I’ve been working as a full time wildlife photographer for over 15 years now. I get asked about pretty much every part of my business/career all the time. One of the most frequent questions I get is: “Do you make a living doing this?”. It’s kind of a long answer.
Yes, it’s my only “job”. I spend hours a day working on every little thing that goes in to running a small business. I’m essentially an independent artist. When I set up at an art festival, I’m surrounded by other independent artists. I have a lot in common with potters, jewelers, painters, wood workers, etc. The actual time spent on photography is way less than 50% . The rest is marketing, book keeping, social media, photoshop, and oh yeah, I do art festivals/markets 40 weekends a year. This business model has become exhausting. This is a good place to state my family would have long been screwed without my wife Patty’s income and benefits as a nurse.
I’m looking for change.
My New Vision
I want to sell more online. Greeting cards, prints and this time of year, calendars. Making quality products with my images and shipping them to customers nation-wide. I think I can do more good for conservation via social media/website/blog etc , than I can do at shows too.
Why can’t I sell 30,000 calendars a year, give a buck of every sale to conservation and call it good?
It’s been a busy couple of weeks, both in the wild and on the business end of things. Doing the Lithia Artisan’s Market every weekend starts taking a toll by the end of September. Setting up and tearing down a booth 4 times a weekend isn’t always fun. But it keeps the dream alive! I’ll get a break from shows and markets in January.
Camera trapping! I’m getting better at it … I think. I may be getting luckier too. I don’t know.
I’ve applied for one grant to gain additional equipment for camera trapping. I plan to apply for another too. The process of setting camera traps is very different than traditional wildlife photography. I love both approaches equally and I can do both simultaneously.
I have fallen completely in love with the American Black Bear.
Lots of stuff going on in nature. I’ve been on a role with camera trapping. The more I do it, the more I learn. The more I learn, the better I get at it. A few recent highlights include a very young coyote and very young bobcat (both only several months old) visiting the same waterhole only a few nights apart. Not sure who is cuter!
Both of these animals have spent the summer with their parents, learning to hunt and avoid danger. Female coyotes remain with their family unit for quite some time, but if this is a male, he’s already facing the world alone. Young bobcats are mostly hunting on their own by this age, but are still part of a family unit until about a year of age.
The longer I do this, the more I see wild animals as individual thinking, feeling beings.
While maintaining the camera set up that captured both of the above images, I had a visitor … or maybe more like a supervisor(?). I’m not sure I’ve ever had an owl literally come right to me the way this Great Horned did. Beyond cool. Maybe people wonder if I attract animals in some mysterious way. I don’t think so, but moments like this can make a guy wonder. I tend to think I’ve become hyper-aware of wild animals in my surroundings, compared to most. This owl was completely silent when it flew in and the entire time it was perched. I don’t think most people would have noticed it … but it was impossible for me to not. Weird.
I did run all the way back to the car, to get my “regular” camera. So glad I did!
The business end of things has been more unpredictable than the traps! I had one of my best weekends of the year, followed by one my worst. Honestly, the business end of my career has been pretty stressful the last couple of years. I will be travelling to Portland and Humboldt County for shows during the holidays. I had hoped to not have to leave home anymore to sell my work, but the market is so unreliable since the pandemic.
Last Wednesday, I received a text from a friend who lives on 50 acres of beautiful mountain terrain, bordering 1000’s of acres of national forest. The night before ( 2:00am), he and his wife were woken by some otherworldly noises: screams, gurgling, growling, etc. A spotlight revealed a cougar killing a large deer in their driveway. They watched for quite some time. Early the next morning, they watched it bury the leftovers for later.
This was it! This was my chance to finally photograph a cougar. I rearranged my day, which among other things, greatly inconvenienced my wife. But she knew what this meant to me. I first had to visit my bear site to pull down one of the 2 camera traps, along with a trail camera. Off I went! The deer was neatly buried in leaves and pine needles and a casual observer would walk right by. This was text book cougar behavior and soooo impressive. I spent the next hour setting up a camera trap. I checked and rechecked everything. This was a big test for my camera trapping skills and honestly, I was pretty confident about the whole thing. At the last second, I decided to set up a game camera.
The land owners had left town, so when I arrived the next morning, I parked at the gate and walked in. I was still 100 yards from my cameras when I found the deer. It was sprawled out along the edge of a deeply wooded area. It was gruesome and my heart began to race. I looked around for a second or two and then be lined it to the cameras. I knew the cameras were working fine because they went off as I passed by. Frantically going through images on the camera’s screen, I had captured a Gray Fox beautifully, but no cougar! WTF? Trail camera videos tell the story from here.
The cougar came in behind the trees and stayed very low. Unfortunately, I had pointed the motion sensor slightly too high. It’s still painful to watch these videos.
Look how powerful this animal is! I’m more fascinated than ever.
I took down the camera, flashes, sensor, etc. My first thought was I was going to reset everything up again, focusing on the deer once again. For about 10 minutes, I tried to figure out a good angle for the camera and where I could mount flashes, etc. But in the back of my mind, I wasn’t comfortable being there. Why hadn’t the cougar made any effort to conceal its prize like it had the night before? It felt as if I may have interupted it’s meal. I had very poor sight lines in multiple directions. I was getting nervous as cougars are known to defend their kills. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I decided hanging out here for another hour was not the best idea. I quickly pointed a trail camera at the deer and left. I won’t know what is on it till tomorrow, Wednesday, the 31st. I’m very, very curious
The consolation prize was this beautiful Gray Fox, undoubtedly attracted by the scent of the deer.
It’s been several days since this chain of events and I’m still upset the I blew it. Videos are cool, but my goal is always beautiful fine art worthy prints, suitable for galleries. In the back of my mind, I know there will be more opportunities and this has been a great learning experience.
In the little patch of magic forest I’ve been setting up cameras, there is a very small, spring fed pond. It’s always been in the back of my mind to see if much goes on there, but for whatever reason I haven’t, until now. After a stretch of 100 degree days, I finally scrambled down there with a trail camera. All I can say to myself now is “What took me so long?”
Our family of Black Bears have visited several times now. The footage is both amusing and amazing. I’m learning so much about black bears and I’m just getting started. I just ordered two books about these amazing animals.
I’ve been asked about mama’s somewhat cold attitude towards one of her cubs in a few videos, like this one. My best guess this is typical Black Bear behavior, but honestly I don’t know for sure. Someone on Facebook wondered if she is trying to wean them … great question. People come to me with wildlife questions all the time, assuming I’ll have answers. So often I disappoint. I probably know way more about the natural world than most … but there is way, way, way more that I don’t know. And I like it that way. That’s how I know it will always be exciting to me.
At first glance, I would say haven’t gotten anything too exciting since the coyote. Deer, Wild Turkey and squirrels. But looking closer at some of the images, and I’m pretty happy with them. There is something about camera trapping that really appeals to me. It’s a total different approach than traditional photography. I can for the most part control the composition. I can sorta control light (need to get better at this). What I cannot control is how animals will enter the frame. While I’ve had some heartbreaking missed shots, I’ve also had some super interesting things happen. I would never compose an image like the following with my regular camera, but somehow it works.
I LOVE THE RANDOMNESS of camera trapping.
I’ve taken one of the two camera traps down to do some repairs/maintenance. The cubs have been very rough on some equipment. It’s almost not cute anymore. LOL.
I’m applying for a grant to purchase two more camera trap set ups. I’ve been successful with this foundation before. I need them to see how passionate I am and what this art is all about.
I’ve had two good weekends of business in a row. Being a full time artist/wildlife photographer ain’t always easy. I always want the business to do better and better.
I really enjoyed writing this tonight. A place to say whatever I want to say. Fun. Thank you for reading!!!
Forgive any grammar, spelling and whatever else mistakes I made. I will likely read this in the morning and do some correcting.
Last week, one of the best of the best camera trappers in existence released an e book full of tips and techniques for this very niche form of photography. It’s almost 200 pages and I’ve already read it … maybe a record for me. I will forever be using it as a reference guide.
I have lots of room for improvement. I still struggle with lighting. Flashes misfiring or not firing at all is my single biggest issue. He addresses this apparently common issue with a whole chapter on flashes. I’ve read and reread it. In a couple of hours, I’ll be making some additional adjustments and hope for the best.
Tuesday, I checked this camera and even though I’m still having issues with flashes, they worked perfect at a critical moment!
As for the other trap site I’ve been very excited about, . a huge limb broke from a tree during a recent storm. It knocked over a flash and the motion sensor, so I got exactly nothing. Big letdown! I was ready to blame the bears until I took a step back and saw what really happened.
That’s camera trapping. Lots of ups and downs. But one great image a week works for me!
I had no idea these twins were in this small patch of woods until I saw this, despite the fact I have five cameras in this relatively small area. Maybe they are passing through or maybe I’ve just missed them. Whatever … what a beautiful surprise!
I grew up in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. Wildlife was hard to come by, so I relied on books and TV shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom to satisfy my craving for wildlife. So when a young Whitetail Deer wandered down our street in Park Ridge when I was about 10yo, my mind was blown! I stood in the picture window of our mostly off limits living room, jaw on the floor. What an extraordinary sight! My life long love of deer was born in that moment.
Now living in Ashland, Oregon, Blacktail Deer wander our neighborhoods all the time. Some even consider them pests. Not me. When a deer strolls down our street, I stand in our picture window and watch, just like I did when I was ten.
I used to wonder if I’d lose the sense of connection with my subjects by using trail cameras and camera traps. I mean, being in the presence of wild animals in one of the best parts of being a wildlife photographer! Would all of that be lost with these cameras and techniques?
The answer is no. It’s made the connection deeper. Especially with this family of Black Bears. I’ve been “working” with this mother bear and her two cubs all spring and summer. While I’ve only met them ‘face to face’ three times, I’ve completely fallen for them. Just being in the same woods, walking the same trails and knowing only a few hours ago, they were on the same trail is kind of a cool feeling. I think I can even smell them. I’m sure they know my scent by now too. Constantly fixing/adjusting the cameras they abuse has almost become a game. I don’t get the least bit annoyed. I love it. And then to see a video like this. Just wow. Magical.
Here are two of the first images from new location! The Bear is covered in some sort of burrs/seed pods. I love how camera trapping is so raw. So real. The photos aren’t always perfectly pretty like you see in a National Wildlife Federation calendar. But nature isn’t perfect. As far as the raccoon goes, I’m surprised I haven’t gotten a lot more images of this species with camera traps. This is easily the best one yet.
Tomorrow, I’ll go back to this site and make a couple of adjustments to the lighting and I might trim a tiny bit of vegetation so we can see the tiny trickle of a stream better.
I’ve never been more excited and passionate about what I do. In the last two months, I’ve spent time with Wild Mustangs in eastern Oregon and Northern Spotted Owls in the Old Growth forests of the Cascades. Black Bears and Great Horned Owls too. I’ve also been working on something new: ‘camera trapping’. Oftentimes, I feel like I’m living in my own National Geographic special.
This video explains my newest camera trap set up. It’s been up for less than a week and I’m already seeing some great results. There are Black Bears, Bobcats, Coyotes, Gray Fox, Blacktail Deer, Wild Turkey, Coopers Hawks and who knows what else in the area. I hope the suspense is killing you. I know it’s killing me. Camera trapping has reignited my love for wildlife and wildlife photography in ways I never thought possible.
Going forward, this blog is going to have the most details, thoughts, photos, videos, etc. about what I do. I plan on continuing to post some things on FB and IG, but beginning to resent the way they control everything I do and what my audience sees.