Friday, June 24, 2011

Wildlife Photography: Are you an Observer or a Participant?

It's a question that all wildlife photographers will face eventually... "Are you an observer or a participant?". You may be surpised by just how difficult that question is to answer.

My wife and I both love the outdoors, wildlife and, of course, photography.  You put the three together and naturally you will find yourself with an interest in photographing wildlife.  What is less obvious, however, is how those three interests are seemingly at odds with one another.
The Photographer and the Outdoors

If you're the outdoors type, you've undoutedly heard the saying "Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories".  Personally, I like to think I subscribe to that philosophy and do my best to uphold it. There's no conflict for me to be sure that the empty water bottle or empty sandwich wrapper come out of the woods with me when hiking the trails.  Heck, I'll even pick up someone elses garbage if I should come across it.  That being said, the relationship we share with the outdoors is pretty easy to understand for most of us.

The Photographer and Wildlife

Now introduce the wildlife.  It's obviously a major component of the larger "outdoors" and, in my opinion, deserves the same level of respect.  Understanding this relationship isn't always as easy to comprehend, however.  For example, when at the park I see a 3 year old throwing rocks at the ducks, that to me constitutes disrespect and I'm likely to intervene.  If, however, I'm driving past a marsh and see a duck hunter shooting a duck from the sky, I'm able to accept it.  One assumes the later is hunting with the intent to eat the duck even though the argument could be made that both the rock throwing child and the lead throwing hunter are both taking enjoyment from the "sport" of it. 

The Photographer, the Outdoors, Wildlife and the Camera

Now introduce the camera and your desire to capture and share the beauty of the outdoors/wildlife.  For me, the introduction of the camera into the human/wildlife relationship begins to really complicate things.  First off, while my intent IS to shoot the subject, it's not likely to kill the subject and I'm not going to eat the photo.  The good news -  the subject doesn't need to fear me.  The bad news - they don't necessarily appreciate that fact.  The below osprey image is a case in point. 

This family's nest is atop a utility pole on an island on the Wisconsin River.  This same island also happens to be a recreational area containing biking and walking trails that pass right by the base of the utility pole.  From their nest, these osprey observe the comings and goings of probably hundreds of humans each day - most of whom probably have no idea that the osprey are even there.  And then there's me. 

On this particular day I watched one of the adults fly off the nest with a fish to perch atop a nearby utility pole to enjoy its lunch.  Its an action I've seen before and have come to appreciate that while the fish may fly to the nest to be handed off to the mate, its usually consumed on top of this other pole outside the nest.  The top of the pole is probably 40 or 50 feet off the ground with a walking path running parallel to it at a distance of approximately 30 yards.  After watching the osprey for about 10 minutes from further down the path, I started to make my way back up the trail which ultimately brought me closer to it.  Several bikers passed me going the same direction, a few joggers passed going the opposite direction... there was a lot of activity to which the osprey paid no attention.
Shooting with a 300mm lens, I was still on the path and approximately 50 yards away when I decided to take a few shots of the osprey enjoying the fish.  During this time, the osprey's attention was still focused on the fish and I played the role of observer happily rattling off shot after shot.  Then the osprey registered my presence and looked straight at me while I looked back at it through the viewfinder.  In the blink of an eye my role changed from observer to participant. 

Whether the osprey had decided on its own that lunch time was over or whether my presence influenced that decision, I saw it dip back and push itself up in to the sky with those mighty wings before flying right over my head with the full on stare of those yellow eyes you see in the photo above.  While I was excited to capture the image, I felt like the "birdie paparazzi" at the same time.  I felt like the 3 year old holding the rock.

The Photographer, Wildlife and other Wildlife

There's still one more relationship the wildlife photographer has to come to terms with and it may be the most important one - that is the relationship wildlife has with other wildlife.  If you're a reader of the blog, you know that my wife and I especially enjoy our outdoor avian friends.  She probably enjoys the song birds more than I while my greatest interest focuses on raptors.  Regardless, we were both pretty excited when a pair of American Kestrels took up residence in one of our nest boxes this spring.  We watched with enthusiasm while they perched atop the power line with their "snake dinner" (See above photo) or swooped down to snag a field mouse before heading back to the nest. 
Recently my wife took cover in a location where she was able to observe them coming and going into the nest and photograph their activities.  We suspect that we are on the verge of hatching some Kestrel chicks any day and the adults behavior has begun to change.  They are staying noticeably closer to the nest and, therefore, capitalizing on food sources in closer proximity.  When my wife captured a photo of the male returning to the nest with a baby song bird in its clutches, she found herself being pulled from the land observer into the realm of participant.  While she didn't intervene, it was impossible to prevent her attitude toward the Kestrels from changing.  Suddenly she wasn't as excited about their presence and not sure she'd be so happy to have them return next year.

So where does the observer/participant line exist for you if at all?  Are you comfortable with the "creed" to always observe the animal's needs before your need to "get the shot"?  Or do you, like me, struggle and find yourself justifying your actions (I wasn't the only one on the bike path....It wasn't MY fault)?  Do you cover your eyes when the lion brings down the baby wildebeest, accept it as the way of nature without prejudice, or find yourself somewhere beyond observer and closer to participant?

Please, use the comments section below and voice your opinions.  We'd love to hear from you.


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