Stalking a Wildlife Stalker
A day in the life of an award-winning nature photographer.
By Eileen Mattei
The radio is predicting over 100 degrees and little-to-no wind for the thorny brushland just north of the Rio Grande in Starr County. “This is going to be the best day yet,” wildlife photographer Larry Ditto tells me. Photographers have different standards for beautiful days, yet look at the results: startling, beautiful shots that grace magazines and calendars.
How do nature photographers get those pictures? One way to find out, I thought, was to look over Larry Ditto’s shoulder while he snapped dozens of rolls of film. Not really look over his shoulder, because he’s 6 feet 8 inches tall, and I’m not, but by watching him take wildlife photographs and listening to him talk about the techniques and tricks he has honed over 30-some years.
That’s why, before first light, we are opening and closing gates on Roel Ramirez’s ranch in Starr County. Dawn reveals a prickly landscape of mesquite, cactus and ebony as Larry eases his Chevy pickup over narrow tracks, startling quail families and deer nibbling breakfast. “Earliest light is better,” he says, grateful for the cloud bank that gives a few extra minutes for sunrise shots.
He halts where a mockingbird is fussing on top of a well-sited yucca and prepares the scene, removing dead branches, hoping a male painted bunting will reappear. Larry swings the tripod legs in front of him, like a metal detector probing a mine field. “This ranch has so much tall grass I don’t walk anywhere but on the trail because of snakes,” he says before he sets a Canon digital camera on the carbon fiber tripod with the sun at his back.
“You gain a sense of intimacy with a green background instead of the horizon,” he points out, his sage green shirt blending into the background. “Nearly everything will go to the highest bush.” After almost 20 minutes and no bunting, we move on. “This time of year some birds have already gone off their territory. Once it gets past April, people don’t come down to photograph the Valley because they think it’s too hot, but they miss the two best months of spring migration. You see more mammals in May, when they’re feeding their young.”
Summer midday will bring a white-hot light unsuitable for much nature photography, so Larry plans to take insect pictures then. But first he is checking portable blinds and waterholes, alert for changes in animal activity at the spots he has found most productive. Concerned about disturbing a rare Chihuahuan raven on her nest, Larry drives on. “It’s so hot, if I scare her off she might not get back to shade the eggs.” When a javelina dashes across the road, we stop and peer into the brush. “When a critter has the option of going into thin brush or thick, the critter’s always going to head to the thick brush.”
The Fort Worth native has two rules: Always double tap; don’t take just one frame. And always take a shot when you see it; don’t wait because you think the opportunity will be there five seconds later. “Murphy’s Law works overtime in nature photography. Nearly every day, nine out of 10 chances are lost because of wind, clouds, freaky events. When everything finally falls into place, the battery pack goes.”
Murphy’s Law is operating at the ranch’s main waterhole. “Six cows are right on top of my blind,” he mutters. “Cows like to eat blinds.” Frustrated, he calls the rancher on his cell phone: “Cows are leaking through a bad fence.” Wildlife photographers can be a great help to a ranch manager, reporting torn fences, poaching or illegal activity since the photographer is usually hiding himself and sees things other folks don’t get to see.
After herding the cattle out, we shift the blind, a homemade frame of inch-and-a-quarter PVC pipe draped with burlap. Wildlife come to a water hole into the wind, so the blind sits on the water’s edge with the wind at its back door.
At a permanent blind, Larry begins pulling weeds out of a puddle. “You have to be a bit of a gardener and tweak Mother Nature,” he admits. “The birds coming in are so small they could be obstructed, and the grass in front limits the possibility of a reflection shot.” A blind creates a setting the photographer can control by providing food, water and judiciously trimmed branches.
Thin camouflage cloth covers the camera ports of the blind, which is 6 feet high — too tall and blocking the morning sun. Larry opens two large padded bags and sorts through his Canon lenses (500 mm, 300 mm, 100-300 mm, 28-85 mm, and 20-35 mm wide-angle), close-up lenses, teleconverters and extender lenses, camera bodies and battery packs. “I use fill flash a lot because it gives a bit of extra light and brings up color in low light situations like this. You have to have a twinkle in the eye. It adds life, vitality. That’s what editors and viewers look for, even if they don’t know it.” Wildlife photos that show action or multiple animals or a behavioral trait are more appealing. “Even with a deer drinking, I try for a reflection or early morning light or a twist of the head to make it a winner.” An elevated flash, not directly from the camera, prevents unnatural eye colors.
By 9 a.m., the hum of cicadas and buzzing of bees has become audible, so Larry positions the tripod in front of thistles and snips away dead twigs and leaves, setting the scene. For bee shots, he uses a 300 mm lens with a close-up lens screwed to the front, but for butterflies, the close-up lens is replaced by a 1.4 teleconverter. “They give me magnification without having to buy any one lens.”
I welcome a puff of breeze, but Larry frowns. Breezes are bad, making leaves shake and forcing butterflies to orient themselves into the east wind. Accustomed to working alone, Larry talks to the uncooperative butterflies, “Come this way a little more. Okay, turn to me.” But the giant swallowtail and the gulf fritillary pay no attention to his directions. One butterfly lands on the underside of a flower. Does the butterfly want to be in the shade, Larry wonders, or is it trying to drink a remnant of moisture?
With what seems like endless patience, Larry coaxes an assassin bug onto a twig so he can center it on a sprig of old man’s beard in front of the camera. “I’m starting to lose patience,” he says so softly that I wonder if he’s joking. He’s been known to chill an insect to slow it for a photograph. Although bug photos themselves are not big sellers, Larry is photographing these insects for the Valley Land Fund Photo Contest.
“Shooting tons of film is the key to winning photo contests,” he says. “Most winning photos are taken on live vegetation and come at the end of a lot of hard work. Look at what contest judges’ magazines publish to know what shots they favor.”
During a midday break, Larry, 59, admits he often forgets to eat when he’s working. Chowing down on a tuna snack pack, the Texas A&M University graduate recalls joining the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1971. His assignments moved him, his wife Glenda and two children first to Texas wildlife refuges, then on to stations in New Mexico, Oregon and North Carolina, ending with 10 years as project leader at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Valley before his retirement in 1999.
While working in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Larry started marketing his photographs and sold his first photos — of aquatic wildflowers — to Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.
About 18 months ago, he bought his first digital camera, a Canon EOS 10-D, followed by an EOS 1-D Mark II, which shoots eight to nine frames per second. His Canon film cameras rarely leave their shelf nowadays. On an exceptional day, Larry used to shoot 15 to 20 rolls of film. Now he often snaps twice that many digital shots on an outing and checks their quality in the field.
“When you’re trying to get action and behavior, digital gives a faster shutter speed with a sharper image. My digital at ISO 400 produces photos comparable to ISO 50 film. For me, Canon’s got the edge on its image stabilization systems with gyros, and it has a quieter auto focus.” Going digital cost him approximately $5,000, even though the lenses and many accessories are interchangeable with his film cameras. Theoretically, a digital camera pays for itself in six months by eliminating the cost of buying and processing film. But the new cameras forced him to upgrade his PhotoShop software and acquire a faster computer with a bigger hard drive.
“You process the raw digital image to recapture the color and sharpness you saw and that requires long hours at the computer, maybe 90 percent of my time now,” says Larry, who often works six days a week on his photography. The Rio Grande Valley, where he knows birds’ and mammals’ habitats and habits and where he has access to ranches and refuges, is his preferred patch. “You can travel internationally for a handful of great photographs or you can maximize your time by setting up the water and feed for a scene and come out ahead.”
By mid-afternoon we settle in the blind at the big water hole, which is too shaded to be the best of all possible water holes, but its established vegetation makes wildlife feel safer.
Clothespins hold the camouflage cloth in place around the camera lens placed inside the blind so the coyotes, javelinas and birds won’t sense movement. With no breeze, our shirts turn dark with sweat, and I reach for my water bottle and package of fig bars, which crackle in the drowsy stillness. Another lesson: put snacks in zip-lock bags to eliminate loud cellophane rattles. We take turns nodding off. Two ladder-backed woodpeckers land directly in front of the blind. What a shot! Larry’s dozing, so I tap his leg, but it’s too late.
“Sitting in a blind is not for everyone, but it improves your chances of a good shot, more than driving around,” he says, before slipping from the blind to photograph a granddaddy bullfrog on the opposite bank. Kneeling down to focus, he tells me “You’re not a good photographer if you’re not wearing out the knees of your jeans and elbows of your shirts. You need to get down on level with the animals. It’s an eye-to-eye thing.”
Finally I can look over his shoulder, and the framed shot is a winner — in focus, good light, a good specimen, a little good luck and lots of hard work.