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Animal Sense

Good wildlife photographs are possible when we understand our subjects' senses and respect their space.

August 24, 2016 Wildlife

Wild creatures live by their senses. Birds and animals -- in wild places or in our backyards -- survive by keeping aware of their surroundings. Their sensitivity to sights and sounds can mean the difference between thriving or just surviving. And sometimes it's the difference between life and death. That's true for the familiar birds at our bird feeders or the uncommon animals we encounter on our trips into the wilderness.

But we humans aren't used to keeping our wits about us for our daily survival. Sure, we see and hear things in the world around us as we go about our business. We watch for traffic, we listen for the baby crying, we notice the smell of something burning on the stove, or we know when it's time to put on a sweater to keep warm. We're not without our sensitivities to our surroundings. After all, our species has survived for millennia because we have our senses and a big brain that processes them.

Male lion, Kenya

Unlike our ancient ancestors, we no longer need to keep alert to each sight or sound that may warn us of danger. We don't live in fear of things lurking in every shadow. We don't freeze in our tracks at the sound of something near. We don't count on our "fight or flight" reaction to save us from harm while we sit in our offices, in our cars or in our living rooms. And we don't snap out of a deep sleep at the smallest sound when we're all snug in our beds. The need for constant alertness has been relaxed or replaced by our ability to create our own safe surroundings.

Our senses are sharp enough for us to navigate our handmade world. And when we spend more time in the natural world, we may find our senses awaken to both worlds a bit better. But they're no match for the senses of animals.

Scientists say a brown bear's sense of smell is 100 times better than ours. Reports speculate it can smell food when it's miles away. A tiger's hearing is five times keener than ours. It's the strongest of the cat's senses and it can hear much higher frequencies which allows it to recognize the smallest movements or vocal sounds of its prey. And a lion's vision is it's most important sense. Though in daylight, it sees as well as we do, on a starlit night, its eyesight is eight times greater than ours. This, coupled with its refined senses of smell and hearing, makes it an efficient hunter in conditions that would leave us blinded by darkness.

Most creatures see or hear or smell things better than we can. Those that are predators are genetically honed to a sensory pitch we can't imagine. And those that are prey have evolved to an equally-high state. We fall somewhere in the middle of the pack with our average senses, though we'd like to believe we're more predator than prey in the scheme of things.

It isn't until we get to undeniably wild places that we see how our senses are no match for those of the apex predators like lions and tigers and bears -- Oh, My! Even a safe encounter with one of these animals puts it in perspective in a hurry. We lack the speed, strength and experience to escape a creature that is completely attuned to hunting for its next meal. On an even playing field, without weapons or refuge, we are dinner. Oh, My, indeed!


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Wildlife)

SUBJECT: Male lion, Masai Mara, Kenya, East Africa

CONDITIONS: High, thin clouds; calm winds; 75-80 degrees F.

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon F4S, 500mm f/4 resting on a large bean bag on the roof of the van, Fujichrome Velvia 100; Manual exposure, Spot meter, Auto focus.

TECHNIQUE: The best place to photograph wildlife is in the wild. It sounds obvious, but it's true. I've photographed animals in zoos, at rehabilitation centers and on game ranches where they are controlled by experienced handlers. All of these settings offer good opportunities to make rewarding images of creatures we'd rarely or never see in the wild.

But in their natural environments, wild birds and animals do the things that fascinate us and surprise us without the restrictions of captivity. On their own in their familiar worlds, they go about their lives, facing the challenges of finding food, shelter and mates that their captive cousins may never know. This life without limitations adds an edge to their wild existence. You can see it in their eyes.

Animals in the wild most likely know we're watching them. But sometimes if we're quiet and respectful of their space, they tolerate our presence. In locations like the Masai Mara in Kenya, they have become habituated to us. We are always in safari vehicles. We keep a considerate distance from them. We keep our voices low. We are predictable.

This predictability over time has allowed the animals to go about their daily lives mostly undisturbed. They see us as part of the landscape. So much so, that cheetahs napped in the shade of our van or climbed the hoods of land rovers as they would a rock for a better view.

We used our van as a blind. It and we weren't hidden. But the familiarity of our safari vehicles made us virtually disappear. So we watched lions rest, play, mate and hunt in unrestrained wildness.

Male lion and safari van.

The photograph above was made from the roof of our specially-modified van like the one at the right. Several rows of seats were removed so we could move around. And the roof popped up so we could stand and look out of the top. We rested our long lenses on bean bags filled with peas or beans our guides bought at the market in Nairobi.

With this technique, my 500mm lens was steady and easy to move when I saw another subject. The higher perspective got us up over short brush and tall grasses for a better view. Still, the long view of the 500mm made it feel like I was down in the world of the lion. That would be a dangerous place. The safety of the van afforded us the freedom to make good compositions without fearing an unseen animal.

Using a vehicle as a blind isn't a convenient technique reserved for a photo safari. I use my SUV in a similar way back home. When I stay on the roadways in parks and preserves, my vehicle becomes accepted, but not invisible, much as our vans in Kenya.

In an upcoming journal entry, we'll look at how this method works for photographing wildlife close to home. We can make successful photographs there, too, if we use our common sense and understand the senses of our wild subjects.

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