The Passion of Wildlife Photography

by Carl Donohue | April 17, 2013

© Carl DonohueThe topic of wildlife photography is an important one to me. I’ve admired the work of wildlife photographers since I was a kid, watching countless reruns of whatever documentary program the TV channels we received offered, or browsing, over and over again, the pages of National Geographic magazine. For as long as I can recall, I’ve been enamored with photographs of wild animals.

I’ve also been enamored with wild animals; for every hour I spent watching those programs, I spent two or three times that number reading about the habits and lives of whatever animals I was infatuated with on that particular day. One day it might be the great brown bears of the Alaska coast, or the jaguar of the Amazon. The next it might be the Grey kangaroos I saw so regularly on my weekend hikes in the hills nearby our house.

I don’t know why. Probably for a whole host of reasons, and then for a whole host more. There’s always been some fascinating draw toward wild animals for me.

Snowy landscape © Carl Donohue

At the end of the day, that’s why I pursue wildlife photography—because the subject itself fascinates me. The elements of photography that are enmeshed within that, the technical elements of cameras and lenses and digital processing, the compositional rules of visual arts, the creative desire, the goal of making a great photo, are all secondary. For me, wildlife photography is all about the subject. Taking a great, abstract, wonderfully crafted image in perfect light of a rusted pickup truck just doesn’t matter to me.

A friend, Andy, told me at a party one night, years and years ago, when we were discussing different approaches I might make to becoming a professional photographer, ‘dude, forget that sh**—shoot your passion’. I realized then and there I’d never be a wedding photographer, a glamor photographer, a photographer of architecture, sports, etc. I’m simply not inspired by those subjects like I am wild animals. I can point my lens toward them, but I don’t really care about them. I can’t imagine I’d ever do a very good job at shooting those things, were I to give it my best whirl. They just don’t hold me the same way wildlife does.

Snowy trees © Carl Donohue

Wildlife photography excites me, because wildlife excites me. The “photography” part of it is peripheral. Whether my camera is in hand or not, I can sit and watch a herd of caribou move over the tundra, or a bald eagle sit in a Cottonwood tree, or an elk move through the woods, and I still experience that same childlike sense of awe that I had all those years ago.

This winter I saw a wolverine. I didn’t get a chance to photograph it, but just seeing that creature was a huge thrill for me. I had seen one previously, so in just a few fleeting moments I’d doubled my wolverine sightings. This one ran right by me as I drove down the road, passing within just a few feet from my vehicle. I could count the hairs on his head.

Wolverine tracks in snow © Carl Donohue

Even after it disappeared into the woods nearby, and was long gone, I still felt that rush of excitement. I photographed his tracks in the fresh snow, then followed his course across the frozen lake, through the mix of willow and alder that rose from the shoreline.

I followed over the fallen spruce boughs, and back outside the forest along the lake’s edge, before veering off back amongst the trees and ascending up the insanely steep ridge, where only a fool would follow.

I followed, of course, scrambling up the mountain, through snow 2-3 feet deep, stumbling in the soft power, half rising only to stumble again. I tripped over countless buried logs, caught my breath, placed my feet beneath me, and raggedly forced my way upward another five yards. Repeat.

Thermal activity © Carl Donohue

Sure, I was hoping I’d get to see the wolverine again. I’d have loved the opportunity to photograph him. But mostly I wanted to experience him again. I wanted to watch his gambling lope, ogle his amazing ability to float over the powder, to witness that wicked grin as he raced by me.

I didn’t seem to feel the minus 35 degree temperature at the time. The world seems to suddenly be a much warmer place when a wolverine comes to visit. Why? I have no idea. I simply know that the experience of seeing a wild animal, of coming to know his world, even to some tiny degree, excites me.

Sunset © Carl Donohue

I followed his tracks yet again, to learn the course he’d taken, see the choices he’d made, to live in his world, even if only for a few minutes. I headed back to the road where he’d leaped over the guard rail and raced across the lake. Curious, I examined his tracks. I looked at the size of those feet; the front track was well over six inches long, and nearly three inches wide. A big boy, with feet like snowshoes, spread almost comically wide to avoid sinking in the soft snow. Each impression sank barely a couple of inches into the powder, while I stood mired in the snow, buried nearly to mid-thigh.

I studied the placement of the two rear feet, side by side, surprised at the the short, almost truncated stride his bouncy, leaping gait yielded; more of a double-footed hop than a step, really. That unique mustelid 2×2 track, moving the rear feet together, then the front feet, and on across the snow. Here and there were the marks his tail had made, dragging in the snow behind him.

I returned to my vehicle, out of breath, feeling foolishly childish and covered in snow. What a great day—I just saw a wolverine! Now, where was my camera?

About the Author

"I'm a wilderness advocate, and consider my photography a critical part of that journey. I'm also a fan of the creative process, of creating, of the experience of making art, which reflects the wildness within our selves; is creating art in the external wilderness perhaps a perfect union? When possible, I write, photograph, hike, camp and dally in the places I love; when I can't, I imagine I'm writing, photographing, hiking, camping and dallying in the places I love," says Carl Donohue. "The lessons I learn in the wilderness are some of the most valuable experiences in my life, and for each of them, I'm grateful. I'm currently working on a book on Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park, Alaska, which grants me time in some absolutely amazing places. What a world!" For treks and phototours, visit www.expeditionsalaska.com. For stock photography, visit www.skolaiimages.com. And, says Carl, "For better living, visit the wild."

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