The Baby Gator Project: Part 1
Getting Close Using The Lay Down Method
After a year of photographing baby American Alligators (Alligator Mississippiensis) I became completely obsessed with them and started The Baby Gator Project. The projects mission was to seek out and explore ways to photograph these amazing animals to show off their beauty and grace. You have to admit, baby gators are just so cute you want to pick em up and pet em.
Just to show you how cute they are, here is a little video. I don't shoot much video, so I am not very good at him. But I will have to say that I am very impressed with the Sync IS of my Olympus OMD EM1 and Olympus MZ 300mm ƒ4.0 IS Pro. I shot this handheld at an effective 840mm and for that I am super happy with how this turned out.
For the best viewing make sure you turn the video to the highest setting.
Photographing baby gators is not the easiest thing to accomplish. To start with they are rather small and low to the ground. This makes them very difficult to locate and even once spotted getting a clear view can be almost impossible. On the day I found this pile of cuteness there were over 50 babies spread out in the area.
So many times you have to settle for photographs with partially obscured baby gators, there are times it is just unavoidable. The second and biggest obstacle is they are also guarded by a very protective mother. People talk about how protective mama bears are and I am here to tell you that mama gators are just as protective. That pile of cuteness above belongs to the same mama gator that a year earlier tried to kiss me while photographing her babies. I documented that scary encounter in my story Kissed by a Gator - The Dangers of Alligator Photography. Needless to say, I was very careful and hyper aware while trying to find some clear views of her new babies. Yes! I made sure I knew exactly where she was before getting on the ground to photograph them. After some careful maneuvering and field craft I was able to capture a clear view of a different cuteness pile.
I divide baby gators into two basic categories. The first being the ones who are under a year old and still under the very watchful eye and close monitoring of mama, like those photographed above. These are the ones that are the most dangerous and hardest to photograph because they tend to not wander very far away. The second category are those older than one year and up to about three years old that still have the baby gator coloring. Like most wildlife, baby gators have a different coloring and pattern than adults. This coloring allows them to blend in and hide from predators, apparent in the photograph above of them on the log. The photograph below is of a two to three year old gator and you can still see that baby gator coloring in him.
As mama has her new babies she lets the previous years stay close but not necessarily under her watchful eye. They are still small enough to be eaten by large birds like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias) and even other larger gators. So this color allows them to blend in and have a chance to survive until large enough to not worry about predators, other than other larger gators that is. A mama gator will have 75-100 eggs but only 1-3% of them will live until adult hood, so that coloring plays an important roll in their survival. While trying to maneuver into a better shooting position a group of kids were walking down the nearby trail and spotted my baby gator. They starting yelling and screaming about seeing a baby gator, which caused him to slip into the water. Him slipping into the water gave me the opportunity to capture this obstruction free photograph as he swam by.
If you scroll back up and look at the photographs you will notice that they were taken at eye level of my subject. I have always photographed wildlife from their eye level because it makes for a more compelling image. When looking at a photograph taken at eye level it puts you into the subjects world. Like you are one of its kind looking back at it as an equal, or as the prey it is getting ready to eat. This perspective makes for a more powerful image and why it is my preferred perspective.
But wait a minute, you said part one was about getting close using the lay down technique. You then go on to talk about shooting from eye level for more powerful images. Baby gators are small, low to the ground and the only way to photograph them from eye level is to lay down. So is that what you are talking about when you say “getting close using the lay down method”?
Taking photographs from eye level of your subject is a perspective choice and one that I strongly recommend if you want powerful photographs. While gators are low to the ground you don’t necessarily have to lay down to get an eye level perspective, you can squat and hold the camera at eye level. I have used this method when I felt it wasn’t safe for me to lay on the ground around a particular gator. But that isn’t what I mean when I talk about the lay down method for getting close to baby gators.
So what do I mean? Well, let’s get into that topic and find out exactly what it is.
Spotting wildlife to photograph is a skill that take years too perfect. I grew up hunting and my reflexes were never faster than my hunting partners. If I wanted to get a shot the only way was to notice the quarry before them. So early on I developed the skill for spotting wildlife and over the years have honed it to perfection.
I was driving down Frozen Point Road in Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge at 10 miles an hour looking for wildlife and paying special attention to any open water. As I passed this open area of water I spotted the unmistakable shape of a baby gator sitting right against the tall grass on the far side of the opening.
In the photograph below you will see the letters O and G as well as numbers 1, 2, and 3. Throughout this article I will refer to the letters and numbers as I describe the lay down method. To start with the letter O is the location of the gator I initially spotted while driving down the road. Yes, I spotted a two foot long baby gator at the back of that little cove while driving down the road at 10 miles per hour. Shows how well honed my skill of spotting wildlife has become. The letter G shows the location of the three babies that were present when I took the photograph. I recommend pulling up my Flickr album, will make looking at photographs like the one below a lot easier.
Since I wasn’t sure what was in the area I didn’t take any chances and just slowly walked upright towards the water. When I first spotted the gator he was floating on the water but my approach was noticed and he not only moved but also sunk so only his head was visible. I was just thankful he didn’t take off completely. I stood there for about 10 minutes just looking around and during that time I was only able to locate two baby gators. If you look at the below photograph carefully you can see the second looking at you from the safety of the high grass. Between all the vegetation getting in the way of a clear view and the distance to the gators, good quality photographs are just not possible. So how do you get closer to get quality photographs?
To tell you the truth the you don’t. With all that vegetation around the edge of the water you would never get close enough for good photographs, no matter how good your field craft is. My real concern was locating the mama gator. These guys are around two years old and should still be within close proximity of her. Mama’s new babies would have hatched by now, but these older ones should still be close. Gators tend to nest in the same spot/area every year and I have never seen babies in this location before. So I began to think that maybe these guys ended up here after the flooding from Harvey. Then again, maybe there was a new sexually mature female in the area with a nest back in the swamp a little ways and these babies were forced out here after the new ones hatched. After another few minutes and not seeing mama anywhere I decided to chance it and get closer to the babies.
Actually, we are not getting closer to the babies. We are going to get them to come closer to us. You will also now see why I was so concerned with the location of mama gator. You see, baby gators are very curious. Just like our young. A human standing at the edge of the water looks huge to a tiny gator and they are intimidated. So if all I did was stand there they would never come out and would probably retreat farther into the grass.
But what would happen if I laid down at the edge of the water? A person laying down is something they rarely if ever see. It also makes you significantly smaller from their perspective and not as intimidating. If you lay still long enough their curiosity will eventually get them to approach. If you try this with an adult gator you can sometimes get them to approach closer, just be careful because they are much faster than you are. The lay down method works on baby gators about 75% of the time and today it didn’t let me down. After about five minutes this little guy appeared from the tall grass (location 1) and started a slow but steady journey towards me.
He was not the only baby gator to come out after I laid down. While laying there photographing them I counted between 12 and 15 babies. They were moving around so much, with some never coming fully out of the grass, that getting an accurate count was impossible. This little guy was most curious of them all and slowly continued his journey towards me. Here is a photograph of him when he reached location 2.
When he got to location 3 I took the next photograph, he is also the gator at the bottom G. I was shocked he didn’t take off when leaving or when returning to take the photograph showing the area they were located. Guess he decided I wasn’t a threat whether I was laying down or standing up.
After taking the above photograph the clouds rolled in and the little bit of light I had disappeared. So how well did the lay down method work? After laying down I went from 2 baby gators visible to somewhere between 12 and 15. It also got this gator to come from the edge of the grass 46 feet away to only 18 feet away in the photograph below.
It was so close I only had 3/4” depth of field, which was enough to get his eyes completely in focus while still retaining enough detail in the nose. I recommend reading my article about DoF and telephoto lenses if you want a better understanding on the subject.
While laying there watching the babies I was constantly looking for the mama gator because I didn’t want another Gentle Reminder. My dad taught me to shoot a rifle with both eyes open and it is something I have continued to do in photography. Being able to take photos with both eyes open is an advantage when doing things like laying at the edge of a swamp photographing baby gators and needing to keep an eye out for the very protective mama. The water was deep enough that an adult gator could approach completely submerged. So I was constantly looking for water movement or weeds parting, all an indication of an approaching gator. Thankfully nothing but babies approached me.
A side note. I returned to this location about 2 weeks later but didn’t see any baby gators. As a matter of fact, over the next two years I never saw a baby gator in this location again.
This was also one of my first outings with the Olympus MZ 300mm ƒ4.0 IS Pro and the first chance I had to photograph baby gators. One of the main reasons I bought the lens was for its close focusing ability, which is perfect for baby gators or snakes or frogs. Based on the results from the above photographs I am very happy with the lens. I do wish the clouds had held off so I could test out the lens a bit more, but there is always a next time.
I hope you enjoyed this insight into how I go about capturing photographs of baby gators. Subscribe to my profile so you know when I release new stories and more importantly for when Part 2 is published.
I have uploaded full resolution images from the article to this Flickr album so you can view them in greater detail.
If you would like to view more of my photographic work or purchase some of the images in this article visit my website https://phocalart.com