How to break creative blocks through photo essays


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One of my favorite things to do is take my dog to the beach at sunrise for a run. And more often than not, the camera comes with me. However, I’ve been finding myself shooting the same old shots: Dog running with ball. Dog running in water. Dog running in water with ball. And if I'm bored of these shots, how can I expect an audience to endure them? And more importantly, how can I expect to grow as a photographer if I'm not trying new things during these personal shooting opportunities?

While I’ve recognized for awhile now that I needed to push myself during these morning outings, I only recently made a resolution to truly take advantage the fantastic creative freedom I have every time I head out the door with my camera, even if it is a rather routine trip to the same old beach. But how? What was I going to do differently?

The very same day I made the resolution, something serendipitous happened. I launched a video of a Creative Live course I'd bought a little while ago, a course on conservation photography by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier. And I came away with a solution to my problem.

In her course, Mittermeier talks about storytelling and the six types of images required to fully tell a story. She points out that you need:

1. The iconic image: an image that can act as the cover of the book, or the two-page opening spread in the magazine. It’s the image that becomes the face of the story, the one visual that pops into someone’s head when they think of the topic. For instance, when you hear the words “Dust Bowl” you probably think of Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother” photograph. Or when you think of the Hindenburg, in your head you probably see the photo of the airship crashing into the tower and exploding into flames. The odds of actually creating a shot that becomes a culturally iconic photograph on this level are of course slim, but your goal is always to create at least one image that when someone thinks of your story, they see that image in their head.

2. A sense of place: where are you in the world? It’s so easy to focus on the up-close subjects in the story that it’s hard to remember to step back and provide context. It may be a landscape or aerial shot, it may be a photo that covers an entire street or city block. Whatever it is, or however you decide to shoot it, the image should help people put the story on a larger map in their mind. It provides a forest for all the many trees in your photo essay.

3. The portrait: an intimate image of your main character(s). Who or what should the audience care about most in the story and how do you want your audience to feel about them? That’s what your portrait shot provides.

4. The overall view: an image that provides additional context or a summary of the story. For instance, when I think of a providing the overall view for a story on overfishing the ocean, I think of a photograph that shows a wide-angle view of a trawler from above, with fishermen standing on deck around a net filled to bursting with fish, and the shutter clicked just as the net is opened and the catch spills onto the deck. It’s a shot that if someone takes a quick glance at it before reading the text, they know what the text is going to be about.

5. The details: an image that brings the viewer into the underlying layers of the story. These are the shots that have the chance to tell pieces of the story that are important and too easily overlooked, or that make viewers feel like they are right there in the location with you. They create an emotional bond to the subject and the story through the level of closeness the image provides. There is no story that is complete without the details that stick so solidly in an audience’s memory.

6. The action: nothing in this world is static, and a complete photo essay must bring forth the activity around which the story revolves or which is inherent in the subject you’re capturing. What story of a working ranch, for instance, is complete without a cowhand galloping on a horse, or roping an animal, or tossing a bale of hay down from a stack? The action shots bring a level of immediacy and reality to a story. A viewer can play out what happened before and what happens after the moment based on how much action you put into your image, as if they have a video player in their heads. The world is constantly on the move, and the action shots ensure your photo essay represents that fact.

I can’t even explain the relish with which I absorbed this section of Mittermeier's lesson. This was the key to what I was looking for, the tools to get out of my rut. Here was an assignment with a to-do list. Each item on the list was a box that I could fill with whatever I wanted, but at least I had those boxes to both guide me forward and keep me on track.

What better way to break out of a routine than by being handed six threads with which to weave a new cloth?

So I began.


On a regular basis, I'll pull out books and pull up websites to study the images of other photographers, looking for things to try out myself, for new ways of seeing a scene, for anything that might inspire. I also use it as a practice to remember who I am, what I like and don't like, how far from my own style or habits I want to venture and what I want to retain. So for a couple hours the night before my next beach run with my dog, I looked through the images of pet photographers whose styles I admire and which speak to me. I focused on which aspects of their styles that I recognize in me but have not so far incorporated in my own work. What settings or compositions have I not yet experimented with? What rules have I been clinging to that maybe I need to give myself permission to break?

Armed with an assignment, fresh inspiration, and a new lock on what of me I want to keep and what of me I want to push forward, I headed out. For two mornings, I shot with purpose. While my dog did pretty much the same thing as usual — run at full speed for two hours — I looked at everything we usually do together during our runs with an eye for how I would capture images for each of the six categories of photos in an essay. How would I tell this incredibly simple story, and how would I do it in a way that doesn’t feel old to me?

I had the same ingredients as always: a few miles of empty beach, an ice plant-covered cliff lining one side, the ocean lining the other, a morning that shifts from black to purple to grey and pink, a neon green tennis ball, and a dog with endless energy. What of this story have I not photographed before? What have I photographed that I can do differently? I approached every photograph with more analysis, and the more I did that, the more inspired and excited I became.

Some shots worked, some didn’t. Many fell into the “been there, done that” category. But overall, I felt like I’d ripped through a thick wall that I’d been lounging against for too long.


Out of all the images from two morning shoots (don’t even ask how many), I narrowed it down to 115 to work on, then whittled that pile down to 58 after the first sort, and a few less after the next, and so on. I separated the images into which category I’d shot them for, then went through each category again and again always keeping in mind: “Does this tell the story? Is it a part of the story I've already told before?”

The words of colleagues echoed in my head: You are judged by the worst photo in your portfolio. With that in mind, I had two questions to ask during final sorting: Which photos truly tell the story and fill it out or continue it forward; and which photos am I clinging to for emotional reasons but they really don't have a place in this story?

My goal was to whittle it down to 12 images. As you can see, I (cough) kept in a few more than that (cough). But, the process is more important than the finished product in this case and my reluctance to slice out images I’m attached to is a skill I can polish at a later time. I'm sure in one month, two months, three months, I can come back to this and more easily pull out the images that basically amount to over-sharing. Time and distance are, after all, two of the best tools for editing.

So, did I succeed with this piece? Well, that is ultimately for viewers to decide. But I know that this self-assigned photo essay helped me break through a creative barrier, hone important skills to use in shooting, storytelling, portraiture and editing, and provided a boost of joy and confidence in my personal projects. So that counts as success for me.

I didn't stop shooting dog-with-ball and dog-in-water, but I shot things differently, and I looked around for what more would help viewers see our mornings as I and my dog see them. Plus, there are dozens of images I kept out of this essay, images I really love but whose role isn't quite right for this story. That means I have lots of fresh, valuable material to use for future projects. Always a bonus.


Now, without further ado, that photo essay I talked so much about -- and below this, I've jotted down seven steps for giving yourself your own photo essay assignment that will help you push into new levels of creativity.

Sand, Salt, and Sunrise

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Suggested steps in assigning yourself a photo essay as a way to break a creative barrier:

1) What is one of your most boring routines or scenes? Select something that seems like there’s hardly anything to photograph, or that you’ve photographed extensively already, as your new assignment.
2) Decide on what you like about your existing photos from the location, and what want to push forward about your images. Also decide on what angle you want to take in your photo essay. What story do you want to tell?
3) Make a rough shot list. Write down any ideas that pop into your head, and add them to one of the six categories of images that form a photo essay. If it helps, use more than just words and sketch out photo ideas as drawings.
4) Shoot with your list in mind. If you find yourself working in an overly familiar way, stop and ask yourself what you can change about the shot you were just taking to make it more creative. Don't leave until you think you have at least two solid images for each of the six categories.
5) Narrow down your images until you have 12 or so that tell the story of this place or routine. Place them in an order that tells your story in a logical way.
6) After a few days, return to your photo essay and study it. What strategies or new techniques worked for you, and what didn’t? How might you do a better job of shooting an image for a particular category of the essay? Are there shots that still feel a little routine and maybe you want to re-shoot in a fresh way? Get nitty-gritty but be sure to leave your study session thinking about everything you did right during your assignment, and revel in all the ways you got creative, experimented, and pulled off images you really love.
7) Rinse and repeat as needed.

 

Related posts:

How to value content over quality in your photographs
What to do when your photo goes viral
4 reasons why sunrise photo walks are worth the effort
5 days of thinking in black and white

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

An animal of extremes: How the northern elephant seal barely dodged extinction


A male northern elephant seal throws his head back in a roar, warning other males from his section of the beach. These marine mammals spend the vast majority of their lives out at sea, diving to extraordinary depths for their meals. Just as fascinating as the lives they lead is the story of their recovery from near extinction only a century ago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A male northern elephant seal throws his head back in a roar, warning other males from his section of the beach. These marine mammals spend the vast majority of their lives out at sea, diving to extraordinary depths for their meals. Just as fascinating as the lives they lead is the story of their recovery from near extinction only a century ago. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Among the countless stories of species disappearing into the mists of extinction, there are a handful of stories about species that nearly slipped away and miraculously (or tenaciously) managed to come back. The northern elephant seal is among this number.

The northern elephant seal is the one of the largest of the true seals, second only to the southern elephant seal. The females grow up to 10 feet long as weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. Meanwhile, males grow as long as 13 feet and can weigh an incredible 4,500 pounds. Much of their bulk is made up of blubber, the insulating layer of fat that keeps them warm during deep dives in frigid water. And it is this blubber that nearly sent the species into extinction.

In the early 1800s as whales became more scarce, hunters seeking sources of oil turned toward elephant seals. A single large bull could provide nearly 25 gallons of high quality oil, so they were an appealing alternative. It is unknown exactly how many elephant seals existed at the species' peak but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands. When hunters aimed their harpoons at elephant seals, it didn’t take long to decimate those numbers. By the 1860s, over 250,000 had been killed. And by 1884, the species was declared extinct.

However, a tiny population of eight elephant seals was discovered just eight years later, hauled out on Guadalupe Island off of Baja California, Mexico. In a rush to have the last individuals of the species as specimens in their museum, a Smithsonian team killed seven of the eight seals. It seemed like the absolute end of the species. But somehow, a tiny population of somewhere between 100-1,000 elephant seals persisted, hidden from the sight of hunters (and museum collectors).

Because elephant seals dive to the pitch-black depths thousands of feet below the ocean's surface, they have several adaptations for finding food. This includes sensitive vibrissae that help them feel out prey hiding among rocks, and eyes that give them exceptional vision in the dark. Northern elephant seals have a far greater range of pupil size than any other seal or sea lion, and it is 25 times that of humans. They see not only better in the dark, but can adjust to darkness quickly. They need only about three or four minutes to go from daylight to their maximum vision in darkness, compared to the roughly 24 minutes that humans need to adjust. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because elephant seals dive to the pitch-black depths thousands of feet below the ocean's surface, they have several adaptations for finding food. This includes sensitive vibrissae that help them feel out prey hiding among rocks, and eyes that give them exceptional vision in the dark. Northern elephant seals have a far greater range of pupil size than any other seal or sea lion, and it is 25 times that of humans. They see not only better in the dark, but can adjust to darkness quickly. They need only about three or four minutes to go from daylight to their maximum vision in darkness, compared to the roughly 24 minutes that humans need to adjust. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Perhaps it is due to the fact that the seals spend the majority of their lives at sea and do not depend on hauling out on a regular basis, keeping them safe from humans for most of the year. Perhaps it is due to too few seals remaining for continued hunting even on a seasonal basis to be worthwhile. Whatever the reason, the last of the northern elephant seals refused to die out, returning to the rookery on Guadalupe Island each year for molting, breeding and pupping.

When it was known that some elephant seals still survived, Mexico granted the species official protection in 1922. The elephant seals began to recover and within a few years, individuals spread north onto beaches of the United States. The U.S. then followed Mexico’s lead and granted protections to the newly returned elephant seals. And so began the species’ recovery.

Elephant seals often throw sand on top of themselves to help cool off, but they also do it when stressed. This female elephant seal was quite close to giving birth, and let the world know how uncomfortable she was feeling. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Elephant seals often throw sand on top of themselves to help cool off, but they also do it when stressed. This female elephant seal was quite close to giving birth, and let the world know how uncomfortable she was feeling. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Sometimes, all a species needs to return to full health is for humans to quit killing them. That’s all northern elephant seals seemed to need, as the protections provided by the two countries helped them make a dramatic come-back.

By 1955, the first northern elephant seal was documented at Año Nuevo State Park, south of San Francisco, and the first pup was born there in 1961. Within decades, the area became one of the largest breeding grounds for elephant seals with thousands of pups born there annually.

California’s northern elephant seal population continues to grow and has even spread to areas that were not historical colony locations, perhaps finding new mainland beaches because they no longer face predation by grizzly bears or humans.

The pink "chest shields" of scarred and toughened skin is apparent on these two battling males. Despite the extra protection, the sharp canine teeth of opponents can still cut through, leaving the bloody marks you see on the necks of both males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pink "chest shields" of scarred and toughened skin is apparent on these two battling males. Despite the extra protection, the sharp canine teeth of opponents can still cut through, leaving the bloody marks you see on the necks of both males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Today, there are somewhere between 120,000-150,000 elephant seals — a number likely close to their historic population. They have long since been removed from the endangered species list, though they are still protected in the U.S. by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, being reduced to such a minuscule breeding population a century ago caused problems for the species that persist today.

As the beaches become crowded with more and more arriving elephant seals, there is less and less opportunity for personal space. The occupants have to snuggle up to one another. It is lucky we can witness such packed rookeries these days, as northern elephant seals return to historic breeding locations and spread to new locations. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As the beaches become crowded with more and more arriving elephant seals, there is less and less opportunity for personal space. The occupants have to snuggle up to one another. It is lucky we can witness such packed rookeries these days, as northern elephant seals return to historic breeding locations and spread to new locations. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The genetic bottleneck has made northern elephant seals more susceptible to certain diseases, including skin disease and lungworm among others. The biggest challenges they face today include disease, pollution and marine debris, extreme winter storms and loss of beach front habitat due to climate change, and of course the challenge of finding food in an over-fished sea.

Even so, they are here. Thankfully, they are a thriving species once again. And what a miracle of evolution elephant seals are. The species is one of the most extraordinary mammals on the planet.

Parenthood is short-lived for northern elephant seals. Mothers nurse their pups for only around a month before weaning them, mating with the dominant male and then returning to sea. Still, in those four short weeks she manages to nurse her 75-pound newborn to a 300-pound weaner. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Parenthood is short-lived for northern elephant seals. Mothers nurse their pups for only around a month before weaning them, mating with the dominant male and then returning to sea. Still, in those four short weeks she manages to nurse her 75-pound newborn to a 300-pound weaner. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Elephant seals spend as much as 80 percent of their lives at sea. Of that time at sea, as much as 90 percent is spent underwater in deep dives. Day after day, month after month, elephant seals dive, come up for a couple minutes to take a breath of air at the surface, then dive again. One researcher tracked a female northern elephant seal for 34 days and found that she dove almost continuously, staying at the surface for only three or four minutes to rest. Some researchers believe that elephant seals nap on their glides down to the depths where they hunt — and they would have plenty of time as the depths are extreme.

Northern elephant seals dive as deep as 5,000 feet to hunt, with the deepest dive recorded at 5,788 feet, well over a mile below the ocean’s surface. Their dives can last as long as two hours. However, this is on the far end of their dives. Males typically dive 1,150-2,600 feet with a dive duration of 21 minutes, while females swim to 1,000-1,950 feet with an average dive duration of 17 minutes. For comparison, harbor seals dive only as deep as 650 feet, and the deepest dives for walruses is a mere 260 feet.

The elephant seal has special adaptations allowing it to reach such depths, including a large amount of blood with a larger proportion of oxygen-carrying red-blood cells, as well as areas in its abdomen that can hold blood during dives. Oxygen is stored in the blood rather than the lungs, and elephant seals actually exhale before diving. This allows the body to compress as the weight of thousands of feet of water presses in from all sides. The elephant seal also slows its heart rate as it dives. Though on land its heart may beat anywhere form 55 to 120 times a minute, when it dives, its heart slows to an amazing 4 to 15 beats per minute. Blood flow is reigned in, with less going to its extremities so more can go to the brain and vital organs. All of this and more allows the seal to be one of the most extraordinary divers of all mammal species.

A juvenile male elephant seal shows off the beginning of what will become a sizable schnoz. Male elephant seals don't have their full-sized nose until they reach sexual maturity at about seven years of age. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A juvenile male elephant seal shows off the beginning of what will become a sizable schnoz. Male elephant seals don't have their full-sized nose until they reach sexual maturity at about seven years of age. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Another noticeable trait in the elephant seal is their namesake nose, that elongated proboscis. It is particularly pronounced in males, whose noses grow to about eight inches past their lower lips. This adaptation allows the males to make exceptionally loud roaring sounds, and when it comes to vying for territory and females on a beach, the louder the better.

However, there is a second purpose for elephant seal noses, both for males and females. It acts as a sort of "rebreather," absorbing moisture from exhalations which then helps minimize how dehydrated a seal gets while hauled out for months during the breeding season.

Once males reach sexual maturity, they will need their enlarged proboscis as a tool for warning off other males from their turf on the beach. They inflate the nose and vocalize into it in a series of "clap-threats" that sound a bit like a deep, roaring drum-beat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Once males reach sexual maturity, they will need their enlarged proboscis as a tool for warning off other males from their turf on the beach. They inflate the nose and vocalize into it in a series of "clap-threats" that sound a bit like a deep, roaring drum-beat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The elephant seal is the only mammal that has two annual migrations, and is the only mammal to travel over such long distances, clocking in between 11,000-13,000 miles annually.  The seals come to shore once during the summer for their catastrophic molt, when they shed their old coat all at once. The second migration occurs in the winter for birthing and breeding. It is during this migration that they draw the most attention from human onlookers, who enjoy both the incredible sight of huge males clashing in the surf and the sigh-inducing cuteness of the newborns.

Northern elephant seals are born with a black coat. They become more of the signature sausage shape as they nurse on their mother's fat-rich milk, and eventually when they are weaned, they lose their dark coat of thick fur and have a silver-colored sleek coat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seals are born with a black coat. They become more of the signature sausage shape as they nurse on their mother's fat-rich milk, and eventually when they are weaned, they lose their dark coat of thick fur and have a silver-colored sleek coat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal females give birth to one pup a season. Twins are exceedingly rare. Because pups require so much nursing, and females lose as much as a third of their weight during the five or so weeks they are on land for the season, it would be impossible for a female to nurse two pups and provide enough nutrition for them to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal females give birth to one pup a season. Twins are exceedingly rare. Because pups require so much nursing, and females lose as much as a third of their weight during the five or so weeks they are on land for the season, it would be impossible for a female to nurse two pups and provide enough nutrition for them to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In late December, the rookery beaches along the coast begin to fill with northern elephant seals. First the males arrive, followed shortly by the females. A hazy morning at Piedras Blancas shows the beach just beginning to get crowded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In late December, the rookery beaches along the coast begin to fill with northern elephant seals. First the males arrive, followed shortly by the females. A hazy morning at Piedras Blancas shows the beach just beginning to get crowded. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Each December, males begin arriving on beaches and sparring for their section of the beach, and thus breeding rights to any of the females that come ashore in their area of the beach. Males are equipped both with size and with a thick layer of pink keratinized skin around their chest which protects them from the bites and blows delivered during fights — and it is appropriately called a “chest shield.”

As territory is established, males maintain their hierarchy through stares, roars, charging at encroaching males, and of course through often bloody but rarely lethal clashes.

From the moment males arrive from their months at sea, their primary goal is to claim a section of beach -- and therefore mating privileges with all the females in that section -- and to hold that territory against any other competing males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From the moment males arrive from their months at sea, their primary goal is to claim a section of beach -- and therefore mating privileges with all the females in that section -- and to hold that territory against any other competing males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Much of the time, males can warn off other males by posturing and vocalizing. But when two males of similar size and status come together, a physical clash usually happens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Much of the time, males can warn off other males by posturing and vocalizing. But when two males of similar size and status come together, a physical clash usually happens. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After what is typically a short fight, one of the males beats a retreat. He may try his luck farther down the beach against another, hopefully smaller rival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After what is typically a short fight, one of the males beats a retreat. He may try his luck farther down the beach against another, hopefully smaller rival. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The "beach masters" are males who have hit their prime in size and fighting prowess, usually between 9 and 12 years of age. Younger males may avoid a fight by sneaking in to mate with females while the dominant male is distracted with defending his turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The "beach masters" are males who have hit their prime in size and fighting prowess, usually between 9 and 12 years of age. Younger males may avoid a fight by sneaking in to mate with females while the dominant male is distracted with defending his turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Males aren’t sexually mature until they are about 4-6 years old, but spend the first part of those years figuring out how to earn and keep a spot on the beach. They hit their prime between 9 and 12 years of age, and typically only live until around 15-17 years old if lucky. With a life of such extremes and so much fighting every season, they certainly end up looking worse for the wear.

The older males who have passed their prime years lounge on the beach knowing full well they aren't able to fight for a section of the beach. Still, by sheer size, they make their presence known. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The older males who have passed their prime years lounge on the beach knowing full well they aren't able to fight for a section of the beach. Still, by sheer size, they make their presence known. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Shortly after the males arrive on the beaches, the females arrive. Within two to seven days after coming ashore, they give birth to a four-foot-long, 75-pound pup coated in black fur.

An onlooker can tell when a female is about to give birth in part because the female becomes agitated, roaring and tossing sand with her flippers. But another clue is watching what the gulls are doing. The gulls have a sense about when a birth is eminent and begin to gather around the female — not to act as comforting midwives but to be in a good spot for feasting on the placenta.

Once the birth begins, it moves quickly, lasting only a few minutes. Afterward, the mother turns to get to know the baby she's been carrying for the last year, and the gulls begin their clean-up duty.

This female's labor lasted longer than the actual birth, which was over within just two or three minutes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This female's labor lasted longer than the actual birth, which was over within just two or three minutes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pup arrives on the beach looking calm and a bit dazed, while the female seems both relieved and indignant. The gulls, on the other hand, are just impatient for the arrival of the afterbirth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The pup arrives on the beach looking calm and a bit dazed, while the female seems both relieved and indignant. The gulls, on the other hand, are just impatient for the arrival of the afterbirth. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The gulls make short work of clean-up duty on the beach. Nothing is left after a minute or two of their feasting. The sand is cleaned and the birthing ward ready for the next female elephant seal who will arrive and go into labor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The gulls make short work of clean-up duty on the beach. Nothing is left after a minute or two of their feasting. The sand is cleaned and the birthing ward ready for the next female elephant seal who will arrive and go into labor. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The female and pup get to know each other in the minutes after birth through both smell and the sound of their vocalizations. The pup will do its best to stick with the mother over the next few weeks, both for food and for protection from being accidentally squashed by other, far larger residents of the crowded beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The female and pup get to know each other in the minutes after birth through both smell and the sound of their vocalizations. The pup will do its best to stick with the mother over the next few weeks, both for food and for protection from being accidentally squashed by other, far larger residents of the crowded beach. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The fat-rich milk of the female allows the pup to grow by 10 pounds a day. By the time they are weaned, pups weigh around 300 pounds. They need all the weight they can get because they are weaned when they are only about one month old, and have to rely on their stores of blubber for the two months they spend learning to swim and feed before heading out to sea to begin their life of adventure. Meanwhile, the females mate within a few days of weaning their pups and then return to the ocean.

During the short breeding season, life on the beach is filled with constant activity. Large males are busy clashing while females are busy nursing their pups and protecting them from the constant crush of other seals, and meanwhile fending off overly amorous young males that try to sneak in under the radar of the beach masters. There is a constant shuffle of seals jostling for room, the cries of young pups hungry for more milk or who perhaps lost their mothers, the roar of seals vying for some personal space, and there is also the constant tussling of young juveniles play-fighting with each other, honing their strategies for when they need to fight for real as a matter of passing on their genes.

Within minutes after giving birth, this female had to warn off an overly-amorous young male. It is this kind of character that is chased off by the dominant male as soon as he notices the interloper. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Within minutes after giving birth, this female had to warn off an overly-amorous young male. It is this kind of character that is chased off by the dominant male as soon as he notices the interloper. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal pups and mothers recognize each other through both scent and vocalizations. This allows a mother and pup who are separated during upheaval on the beach such as a storm, rogue waves, or through seals rushing to get out of the way during a territorial dispute between large males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Northern elephant seal pups and mothers recognize each other through both scent and vocalizations. This allows a mother and pup who are separated during upheaval on the beach such as a storm, rogue waves, or through seals rushing to get out of the way during a territorial dispute between large males. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always someone making noise on the beach in an elephant seal rookery. Pups call for moms, moms warn away other seals, males warn away other males. They aren't exactly the most quiet of species. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always someone making noise on the beach in an elephant seal rookery. Pups call for moms, moms warn away other seals, males warn away other males. They aren't exactly the most quiet of species. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Juvenile males play-fight and learn strategies for when they get older. Mostly it consists of just leaning on each other and seeing who can be the tallest of the two. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Juvenile males play-fight and learn strategies for when they get older. Mostly it consists of just leaning on each other and seeing who can be the tallest of the two. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As juvenile males get older, the play-fighting gets more serious, with real competition sparking up between well-matched pairs. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As juvenile males get older, the play-fighting gets more serious, with real competition sparking up between well-matched pairs. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When I stand along the edge of the beach watching the commotion that is breeding season, watching the constant drama of life and death at work for this species, sometimes I find myself in anxious awe that this scene was a knife's edge away from not existing, from being erased from the planet and human memory entirely. The near-extinction of northern elephant seals is frightening to think about -- how very close we came to it!

The story of northern elephant seal is a lesson for us humans, as we seem so intent on wiping out other species that are too useful to us, or too useless, or too in the way, or too invisible. We have an abundance of stories about species that only our grandparents or parents can remember seeing, and are no more. We have a dearth of stories about realizing a species is so close to the edge, and figuring out what to do to keep them here with us, to bring them back to abundance so that we and our children can look upon them with amazement, and so that the species can continue fulfilling its long-evolved niche in the ecosystem.

Bald eagles and condors, humpback whales and sea otters... these are conservation success stories we must take note of and set as the bar, stories where we recognized our role in their disappearance and reversed it. Let's not see wolves, elephants, lions, sharks and so many other species we know full well that we are responsible for destroying disappear forever. Let us instead recognize how capable we are of standing back, seeing the long-term value and importance of species living out their roles in nature, and altering our behavior so that species can persist.

There is so much wonder in the world; let's spend our time being amazed at it, rather than missing what we've lost.

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Here is a fantastic video that explores the natural history of the northern elephant seal. Enjoy!

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

4 reasons why sunrise photo walks are worth the effort


The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The hill behind my apartment offers one of the best views of the sunrise over the San Francisco bay. I'm lucky to live a couple minutes walk from such a scenic peak. Winter mornings make the steep walk well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch


There are two reasons I love the winter for photography. One, the sunrises are more spectacular. That's not just me saying so, either. Science says so too. And two, you don't have drag yourself out of bed at 5 am to be able to enjoy them. In fact, I barely have to drag myself out of bed at 6:00 to have plenty of time to get dressed, make a cup of coffee and head out the door. That hour can be a luxury, even for those of us who love mornings.

I've always been a morning person, wide awake before the birds start chirping. If I slept past sunrise, I felt like I'd wasted part of the day. Indeed it is as if the whole day speeds by faster when I get up after the sun. As I've gotten older, that bright-eyed-bushy-tailed part of me is slipping away just a little. It's more work to get up in the cold, dark morning. I require more inspiration and reward. Fortunately, the sunrises themselves usually offer both in spades. Even just running up the hill behind my apartment with my dog in tow to watch the sun hit the water of the bay and bounce off millions of windows is a treat for which I am grateful.

What makes sunrises so invigorating and rewarding? Here are my four best reasons for crawling out of the warm covers and into a cold pair of jeans and hiking boots, leashing up my dog and walking into the chill of the morning, camera in hand.

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Even my always-energetic dog needs a little time to get the sleep out of his system on some days. But we both love running around in the lavender light of pre-dawn too much to stay in bed. © Jaymi Heimbuch

An appreciation of brevity

Light is the lifeblood of photography. Capturing a moment brief and unrepeatable is its purpose. No matter what you are aiming at, you capture both at sunrise because of the rapid change in quality of light.

The variety of light -- the color, how it shifts, how it surges with vibrancy and diminishes into mute tones, the brief appearance of each hue and the mood it creates -- lasts only seconds. Ephemeral is a word that runs through my head often as I stand, staring, wondering if I can notice the gradual shift as it happens if I look carefully enough.

These twilight times underscore how a photo is a single moment never to be seen again. If you ever want to feel just how rapidly time slips by us, watch a sunrise with mindfulness. Sunsets often offer the same drama of light, but the world wakes up much faster than it settles down. A hushed and dark morning shifts to a bustling day in a snap, but a warm afternoon slips into a night that is still buzzing with activity and, in a city, still plenty of light. Time itself, the passing of it, is felt more easily felt at sunrise.

Being part of and recording pieces of a sunrise is a beautiful exercise in remembering the power of photography to use light and time to encapsulate emotion. You have a just a second or two, and then that orange, that pink, that violet is gone.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

The only thing I regret about this particular morning is not setting up a time-lapse to capture how much the sky changed as the sun came up. The clouds turned more colors than I could count, each lasting just long enough for an admiring look and a sigh before changing yet again. © Jaymi Heimbuch.

I love to use my dog as my model on sunrise hikes (obviously), and it is truly amazing the difference in mood based on oh-so-soft pre-dawn purple light, the pinks and oranges as the sun inches level with the horizon, and the gold that spills out over the landscape as it rises in the sky. All are equally beautiful in amazingly different ways.

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Play Time With Just Us

The area where I live is very dog-friendly. So dog-friendly that it's hard to find some wide-open space where it can be just my dog and me, with no worries of running into other folks and their off-leash dogs. Dawn is just about the only time we can get out and be assured an hour or two where we're just focused on each other.

We will get to the beach while it's still too dark to see the tennis ball and walk until there's enough light to let the neon-green ball fly. He will do sprints over and over while I keep an eye out for sand dollars.

Having that time alone is precious. I have a feeling I'm not the only introvert animal photographer. It's much more comfortable to be the only human around for awhile, and your companions are creatures of other species whose language is spoken through the wag of a tail, or the twitch of an ear, or the flit of a wing. It feels good to speak in body language. There is far less translating of subtext to have to do, and far less energy that has to be put into your end of the conversation.

Though sunrise is of course not the only time of day when you can be alone in the company of animals, it does feel, for me, the best time for me to bond with my dog, to get on the same page as him, to take a long deep sigh and smile as I see his eyes light up with the sheer joy of running free on the beach at low tide.

Plenty of people are willing to postpone dinner to catch the sunset. Far fewer are willing to wake up early and postpone breakfast to catch the sunrise. And we are deeply grateful for that fact.

Whether you have a companion animal to spend the morning with or not, getting out for that in-between quiet time where the vocal chords aren't necessary is a great way to recharge the batteries and refresh your skills in reading the language of the animals with whom you're sharing space.

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

We are lucky to live near a beach that is wide, has soft sand and is miles long. We go while it's still dark and play until the sun comes up and other people begin showing up. It's darn cold, but that's what jackets and a fur coat is for! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Fetch is the game of choice for sunrises. It's great that tennis balls come in neon green as it makes them much easier to spot in dim light! © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

There is always time for a game of stalk-and-zoom! There seems to be boundless energy when you're enjoying your favorite time of day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Grandeur Without Pressure

I've found that when I get out for sunrise often enough, I sink into a comfortable place where the incredible beauty of a day unfurling is a familiar comfort. I lose (at least to a degree) that feeling of urgency that I need to be in a perfect spot with camera, tripod, filters, and whatever else to frantically capture every second before it disappears.

Rather, I begin to get a feeling that I am not there to record the landscape, but simply to be part of it. It is during these stretches that, should something particularly pretty happen, my iPhone is good enough. I can pull that out from my back pocket and use it to calm that "must click shutter!" urge when the scene is just that amazing.

But overall, it becomes less essential to make a beautiful image. It becomes more essential to just witness it all, to smell damp leaves, to feel cold air, to hear the crunch of dirt underfoot as we walk. 

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That transition might not seem particularly helpful for photography. At least not at first. Transitioning from carrying a camera with purpose to whipping out an iPhone on a whim isn't exactly great practice. But it is great process. When I am lucky enough to have a small stretch of sunrise hikes on the same trails, I recognize more about the location -- where the light hits when, and how to predict what the light will do based on cloud cover and haze. I've used that a few times to be able to go out for a hike and hit spot after spot after spot at the right time to get amazing light for photos.

In the meantime, I've enjoyed quite a few stress-free mornings with absolute splendor laid out in front of me (and more than a few blurry iPhone photos to remember, "Oh yeah, that was really was one special morning..."):

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Quiet Moments

After quality of light, the most noticeable thing to me about sunrises is the opportunity for quiet.

Granted, if you're trying to practice mindfulness, then there isn't a time of day that lacks opportunity for meditative moments. But I'm not exactly someone who is good at sitting still, nor hushing my brain. Nor am I someone who is likely to put effort into the practice. But at sunrise...I don't know if it's the changing of the light, the softness of it, the beginning of birdsong, the air warming up... I don't know what it is about this transitional time from night to day but there's something special about it that allows for moments of calm without effort, without having to consciously say, "I'm going to have a mindful moment now... aaaaand start!"

It just happens.

I'll look up at the clouds and realize that they were the only thing in my brain for a full ten seconds. (Ten seconds is a long time to think about one thing, by the way.) Or I'll find myself just watching my dog wander around smelling the rocks and shrubs and realize that for a couple minutes, there was nothing going on in my head except watching him.  And it will feel refreshing.

Just this is worth getting up early every day, heading out at twilight, and walking along a trail. Just for those moments of quiet.

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Those are my four main points that I'd use in any conversation trying to convince a sleeps-in person that they should give sunrise a try. But if that doesn't convince them, I'd fall back on one nearly fail-proof argument: Look at all the pretty colors!

Blue

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Red

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Purple

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Green

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Silver

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Gold

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Tell me, are you a sunrise or a sunset person? What's your reason?

High fives for early risers!

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

The epic flight and worrying plight of monarch butterflies


The number of monarch butterflies returning to over-wintering sites has dropped dramatically in recent years. The loss may mean the iconic butterfly will be added to the endangered species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The number of monarch butterflies returning to over-wintering sites has dropped dramatically in recent years. The loss may mean the iconic butterfly will be added to the endangered species list. © Jaymi Heimbuch


It is an amazing experience to look up into what should be an evergreen only to find its branches covered in brown leaves. Then you realize, each of those brown leaves is actually a monarch butterfly. And just as you realize this, a beam of warm morning sunlight shifts onto the bows, orange and black wings open, flex, and then suddenly hundreds of butterflies take flight like a long, colorful sigh.

This is an experience visitors to the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove enjoy every winter, and visitors to monarch groves throughout California and Mexico. People arrive in droves for the annual spectacle of over-wintering monarchs, one stage in the multi-generation migration that happens each year.

The butterflies know to return to the exact same groves, even the exact same trees, that their great grandparents sheltered in the year before. Yes, great-grandparents. The single annual migration takes four generations of butterflies to complete. Exactly how the butterflies make their way back to the same locations is still a mystery to scientists. Humans trek to the locations every year as well, to witness the arrival of these beautiful creatures, to stand among them, looking up and seeing the trees and sky filled with flitting color.

The annual arrival of monarchs may be a scene perhaps only one or two more generations of people will witness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering the species for inclusion on the Endangered Species List.

Monarch butterflies fill the branches of cypress and eucalyptus trees in the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. Many visitors will look up asking where the butterflies are, until they realize the leaves they are looking at are really the wings of resting butterflies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies fill the branches of cypress and eucalyptus trees in the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove. Many visitors will look up asking where the butterflies are, until they realize the leaves they are looking at are really the wings of resting butterflies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When pondering butterflies, there are usually two words that come to mind: beautiful and fragile. But for the monarch there needs to be a third word: epic.

The overused word is actually deserved when it comes to this species, which partakes in a 3,000 mile migration every year that requires four full generations of butterflies to complete. Monarch butterflies are the only insect species to travel thousands of miles from the cooler north to the warmth of southern regions where they overwinter, returning to the same groves of trees for months at a time before taking flight back up north to start the cycle again.

Each spring, monarchs that have sheltered in California and Mexico move north, finding milkweed on which to feed and lay eggs. Milkweed is essential to the survival of monarch butterflies. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillar feeds exclusively on milkweed for about two weeks until it is ready to weave a cocoon and begin its transformation into a butterfly. The milkweed not only sustains the species but also protects it. By eating the plant, the caterpillar becomes toxic to predators like birds, which will avoid eating the caterpillars and the adult butterflies. Indeed, the strategy is so effective, another species, the viceroy butterfly, has evolved to mimic the monarch in appearance to protect itself from predators.

About 10 days after weaving a cocoon, the newly transformed butterfly emerges and continues north as the first generation of the year’s migration. This generation then lay eggs that hatch into the second generation of monarchs, which emerge in the early summer months of May and June, and which in turn lay the eggs that will hatch into the third generation during the height of summer in July and August.

Four generations of monarch butterflies are needed to make the 3,000-mile migration every year. The generation that over-winters in California and Mexico has the longest lifespan, living for six to eight months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Four generations of monarch butterflies are needed to make the 3,000-mile migration every year. The generation that over-winters in California and Mexico has the longest lifespan, living for six to eight months. © Jaymi Heimbuch

These first three generations of butterflies live only from a few weeks to two months. But the fourth generation, the generation born in September and October, will live as long as six or eight months because it is the generation that makes the miraculous return to the same groves, the same trees even, to ensure the species survives the winter.

Let's take a moment to let the mystery of how monarchs return to the same locations every year fully sink in. Many animals return to the same location after a long time away. Sea turtles will return to the same beach where they were born even after years of being at sea. Laysan albatross will return to the same location, sometimes within feet of the nest cup in which they were born, five or more years after fledging. But these animals were born in that spot, and had a chance to imprint on it, to somehow memorize the magnetic field and thus the coordinates to which they will return later. Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, don't have this advantage. They some how know to continue on the migration's path despite never having visited the place to which they are traveling. They are removed from it by several generations. Yet they know. Theories exist but no one understands for sure how they manage it.

Butterflies gather in clusters, filling the branches of trees. Scientists have a few theories as to why they gather so closely together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Butterflies gather in clusters, filling the branches of trees. Scientists have a few theories as to why they gather so closely together. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When the monarch butterflies arrive in their wintering groves, they cover branches of trees in great clumps. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove explains, "The butterflies form dense clusters with each one hanging with its wing down over the one below it to form a shingle effect. This provides shelter from the rain and warmth for the group. The weight of the cluster help keeps it from whipping in the wind and dislodging the butterflies... There are no definitive answers to the question of why they [form clusters]; they could either all be attracted to the same conditions that exist in a particular spot, or they could benefit from being a group. Possible benefits they could gain from being together include protecting themselves from the elements and/or overwhelming predators."

The two specific needs for monarch butterflies — milkweed and familiar forests — are the reason why the species may be making the unfortunate change in status from near-threatened to endangered.

Monarch butterflies rest on the branches until the sun warms them enough to move around. They need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees in order to fly. Once the morning sun provides enough heat, they become active and fill the air between the trees. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies rest on the branches until the sun warms them enough to move around. They need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees in order to fly. Once the morning sun provides enough heat, they become active and fill the air between the trees. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because monarchs take refuge in specific groves, they are vulnerable to legal and illegal logging. Not only does logging eliminate the trees where the butterflies prefer to rest but the loss of trees surrounding their preferred groves exposes them to cooler temperatures which can kill them. Meanwhile, monarchs searching for milkweed during summer on which to lay their eggs are having a harder time finding it due to the expansion of farmland and use of herbicides to kill off the plant. The loss of milkweed means the loss of the only food source for monarch caterpillars.

The combination of threats is taking a serious toll. Though there has been an uptick in the number of sanctuaries in California and Mexico to protect overwintering monarchs, there is still the looming problem of our industrial farming practices.

In September of 2013, the Associated Press reported, "A new study of the Monarch butterflies' winter nesting grounds in central Mexico says small-scale logging is worse than previously thought and may be contributing to threats facing the Monarch's singular migration pattern. The reserve's 33,482-acre core zone lost 41 acres of pine and fir trees so far in 2013, about half of that because of illegal logging... The Monarch migration is under serious threat. A report in March said the number of butterflies making it to Mexico this year had dropped 59 percent, the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began 20 years ago. It was the third straight year of declines for the orange-and-black butterflies. Six of the last seven years have shown drops, and there are now only one-fifteenth as many butterflies as there were in 1997."

However, SciDev.net reported in November of 2014, "Illegal logging in Mexican forests, where the monarchs hibernate during winter, has traditionally been to blame. But large-scale logging by companies appears to have been halted. And now small-scale logging by local people for firewood and timber — a 'growing concern in 2013' — has also stopped, according to a study published last month (27 October) in Biological Conservation."

Monarch butterflies have been hit with a one-two punch of losing the trees where they spend their winters as well as the milkweed on which the caterpillars rely. While the problem of logging has decreased, there is still the looming issue of industrial farming practices that clear away milkweed from the land. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Monarch butterflies have been hit with a one-two punch of losing the trees where they spend their winters as well as the milkweed on which the caterpillars rely. While the problem of logging has decreased, there is still the looming issue of industrial farming practices that clear away milkweed from the land. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Even with this mildly good news that logging has decreased, there’s still the problem of the sheer scale of farming in the U.S. and the practices used to grow mile after mile of monocrops. Changing how we grow food is a lot harder than ending illegal logging practices, both politically and economically. It is, after all,  a question of what goes on our dinner plates and at what price.

National Geographic reported, "Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. Despite its necessity to the species, the plant decreased 21 percent in the United States between 1995 and 2013."  The decrease is primarily due to the use of GMO "Round-Up Ready" crops that can survive being sprayed with herbicides which kill off milkweed and other plant species.

If the monarch butterfly makes it to the endangered species list, the species will receive federal protections. If that happens, it could mean not only the survival of the species but also a potential change in how we view farming, perhaps leading to a more universal recognition of the ecological impact of our practices and a shift to methods that bolster biodiversity rather than encourage monocrops to the demise of plant and animal species.

Though monarch butterflies have only a 4-inch wingspan, they can travel between 50-100 miles per day. That's how they're able to travel such long distances during their annual migration. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though monarch butterflies have only a 4-inch wingspan, they can travel between 50-100 miles per day. That's how they're able to travel such long distances during their annual migration. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The timing for the USFWS considering the monarch butterfly for inclusion on the endangered species list couldn't be more critical.

Reuters recently reported both good and bad news for monarch butterflies. The bad news is that new estimates from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation show that monarch populations have dropped by as much as 90 percent in the last 20 years. “An estimated 1 billion monarchs migrated to Mexico in 1996 compared with just 35 million last year, according to Marcus Kronforst, a University of Chicago ecologist who has studied monarchs.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Food Safety, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Dr. Lincoln Brower have together filed a petition requesting federal protections for the species. The monarch has no legal protection in the United States, but after about a review process that lasts about a year -- or four generations of monarchs -- that could change.

Because monarch butterflies need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees to fly, they will sit in the sun or flutter their wings back and forth in order to warm up. If you see a butterfly on the ground "shivering" its wings, it is likely trying to get warm enough to fly. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Because monarch butterflies need a body temperature of at least 86 degrees to fly, they will sit in the sun or flutter their wings back and forth in order to warm up. If you see a butterfly on the ground "shivering" its wings, it is likely trying to get warm enough to fly. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The USFWS website states that the service's first steps in the review process to see if a change in status is warranted is to begin a 60-day public information period during which data will be gathered, including:

  • The subspecies’ biology, range and population trends, habitat requirements, genetics and taxonomy;
  • Historical and current range, including distribution patterns;
  • Historical and current population levels and current and projected trends;
  • The life history or behavior of the monarch butterfly that has not yet been documented;
  • Thermo-tolerance range and microclimate requirements of the monarch butterfly;
  • Past and ongoing conservation measures for the subspecies, its habitat or both;  and,
  • Factors that are the basis for making a listing determination under section 4(a) of the ESA;

If you have information about monarch butterflies that you think could benefit the USFWS in making a decision, send it in before March 2, 2015. The site states, "To view the notice and submit information, visit www.regulations.gov docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056."

With luck, and plenty of help, the species may continue on so that one day, we might uncover the mystery as to how a butterfly can find the same tree that its great grandparent rested in the previous year.

Though logging and loss of milkweed are two big threats, monarch butterflies face a third threat: climate change. Climate change brings the possibility of wetter, colder winters. Because millions of butterflies can be found in the same grove of trees, a cold snap in that area can mean a massive hit to the species' population. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though logging and loss of milkweed are two big threats, monarch butterflies face a third threat: climate change. Climate change brings the possibility of wetter, colder winters. Because millions of butterflies can be found in the same grove of trees, a cold snap in that area can mean a massive hit to the species' population. © Jaymi Heimbuch

If monarch butterflies are in your area, you can support now them by growing milkweed plants in your garden. Monarch Joint Venture provides information about where to get seeds and how to grow the plants.

You can also help monarch butterflies by making a donation to support one of the several sanctuaries set up for them in California and Mexico which help ensure the butterflies have somewhere safe to overwinter before beginning their incredible journey north again.

You may not think that planting milkweed in your garden will be of much help, but a little bit goes a long way. If every yard had just one or two milkweed plants, monarch butterflies would have plenty to survive on. Your yard is the perfect place to start! © Jaymi Heimbuch

You may not think that planting milkweed in your garden will be of much help, but a little bit goes a long way. If every yard had just one or two milkweed plants, monarch butterflies would have plenty to survive on. Your yard is the perfect place to start! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

How to value content over quality in your photographs


When these young racoons emerged from the thicket early in the morning, I caught a moment that looks as if one is saying hello to the sunshine. When editing the images from this outing, this photo was nearly tossed. But every time I look at it, I feel the joy of a morning warmly greeted. So, here it is to stay. These are the kinds of editing decisions photographers are faced with every time a new batch of photos is imported: which images hold enough emotional value to be considered a keeper.

When these young racoons emerged from the thicket early in the morning, I caught a moment that looks as if one is saying hello to the sunshine. When editing the images from this outing, this photo was nearly tossed. But every time I look at it, I feel the joy of a morning warmly greeted. So, here it is to stay. These are the kinds of editing decisions photographers are faced with every time a new batch of photos is imported: which images hold enough emotional value to be considered a keeper.


When is a flawed photo a keeper?

This is a question asked while evaluating every single frame before hitting the delete button. It’s built into the workflow; what stays, what goes, and why. What merits being flagged as a winner in spite of, or because of flaws and how do you recognize it?

There are dozens of pieces to the puzzle that, when put together, form an amazing image. The direction and quality of light, the composition, the focal length, aperture, shutter speed, movement of the subject and so on. But it isn’t simply the act of putting together perfect pieces that creates a perfect whole. A photo is always, always greater than the sum of its parts. It is the impact, the power, the beauty of that whole image that makes the perfection of each piece worthwhile, or the imperfections of each component forgivable. Noise, blur, lens flare, composition that cuts part of the subject out of the frame, over-exposure or under-exposure, and other flaws can be overlooked or even used as a bonus if they are part of an image that has a soul. A body can have all the right parts — limbs, eyes, ears, heart and brain — but that doesn’t make it a living being. It takes everything working together, plus something unexplainable, some spark that gives it life. No matter how pretty the parts, there has to be that touch of magic to make it work. And so it is when creating a photo that touches viewers.

How do you know when your image has that spark? That’s the challenge brought to each and every editing session.

There are two ways to measure the success of an image. If it sings to you, and if it sings to others. The first is easy to know. You recognize it when you see it, a gut feeling. Even when sorting through the images that just miss the mark you were originally aiming for in composition or quality, they might still have hit another, more emotional target, and you end up walking away with a winner anyway.

The second is a little more difficult to gauge and to predict. Sometimes photos are a complete success and everyone seems to love it. But there have been many times where an image I thought was nice but not exceptional was still a favorite among viewers, while another that ranked as one of my favorites from a trip was given just a shoulder shrug from others I showed it to. But I believe there’s value in that as well — in having an image that is just for you, that it is still important even if only you really appreciate it. It’s a question I raised to National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry in a recent conversation, and he had a wonderful example of why a photographer should keep a photo that has particular meaning or merit to them, even if it isn't publishable.

But let’s back up just for a moment, to the original question of how you recognize that spark that makes an image worth keeping, when you know you should value the content of the shot over the quality. It’s a deeply personal process on one level, and yet completely universal on another. A good photo is a good photo, after all.

A pair of white terns reunited on a branch in an ironwood tree. These beautiful birds are like something out of a fairytale with their large black eyes, pure white feathers and impossibly sharp bills. They way they can hover and flit is magical in the golden light. Though this frame is imperfect, it perfectly captures that dreamy, airy aspect of the species for me.

A pair of white terns reunited on a branch in an ironwood tree. These beautiful birds are like something out of a fairytale with their large black eyes, pure white feathers and impossibly sharp bills. They way they can hover and flit is magical in the golden light. Though this frame is imperfect, it perfectly captures that dreamy, airy aspect of the species for me.

“I don’t believe there are any right or wrong answers,” says Skerry. “I firmly believe photography for the most part is subjective. Understanding light, how light works, and how you can use it as a photographer, understanding composition, knowing that 50 photographs with the subject smack in the middle like a bull’s eye isn’t particularly interesting. Understanding the fundamentals of photography is essential if you want to be a serious photographer. Knowing those essentials means you can also break them.”

I asked a few more folks for their take on this question. Melissa Groo, a conservation photographer, tells me, “I used to be much more concerned with the perfection of my images. A super clean and out-of-focus background, lack of graininess, a subject sharp from stem to stern, with the light perfectly falling on it, and an ideal head angle to the camera sensor — these were my principles. This was partly due to the fact that I was spending a lot of time on an online nature photography forum that preached these as necessary elements of any truly good image of wildlife. I began to realize that stringently conforming to these principles was stifling my creativity. That I was missing out on truly exciting and authentic moments as I was too consumed with the devil of the details.

“Now, my attention to the action in front of me takes paramount importance. And occasionally I come up with images that aren't perfectly lit, that lack perfect sharpness, that may have visible noise. What I've learned though, is that sometimes it's these images that are the most powerful for me, both in my eyes and the eyes of the viewers, as a quintessential moment in an animal's life has been captured, a moment that enriches our own lives. For me, capturing that behavior often trumps the flaws. Rules are good to know about, and are an important foundation for any developing photographer, but don't let them trip you up and stand in the way of your own creativity.”

On a very foggy morning just before sunrise, I hid myself in the reeds on the shore of a lagoon and waited for a family of four river otters to approach. As they made their way along the edge of the water, chomping on crabs and fish, a couple hopped up on this rock for a brief moment while another hunted around the edge of the rock. The low light, the distance, the mist in the air between me and the dark subjects all added to the difficulty in getting a perfect shot. But the playful behavior and curiosity of these animals in their habitat is summed up in the image, which is just what I wanted to capture.

On a very foggy morning just before sunrise, I hid myself in the reeds on the shore of a lagoon and waited for a family of four river otters to approach. As they made their way along the edge of the water, chomping on crabs and fish, a couple hopped up on this rock for a brief moment while another hunted around the edge of the rock. The low light, the distance, the mist in the air between me and the dark subjects all added to the difficulty in getting a perfect shot. But the playful behavior and curiosity of these animals in their habitat is summed up in the image, which is just what I wanted to capture.

Gaston Lacome, a documentary photographer, has a similar sentiment, that the focus should be on the message of an image rather than the settings, “As a photographer, it bugs me to no end when someone asks me: ‘What was your shutter speed on that?  What was your depth of field?’  The little hairs on the back of my neck raise up in irritation, and I have to remind myself that for some people these technical details seem very important.  I usually answer: ‘I don’t know, I would have to check,’ but what I really want to say is: ‘Does that matter?  Can’t you see the photo for what it is?’

“When I lift the camera to my eye, I do think of course of my shutter speed and depth of speed, otherwise I wouldn’t be a photographer.  However my main concern does not lie in the numbers, but in the artistic intent.  I ask myself: “What am I showing here?  How does this tell a story?”  As a conservation photographer, my most important measure of success is to know that an image is conveying a message effectively, and that often means ignoring technique, settings, and rules, and just getting lost in the moment.  An editor I’ve worked with once said: 'Let your photos get dirty.'

“Letting my photos get dirty however does not mean letting them get sloppy.  Clicking the shutter carelessly will not push my story forward.  Rather, I interpret it as embracing the imperfections that make my photos unique.  Motion blur can bring a more dynamism.  Dirt and water on the lens can bring more intimacy and immediacy.  Lack of focus can bring mystery.  Uneven color balances can bring artistic toning.  I don’t usually seek imperfection in my images, but when it does happen, I’ve learned to consider how it makes me feel, or react, before I discard it outright.”

Rather than being a problem for an image, blur can bring a wonderful sense of motion to a photo, and give the viewer a feeling of being there in the action. There is, of course, blur that is effective and blur that is just plain old blur. If you manage to pull off the former, then your image has that much more impact. If you get the latter... well, get out there and try again.

Rather than being a problem for an image, blur can bring a wonderful sense of motion to a photo, and give the viewer a feeling of being there in the action. There is, of course, blur that is effective and blur that is just plain old blur. If you manage to pull off the former, then your image has that much more impact. If you get the latter... well, get out there and try again.

Tin Man Lee expands on this idea, that flawed photos can sometimes have the farthest reach, much more so than “clean” images. “So many times I have seen pictures that go viral in the internet that have poor image quality but have special meaning. And I have seen numerous technically perfect images — right angles of light, perspective, sharpness and no noise — that didn't stir any emotion in viewers. Content is always the most important.

"As a photographer, I strive to find the good light, composition, etc, to accompany a special moment. I think we are all storytellers. To tell a good story, it needs mood and emotion. Mood is the light, the composition, and may be about sharpness, noise. Emotion is the content. When mood and emotion come together, its a good story. To present the emotion perfectly, photographer's task is to reduce distractions and add the mood. Distraction reduction is to look carefully in the viewfinder to move to a spot where the background is less distracting, try to maximize the sharpness with lowest noise. All these are secondary, but help with bringing the emotion to a new height."

On a cold and drizzly morning, I was lucky enough to watch a female northern elephant seal give birth. The distress of the female during her labor and her clear relief at its conclusion, the calm bewilderment with which the pup seemed to enter the world, and the hovering gulls waiting to dine on the afterbirth were all elements of the scene that stuck in my memory. If there's one image that encapsulates the entire event for me, it's this one.

On a cold and drizzly morning, I was lucky enough to watch a female northern elephant seal give birth. The distress of the female during her labor and her clear relief at its conclusion, the calm bewilderment with which the pup seemed to enter the world, and the hovering gulls waiting to dine on the afterbirth were all elements of the scene that stuck in my memory. If there's one image that encapsulates the entire event for me, it's this one.

Robin Moore tells me about getting started on the editing process, both looking at quality and content at once. "The first thing I do after a shoot is a quick first edit to cull my images down to a manageable selection. This initial cull will be largely based on a gut reaction to the images. It is really the content that I pay most attention to here. If the first thing I notice is that it is out of focus or grainy, then it can’t be a very strong image, and so it goes. If an image doesn't speak to me on this first pass, no matter how sharp the focus or low the noise, no matter that it conforms nicely to the rule of thirds, I will cull the image. I think I have become more ruthless in this regard over the years - I used to place more emphasis on technical prowess, as if I had something to prove, but I have found myself focusing more and more on content and story. The words of Ansel Adams, 'There's nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept' echo in the back of my head as I am editing. If all an image conveys to the viewer is that I have a nice camera or that I know my way around the f-stops, then I have failed to connect with that viewer on any meaningful level."

But being tough in editing can backfire, especially when it comes to questioning the value of a photo at first glance. Moore continues, "What resonates with me one day may also be different from the next, and this can make my editing process somewhat inconsistent. I recently went back through an old shoot of mine from Colombia, and recovered an image of a glass frog peering through a leaf that I had culled the first time around. I have no idea what was going through my head when I culled it, because it was a strong composition, an interesting and beautiful subject and tack sharp. In theory all the elements were there. I suspect I was influenced by other, similar images, in my shoot. When faced with a couple of thousand images to edit I was ruthless in cutting this down to a manageable and representative selection. But in doing so I got rid of one that, upon recovery, has become one of my favorite frog shots - and my most popular image on Instagram. I now keep my 'almost' shots backed up because I never know when I could view them with different eyes and decide they are, indeed, a winner."

When I spotted river otters near a bridge in a shaded valley just after sunrise, I decided to see how far I could push my camera's ISO to get images. The dark subjects and extreme low light were a challenging combination, but it was fun to push the camera's limits. Not ideal light, not ideal settings, but the results were certainly what I wanted. Several of the technical issues such as noise were easily fixed in post-processing, so it was worth taking advantage of the opportunity.

When I spotted river otters near a bridge in a shaded valley just after sunrise, I decided to see how far I could push my camera's ISO to get images. The dark subjects and extreme low light were a challenging combination, but it was fun to push the camera's limits. Not ideal light, not ideal settings, but the results were certainly what I wanted. Several of the technical issues such as noise were easily fixed in post-processing, so it was worth taking advantage of the opportunity.

There’s the rub. Even the photographer can see something worth keeping one moment, and nothing the next, then back again.

I've found great value in going easy on editing sessions, doing four or five sessions with a more forgiving eye when narrowing down a group of photos, rather than one or two sessions that ruthlessly delete anything substandard while zeroed in on a high bar in technical quality. This gives me the chance to see the same group of images while I'm in different emotional states. Eventually, only the images that speak to me on every level, in every mood, stay. Those are clearly the most powerful. But I also know I have reduced the odds of deleting a great photo just because it had some blur or lack of sharpness that overall may not matter so much.

One of my tricks that I stumbled into accidentally and now view as a great strategy is to use my backup system as a safety, just as Moore does. I always back up everything on at least two hard drives. I dump all images into both drives but just work from one, narrowing down and deleting images from the single drive. And just in case, I have all the images on another drive. More than once, I've looked through those "deleted" images that still exist on the second drive and found a couple I changed my mind about, that I wanted to keep and work on. Eventually, I have my winners from the batch, and I back up just the final keepers on both drives. But at least during the editing process, I had that safety net of getting an image back that I failed to see the power of the first time around.

Can the viewer have the same experience? See an image once and be unimpressed because of technical flaws, but again in a different mood and be moved by the same photo's content? Or vice versa? Subjective. Oh, so subjective.

Mulling over just how subjective photography really is brings us back to the earlier question of gauging success based on if an image sings to you and if it sings to others. Brian Skerry has just about the best story I've ever heard on this topic. His most recognizable photo nearly never saw the light of day because one editor didn't care for it.

"Probably my most iconic picture is of the southern right whale and the diver. I was down in the southern Antarctic in winter time on an 80-foot sailboat for three weeks, dealing with all kinds of bad weather and diving in a dry suit. These whales had never been photographed before. It was a very speculative trip; the Geographic really rolled the dice when I convinced them to charter the boat and send me down there. I had this new experience, I had all these whales around me and I had these great pictures. I came back to the main island of New Zealand after three weeks and I had to fly to Honolulu where I was doing a three week reef expedition, so I was in my hotel room getting ready to leave for the boat. I got an email from my editor who said, 'So Brian, how did you do with the whales?' I was all proud of myself, and wrote  back, saying I think we did really great and we have stuff that’s never been seen before, and I attached a jpeg of that picture with the diver and the whale. I needed to check out of the hotel and get to the boat but I was very anxious for this email that I was sure was going to come back with just heaps of praise telling me how great I was and how wonderful it all was and I was the greatest thing to ever happen. And I got back this cryptic sort of reply that just said, 'What else do you have.' That was it. Five words. I was crushed.

"That photo has since become a life of its own. They made a little video about it that’s on YouTube that’s had 23 million views. Geographic has used it on their flag, they’ve used it in their exploration issue years after it was published. But I had to lobby when I was doing layout with [my editor] and the layout designer to get that picture in there. Fortunately, the number two person at the magazine in charge of layout loved it and he said, no that’s got to be in the magazine. But the point of the story is that my editor, whose opinion I value so greatly — she’s a dear friend and a wonderful, wonderful editor, and in 17 years of working with her I’ve maybe once or twice had a disagreement about a picture — but there was a picture that was my most iconic, most famous picture of all time and it almost didn’t get into the magazine because she thought it was redundant and she liked another one that I had that was similar that was just the whale by itself. It is very subjective."

Though they look quite comical waddle-running and flapping to take flight, for a Laysan albatross, getting off the ground no laughing matter. It requires a significant amount of energy to get up into the air. I wanted to show some of the earnestness of the endeavor, and some of the grace that albatross show once they're in flight. This is an image I've come back to multiple times and it has become one of my favorites from the morning of watching the "runway."

Though they look quite comical waddle-running and flapping to take flight, for a Laysan albatross, getting off the ground no laughing matter. It requires a significant amount of energy to get up into the air. I wanted to show some of the earnestness of the endeavor, and some of the grace that albatross show once they're in flight. This is an image I've come back to multiple times and it has become one of my favorites from the morning of watching the "runway."

A common thread from the friends I talked to on this topic is that we all think that following the rules is important, up to a point. But we can’t let the rules get in the way of what’s real. The emotion, mood, circumstances… the reality of the instant in time that we captured is more important than if the light is coming from the right direction or if it comes out a bit grainy. If the content holds up, a viewer will most likely look right past those imperfections. A winning photo comes down to the emotional reaction it draws from viewers. Full stop.

Skerry says, “You know I used to believe when I first began that a picture had to be perfect. The fish had to be within the four borders of the frame and I couldn’t cut off a tail or I couldn’t cut off a fin. I’ve learned that those things are less important in terms of a good photojournalistic picture if the photo has energy, or if there’s some grace or gesture in the picture. If it speaks to you or it speaks to people then it’s okay if you don’t see the whole animal, if the tiger is cut off and you only see a blur of him running through a field or something. Those things are alright because it’s about that energy. Photography is about truth to a large extent, it’s about your experience out there in nature in the wild and if a shark kicked up a bit of sand as he swam over and it’s off to the side of the frame or wherever it is it’s alright. We publish those pictures all day long because it’s real, its the way it happened. It is about content over quality."

Pulling into the parking lot of the trail head about 15 minutes before first light, the car's headlights illuminated this coyote drinking water from a pothole. With extraordinary luck, and patience on the part of the coyote, he stuck around until twilight so I could capture a few frames. They're noisy shots, but keepers, meaningful to me because of the memorable encounter.

Pulling into the parking lot of the trail head about 15 minutes before first light, the car's headlights illuminated this coyote drinking water from a pothole. With extraordinary luck, and patience on the part of the coyote, he stuck around until twilight so I could capture a few frames. They're noisy shots, but keepers, meaningful to me because of the memorable encounter.

So, say a photo speaks to you and only to you. It summarizes everything you felt and saw during that moment when you clicked the shutter, and every time you look at it you're transported back to that experience. But it isn't something you can or will publish. It's just not an image that is going to go the distance with an audience. Then what?

These images that are entirely and completely for you are of profound value. Just because they aren't to be published doesn't mean they aren't worthy of keeping and displaying. It is these photos, after all, that feed the creative spirit and fuel the drive to go out and photograph again and again and again.

“The guy that brought me in to National Geographic, I idolized him for a long time," says Skerry. "His name was Bill Curtsinger. He was an underwater photographer at National Geographic for over 30 years and he did these sort of more elusive underwater stories — did cold water in polar regions and did big animals like whales before anyone was doing it — and when I would go to his house, he would have these little prints in the bathroom or on the wall somewhere. It was just a little 5x7 or 4x6 print of maybe something that mattered to him, something that spoke to him. It wasn’t a picture that appeared in a magazine, it wasn’t in any book, but it was something that he liked. Sometimes he would do them in black and white and sometimes in color, and he would put a little mat around them and hang it on a wall. Again in those days I was of the mind that every picture had to be perfect, and I was only going to publish or print and hang on my wall the most beautiful images. But I learned from Bill that it isn’t about that. There are those pictures that are going to be published and seen and ooh-ed and aahh-ed over by the general public, and then there are pictures that matter to you. And you need both."

I definitely connect with this strategy. I have quite a few framed photos on my wall that aren't of interest to anyone but me. Even my wife silently questions what's so great about them. But when I look at them, I get a little thrill up my spine, my shutter finger twitches a bit, and I think, "That's why I pick up my camera."

Cropping in for a good composition is one of those things that makes many photographers cringe, myself included. I much prefer to get the composition right in camera. It leaves so much more room to edit an image and be able to display it large. However, sometimes the subject is just too far away, yet the shot is so pretty it's worth cropping in so you can keep it. Such is the case with this red-tailed tropicbird coming in to land on Midway Atoll. It was high above me and I had a short lens, but with the early morning sun turning its dazzlingly white feathers to gold, I had to take a shot. I think of angel wings every time I see it, and it's so worth it to me to crop in so I can enjoy its beauty.

Cropping in for a good composition is one of those things that makes many photographers cringe, myself included. I much prefer to get the composition right in camera. It leaves so much more room to edit an image and be able to display it large. However, sometimes the subject is just too far away, yet the shot is so pretty it's worth cropping in so you can keep it. Such is the case with this red-tailed tropicbird coming in to land on Midway Atoll. It was high above me and I had a short lens, but with the early morning sun turning its dazzlingly white feathers to gold, I had to take a shot. I think of angel wings every time I see it, and it's so worth it to me to crop in so I can enjoy its beauty.

"I think at the end of the day the reason that we pursue photography is that it is something that speaks to us," Skerry tells me. "It is some internal desire to produce images and record a moment in time that is fleeting; it’ll never happen again, it’s just that moment. For those of us who are pursing professional photography, to some degree we have to care about what other people think about the photos or else we can’t make a living. But you can’t get so hung up on that — if you're producing good work and people like it then that’s all well and good, but ultimately at the end of the day it has to please you. Otherwise, what’s the point?"

I've heard many photographers go on at length about how important it is to shoot below a certain ISO to keep noise low, to always use a tripod to minimize any shake, to zoom in to 100 percent to make sure an image is truly tack sharp. But I've found that when I need a high ISO to get the shot, when a tripod is holding me back from moving quickly enough to follow a subject, when a photo is fuzzy at 100 percent but prints just fine as an 8x10, then I'm more than okay with that. It is more important to me to have an image that feels right. Because without that nameless spark, that hint of magic that brings a photo alive, that allows a viewer to connect on a wordless, instinctual level, then having all the technical elements be perfect doesn't matter in the slightest.

There's a lot you can fix in post-processing — you can reduce noise, bump up the clarity and sharpness, bring up the shadows and restore the highlights. But there is no slider for increasing the soul of a photo. I choose to focus on that, to hone my skill in this most important area, and let the technical prowess follow in the practice.

The reality, especially in wildlife photography, is that subjects are not always going to set themselves up in the perfect place with the perfect light and give you time to adjust to the perfect settings to capture the scene. But what is always there is a moment, a fleeting look or turn of the head or interaction that is worth capturing no matter what. Looking for that, identifying it and being ready to record it as best you can should always be the primary goal. Even if the technical details aren't ideal, having that fraction of a moment captured is of great value.

The reality, especially in wildlife photography, is that subjects are not always going to set themselves up in the perfect place with the perfect light and give you time to adjust to the perfect settings to capture the scene. But what is always there is a moment, a fleeting look or turn of the head or interaction that is worth capturing no matter what. Looking for that, identifying it and being ready to record it as best you can should always be the primary goal. Even if the technical details aren't ideal, having that fraction of a moment captured is of great value.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Why indulging in family pet portraits is a smart move


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There are some things that may seem extravagant at first, but become more valuable than we can imagine when we look back on the purchase years later. Having professional photos done with your furry family members is one of those things.

This month I had a chance to photograph a friend and her pack of dogs for their holiday cards. She wanted something that showed her family off in a fun way, and something better than the usual point-n-shoots that fill up the storage space on smart-phone cameras. We met at a park where she hung baubles and a banner, and of course brought bows for each of her dogs. We played around for awhile with different poses and different locations and had a wonderful time.

Afterward, we went on a hike and I learned so much more about the history of her dogs, and how they've formed a deeply bonded unit. Listening to her talk about her dogs, about how they've changed over time and their different quirks, got me meditating on the amount of emotional connection a person can have with their companion animals.

To so many of us, pets aren't just animals we live with. Rather, they carry as much influence and importance as our human best friends, siblings, even children. To many people, a companion animal is who centers them in the world, who is a constant, steadying presence in the busy, stressful, often turbulent days we live through.

My friend is someone who has countless photos of her dogs. She snaps photos every single day and so many of the images are absolutely adorable. But there's something different about having a professional portrait session done, particularly when you are included in the shoot. It is an opportunity to capture that intensity of emotion, of the connection that you feel with your pet. Professional portraits are a chance for someone else to reflect back to you the bond you have with your companion. And you get to keep copies of that reflection and hang them on the wall, to look at the visual evidence of that bond and feel it again every time you see at the photo, even when years or decades have passed by.

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Years ago I had a black Labrador retriever named Topper. My wife and I adopted him when we were very young, 18- and 19-years-old. It was an impulsive decision, but that's how teenagers are. We went into the local animal shelter and saw him curled in the back of his kennel, his deep brown eyes looking up at us with confusion and kindness. He was nine months old, dropped off by a family who said he'd destroyed too much furniture to be worth keeping. We looked at each other, figured we had nothing valuable anyway so that wasn't a problem, and said he was coming home with us.

We had Topper for 10 years, and we filled that decade with countless adventures and misadventures, hikes and road trips, laughter and stories. Some of the best memories of my life so far include that dog at my side. But what I don't have from those years are quality portraits of him, of us as a family. We had Topper well before I learned to be proficient with a camera. And while we have hundreds of photos with him, photos that I cherish, they don't quite have that intimacy that comes with professional portraits -- the candid affectionate glance, the sudden burst of laughter, the light that flashes in their eyes when the words, "Let's go!" are said. These are things so difficult to catch, and impossible when you are the one behind the camera.

When Topper passed, one of my biggest regrets was not having polished portraits of us as a family. Something beautiful to frame; something that was both our family at our best and a work of art. So, when I adopted my current dog, one of my priorities in the first couple years was scheduling a family portrait session with a pair of pet photographers who are incredibly good at what they do. We set up a session at sunrise and my dog, my wife and I played on the beach as the sun came up, the light all pink and gold, while the two photographers worked their magic.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when we got the images back. I was positively giddy at the ordering session while looking over the proofs, seeing what they managed to capture. Everything I feel about my little family was there, in those photos. Everything that was in my head and heart was actually printed on pieces of semi-gloss paper.  These are photographs that even now I simply could never capture myself because I need to be in them, to be in sync with my family rather than directing where to stand and getting the dog to hold a pose while I trigger the camera's shutter.

I could go on with more stories, but I will just say this: Since having those personal experiences, and since being part of those experiences as the photographer, I couldn't recommend more highly taking advantage of the opportunity to hire a professional for a portrait session with your pet. Especially now, during the holidays when everyone is thinking about family, love, and of course personalized gifts, it seems like a wonderful chance to remember the importance of quality portraits as an experience and indulgence worth having.

Whether it is to celebrate the arrival of the newest family member:

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Or honor the years of joy brought by the oldest family member:

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Whatever the occasion, or no occasion at all, I promise you will have no regrets about creating beautiful, intimate photos to look back upon, and that help to trigger joyful memories. There are talented photographers all over the place, and I encourage you to look up who is local to you, strike up a conversation, and see about setting up a session with them. You'll be happy you did.

Many thanks go to Pe'ahi, Leilani and Nalu for being such adorable and festive models.

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Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

5 days of thinking in black and white


Coyote, Canis latrans © Jaymi Heimbuch

Coyote, Canis latrans © Jaymi Heimbuch


A friend recently tagged me on Facebook to take part in a 5-day black-and-white photo challenge. The premise is simply to post a new black-and-white photo each day, but what you choose to do with the opportunity is up to you. You can show off some of your favorite images again, or you can create a new photo each day specifically for the challenge. I did something in-between. I searched through my archive for photos that would really stand out in monochrome, and I focused on wildlife species most meaningful to me.


Day One:

Just before dawn, I was up on top of a hill looking down at a lagoon searching for a group of river otters that I know live there. I spotted them at one corner of the lagoon and so drove down the hill to where they were. When I came around a bend in the road, a gorgeous coyote was standing in the middle of the road. She (or he) was smelling the air and getting a whiff of the ducks and great blue heron that I knew were at the bank just below a drop and out of sight. Cool as a cucumber, she just glanced at me in my car, barely caring I was there. I, on the other hand, had a rush of adrenaline burst through my veins, since the coyote is my number one favorite species and every sighting of one is exciting to me.

I opened the door to my car and pulled out my camera. The sun had barely come up and we were in a shaded valley so there was hardly any light, and my lens had trouble focusing on her. She crossed the road and went under a barrier to a grassy area, and knowing I was a road hazard, I got back into the car to go find a safe place to park. She went off down between some scrub and I walked another way around the area with the hopes of spotting her again.

As I came down a little way off the trail, up popped her head from behind the bushes. She gave me about 45 seconds of her time, before having enough of me and disappearing into the scrub. With weak early-morning light, and hand-holding my 500mm, I didn’t get many frames but it was a wonderful moment with my favorite species.

Coastal brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Coastal brown bear, Ursus arctos horribilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Two:

There was that one time when a curious grizzly got so close he filled the frame, and kept on coming. I'm not someone who gets nervous easily, especially around wildlife. Animals are fairly predictable; follow some basic rules about body language and respecting distance, read the cues and know how to respond, and you're usually safe(ish). This gorgeous grizzly never gave me a reason to fear, but did give me a reason to second-guess.

There seemed to be a bit of a lull in the number of fish coming upstream while our small group was watching the bear go about catching lunch, and so he turned his attention to his audience. He lumbered past us, perhaps 30-40 feet away from our small rain-soaked huddle with cameras pointing out at every angle. Then turned, and decided to take a closer look.

It was awe-inspiring to watch this huge bear amble toward us, no concern and no threat in his body language, but enough curiosity for me to watch carefully. When he kept walking directly toward us, filling my frame to the point that I stopped bothering looking through the camera, I turned to the guide just to see what he thought about this approach. He gave me a head-nod meaning, "We're still good, stay chill." So, I just stood there watching one of the greatest predators on the continent walk a matter of yards past me, small black eyes roving over our group with interest.

Then, in a thankfully anti-climatic end to the moment, he plopped down on the beach, yawned, and drifted off into an afternoon doze. I’ve chalked this up as of the best moments of my time among wildlife so far.

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Three:

Though the Laysan albatross may be a far cry from coyotes and grizzlies, this bird is dear to me in many ways.

A couple years ago I had the extraordinary opportunity to go to Midway Atoll. While technically on assignment for the environmental website I was writing for, I was there entirely for me. I’d pitched the trip, pushed to get it approved, and finalized plans to travel to one of the most remote places I’d ever had the honor of visiting. I was told that Midway would change me, but I figured that was just poetic talk from people who wanted to build up the place. By the time I left a week later, I realized how right those people were. The tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean really had altered who I was as a person and my heart expanded to include two bird species that I will always think of as magical. One of them is the Laysan albatross.

By turns elegant, comical, stoic, clumsy, romantic, and feisty, this species is always one thing: extraordinary. Laysan albatross go from sitting for months in a single place as chicks to taking flight and staying on the wing for five to seven years before returning to land to begin the many-year process of finding a life-long mate, a process that requires learning a complex courtship dance and searching out the one partner with whom they dance best.

I could say so much about these pixar-film-worthy characters, but I'll save that for an upcoming blog post. Instead, I'll just say that hearing the calls and bill-clapping of Laysan albatross in videos transports me right back to that small rise of sand in the middle of the ocean, and with it a deep longing to be there again.

North American river otter, Lontra canadensis © Jaymi Heimbuch

North American river otter, Lontra canadensis © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Four:

I spent an hour or so on the morning of day four looking through photos of Sutro Sam. This North American river otter made a splash in 2012 when he took up residence in the ruins of the Sutro baths on the northwest edge of San Francisco for about 5 months. The fascination with him came from the fact that he's the first river otter to be spotted in San Francsico in about five decades, and his arrival is a sign that the conservation efforts that have been going into restoring the bay area's watersheds are working.

Sutro Sam’s temporary return -- he likely came from and returned to Marin -- had people visiting the baths in droves for a chance to spot him, and he wasn't shy. He had a knack for posing for the cameras, and was by turns curious about and oblivious to his adoring fans. This made him perfect to watch since he wasn't easily scared off. However, the interest had its downsides. People have a way of loving things too much, ignoring posted signs as well as common sense about watching wildlife. In this case, onlookers did everything from stomping down the reeds along one of the banks (read: destroying habitat) to actually letting their dogs interact with the otter. Thankfully, advocates did a great job reminding overenthusiastic visitors to keep their distance and respect the creature they were there to see.

In March, Sutro Sam left the baths for good, most likely heading off to find a mate. In his brief stay he was a fantastic ambassador for the species and an opportunity for people to learn about river otters and, hopefully, appropriate ways to view wildlife. He also was the first river otter I'd ever seen in the wild, and I've been fascinated by and in love with the species ever since.

White terns, Gygis alba © Jaymi Heimbuch

White terns, Gygis alba © Jaymi Heimbuch

Day Five:

This 5th and final photo in the 5-day black and white challenge is dedicated to Brian Skerry who solidified my confidence that I picked the right image for the day.

In searching for my last photo, I knew I wanted to post something on white terns since my theme has been species that are special to me. These birds are so full of vim and vigor; they're loving and tender, elegant and playful. I searched through all the shots I have of this species, trying to find one image that would show the personality, the spunk that I think of when I think of these terns. I had a handful of great portraits, and a couple pretty shots in flight, but nothing that showed who they are to me and that was also a perfect shot. There was always a problem -- a stray branch here, or a wing clipped out of the frame, or too much blur. I finally decided on this shot, which is imperfect in ways but is still a keeper to me because it speaks to how I know the species. I edited it and saved it to post in the morning. It's not perfect, but it's right.

Before posting it that morning, I had a call with Brian to talk about weighing content versus quality, on knowing when an image is worth keeping despite (or because of) flaws. During the conversation he told a story about evolving from wanting the ideal shot of a fish entirely in frame with perfect light and without any particles and so on, to understanding and using the impact of noise, grit, blur, cropped out portions of the subject and other things that might break rules but in fact make art. When he talked about this, I thought of my choice for this last photo. Despite what I may want to change to make it a technically perfect shot, I'm still really happy with this image because it speaks to me about who these birds are, not about how they were posed.

If you take part in this 5-day challenge, please let me know about it with a link in the comments. It would be great to see what everyone else posts!

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Model behavior: The joy of photographing well-trained dogs


Ruby, a Belgian Malinois, Cybil, a Dutch shepherd, and Cash, a pit bull, pose together in the training field of Tug Dogs in Sacramento, California. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Ruby, a Belgian Malinois, Cybil, a Dutch shepherd, and Cash, a pit bull, pose together in the training field of Tug Dogs in Sacramento, California. © Jaymi Heimbuch


A little while back I had a wonderful afternoon photographing the dogs of Tug Dogs, a boarding and training facility in Sacramento. The owner and lead trainer is one of those people who just has a way with dogs. They simply want to listen. While you know it mostly comes down to years of experience and practice in reading and using body language and energy to keep a dog's interest and lots of techniques to keep up obedient behavior, it still looks like magic when she turns toward a room of barking dogs, says "Enough," and they actually quiet down.

In my volunteer work photographing shelter dogs up for adoption, I come across a wide range of personalities and behaviors. I only have a few minutes, maybe 30 minutes at the most, to spend warming up to a dog and getting portraits to use in adoption profiles. The purpose of the portrait is to draw in potential forever homes, and the more effectively we play match-maker using love at first sight, the more dogs can be homed. So it is important to capture a dog at their best, highlighting their heart and soul in a single photo. When a dog is nervous, over-stimulated, shy, or just plain doesn't have any commands down yet, it can make the session a bit difficult.

Sometimes I have a string of dogs who want nothing to do with me out of nervousness or boredom, or won't stop moving long enough to pose. While I enjoy the challenge of capturing a dog at their best despite the constant movement or lack of eye contact, it also makes me crave time with dogs that have basic commands down, or better yet, who know much, much more than the average dog. I got that in spades with my session at Tug Dogs.

The group of trainers and their dogs met me and my own dog in Old Town Sacramento for some fun group shots. We drew plenty of stares from onlookers not only because we had a motley pack of nine adorable dogs trotting around but because those dogs did a great job posing in groups on railroad tracks, benches, crates and pretty much anything we pointed at. Each of them worked well on their own and as a group, even though several had never met one another before, and there were five different handlers and a photographer all milling around. It was sheer joy to come up with an idea for a group shot, get all the dogs situated, and have them hold the pose until we got a good image.

After our in-town session, we headed back to the training field and photographed everything from agility to protection work, from playing fetch and tug to balancing on barrels, from leaping fences to leaping over each other. Seeing what dogs are capable of in the hands of people who want to train them, who want to keep their brains engaged and interested, who want to help them work through whatever behavior issues they're having, is endlessly inspiring. This photo session was a blast, but more importantly it renewed my patience with other dogs I work with. It reminded me that their hearts and minds are made of gold and we just need to wipe off the grime.

As an extra special treat at the end of the afternoon, we all got to enjoy the cuddles from a new litter of Belgian Malinois puppies. Just weeks old, the little tumbling, tottering, playful pups joined us on the grass for a romp. Knowing these pups' parents and the trainer who would raise them and place them into homes, there was little doubt when looking at each of them that they would have a big future ahead of them -- filled with plenty of joy and training! Spending time with these cuties was the perfect way to end an afternoon spent with an amazing group of dogs.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

A nod to nene: How Hawaii's native goose is returning from near extinction


A pair of nene, the Hawaiian goose and state bird, forage in the grass near Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A pair of nene, the Hawaiian goose and state bird, forage in the grass near Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. © Jaymi Heimbuch


Driving through the misty rain and afternoon sun, that rainbow-making combination that makes Kaua’i such a well-loved place, the color contrast between the lush green grass and damp red dirt lining the roadside is striking. Moving at the border between these two contrasting colors is a small group of geese, equally striking in their contrasting colors of black and buff. Slowly making their way down the edge of the grass on the road leading to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, plucking here and there at the ends of the tallest blades and stripping seeds from stalks, five nene wander the shoulder of the road. I pull over about 20 yards up, grab my camera, and watch the meandering flock as they approach.

This is one of the few times I’ve seen nene, the goose species unique to the Hawaiian archipelago. During my two previous trips to the island I had spotted one or a couple here and there near the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. This time, however, I spied twos and threes along roads, on levees, on hillsides and in the skies. The species holds a few titles; it is Hawaii’s state bird, but it is also the most endangered goose species in the world and the sixth most endangered waterfowl species in the world. And yet, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At least, it doesn’t have to be. The fascinating evolutionary history of the nene is rivaled by another story, that of its return from near extinction. This species was a mere 30 individuals away from being known only through the fossil record, and yet it is now poised to possibly return to self-sustaining numbers, and Kaua’i has been the place where numbers have been rising the fastest.

I sit down in the grass, my shoulder angled and eyes averted enough to encourage them to keep moving on their path toward me. Only one shows nervousness and takes a longer route around me, stopping for long moments to stare quizzically at the clicking noises I’m making as the mirror flips and the shutter flaps inside my camera. The other geese continue as if I weren’t there. I listen to them talk, making soft nasal sighs at each other, what I’ve come to call a goosey cooing. Calm and confident, they continue their grazing in the deep, lush grass.


Nene have a vocalization that sounds similar to their relative the Canada goose, but it is softer, almost more like a moo. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene have a vocalization that sounds similar to their relative the Canada goose, but it is softer, almost more like a moo. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Unlike the typical experience you might have with geese at the park or a barn yard, who move with a wariness that always borders on aggression, the nene move with a self-assured gentleness that comes with not being harassed or preyed upon for millennia. Evolving on an island chain that lacks predators results in a calm demeanor, though one that can be a species’ demise when predators do arrive. But we’ll get to that later. While the nene look so unique from other goose species, they have an ancestor who is abundant and familiar to anyone in North America.

Somewhere around 500,000 years ago, a group of Canada geese took wing and headed south and west. During their flight they spotted a small chain of islands, one of which was only just born. Here they landed, perhaps to rest, perhaps to breed. Whatever the reason, they stayed, and they began that relentless and beautiful procession of evolving to fill a niche in one’s new home.

Because there are hardly any wetlands on the Hawaiian islands, the geese evolved away from living around the edges of marshes and lakes and instead took to the grasslands and shrub-covered hills of the rocky isles, even thriving up on the rugged and rocky sides of volcanoes.

Nene forage everywhere from coastal lowlands to rugged hillsides. Their preferred habitat has an abundance of native plants and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene forage everywhere from coastal lowlands to rugged hillsides. Their preferred habitat has an abundance of native plants and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Over centuries and millennia, they became smaller and their wings shortened since they had no need to make long migration flights to warmer or cooler climes depending on the season, nor did they have much need to fly to escape land-based predators since none existed on the islands. Meanwhile, their legs lengthened and the webbing of their feet shrank as they swam less and scrambled over lava rock beds more. Perhaps the most notable change is their coloration. Doing away with the all-black neck and hood, the nene evolved a signature buff-colored neck with a black stripe down the back and deep furrows of black within the buff along the sides of the neck.

The unique markings of nene make them easy for anyone to identify in an instant. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The unique markings of nene make them easy for anyone to identify in an instant. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The signature markings of nene include a buff-colored neck with deep furrows revealing black underneath. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The signature markings of nene include a buff-colored neck with deep furrows revealing black underneath. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The nene was not the only goose species to evolve from the Canada goose ancestors. Several other species evolved, though they went extinct quite some time ago. The nene is the only species left to demonstrate what has occurred in the half-million or more years since those ancestors landed on the archipelago. Now, it is the most isolated, and one of the most threatened of all waterbirds.

While the nene evolved on an archipelago that was free of land-based predators, that Eden didn't last. Eventually, humans discovered the islands. Though the people who became native Hawaiians did hunt nene to some extent and introduced predators including dogs and pigs, it is estimated that the nene still numbered around 25,000 on the Big Island alone when Captain Cook landed in 1778. But when the westerners arrived, hunting and egg collection, as well as even more introduced predators including cats and mongoose, all took a devastating toll. Hunting nene was finally banned in 1907, but the damage was done. By the time conservation efforts began in earnest, there were only around 30 nene left in the entire world, all on the island of Hawaii.

The number of nene left in the world dipped to a low of 30 individuals before measures to protect the species were implemented. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The number of nene left in the world dipped to a low of 30 individuals before measures to protect the species were implemented. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The captive breeding program began in 1949 when the last 30 wild nene were captured, representing the only hope of the species’ survival. However, the program focused primarily on breeding and release, and not on habitat restoration and protection. It is difficult to find success with the former if the later is neglected. So, the nene released back into the wild struggled to thrive. After several decades, more research was focused on figuring out how to help the nene become self-sustaining once again.

Looking into issues of habitat degradation, food shortages, predation by non-native mammals, and other factors all helped the captive breeding program identify strategies for success in later years. Since the breeding program began, over 2,800 nene have been released on four islands. Some populations still require supplemental feeding to get through the lean times, but the population of nene on Kaua’i — accidentally released there after Hurricane Iwa in 1982 — have found particular success, thriving in the lush lowlands and on the edges of pastureland where they enjoy plenty of food and far less pressure from predators.

Wild and captive nene are banded to allow easy identification by biologists. This allows researchers to know where the geese originated and track the movement, health and behavior of individuals. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Wild and captive nene are banded to allow easy identification by biologists. This allows researchers to know where the geese originated and track the movement, health and behavior of individuals. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Though more than 60 years have passed since captive breeding programs began, and nene now number around 2,500 total, the nene living wild on the Hawiian islands are still not self-sustaining. New individuals born in the breeding programs still need to be introduced to the wild to keep populations on the rise. However, there is encouraging progress being made in recent years. The nene may have the smallest range of any living goose species, but it is beginning to make use of that range once again. Not only is Kaua’i showing a rapid growth in numbers, but for the first time in 300 years, a pair of wild nene have nested and hatched young on the island of Oahu.

In March of 2014, news broke that a pair of nene set up home at the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge, and successfully hatched three of their four eggs. The mild-mannered pair were first spotted in January hanging out at the 5th hole at a golf course, wandering up to visitors close enough for their bands to identify them as K59 and K60, which means they are from Kaua'i. By mid-March, they revealed their three goslings. It was expected that when the goslings were big enough to fly, they would likely return to Kaua'i. But they provided high hopes that wild-born nene will return permanently to Oahu, coming back after centuries of extirpation. 

Nene eat a variety of vegetation, including leaves, seeds, fruit, flowers and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Nene eat a variety of vegetation, including leaves, seeds, fruit, flowers and grasses. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Hawaii has a long history of non-native species displacing native species, and this is true with the grasses and plants that nene have evolved to eat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Hawaii has a long history of non-native species displacing native species, and this is true with the grasses and plants that nene have evolved to eat. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Food shortages are a primary problems for establishing a toe-hold in historic ranges. Because the Big Island offers habitat primarily up in the high elevations where food is less abundant, nene come down to the lower grasslands to feed and nest, but this makes them more susceptible to predation. Kauai’s nene population is the exception. It is growing the most rapidly and it is likely due in large part to the abundance of grassland and the fact that the island is mongoose-free. Predation on the islands is most serious for goslings who cannot fly until they are several months old, while car-strikes of adults feeding along roadsides is one of the biggest threats to adult nene.

Because the species survival is so tied into the availability of grasses — which is affected by human development as well as the spread of non-native species choking out the native grasses and plants — and predation, conservation efforts still need to revolve around protecting prime habitat, making it safe for nene geese to nest and providing plenty of food for foraging.

Currently, the only wild nene on the archipelago are found on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, Kaua’i and Molokai -- and of course the pair that showed up this year on Oahu. Perhaps, with time and continued dedication, more than the single breeding pair will return to Oahu while numbers of nene thriving in the wild on their other native islands continue to rise. 

One of the biggest threats to adult nene is being hit by cars. Frequent mowing along roads attracts nene as it provides easy foraging, but it makes them more likely to be hit by vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the biggest threats to adult nene is being hit by cars. Frequent mowing along roads attracts nene as it provides easy foraging, but it makes them more likely to be hit by vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch


A pair of nene break off and cross the road to forage. I quietly follow them, staying a good distance away but in the direction they are traveling, and sit down in the grass. They wander closer, pulling at the blades of grass left and right and making their low calls to each other. The calls sound like they swallowed a harmonica and are softly sighing through it. They eventually get within about ten feet of me, to a spot where the grass is low and thin. They take turns resting and grazing. One hunkers down and naps while the other keeps watch, nibbling on grass or stretching. Then the one that was resting rises, coos at the other a few times and begins to graze, and the other lowers itself down to the ground for its turn at 40 winks.

Though these nene are well habituated to humans, it still feels like a small honor to be trusted by them enough to have them nodding off next to me, taking long yoga-pose stretches with their back legs and talking softly to each other without a care in the world. We sink into a meditative calm together. A familiar honking sounds in the distance and gets closer, and the two geese cock their heads to look up, watching a flock of five nene fly overhead. The pair vocalize, talking to each other with a little more excitement about whoever just flew by above us. Which of them are related, which are youngsters and which have been here for a decade or more? To think all of them came from some 30 or so individuals captured around a century ago, the last of their kind brought into safety with the hopes that they would once again thrive across the Hawaiian islands. To think, they are on the cusp of returning in earnest, and these geese on Kaua'i show the most promise for the species as a whole -- a species perhaps, just maybe, saved from extinction. In an era with few success stories, the nene offer us a truly special dose of hope.

Their gossiping done, the two geese settle down again, eventually both of them lying down to take an afternoon nap. I replace my lens cap, and leave them to their quiet island paradise.


This pair of nene approached me, then settled into the grass for an afternoon nap. © Jaymi Heimbuch

This pair of nene approached me, then settled into the grass for an afternoon nap. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From 30 individuals back up to more than 2,500, the conservation efforts to bring nene back from the brink of extinction are hopefully reaching a tipping point, where wild nene will once again thrive on the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

From 30 individuals back up to more than 2,500, the conservation efforts to bring nene back from the brink of extinction are hopefully reaching a tipping point, where wild nene will once again thrive on the main islands of the Hawaiian archipelago. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

What to do when your photo goes viral


jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog

I mean that as a question. What to do when your image goes viral... What to do, what to do? I've had to ponder this recently, and I think I have my solution.

It happens sometimes that a photo becomes so widespread that tracking use of it is an exercise in futility and frustration. This photo is my first experience in it. Sure I've had photos used without permission quite a few times in the past. You can't put something online without running that risk. But they are usually one-off instances. This photo, though, has been another thing entirely.

I photographed my dog for an article with recipes for baking a dog birthday cake. We went down to the store and picked out party favors for decoration, and he got to dive in to a couple pup-cakes. I posted the photo along with some others on Instagram and included them in the published article. And off it went.

It ended up being submitted by random people (representing it as their own) to some major animal social media accounts for Facebook and Instagram. It took off like wildfire, being shared all over the place, being uploaded to blogs and websites and people's personal pages. It has ended up everywhere from tech blogs to cute-overload-style sites to a producer working with MTV asking me to use the photo (of course, when I gave him the link to license it, I never heard back). My wife even saw it printed out as a birthday card on a co-worker's desk. When she asked how they got a photo of her dog, they said they just Googled "birthday dog." And yep, sure enough, this photo is at the top of the Google search results.

I have not made a single penny off of this photo. There is a decent chance I will never make an income from it, not with people able to save it or print it for free after finding it in a two-second Google search. I also could never possibly hope to contain all the misuse of this image anymore. But I can stop it when I see it. Or can I?

When I see someone using a photo of mine, I look at whether or not they are using it commercially and if there is credit. If credit is given then I usually write it off. If it is on a non-commercial website, or is not being used for branding or drawing in new users to a site and so on, then I write it off. But if a site is using it without credit and for gain or for branding, then I feel justified in asking for it to be taken down.

Much of the Internet, however, doesn't agree. Most people seem to think that anything on the Internet is theirs to take and use. But it isn't. So often I hear, "Once it's on the Internet, just expect it to be stolen." Well, yeah. To an extent. But it is never okay. Or worse, I hear, "You should watermark it," or, "You should disable right-click-save." Yes, these are mildly helpful deterrents but it puts the blame back on the photographer if their image is stolen, not on the person who took without asking. And none of these perspectives mean a photographer shouldn't stand up for their rights as the creator and owner of a photo when it is taken.

Fitting a request to take down an image in 140 characters on Twitter looks like this: "Hi. Your profile photo is a copyrighted photo that I took. I have not given permission for it to be used. Please remove it." The second warning looks like: "Ur profile pic is my copyrighted pic.Using it violates Twitter's TOS & my rights.Pls remove it so I don't have to report it." Pretty average language requesting someone stop using my photo as their profile photo or background photo (as in, using it for their branding). I could go straight to Twitter or whatever social media site and submit a report of copyright infringement. But it's nicer to ask first before putting someone's account at risk.

Yet that simple request has earned me backlash, especially with followers of one of the people whom I have pinged. Their profile said they were 96-years-old -- and I thought it was a character, an act. Nope, turns out she really is a 96-year-old woman (go figure, some unbelievable Twitter bios are actually true. Makes me wonder about that Bronx Zoo snake...) and with a mini army of followers ready to hate on anyone who isn't perfectly kind to her. And apparently sending a take-down request is beyond the pale. Well, that one was a whole can of worms. Had I researched the account and back-story first, I probably would have put two or three pleases in there rather than just one. But frankly, why would I research every person using my image before sending a calmly worded take-down request? After figuring out she was a real person (and a total sweetheart, hence the angry horde ready to overreact on her behalf) who recently had a scary experience thanks to social media, I told her she can go ahead and use my image for free.

Anyway, age aside, it's the same story: If the site or account responds (and often I am completely ignored), they typically take it down while saying they didn't realize it shouldn't be used.

I just don't get this. It seems so simple. Is it yours? Do you know whose it is? Did they say you could use it? Just like with every other thing in this world, if the answer is "No" to these questions, then you probably shouldn't use it. Sharing is one thing; linking to a source and sharing a photo, video or article via social media is of course desired. You're sharing the source of the photo and providing credit that way. I'm not knocking that. But uploading an image and using it for anything, from a birthday card to a profile photo, without permission is another thing entirely. Then it's not hard to stop and ask those three questions, to consider that someone spent time and energy creating that image and perhaps their income relies on sales of their work. If you can't find who created the image, it still isn't yours to use as you wish.

But too many people don't stop and think about this. So what happens when your photo goes viral? For me, in this case, the answer I've landed on is: donate it.

See, it's not just my photograph but also my dog. My fur-kid. It's jolting to see his face somewhere I didn't authorize it to be, especially a profile photo. The sheer number of times this photo has been taken without permission, without credit, has sapped the joy out of it for me. What do you do when you don't want something taken from you? You give it away.

So, I'm donating this photo to nonprofits who want to use this image for fundraising. If you are with an organization, from animal welfare groups to health awareness organizations to child welfare and anything in between, please contact me with a link to your nonprofit's website, a description of the work you do and how you would like to use the photo. I will donate a high-quality print-ready file to your organization. I will also provide design work if you want your logo or message on the image. You can use it for anything from marketing material to cards to calendars to key chains.

For the most part, I can't control where or how people use the images that have gone up already. But I can at least improve the quality of the photo when it is used. Perhaps that will bring back some of the joy I had in making and looking at this photograph.

So, if you're wanting to use this photo in a real way to do some good in the world, then please get a hold of me so I can get you set up with a free high-quality file.

And if you're a for-profit business or website who wants to use (or has used) this photo on your site, or if you're someone who wants prints or a license for personal use, please throw us a bone and license the image from here or email me to order prints. It's not only the right thing to do but also we'd literally be able to buy more bones. This little guy loves them.

jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog
jaymi-heimbuch-birthday-dog
Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Urban coyotes learn how to navigate roads


Urban coyotes have learned to use roads to their advantage, and that means following safety procedures! © Jaymi Heimbuch

Urban coyotes have learned to use roads to their advantage, and that means following safety procedures! © Jaymi Heimbuch


It’s no great revelation that coyotes are smart. These crafty, clever creatures have figured out how to spread from their original range in the American southwest to every corner of North America and into Central America, from California to Maine, from Alaska to Florida, from Canada to Costa Rica. They thrive in rural, semi-rural, suburban and even the densest of urban cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

An omnivorous diet, the ability to increase their litter sizes relative to territory and food availability, and the natural desire for young coyotes to disperse and claim new territories, certainly all play a role in the species’ spread across the continent. But to not just be able to survive, but flourish in places crowded with humans, where other predators have been extirpated, well, that takes smarts. And one of the most important skills is learning road savvy behaviors.

Car strikes are the number one cause of death for urban coyotes. Road collisions account for as much as 40-70 percent of all deaths for the coyotes studied by Urban Coyote Research in Cook County, Illinois. Finding food and patrolling a territory necessitates crossing dozens, sometimes hundreds of busy streets. Only the most alert, careful, and car-savvy coyotes make it across road after road, year after year.

Road savvy has to come early for coyotes. This coyote pup, only a few months old, sadly lacked the skill and luck it takes to avoid cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Road savvy has to come early for coyotes. This coyote pup, only a few months old, sadly lacked the skill and luck it takes to avoid cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Despite the risk, coyotes still take advantage of roads for travel. It makes sense, considering that pack territories in urban spaces can range from less than two to a little over four square miles, and the territories of solitary coyotes can average as much as 10 square miles. There isn't a whole lot of choice involved.

For coyotes in semi-rural and suburban areas, getting from point A to point B can be quite a bit faster and easier if using a road rather than navigating through dense plant cover. At least, that was the choice of one coyote I witnessed using road-smart behavior on a foggy road one morning.

I was on my way to photograph birds in a bay just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, traveling on a road cut into a hillside with dense scrub on either side. I was day dreaming a little about the morning’s weather conditions and where the tide might be when I got there, when out of the corner of my eye a flash of an image hit me: a coyote looking right at me from out of the scrub brush not 10 feet away. I hit the brakes, but was going around a curve without a shoulder so couldn’t stop without becoming a hazard. I hurried to the next possible spot to turn around and hoped with all my heart the coyote would still be there.

As I rounded the bend back to where I’d seen the momentary flash of a canid’s face, sure enough there she was, trotting up the road in the same direction I was now heading. Her ear twitched back, listening to my approach, and she hopped back up into the brush, seeming to wait for me to pass. I did, and pulled off to the side a little way up, rolled down my window, pulled out my camera, and waited.

I had hardly waited any time at all before she appeared, sticking her face out of the scrub brush, checking the all-clear. She hopped back down into the road and began trotting along on her merry way, passing right next to my vehicle. She went on a bit, slowed and hopped back into the scrub brush — and sure enough a moment later another car rounded the bend coming in her direction. After it passed, out popped her head, she checked for more cars, and hopped out to continue on a much easier, faster path than if she were to scramble over the scrub-covered hillside.

A young female coyote pokes her head out from the scrub brush, checking for cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A young female coyote pokes her head out from the scrub brush, checking for cars. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After checking the coast is clear, the coyote hops out of the brush and back onto the road to continue on her way. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After checking the coast is clear, the coyote hops out of the brush and back onto the road to continue on her way. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The coyote checks in both directions, her ears twitching forward and behind, listening for any oncoming vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch

The coyote checks in both directions, her ears twitching forward and behind, listening for any oncoming vehicles. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Roads can help coyotes navigate more quickly, but they're a hazard to be taken seriously. Car strikes are the primary killer of urban coyotes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Roads can help coyotes navigate more quickly, but they're a hazard to be taken seriously. Car strikes are the primary killer of urban coyotes. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As she trotted up the road, I decided to follow, just to see what would happen. As I pulled up behind her, she sped up, breaking from a trot into a lope, but interestingly she stayed on her route on the opposite side of the road. I passed again, pulled to the side, and waited for her to catch up.

The little dance went on several times, with her trotting along the road, listening for cars, passing me, and then me passing her again, the two of us traveling along the road together, or as together as I could hope to be with this clever and confident coyote.

As long as I stayed in my vehicle, the coyote took little notice of how close she got to me -- though she did take care to stay on the opposite side of the road. © Jaymi Heimbuch

As long as I stayed in my vehicle, the coyote took little notice of how close she got to me -- though she did take care to stay on the opposite side of the road. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Young coyotes have to figure out how to safely deal with cars. Depending on their territory's location, urban coyotes need to cross dozens, sometimes hundreds of roads when patrolling home turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Young coyotes have to figure out how to safely deal with cars. Depending on their territory's location, urban coyotes need to cross dozens, sometimes hundreds of roads when patrolling home turf. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Listening for cars, moving on and off the shoulder of a road, and timing their dashes across busy highways are skills urban coyotes have to use to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Listening for cars, moving on and off the shoulder of a road, and timing their dashes across busy highways are skills urban coyotes have to use to survive. © Jaymi Heimbuch

In trying to get a different angle, I decided to hop out of my car after pulling over yet again. Even though I hid around the edge of the car, she knew perfectly well something was different, and she came to a full stop while checking me out. I’d pushed too far and broke the magic. Now I wasn’t just a benign vehicle that would continue on, something she deals with all the time. Now I was vehicle plus human, which is another story entirely. She watched me for a bit, came a little closer, but decided to head down into the scrub brush with such purpose that I knew she was not going to pop back out. At least, not any time soon.

When I got out of my car to get a different angle, the coyote became much more wary of me. A car is one kind of danger; a human walking around is another entirely. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When I got out of my car to get a different angle, the coyote became much more wary of me. A car is one kind of danger; a human walking around is another entirely. © Jaymi Heimbuch

While I was sad, and kicking myself, for ruining the moment by getting out of the car, it did encourage me that this brave girl was smart enough to stay well clear of humans. The key to this species’ survival has been invisibility, knowing when and how to stay out of sight.

Urban coyotes are proving every day the incredible skill set it takes to hide in plain sight, to thrive in places where the streets, parks, and wildlife preserves are crawling with humans. Some coyotes are living in territories where there is nearly no natural space at all, where it is nearly 100% concrete, buildings, parking lots, strip malls, and busy streets. And they’re doing it with hardly anyone realizing they’re even there most of the time.

Reports of coyote sightings are becoming more and more common. They are usually reported by people who are scared of seeing them in their parks or front lawns, who are frightened of the risk they seem to pose to pets or small children. However, coyotes have been living alongside humans long enough that we should be aware that they are of no real risk. That is, unless we give them reason to lose their natural fear of humans and make them overly brave. By providing habitat and food sources in our own backyards, we welcome them in. Some people openly feed coyotes, turning them into a true risk. A fed coyote is a dead coyote, as they say, since a fed coyote can become overly confident and even aggressive toward humans, and that leads to being trapped and killed.

There is much, much more to say on the topic of urban coyotes. In my ongoing project of documenting their natural history, I’ll be providing more examples of their trials and triumphs in living near and within cities. But for now, I’ll leave you with this: admire a wary coyote, and don’t do anything that might make them less so. There is great information on coexisting with coyotes at Project Coyote, including how to avoid attracting them to your yard and what to do should you encounter one. And perhaps also admire how much skill they exercise in utilizing what we humans have created, including roads.

Coyotes are here to stay, including in urban areas. We need to stop fearing them and start learning better ways of coexisting with this beneficial canid predator. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Coyotes are here to stay, including in urban areas. We need to stop fearing them and start learning better ways of coexisting with this beneficial canid predator. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

A study of jellyfish in black and white


jaymi-heimbuch-jellyfish

There is something deeply meditative about watching the jellyfish tank at an aquarium. I have two favorites: Monterey Bay Aquarium (at which the jellyfish exhibit is, understandably, the most photographed exhibit at the aquarium) and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

I could spend hours in front of these tanks, watching the slow, graceful, swirling motions of the purple-striped jellies and sea nettles, or the comical but determined pulsing flutter of the blubber jellies as they cycle around the tank. It's clear I'm not the only one, too, since the Monterey Bay Aquarium has launched a Jelly Cam, letting people watch sea nettles from 7 am to 6 pm every day. Nice.

Their dance-like movements, especially as they twirl around each other, their tentacles seeming like they should become impossibly knotted but never do, is as fascinating as it is beautiful.

Jellies are amazing creatures and their ever-changing shape is a joy to photograph.

Though the exhibits have striking blue backgrounds that set off the pinks, golds, reds and other vibrant colors of the jellies, I like best to focus on their shape, on the movement they convey even in a frozen image. So, I most enjoy processing images in black and white. Black and white is perfect for pulling away the distraction of color and zeroing in on the meditative, contemplative mood that watching jellies brings me.

Calling to my mind both a dream-like surrealism and a reminiscing of our primordial beginnings, jellies will always fascinate me.

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.

Modeling Ruffwear gear above a San Francisco sunrise


My heeler's heart is as light as the sun when we're on the trail together having fun. ©Jaymi Heimbuch

My heeler's heart is as light as the sun when we're on the trail together having fun. ©Jaymi Heimbuch


While I was writing an article about how to train your dog to wear a backpack, Ruffwear sent me a fantastic pack test out with my dog, Niner. The company makes great gear that is well-designed and durably constructed, and we were thrilled to get a new pack to put through its paces. So, we woke up one workday morning, waited impatiently for first light, then booked it out the door and up to a little preserve near our apartment, which gives a gorgeous view of the bay and San Francisco at sunrise.

It is a bit of a hike to get to the top of Corona Heights, but the view is well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It is a bit of a hike to get to the top of Corona Heights, but the view is well worth it. © Jaymi Heimbuch

One of the greatest parts about this tiny preserve, apart from the view, is the rocky outcrops. They afford the opportunity to get some exercise and balancing practice while scrambling around on them, as well as that "I'm the king of the mountain" feeling that come with standing atop them and getting a 360-degree view of the city.

We love to watch the sun as it rises up over the east side of the bay, and washes the water and city of San Francisco in pink and gold light. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love to watch the sun as it rises up over the east side of the bay, and washes the water and city of San Francisco in pink and gold light. © Jaymi Heimbuch

After pausing to take in the extraordinary sunrise -- well, Niner enjoyed the view while I enjoyed shooting in the pick and purple light -- we got down to work and focused on why we were there in the first place: showing off the goods.

We got down to work, first making sure Niner's Ruffwear pack fit properly © Jaymi Heimbuch

We got down to work, first making sure Niner's Ruffwear pack fit properly © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love that the Ruffwear pack comes with collapsible water bladders so we never have to worry about how to bring along water. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We love that the Ruffwear pack comes with collapsible water bladders so we never have to worry about how to bring along water. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We also love that this model is removable from the harness. Easier to put it on and take it off during breaks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

We also love that this model is removable from the harness. Easier to put it on and take it off during breaks. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scrambling around on the rocks to figure out new shots is always a bonus. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Scrambling around on the rocks to figure out new shots is always a bonus. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Just when we thought the light couldn't get prettier, pink gave way to brilliant gold and orange. Sunrises often pack a colorful surprise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Just when we thought the light couldn't get prettier, pink gave way to brilliant gold and orange. Sunrises often pack a colorful surprise. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When we had enough shots for the article, we started a game of chase up and down the rocks. There's always time for a game of the zoomies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

When we had enough shots for the article, we started a game of chase up and down the rocks. There's always time for a game of the zoomies. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Something that has evolved from this partnership of a dog-centric photographer and a really smart heeler is that Niner has learned how to be an ideal model. He's learned how to strike a pose, hold a pose, take commands from a distance so I can get him in a good position for a shot up on a hill or even in a tree, and he looks right at the camera when he hears "focus."

We've worked together on tricks specifically for modeling, such as targeting, bowing, and holding or balancing objects. When he knows he's earning treats, he has extraordinary patience with staying in one spot until released. And he certainly earns plenty of great treats. How could he not? I mean, look at that face:

Over the years, Niner has learned just how to model, looking right at the camera and holding a pose. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Over the years, Niner has learned just how to model, looking right at the camera and holding a pose. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It has helped to teach my dog to take directions at a distance, so I can compose a shot with him a ways away. © Jaymi Heimbuch

It has helped to teach my dog to take directions at a distance, so I can compose a shot with him a ways away. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A great recall has two benefits: getting my dog back at my side, and getting a shot of him with that joyful face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

A great recall has two benefits: getting my dog back at my side, and getting a shot of him with that joyful face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Watching the sun rise, scrambling over rocks, sprinting through puddles, and climbing in trees -- there's not many better ways to start a day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Watching the sun rise, scrambling over rocks, sprinting through puddles, and climbing in trees -- there's not many better ways to start a day. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I think that photography has in some ways helped increase our bond. He loves to work, I love to photograph him, and we both love being out on a trail together, starting out the day with a hike just us together. Whether it's a tiny trail in the middle of the city or driving out of the city at 5 AM to get to the hills on the other side of the bay for sunrise, it is time that we spend deeply aware of the other's presence. Photography adds in that extra element of paying attention to each other. I'm constantly inspired by him to create new images, which leads to even more time logged on trails and walking paths, which leads to even more quality time together.

He has taught me a lot about patience, creativity, sensitivity to a dog's mood, and how to roll with whatever happens because you never know what will lead to a beautiful shot you didn't plan for. I cherish these opportunities with him, whether work-related or not. Three cheers for sunrises in nature with your four-legged best friend!

I get so much joy from seeing a happy smile on my dog's face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

I get so much joy from seeing a happy smile on my dog's face. © Jaymi Heimbuch

Photos © Jaymi Heimbuch. All rights reserved. Most photos on my site are available for purchase as prints. If you see an image in a blog post that you’re interested in, please send an email. I’d be happy to work with you to create a print you’ll love.