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Copyright Scott Bourne 2004 – All Rights Reserved

The Story of Three Moose

Last month, I posted a shot to my gallery that I made nearly five years ago of three moose. I received interesting feedback from some viewers. People reported that they felt they could “walk into the scene.” This is because I photographed the animals with a 14 mm lens. Long lens compression creates the illusion of being close, but flattens the scene. Wider lenses help scenes to feel more expansive. I wanted to actually get close to give the sense of space in this shot, but it took concerted effort. And it almost didn’t happen.

The trip started out fine. I was in Alaska on my way to a workshop at Kenai Fjords National Park. To get to our boat, we drove to Seward from Anchorage. The three-and-a-half hour, twist-and-turn drive through Turnagain Arm is one of the most beautiful in the world with rugged mountains, framing forests, the river and wildlife. Then, for the first time in my life, I got carsick. I wasn’t even sure what it was, at first. But yep, I was carsick and miserable.

By the time we were headed through Moose Pass, I wanted to die. But the rest of the group wanted to photograph at a small, private zoo on the way. It had started to rain, and the zoo offered few photographic opportunities. I didn’t want to go, but for the good of the group and all that, I carried on. When you’re on a workshop, especially with people who have never been to Alaska, you have to remember that it’s cool to them. They’re often thrilled with ANY look at a bear, or a wolf or an elk. I completely understand the thrill, but after living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen all these animals in better light and in better backgrounds. So I wandered around the zoo while it started to rain and thought to myself, “Great! It’s raining, I’m sick, there’s nothing to shoot, life sucks!” Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but you get the idea.

I headed to the back of the zoo property thinking I would scout for my next trip since I was already there. Most of the group had headed for shelter in the hot dog stand, but I kept going since I was already wet. Truth be told, I was sort of looking for a place to throw up out of everyone’s line of sight.

My opinion of my circumstances was poor at that point, to say the least. When I was younger, and thought I knew everything, I would have said, “That’s it. Time to go. Nothing to shoot.” As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten a tad bit wiser. So I decided to keep going all the way to the back of the zoo. And then I saw them: Three beautiful adult moose. They were bedded down just outside the fence at the zoo. (It did cross my mind that there was some irony in the fact that the moose were outside the zoo, while I was inside.)

I don’t know what it is about moose and fences, but almost every time I see a moose, it’s near a fence. In this case, the moose were just outside the fence, off the zoo property. It was raining on and off and a fog drifted in and out. The light was far from great, but the scene was amazing.

I loved the iteration of the moose antlers and the bare twigs from the trees nearby. I loved the classic pose. Moose (like most animals in the Cervidae family) tend to bed down in this defensive formation. If you look closely, you can see it’s a loose circle. They do this so they can monitor any threat coming from any direction. If they have young with them, the young stay in the middle of the circle for protection.

I knew I had something special in front of me, but I had some challenges. I didn’t know how long I’d have the shot, or if I could pull off the shot I wanted without getting gored by moose antlers. In case you don’t know it, moose are downright mean creatures. I’d pretty much rather take on a bear than a moose. If they’re mad, moose are very dangerous. In the past decade, moose have attacked more people than bears and wolves combined. This is a good reminder to be cautious at all times when you are photographing wildlife.

I decided on two shots. On the first one, I shot over the fence using a telephoto lens and compressing the distance between the antlers and the twigs. I shot that quickly at ISO 250 with the Canon 400mm F/5.6, wide open at 1/250 th of a second (Canon 1D MK II – tripod mounted) and liked it. But then came the winner. I mounted a Tamron 14mm F/2.8 lens. I wanted to get the kind of perspective you almost never see on a moose. CLOSE without using a telephoto lens.

There was an odd opening in the fence. Rather than install a gate, the zoo had installed a piece of fencing at an opening but set back enough from the main fence to create a gap that let humans through but not large animals. I got down on my belly and started crawling slowly through the gap. I needed to get my camera on the other side of it in order to get the shot outside the fence. I was concerned about both spooking the moose closest to me, as well as being attacked. I took my time, crawling through the muck, still sick as a dog, still getting rained on. But I realized I was smiling. My opinion of my circumstances had certainly changed. I was on the hunt for a great photo and loving it.

I spent about 10 minutes stealthily (a word not often applied to Scott Bourne) inching through the gap in the fence and around it, just enough to remove it as a barrier in front of my shot and get closer to the lead animal. It seemed like much longer than 10 minutes. I already had my safety shot – the long shot juxtaposing the antlers and the twigs. So I was prepared to gamble on getting the wide shot just the way I wanted it.

The scene allowed me to do some layering. The moose in the foreground rested mere inches from me. The mountains and fog in the background made for a nice 3-D effect. I set my ISO to 400, about as fast as I dared go on that camera. I made my aperture F/8, set to Aperture Priority and fired one test shot, praying the ker-plunk of the shutter wouldn’t disturb the grand beast in front of me.

The camera selected a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second to go with my aperture. I did a slight minus 2/3 stop exposure compensation and let her rip. A three shot, hand-held burst, lying on my belly, seconds before I puked from the carsickness.

I expected the moose to react. They didn’t. I backed up slowly, got to my knees, and stood up walking backwards through the gap in the fence.

The shot sat on my computer for at least 10 days before I got a good look at it. I went from Seward to Denali where I finished the workshop before heading home the next week. When I got the picture on my big Apple Cinema Display, I was reminded how this picture almost didn’t happen. Had I given up when I wanted to, I would have never seen the moose. Had I given in to my opinion of my circumstances, I wouldn’t have this signature-worthy photograph.

Circumstances are what they are. It’s our OPINION of those circumstances that most often impacts how the twists and turns life provides us as photographers will turn out. The next time you’re tempted to give up, remember the moose and see if your circumstances don’t offer one more opportunity to make a great shot.

For the first time, I am offering limited edition canvas gallery prints of “Three Moose.” See the order page for more information.