How Photography Has Made Me a Better Hunter

Posted on July 20, 2021



“Wildlife photography consists of a series of repeated

  attempts by a crazed individual to obtain impossible

    photos of unpredictable subjects performing unlikely

  behaviors under outrageous circumstances” – Mike Biggs



I got the shot! In fact, I got several shots that I was not even planning on. Those shots did not come from the boom of a gun or the swoosh of an arrow; the only noise that was emitted was from the shutter of my Nikon camera. And what a buck he was. With heavy, large antlers he posed like he knew he was going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Photographing wildlife, primarily deer and turkeys, has been more rewarding than most things I’ve attempted in life. There is not another discipline that I have worked harder at, spent more time doing, or got more excited about.

No one relishes waking up well before dawn in order to get where you will set-up to photograph. But when I am in the midst of photographing turkeys, they fly down just as soon as they can see and are on most mornings quite active once their feet hit the ground. Most of my best shots of these birds have been taken within the first two hours of the day. That is when the light is magically soft, and the males are typically strutting their stuff in and around any number of hens.



Rising early also provides some rather dramatic sunrises, moon settings, fog etc., that you’d not otherwise get. I always tell folks, I don’t take pictures, I make images. With the exception of the animal’s uncontrollable behavior, I have made most of these images in my head prior to ever pressing the camera’s shutter.



Before we get into the hunting aspect of this piece, I will tell you that I greatly enjoy capturing images of grandkids, flowers, bees, fall scenes, sporting events and the like. Whatever I am photographing at the moment has all of my immediate attention. I share that with you because I know of wildlife photographers, some with big names in the industry, who won’t shoot an image unless there is an animal in it. Personally, I think they are missing a big part of the whole. They may not be able to sell it, but it sure is nice to look back on.


Animal Behavior

One of America’s most prolific wildlife photographers, Donald Jones, asked, “So why am I doing a book of elk photographs? I tell people that while I’ve photographed North American subjects ranging from musk oxen to crocodiles to elephant seals to polar bears, out of all my subject’s elk are what I have photographed the longest and most consistently. Over the past eighteen years, I have witnessed – and, with luck, captured on film – elk exhibiting their behaviors in a wide variety of habitats, weather, and lighting.”



As a whitetail deer hunter, I learned a lot about these animals and how to successfully hunt them during my youthful formative years. I was fortunate to have some of the best deer hunters from anywhere share with me insights that would prove to be invaluable as I matured into a man. However, with that being stated, there was so much more to learn, as I would find out by putting a camera in my hand.



Photographing forced me to be patient, to sit quietly in the right location and see deer behavior up close and personal through a long lens. Had it not been for photography, I would never have learned the tell-tale signs revealing when a doe was about to give birth. Likewise, I would never have captured that priceless event on film without that insight.



Prior to being a wildlife photographer, I never actually saw or heard a buck performing a snort-wheeze or knew what it meant. Understanding why deer do what they do, and better yet, knowing when they are doing it, such as the annual rut, has allowed me to recognize what I have photographed later being played out in the tracks I follow as a hunter.

Regarding turkeys, although I came to the game later in life, I had a great mentor that helped me understand this crazy bird. But nothing could have broken down the learning curve more than photographing them the last twelve years for two months each spring prior to hunting season. Although there are still many mysteries to this bird, what I have photographed for behavior surely provides a leg up on other hunters that have never seen or experienced the rituals of the wild turkey.



I could write further regarding other species such as moose, bear, elk, bighorns etc., but you should get the point that through saturation of time spent in capturing these subjects on film, I have been provided a basis for recognizing patterns in behavior and timing of such behaviorisms.


Anticipating Action

It was not the fastest on the draw that won a gun fight in the old west, it was the gunman that anticipated when the other would draw. Listening for key sounds has allowed me to prepare for a legitimate turkey fight. Watching a hen circle a tom alerts me that a breeding sequence is about to begin.



When a buck lowers his ears and begins to walk stiff-legged, it indicates that a rival buck is close, and a brew-ha-ha is about to commence. When the cadence of a buck goes from his usual gait to a ‘thump, thump’ cadence it is indicative that his nose is tight to the ground and he’s on the chase for love.



Understanding animal behavior and seeing it happen routinely enough to recognize patterns has given me the benefit of preparing myself for what I know is about to unfold. Being a behaviorist and capturing this action with a camera has provided me a ringside seat to great photographic opportunities as well as learning to be ready when hunting with my weapon of choice long before the action begins. And as a tracker, all of what I have observed and photographed is written out in front of me in the language of deer tracks.


Knowing When to Move and at What Speed

The way you a stroll through the mall, down your street or anywhere else you may walk is not how best to navigate wooded terrain that is your hunting grounds. Just watch how animals go about their daily lives where they live. I have yet to see, photograph or shoot an animal that walks in cadence like a human. Their steps are always measured as if one false move could bring down calamity of the end kind.



My late dear friend, Charlie Alsheimer once wrote, “I’ve spent hundreds of hours sitting in deer blinds and sneaking through whitetail haunts trying to get “the right” photo. I learned long ago that good, tight portraits of whitetails are nice, but the thing that really tells the story about America’s craftiest large animal is behavior. And behavior is what I love to photograph.”



When photographing, seldom is the time that I will use a blind. My preference is a fold out stool and something in the topography where I am shooting that will break up my outline and hide my small movements behind the camera. Usually all that is necessary is a bush, tree, rock, or dead fall. The more frequently I go back the less timid the animals are of my presence. I’m literally trying to imprint on them.



Take for example the turkeys I’m currently photographing, once I select the flocks I intend to photograph, I begin, during the last week in February, showing up regularly at roughly the same spot at the same time. After a couple of weeks of this, the birds begin to tolerate me, and I am able to move a bit when necessary. However, that movement needs to be measured and only advised with extreme caution, especially if you’ve got twenty sets of eyes on you. It only takes one overly excited bird to putt or take to the air and the whole pony show leaves Dodge in a quick hurry.



Exercising this ‘no blind’ approach has aided me in how to move, when to move and at what speed to move in both the deer and turkey woods. Understand, it is not what you are or are not wearing that gets you busted – animals don’t care about our camo pattern – it is always about movement. When being approached, however covertly we may maneuver, remember every individual animal has a flight/fright distance; an imaginary line between you and it that if breached, will cause the turkey to fly off, the deer to bound off and you to look rather silly holding the tab.



Martha Hill writes, “The camera enables us to see and do things creatively that are beyond the capability of the human eye. It expands our range of seeing and gives us new options.”



The camera has and continues even today to redefine my career as both a hunter and behaviorist. The click of the camera shutter captures a slice of reality, plucking a moment from God’s creation and suspends it to enjoy and reflect upon. In my quest to capture those unimaginable images, I have benefitted immensely in my pursuit to hunt down the various animals when the season arrives.


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