Guest post: How I ended this summer

My name is Alex Geifman (Facebook page), I’m software engineer living in Israel. Wildlife photography is my passion for the last 5 years. Since the very start I was obsessed about photographing a series about secret life of foxes and last year my dreams came true finally.

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I take a glimpse at the watch. It’s 17:30 pm. It is time.

I leave my cubicle and head to the underground parking and soon I’m heading eastwards on the winding road, through the Judean hills, in direction of Jerusalem. Usually, even in traffic the trip takes no more than half an hour.

Every now and then I look to the West, observe the sky & wonder whether the oncoming sunset will be obscured by clouds or will it shine through the dusty air? After leaving the highway, I find myself on a narrow road leading off into the hills; I bring the car to a standstill by the side of the road at an inconspicuous spot and begin preparing the equipment. I remove the lenses cover and check the camera settings. I then place a beanbag stuffed with rice on the seat to my right, and place the lens and camera on it. A second camera is also handy. I’m ready.

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I start the car’s engine and carry on driving on a dirt road that leads into a dusty pine forest to the side of the road. Its summer time and it hasn’t rained for several months now. The rocky ground is dry and the vegetation that was lush in winter time, has now only a hue of faded green. This is not a thick forest. Unpaved roads and paths cut through the crooked pine trees and scrubs and dry grass. I am getting close to my destination. The dirt road continues ahead to the top of a low hill, one slope is covered with tall and mature pines, and the other is carpeted with young sapling and was probably ravaged by fire a few years ago. I turn my car away from the road and turn the engine off. Only a few meters from the car, incredibly close to the dirt track, I spot the opening of a fox burrow. Unbelievable how close the den to the dirt road.  I know from my daily observations that young cubs tend to grow accustomed to being very close to passing cars and off-road cyclists, so that the presence of my car should not necessarily scare the residents of the burrow away. In addition the burrow is very well positioned in terms of lightning: it is facing West, so I can keep photographing till the very sunset. For the first time since in my wildlife photography practice I am presented with an opportunity to shoot in almost ideal conditions.

It is now 18:00 pm. In only half an hour it will be too dark to shoot. A surge of adrenaline runs through my body. The cubs are nowhere to be seen.  Had parents led them away, into the safety of another burrow?! The exhausting waiting begins…

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I first encountered this family in the middle of May beside a small cave under a rocky ridge down the slope. There I took my first photos of them. About ten days later they disappeared and I started searching, in vain, for another burrow before giving up. A month later a friend of mine, knowing about my hobby, called me saying that he spotted some foxes while trekking in the area at that very same forest. When I came I was excited to realize it was that same family I had been watching before! Since then, I spent time in the woods almost every morning and every evening. The cubs were now already a lot more developed and I knew soon they would leave their parents and disappear, and that every time I would see them could be the last time.

I’m now sitting in the car observing the surrounding environment. I can hardly believe that wildlife still survives in this forest that is so overrun with human activity during weekends and holidays. With the passing minutes, the sun continues its fast descent and I know it will hit the horizon soon, ending this session.

Suddenly two pairs of ears appear from behind a flat rock above the entrance of the burrow. Finally and long last!! I can’t see the cubs themselves yet, because of the tall grass surrounding the rock. However, I am filled with anticipation. Placing the car gear handle to neutral speed I roll it back as quietly as I can, all the while trying to locate an interruption in the grass through which I hope to see the cubs. I gently rest the camera lens on the beanbag, filled with 3 kg of rice, which I had previously laid on the car windowsill. I am alert and prepared to take pictures. I adjust my position as my view stumbles upon the cub. The grass in the foreground causes the camera to focus poorly. With a slight trepidation and yet with a sense calm, I press the on button several times. The cubs seem absolutely relaxed. One of them is even napping. A passing car causes a high cloud of dust to rise from the bed of the dirt road alongside which my car is standing. As the light from the setting sun hits the dust in the air, a glowing curtain materializes before  and I am eager to capture this fleeting effect.

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At this instant, a dog-fox appears by the cubs. He is bald and creepy. With a few tufts of fur left on its thin body, he looks more like a beaten mongrel then a proud specimen of his species. He stands motionless on a large rock and peers acutely into the forest. I follow his gaze and notice a moving large shadow. I know what it is. Yesterday’s shooting was disrupted by the appearance of a hideous jackal. The cubs turn stiff with fear, as the dog fox ridiculously yaps at the shadow in the woods.

My attention shifts to the dark figure which remains in constant motion. It feels like the jackal senses my intentions and keeps to the shadow of the trees and out of open spaces preventing me from taking a single shot of it. After a couple of laps around us the jackal seems to lose interest and disappears. Finally I can resume my focus on the foxes again.

As the sun continues its expected trajectory towards the horizon, the light constantly changes. For a brief while the light shines through the fur of the cubs and they start to glow. In an effort not to miss a rare condition, I become so tense that I occasionally seem to forget breathing.

The last rays of direct light are spent as the sun finally sinks below the horizon.

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I continue to shoot for another twenty minutes or so until the short twilight characteristic to the Middle East ends in thick darkness. As my attention returns to my body, I notice I am trembling, still high on adrenaline. On the way home the tension gradually dissipates. I feel worn out. I cannot believe that less than two hours have passed since I entered the forest. As I drive away, impressions of the passing events continue to unfold in my mind.

I had spent almost every day of the passing summer months awaiting for the sunset and the foxes. During previous years I had refrained from shooting after April when the rain completely stops until autumn. I used to believe that the dry and dusty Mediterranean summer with its almost always cloudless sky wasn’t suitable for nature photography. What a mistake! The results I had this year taught me that dust in the air has a softening effect on the light and thus some of my best photos have been made during the dust storms that are regular in the summer in our area.

Some technical data : I used two cameras : Nikon D600 and Nikon D7100. Optics : Nikkor 500mm AF-S II

It is a pity my 500mm lacked Image stabilization, since a lot of time I found myself using frequently shutter speed 1/200s and longer.

D600 turned to be an invaluable tool. I pushed it up to ISO 2000 with great results. It just keeps going where DX bites the dust.


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