|What it Takes to be a Wildlife Photographer
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
This article may not be the most popular that I have ever written. It is not intended to be, nor is it for the practicing professional. This is written for those young people who are aspiring to become professional wildlife photographers, especially for those who ask, "How do you get into the racket?" It's an article on the disciplines needed to become a wildlife photographer -- and discipline, today, to many is practically a four-letter word. These disciplines, or rules, are not laid down by any form of government, corporation, company or man; they are dictated by the photographic subjects themselves. You play the game by the wildlife's rules or you don't play. The disciplines are dictated and imposed by the habits of the wildlife you want to photograph.
I have been photographing wildlife for fifty-seven years and have taken well over one million photographs. On the average, I used to take between 50,000 to 60,000 photographs per year. Now I shoot video and have taken 2500 hours of footage. I was raised on a farm and knew what the discipline of animals was all about. The cows had to be milked, fed and cleaned up after, on time. A dairy farmer is his own boss, and can do whatever he wants, providing he gets the milking and chores done on time.
Being a farm boy, I was used to getting up at 5:00 a. m. every day, because that's when our day started in spring, summer and fall. In the wintertime, because of the deep snow, we also had to haul our cans of milk down to the main road, so we had to get up at 3:30 a. m.
I am constantly amazed at people professing to be, or wanting to be, wildlife photographers who won't get up early in the morning. Getting up early is a must. From dawn until 10:00 a. m. is the time of greatest activity for wild creatures. Even wild animals, like the mountain goat, wild sheep, pronghorn, etc., that are almost strictly diurnal, are most active in the morning. At mid-morning they lie down to chew their cud and then they feed again before dark. Animals that are crepuscular, like the deer, elk and moose, start to feed just before it gets light and may be finished shortly after dawn. These animals are inactive most of the day, starting a major feeding period again just before dusk. Most birds are up at the crack of dawn, are inactive from 11:00 a. m. until 3:00 p. m. and then feed again. Shorebirds are governed by the tides. Game birds, such as the ruffed grouse, sage grouse and prairie chickens, begin their courtship activities at about 4:00 a. m. That means you must be in your blind by 3:00 a. m. so that you don't scare the birds off the drumming log or lek when you do arrive. Flush them off and it's all over for that morning. Small mammals, such as squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, etc., feed early in the morning and late in the afternoon and spend the middle of the day napping in their burrows or nests.
Do as the wildlife does, as I do, take a nap in midday. All of my life I have taken a twenty minute nap after I eat my lunch. You can take an hour if you need it; I find that I am refreshed and ready to go after twenty minutes. I don't always have the time for a nap, but I try not to miss it because I really do need it. A Rue maxim is "Hours expended = results achieved". You are going to have to get up early and put in long hours to achieve success.
Hebrews 10:36 says it well, "For ye have need of patience". Benjamin Disraeli added, "Everything comes if a man will only wait". Patience is a virtue of a saint. There aren't many wildlife photographers that I know, myself included, who are very saintly, but they do have patience or they wouldn't be successful.
One of the first lessons to be learned is that time means nothing to wildlife; they have neither clocks nor calendars. We humans have deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, obligations to fulfill, even times that we eat or should be home lest parents, spouses, children or associates become concerned.
I am fully aware of photoperiodism, whereby the cliff swallow usually arrive back at the old San Juan Capistrano Mission in southern California on March 19th and the turkey vultures come back to Hinkley, Ohio on March 15th as they have for a hundred years. That really has nothing to do with time. The birds are responding to an impulse over which they have no control. Many other creatures respond similarly to photoperiodism, their endocrine system, tidal influences or other biological clocks.
Most wildlife doesn't have to feed at a certain time; if it feels that it is threatened, it may not eat for several days. Animals that have dens don't have to come out because we want them to. While we sit at a den, waiting for the animal to emerge so we can photograph it, the animal very well may have curled up and gone to sleep. Birds may display, roost and feed in certain places at certain times, but if they suspect your presence they won't. All wildlife are individuals; they don't have to do anything at a particular time just because others of their species do, or because we expect them to do it.
Weather, not only the immediate weather, but that which is upcoming, can change what wildlife will do and when it will do it. The amount of natural predation or human hunting activities will also change wildlife's daily habits.
I do a lot of my photography from a blind and most bird photography, as well as a lot of mammal photography, has to be done from a blind. This requires a lot of time and patience. Back in the summer of 1966, while I was working at a red fox den in Denali National Park, Alaska, I spent 21½ hours in a blind, from 3:30 a. m. until the following midnight. No, I was not taking photographs all that time. I was taking reams of notes of the fox's activities, notes that have been used in a number of my books, columns, etc.
You need the right attitude. Don't rail against things you can't change. The little prayer that goes, "Lord, let me change what I can, accept what I can't change and have the wisdom to know the difference" just has to be part of a wildlife photographer's credo. Do I get frustrated when things don't go right? You bet I do!!! I have had more photographic trips go wrong than I can ever recall.
For example, on my first day out in a track machine in Churchill, for polar bears, the blizzard was so bad I never took the camera out of its case. The one perfect, sunny day we had there I never took a photo; the bears had left the frozen pack ice. I was rained out of a five-day deer trip to Pennsylvania. I was rained out on a seven-day deer trip to Louisiana. I was blizzard bound in a Winnipeg, Manitoba airport for thirty hours. I was fog bound in the Spokane, Washington airport for twenty-six hours. It seems that I have spent much of my time sitting in airports. What do I do when I run into constant bad weather? I write columns and articles, read reference books and take notes. I have to be productive every day.
For seventeen summers I guided canoe trips for senior Boy Scouts in the wilderness area of Quebec, Canada. I used to paddle a thousand miles a summer. I lived outdoors for up to ten weeks at a time and we had to move each day, no matter what the conditions. A little poem by John Greenleaf Whittier used to help. It goes like this:
A trick I used while paddling a heavily laden canoe through a bone-chilling rain was to leave my body there to do the work and go somewhere else in my mind. I still do that while sitting in a blind -- for example, when the temperature is minus 20ºF, and absolutely nothing is working out as I had planned or when nothing is coming out to be photographed as I had hoped it would. Even when I'm sitting in the comfort of my home, I enjoy running around with, and in, my mind. What I'm trying to tell you is that being a wildlife photographer is not easy, but how you accept the constant, incessant setbacks is entirely up to you. You control all of that with your mind - use it.
It is said that we only use a tiny portion of the mind anyway. Hopefully this column will help you get the right attitude. Of course, one of my favorite sayings is, "I have all the patience in the world, I just don't have the time to use it".