Natural Perspectives: Memoirs of a wildlife photographer

Last week, Vic and I wrote about my recent visit to Yellowstone National Park. The reason I was in that area was to attend a wildlife photography workshop in Grand Teton National Park. The workshop was sponsored by a photography group called the Nikonians.

When our friend Mark Singer asked me early in the summer to accompany him to this workshop, I jumped at the chance. We spent four rewarding but grueling days in the Tetons in the company of professional wildlife photographer Jim Stamates and 10 other photographers.

When I say grueling, I'm talking about the hours, not the level of physical exertion. We had to be up before 5 a.m. in order to meet the group at 6 at whatever remote location Jim had chosen for the day.

A predawn October morning in Southern California may require a jacket, but predawn in the Rockies is another whole thing. Temperatures plummeted to a low of 9 degrees. Mark was bundled up in seven layers of clothing in order to hike to wherever Jim directed to catch the best light. But I'm not that dedicated. I stayed in the car with the heater on.

Ah, but that was why Mark was able to capture a sunrise shot of a bull elk bugling while standing in the Snake River, with a morning mist rising eerily around it. I didn't even see it. But I enjoyed Mark's photos and really enjoyed staying warm.

Once the sun came up, I was willing to go on short walks with the group but not the longer ones. There is no oxygen at those altitudes, and my old body knew it. I was worried about not being able to stay with the group at all times but found that I was perfectly happy staying around the cars and photographing what was there, which was plenty. Jim was quite accommodating of my inability to hike at high altitude, and it worked out fine.

Jim has a low-impact philosophy about approaching wildlife. He believes in forming a relationship with the subject. If it is wildlife, watch its behavior. Relax around it, and let it relax around you. By doing that, a few of us were lucky enough to watch twin fawns nursing a doe mule deer.

It was still bison rutting season, and some of the 800 bison in the Tetons were "getting busy." I photographed some of the action, but it wasn't until I processed my photos that I realized it was one bull mounting another. Apparently, they do that as an act of dominance.

Jim noted that Mark and I are birders and pointed us in the direction of some great birds. We photographed bald eagles and trumpeter swans in flight, but we were really hankering for a good sighting of a dusky grouse. The sooty grouse of California has been split from the dusky grouse of the Rockies. Both had been known as blue grouse, but because they don't interbreed, they are now classified as separate species.

Following Jim's directions, Mark and I split off from the main group and drove to the top of Signal Mountain. That area is known for frequent sightings of dusky grouse. We looked around without luck and were pulling out of the parking lot when Mark slammed on the brakes. He had spotted a dusky grouse atop a car parked a few stalls down. Two people were trying to shoo it off their car roof!

We yelled and gesticulated. It turned out that the people were Czech and didn't understand us. We pointed to our cameras. They laughed and quit scaring the bird. Mark and I followed that grouse for half an hour, eventually getting some good shots in natural surroundings, not picking insects off the hood and windshield of a car.

Whenever there was a lull in the wildlife action, Jim delivered a lecture on camera equipment, wildlife stalking techniques, and similar topics. I wish I could remember a quarter of what he told us. Some of his tips were to "see the obvious; photograph the unique." That could mean finding an unusual angle, walking around the subject if possible and recomposing the elements of the photos until we had our own unique take on the subject.

Jim suggested not wearing camouflage clothing and not trying to hide from the wildlife. Be out in the open, approach by meandering slowly and start taking photos from a distance to get the wildlife used to the sound of the camera so it won't spook. Definitely abide by common-sense minimal distances, and do not approach wildlife too closely, especially during breeding season of the big mammals. It can get dangerous.

Jim had staked out probable locations where particular wildlife can be seen and knew the best time of day to spot them. We got to see bull moose crossing rivers, beavers nonchalantly chewing bark off willow branches and pronghorn males rounding up their females. We were at the right place at the right time to see the first rays of a rosy-fingered dawn chasing shadows down the front of the Tetons. We were in place before the sun rose and on the road until after dark. From rustic barns painted only by sunlight to a bear cub drinking from a beaver pond, this trip was one highlight after another.

If you are interested in improving your skill as a wildlife photographer, I would definitely recommend a Nikonian workshop with Jim. More information is available at

To see more of photos from my trip, visit my blog at

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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