Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: not being eaten whilst photographing landscapes

We’re lucky with our wildlife in the UK. We don’t have:

  • Bears: black, brown, grizzly or polar
  • Big cats: OK, there may be a few on the loose, but they’re at best very elusive!
  • Snakes: yes, there are a few, but they don’t have fatal, or terribly serious, venom.
  • Spiders: not the deadly sort at least, with a few airline stowaways being very much the exception.
  • Coyotes: though there are some wolves in Scotland now I believe.

We have no need, in Britain, for signs like this one:

Of course, if you’re out trying to photograph any of these animals, the UK’s sadly lacking and clearly not an ideal choice, but, if your interest is landscape photography, the absence of assorted, powerful carnivores and venomous biting things is a major benefit!
'Snakes warning sign'

This item was originally conceived as entirely light-hearted, but I’ve been thinking about it some more and there is a serious point too: making landscape images, which usually involves considerable time standing around, concentrating on the camera and the subject, is a great deal more relaxed in an environment where nothing either predatory or venomous is out to get you.

What made me think about this was spending a few weeks in the US south-west, an area where all of the above may be seen or, potentially, not seen until it’s too late. As I said in my previous article, this wasn’t a photographic trip and I therefore didn’t spend much time immobile, awaiting the arrival of a hungry something, but if I do go out to the region again, with intent to photograph landscapes, I suspect that being out in the wilds alone could well be considerably less relaxing than it is here.

It’s not as if there’s an easy rule to follow :-\

Quite apart from anything else, remembering how to respond to any given encounter is a bit of a challenge. The variations in whether or not to look at an animal, whether to make a noise, whether to be aggressive or passive, are considerable! (Broadly, though: looking at bears is a bad idea, whilst anything feline really doesn’t like being stared at one little bit. As to snakes… well, don’t step on them and don’t get within about three metres, especially if they rattle!)

'Bears warning sign'

Naturally, weather is something we have to contend with in Britain, but it’s not actively malevolent and out to get you. Weather can kill, and I’m sure it does so to a far greater degree than all of the wildlife above put together, but it’s passive and, to a reasonable degree, predictable (or so the met office claim at least). It’s most emphatically not worrying in quite the same way!

The real risk isn’t the issue; it’s a question of concentration

I genuinely think that landscape photography in the UK has many advantages over what might appear to be more dramatic landscapes elsewhere (colour palette, variety, accessibility, to list a few), and this is just an additional factor – but perhaps a very significant one. I’m not at all sure how well I could concentrate on producing the best composition I’m capable of, and waiting for the light to be optimum, if I was worrying about being eaten or poisoned! OK – I do know: not very well at all. For example, the rattlesnake warning sign at the top was vaguely amusing at first, but less so when we were standing on a lookout and noticing all the suspiciously circular, snake-sized holes in the desert surrounding us.

I don’t want to get the real risk out of proportion here: the number of fatalities attributed to the entirety of the above list of animals, per year, in the whole of the US, is measured in tens, so the risk is trivial. What I’m talking about here is the – to me – undeniable nervousness produced by these dangers existing at all, and the effect that would have on my photography. i.e. This is really a musing on how the potentially dangerous wildlife which may be nearby at a location affects [my] ability to make photographs. Much as the factors I discussed in my general article on photographing this area – time, equipment and over-familiarity – had a profound effect on my images, I think that this feature of the less-benign environments of the US south-west could also have a considerable, detrimental effect, purely through psychology :-(

'Lions warning sign'

I’d be interested in whether anyone who’s been out making landscape images – especially solo – either in this area or in others where potentially threatening animals are present – has had similar thoughts, or been affected by the simple concern about this, in reality trifling, risk?

16 Responses to “Musings on: not being eaten whilst photographing landscapes”

  1. Michael Marten

    I wonder in how far the issue relates to not *really* understanding the risk, or lack of it. Yes, we can know it’s small (tens of people etc.), but in unfamiliar territory, it takes on a different dimension. I know someone who lived in Nevada for a year, and the first time her friends went camping with her she was terrified of the the bears and rattlesnakes etc. that the signs at the campsite warned about – but none of the Americans were in the least worried. On a deeper level, they understood the risks – yes, a bear might come to the campsite, but it really wasn’t very likely. You might relax more after being able to *feel* more about the real risks, rather than just thinking about them!
    Having said all that, I’d have all my stuff within easy reach ready to run away if I encountered any of the signs you did, and I would find it hard to relax to compose carefully! So I can relate to the sentiments expressed here… :)

    • Mike Green

      Oh I entirely agree: it’s very much a case of not *really* being familiar with the risk from long experience. For example, the couple of thousand miles driving we did would, without any doubt, have a far greater risk associated with it than that of being shredded by bears, etc., whilst not driving. It’s a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, as I infer from your comment, and if you grow up somewhere that has dangerous wildlife, you’re accustomed to that risk.

      So, I’m not suggesting that we *should* be worried, merely saying that we – or at least *I* – cannot readily overlay my instinctive fear with a sensible, proportionate assessment of risk, based on known likelihood (in this case). And the result /might/ affect my ability to take photographs…. I’m sure, after a few weeks or months, I’d relax more. I recognise this is all psychological and irrational – I was just interested that I couldn’t rationalise it away completely! I /can/ rationalise risk on high mountains, and have done – it’s the ‘malevolent intent’ thing which gets me ;-)

  2. Anonymous

    Now there’s an article I can relate to Mike.
    Whilst I wasn’t ‘doing’ photography, I was stood up to my waist in a river fly fishing for salmon on the River Stamp on Vancouver Island some years ago. I was alone maybe half a mile from the nearest road & it was late & becoming dark. A large bear appeared on the far bank in the pool above me & swam across to my side of the river & disappeared into the forest – the one I had just walked through to get to the river.
    I stopped where I was for a few minutes while ‘musing’ my options, I figured that if I waited a while the bear would have chance to move away, but it was getting darker & it was very dark in the forest. I decided to leave the scene since bears do patrol river banks at that time of year looking for salmon. I ran through the forest making lots of noise, apparently bears don’t like suprises, & I was relieved to make it back to the car.
    In the morning I returned to the spot with my wife to see that the bear had left footprints in the sand right alongside mine where I had come out of the river.
    It certainly spices up ones experience of being in a wilderness environment, & when you’re out in places like that it’s good to have a little knowledge of the do’s & don’ts. http://www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/g/giantbear.htm

    • Mike Green

      Great story! Especially good in that you are around to tell it ;-) As you say, definitely important to know the dos and don’ts of behaviour in those environments, but it didn’t entirely remove my latent apprehension ;-) Thanks very much for posting this encounter.

      As to the ‘giant bear’ link – I’d actually seen those images before, presumably sometime when I was researching exactly how scared I should be, prior to going there. I recall thinking at the time that, whilst a giant bear would be especially alarming, the actual increment would merely be from 99.9% terrified to 99.95, or some such, with the additional size ;-)

    • Mike Green

      It most certainly has a great deal going for it! Right now, I’ve just returned home to Yorkshire from Dublin, and the weather is most certainly not one of those things :-\

  3. Douglas Griffin

    Interesting thoughts, Mike! When my wife and I were camping in the desert SW, we were constantly amused by the ground squirrels – we didn’t feed them but that didn’t stop them from getting very close to us in an attempt to get some food. Then, somewhere or other (I think it might have been at Cedar Breaks, in Utah) we heard about a park ranger contracting bubonic plague from a ground squirrel!!
    I guess that puts the nuisance value of midges in perspective. Though I am a bit worried that sooner or later I’m going to pick up Lyme disease, as I don’t seem to be able to prevent ticks attaching themselves to me at some point during an extended spell in north-west Scotland.

    • Mike Green

      !!! I thought the ground squirrels were entertaining too…. I’d not heard that particular story at the time though. Thanks for adding a new concern to my list :-)

      I used to go caving a lot, and the possibility of Weil’s disease (leptospirosis) was always present – not that it stopped me, but everything has something nasty associated with it, it would seem. That said, it’s the primal fear of being torn limb from limb which mostly gets to me (bears/big cats)!

      • Dave Moorhouse

        Mike, I’ve got just the book for you, it’s titled ‘Mark of the Grizzly’ – true stories of recent bear attacks and the hard lessons learned – “this deft & gracefully written book is more terrifying than a shelf full of Stephen King novels”.
        250 pages to be read under the bed sheets!

        • Mike Green

          Well thanks, Dave! I’m so sorry I didn’t come across that before I went out there ;-) Not that there are any grizzlies that far south of course, but they /have/ been known to wander! We did read a few horror stories, but not anything quite that horrifically comprehensive :-\

  4. Pete Hyde

    Hi Mike,

    Now you have got me worried too:( . On my trips I can’t say that such problems crossed my mind too often. Partly, probably because there are usually other folks somewhere nearby [although I do tend to wonder off on my own a lot] and I also get pretty engrossed in enjoying being out there. However, I thought I would share a the following experience with you.

    [As an aside, I will pass on this fact, …. the guy I have travelled with has been doing trips to the American South West for over 15 years and says he has never seen a rattler.]

    On my last trip I was lucky enough to be out at South Coyote Buttes in total isolation. When I had gone to get the permits there had only been one left for the following day. Since I had been the one making the trip to collect permits I was the lucky one and the rest of our small party happily elected to go to White Pocket instead, where you don’t need a permit [- as yet]. I knew that mountain lions were present in the region and had been informed by one of the guys at the ranch where we were staying, that he had seen prints quite recently.

    The following morning, when I reached the place for leaving the off roader, there was no sign of anyone else around and I spent the next couple of hours in splendid isolation. After some time out there I was trying to compose a shot on the live-view when I noticed that on one of the rock formations I was focusing on, there was a silhouette of a big cat. You can believe the adrenalin surge ……. I carefully looked up, …. I was equally apprehensive and curious, …. because of the strong backlight I couldn’t make out whether it was looking in my direction or not. Trying not to panic, I slowly backed off leaving the camera set on the tripod and moved around to try to get a better view, without the sun directly behind it. After a short while, probably only 30sec, I looked up again to see that the silhouette was actually a rocky promontory, totally mineral and no animal in sight !!!! but sure as hell I suddenly realized one’s possible vulnerability …. but I was also pleased no one had been there to watch my antics :) .

    More recently I watched a film called ‘127 Hours’, which I did find disturbing. As a caver and climber you probably deal with such thoughts better than the rest of us.

    Regards, Pete

    • Mike Green

      Hi Pete,
      That’s a good story; thanks for sharing it. I can well imagine doing something very similar, in that it’s easy to see things which suggest something they’re not. It’s also very nice to know that someone who’s been there a lot has never seen a rattler. As I said in the piece, the actual statistics make this all sound very safe, and I think the fear is, whilst not exactly irrational, certainly greatly exaggerated in many people.

      And yes, I’ve also seen ‘127 hours’, and it /did/ disturb me, partly since I have been ‘guilty’ of going places which are inherently dangerous by myself and without anyone much knowing where I was, in the past, so ‘that could have been me’!

      Thanks for commenting, Mike

  5. Mike Prince

    I think we risk under rating our very own midges. At least with a bear it stands a chance of eating you in one go, in some ways that might be prefereable to 10,000,000 midges in Glenbrittle each eating tiny bit?

    • Mike Green

      Oh, I don’t underrate the Scottish midge ;-) What I do is avoid the vile things by rarely going to Scotland in the summer – the light’s vastly better in winter anyway! And I do know that, when pushed, I can run away from midges quite successfully (been there, done that!). You’re right though: Scotland at the wrong time = 100% chance of midge-attack, whereas the US south-west at any point = next to zero chance of anything nasty having a go at you!

      • Michael Marten

        Amused by the thought of you running away from midges! There is another way of course: take up smoking! I smoke a pipe occasionally (at most 10 times a year – hardly qualifies as a serious addiction), and it is GREAT against midges! No need to run, and you have the time to adjust any number of camera settings…

        • Mike Green

          Perhaps ‘running’ has an element of exaggeration in it ;-) Certainly ‘packing up and walking briskly away’, though. I do smoke, but cigarettes aren’t proof against a serious midge-bonanza near some tranquil loch on a calm evening – I’ve tried! I can see a pipe being close to effective though. Both tricky with a midge-hood on of course! Maybe an encircling ring of incense sticks would work, as well as providing ‘mist’ in every shot of course.


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: