Chasing Patterns of Light


High up in the Canadian Rocky Mountains of Alberta, I found myself one morning on the hunt for moose. The moose here somehow are eclipsed by the fame of the elk rut. But coming from the Northern Rocky Mountains of the US, when I think of these mountains, I think of BIG bull moose. 

Down in the US Rocky Mountains, moose are on the small side. There was a time that they were considered to be their own subspecies, what biologists referred to in the 19th century as the Shiraz moose. Today, we know its a matter of climate and diet. Different populations grow to different sizes thanks to environmental factors. Take a so called Shiraz moose and raise it in northern Canada or Alaska, and you will find a moose that measures up in every way. 

But just because moose can get really big around these parts, doesn’t mean that all moose are all that big. Some will never measure up due to the basic nature of genetic variation. Others are just young moose and haven’t yet had the opportunity to reach their full potential. As a wildlife photographer, you learn pretty quickly that you should think twice about passing up wildlife. Just because a particular specimen doesn’t measure up to what you happened to be looking for, doesn’t mean that there is not an extraordinary photograph there just waiting to be found. 

This morning was like that. My drive into the mountains had only produced one small young bull moose. Looking down at the braided channels of water running across a drying lake bed, I thought long and hard. It would be a serious hike for me to get down to this little guy. It could take 30 minutes with gear. I would have to scramble down a steep scree covered mountainside. I would have to wade across these channels. And then there was the potential that the moose simply wouldn’t be there once I was in place. But I didn’t want to abandon the situation – something about a bird in the hand being worth more than two in the bush. 

So I set and watched. I contemplated. I observed. I imagined. And then suddenly, the sky was lit on fire with the orange hues of sunrise and I saw the reflection beginning to show in the water. 

I had been here yesterday scouting the area out and remembered another overlook further up the dirt road, one that should put me in position to look back toward the sun, the colors, and a silhouette of this moose – if he continued moving in the same direction. Kicking the truck into drive, I sped off. 

My hunch was dead on. The overlook did in fact have me looking back toward the sun and across this beautiful pattern of light and color and shadows. The window of opportunity was short – both in terms of a gap in the trees, but also in the timing. There was no time for tripods. There was no time for guess work. I grabbed the D5 and 600mm, ran out to the edge of the click, reduced my exposure by 2 full stops – a total guess but hoping it would get me close enough – and snapped exactly 10 frames. The moose turned. Without a profile, he was nothing more than an unidentifiable blob. That was it. 

When I climbed back into my vehicle, I reviewed the images. They were little more than grab shots. A spur of the moment decision, a race to the overlook, an educated guess at my exposure. But oh man! The results took my breathe away. 

So what makes this work? 

First and foremost, its the patterns of light and shadows. They are repeating. All of these draws interest. Our brains are hardwired to be lured in by repeating patterns. Layer upon layer of light and shadow come together to create a compelling photograph all by themselves. But then add the moose and you add an anchor. Suddenly, with the presence of the moose, you know where you are, what this is. There is a sense of place and time. 

The moose is small, but it still works. We don’t need super tight portraits to make compelling photographs. In all honesty, its the photographs that work in the environment that are often the MOST compelling. So while the moose only takes up 1% of the frame, this was all that’s necessary in this composition. 

And then there is the silhouette. For a silhouette to work, you need an instantly recognizable shape. As long as the moose is profile (sideways), then you can make him out immediately. There is no guess work. Let him face the camera, and he is a blob and is now a distracting element in this composition. The other part of the silhouette equation is that the moose stands apart from the rest of the photograph thanks to the light that surrounds him. With everything solid turned to black in a silhouette like this, if his head or body so much as intersect with the gravel bars here, the moose would disappear into the shadows. This goes back to shape of course. Not only does the moose need to be instantly recognizable, but he needs light bordering him on all side to make him step out. 3 more steps forward and his head blended with the gravel bar and the photograph went into the trash bin. 3 steps back and his body blended into the gravel bar and the photograph went into the trash bin. 

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