For Great Photographs, You Have to Push

It was 20 below zero that morning as Casey Bell and I drove toward Yellowstone National Park on a winter photo safari. We had headed out in the dark from Gardiner, Mont., passing through Mammoth Hot Springs and heading east into the park. A passing storm had dropped about six inches of new snow, and we seemed to be the only vehicle on the road.

Shortly after arriving we spotted two wolves mixing it up with a pack of coyotes that had taken possession of a bull elk carcass. We’d seen the wounded elk the previous afternoon, staggering out of Soda Butte Creek, and the two wolves waiting him out. Now, with snow flurries coming and going we shot amazing images of the black wolf trying to push the coyotes off their kill. A hundred yards away the gray wolf sat on her haunches, her belly hanging heavy with unborn pups.

I heard the ranger vehicle a couple of hundred yards away, crunching through the snow towards us. In previous years rangers had allowed parking on the main road in winter as long as everyone was parked in the same lane allowing access past them. This ranger parked and walked up to us, the wolves and coyotes still very active a hundred yards away.  “You can’t park here,” he said. “You need to move along now, right now.”

As I debated past Yellowstone winter parking rules with the ranger, I continued to shoot, never looking away from the viewfinder. Then I heard the words I knew were coming: “If you don’t stop shooting and get in your vehicle right now, I will ticket you.”  The roads were empty and the park was quiet, but we stopped shooting, broke down the tripods and slowly, ever so slowly, got the 4Runner’s tires rolling. We continued shooting out the side windows as the ranger shadowed us back into Lamar Valley.

I relate this experience as an example of the obstacles we sometimes face as photographers in the field.  We were parked legally, standing on the road, with the wildlife more than a hundred yards away – yet the ranger decided to run us anyway. But I shot at least a hundred extra images while I tried to talk him into letting us stay.

My friends and my clients both like to say I “push” in my photography, and I suppose in this case I was pushing back a little, not willing to just pack up and leave immediately. But there are times when photography success doesn’t come until the very end of a difficult day, a long drive, a nasty storm – or when a difficult animal or ranger finally relents, and we experience and photograph breathtaking moments.  Nature photography is about breathtaking moments, and sometimes you have to push, and push hard, to experience them.

Pushing Past Objections

I was shooting a wedding in Pasadena, Calif., not long ago when the location director told me I couldn’t use a curving staircase in my group photography images.  Now this location was built around this curving staircase — the wedding ceremony was downstairs and the reception area was upstairs. It was the perfect backdrop for me for this large wedding.

When the director told me to stop shooting on the stairs I asked the bride’s mother to come over.  I told her this was the perfect spot to shoot these group images and the director wanted me to stop.  I asked her the rental fee for this facility (which was outrageous) and if the director had specified no photography on the staircase.  He melted under the mother’s glare and we continued with the photography. Something like that seems to happen on a regular basis, people or circumstances conspiring to reduce our ability to create images.  We should never give in easily or allow others to control our photography.

Photographers are blessed with an ability, borne from tireless hours, to see in a way that is different from most people. We see moments, we see landscapes, we see poses, we see backdrops, we see the blending of color and design; we see what others don’t. Overcoming the obstacles that are placed before us has to be part of our makeup.  That ability to see has value to our clients and is worth pushing for. I equate pushing with passion.

Pushing Past Protests

My photography is my business and my passion.  I have found it odd that others, not professionals, want to hamstring us and restrict our successes. Sometimes folks take an ownership position in our national parks and along our beaches. I don’t know how many times folks have stopped their cars on a road in Yellowstone to yell at me as I was photographing some animal. Even though I’m the requisite distance away, they know better than I do. My reply is always the same.  “If you don’t have a badge, keep driving.”  Every time they have driven on.

A few years ago I was shooting with a friend, Bob Sutton, down at La Jolla Cove outside San Diego, a great location for shooting newborn harbor seals and mothers. After parking we approached the cliff overlooking the cove only to find protestors with placards blocking our access to the stairs leading to the beach. We walked over to the nearby lifeguard station and asked them about it. They said the beach was open to the public regardless of the protestors, and to just remain a reasonable distance from the seals. Of course, a 500mm f4 lens provides all the distance I need for wildlife and personal safety.

Bob and I are big guys but we still had to push through those folks to access the beach. The protestors had set up a string on the beach they didn’t want us to cross, but we crossed. With long lenses we began shooting from 25-30 yards. The seals ignored us, but the protestors didn’t. They came down from the cliff and stood in front of our lenses, shouting that they loved the seals and we must hate the seals. Telling them that my images had appeared in dozens of magazines promoting wildlife of all kinds meant nothing to them. I took off my photo vest to show them that I was carrying mace, and that if they continued to threaten us I would mace them. It was a drastic step I would never have taken, but the bluff worked and they retreated, leaving us in peace.

Each photographer has to decide how hard to push themselves, their subjects, and those around them.  Whether shooting for myself or on photo safaris, I try to push through the opposition, whether people or weather, through physical exertion or the monotony of looking and seeing nothing.  Great images don’t come easily, or without some type of pushing.  None of us can count the sunrises anymore, or the missed meals – but the photographs speak for themselves.

Pushing Gently for a Helping Hand

Not far from my home in Tulare, Calif., is a small valley that leads into the foothills of the Sierras, just southwest of Sequoia National Park. An old paved road passes through Yokohl Valley, meandering through the oak woodlands, rolling hills, and pastures. In December 2011 I was creeping my way through the valley when I found a bobcat crossing a pasture, maybe 60 yards off the road.  When I stopped the cat leaped into an oak tree and out of sight. I looked at that barbed-wire fence and began to weigh the risks of crossing it. Then I looked down the road to see a ranch employee repairing fences about a half-mile away.

I drove down and told him about the bobcat and asked for permission to cross the fence to photograph it. He said he was the only ranch employee that ever allowed someone to cross a fence.  I sped back to the spot, parked, crossed the fence, and shot the most amazing images of that bobcat in the tree from about 25 feet, just inside the oak branches. A few minutes later the ranch hand drove up and I waved him over, and we both stood there while I shot more images, amazed at how tranquil the cat was.  He told me he had never seen a bobcat that close before.  But more importantly, he told me that I was welcome to cross the fence anytime I wanted to shoot photos and if anyone bothered me to tell them I had his permission. His name is like gold now.

9 Responses to “For Great Photographs, You Have to Push”

  1. Well done Brent!

  2. Thanks for the insight. I'm always concerned about breaking the law or taking chances on getting the shot I want when I should just take the shot.

  3. Well said, Brent. I've been there with you, and without that "push," we wouldn't get some of the shots that we have been able to get. Great photographs don't just happen, sometimes it's a job that requires standing in the snow for hours, or climbing one more hill, or just sitting, waiting for the right moment, and sometimes "pushing" to get the shot. Photographers who go with you will get the best opportunity to get that special shot, much more than they would get with many other safaris!

  4. Hi Brent, thanks for an interesting article.

    I personally would find myself uncomfortable with dealing with the roadside issue in the manner described, perhaps because I'm British, slightly older and have an innate sense of politeness.

    The way I would have reacted in the same situation is to actually stop, get up greet the ranger with a smile, friendly eye contact and introduce myself.

    I was photographing a demonstration for the first time earlier in the year, I got to the event early and struck up a conversation with the police and the demonstration officials. I found myself in a less threatening place and with additional advice on the route plus some of the better places to take photographs on the way, both in the march, with the police and from the outside.

    Since we are all different, there are different solutions. In the long run, it is what gets the best pictures for you.

    Best wishes


  5. Thanks Butch. Not only has Butch been on many safaris with me, but he is an outstanding wildlife photographer in his own right in Laredo, Texas.

    Thanks Chris - I understand folks approach this type of thing differently. After 500+ days of shooting in Yellowstone over 27 years, how rangers act in relationship to photographers in consistent and predictable. I have had good encounters, but most are unneeded, and of those, all are heavy handed and we, the photographers, lose. We lose in terms of images, access, etc because there is no set rules (except a few based on distance) for things like winter parking - and each ranger gets to make them up as they go. The image of the black wolf and two coyotes was nearly the last image I took while debating with the ranger. How would I be better off without it? How would the wolves/coyotes been better off I hadn't shot it? How would the park have been running more smoothly if I hadn't stopped? The 25 year old ranger, in his first winter in Yellowstone, decided. Rangers, like police, want to be obeyed even when wrong. I will obey, but not until the end of the debate. Park Rangers, like sports umpires, never change their call - all you can do is delay the inevitable. By delaying I won images that I wouldn't have shot otherwise. You have to push sometimes, otherwise you lose every situation like this. But I appreciate a different view, so thanks for the comments.

  6. Thanks Dave. Again Dave has been on many safaris with me and is an outstanding wildlife photographer as well, in Valencia, California.

  7. I'd love to have your b....!

  8. This is a great read, Brent! I shoot in the wilds of NYC and other metropolitian areas as an architectural photographer. There are challenges in my field as well: building guards; doormen; street people; "interested bystanders" wanting to talk. You reinforced the notion to concentrate, just stand your ground and get the shot! Thanks!

  9. Recently I did some senior pics with a friend's daughter. She likes boats and water. Fortunenately I live In Benton Harbor, near the St. Joe River and Lake Michigan. We went to a few of my favorite fishing spots, "Found a tug bout just sitting, and I even stepped out onto some rocks (well into the river) to get pictures of her sitting on the shore looing into the water. Most water photos I see the model is the one in the water so we reversed it producing some great portraits and we had a great time. One of my favorite sayings is : "YOU HAVE TO SEE THE INVISABLE TO ACHEIVE THE IMPOSSIBLE." Great article, Thanks Brent.

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