The Art of Sitting
Reprinted from the BT Journal, Vol.1 Issue 4, August 1996
Getting close physically, that’s a motto I’ve advocated since I first started writing about wildlife photography. Just after my last safari to Yellowstone, a participant made the comment after hearing what I photographed after all had gone home, “You save all the good stuff for after we all leave.” Giving me a bad time as he always does, he brings up a good point.
What I had told him about was a photo op I had with a bull Moose. It started at sun up when I saw the Moose in the company of two others. It was too dark so I couldn’t shoot. In fact, I didn’t take any photos of the Moose until four and a half hours later! What many call patience, I refer to as a sheer love of just being out in the wild. What I do when I’m all alone going after an image is not a methodology I talk much about and rarely teach, it’s the art of sitting. It’s one of the best ways I know of getting close physically to my subject. Sitting takes more than just having a butt to sit on (I should know since I don’t have much of one), but a state of mind and equipment to be successful.
Whether in a national park setting or out in the wild blue yonder, getting close to wildlife requires understanding basic biology. In a nutshell, wildlife tends to get closest when they approach us on their own terms rather than our trying to approach them. Case in point: my bull Moose in Yellowstone (I can’t figure out why, but I tend to gravitate towards Moose.)
We had photographed the three bull Moose earlier in the week. They had first been spotted by a group of tourists on the road to Mt. Washburn. Seeing the tourists, then the poor Moose they were chasing and the direction the Moose were heading, I turned our vehicle around and went to the Cascade Lake picnic area. There we set up our equipment and waited for the Moose to walk to us. They did just that, but they were still being followed by the tourists from the road. Their own personal space being crowded by the tourists, the Moose were pushed right out of the meadow and right past where we were standing. We did get some nice shots, but our time with the Moose was only a few minutes when it should have been much, much longer.
When I saw the bull Moose down on the lower end of Cascade Creek (near the road) a few days later after all my participants had left, I drove up to Cascade Lake trail and waited. From the experience of a few days prior, I knew the Moose meander up and down Cascade Creek through the meadow. One would eventually find his way up to where I was sitting. The question was, would he show up when the light was still nice and be lit in a flattering way?
Where to be “sitting” while waiting for the Moose to arrive? Well, the first consideration was the lighting. Being as dark as the Moose’s pelt was, I wanted front lighting on him. I also wanted a background that would help make the Moose pop in the photograph as well as communicate the world in which he lives. I was shooting with an F5 and 600f4 AF-I lens. The equipment I had played a key role in deciding where I would place myself.
The lens in use always dictates where I position myself. My motto in full says, “Get close physically and use optics to isolate.” Now typically I like shooting big game with a 300f2.8, but as I was shooting with the F5 and wanted to maintain the fastest possible autofocus, I went with the 600mm. (I was also hoping to find a Great Gray Owl while I was sitting for which the 600mm and 1.4x would have been perfect.) The 600mm’s narrow angle of view did allow me to be very selective of my background. So I set up accordingly, hoping that my prediction of where the Moose would show up would be correct.
Keeping lighting in mind, I also needed to place myself in a location where I wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb. As I had my wife and two boys with me, our “hiding” place needed to conceal us all. I didn’t set up a blind or build a tree lodge to hide us. All we did was stand in the shadow of a small grove of Lodgepole Pines. None of us were wearing bright clothes, never do. Being in the shadow and standing, we took on the benign appearance of being part of the grove. Another real concern in our “concealment” was the fact we were in grizzly country. The trail we were on had just been posted as being frequented by griz. Being quiet is the last thing you want to do in griz country and you especially don’t want to surprise them. I took comfort in the fact that we were in the company of an old, bull Bison. He just grazed around us, sharing his flies with us some of the time (what a nice guy).
So there we stood. Now this is when many think, “you must have lots of patience!” Patience really has nothing to do with just sitting and waiting as far as I’m concerned. The time actually flew. While we stood there waiting, a bachelor herd of Mule Deer bucks came ambling through the meadow, grazing as they strolled by (great photo op). Gray Jays, one of our favorite birds, constantly kept checking us out for handouts (wonder where they learned that bad habit from, hmm…?). Various other forms of wildlife constantly ventured into the meadow to do their thing. This was a positive sign that our presence was not upsetting the nature of things. And finally, I was constantly on the lookout for the Great Gray Owl, a subject that eluded my F5 that week.
After four and a half hours, the bull Moose walked through the trees right at us. It nibbled on grasses as it strolled up towards us. It had come out of the trees a little to the east of where I had figured, so I had to move towards the east to get the lighting I wanted. In the process of moving east, the Moose moved into this gorgeous setting of shadow and sun and stopped. There it stood looking at us as if to say, “I’ve never seen you in my meadow before.”
Roll after roll of film went flying as the shot kept getting better and better. I started with the TC-14e 1.4x on the 600mm, but soon had that off as the bull had moved in quite close to us. We made sure to keep our distance from the bull (I have a lot of respect for those front legs). But the Moose didn’t care we were there for he just kept coming closer. At one point, he posed, providing me with my best shot yet of a bull Moose (possibly a cover for my upcoming book).
Then, out of the trees behind us came a crash! The bull Moose instantly stood at attention, ears forward. My wife had been watching our backs the entire time and called out when she saw Mule Deer bucks come running through the forest. I turned to see the bucks and then turned back to see the butt of my bull Moose move quickly off into the forest from whence it came. That was it, all over! Of course, we didn’t stick around to see what had caused the Mule Deer bucks to run, we left the meadow at a quick pace ourselves!
The point being, meeting wildlife on their own terms most often rewards us with the great photographs. Getting the big payoff for sitting and waiting comes from more than just having patience. You have to understand basic biology, in this case, knowing the Moose would walk back up the creek. You have to understand how to apply biology with technology, in this case, where to be positioned for the best lighting and angle of view for the lens in use. And most importantly, be able to become part of the scene and not stick out like a sore thumb.
I know many photographers who cannot sit for longer than a minute. There is nothing wrong with that and in fact, they probably produce more photographs than I with that style. But I like sitting back and taking it all in. In the four plus hours we stood in that meadow, I photographed the old Bison bull grazing, dust bathing, backlit with flies buzzing all about him; I photographed the Mule Deer bucks, the Gray Jays, chipmunks, and the bull Moose. For us, we were rewarded with not only being a part of the meadow to witness the passing of these creatures’ morning, but also with photographs that we can use to communicate what we saw to others. The art of sitting, like other arts, isn’t for everyone. But the rewards are greater than you can imagine!