Traveling through a glowing tunnel of yellow even though the sun was still below the horizon, the fall color of Maine lit the way as we came to the trailhead parking. We set up our cameras and started up the trail. The weather report promised ideal Moose photography weather, slight overcast and cool temps, which turned out to be off only a tad. We reached the pond and a cow Moose greeted us along with wind driven snow that stung our cheeks. The wind gusts that blew off my hat didn’t slow down the shutters because as the little sunlight that was breaching the clouds appeared so did five Maine Moose!
This might sound a little strange, but I’ve got Moose fever! One image that still eludes me after all the thousands upon thousands I’ve captured, is that of a giant bull Moose with its head slightly cocked like that of my logo. I made two big pushes in 2001 to capture that image; both times I came close but no cigar. The last attempt was in the heart of Maine in October. The trip was killer, absolutely knock you down gorgeous with the fall color and fantastic Moose ops. It was more than the heart could take at times! And while I didn’t get my giant bull shot, I want to share with you the adventures we had with Maine Moose.
The Days’ Events
Hitting the road at 5:10am, we went to our favorite local diner for breakfast. We quickly became “regulars” and were well taken care of because by 5:45 we would be out the door for our hour drive. In the predawn darkness we couldn’t see much of the magical tunnel of fall color that we were zooming through. On our first day we were rained out of our Moose locale, so I opted for fall color photography and good thing we did because the next storm that night finished it all off. The second day, we had snow in our faces. We were getting the hint that Mother Nature wasn’t going to make it easy for us to succeed!
We reached the parking lot in Baxter State Park ten minutes before sunrise each morning, saddled up our gear and began the walk up the trail. For the group’s first exposure to Sandy Stream Pond was a cow Moose twenty feet away at sunrise! If the sunrise had delivered all the color it promised, things would have been truly grand but as it was, it was fun because it was the first exposure to Moose for some of the participants.
Over the next couple of hours the weather slowly deteriorated to the point that by noon our cheeks were stinging from the wind driven snow. Leaving a cow and calf, we walked back down the trail and headed back to our motel. This might sound pretty wimpy, but there is no refuge at Sandy Stream Pond; you’re just standing out there and whatever weather is happening, it’s happening on your head.
We awoke the next day to clear skies and brightened hopes. When we reached the pond though, there wasn’t a Moose in sight! In fact, we had a few hours of nothing, well as for Moose, but we did have the most spectacular view that Sandy Stream Pond offers the adventurer willing to get there at sunrise. No sooner had the lunch come out than the Moose appeared and in a short time, a dozen Moose were cruising about the pond in great light!! Yes, I said a dozen, twelve Moose, all within a couple acres of space, some as close as, well you’ll see.
There were a couple of Moose we had already come to know in a short time. One was “spiky,” a bull only a couple years old with poorly formed spikes. This young bull was desperate for love, I mean desperate! We always knew when he was around because the cows would be complaining about his affections! Complaining or moaning, as only a complaining cow Moose can. Another Moose we came to know was the Pond Bitch who had the reputation of treeing folks. She was nothing but sweet to us, as she and her calf provided us with nearly endless photo ops. And it was on this afternoon that we had the “incident” with the Pond Bitch’s calf.
There is a very small wooden boardwalk at one of the viewing points, which is where we were set up. The “boardwalk” reminded me of a wooden, raised cattle guard about fifteen feet long and just wide enough for a tripod. It had wooden slats with spaces between them that made setting up a tripod on the boardwalk difficult. The cow and calf came on over to us, which was quite normal. We’re talking to within just feet of us! I had pulled the group back as far as we could go to give the Moose the right of way. I said to the group, “don’t worry, I can’t imagine they would walk on this boardwalk.” Sure enough, the cow, the Pond Bitch, walked around the boardwalk and us. But not her calf!
The calf walked right up onto the boardwalk and then right to us! How close did the calf get? How about licking a 400f2.8, cleaning the three legs of a carbon fiber tripod and then causing the “incident?” I won’t mention any names, but the calf sexually assaulted two of the male participants! Luckily it only used its tongue and not its teeth because I was laughing so hard it was difficult to take photos (of course, it’s all recorded on film) let alone rescue them! The calf, the sweetest thing you ever did see was incredibly curious and literally all over us. So for a while, we were held captive by a Moose calf!
Now with mom right there and her having the reputation she had, the last thing we wanted to do was startle the calf and have the cow come over to defend it, but we couldn’t let the “incident” proceed. So with a sharp little noise made by squeezing an empty plastic bottle from my jacket pocket, the calf got the message to move on and we went back to taking photos. After that, the Moose went back to their normal routine of eating while the photography in the late afternoon light was just marvelous. But up to this point, the big bull had eluded us. That was all about to change.
The next morning, the clouds were back, the beautiful light of the day before only a memory! We arrived at the pond to find three cow and calf groups feeding. There was no hesitation as the shutters began to rip. With no shortage of Moose photos to capture, I brought home over 2000 new images of just Moose in five days of shooting, two of which were rainouts!
During the entire time, I kept scanning for any flash of white in the trees, signaling the presence of a bull Moose. There was this one little tree of fall foliage that was just at the right height that, when the wind blew it just right, would start my heart to pounding only to be let down once I could zero in on it. And then from the trees emerged a bull, a three year old with barely two tines! This was a “little” bull maybe five years old that would come and go, and its small rack would flash, getting my adrenalin going, but it was no big bull. While better than nothing, he was a far cry from a big boy. This older bull had fun sparing with Spiky (only when there wasn’t a cow around, otherwise Spiky was occupied), which was fun to photograph. The sun came up, brightened up the scene though it didn’t shine directly and we stood there capturing all the photo ops.
Around 9:00am I saw a flash in the forest. I waited a moment to make sure it was moving and not some leaves and then called out, “BULL!” A minute later, a nice bull emerged from the forest, our first for the trip. For the next three hours the big bull shared its affections with a cow and calf until that went nowhere with the other three smaller bulls present. While the big bull presented us with some really nice photo ops, it never came closer than 100 yards from us. For the welfare of the habitat and the Moose, we didn’t go chasing after the Moose, but depended on them coming to us instead. This worked great with the cows and calves, but this bull kept its distance. Not too long before sun down (which was 4:20pm because we were working behind a mountain) the big bull faded back into the forest from where he came and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the trip.
The next two days were tons of fun, but without that big bull that we all really wanted, me especially, it’s safe to say we all had our fill of cow shots. Hearing wolves call one afternoon was a thrill, as well as watching the comings and goings of all the wildlife of the pond. On day four we were driven out by wind and rain at noon and on our last day, we left an hour early, again because of rain and wind. We went on a drive to another section of the park where the sun was still out, a beautiful place called Stump Pond, which also can have Moose at times. It was here while in the forest that I had a Fisher come up to me and greet me. I didn’t have anything to take its picture with at the time, so I just watched it check me out before returning to the small stream and foraging. We finished our trip by photographing a beautiful sunset on Stump Pond.
Photographing Maine Moose
This was an all-digital safari, as all participants and I shot with the D1, D1X or D1H. This along with current airline inconveniences greatly influenced our photography. Taking into consideration our subject, Moose, my strategy of waiting for them to come to us and shooting digitally, I found the 400f2.8AFS to be the perfect lens. The 80-400VR was also a very popular option and captured great images. One thing much more important though than camera and lens selection in photographing Moose is light!
Moose are kind of the same scenario as photographing Bald Eagles. That’s to say, you have a really dark body and light head, a big exposure range that is killer for film to record. And while digital can record up to five stops of light, this is the last thing you want when photographing Moose. You must have three stops or less of light to really capture great Moose images!
This means that slightly overcast light is ideal for photographing Moose. Their lighter heads and the bottom of their legs along with their really dark bodies scream for less light, not more! This is especially true when they’re out in the pond foraging! Another essential at least for me, is either really quality side lighting and frontlit Moose. A backlit Moose unless done so with a sunrise/sunset just doesn’t look that great. This means that on dark days when the gray clouds are reflecting non-stop off the water, you really have to watch your background or you will have horribly backlit Moose.
The background is essential in Moose photography. They live in a very, very, very, busy world of trees, branches, grasses, shrubs and rocks. The majority of the tree trunks and rocks are bright in color, from silver to white. With these in the background of a dark animal, they stick out and ruin an otherwise great image! This means you must be vigilant in watching the background and know when to depress the shutter release and when not to!
Another very popular lens on this safari was the 28-70f2.8AFS. This lens worked really well when photographing the Moose up close, which we did nearly every hour! The small boardwalk where we stood was a major thoroughfare for the Moose so cows and calves were constantly venturing through. The 28-70 was the perfect focal length to capture just the animal, or the animal as part of a scenic. It was important though when taking the “Moose scenic” to use a split graduated neutral density filter to bring the sky exposure down within the range of the foreground exposure for the film to record.
One last note on photographing Moose, the big bull. We never had the “big boy” but the one nice bull we had brings up a very important point in photographing them. Their racks, those giant antlers and their big nose don’t compositionally fit perfectly into 35mm/digital format. You must “play” with the position of the antlers/head/nose in the frame to make an image that represents the forest giant you’re photographing. I’ve found that going shorter in lens selection works better than going longer.
My first choice for photographing Moose is the 300f2.8AFS II. Because of current airline restrictions, I went with the 400f2.8AFS because it securely fits in the Pro Trekker. Since I knew that on at least one leg of my flight I was going to have to check my camera bag, I wanted the Pro Trekker since it affords the greatest amount of protection. Ideally, I’d take the 300f2.8 in the Nature Trekker, but it is a tad too short to really protect the D1H & 300f2.8. Anyway, why do I prefer the 300f2.8 for Moose?
The 300f2.8 provides me with the focal length that works best with the big rack of the big boys. On the D1H, the 300f2.8AFS is equal to a 450mm lens (the 400mm = 600mm, too big for big game for me). This is pretty darn close to my ideal focal length for big game for my style of photography. Additionally, the 300f2.8AFS can easily and beautifully work with teleconverters so that in case I need longer, it’s no problem.
You might be asking yourself, “Was the Moose photography any good?” We had five days, of which one day was an entire rain out and two others were half days because of either snow or rain. With all of that, I still came back with over 2000 Moose images from the week. That’s pretty darn good shooting! I didn’t come back with THE bull Moose shot, but I was quite happy with some of the images of the bull that was present, like the one on the cover. I would and will go back to Sandy Stream Pond to photograph Moose again, as it’s way too gorgeous and way too much fun not to go back!
Working Around Moose
Moose are big, ornery, powerful creatures that can change their minds in a heartbeat. There is a good reason why many folks give them wide berth in the wild. Before you go out to photograph Moose, you should do some basic biology homework and understand a few basic facts.
Moose are really, really, big deer. Those large ears are great indicators of what a Moose is thinking. When photographing Moose, you want them thinking happy thoughts, which would be indicated by their ears being forward generally. If the ears are both back, this should be assumed as indicating they are not happy. While this might not be the case, it’s best to assume such. One way that Moose, especially cows, defend themselves is by kicking. In a heartbeat, they can raise themselves up on their back legs and kick deadly blows with their front legs. You never, ever want to put yourself in this kind of danger.
Some folks like to tell about how they were “treed” by a Moose. What this means is, they had to put a tree between them and the Moose, not climb a tree, so as not to get kicked. If you’re walking down a trail and happen upon a Moose, you might have to use this method of defense since you surprised the animal. But you should never have to do this when actually photographing a Moose unless you’ve done something really wrong.
Getting close physically is a technique I often talk about. This is something I don’t advise the Moose photographer, for a number of reasons. One is what I’ve just mentioned above. Another is it can be very difficult in many areas to approach Moose. Living in heavily wooded areas in the northeast, there typically is lots of forest litter on the ground. Moose use those big ears to hear things like twigs snapping under the weight of a predator’s foot. Trying to sneak up on Moose for most folks is just not a good plan because you’re more likely to push them away from you by your very approach.
I think wearing camo clothes is downright silly for wildlife photographers. So is wearing a red jacket during hunting season! Wearing clothes with muted colors is the best way to “blend” in with the natural world and still have some self-dignity. It’s better to avoid nylon, a material that when rubbed against itself makes a high frequency noise we cannot easily hear, but wildlife can.
Photographing Moose is a lot of fun! They are very interesting and intriguing members of our wild heritage. You have to travel north to find them, which in itself is exciting. The biggest Moose are in Alaska and northern Canada. They get progressively smaller as you go south. Big or small, male or female, Moose are some of the best wildlife photography you can focus in on. Head to Maine, Yellowstone, Jasper or Denali and treat yourself to what I consider one of wildlife photography’s challenges, capturing the great bull Moose shot. But if you get the great bull Moose shot, please don’t tell me about it, at least until I get one of my own!