Porcupine, Seven Devils State Recreation Area. Oregon
This tale starts as a basic photography lesson. Getting that special image first requires good light, which means the golden hours of sunset and sunrise, and even more, of being in place and set up in time to get that great photo. Depending on how far you need to go, that may mean you are up and out hours before first light.
I have a good friend who seems to be up and hiking in his local mountains nearly every day. His capture of light in the mountains is magical. Getting first light (especially when sunrise is at 5am), means commitment, hiking miles with a headlamp, a warm jacket, and an understanding and supportive wife or life partner. See ourayimage.com
Oregon Coast 1
Camera knowledge is important, as you may need to set up in the dark, your subject may be nocturnal, fast, or fleeting, and movement in low-light photography always adds extra difficulty. And for wildlife photography, special equipment is needed to assure you can respect the needed space and offset your presence and footprint.
Subject research, good equipment, a pre-visualization of the photo you want to capture, and patience are all necessary -- but for that once-in-a-lifetime photo, you also need a ton of luck for the subject, light, camera, and your awareness and reflexes all to align.
Porcupine 2, Seven Devils State Recreation Area. Oregon.
Tale of the Porcupine* is a story of luck. It may be a story of 20+ years of bad luck, but I do not want to be pessimistic, and I am thrilled to have been able to take these photos. On our way home from the Southwest, Stephanie and I traveled to Northern California, both to see friends and because its coastal dune ecosystem was home to porcupines, which were high on my list of wildlife to photograph. While this may be one of the most widely distributed mammals in North America, my last sighting (no camera) was 20+ years ago on my very first trip to Alaska.
We had only two mornings, so we were up early and searching the dunes. Beautiful morning, great light and weather, no porcupines. We gave up and headed for home. Several hours later we took a side trip to Oregon's Seven Devils State Recreation Area, to stretch and take a break from the road. We pulled in, got out of the car, and sitting there, munching breakfast, was a porcupine.
Oregon Coast Sunset
Luck is uncontrollable, although you can help by being in the right place and ready to go. This past summer I have had at least two experiences looking for wolves when they appeared moving out of the brush, too quickly for me to get a photo. Last winter, I missed a chance at a perfect photo of a bald eagle on the Nooksack. I waited, and the eagle returned to the same tree twenty minutes later. Patience, but a good amount of luck. My first good photo of a kingfisher came as I was setting up to take an image of a blue heron. As I dialed in the focus on my telephoto lens, I found the kingfisher sitting on a limb just in front of the heron. Again, in place and set up, but luck!
In the rare instance when luck, light and focus align, those are the moments when photography becomes special. Being in nature and aligned with other species is always worth the time and effort, but seeing your hopes and vision captured just as your hoped, that is worthwhile.
I have also found that luck is contagious. I waited for decades for my first bear photo, and now I seem to see them everywhere (which makes life rather wonderful). My first fox photo led to many, many more, as did my first sightings of eagles, kingfishers, and water ouzels. I am really looking forward to those future wolf images!
Cobble Beach Surf. Adjacent to Yaquina Head in Newport, Oregon.
It is always important to remember that luck runs both ways. Good luck for you may not always be the best of luck for your subject. For wildlife photography, consideration for the animal being photographed should always be first on your mind. Your once-in-a-lifetime photo may be a too often experienced event from their perspective.** If your subject is aware of your presence, if you change its direction, attitude, or interrupt its actions, if you scare it off, you were too close and need to re-think your actions.
Cobble Beach 2. Oregon
In every situation, a photographer should keep photo ethics as his or her priority in their planning and actions. When I am in the field, wildlife photos are taken using a large lens, an extender, and, since my preference leans to close ups, a high level of cropping in post-processing. I try to remain a good ways off and am most comfortable on a ridge or with a river between me and my subject. This is both a safety issue for me and to respect the subject's zone. It is also a practice in intent. If you spend time in the field with wildlife, it is impossible at some point not to find yourself too close, backing away, and apologizing for overstepping boundaries. If that happens often, time to re-think both your intent and pre-planning to get the shot you want without impact
Happy to be home again in Whatcom County, Washington. Barn & Flooding, Smith Road.
* The porcupine's scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum, can be loosely translated as "the animal with the irritating back." iNaturalist, North American Porcupine. Humbolt State University is undertaking a participant science project on this mammal. If you see a porcupine in California, you can help this research by reporting, and sending photos, to porcufinder.com.
** To learn more about responsible nature photography, see naturefirstphotography.org, which presents core principles to educate and guide both professional and recreational photographers. The first principle is to prioritize the well-being of nature over photography, and to always reflect on the possible impact of your actions.