Scouting for Photography in Texas
February started out pretty fair here in south central Texas. Warm days, cool nights, and really quite pleasant allowing me to go so far as to enjoy several days in just a t-shirt and pants. Such a change from Monterey, CA where it was layers year round!
Again, with me just starting to get out and about here, exploring my new home turf, this month saw me putting in a lot of miles, both in the car and on the trail, with few actual images to show for it. But that brings up an aspect of nature photography that I think deserves a bit of discussion: scouting. For those who have been following me for a while now, I know you have heard me mention scouting when talking about what I'm doing during parts of my travel, but I really want to go a more in depth here with you all on this topic and explain why it is always part of my workflow.
Fair warning: this will be more words rather than images this time,
but I promise more images in the next article.
What is Scouting?
Short answer: when you go out looking at new place with a particular goal in mind. For me, that ultimate goal is portfolio worthy images.
Longer answer: scouting is when you invest time, energy, and, more often than not, a bit of blood, sweat, and tears into learning the lay of the land for an area you have not had in-depth personal experience with previously. Now, scouting doesn't necessarily mean you have to be out there for days or weeks (though it helps - especially with wildlife), but it does mean if you are going out to a new spot for sunset, getting there in the early to mid-afternoon and putting in some time to find compositions before golden hour sets in.
Scouting is a multi-level process for me. I start with virtual scouting. The technology at our finger tips is just absolutely incredible and only gets better with each passing year. With free visual information in the form of topographical and satellite imagery that can be accessed from any mobile device, otherwise known as Google Maps, there is a wealth of information that can be gathered before you ever start your ignition. I probably spend way more hours than I should just looking at Google Maps, scrolling in and out, looking for any small green space and then following the links or popping a name into Google Images to see what others have found for that location.
Note on Google Images: Imitation is said to be the best form of flattery, however, be aware that if you find yourself going to locations just to capture the exact same image someone else has, you are severally hindering your creative self. Yes, there are always the Icons, but consider that by opening yourself to other interpretations of the area, you may actually create the next iconic image of a location. Let that be your goal.
For example, when looking for locations within a few hours drive of my house, I came across Garner State Park. Google Maps gives a very brief description that you can hike and swim on the Frio River at this location. That tells me its a place of interest for my photography as rivers can indicate multiple things that would attract my lens.
1 : potential for waterfalls or rapids
2 : wildlife congregate in areas with reliable water sources
3 : its in a state park, protected, and kept in a relatively natural state
After further poking around virtually in the area, I packed a day-pack (for more detail on what I carry, read this article ) and headed out. In this case, the park is under two hours, so easy to check out. While driving, I'm always scanning the roadsides for wildlife, like deer, armadillos, and various raptors. Again getting to know the area doesn't just include your destination but also the potential along the way. One of the key Texas species I am keen to capture more images of is the crested caracara (mentioned in last month's article). They are raptors, but are most frequently found scavenging and fighting the vultures for the freshest roadkill. Keeping an eye out while driving will be key to me getting the images I want without having to pay for ranch access, where the birds are fed (including meat for the raptors) and the photography is pretty much scripted as curated as the scenes are.
A young crested caracara spotted along the road during a scouting trip last month.
Location Tip: If you want to capture the array of South Texas wildlife and only have a few days, the photography/wildlife ranches are a sure thing. Many prize winning images have come out of the ranches down there where you have access to very comfortable blinds that have been specially built and positioned just for photographers. The term "fish in a barrel" comes to mind. The positive part about these ranches is that this type of ecotourism does reward land owners/ranchers for conserving natural places and for protecting wildlife. But I digress...
Upon getting to the state park, I had much of the area to myself. February is the off-season due to the lower air temps and even colder water. Overcast, the light was rather blah in combination with the overall brown and grey of winter "foliage." But by getting out, I found that the river is super clear, not something I was expecting. I also found that the banks are lined with stately cypress which are a childhood favorite of mine and something I'm excited to be able to photograph.
Kingfishers, egrets, and a smattering of song birds brought the cypress canopy and banks to life. Turtles basked in the weak sun and squirrels could be seen scattered across the campground. Hiking along the river, I continued scouting not just for potential compositions but also for any signs of wildlife. This is where it pays to go beyond being just a photographer and to be a well-rounded naturalist. Reading the trails, I picked up where the game trails crossed the hiking trail, where armadillos had rooted up the leaves and where deer had passed just the previous night. It was a happening place if I was there at the right time!
I tend to carry my Nikon D500 with the Tamron 18-400mm lens when scouting, the perfect lens for scouting as it will cover pretty much any subject you might come across, as I do a bit of shooting while scouting. This can be trying out certain compositions or playing with random abstracts or practicing other techniques. Every once in a while, I get luck and capture something I do like while scouting. In this image, the overcast sky created darker shadows on the far bank, yet the water reflected light back up onto the silvery bark, highlighting the cypress trunks and their reflections in the clear waters of the Frio.
"Cypress on the Frio"
It will be interesting to see how this park evolves through the seasons. Revisiting it time and again is the continued maintenance cycle of scouting.
Why should you Scout?
As I stated before and have stated in the past, scouting is a very important part of nature photography. It sets you up for success in the field when you do go out with the purpose to make great images. Without it, you may get some keepers out of luck, being in the right place at the right time or making the best of the situation you are given at a particular spot. But by scouting you increase your chances because you have a feel for the land and what to expect and know where to go if X occurs or if Y shows up.
Personally, it also opens that connection between being a naturist and a photographer. The more I can immerse myself in a region, ecosystem, or spot, the more I am able to pick up the subtle signs within the nature around me. The more time spent outside the more comfortable you are as well. Just like the more hours you have working on photography the more second nature it becomes to handle your camera. Scouting gives me the opportunity to get those hours in so I know second nature what certain sounds mean in the context of different areas or to understand and observe the correlation between wildlife behavior and the spring rains or late summer droughts.
By understanding the relationships between the environment and your subjects (be it plant or animal), you are able to create more compelling images.
Lets consider the massive snow storm that hit Texas just few weeks ago now. That was a very unique and rare event. As a photographer, I would have been remiss if I had just stayed home and blamed impassable roads for not capturing anything. Scouting very close to home saved me in this instance.
A bit of background for context. We moved into a new home in a subdivision at the edge of the county, outside city lines. Its so new that just a block over from us, they are still framing homes. That said, towards the back of the neighborhood property, equivalent to maybe two or three blocks, it is still the developer's land, but they haven't cleared that portion of the tract yet. I pass it almost every day when coming and going from my house and often see a hawk or some small birds using this yet undisturbed natural area. Beyond us there is another development (urban sprawl is obviously an issue) and acres of farmland crisscrossed with a network of riparian zones where rivers and seasonal streams flow. All of this speaks to me as a potential areas for urbanized wildlife, or wildlife that is comfortable and adaptable to living on the fringes of urban environments.
The Wild Lot
The snow gave me a distinct advantage when it came to scouting for wildlife. The snow records those who pass over it and when I arrived at the wild lot, I could read the snow for who had been there before me. The most obvious tracks where those of the rabbits. Small birds leave small prints barely visible on top of the snow. Then there was one track that got me excited. It was that of a canine. Now, in theory, it could have been a stay dog, however, I had heard coyotes in the area while on previous evening walks with my dogs, and suspected with the rabbit activity they might be here as well.
Again, it is putting together a bunch of small pieces of information, gathered over days, weeks, and even years (I learned to identify animal tracks when I was young) of being outside and learning about nature.
Slowly making my way further into the wild lot along the one plowed track the surveyors left, I was suddenly confronted with a jackrabbit racing towards me! Dropping to my knee I started shooting.
It saw me and stopped about 20 feet from me, standing on its hindlegs and catching its breath. While it did this, it watched deeper into the brush. Following its cue, I also looked further out while keeping my camera trained on the jackrabbit. And there was a coyote, looking rather put out that its prey was using proximity to a human as a shield. Coyotes are hunted in Texas year round making them very wary of people. This one, after surviving such a cold, harsh night with lots of snow, decided to keep an even further distance than the black-tailed jackrabbit, thus allowing a meal to escape - for a bit at least. In this situation, I did feel bad that my presence disturbed the natural order and impacted these individuals. That is never my intent when photographing.
Two days later, with another fresh coat of snow falling, I once again ventured out to the wild lot, this time being much more alert to any coyotes hunting. I didn't want to be the source for another hunt gone awry for them. This time I went later in the day, when the snowstorm was letting up a bit, around 11:30. With it being midday I wasn't actually expecting to see the coyotes out and yet, I found my "neighbor" out sitting, watching over the area.
I look forward to seeing more of this coyote, at least until they develop that lot. I hope it takes a while. But even once they develop that piece, I am in the process of finding out where else this wild canine roams so that I might continue to photograph it or others in the area. That is what scouting is all about. Ensuring that you have knowledge of the nature around you in order to continuously have options for locations and subjects to shoot.
So take some time and really get to know your local area, the lay of the land and the creatures that inhabit it. Research beyond the photographic angle and start learning about the relationships of the flora and fauna within the ecosystem. Being able to predict wildlife behavior or upcoming weather will allow you to plan accordingly and position yourself in the best spot to capture unique images.
Until next time, get out, explore, and stay safe.
Sneak peek at an image from scouting rookeries along the coast. Be on the look out for a new photo adventure announcement for 2022 in the near future!