas known as swales, these horses have survived countless calamities – including the shipwrecks for which some the original stock of horses are believed to have washed ashore form.

On one particular island, many of the individuals swim out along the edge of an inlet, through a bull shark nursery, fighting tidal rips, and risking drowning, to access tiny marsh islets where they will feed until the tide begins to drop again and they swim with the current back to their island home.

I created this image from my skiff – a flat bottom boat specifically designed for running in and navigating the treacherous shoal water around these islands. I have spent countless hours on these islands photographing the horses that eke out a living there. And this is a particular shot that I have spent several years trying to capture.

Part of the problem in the past, was that I was attempting to photograph these horses while they were actually swimming. Seeing a herd of these animals sweep past you with the current is an incredible experience, but it is definitely one that is best captured with video not still photography. What it finally took, was realizing that, from a still photography perspective, capturing the horses just before they officially kicked free of Terra firma was the moment that made the photograph.

Let the horses swim and you have a distinctly awkward horse head that looked like a furry alligator’s head sticking above the water. I still have ideas floating around in my brain for a shot that will work with the actual swimming, but I will need an underwater housing and a 9 inch dome port to make that happen.

Posted in Wild Horse Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

Story Trumps Everything

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When is it OK not to see the eyes of your wildlife subject? When is it OK to photograph “butt shots?” When the story that the photograph tells is powerful enough to override just about every so called “rule” that you think you know in photography. Story is everything in our photographs. When it comes to selling photographs, story trumps all else. It trumps technical perfection. It trumps compositional rules. Story is what sells photographs. Technical perfection has never sold a photograph – ever. No buyer of fine art or editor of a magazine has ever stepped up to a photograph and thought to themselves, “wow. look at the technical quality of this image. Look there at the lack of noise. The exquisite perfection in focusing. And the exposure. Good God man, its perfect. I must have this!” No one in the history of buying photographs has ever thought any of that.

Photography is the art of capturing and telling stories.

So here we have a photograph of an elk bugling while facing away from us. Considering nothing more than the elk himself, this is all wrong. You can’t see the eye. The butt is the most prominent feature of the animal. He is looking the wrong way. But when the elk becomes part of the overall composition, all of this changes. From the perspective of the entire photograph, we have an elk perched atop a ridgeline high in the Rocky Mountains. He is bugling. Calling out across the mountains and valleys that roll off into a world impossibly larger than the bull can ever know exists. He is calling in would be challengers. He is luring in would be lovers. He is the king of the mountain. And he is the master of all that he sees.

This photograph is successful because of the story it tells. It is not simply the subject. It has nothing to do with the technical aspects of the image. As photographers, as visual artists, you have to begin to see beyond histograms and hyper focal distances. You have to begin to see in stories.

Posted in Technical Skills, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Pink Meanie of Panama

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Like all photographers, I love my toys. And like most of you, I too have a couple gopro cameras that I tote around with me to play with. While on a recent trip to Panama, I hooked up my new Knekt 6″ dome housing to my gopro and attached the whole thing on a scuba diving selfie stick. The dome port allows me to push the waterline away from the lens of the GoPro camera and photograph split level, or over / under, photos. We were out on a boat up in the mangroves photographing sloths, when we spotted this massive pine meanie jelly fish. Dangling over the side of the boat, I was able to reach out with the selfie stick (which I brought along for this very reason) and capture this shot with my GoPro.

You can check out the dome port I used here: http://www.knektusa.com/store/ksd6-dome-port

Posted in equipment review Tagged , , , , , , , |

Fishing Bears with the Nikon D5

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There is definitely something exhilarating about watching a 400lb sow brown bear come charging straight at you through the water. Of course, that feeling would be a little different if it wasn’t for the fact that you were confident she was intent on the salmon fighting their way up through the shallow delta at low tide. I think the feeling otherwise would be more like the realization you need new underwear.

With Nikon’s release of their new D5, I uncharacteristically jumped on board pretty quick. Normally I wait things out a while. Give it a year for bugs to be worked out and ghosts to be exercised from the machine. But the litany of upgrades that the D5 brought over my D4 was just too much for me to pass up. So far I have loved this camera. But to be honest, I really haven’t put it use in high ISO situations. That is, until I landed on the beach along Cook Inlet Alaska in a little Cessna.

This photograph was shot before sunrise at ISO 5000 in order to bring my shutter up to 1/1000. High shutter speeds are necessary for this sort of action and when there is so little light like this, there is only one way to achieve a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second.

Overall I am quite pleased with the noise of this camera at such high ISO. I realize that Nikon marketed this thing as having insanely high ISO capabilities. But really though, who the hell is going to shoot at a million ISO? What I wanted to see was solid usable results from the 4000 – 10,000 range. And so far, this camera has delivered!

Posted in equipment review, Wildlife Photography

Puffins Galore

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After a 30 minute boar ride across the most beautiful glacial blue waters I have ever seen, we arrived at a spectacular hunk of rock rising up out of the sea completely covered in horned puffins. These birds were everywhere. In the water. In the air. On the rocks. The whole island was quite literally dripping with puffins!

These birds are a member of the Alcid family. This is a small family of birds that have the remarkable ability to fly underwater. Upon diving into the sea for fish, they will then use their wings to propel themselves along beneath the waves as they chase down their prey.

After bobbing up and down and trying to keep up with these colorful little bullets as they raced by through the air, we decided to hop off the bow of the boat and set up shop on a small beach at the base of the cliffs where many of these birds were nesting. They were completely unphased by our presence and we were rewarded with a near constant barrage of birds coming and going from their nests that were stuffed inside of rock crevices.

The trick was to try and find a good background. Most of these birds perched right at the entrance to their nesting crevices. This means that the background was so close to them that even photographing the birds with an aperture of f/4, there was a hyper amount of detail bleeding through from behind them. If you want that sexy smooth background that you see in this photograph, you have to remember that bokeh is a function of the backgrounds distance from the subject. The further away the background is, the softer and silkier the background will be.

Posted in Travel, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , |

Brown Bear Reflections

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The biggest problem one faces when photographing brown bears along the banks of Cook Inlet in Alaska, is that they keep getting too damn close. Now, I should admit that I was being stubborn this morning. Back in the little cabin that I was staying in, I stood there staring back and forth between a 200-400mm and a 600mm lens. I wanted to bring both of course. And I could have brought both. But carrying both of these lenses on a four wheeler, hiking across streams, laying down in the mud on tidal flats… well, quite frankly, it just sucks. So against my best judgement, I shouldered the 600mm with my D5 attached and headed out the door.

Initially I assumed that I would be photographing bears fishing at the mouth of the creek where it dumped into the inlet. Wrong. Though we found a solitary bear down there doing her thing, she got bored pretty quickly and wondered off. This left us with a handful of bears out on the mud flats that was exposed from the astronomical low tide. For the record, an astronomical tide is one that is extremely high or low due to the phase of the moon – more commonly known as a “spring tide.”

Switching gears for photographing bears who were in search of razor clams to eat, I instantly knew that the 600mm was a bad choice. Like I said, the bears get close. Really close! And so with a 200-400 I could have just zoomed out. With the 600 however, I found myself in a constant state of backing up.

With the thin veil of water on the flats, I wanted reflections. And it seemed like no sooner did I work my way far enough back to get the bear and the reflection in, then they would come strolling in even closer. On several occasions we had to try and shew the bears back a little. 10 feet is just too close. Man it sure will be nice when Nikon releases an updated version of the 200-400mm with the built in 1.4 teleconverter like Canons. 

Although we did not get any good salmon fishing action this morning, the thin veil of clouds and super low tides did allow for a full morning of awesome photography with bears and reflections.

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Sage Grouse: America’s Bird of Paradise P. 2

Greater Sage Grouse in early morning light

The greater sage grouse are unquestionably the American version of the bird of paradise – its mating displays are every bit as elaborate and extraordinary. Getting up close and personal with these birds like this demands the use of a blind set up on the edge of their ancestral leks. ISO 250 | f/4 | 1/5000 | D4 | 600mm | Tragopan Blind © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved

One hundred years ago there was an estimated 16 million greater sage grouse in the world. At least that is according to those who figure things out like that.  Theirs was a world of seemingly never ending high desert that once spanned from Alberta to Arizona, California to North Dakota. All of this has changed. Today, there is probably only around 300,000 of these birds left. They have gone extinct in 6 states and provinces. And of the 27 known viable populations of these birds, 20 of them are in steep decline.

All of this has brought the greater sage grouse to the doorstep of the Endangered Species List several times – not to mention to the doorstep of extinction itself. Yet when economic analysis’s reveal that listing this particular species as threatened or endangered could cost up to $5 billion dollars in economic output, the truth behind why this bird remains federally unprotected comes out. How exactly can this little big bird cost so much money to protect? Simple. Lost revenue from the oil and gas industry who also want access to much of that land. And if federal protection was to be granted to these birds, fossil fuel companies would be barred entrance from over 100 million acres of land they have their eyes on. So the results have been that the US Fish and Wildlife Service continues to churn out reports suggesting that sage grouse are doing just fine despite every other group of scientists on the planet looking at these birds argues otherwise.

One good thing has actually come from all of this for the greater sage grouse. If this bird were to find its way onto the endangered species list, states like Wyoming would suddenly find themselves losing control over vast swaths of their territories. This threat has scared the shit out of state governments all across the West, which has prompted them to try and get out ahead of this issue before the feds do. In other words, states like Wyoming are trying to lead the way in sage grouse conservation so that they don’t lose their say over the land inside of their borders. Fair enough. Whatever it takes to get the job done here.

Sage grouse depend on immense unbroken expanses of mature sagebrush for their survival. Remember, this is a desert we are talking about. Water is scarce. Available food changes from season to season and can force birds to travel up to 60 miles in order to find what they need to survive in this environment. But from the perspective of Western Civilization, sagebrush is useless. And so over the last 100 years we have burned, plowed, dug up, and destroyed millions of acres of sagebrush. Those areas that have not had its sagebrush completely eliminated have been chewed up by development, roads, and most importantly today, oil and gas development.

Unbroken is the key to the grouses survival. And in today’s high deserts, that can be a lot more difficult to find that you might think.

The last best place for the sage grouse happens to be Wyoming, which contains just shy of 40% of the entire population of these birds that once ranges across the entirety of western North America. Wyoming is the least populated state in the union – boasting only half a million people in a state the size of three or four eastern states put together. And it is for this reason that the majority of the viable habitat for sage grouse now resides in this state. All of this makes Wyoming, with the largest coal and natural gas productions in the country, the epicenter for sage grouse conservation right now.

 

Posted in conservation photography, Wildlife Photography Tagged , , , , , , , , |

Sage Grouse: America’s Birds of Paradise p. 1

Greater Sage Grouse on lek at dawn

A male greater sage grouse strutting his stuff on a lek at dawn. One of the challenges in photographing sage grouse on their leks is simply mustering up the patience to wait until there is enough light around you to shoot. This is where full frame cameras really shine due to their larger pixel size, and therefore better light gathering capabilities. ISO 2000 | f/6.3 | 1/400th © Jared Lloyd Photography | all rights reserved.

Last week I was driving down a long wash board dirt road through a veritable sea of sagebrush. I had been here before a couple of years ago in this remote section of high desert to photograph the greater sage grouse. With a pair of binoculars resting on my lap as I drove, my cell phone range and on the other end was David from the Nature Conservancy. A state biologist had passed along my name to him and he wanted to know if I had any interest in photography the sage grouse on the leks at one of their sweeping private ranch preserves in the Snake River Plain.

The timing of this phone call could not have been better. Here I was, a few hundred miles from home, heading out into the high desert to set up a blind to shoot grouse from. Where was this ranch he was talking about? 30 miles west of me. Spinning my mud covered Land Cruiser around in the road – if you can call it a road – I plugged in the name of the road and headed west.

After Ron, the ranch manager, was gracious enough to take me around to inspect the various leks on the property, I chose a spot, got my blind together, and then headed off to find a hotel for the night. The whole trip had been something I kind of threw together in a moments notice, grabbing camera gear, blind, ghillie suit, and a change of clothes in a bit of a hurry. Normally I bring camping equipment with me when I know I will be this remote. I have a pretty sweet sleeping platform I built for my vehicle that I can then toss a Thermarest Dreamtime XL mattress ontop of and camp on location out the back of the Land Cruiser. I was about the time Dave called me up that I was realizing I had forgotten all of that stuff and would therefore have a nice 80 mile drive from a hotel at 3am to get to whatever lek I ended up setting up on.

The following morning, after 80 miles in the small hours of the morning, and several cans of Starbucks Double Shots, I turned onto the old dirt road the ranch set off of at the base of the mountains. By 5:30 am, I was zipped up in my blind and assembling my gear with an hour and a half of darkness left before sunrise. The greater sage grouse gets the party started pretty early. And so you need to find yourself in a blind at a bare minimum of an hour before first light – which is about 30 mins before sunrise. Otherwise, if the birds see you entering the blind, they will spook off the lek and may not return until the following morning.

Once in the blind though, the challenge becomes simply having the patience to wait for the light. Within minutes of settling down inside, I could hear the sound of the males all around me. The sound is unbelievable. Quite like nothing you’ve ever heard before if you have never spent time at a sage grouse lek. With some 30 birds already displaying and strutting within just feet of your lek, it can be difficult to resign yourself to just waiting when all you really want to do and shove your lens out the window and start shooting. Of course, this is totally futile an hour before sunrise. And so you settle in to the rythms of the grouse, listening, waiting, watching, as black becomes grey and then grey fades into subtle hints of blues, purples, and golds as dawn approaches, and the world around you comes alive.

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