Taking better wildlife photos

Posted July 15, 2011, at 9:06 p.m.
Twin calf moose photo Courtesy of Mark Picard, just one of the oustanding photos on display at Moose Prints Gallery, 58 Central Street, Millinocket.
Twin calf moose photo Courtesy of Mark Picard, just one of the oustanding photos on display at Moose Prints Gallery, 58 Central Street, Millinocket.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother packing my camera when I hike.

I have high hopes of bringing home photos of wildlife, yet if I see anything, the moment is usually gone by the time I get the camera out of the pack. If, by chance, the animal is patient, I’ll overexpose the shot, or shoot it out of focus, or any number of other things that could go wrong.

Usually the result is losing the moment and the shot completely.

If this sounds like what happens when you head out to take wildlife pictures, I might have a solution. Seek professional help. That’s what I did recently when I stopped in at Mark Picard and Anita Mueller’s wildlife gallery in Millinocket, Moose Prints Gallery, on Central Street.

Picard and Mueller are partners in life and in the studio. They offer photo workshops and instruct amateurs such as me, as well as skilled professionals, in capturing the perfect image of wildlife in its natural setting.

Before we left on a photo hike, Picard and I talked about the effort he makes to limit his impact on the animals he photographs.

“First and foremost we practice a Leave No Trace ethic, which states that you never feed, or disturb or in any way try to get closer to wildlife for a photo,” Picard said . “It stresses the animals and it disturbs their behavior in an unnatural way. For me it’s all about respecting the animals.”

With his camera bag packed full of telephoto lenses, tripods and camera bodies, he, Mueller and I headed to a secret location in the area to try capturing a photo or two of moose, which have been known to visit the spot. As we hiked in, he shared a few tips that could give me a better chance of capturing photos.

One of the first tips was that you have to know all the controls on your camera. “They are making some great point-and-shoot cameras now, but you want to be ready to take that photo without fumbling around for the buttons. If you happen upon a shot of two bull moose fighting, for instance, the last thing you want is to fumble with your camera and miss the opportunity.”

For users of more sophisticated, technical cameras, Picard recommends a few other tips. “Try to take several images at different focal lengths, such as with a zoom lens. Include images that show the animal’s environment as well as the subject animal,” he said.

After a short hike, we reached the location to wait for the moose to show up, and I asked about some of the composition rules I was familiar with, such as never putting the subject in the middle of the frame. “The first thing about those rules is there are no rules,” he said. “I’ve taken some photos with great impact that just show a bullfrog’s head, that just fills the frame dead center.”

When I asked about the chances of finding wildlife to photograph in the first place, he answered, “There’s always something out there. It may not be a moose, but it could be a chipmunk, a frog, a butterfly. There’s always something if you look.” But, he admitted, “half of it is luck, being in the right place at the right time.”

Soon, a cow moose and her wobbly calf appeared out of the brush, next to the water. Cameras raised, he, Mueller and I took frame after frame, accompanied (in hushed tones) by much oohing and aahing.

After we had finished our photo session, we just hung around and watched the mother and calf do what moose do. The adult fed on the bottom of the pond and the calf strayed off to lie down in the cool of the forest.

Picard explained another pointer to improve my chances of capturing better wildlife photos. “Practice using your camera in your backyard,” he said. “Go to a zoo, a local pasture with farm animals, horses and cows. You want to learn how fast things can happen with animals and know the workings of your camera inside and out. That way when you’re in the woods, you’ll be ready. Wildlife photography demands this. Lots of times things happen very quickly.”

Some of the images Picard has taken appear in publications as renowned as Sierra, Audubon, Nature Conservancy Magazine and Yankee, among others. His and Mueller’s gallery is filled with images of moose, deer, birds and scenery that just make the viewer wonder how in the world he managed to capture such perfect shots.

It all starts with practicing those fundamentals, he said, and being very patient, such as spending hours in a floating blind that he built, and above all knowing the behaviors and habits of the animals. While he has had plenty of practice over the past 35 years, for most of us, with just a few basic tips and practice, we can bring home photos that will be far improved over those blurry pictures that we now have in our personal collections. I learned enough after hiking with Mueller and Picard, and snapping shots of that moose calf, that none of my friends will ever say, “What am I looking at?”

To join Mueller and Picard on a photo workshop contact them at www.markpicard.com or by phone at 447-6906. Stop in at Moose Prints Gallery on 58 Central St. and be prepared to be met by some of the greatest wildlife photos you’ll see anywhere.

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