Wild vs: Captive Wildlife Photography

Have you ever seen a great mountain lion picture that’s captioned “Mountain Lion, Montana”? How about baby mountain lions and bobcats, perfectly composed, a perfect background, with catch light in the eye? Black bears posed in trees, pausing long enough to make the perfect picture, tigers and snow leopards in deep powder, backed by an azure blue sky – wildlife photography at its very best, right? Do you know the saying “if it looks too good to be true, it probably is”? Many of those “great” images are made in game farms where animals are raised for photography and cinematography.

Years ago, I participated in a Montana photo workshop to help me become a full-time pro photographer. The comprehensive 12-day workshop included a day at a Montana game farm, to learn how to make great wildlife images. (I had mixed feelings about being there, but it was part of the workshop.) We arrived in early morning and after a brief meeting, walked to a rock outcropping, lining up our tripods in quiet anticipation. The handler released a beautiful, tawny and copper-colored female mountain lion and cajoled her into position with cubes of meat. She was young, maybe a year and a half old, and her wild streak led her off the hill a few times; but the handler repositioned the cat until we all had shot too many rolls of film to count. It is still challenging work, getting everything just right, especially when a roll of film only allowed 36 exposures before opening the camera back and loading another cartridge. The rest of the morning continued with an adult bobcat perched on a snag, an adorable baby bobcat peeking through tall grass, and a badger thrashing in his little cage, then sneering at us when positioned in the grass – just like in nature. I probably shot 40 rolls that day and had many keepers. We finished up by visiting the pens where the animals live between assignments. That was the moment when I decided I would never photograph game farm animals again. Looking back, that was probably the moment that confirmed my path as a conservation photographer. Continue reading “Wild vs: Captive Wildlife Photography”