Get Close Up Photos of Desert Animals
Gila Monsters - Birds - Lizards
Text and photos by Ralph and Boonmee Rose
How would you like:
- To pet a hummingbird in the open desert
- To watch from 5 feet away while a cottontail systematically logs a clump of globemallow, completely unconcerned about your presence
- To chuck a patchnosed snake under the chin
- To have a Gila monster rest gratefully in the shade of your body
- To gaze into the inquiring eyes of a badger from 8 feet away
- To have a chuckwalla climb onto your shoulder
- To have a collared lizard hop up onto your outstretched hand and pose in profile for the camera as if born to the theater
These are among the rewards that we have experienced in 10 years of desert photography.
"How do you get so close to the animals?"
That's probably the most frequent question we hear from people who have watched one of our videos. We seem to have abnormally good luck in interacting with a variety of small desert animals.
The "how" is something that I can probably explain, and will try to do so, hoping that we may provide some useful tips for people who want to photograph desert wildlife.
"Why" the animals interact with us is something that we have been unable to satisfactorily explain to ourselves. I consider myself a devotee of logic, and I am not comfortable in admitting that I have seen animals perform in ways that seem to defy all commonly-held notions of animal behavior and levels of animal intelligence.
Let's deal with the "hows" first, in hopes that most of you will stay with me for a while. When I get into the "whys", I worry that readers may decide "This guy is a nut!" and depart.
1) Be prepared to invest some time
My wife Boonmee and I tend to wander in the desert, most of the time with no set destination. When we walk we meander slowly along, looking for anything of photographic interest. When we drive, we tend to idle along desert tracks in low gear, again looking for anything interesting. When we see a jackrabbit, for example, we stop, set up the tripods for the still and video cameras, and begin the process of seeing whether the rabbit is interested in stardom.
Most of the time the jackrabbit will apparently say, "What kind of nonsense is this?" and depart in a hurry. In some cases though, the rabbit will remain still as we set up and begin the process of moving gradually closer to it. In all cases we give the animal time (at least 30 seconds) to become accustomed to our presence at each distance before moving closer. About one out of 20 rabbits will remain still while we continue to approach, first in increments of a few yards, then a few feet at a time, and finally a few inches at a time, each time giving the rabbit time to become accustomed to us at that distance.
Using this method, we have on occasion approached to within four feet of jackrabbits and cottontails, photographed them in detail and said goodbye to them with the rabbit still undisturbed. Many variables influence the outcome. Jackrabbits, for example, are more likely to allow an approach during hot, windless weather.
This method, with variations, applies to most small animals. The reader should keep in mind that most potential subjects are going to run, and the only way to know which one is not going to run is to take the time to put it to the approach test. It is frustrating to stop the car, mount the camera or camcorder on its tripod, and have the animal flee when we are still 30 feet away, but these many instances of frustration are more than compensated for when we succeed. When a wild animal in the open desert does trust you enough to allow you to interact with it at close range, it is an experience that you will never forget.
2) Talk to the animals
We talk to all animals, which may or may not be relevant to our successes. We tend to praise the animal ("What a pretty lizard you are!") as we approach. The sound of our voice does not seem to disturb them. We try to avoid any sudden movements.
3) Approach them when they are comfortable
Some situations lend themselves to cooperation by animals. Reptiles are likely to be most approachable when basking. A contented reptile is usually reluctant to leave. Snakes in particular, when they have found a warm road surface when the air temperature is cooling off in the evening, will tend to hold still for close-up photography.
4) Don't wake them up
You should be aware, however, that rattlesnakes, like people, tend to be grumpy if someone keeps pestering them while they are trying to sleep.
Rattlesnakes should, of course, be approached with caution, but unless stepped on or startled, pose no great danger, as long as they are treated with respect. Animals, like people, are blessed with widely different personalities within their species. We have, during the past 15 years encountered over 100 rattlesnakes. We have met placid rattlesnakes, nervous rattlesnakes, angry rattlesnakes, indifferent rattlesnakes, curious rattlesnakes, frightened rattlesnakes and many, many inscrutable rattlesnakes.
Curiosity seems to be a trait that is present in at least some members of all species, including insects, and this is one thing that assists the nature photographer. Reptiles, in particular, often seem to be interested in the camera lens.
5) Don't try to capture the animal, approach with good intentions
Why do some animals trust us?
I wish we had a definitive answer. Some explanations that come to mind include:
Body language? There may be something in the human and animal subconscious that can recognize intentions through interpretations of subtle body movements and attitudes. We have never attempted to capture an animal, and are content to let any encounter be conducted on the animal's terms. It may be that some of them can sense our good intentions.
We have all heard the old saying: "Animals can smell fear." Perhaps they can also smell affection. If the study of pheromones is extended to humans, we may discover that we emit scents that signal our intentions.
6) Find the curious representative of the species
One question that I cannot answer is: "Why do a small percentage of most species seem to be more intelligent than their peers?" I had always considered lizards and insects to be very low on the intelligence totem pole. But some lizards and some insects have appeared to us to be perfectly aware of what a camera is, and perfectly capable of performing for an audience. Boonmee is a Buddhist, and believes that all animals have souls. This would suggest that the superstar-caliber lizards and insects occupied a higher life form in previous incarnations. I wish that I could come up with a more scientific explanation, but I can't.
If you haven't already done so, try your hand at shooting (on film) the small creatures of the desert. It is a win-win situation. If you have luck like ours, you will end up with memorable pictures. If you see no animals at all, you will still gain the peace of mind that is one of the rewards of spending time in that wonderful place, the desert.
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