The Story Behind "A Quiet Moment"


When I started photography many, many years ago, I was a bird photographer.  At least, that was my intention.  I loved shooting birds, especially large, colorful birds.  Probably not much different than any other bird photographer.  Birds are a great photography subject because they are everywhere.  There's always something to shoot, and if you can’t find anything in the "wild", you can set up a bird feeder in your backyard and you’ll have plenty of subjects.  I happened to be living in a western suburb of Chicago near a natural area, so there were all kinds of bird there.  Cardinals, hummingbirds, bald eagles, ospreys, herons, finches, and especially waterfowl.  



My favorite activity was shooting "BIF" - birds in flight.  I got pretty good at identifying flying birds at a distance just from their wing movements, and I could prepare myself accordingly.  Bald eagles, for example, have rather slow deliberate wing movements with very long strokes.  This differed from birds of similar size, such as a red tailed hawk, that had fast, short wing strokes.  I got familiar with other characteristics of various birds that would help me predict their movements and direction of flight, which would aid in getting the best shots in-flight.  The big birds, such as eagles, osprey, hawks, herons, egrets etc were the easiest to shoot in flight.  They were relatively slow, usually flew in a straight line, and were easy to predict.  The smaller birds like ducks, hummingbirds, swallows, though, were very difficult because they flew in such erratic patterns.  Their flight path was very unpredictable, plus they are really fast.  The swallows were the birds I practiced on.  If you could consistently get multiple in-flight shots of these birds, you could shoot just about anything.  


Eagles were one of my favorites.  They're beautiful birds and not terribly difficult to shoot except when they go in to a dive.  In the winter, dozens of bald eagles would hang out near the open waters of rivers (usually near power plants or dams) and dive for fish.  They would circle high above the water and when they spotted a fish, they went in to an unbelievably fast dive.  They were great to shoot because of their dramatic poses during the dive.

Bald Eagle catching a fish    


Bird photography, like most specialty areas of photography, is expensive because of specialized equipment necessary to get the shots.  First of all you needed a fast camera, one that could shoot multiple frames in fast bursts.  And the camera needed a good autofocus system.  But the real expense came with the lenses.  Telephoto lenses were a must and nothing less than 500mm f/4 was practical.  Shorter lenses were fine for static shots around birds that were used to being near humans because you could get closer.  But for other birds and BIF, longer lenses were a requirement.

My first birding lens was a Nikon 500 f/4; but later I made the switch to Canon equipment, which included a 600mm f/4 (a lens I still have today).  Back then when money was tight I had my Canon camera and 2 lenses that I used for birding.  My biggest disadvantage, though, was some type of support for the camera and lens.  The 600mm f/4 lens is an extremely large and heavy lens, far too big to handhold.  So, bird photographers use special gimbal tripod heads that support the lens and allow fluid movement in all directions when shooting BIF.  Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know about this device; and even if I did, I couldn’t have afforded it.  It wasn’t until I went to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Preserve in New Mexico (one of the premiere birding sites in the US) that I saw photographers using the gimbal head with a 600mm f/4 lens attached.  But that wasn't a possibility for me at the time so, I proceeded to learn how to shoot BIF while handholding a 600mm f/4 lens.  I got some pretty strange looks from the dozens of photographers at Bosque who were perfectly equipped for shooting birds, gimbal tripod head and all.


Although I had no idea what I was doing, I began to develop a technique for handholding the lens.  I practiced for hours and hours on anything that was moving.  I even did exercises to strengthen my biceps (so I had better control over the lens.)  Finally got pretty good at it - in fact, I could hand hold the lens and get in-flight shots that photographers with the expensive gimbal heads couldn’t get.  Hand holding gave me a little more freedom of movement, but it was a lot of work.  But I got better and better at it until finally, when I could afford the gimbal head, I didn’t use it much because I could get better shots from handholding the lens.  Little did I know that this “technique” would be beneficial years later when I started shooting motorcycle flat track racing for Toyota.  Use a 600mm f/4 lens hand-held to shoot motorcycle races?  Unheard of; but, compared to birds, it was a piece of cake.  Many of the track photographers struggled just to hand-hold a 70-200 lens (less than half the size of my 600).  I got shots no one else was getting because of the long telephoto lens.


During the several years of visiting Bosque del Apache during the winter migration there, I started perfecting my hand-held technique on the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that came to the wildlife refuge each year.  There were also plenty of snow geese to practice on as well.  I loved shooting the cranes due to their size, beautiful form and color, and their animated nature.  They were also very graceful in flight.


On a long motorcycle trip through Wisconsin one summer, I came upon the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI.  Since I had my camera and long lens with me on my bike, I decided to stop and check it out.  The ICF is dedicated to protecting many species of endangered cranes throughout the world and their habitat.  They rescue cranes and provide a natural habitat for cranes to rehabilitate and release, or provide a permanent habitat for those unable to return to the wild.  Many of the cranes can be viewed in settings that mimic their natural environment.  It’s a beautiful display of these magnificent birds.

One species that caught my eye was the Whooping Crane.  This bird is the tallest bird in North America and is currently on the endangered species list.  It’s population dwindled to about 15 birds in the mid ‘40s but through conservation efforts has risen to around 600.  The birds have beautiful white plumage with a crimson red cap and black tipped wings,  They are especially known for their bugling call.  As I shot several frames of the bird standing quietly in the pond, all of a sudden it broke into their characteristic "dance."  These dances are usually courting dances but in this case it was a sign of tension because of my presence.  

The dance usually consists of bowing, raising their head, leaping in the air, doing half-turns, sometimes even jumping and kicking their legs.  (When it's a courting dance, the female may join in and the two engage in a "ballet" of sorts for several minutes.)  At that point I knew I was stressing the bird so I left.  But I managed to walk away with some great shots of this beautiful bird.


At this point in my career, I was not in a position to sell any prints of my bird photography.  I had no website or any other outlet for selling prints and, besides, I was getting interested in motorcycle photography for magazines and my bird photography was falling by the wayside.  But then I heard of online sites that sold photography as stock images.  Many years ago, photographers could make a living doing nothing but selling their work on these stock image sites.  Probably one of the best known sites is Getty Images here in the US.  You could make an entire living just shooting for stock sites.  Anyone, usually large commercial entities,  could go on these stock sites and search for images, commercially license them, and use them for brochures, prints, corporate reports etc.  They were the "go to" places when people didn't want to hire a photographer or they needed an unusual image.  However, making large amounts of money from stock sites pretty much ended with the explosion of new photographers willing to give their images away or sell them for next to nothing from social media sites.  Most of the sites disappeared but a few, like Getty, managed to survive but in order to compete had to drastically lower the licensing fees.  Thus photographers could no longer make a living from this kind of work alone.  

I did, however, manage to get accepted to a large stock site in London called Alamy (which is still around.)  Like all large stock sites, they were picky and demanded high quality images.  When I first got started with Alamy, you could still make some pretty good money from stock sites, but you needed a large portfolio.  Among some of the first images I uploaded to the site was "A Quiet Moment", which was an image of the Whooping Crane drinking water at  the ICF in Wisconsin.  While I was able to license a few various images over a few years, I repeatedly licensed "A Quiet Moment" to the point of it becoming my most licensed image.  

The above image was uploaded to Alamy in 2007 and 16 years later I still receive royalty checks from the licensing of this one image.  Alamy gives you access to the licensing information (ie what it will be used for) and this image has been used for all kinds of things from ads to post cards to corporate brochures.  But by far, the biggest licensing entity has been the book publishing industry.  "A Quiet Moment" has been published nearly 50 times in various books on birds.  Several of the books were graduate level textbooks used for university courses on ornithology.  Who would have guessed that a simple photo taken in secluded facility for captive birds would be so popular?

While this may sound like a big deal, the bottom started falling out of the stock photography industry about then so even though it was licensed many, many times it never really earned big money because licensing fees plummeted due to all the free pics available online.  Nonetheless, it remains one of my favorite pictures of this beautiful, endangered bird.

This print is available on my website by clicking here.  Remember to use the code BLOGPOST15 at checkout for 15% off this print in your favorite medium.