How the heck did you see that?

For two days Jackson Hole and the grand Tetons had been socked in with clouds. Several feet of snow had fallen in the upper reaches of the mountains and light had been pretty much non existent for photography down in the valley. After having spent days photographing bears in low light conditions, I wanted to give everyone on the workshop another opportunity to photograph these bears with some light on them.

Pulling up to the trail-head, I looked out across about 150 yards of open sagebrush to a stand of berries. “Bear!” I shouted, much to everyone’s surprise. Grabbing my new Nikon Monarch 7 binoculars off the dash I quickly confirmed the sighting. There, tucked away in upper branches of the bush was a cinnamon colored black bear in the throws of hyperphagia fattening up for the coming winter.

“Wait,” someone said. “What bear? I don’t see anything”

Handing over the binoculars I offered up instructions on exactly where to look. “How the heck did you see that,” was the only response that I received as he studied the brown blob hidden in the bush over a football field away.

How the heck did I see that? This is probably one of the most common questions I get when out looking for wildlife. It doesn’t matter how much you know about an animal in terms of habitat, ecology, ect… If you can’t find the animal then you go home empty handed.

The world is big place and sometimes you have to be able to scan large tracks of land quickly for your subject – which is especially the case when you are driving around looking for wildlife. A 2500lbs bison standing in the middle of a meadow is no big deal. A moose beaded down in the willows or a bear tucked up inside of a berry patch is a totally different challenge.

The trick to finding wildlife is to actually not look for wildlife!

When you are specifically looking for something like a bear, then your minds eye establishes a search image of a bear that it compares to everything you see. If by chance you come across a bear, profile to you, walking across an open area, then this will match your minds search image and register as a bear.

The problem is that rarely do we find a bear in that situation. Instead, they are bedded down under trees, climbing aspens, navigating the branches of berry bushes, hidden in a dense tangle of vegetation, etc. . . If you are looking for a bear, then none of these situations will match your minds search image.

Instead, scan the habitat and take note of the general pattern, color, and shape of the vegetation. This only takes a second. Once you have a feel for the place, what you search for is something DIFFERENT. You look for something that breaks up the pattern, something sits differently in the landscape, something that is a different color than the rest of the landscape. This difference is then what you focus in on.

One saying that we have when it comes to searching for wildlife is to look for the horizontals. Think about it. If plants all grow vertical(ish), and animals tend to be horizontal, then keeping an eye out for those horizontal lines in the landscape which may reveal the presence of wildlife.

The concept of a search image is pretty basic. When we go to a busy airport to pick up a significant other for instance, we employ this search image to pick out the person we are looking for from a crowd of potentially hundreds of people. We do not stop and look at every single face in the process. There is no need to and that would take forever. Instead there are certain. Key features that we have logged into our minds eye that we then scan a crowd for very quickly.

If you are very familiar with your wildlife subject and have spent hours looking at, studying, and photographing them, then your mind will work in similar ways as it does with locating a specific person from the crowd. You can hone in on color, shape, etc. . . when scanning vegetation very quickly instead of search each individual clump of grass or leaves.

All of this can be traced back to your evolutionary roots. You are a predator. You once needed to be able to find and hunt your prey in order to feed your family and ensure the survival of both your family and genetic line. Our brains and visual acuity evolved to find food. Yellows and reds stand out to us above all other colors for very specific reasons while most other animals are actually blind to the color red. Other animals such as the American Kestrel see ultraviolet light which allows it to pick out the urine and feces of its prey in order to track them very quickly from a distance. Remove the lens of your eye and you would see ultraviolet light as well.

As the most successful predator to ever roam the Earth, our brains and eyes are highly evolved to scan for and find animals. Its just that in today’s world, we as a society have lost touch with these ancient skills. Often times we allow the complexity of our brains to get in the way of what actually comes very natural to us. All you have to do is just clear your mind, and start scanning for things that are different in the landscape.

The photograph that accompanies this post is not exactly a wall hanger. I used this image however to illustrate my point here. The photograph at the top is a quick edit of the scene as the bear navigated the upper reaches of the trees. The second image here is a black and white conversion to detail how that an animal can easily disappear into the chaos of its environment. Notice how that over all roundness of the shape of the bear however breaks up the tangled chaos of the trees.

This entry was posted in The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Wildlife Photography.