Shooting the Competitive Photo Contest: Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) First Contest 2006

by | June 1, 2006

© Al PerryIf you want to put in 18-hour days getting up early and getting to bed late with no TV or newspapers while photographing and downloading in between, sign up for a competitive photo contest.

In April 2006 I spent 30 consecutive days photographing nature on a Texas Hill Country ranch along with 16 other professional photographers, each photographing on a separate ranch. We each drew a ranch to photograph mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and scenics as part of the first annual Images For Conservation Fund (ICF) effort to bring landowners and photographers together. The goal is to start a movement for greater appreciation and conservation of the natural wonders on privately owned land.

Ranch © Al Perry

The ranch Al Perry photographed at for 30 days during the 2006 ICF contest.

Ranchers could use this 30-day period to decide whether or not they wanted to try to develop their property into a supplemental income-producing nature photography, or ecotourism, location. The ICF states, “Because 80% of the Western Hemisphere is privately owned, economic incentives hold the greatest promise for saving nature.” Up to $160,000 in prize money is available in this month-long event for equal sharing by the top teams of ranch owners and photographers. Rights to the photos reside with the photographer. Winners will be announced at an awards party June 17, 2006.

The Nitty Gritty

This was my first competitive photo contest and I felt a little intimidated by the skill and experience of the other photographers, some of whom have competed successfully in other south Texas photo contests. I did a little research on the Hill Country of Texas, but generally was ill-prepared for the 30-day shoot as a last minute qualifier.

Tough it was. I put on bug spray, but it had little effect against the chiggers. April is supposed to be the rainy season in Texas, but we witnessed one of the driest and hottest Aprils on record. Birds quit chirping and avoided flying in the 100+ degree heat. There are apparently plenty coyotes feeding on the rancher’s goats and sheep, but they are smart enough to stay clear of ranchers’ guns and, by extension, the photographer’s lens. I never saw one. It was the same for bobcats.

Sunset © Al Perry

My ranch had good diversity of uplands and lowlands along with a sometimes-flowing Frio River which turned dry by the end of April. Cedar trees dominated the uplands with oaks and cypress trees at the lowlands in and around the river. The ranch is on the margin of the high Texas Hill Country and the south Texas semi arid flat lands. The area receives about 23 inches of rain annually. April is usually a time for fields of wild flowers and migrating birds. Wild flowers were scarce while migrating birds arrived in good numbers late in the contest.

We could submit up to 15 images for each of the 5 categories mentioned above. Sounds easy except these need to be award-winning photos. I figured I needed 2.5 submittal images each day. The only edge I had is in my motto: “Whatever I lack in ability I make up in equipment.” Having photographed in a number of nature preserves, I thought a 600mm lens would do the trick. I was mistaken. Other than armadillos, most birds and wildlife in the Hill Country know how to stay out of reach of those frame-filling shots. My first mammal was a mouse captured on a glue trap inside the guesthouse where I stayed at the ranch. We could submit only 2 uncropped images of the same species or otherwise, I could have photographed 5 mice, all within the guesthouse. I found three species of spiders in my bathtub and three kinds of lizards outside the shop building where I photographed macros.

The hospitality of the ranch owners made my stay a lot more enjoyable. Including me at their weekend family gatherings was a nice treat to break up the week. Having a ranch owner assist with logistics added to the success of the photo shoot. Each photographer could have one assistant with set-ups or any other area of preparation. Although we could get advice, photographers must be personally responsible for selecting and optimizing the images in their own portfolios.

Each day I got up before sunrise with some idea about what I wanted to shoot in the morning hours. Usually a photo blind with lots of seed, peanut butter, and oranges will attract wildlife. For some reason, the birds didn’t like the meals I supplied. Turkeys would occasionally eat on the run on their way past my photo blind. I got the idea the turkeys assumed my lens was a shotgun. And no need to bring food items for the fire ants, as they prefer chewing on the photographer perched 9 inches from their entry and exit. The only reason I managed to photograph a skunk for several minutes within 10-12 feet without getting sprayed is that the furry mammal must have melted in the 105-degree heat.


One of the highlights was photographing Red-tailed Hawks picking off gravid bats as 10 million departed a cave to begin their nocturnal feeding. The hawks managed to grab one or more bats mid air.

Buteo bats © Al Perry

Peregrine Falcons, Swainson’s Hawks, and Merlins joined in for the daily feast. And after the female bats have their young, 20 million bats will exit the cave each evening. (The male bats are off somewhere in Mexico while the females give birth.)

With 10 days to go in the contest, I was huffing and puffing up a hill with my 600mm, 1.4X teleconverter, camera body, and heavy-duty tripod along with a 400mm lens, camera body and tripod hoping to photograph the hawks’ bat attacks. As I reached the top of the hill I heard my 600mm lens vibrating a bit on my tripod. As I only had three steps to the top of the hill, I thought I would tighten it down when I got to the top. Too late – the 600mm lens fell from my shoulder to the solid rock at my feet. I can still see the lens rolling partway down the hill separate from the camera body and 1.4X teleconverter. Somehow the lens and camera survived but the tele was smashed.

Once a Painted Bunting landed within the minimum focusing distance and sang his song long enough to for me to hope for extra-point images. Another time a six-foot Indigo Bull Snake attacked and overpowered a resisting four-foot Coach Whip Snake.

It wasn’t until getting out of my blind or car and walking the land that I began to find even more interesting subjects to photograph, like any number of tiny bugs that feed on the flowers of the prickly pear cactus. A larger-sized, quite hairy tarantula spider raised a few of my own hairs as I zeroed in with the 180mm macro lens.

The Portfolio

I submitted 75 images – 15 images each of birds, reptiles-amphibians, insects-arachnids-arthropods, mammals, and plants-landscapes. In all, I made almost 25,000 images in the 30-day period, spent two weeks in preparation or driving, and another two weeks editing. Photographers supplied actual slides or a digital storage device containing numbered sequences leading to and following all the images in their portfolio.

After the Fact

Would I do anything differently? Sure, I would get lower for my wide angles, research the area and subject matter a little more carefully, take better care of my equipment, and plan my activities to make certain each of the categories received equal time. I found myself concentrating on areas I do best such as bird photography.

Snakes © Al Perry

Was it worth it? Well, I’ve always dreamed of having 30 straight days of just shooting. But at some point shooting the competitive contest becomes far more than what one imagines at the outset. One comes to appreciate the privilege of photographing in a new and challenging place at a deeper level. I forgot about the potential prize money and thought more about the obligation to the ranch owner and any benefits to wildlife that can come from the long, dusty process.

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