This photo has so many things wrong with it. When I looked at it on the back of my camera this past June, I thought, “From behind. Background’s busy. No eye contact. Lighting’s uneven.” OK, that’s a lie. The first thing I thought was, “Whoa, that looks in focus…and he’s flying!” It’s difficult to be objective about a photo when it drills deep into your bones.
I was out on a Saturday morning photographing pronghorn grazing in the Lower Lake Mary meadow at sunrise. Well, that was the plan. I’d arrived at o’dark-thirty, walked across the meadow and setup beneath my photographer’s hide at the base of a Ponderosa pine at the edge of the Coconino National Forest. With a bit of luck a herd of elk or pronghorn would soon graze across the same meadow and enter the forest near my position.
But that didn’t happen. By 7:00 AM, the sun was well up and no wildlife were in the meadow. About 15-minutes later, I spied a small herd of pronghorn but they were easily half-a-mile away. Maybe they’ll work their way towards me. Thirty-forty minutes passed and the pronghorn were no closer.
Directly behind me by about 30-feet, an old logging road cut a path through the forest paralleling the edge of the meadow. I decided to take the risk of almost certain detection and walk the dirt path in an attempt to get to a location nearer the pronghorns. And that’s what I was doing - walking an old logging road through the forest - when it happened.
I heard the sound of what was obviously a large animal breaking from cover to my right. Then, I saw it and it leaped across the dirt road I was walking no more than 20-feet ahead of me. I immediately recognized it as a mountain lion and instinctively raised my camera. I shoot wildlife with a Nikon D500 and Nikkor 200-500 lens. Before breaking from my pre-op sunrise location, I’d dialed in my “Wildlife” shooting banks, set the shutter speed to 1/800, locked the lens at 200mm and selected an f-stop of f/8. I use auto ISO in most outside settings. The camera was in AF-C, the central 25 points were selected - sheesh, I wish Nikon would add a D9 setting to the D500 - and a quiet continuous burst rate was selected. Northern Arizona wildlife are more tolerant of that shutter sound than that of the continuous high burst rate.
Instinctively, I raised the camera and mashed the shutter. Over then next 3-4 seconds, I made 14 exposures. Most are of out of focus trees and branches with only a modest glimpse of the cat. Then, there was this shot. I didn’t even know I’d made it until I’d gotten home. Finding it, seeing it was a bit like Christmas.
Despite its flaws the photo is focused on the left side of the big cat’s head. I like the body position…full extension forward. What I really like, is that the photo clearly IDs the big cat. Objectively and from a purely compositional standpoint, the photo is a failure. But from a strictly personal standpoint, it’s a great photo. An apex North American predator passed within a few steps of me and I wasn’t on the menu. Over the course of about 4 seconds, I’d managed to make 14 exposures and one was actually in focus.
So, I share this not as a great or even a particularly good photo. I share it as a document of a great moment. It is tangible evidence of the story I’ve been telling anyone who will listen the last 8 weeks.
I had a close encounter with a mountain lion.