Hawthorn berries contain the word thorn for a reason. As we pushed our way up the trail along the glacial moraine, these thorns grabbed at our exposed flesh and tor at our clothes. Scrapes and trickles of blood are the tax that this habitat levies on all who enter. Such a tax is but a small price to pay however, for the photographic opportunities that this place holds if you know when and where to look.
Suddenly, a large cinnamon colored black bear darted across the trail in front of us. Blink and it was gone. About another 100 feet beyond that, I could see the upper branches of a hawthorn bush thrashing about, its red and green leaves waving in the air like a flag to lead the way. By the end of the morning, we had seen and photographed 14 black bears along the edge of this hill, including these two cubs up this aspen tree. Each and every one of them were here to feed on the ripening hawthorn berries.
Food and sex. These two things are the driving force of life all over the world. They are the motivation for epic migrations, jaw dropping battles, and the subtle nuances of both daily and seasonal comings and goings of wildlife. You can pretty much boil just about everything down to that. Understand it. Learn how your subject is driven by these two things, and you will open up a whole new world of wildlife photography for yourself.
In the online class I taught this past Spring called Beyond the Basics of Wildlife Photography, the first thing I did was have everyone pick a species that they wanted to learn how to better photograph. Then, I had everyone write up a species profile of that animal. I am pretty sure this threw everyone for a loop. Here they were in an online photography class and instead of staring at photographs and reading me ramble on about photographing, not only did they have a writing assignment they had a research assignment at that.
The idea behind a species profile is that if forces you learn your subject. It forces you to go beyond knowing that, for instance, black bears in the northern Rockies, like berries in late summer and early fall. Instead, you come to understand which types of berries, where they grow, when they ripen, and why some patches of those berries hold loads of bears while others do not.
Going back to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the old Chinese military strategist claimed that to understand your enemy, you must first think like your enemy. This is a technique employed by hunters, trappers, and wildlife photographers all over the world. You must come to think like the bear, in order to find the bear.
Take a look at the literature out there for hunters. You will be amazed at the insights into the lives of animals that these publications contain. I know that I will probably catch a lot of flack for saying this, but hunters are quite often far better naturalists than wildlife photographers. Why? Because they can’t just drive around a park looking for their subject, and they have known since the dawn of time when our very survival counted on it, that in order to be successful, they had to learn to think like their quarry.
A couple hundred years ago, and still in some rural communities, this was learned by both a lifetime of observation and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. For the uninitiated in today’s society however, we have access to more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before in the history of civilization.
If you follow this link, Species Profile – Moose, you can find a species profile that I put together on moose in Jackson Hole. Even if you never plan to come photograph moose in Jackson Hole, this is still a killer resource because it gives you the idea of the depth of information that you will want to consider compiling for your own species profile.
Anytime I take a specific interest in photographing a certain species, I put one of these together. It forces me to begin thinking like my subject. You will be amazed at how much this will help YOU become a better wildlife photographer.
To be continued. . .