Feature
Shoot to Thrill
‘Animals are worth more alive now’: Wildlife photographers and landowners are in the hunt for a lucrative purse on the conservation-conscious Pro-Tour of Nature Photography.

IMAGE: Rolf Nussbaumer

When he arrived the first day of April 2008, Rolf Nussbaumer scattered the contents of a bag of dog food around the travel trailer that would serve as his temporary home on the Fennessey Ranch outside Refugio. One of 20 professional photographers competing in the Pro-Tour of Nature Photography, Nussbaumer counted on the chow to help attract subjects for his photos.

“Mammals are the toughest to photograph,” he says. “Most are nocturnal. Deer on this ranch are shy. Coyotes and bobcats take a lot of luck. I knew I’d be photographing raccoons, possums and skunks, things you attract with food.

“It isn’t enough to get a photograph,” he adds. “It has to be a good photograph.” Nussbaumer should know: The 2008 winner also took top honors in the first Pro-Tour, in 2006, in the Hill Country. Officials with Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) select 20 professional photographers and 20 landowners, randomly pair the two, and give them 30 days to shoot pictures. The idea is to promote wildlife photography and land conservation by offering the largest wildlife photography purse in the world—$160,000 in total. The 2008 photography competition focused on the Coastal Bend. The competition is held every other year.

The 3,500-acre Fennessey Ranch is blessed with lots of natural water, including nine miles of Mission River front, a 200-acre freshwater marsh and wetlands. With water so readily available, Nussbaumer knew resident wildlife would be unimpressed by the inviting ponds typically used to attract animals to photo blinds. At one blind on the ranch, though, he noticed squirrels. So he put out pecans and soon had four squirrels visiting regularly. Because squirrels aren’t really impressive mammals, photographically speaking, Nussbaumer wanted to photograph them doing something spectacular to impress the judges.

“I hooked a vine up to a tree over to a cup of pecans,” he says. “After the squirrels got used to using that, I separated the vine so they would jump. At first the squirrels just jumped to the ground, so I put some plastic lids on the ground to discourage that.” His efforts paid off in the form of an impressive shot of a squirrel in midair.

To photograph birds, Nussbaumer tried luring them with seed, but feral hogs wreaked havoc on the feeders, and grackles stole what the hogs missed. So he concentrated on the ranch’s marsh, building
a floating blind to get close to the avian action. On the last day of the competition, he shot photos of a grebe with a crayfish in its mouth and a Purple Gallinule. “The last day was my lucky day,” he says. “I took six of the 60 pictures I submitted on that day.”

The abundance of water at least made the amphibian category relatively easy, and insects are never a problem, he says: “Wherever you are, you’ll get those.”

Fennessey owner Brien O’Connor Dunn represents 176 years of family ownership of this land. The ranch still runs cattle and sells hunting leases, but in 1991 began offering birding and educational trips and leasing photography blinds.

Photographers, professional or otherwise, rent the blinds for $100 per day. The ranch also offers guided group tours and group bird-watching for spring and fall migration and hawk migrations. “We made more off photographers last year than cattle,” says Sally Crofutt, the ranch’s general manager. “Animals are worth more alive now. We don’t shoot coyotes, or birds of prey, and we don’t kill rattlesnakes.”

As Dunn puts it, “You can kill a turkey once, but you can take its picture a thousand times.”

That pretty well sums up the philosophy behind the Pro-Tour. “There’s not enough money to purchase adequate land to preserve habitat in Texas,” says ICF founder John Martin. “But nature photography is a $4 billion industry. The Pro-Tours are about making wildlife valuable to landowners.” Nussbaumer and Fennessey Ranch shared $51,000 for their first-place prize in the 2008 Pro-Tour.

Thanks to the growing popularity of nature photography and its economic impact, other landowners are changing their attitudes and land practices. But it can be a tough transition. “The photography market is a tough nut to crack,” Crofutt cautions. “You can’t just put a photographer in your deer blind. It takes a lot of work.”

The Pro-Tour multiplies that work. “If Rolf wanted a hole dug, we dug it,” she says. “He asked for a generator, and we had one for him the next day. People ask why we win, and one reason is we work hard.”

Success takes much more than simply snapping pictures, in other words. Nussbaumer rose most mornings before sunup, took pictures all morning, then had lunch and perhaps a nap. In the afternoon, he explored the ranch for photo opportunities, often making lists of requests for Crofutt. In the evenings, he began taking pictures again, frequently working until midnight.

“I enjoy the contests. You get lots of stock photos that would cost a lot to do on your own,” Nussbaumer says. Nature photographers often have to spend a lot of money to travel to and within a location in order to get marketable photographs, and it usually takes a long time to earn that money back. The Pro-Tour offers a chance to work for a month at little or no expense.           

Thirty days, though, isn’t all that long to capture professional images. “You see National Geographic photos, and they (the photographers) were out there five or six months,” Nussbaumer says. “So you can’t waste time on things that might not work out. You concentrate on the things you can get.” 

Nussbaumer, a former furniture maker from Switzerland, met his future wife, Karen, in 2000 when he was photographing Bald Eagles in Alaska. After visiting her in Texas, he read about and decided to enter the five-month Valley Land Fund’s Wildlife Photo Contest in the Rio Grande Valley in 2002. The prize money and exposure from winning that event launched his career as a professional photographer. “Going into the Valley competition, I had no clue about what to expect or what would work,” he says. “After a few competitions, you get a better idea. It really helps.”

The couple, now married, recently welcomed a baby, and Nussbaumer took a short break from photography. At their home outside New Braunfels, though, deer wander through the backyard and birds and squirrels crowd a half-dozen feeders scattered around the house. So when he’s ready to pick up the camera again, Nussbaumer won’t have to look far for subjects.

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Melissa Gaskill has written about Kemp’s ridley turtles and state parks for Texas Co-op Power.

FYI: Shooting Contest

Twenty photographer/landowner teams compete in the one-month Pro-Tour of Nature Photography tournament.

Each team submits images from each of five divisions: 1) birds; 2) mammals; 3) reptiles, amphibians and fish; 4) invertebrates (insects and arachnids); and 5) landscapes, plants and flowers. To qualify as a professional photographer, an individual must have made at least 80 percent of his or her earned income for the past three years from nature photography or have won a qualified competition. Landowners with 1,000 acres or more of diverse habitat may apply.

Laredo will host the 2010 Pro-Tour, which will take place along the South Texas border in eight counties. A grand prize of $40,000 will be shared by the landowner/photographer. Cash prizes are awarded through 10th place, and additional money—$500 per picture—is awarded for a selection of 100 individual photographs chosen by the judges.

The entry fee is $1,200 for photographers and $2,200 for landowners. Prize money comes primarily from sponsors. Books from the 2008 competition are available for purchase and are scheduled to be delivered in October. They can be ordered from the ICF website. For more information, call the ICF at (956) 381-1264 or go to Fennessey Ranch.


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