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How to Shoot a Wild Beast--With a Camera

It is minus 9 degrees, a windless morning in late January on Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin. After three hours outside, my mustache is frozen, my toes are tingling, and my fingers, soon to go numb, fumble with the f-stop on my camera. The cold steel of a tripod sears my fingertips. My 300-millimeter lens is trained on a 2,000-pound bison, a bull with gleaming horns and a beard encrusted with hoarfrost. What I have learned from Tom Murphy, our instructor and spiritual guide on this weeklong photographic expedition, is that I must wait for the glint, or catchlight, to glance off one of the bison's enormous eyes. With my light meter I take a reading off the beast's dark shaggy neck and use a shallow depth of field to melt the distant lodgepole pines and snowfields into a giant fuzzy canvas.

But this bison has other ideas. As his massive head sweeps the snow away from the stubble of grass beneath, he inches closer, oblivious to Yellowstone's regulations requiring that he and I keep a respectable 25 yards between us. He is now 15 yards and closing. My camera's motor drive rapturously captures his advance. At 10 yards he is too close to draw into focus. My lens is filled with a blur of hair and eye. I look up to see him standing 10 feet away, columns of steam billowing from his nostrils. He is staring at me, a tiny figure wrapped in a blue parka, crouching motionless on the ice and rudely recording him masticating his breakfast. Of course, it's the grass he's after, not me. Still, I remember last summer's feckless tourist from Florida who posed for a picture with a bison and was gored, then tossed like a bale of hay. I close the legs of my tripod and retreat.

For more than a decade I have wanted to do just this -- single-mindedly focus on improving my skills as a photographer while working in a pristine natural environment under the tutelage of a pro. A passionate dabbler, I'd even taken a few photographs that were published, accomplished largely through the principle that even a broken clock is right twice a day. My wife still reminds me of the moose I photographed in the Grand Tetons seven years ago. When developed, all 72 pictures were identical -- so much tall grass with a dark raisinlike object in the center.

I joined one of Tom Murphy's Wilderness Photography Expeditions because I wanted to embrace, not resent, the complexities of light, depth of field, and composition. Murphy, whose work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Audubon, and Time, among other publications, provides instruction not only in technique but also in the more transcendental aspects of the art that contribute to memorable pictures. Unconfined by a classroom, he escorts his students through a terrain of fire and ice -- thermal eruptions and frozen forests shimmering like chandeliers.

In our party there are eight: two doctors, a lawyer, a retired dairy farmer, a chemical engineer, a former phys ed instructor, a geography teacher, and a writer. At 43, I am the youngest. Two in the group are women on the far side of 70, both fit and adventurous. All have come for the benefit of structure and expertise, and to capture on film a Yellowstone free of the caravans of RVs and tourist hordes that each summer threaten to overwhelm it.

For the record, the trip is never grueling, not even for a weekend warrior like me. But it wouldn't be winter in Wyoming or Montana without a hint of chill winds and the sweet bone-weariness that comes from a full day spent outside. There are only a few stretches where my heart goes into overdrive (trudging uphill at 7,000 feet, for example, swaddled in polypropylene, wool, and down). My pockets are crammed with lenses, film, binoculars, beef jerky, trail mix, and a compass. A daypack with still more lenses, a groundsheet, and a canteen straddle my back. Slung over my shoulder are a tripod and ponderous lens -- long, though never quite long enough to capture that skittish coyote trotting across the snowscape. But Murphy is always careful not to have us walk more than a half mile without stopping to photograph, snack, or answer nature's call.

Of the group, I am perhaps the least savvy about cameras. Anything mechanical sends me into paroxysms of self-doubt. On our first evening, in Livingston, Montana, the discussion was mired in talk of apertures and shutter speeds, hardware and ASAs. I feared I had fallen in with a crew of techno-nerds who had lugged a fortune in equipment, some with lenses costing $5,000. (I'd rented mine from a camera store.) But the next morning my worries eased as we went into the field -- in this case literally a snowy meadow at the base of the Gallatin Mountains, where we photographed bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, all within sight of the serpentine Yellowstone River.

If the focus of the trip is photography, the subliminal subject is nature and our relationship to it. A camera with a long lens creates its own distortions, flattening perspective and creating the illusion that the wilderness is readily approachable, distances are undemanding, and wild elk and bison are compliant subjects. Murphy is there to remind us otherwise.

A sinewy 169 pounds at six foot three, his beard constantly glazed with ice, Murphy once skied the length of Yellowstone alone in the dead of winter. It took 14 days, 12 of them whited out by blizzards. His command of Yellowstone's history, geology, and zoology is encyclopedic. With unaided eye he can spot a bighorn sheep on a ridgetop 1,000 yards away and identify it as a mature ram, leaving the rest of us to fumble with binoculars and see nothing but snow. Watching him look through his lens, as he blends color and composition, is both humbling and inspiring. But Murphy never takes himself too seriously. At the far end of his formidable 500-millimeter lens, he has a bright orange decal that reads "Front." By the camera's eyepiece is another decal: "Details Inside."

He never wears a watch. "The relevant thing," he tells us, "is where the light is, not what time it is." Think about that for a while -- the difference between living by the light and by the clock.

There are many lessons to be gleaned from Murphy, a few nifty tricks, too, like how to use a multiple exposure to move the moon to just the right spot above an erupting geyser. I learn that nylon and Gore-Tex, practical against cold and damp though they may be, rustle when you move and scare off wildlife. Cotton and wool are silent. I learn to place my lenses and cameras in plastic bags before coming indoors to prevent condensation from forming, and to carry spare batteries next to my body to keep them warm. I learn to look for interactions between animals -- the sparring of bull elks, the billing of two ravens -- and not to be satisfied with stiff "hunting poses."

Some lessons I learn the hard way, like the time huge dry flakes of snow gathered in the hood of my lens and deepened against the glass itself. In a thoughtless moment, I blew the flakes away. Instantly the lens was covered with a thin film of ice from my breath and I was temporarily out of commission.

Murphy's wife, Bonnie, takes care of logistics and food. Meals are stick-to-your-ribs solid, the kind of carbohydrate-rich fare you need in a Yellowstone winter. On the second night, while her husband shows slides, Bonnie serves crisp hot wontons filled with elk meat. On the trail we eat whole-wheat honey bread; the flour was ground in Bonnie's kitchen from wheat raised on Tom's brother-in-law's farm in South Dakota. We devour it along with salami made from venison. One chill afternoon we fill up on a rich chowder with chunks of potatoes and sweet red salmon that Murphy caught in Alaska.

Accommodations range from warm and homey bed-and-breakfasts in Livingston and Gardiner -- awakening to Irish oatmeal and home-baked cinnamon buns -- to clean but sterile rooms at the Snow Lodge, the complex beside Old Faithful. We spend so much time outdoors that the mere sight of a firm bed and warm shower are welcoming beyond words. By van, by truck, by snow coach -- a minivan that sits atop a tanklike track -- and yes, by foot, we cross an endlessly varied snowscape. We learn to listen for the hissing of steam vents, the whistling and yelping of coyotes, the mewing of elks, and the "cronk-cronk" call of ravens.

It is a trip of constant surprises. Murphy told me to bring a bathing suit. It sounded bizarre, swimming in Montana in January. But on the second evening we climb into the van, drive to the northern edge of Yellowstone, and hike along a frozen trail that leads to a vaporous landscape of subterranean streams bubbling up and spilling over their banks. This is the so-called Boiling River. Beneath a nearly full moon, we peel off our parkas, sweaters, and long underwear, right down to our swimsuits. We step across icy rocks to the edge of a long steamy pool. We wade in over boulders warm and slippery with algae, making our way to a series of mini-waterfalls that shower my back with hot water. An occasionally frigid current from the adjacent Gardner River sweeps past my legs and sends me cowering back to the waterfalls. Two hours later we emerge mellow and limp -- then make a frantic dash for the towels.

Now, home again in suburban Maryland, I am licking mailers as I prepare to send to the developer my 25 rolls of film. I admit to being full of expectation. But whatever the slides reveal of my photographic progress will seem vaguely beside the point. It's now a week since I've been back, and I have yet to wear my watch.

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