Are You Sure You Want to Compete in a Month Long Photo Contest?

by Al Perry | July 22, 2008

© Al PerryI can’t speak for other photo contests, but the Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) Photo Contest is a grueling one-month endurance test. It’s really two months if you consider the one-week preparation, one-month shoot, and three weeks of sorting through and processing the images. After participating in the first two ICF contests, I will pass along my further experiences. (I also wrote a previous article after the first ICF contest in 2006.)

Scissor tail in flight © Al Perry

The ICF was formed to bring private landowners together with professional photographers in a way that promotes the natural diversity on the property with the ultimate goal of conservation through photography.

The first ICF photo contest was in the Hill Country of Texas during April 2006. Seventeen photographers participated on 17 ranches. The second photo contest was located in the Coastal Bend area in and around Corpus Christi, Texas during April 2008 when 20 photographers participated on 20 ranches.

Each photographer draws a ranch from a hat and photographs nature for 30 nonstop days on his/her assigned ranch. Five categories are photographed including: birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and scenics. Strict rules apply towards the ethical treatment of animals.Furthermore, photo manipulation is not allowed. That means minimal cropping and no cloning except for sensor dust.

Here are reasons you might want to participate:

  1. Exclusive use of ranch to photograph nature for one whole month along with free housing on the ranch.
  2. Opportunity to win part of $150,000 to $200,000 set aside as prize money, if you are successful.
  3. Challenge of competing with other photographers.
  4. Chance to build your inventory of nature photos.
  5. Prestige of winning.

Here are reasons you might not want to participate:

  1. Dislike working eighteen-hour days in a sometimes harsh environment.
  2. Concerned about drawing a ranch you don’t think is as good as the other ranches.
  3. Do not have 2 months available to invest your time and effort.
  4. Fear of losing.

I entered the photo contest with ideas about helping conservation, coming away with great imagery and giving the rancher the best photos, as my skills would allow. After starting the contest I worried about how I would come up with 60 winning photos knowing full well I was competing against some of the best nature photographers. If one takes the photo contest seriously, one will work as long and hard on this as any other project. This is an experience one won’t easily forget. Conditions can be difficult with high temperatures and humidity, and a proliferation of ants, venomous snakes and thorny bushes everywhere. Wildlife is abundant but not always easy to photograph.If hunting occurs on the ranch, photographing hunted species becomes especially difficult. I felt privileged to have been picked to participate and thankful to have had the time to invest.

Fly with Oakley glasses © Al Perry

Then the pressure builds to do well. If you do it, your 60 images will be seen, judged and compared to the 60 images from the other photographers. You feel fortunate to be one of the 20 photographers who qualify, but now you have to compete. Basically, you need to come up with two worthwhile images each day. This means if you have a bad day, then the next day you have to come up with four good images which is not always possible. And the pressure builds to make winning photos.

What do I think a winning photo is? All the usual things such as sharp focus, good exposure, clean background and interesting subject matter. More importantly, a winning photo is one that reaches out and grabs the photographer and the viewer. I looked at other photo contests in the area such as the Valley Land Trust and Coastal Bend contests with great imagery results that looked as if they were photographed in outdoor studios. I decided early on, win or lose, I would photograph all subject matter in its natural habitat and not bait or feed the wildlife in order to draw them in. I wanted more action in my photos and less portraiture. I enjoy a good portrait the same as everyone else, but I find it a bit more challenging to photograph animals demonstrating behavior in their natural setting.

2008 Images for Conservation Fund Log

March 26 and 27th

Drove 1200 miles via Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas (lots of flooding), and Texas in a land of +$3 gas. Tough to take photographs en route or you’ll never get there.

March 28th

Once again, a nice ICF launch party in a nice location.Of course the anxiety of whose ranch I would draw, how big, diverse and photogenic. As it turned out I drew a ranch which did not qualify. Ranch owners are supposed to supply “reasonable and comfortable” housing including electricity, running water, etc. My ranch didn’t have any of these so I asked for a different ranch and the people at ICF came up with an alternate.

March 29th

Made a quick visit to the alternate ranch to tour with the owner. Hunting appears to be more profitable these days than cattle and sheep ranching. Much of the ranch has been leased to a company for its employees, guests and other groups to hunt quail, turkey and deer on the ranch. In the evening, I drove up to the Hill Country ranch on which I photographed in 2006 to meet with the ranch owners and catch up. Such nice people who made my stay an enjoyable experience both in 2006 and this weekend.

March 30th

Drove back to Dinero, Texas, which is a one-building town that serves as the post office, Fedex, and UPS drop station along with a few staple items including PVC fittings for irrigation systems. Met up with the ranch owner’s daughter to tour the ranch and determine if we could work together for the next month in connection to the Images For Conservation Fund Photo Contest.

March 31st

Spent the whole day trying to find my way around the ranch on a cobweb of roads put in by ranchers, oil and gas and uranium miners. Some are actually cow paths. Instead of broad areas of relatively flat terrain, this ranch has caliche (lime-encrusted) hills, which provide a little relief so you can see across the mesquite and oak trees. Wildlife diversity looks promising along with scenic opportunities.

Ranch owner and I decided to give it a go. I moved into the “maid” quarters, a one-room small home separate from the main compound. Given all the warnings of high density rattlesnakes in this part of South Texas, I don’t feel real comfortable walking the dim lit path from my overgrown makeshift quarters to the parking lot with fresh fire ants’ mounds of dirt that erupt up during the night. The best part is a relatively new air conditioner that hums away in this high humidity, hot climate.

April 1st

After sending out an April Fool’s email to a few of my friends about my snake bite, I prepared for the first day of photographing. With all the anxiety of switching ranches, I started out a little slow and proceeded to make matters worse by making all the common mistakes like shooting frames of stuff that is very uninteresting, poorly composed and far too many. Then I thought I would save some time downloading by reviewing my images on the back of my camera and deleting those not so good.As it turned out, I had the zoom set on my LCD viewer so when I viewed the images, all I could see were partial scenes. So I deleted them and then spent hours recovering my best Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

When I got back to the maid’s house, I found out Verizon had a wireless system problem that meant I couldn’t get email or an internet connection. There is no phone line in the maid’s quarters for dial-up.

I don’t think there are any images worth submitting from today’s shoot. If we need 75 submittals over 30 days, that is over two per day, which means tomorrow I have to come up with at least five images. I am trying to convince myself it doesn’t matter how I finish in the contest.

April 2nd

Light rain in the morning, so I set up a blind and wait for vultures and caracara to finish off a dead sheep. I set up downwind from the carcass for a better view. I can’t describe the odor buildup inside a blind from a full-size dead sheep in the hot, damp air. Apparently, the vultures and caracara came in for the early bird special because from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., they did not dine. I decided there are better birds to photograph and I cut my losses with no images after a bad investment in time on my part.

Got better in the afternoon with the rain moving out.I set up on a pond with numerous ducks and shore-type birds. I got several usable images of birds.

Got very lucky later in the afternoon with a Toad Lizard (commonly referred to as horney toad) which one of the ranch hands helped secure. For whatever reason, Toad Lizards are not often seen anymore. Some fault the caracara that is known to go after these cute critters.

Toad lizard on rock © Al Perry

April 3rd

My assistant arrived, which was much welcomed. Photographing nature for 30 days away from home with 18-hour days can be difficult and it helps to have another set of eyes to spot wildlife and photo opportunities and assist in the setup of taking the image. Plus my assistant has worked the area and has an interest in learning photography.

April 4th

Photographed wildflowers in the morning with the calm air and overcast conditions. Found a Rat Snake and Black Widow Spider in the afternoon while photographing yucca at sunset.

We treated ourselves to something other than peanut butter sandwiches this Friday evening by going to the local cafe where some of the best shrimp and quail were served by former ranch owners.

April 5th

Difficult to tell weekdays from weekends. All the days are long with no break. Usually up by five to finish downloads, delete out of focus images, backup and prepare for the day. We take a small break during the heat of the day as wildlife are escaping heat and light is harsh, and then back photographing until after sunset.

Photographed a Great Blue Heron in the morning and a tree frog in the afternoon.

April 6th

Nothing showed up at the farm pond today except dragon flies which are always a challenge to photograph in flight. The Black Widow Spider got away from us near the outside corner of the guest quarters of my photographic assistant.

April 7th

A variety of subjects today including an inquisitive and sneaky road runner who must wonder what I am doing driving to the top of the caliche hill and invading his domain.

April 8th

Rattlesnakes finally come out of hiding and so we photographed one.Located a good spot for early morning sunrises behind dead trees on the lake shoreline.

Ranch owners invited us to dinner (noontime meal) on Thursday.

My assistant asked me to join him for an early evening drive to spot wildlife. I declined in order to photograph a not-so-good sunset while he proceeded to spot a nice looking coyote 30 yards away and very tolerant of his presence.

As I was brushing the grass away to pick up a spider, I noticed a rattlesnake head one foot from my hand. We photographed him in very nice evening light.

Coyote portrait © Al Perry

April 9th to 14th

Too busy and exhausted to keep a daily log. Long hours, little food or sleep. Images are coming in slowly but steadily. With so many prickly bushes, I am not surprised with a flat tire just as I was driving off to photograph sunrise.

Because they hunt on this ranch, deer, turkey, feral hogs and coyote all think my camera lens is a gun, so they are very careful not to show themselves.

Over two weeks on the ranch and the farthest I have driven from the ranch is 2 miles to get food and fuel.

I have not yet turned the TV on. Internet is hit or miss, but cell phone service is good throughout most of the ranch.

Worked on flight shots of birds. Very pleased with scissor-tailed shots.

April 15th

This is the halfway point of the photo shoot and I am beginning to look forward to the end. Knowing we are 50% finished offers some comfort, but I am rather certain I don’t have half the shots we need to be competitive.

April 16th to April 30th

We are grinding it out day by day and beginning to get some better wildlife shots.Fortunate with a regal looking coyote showing itself in the best of setting sun. The eyes are special and I managed to get them in focus despite the excitement.

So far we have been fortunate not to have any serious breakdown of equipment. More importantly, we have not had any personal injuries such as snakebites. Wearing gators gives me a lot more feeling of security walking in the thick brush. With the number of rattlesnakes we are seeing, I would not walk without the leg protection. I am told 90% of snakebites are below the knees, so I have only to worry about the other 10%. Plus the gators help avoid scratches on the legs from walking through the thorny bushes.

While we have had a few days of hot humid weather, for the most part the weather has been very pleasant.

We are approaching the end and our photographic opportunities have become better along the way. Spotted a Bobcat, my first in the wild, and actually have a photo of him. While the rancher dislikes the bobcat because the lambs and kid goats are easy prey, this animal is as clever and cunning as any we will see on the ranch. Great sense of smell with powerful and lethal paws. The legs look almost oversized relative to his upper body.

In order to photograph wildlife not seen during the day such as raccoon, we are going out after dark with a searchlight. Raccoon are in large numbers after dark, going about their daily routine looking for the best food to eat. Owls are plentiful at night as well. While not seen at night, we know the bobcat is at work. The light does not seem to bother the wildlife at night.

While we have 60 images to submit, we are working the last week to improve upon the quality of photography.With warmer weather, more snakes are seen near dusk. It seems to me more wildlife exist in Southern Texas per square mile than anywhere else in the United States I have been. My guess is the total weight of red ants and fire ants surpasses the weight of any other species. Ants are everywhere and you dare not sit on the ground for long.

Our days are running out and we will have to live with the photos we have. The ranch owners and ranch hands have helped where they can and become friends along the way. While people watch us go about our work, I suspect they admire what we do but must think nature photography is a bit frivolous.

April 30th, our last day to shoot, is here and I wish I had more time to look for better photographs.

May 1 to May 27th

We pack up and drive away with almost everyone we met wanting a photo or two. It is one of the few ways photographers can offer something in return for the hospitality shown by the owners.

After driving home and catching up on other business, I begin to sort through some 15,000 images (about 500 per day) accumulated during the month long shoot. I have a five star rating system for screening the images. My first cut through the images took almost four days and narrowed the best images to about 250 in number. I think about each of the images, inspect them for focusing, composition, exposure, subject matter, wildlife behavior, and how the judges may see the images.I show many of these 250 images to other photographers and get their reaction. Sometimes we invest so much time and effort in an image that we forget someone looking at it for the first time only sees the image—not the work or story behind the images. Photographic images need to stand on their own. If the story isn’t in the image to begin with, we shouldn’t fill in the blanks with a caption or story.

After sorting through the images, I begin to process the images within the rules of the photo contest.Wildlife photography is challenging because the animal gets to pick his own setting, pose, and light. We have very little control over how he is photographed except to put ourselves in a position of capturing an image. I process about 125 images to see how they look after being optimized with photo editing software. The post processing takes another four or five days and it becomes increasingly more difficult to settle on 12 images within five categories (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles and scenics) to submit. Sometimes I pick an image because I think the judge will like it rather than one I find more appealing.

Unconstrained by contest rules of staying within the confines of the ranch and photographing only those subjects allowed, I could easily have arrived at 60 images in half the time by driving to different locations such as a state or national park, where the wildlife was more diverse and more tolerant of humans. Six-thousand acres sounds like a big ranch and it is. But on this ranch, many of the mammals are hunted and have learned to avoid humans. I have never seen deer spooked as on this ranch.They rarely hang around to have their photo taken. Same for bobcat, coyote, skunk, jack rabbits, and turkey.

Sunrise © Al Perry

Would I do it again?

Too early to say. After participating in these first two contests, I came away thinking the positives slightly outnumber the negatives. It certainly would be nice if the contest were in an area with fewer rattlesnakes, thorny bushes, and biting insects. I’d have to ask how many more times I want to get up at 5 AM to see a scorpion by my shoes, or a rattlesnake head one foot from my hand. And did I say some of the thorns are toxic?

Competing seriously at this level is not for the faint of heart. If you are not a risk taker, this might not be the ticket for you. But the experience can be very rewarding. If you want to push your limits, then perhaps a competition like this is in your future!

About the Author

Al Perry has photographed for around 37 years specializing in nature photography for 10. One of the highlights of Al’s nature photography career was working with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in filming a documentary on Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. Al flew his ultralight aircraft with BBC camera gear while filming cranes in flight which produced a film that has had international audiences. The Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, International Crane Foundation, Nebraska Bird Observatory and other organizations have used his images.

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