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on Apr 7, 2012 in Wildlife Photography

Story Behind San Joaquin Kit Fox photo

I was pleased to receive so many requests for the story behind this photo I posted yesterday. The San Joaquin Kit Fox (SJKF) is an endangered critter that has lost about 92% of its historic range. The city of Bakersfield is ground zero for the “urban” population of the SJKF where while it seems backwards, the SJKF is “thriving.” The biologists I’m so fortunate to work with have worked with both the wild and urban population for decades and this past week, I was with Torey who is working on her masters looking at an natal dening dynamics. She monitors a number of natal dens (natal means there are pups) at night right after sunset when the height of activity with pups tends to be. That’s why I was there, this being my second year to work with Torey and her project. Those who came to my Wildlife Photography class at Photoshop World saw video from last year’s field work.

This den site is on the Cal State Bakersfield campus where I’ve been photographing kit fox since 1988. The urban kit fox specializes in eating human food, trash, and they are very good at it. In fact, a project a few years ago looking at isotopes found no difference in diet from kit fox and humans. The story behind this den is it is very special, being the natal den for two different age class of pups, pups from two different moms. It was important to me to document this and along with the data Torey is collecting, can be used to help the foxes in the future.

I shot last season with the D3s which did an OK job. It’s 720p video was OK though it did not do a great job with the WB of the funky night lights. When it comes to AF, that didn’t work at all for me at night so that was a challenge since we are working in the dark. The D4 on the other hand did an amazing job IMHO! I knew from past experience that is my shutter speed were to get below 1/100, I would not have sharp stills of the pups. They are simply balls of activity! I had used the Auto ISO in the video mode but hadn’t tested nor trusted the Auto ISO for stills. Now I’m not a “raise the ISO” kinda of shooter, I’ve always worked at either ISO 100 or 200. But I needed to get the photos and this was the tool available to me. So when the female first appeared and was running over to the den, the light was already nearly gone and I set the ISO to 800 to maintain the 1/100 speed. Within a matter of moments the light dipped more so I raised the ISO to 1600. I’m shooting wide open not only because of the low light but to minimize the DOF, the brown line in the foreground is one of the den entrances.

I’m sitting out in the open in my kit fox chair, the same chair I’ve been using since ’88 for just photographing kit fox. On my Gitzo 5561 is the 600VR w/TC-17e attached to the D4. When the vixen came to the den, it was killer to just lay down the hammer and rip the files, tracking her the entire route coming across the lawn. Having basically an endless buffer just simply rocks! That’s one aspect of the D4 I thoroughly can’t live without already. Once she checks all the den entrances, the signal is given and the pups emerge. She nurses for a heartbeat and then starts pacing, looking for the male’s arrival. During this time the light fades to night and all the pups, five of them, emerge to play and wait for the male and dinner. Once the sun is gone, I switch to video mode, shooting 1080p30.The TC-17e is removed at this point. I’m manually focusing using the LCD to do so for most of the action. When I can, I do put the AF sensor on still fox and hit the AF-ON button which, even working in total darkness, locks right on. The D4 is now in Auto ISO since it’s shooting video and is up to 12800. 12800! The first time I saw that number on the LCD I says to myself, “can this even be useable, I have nothing to loose!” But once I looked at the resulting video, I was blown away. And that’s the simple story behind the photo.