I just finished writing a short story titled “Hunting with a Camera” for Trail Tales, a quarterly publication of NEBRASKAland Magazine that’s sent to all of the fourth graders in Nebraska through the Game and Parks Commission’s Project Wild program.
Even before you boil it down to a fourth grader’s level, that’s exactly what wildlife photography is: hunting. Your goal is to get close enough to get your “shot” without being detected.
Each photographer at NEBRASKAland is also a hunter. The experience we gain in either pursuit can help us in the other. And the gear we use – camouflage, blinds, stands, etc. – can be used for both.
Whether you’re carrying a shotgun, rifle, bow or a Nikon camera (I suppose you could carry a Canon if you want), however, preparation and scouting are key to success. Just as a deer hunter carefully selects the location to hang a stand, a photographer must carefully pick a spot to set up a blind. I once spent a few days scouting the banks of the Platte River for a spot to photograph sandhill cranes. I found a place close to the roost that I could get to undetected, and ended up with dozens of crane photos worthy of publication, at ranges of as little as 10 yards, in just one evening and one morning in the blind.
I’m not sure if it’s the western Nebraskan in me, my daily newspaper background, or an undiagnosed case of A.D.D., but sitting in a blind is not one of my favorite things. I’m much happier when I can stretch my legs and use another hunting technique: spot-and-stalk. I put that skill, refined but not perfected in more than 20 years of deer hunting, to use in early February while on assignment to photograph elk near Nenzel for a story that will appear in the August/September issue of NEBRASKAland. I didn’t see an elk when I made the same trip last year. But this time, with some help from the landowner (telephone scouting), I was able to glass a pair of bulls heading into a patch of Sandhills an evening feeding on a center pivot.
I followed, decked out in a ghillie suit, and found them bedded with three others. I crawled within 100 yards on my first attempt, but could get no closer, so I backed out and came at them from a different direction, and got to within 75 yards. Still not as close as I would like, but worried the wind would shift and foil an approach from a third direction, I did what anyone who’s spent much time in a deer stand has done when things are slow: I took a nap, hoping the elk would be doing something interesting when I woke up. They didn’t, so after waiting them out for two hours, I headed back to the truck for lunch. I crawled to about 50 yards on my third attempt that afternoon. If I could’ve gotten closer to get the rise out of the frame, or if the elk would’ve backed up 5 yards, it would’ve been perfect, but it was close enough.
Wildlife photography is catch-and-release hunting, and we all have lifetime permits with no daily bag limit.