NPS Photo of Black BearAlong with scenery, wild animals rank high on the list of favorite outdoor photo subjects, and for good reason. In areas such as national parks where they are legally protected from hunting, many birds and animals gradually lose their fear of humans, and can be approached much more closely than in other locations.  As the following story illustrates, that can create some interesting situations if you get too focused on what’s in your viewfinder instead of your wallet, and forget about the real world beyond your lens!

Despite appearances to the contrary, parks are not petting zoos, animals that live there are still wild, and they can certainly be dangerous. Just follow two basic rules: Keep a safe distance, and never, ever offer food to a bird or animal to try to lure it closer for a good photo. The cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words may be true… but it’s not worth a thousand stitches!

Modern cameras with telephoto and zoom lenses make it possible to get photos that weren’t an option even a few years ago. Longer ago than I’ll admit, I was a youngster on a family vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in the days before “bear-proof” trash cans had been installed and roadside bears were commonplace. Back in those Olden Times, most photos were taken with a simple box camera–no adjustments were necessary or possible. You just looked through the viewfinder and clicked the button. The closest equivalent today would be those inexpensive, one-time-use cameras.

The problem with those basic cameras was that what you saw through that tiny viewfinder was akin to the image in the passenger-side mirror on your car, except that the cameras didn’t come with that familiar warning: “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” What you saw through that camera appeared to be quite distant, perhaps somewhere in the next county, even though you may really only be a few feet away.

Late one afternoon on my visit to the Smoky Mountains, a shout was heard in the campground: “Here comes a bear!” Sure enough, an adult black bear was casually ambling through the adjoining campsite, and lots of Kodak moments were being snapped by a small crowd of onlookers. One middle-aged man knelt down directly in the animal’s path, but a reasonably prudent distance away. He brought his camera up to one eye, closed the other eye, poised his trigger finger over the shutter button, and then waited, and waited, and . . . .

Perhaps the man was inexperienced with the camera, or maybe he was simply excited and forgot that a vast gulf existed between the real world and what he saw through that viewfinder. Soon a couple of people standing nearby began shouting advice to the photographer that it was time to relocate, but our shutterbug was either deaf or determined. Finally, a semi-hysterical woman, presumably a relative of the photographer, screamed at the man to “run!”

Incidentally, “run” is not good advice in any encounter with a bear in the wild, but our character was apparently finally satisfied that he had an adequate photo. I hope he got his shot before he lowered the camera, opened both eyes and found himself almost face-to-face with his subject!

I’ll never know whether it was quick reflexes, classic clumsiness or just blind luck, but without the slightest shift from his kneeling position the man managed to lunge horizontally a very impressive distance as the bear ambled past. The photographer’s agile move was deserving of consideration for a future Olympic gymnastics routine, where both I and the Russian judge would award him at least a 9.5 on a 10-point scale.

The good news was that the photographer apparently didn’t have a Snickers bar or other tasty items stuffed in a pocket, and the animal simply ignored him and continued on toward the nearest garbage can.

Sometimes it really is better to be lucky than smart!

Have you seen any examples of a “near-miss” as a result of taking a photo?

Jim Burnett

Life – it’s an adventure…. Find something to smile about today!

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger 2: More True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from the Great Outdoors © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.

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  3. Bob –

    Thanks for an excellent example of “how not to do it.”

    I’m glad for the sake of the man and kids it turned out okay, but you’re right – he managed to spoil the view for a lot of other folks. You have to wonder if he ever figured out how close a call he had.

  4. Bob Difley

    I was in Yellowstone standing beside my car on the side of the road with several others watching a moose and her calf calmly grazing in the meadow below us. Aa car pulled up and a man jumped out followed by tow pre-teen boys who proceeded to follow their father (I presume) with his camera down the bank straight toward the mama moose. This, of course, got her attention, her head came up and she studied this new threat. The man continued to approach with the two small boys close behind. Now I don’t know whether he thought these were tame animals, or that he didn’t know the lethal effectiveness of a mama moose defending her calf, or if he didn’t know what harm a thrashing moose’s hooves could do to his vulnerable body–or those of his children–but he continued as the rest of us looked on with considerable alarm. Mama moose at this point had two choices, (1) Defend her calf with a violent attack on the agressor, or (2) Run. Luckily, and with a sigh of relief, she chose the latter, turned and hurried off into and across the river followed closely by her calf. It could have just as easily gone the other way. Not only that, but this guy now had deprived the rest of us of the joy of watching this wonderful animal and her offspring.

  5. Marie

    We were having breakfast on the Blue Ridge Pakway early one morning after traveling all night. I just had to have my coffee so my husband fired up the Coleman stove while the children were having their cereal. Our road side picnic table was one of several, but apparently too early for other travelers. As I was
    trying to wake up with my first cup of coffee the younger son said, “Hey Mom look at the bear.” Since he is the prankster of the family I said, “That is really cute Troy, now eat your breakfast!” Hearing the clank of the garbage can which was suspended on chains we all looked and there was a bear looking for his breakfast! Needless to say we cleared our breakfast table in record time and watched the bear investigate the other trashcans before we continued our travels. only one of many fun times on the ro9ad! Marie

  6. Gary – a funny story! It doesn’t sound like your wives bought the explanation that since there were no lifeguards on duty, you were just trying to make sure the group in the water was staying safe.

  7. Gary Hauck

    This would be a little different type of view finder. But back in the early 80’s, being in our late twenties, and not having real morals at that time. My wife’s sister and husband from Denver met my wife and I for a week of camping at Lake Wilson in Kansas. This one evening a whole bunch of college students, both men and ladies, got out of their cars. About 6 or 7 ran down the embankment and had their clothes off before they hit the water. Well, they were about 75 yards down the lake from where we were camped and of course my brother-in-law and I had to mosey down the shoreline for a little better look. Well, our wives had a little more values to them and started to get on us. This is where the view finder part comes in. My brother-in-law and myself went into his Red Dale camper, one that had the bedroom in the back and the big window in the rear. We had our binoculars out looking out the back window at the “scenery.” After about 5 minutes or so as we were looking out, everything kind of got blurry, as we dropped the binoculars down to see what the problem was, our wives had there faces up against the back window looking at us. Well, all I can say, the binoculars were taken and it was another great moment for the next couple of hours in the life of marriage. By the way, the Park Ranger came by a little later and ran the students off. The moral of the story is all view finders are not through camera’s.

  8. Jere –

    Thanks for sharing a great story – and kudos for being aware that when the cub showed up, mama wouldn’t be far away!

  9. Jere Jarrell

    I didn’t get a picture but I wish I had- about 1965 my family was tent camping in a California national park and one morning before breakfast my 4 year old daughter was walking down the camproad talking to the neighbors when she got all excited and was wanting us to look at what she had found. She was walking along side -maybe three feet away from a bear cub. We got excited too because we knew what had to be close- and it was –mom bear was about 50 feet behind just lumbering along apparently unconcerned. We quickly put the daughter in the car and watched mom and baby for a while — finally had to pour water on the baby to get it out of the breakfast makings on the table. Great memories!!