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Photographing Wild Game by W. B. Devereux


The sportsman who wishes to substitute the camera for the rifle should possess not only a special knowledge of photography, but also many qualifications not absolutely necessary to a successful hunter. Any one who has had much experience in hunting large game will remember occasions when, if he had only had a camera, it would have been easy enough to have made successful pictures. But, once provided with a camera, and having started out with the sole object in view of making negatives, he will find the opportunities for successful work few and far between.

The true sportsman is not a game-butcher. When he has shot what he wants, he may well refuse to avail himself of chances to kill, and turn to the camera as a weapon with which to bring home trophies of his abilities as a hunter. Few indeed are the localities where hunters complain of being able to kill more game than they need; yet it has been my good fortune for a number of years to spend my annual vacation in a country where game is so abundant that little effort is needed to provide camp with the needed fresh meat.

Having in years gone by, through force of circumstances, acquired a thorough technical knowledge of photography, it naturally occurred to me to attempt the use of the camera when there was no need for a rifle. Although I had such a knowledge of photography and of the habits of the game as had always enabled me to meet with fair success in the use of either camera or rifle, I had no adequate idea of the difficulties of my undertaking until they became real from actual experience. My first effort was with a small and excellent hand camera, which also served to make views of camp scenes and the beautiful scenery of the country in which I was hunting. I was especially fortunate in that my hunting-ground was on some one of the great park plateaus of northwestern Colorado.

These plateaus are indeed the sportsman's paradise. They comprise numerous great parks, forests of timber, and lakes ranging in size from the tiny pool of brown snow-water to those large enough to deserve a name and a place on the map. They are the great summer home of the deer and elk. Frequent rains cause a most abundant growth of herbage suitable for their food, and the higher ground provides cool retreats for the male deer and elk while their horns are growing and hardening. They never leave these plateaus until driven down by the snow. Here elk and deer have for the past few years existed in sufficient numbers to give abundant sport. Farther to the north, where these plateaus break into the sage-brush plains of Wyoming, antelope inhabit the larger parks, and from these feed up for some distance through more open timber on the slopes of the surrounding hills. In this more northerly locality I have succeeded in getting photographs of elk, antelope, and deer, all within a distance of but a few miles.

My first experience with an ordinary camera soon showed me that, at the usual distances, pictures of game would be so small as to be of no use. With a year's experience to guide me, I began the construction of a camera especially adapted for the purpose in view. For my lens I used a Dallmeyer rapid rectilinear, whole-plate size. I used only the back combination of the lens, which gave a focal length of about twenty-two inches. The lens was equipped with a Prosch duplex shutter, which was, I found, even when set for its lowest speed, too rapid for my purpose. In determining upon a camera, I had already arrived at the following conclusions: the camera must be a hand camera, equipped with a film-roll holder; it must be water-proof, light, not easily damaged, and of small size—i.e., must make only a small-sized negative; focusing must be done at the front by moving the lens.

To obtain these conditions, I constructed my first camera in the following manner: I made a rectangular core of wood exactly the shape I wished the inside of my camera to be. The front end of this core was cylindrical. I then built up on this core of wood a paper shell, using strong Manila paper saturated with shellac as it was rolled upon the core. This was then wound with a strong cord at intervals of about one half inch, in order to provide cell spaces and consequently stiffness; and over all was stretched strong muslin, fastened to the core with liquid glue. The outside was then shellacked until it was absolutely smooth and hard, when the wooden core was removed, and there remained a paper tube which admirably met my requirements. A wooden frame, fitted to the larger end, received the roll holder, and the cylindrical part of the front received a brass tube covered with velvet, to the end of which was soldered the lens flange. This tube could be easily moved in and out of the end, while the friction of the velvet always kept it in place. Upon this tube I marked the focus for various distances. Of course the lens was capable of making a much larger picture than my roll holder would receive, and the surplus light was cut off by a metal diaphragm placed inside of the tube.

I found that this camera, when provided with a strap, could be carried slung on the shoulder with very little trouble.

The slowness of the lens I found a drawback, and after a year's experience I obtained a 12-15 Dallmeyer single-combination lens, which I had mounted in aluminum, thereby saving considerable weight. For this lens I constructed a camera on a different principle, as the length was too great to carry conveniently in the form of a rigid apparatus. This in turn I have displaced with a Dallmeyer telephoto lens, mounted in aluminum, which I consider a marvelous instrument.

I have not succeeded in obtaining any pictures with it as yet. The difficulties of using it are in some respects greater than with the other lenses, as it requires to be focused on the object. I have, however, designed a camera with the ground glass fastened rigidly in the top, and with a movable mirror which permits of the focus being obtained without removing the roll holder. This camera, when extended, is thirty inches long, and when packed for carrying is reduced one half.

It is home-made; but, if constructed by experienced workmen, I believe would very satisfactorily fill the conditions necessary for a game-camera. The weight and size, together with the necessity of focusing, require, however, some kind of a support. I believe that a pair of adjustable legs, with a universal joint which could be easily attached to the front of the camera, and a small handle by which the back could be supported by the hand and moved in any required direction, would answer every purpose. The image made by this lens is so large, and the field comparatively so small, that it requires the facility and precision of sighting which are obtained in the rifle. I use no finders, preferring sights exclusively.

With this incomplete sketch of a hunting photographer's weapons, let us consider the conditions under which he must capture his game; and suppose him in pursuit of the king of all stags, the noble elk,—giving him the advantage even of being in hearing of the clear bugle-note which never fails to thrill the hunter who has once heard it and so knows its significance. To make a successful stalk with a rifle, he would simply get his game between himself and the wind, and approach with such caution, and under such cover, as circumstances permitted. When once within gunshot, ninety-nine times out of one hundred he might make a successful termination to the stalk, without ever seeing more of his game, before firing, than a patch of brown as large as his hat. The swaying of the white antler-tips in the midst of the thicket, the particular shade of the moving brown seen through the openings, would almost always disclose the location of the vital point to the eye of the experienced, where the tyro would distinguish nothing but the shadow of the thicket, moving twigs, and the browns and russets of bark and leaves.

Under such circumstances as these, while the hunter triumphantly raises his rifle, the photographer crouches hopeless and discouraged. Far different conditions are needed for a successful result of his undertaking. Not only must the wind be in his face, but the sun must be at his back, or upon either side. He must be in dense cover, and yet cover that permits the free range of his lens. His game must be in the open, without intervening objects, and must be in the broad glare of sunshine. The hunter never realizes how seldom an animal comes into full view until he has followed him around with a camera, and met with failure after failure, after having had numbers of chances which with a rifle would have put a speedy end to the chase. When the bull elk are whistling they are an easy animal to stalk; yet I should consider it an easier task by far to kill fifty full-grown bulls than to obtain a picture of one which would combine photographic perfection with satisfactory composition.

He who follows game with a camera, and who feels the satisfaction of matching his faculties against those of his game, will, however, derive a keen sporting enjoyment from his failures; and if he meets with success, great will be his pride and contentment. He will learn much about the habits of game which has escaped him before; and, not needing to use his rifle, his opportunities for observation will be more frequent and satisfactory. For myself, the few pictures that comprise the results of my hunting with the camera have brought me a keener enjoyment and a greater sense of satisfaction than the finest heads in my collection, possibly on the ground that we are disposed to value most that which has cost us most.

I succeeded in obtaining a satisfactory photograph of some antelope one morning, when we were on the homeward journey from one of my hunts. I had ridden on ahead of the pack-train, and was just coming to the edge of the timber when I saw the white spots of several antelope feeding in the sage-brush just beyond. Tumbling off my horse, I crept along until as near as I deemed safe, when I stood up behind the trunk of a tree and, pointing my camera through an opening, made a noise to attract the attention of the antelope. They lifted their heads, and with a quick snap I had captured them. They remained motionless, and turning my roll to get another film, I found I had used the last one. With careful and slow development, I obtained a fair negative. I had judged the distance to be seventy-five yards, and the focus showed that I was nearly correct.

My most successful attempt at elk was made the year following, when, after two weeks of stormy, bad weather, during which I had seen abundance of game, but had had no chance to photograph, I started off, with a pack-animal and one man, to make a quiet camp ten miles away, where I knew there were plenty of elk. When we had gone as far as we dared, we pitched camp in a little park, and picketing our pack-animals, started to reconnoiter. I found an abundance of fresh tracks and wallows, and finally saw two young bull elk feeding in the open. The only point which would enable me to get near them with a fair light, required me to get very nearly in line with the wind; but as there was nothing else to be done, I determined to chance it. When I arrived at this point, I found that in feeding they had walked farther away, and I was obliged to crawl over the intervening space. We had nearly accomplished this when the circling of the wind gave them an inkling of our presence, and put them on the alert. We remained quiet, hoping that the wind would change back; but it did not, and they stole away into the thicket.

About three o'clock we caught sight of a twelve-point bull coming out to drink. I could have snapped at him with a downward shot, as I was on the slope above him; but as the distance was great, I decided to try and get nearer. He walked in behind some willows and, as I discovered afterward, lay down in some water to take his mud-bath. While this was going on I began to slide down the hill, watching for his reappearance, when to my surprise and disgust I suddenly saw the head and horns of an elk that was lying down one hundred yards to my right and almost on a level with me. I did not want to disturb him, with a chance of startling all the other elk in the neighborhood before I had a chance to photograph them, and so decided to try and get a photograph of his head and horns. With my man George following at my heels, I finally crept up behind a low spruce-tree about seventy-five feet from his highness. I knew from experience, however, that his head and horns would be almost undistinguishable on the negative against the surrounding objects. Getting my camera ready, and leaning out from behind the bush, I told George to whistle so that the elk would get up. To my great surprise, he turned his head in our direction and, without rising, gave vent to a shrill blast of defiance or annoyance, as it seemed. After repeating these tactics several times, and finally shouting at him, only to meet with the same answer, I finally decided to stand up, in the hope that when he arose he would hesitate an instant and give me an opportunity. Upon performing my part of the program, he gave one look in my direction, sprang to his feet, and was off with such rapidity that, although I snapped the shutter, the resulting negative showed only an undistinguishable blur, due partly to his motion and partly to my haste in trying to make a quick exposure.

We then followed in the direction of the large band, the bulls of which were making a great deal of noise. I finally located them about half a mile away in the heavy timber. The shadows then were very long in the open space, and I knew there was no use of trying to photograph except in the open. As a forlorn hope I told George to hurry through the timber and get on the other side of the band, while I would stand in the open space, so that I might get a snap shot if they came through. In a short time I heard a commotion in the band, and a sharp stampede in different directions, accompanied by loud bugling by the head of the band, whose voice was so deep and sonorous that I readily recognized it as the one I had heard a few nights previous in the same locality. At that time my companion and I had christened him the "elk with the fog-horn." In the midst of the commotion, George gave vent to several startling yells, which I supposed were made in his effort to turn the band.

In a short time he returned, breathless and tired. As soon as he was able to speak, he recounted a tale of wonder which can readily be imagined by any of the readers of this chapter for whom George has acted in the multiple capacity of guide, cook, philosopher, and friend. He said that when the band got his wind, after several short stampedes, they dashed directly toward him, and as I had made him leave his rifle with me, he had no alternative except to climb a tree or jump out where he could be seen and swing his arms and yell. He said that this stopped the band, but the old bull with the fog-horn walked directly toward him until he thought he was going to charge, and looked for a convenient tree. After inspecting George, however, the bull walked off with his band, apparently not much alarmed. George and I returned to camp with nothing to show for a hard day's work, cooked our supper, and tumbled into our blankets.

A starlight night gave promise of a perfect day on the morrow, and we arranged to get up before daylight, so as to catch the elk before they had lain down. The next day the same experience was repeated: not a photographic shot came in our way, and about three o'clock we went back to camp weary and disgusted. As we had to be in the main camp that night, ready to start back home the next day, we loaded our pack-mule and were soon on the back trail. About half-past four we suddenly heard an elk whistle, not far to the left. We were going on a game-trail, through heavy timber, and I remarked to George, "This is our last chance." We quickly tied our animals and rushed in the direction of the call.

A few hundred yards brought us out on a little projection, and, cautiously looking over, we saw that the ground sloped up beyond through burned timber, and that there was a band of elk scattered around feeding. Adjusting my lens to the distance, which I judged to be one hundred yards, I made one exposure after another as rapidly as possible. The bull was not in sight, but we could hear him crashing around through the thicker timber, and bellowing in anger at another elk in the distance.

Suddenly, to my great delight, I saw his majesty come into the opening and walk rapidly across between the trees. There was only one opening large enough to show his whole body, and into this I pointed my camera; but as one of the cows had already got sight of us, I knew that my opportunities were short. As the bull entered the opening, I was as near an attack of buck-fever as ever before. The resulting picture shows a slight movement of the camera; but although the sun was very low, I succeeded with careful development in getting this and several other satisfactory negatives. I also had my small camera with me, and made several exposures; but the elk can be distinguished only by spots like the head of a pin, if at all. In the mean time one of the cows had fed up very close to us, and suddenly stopped in the shadow and looked at us. I made an exposure on her, but the negative showed nothing. A second more, and with a spring she was off, and suddenly the whole band dashed away in a tumult of crashing sticks and timber. Hurrying on in the direction of the other elk, I started to cross a stream under some dense alders, when suddenly a yearling cow started away and, running around, stopped directly in front of the opening, in an attitude of listening and looking back. I quickly reduced my lens to a shorter focus and made an exposure which gave a fair picture, although the position was an unusual one. This ended my opportunities for the day and trip.

These negatives show a remarkable blending in the color of the elk and their surroundings, and they would be quite difficult to distinguish were it not that some were in sunlight, with a shadowy background. One negative shows nine cows, nearly all feeding.

In photographing elk, I very soon learned that they do not like to come out into the openings during the middle of the day; consequently, when one gets opportunities, the light is so non-actinic that the results are apt to be very much undertimed. Ordinarily, a rapid shot is not needed for photographing game, as when there is any opportunity at all, they are either moving slowly or standing still. I should say just enough speed is required to neutralize any unavoidable motion of the camera which might take place during the exposure.

While trying to photograph the does and fawns which were continually jumping up and running away as we rode along from day to day, I observed a very curious habit which had never attracted my attention before: although they would often stop in the open, yet I shortly found that, photographically, they were not where they would make a negative. After several days, it dawned upon me that they always stopped in the shadow. Giving special attention to this point, I very soon found, on watching the deer which started up, that when they stopped for that moment of curiosity, as so often happens, it was almost invariably in the long shadows thrown by some trees across the park, or else in some shady part of the wood, and seldom by any chance where the sunlight shone directly upon them. This, while a matter of indifference to the hunter, is fatal to photographic success in this brilliant rarefied air, as it is almost impossible to get the details of any objects in the shadow without very much over-developing the high lights.

During the past season I found the elk very much wilder. They seemed to haunt the heavy timber, and to go to their wallows early in the morning or late in the evening, being scarcely ever seen in the open. I believe I should have succeeded much better had I waited till a month later, when the heavy snows would have driven them out of the higher country, as at that time they move in the daytime, and feed more in the open where the sun has bared the ground.

The game-photographer should always develop his own negatives, since the whole development is devoted to bringing out the details of the animals, regardless of the surrounding picture; and as these are so small, and blend so remarkably with the surrounding objects, the ordinary photographer is almost sure to overlook them.

In conclusion, let him who would get negatives rather than heads, possess his soul in patience, and carry all his energy and perseverance with him. If he is successful, his reward is ample from a sportsman's standpoint; if not, he will find a satisfaction in the chase not to be obtained by killing only.

W. B. Devereux.