Hard Night on the Town

Photograph of an elk under a tree
Elk lounging beneath a tree in the Denver suburbs.

Working on the wildlife catalogs this morning I came across this comical photograph of an elk lounging beneath tree in my neighborhood.

Elk wander into the burbs of the foothills from time to time, however, it’s not often they stop and linger for any length of time.

This guy looks like he has a hangover after a hard night on the town.

Holy Grail Photographs

Photograph of Bighorn Rams in Combat
Bighorn Rams Butting Heads.

In wildlife photography we look for what could be called “Holy Grail” photos.

I think that phrase is over-used, but the fact remains. We look for specific types of behavioral scenes to photograph. In this case, the bighorn ram fight scene.

I’ve seen this combat several times over the years. It isn’t hard to observe it happening, one must simply keep trying to find it. The hard part is finding it in a situation that allows a decent photograph. It is rare to get a good look at this occurring. The trick of course is to have the right camera/lens combination in the right environment at the right time. More easily said than done.

There is a distinct pattern of behavior to look for when seeking this shot. There are also things you can do to prepare yourself for it when it does happen.

Most important to know is the fact that this behavior only occurs at a certain time of the year. The annual rut. In Colorado, the bighorn rut begins in October and runs through late December. The combat is more commonly found at the beginning of the rutting period. I seldom find two rams in combat in December. These guys want to get things sorted out early. There is mating to do and the sooner one establishes domination over the competition, the better chance of attracting the affections of the mating females.

When seeking this action, the first thing to look for are two equally mature adult rams hanging out in a herd of females or even roaming the hills together. While you may find younger rams with less developed horns trying to spar with an elder, the elder will normally ignore the younger ram. I think peer pressure is key to this. Two equally developed animals are in direct competition with one another to gain the rights to mate.

These two were near a herd of females and youngsters, but decidedly apart from the group. Notice the development of the horns on each animal. I’ve read that it takes about 10 years for a ram to grow a horn that is fully circular. In my estimate, these two are roughly the same age, with roughly the same head-gear, maybe 6-8 years old.

They hang out together for most of the morning and moved around together in and out of the herd but it became apparent that they needed to prove to the ladies and to each other, whose horn was better.

The action typically begins with the two contenders standing face-to-face together, with their heads side by side. Eye contact, visual comparison, body language. One of the animals will turn and walk about 15-20 feet away from the other and then turn back around to face the other animal at a gunfight distance. For a few moments they’ll stand there staring at one another and then instantly both will rear up on their hind legs and simultaneously lunge at one another with all their strength. The collision of the heads is powerful and makes a sound similar to two bowling balling colliding. Often, both animals will completely leave the ground when they collide. It’s powerful and deadly. One mistake in angle or body preparation could be fatal.

They will repeat this ritual combat action several times. I’ve seen it go on for up to twenty minutes. Sooner or later one of the animals will realize he isn’t getting the better of the other and will turn away and the combat ends. Afterwords, they act like they were best friends. Only now, one knows he gets first dibs on the females.

The photographic trick is to position yourself to capture the event if and when it occurs. You’ll need a good telephoto lens too. These guys don’t do this in the parking lot of Starbucks, they are more likely to be on a rock covered steep hillside 75 yards away. Another trick is to never distract them when you find the two similar rams together. If you do, they’ll head on over the hill and do it somewhere else. They are there for themselves, not four your photographic pleasure.

Mooseaholic Monday

moose, wildlife, animal, photography, photographer, nature, water, grass, young, bull
Young bull moose walking through a pond.

Six Hundred photos for the opening of summer in Red Feather Lakes.

My first impression this year is that the moose are there and just waiting for me to find them. The few I found within a mile of my place prove that they are on the move looking for the best food.

Environmentally speaking, the Aspen trees have just greened up above 8,000 feet and most of the willows are sprouting fresh green shoots, which is what attracts these hungry ungulates.

I managed to get a full test in of the new kit. I’m shooting with the Nikon D810 using the 200-500mm VR and the Nikon D750  using the 70-200mm f4/VR. No complaints. I don’t have to swap lenses in the field. If I need wider angle, I have a D7200 the 24-120mm VR and a couple of fast & wide primes. I’ve been shooting in predawn light and both cameras handle it well.

I’ll probably take a few days of down time and edit shots. I’m looking forward to getting back out though. The summer is only starting.

The Consumerization of Photography

The best photographs tell a story.

I’ve been working with digital imaging since the early 1980’s. Before digital photography began, newspapers and magazines were the pioneers in the move away from analog (film.) The advancement of radio transmission opened new doors for newspapers. Microwave radio and satellite communications were at the leading edge of this move to new imaging techniques. Newspapers that wished to publish nation wide or world wide found that it was cheaper to transmit their images via radio frequency than it was to produce mass quantities of film and fly or truck that film to their printing operations.

During the early days of digital imaging, there was no mass consumer attraction to gigabytes and megapixels. Photography for the average Joe out there was either amateurs who found the combination of art and technical enticing, a dedicated art form practiced in niches and commercial advertising work or photojournalism for promoting products. By the late 1990’s, digital cameras began appearing on the market as mass produced consumer products and with that came the proliferation of the Internet photography related web sites.

Here we are now in 2018 and photography has moved into the future. Film is still used in many commercial settings but digital image files are the predominant product format. The technology that was in use at the start of digital imaging still exists, but commercial use of satellite and the older microwave links has morphed to the internet over TCP-IP high speed data links. It’s still a matter of costs for those producing photography filled product.

As the Internet grew in popularity, so did the number of websites devoted to the new technology. Today the primary medium for displaying photography is the computer and most of the photographs we see are on the internet. Photography as become a major consumer market and the art aspect has been drowned in a sea of mediocre photographs of common popular scenes and subjects and post processing techniques.

The other side of the coin is the morphing of Internet websites devoted to consumer reviews of equipment and accessories, splattered with fun filled experts cavorting around waving their expensive equipment at us to convince us they are somehow important to the art and article.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, if that’s what the masses want to see and what today’s photographer wants to get from their photography. Sharing the experience. It all really boils down to drawing the attention of consumers to sell something.

Where this approach is lacking, in my opinion, is that everything has morphed into consumerism and the attainment of new toys. Consumerism in photography has driven the serious photographers away. It’s driven the story tellers to find something different.

Photography as always been a magnet for the technically inclined. That’s how I got in to the business. I was an engineer and learning the technical aspects of digital imaging was paramount to my doing my job. Cameras and lenses and darkroom equipment were the tools of the craft and have always been attractive to the technical hobbyist.

Now that our thinking has been embedded into the internet photography age, consumerism has taken over. The days of the paying gig are becoming farther and fewer between. So much so, the running joke is “what’s the difference between a photographer and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.” There is more truth to that joke than you may imagine.

Newspapers, once a staple profession for photographers, are cutting or have cut their photography staff to the bone. Some have eliminated photojournalists from their ranks completely, preferring to simply have their journalists use their iPhone camera. Television news is a wasteland for professional photographers. Everything is crowd sourced now. Turn on the local news and you’ll see lots of mediocre photographs sent in from viewers substituting for what the photojournalist used to do.

Where does this leave someone who wants to pursue photography as a profession? Disappointment I’m afraid is the most likely destination. It goes back to the old theory of supply and demand. When the supply of photographers goes up, the demand goes down for any one individual photographer. The market is booming for photographic equipment, but the market for good photographs is decreasing. The most skilled photographers have to compete with everyone who owns a camera. The potential client is going to think economics for their wedding or event or art and look for the best bang for the buck. Talented amateurs can compete with professionals by giving their work away. A professional has to charge for their service. The amateur working for free can always find a welcome clientele when the product is given for free. When I hear of a photographer working for “exposure” it’s all I can do to not break out laughing. Getting a lot of “likes” on Facebook isn’t really going to earn you much money. That exposure is roughly the equivalent of being a plastic bottle floating around in a large blob of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For a working professional, finding a source of income in photography is becoming more and more problematic.

Serious photographers have taken to the Internet to promote themselves. I’ve been doing this for years myself. I’ve written technical and interest stories and published them. Some have been widely successful, other articles have not fared so well.  I have enough material for a couple of books. But who needs another book saying the same thing that’s been said again and again?

The meaningful content hasn’t much changed, just the person writing about it. Today’s Internet photography website has drifted away from the art form and towards consumerism to make money. Photographers looking for income on the Internet have consumerized their websites with advertisements for the consumer photography industry to the point that they really don’t have much of interest to say about the art, it’s more about buying your next camera or lens from their link so they can get a cut of the sale.

Many a photographer has had to change their business model to find a vein of income and that reality has changed the content character of photography related websites. Dwindling are the days of informative articles on technique and subject. Instead, consumerism has taken over as the driving force.

The staple websites on the Internet now feel more like sub-contractors for gear sales. In a manner similar to the heyday of audiophile, appreciation of photography as an art form isn’t what it’s about now. It’s about megapixels, dynamic range, lens sharpness, sensor technology, glazed over technical facts that substitute for information devoted to the creation of compelling art and how to market that art, in much the same way that music reproduction became a consumer study in total harmonic distortion, wow and flutter, noise reduction and high fidelity. People were convinced to spend thousands of dollars on obtaining the ultimate in audio reproduction quality. Never mind the art, it’s about the equipment and selling it. Today’s audiophile is now stuck with digitized mp3 or low quality audio streaming on equipment that has the technical performance of an abandoned car. I would even argue that the quality of music as an art form has suffered as a result of technical burnout. The industry arced and cheap plastic junk is now used to reproduce the same music that the consumer wants to hear over and over again. The innovation peaked and the interest waned until the consumer aspect became what it was all about.

The photography related situation on the internet has almost become comical. I’ll give you a few examples. Now, I don’t know these people and I’m sure they are just trying to make a buck like everyone else, but consider the thought.

Over the years, one of my favorite “online” photography website hosts was Thom Hogan. His primary fixation, was for a long time confined primarily to  Nikon users. Okay, great. If you wanted to know about Nikon gear, he was and still is an expert. As a photographer, he’s above average, but as a source of information concerning photography as it related to Nikon equipment he was informative and accurate. But what happened to Thom? For the past few years he seems to be mailing it in. He’s gone off into the world of camera manufacturing economics and business commentary. I used to work for The Wall Street Journal, so I understand business news and the people targeted by that content. For the last few years, he’s had to change his business model to find better ways to make money. It’s been a subtle change, keeping the same general look and feel but his content is now focused on financial reports and speculations on how one camera manufacturer is competing in a market. He’s broadened his scope to increase his content, now including business speculations on Canon, Sony and other camera brands. What he’s not writing about to any great extent is photography. It’s mostly writing to support marketing and consumerism. Sorry Thom, but that’s my view of the road. I’ve yet to find anything useful in understanding Nikon or Canon’s quarterly results when I’m in the field looking for moose. The man needs to write, that much is certain, but what’s the point? Is this his path or his destination?

Another well known Internet expert is Ken Rockwell. He may be the king of marketing camera equipment, but his published technical and art related subject matter is now hard to find in his current string of published articles. His technical reviews have fallen into a cookie cutter approach, using what looks like form letter reviews where a few facts and images are inserted into some kind of default review article. His articles now are little more than sales pitches and raving about things he’d like you to buy from a link on his website. As a source of knowledge, he looks like he’s “jumped the shark” from my view of the road.

We have the bigger, heavily consumerized websites too. DPReview being the elephant in the room. What began as a nice informational website has now become a marketing blitz and the content is now focused on consumerism. They’ve attempted to keep up with the technical and gear issues, which has a place, but it all feels like they are pointing you towards a purchase. This to me is the reincarnation of consumer audiophile world based on technical specifications of the gear with a spattering of “look at me” stories from their staff and around the web. When you dig deeper, what you’ll find is a very limited set of actual technical reports and reviews on lenses and cameras that seldom identify functional flaws or problems. Heck, they didn’t even publish an in depth review of the Nikon D810 until shortly before the camera was replaced by the Nikon D850. I’m sorry, but technical reviews of obsolete equipment that are aimed at consumers are not that interesting to me.

There are examples of websites that seem to have stuck to their original theme of presenting interesting and informative information on the art of photography. The Luminous Landscape comes to mind and there are still many others. Founded by the now deceased Michael Reichman, his colleagues have continued to present photography articles that are strongly related to the art of photography. They too have to make a buck, so you’ll find advertisements there as well, but they’ve never come across as trying to talk you into making your next purchase based on a veiled product placement in content designed for the consumer. If you want the good stuff though, you’ll have to pay a modest subscription fee. That’s okay, they need to cover their costs. But it’s not obnoxious and doesn’t come across as perfunctory like many of the big sites do.

As for me, I’m content with keeping my photography web sites about photography as it relates to my world. I share my experiences, I share my photos and I’ve found a way to make money doing it without selling out to Amazon or B&H Photo. I don’t have the following that the large consumer websites enjoy and I don’t have to feel like a car salesman when I post something. I’m quite happy telling a story. It doesn’t matter who is listening so long as someone does.

Your mileage may vary.

Stop And Smell The Roses

Colorado Landscape Photographer
Livermore, Colorado

As we approach the opening of moose photography season here in Colorado, the weather has been a mixed bag as usual.

The saying is “Springtime in the Rockies”, which is commonly used to describe the drastic changes in weather patterns. It’s not uncommon to have Summer weather one day and four inches of snow the next. And that’s what’s been happening this year.

I’ll probably be offline for a few days as we make our annual trek to Red Feather Lakes to get our cabin opened for the season.

This photo was taken a couple of Summers ago. I’ve begun to explore my own backyard for landscape scenes that I’ve previously taken for granted. When one drives through an area often enough, it’s easy to forget to see things. I drive by scenes like this all the time in Northern Colorado, so now, this year, I intend to stop and smell the roses.

My Job Is To Explore

Elk Photograph by Gary Gray
Young Bull Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park

For me, the month of May is the time of year when I begin gearing up for wildlife photography here in Colorado.

I’ll be heading to Northern Colorado later this week, where I will be spending a lot of time this summer. The Laramie Mountains of Northern Colorado are, from my view of the road, one of the least frequented areas of the state for photography. What that means to me is I get to work without crowds of tourists and weekend warriors to wade through.

Not that the northern mountains don’t get tourists, but the ratio of tourists per square mile is much lower than areas to the south such as Rocky Mountain National Park.

As a matter of fact, I’ve pretty much abandoned working in National Parks due to over-crowding and hostile park rangers. They can keep it. There are lots of unexplored and lesser known areas between Fort Collins and Steamboat Springs.

My job is to explore.

Lazy Sunday

Red Fox by Gary Gray
Red Fox

I’ll stick with this photograph for today’s blog post.

This little fox was found sleeping in my back yard. It isn’t uncommon.

That’s A Different Story

Bull moose in a lake. Northern Colorado
Bull Moose – Northern Colorado

I suppose I’m a traditional type of person in that I find emotional comfort in certain traditions.

For internet purposes, I practice the tradition of “Moose Monday.”

I’m not quite certain of the origins of “Moose Monday” as it’s been observed by quite a few people I associate with. I’m I the reason? I don’t think so, but I may have contributed to the delinquency of others.

The Moose Collective. I think the first guy other than me who I recall using the phrase was Matt Dirkson and he too appears to have this insatiable appetite for photographing wild moose but we aren’t alone. Birds of a feather so to speak, it was inevitable that we collide and join a growing a photographic tradition of naming specific photographic themes for days of the week. Some days are better than others, literally.

Still, no one person gets credit for anything organizational in a collective. It’s more symbiotic than organized. We have “Moose Mommas” in the group too, so it isn’t a guy thing, I know that much.

These things aren’t just limited to Moose either. Us moose people in the collective are sort of a sub-collective. There are many sub-collectives in photography and we all appear to be traditional people from what I can see. Many of us are obcessed with our traditional ways, so we find our collectives and carry on.

To add to the confusions, I’ve picked up a nick-name as well.”The Moose Whisperer.” I’m not certain of the origin of that name, as I’ve heard it used many times over the years describing me but that’s a different story.

 

Back from Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes in Flight

The Greater Sandhill Cranes that migrate through Monte Vista are the same group of birds found in Bosque del Apache from December – February.

Each year, the town of Monte Vista hosts the Sandhill Crane Festival, normally around mid-March. I don’t attend the festival as it’s a bit too crowded and hectic. My trips to Monte Vista are normally during the week before or after the festival

There are hotels in Monte Vista and nearby Alamosa. I typically stay in Alamosa due to the infrastructure. Monte Vista is more of a sleepy town, and has its’ own charm; though, I’m not going there to be charmed by anything except birds.

In the coming days I’ll discuss the general concepts and techniques of photographing these magnificent creatures.