When looking at a city, we often think it is a place devoid of wilderness. In reality, a city is just a different kind of natural space, with hundreds of species of animals eeking out a living in the nooks and crannies, backyards and rooftops, parks and golf courses and cemeteries. If you are interested in photographing wildlife, you may not even need to leave the limits of your urban environment.
Photographer Jouko van der Kruijssen proves the point. Living in San Francisco, a city of about 46 square miles housing more than 837,000 humans, van der Kruijssen has produced an amazing portfolio of wildlife photography. His subjects take advantage of the small oases of green spaces within the city, and so too does van der Kruijssen.
We spoke with van der Kruijssen to find out more about how he manages to find such a diversity of wildlife in such a populated city, and to learn about the unique opportunities and challenges for wildlife photographers doing their work within city limits.
MNN: Most wildlife photographers are always looking to escape their city homes in order to photograph their subjects. What draws you to photographing wildlife in the urban setting instead?
JvdK: A couple of reasons. First, it just happens to be what I’m drawn to. I've only ever lived in cities. At my elementary school in Amsterdam, there was one tree in the school yard. I knew every bug that crawled on its stem, flew around it and fell from its leaves. When there was a new species visiting this tiny ecosystem I would notice it. Most of the time, it was all the nature I had access too, so I learned to really zoom in on it.
Whenever we would go on vacation, I'd explore and find the local wildlife first. I remember the snakes, lizards and dormouse in France, the weasel and hedgehog in our vacation rental's yard in Finland, the viper in Sweden, etc. I would get a feel of the living things surrounding me and I’d seek out to observe as much as I could.
When I moved to San Francisco as an adult, I guess I just continued that pattern. First the obvious hummingbirds and squirrels, then the shorebirds, raccoons, coyotes, marine mammals, owls and rare visitors.
Perhaps it’s more about capturing the creatures that are part of the same community that I am a part of and for me that just happens to be an urban environment. Now that I’m familiar with that environment, I am equipped to document it and share it with the community.
That’s where the second reason capturing urban wildlife is so exciting comes in. I’m revealing part of a very human-dominated environment that most San Franciscans are not, or only partially aware of or familiar with. Shedding light on the life that lives among us may lead to new interest and increased understanding of our direct environment and our planet as a whole.
Judged by only my work, I probably don’t fit the standard image of a conservation photographer. I usually portray my subjects in a very isolated manner, so I don’t often display the impact of humans on local wildlife, or even the interaction animals have with the local human population. But being able to show these beautiful, healthy creatures that live among us hopefully illustrates that even in a city, there is a need to be environmentally conscious, there is still much left to preserve and fight for. We’re not just surrounded by dirty rats and pigeons, we’re still a part of a larger natural community that exists not because of our presence, but in spite of it.
Urban coyotes are part of the wildlife scene in many big cities across the country. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
Where are your favorite places to go in or around San Francisco for your photography?
In San Francisco there are some staple spots where it's always worth looking for something to see. Crissy Field, Ocean Beach, Land's End, Heron's Head Park, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, for example. But you can take a good animal shot pretty much anywhere. When I had an office job in the Financial District I would take an hour lunch break and bring my camera and a sandwich to the fountain/waterfall in Yerba Buena Park. It’s just a tiny patch of green with no exceptional wildlife at all, but the brewers’ blackbirds bathing in the fountain cast a really cool reflection that made for some excellent photos.
In the end, it depends on the time and place where the circumstances are good to take a great picture, to observe interesting behavior or an interesting species, or to simply sit still for a while and enjoy the surroundings even if nothing of interest shows up.
Just like everywhere else, favorite spots change from season to season, even from hour to hour because the time of day, tides and weather heavily influence the activity in the area I’m focusing on. The hills, ponds and coast are great during bird migration in the spring and the fall. In late spring and early summer, it’s a great time to explore and connect with trusted local photographers and wildlife spotters to find out where birds are nesting and fledglings might appear.
Outside the actual city of San Francisco my favorite spot is definitely the Marin Headlands. I can bike, bus or even walk there and on a clear day good views of the City and the Bay are always guaranteed, so there’s always something to see even if no wildlife decides to show up. I’m always looking for bobcats but it’s a great spot for coyotes, foxes, river otters, marine mammals, owls, raptors, migratory birds, shore birds, garter snakes, lizards, newts and I always carry the very, very slim hope of running into a mountain lion.
Bird-watching in urban areas is an art in itself, where people passing by can startle off your subject. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
What have been some of your favorite animals to photograph? Any particular animals that stand out as surprising or interesting to find?
I prefer mammals, not only because most of them are beautiful and photogenic, but also because their behavior is easier for me to anticipate than that of most birds. When you come across a none-territorial bird, you never know if what you have in front of your lens is the last you’ll see of them, they can take off any moment. With most mammals, you have more time to prepare, hide, lay low, pick an angle and take your time and see how their behavior unfolds in front of you. Or you can observe their routine for a while so you know where they’re likely to pop up again when you come across the area another day.
Bobcats are my favorites. I know they’re always there when I’m in their habitat but they’re usually hiding out in the tall grass so it’s very hard to spot them. When they do pop up it’s always exciting and rewarding. Usually, when I’m alone in a quiet spot and lying low, they’re completely comfortable hunting and relaxing within the range of my telephoto lens.
Within the city, I’m always excited to see coyotes. I’m amazed at their ability to hide in even the smallest parks and patches of green. In the city they are usually active around sunrise and sunset. At the end of the day, they sometimes just pop up in an area I’ve been pacing around in for hours. Like they emerged from the ground or out of tin air, it makes me wonder how often they’re observing me without me ever knowing. It’s good to see that despite them having settled in the city for years now, they’re still skittish. It is still a challenge to capture them, unlike raccoons or squirrels, which unfortunately are fed daily in some parks and have lost all fear of humans.
As for surprising and interesting finds, Sutro Sam, the lone river otter that was living in Sutro Baths a couple of years ago, was definitely a favorite. When I first saw him I was climbing back up the hill after a not-so successful attempt at shooting brown pelicans in the basin. Suddenly there was this mammal swimming around and because it wasn’t something I ever imagined seeing there I couldn’t immediately place it. The sun was already down, so I didn’t get any good shots that evening. I came back the next day had a great “session” with him at sunset, for some odd reason no one else was around that evening. I just sat on the rocks as he swam, frolicked, fished and groomed himself, sometimes far away, sometimes right in front of my lens. I spent many more days with him afterwards, but that first evening was something special and it’s when I got my best shots of him.
A river otter moved into San Francisco temporarily, making a big splash among the city's residents. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
Tell us what it was like photographing Sutro Sam. Were there a lot of people around watching him? What did spending time with him reveal about the status of wildlife in urban settings like San Francisco?
Sutro Sam was living a relatively anonymous life during the first months of his stay in San Francisco. Initially the challenges of photographing him were similar to the challenges of photographing most wildlife in the city. I tried to familiarize myself with his daily routine and behavioral patterns so I could plan my shots and visits. I never figured out his schedule, even after months of writing down his routine I still couldn’t predict when he’d come out and when he’d decide to lay low. I could however, predict his routine once he popped up and started to fish in the basin. Always counter clockwise!
I’m not sure if Sutro Sam’s temporary presence can lead to any lasting conclusions about wildlife conditions in San Francisco. River otters seem to be doing pretty well in much of the Bay Area and this may just have been the combination of a particularly adventurous otter that happened upon a basin full of fish. His presence does illustrate that something unexpected and exciting can always happen though, and Sam’s story definitely gains some insight into what happens when wildlife and an urban population share a popular spot.
Sutro Baths is always a heavily visited spot, otter or no otter. When I was there looking for Sam people would ask what it was that I was photographing. At this time I had connected with the River Otter Ecology Project, who study river otters in the Bay Area, and I had learned a bit about otters in the area. Talking with people at the baths was a great opportunity to share some knowledge and learn from others what they had observed. Almost everyone was interested to learn and most definitely excited that the City apparently was a suitable environment for a river otter to settle.
Over time, as Sam became more of a celebrity, it became more apparent that not everyone knows how to distinguish between a wild animal and something that exists solely for our entertainment. When the story of Sam hit the local news, everyone wanted to get a piece. Despite attempts from the Park Service to educate people with posted signs, the crowds couldn’t help but to try to get as close as possible to take cell phone pictures, drive him to go to a certain spot, or just run up to him as soon as he surfaced.
In the end, Sam’s presence was a great opportunity for education and an even greater illustration for the need thereof. It’s kind of a small-scale version of the way we interact with our planet as a whole. Everyone wants to get their piece and securing our own piece turns out to be more important than the well-being of the whole of it.
One of the benefits of living in a city on the coast is the abundance of marine wildlife in addition to those animals found in land-bound parks. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
What are some of the problems you run into that is unique to urban wildlife photography?
When you’re in an urban environment you have to take into account that you’re the odd one out. When you’re in Yellowstone you can expect from visitors that everyone is out there to enjoy nature and that those who disturb the experience of others can be held accountable for it. When you’re in a city, people are there because they live, work and recreate there; the primary objective has nothing to do with wildlife. The way people interact with wildlife and wildlife photographers can be more of a challenge in a city.
For example, I’d be out at the Sutro Baths, sometimes for hours waiting for Sutro Sam to surface. I’d set up at the perfect spot, wait for him to rest or eat a fish on his favorite rock and as soon as I start clicking away people notice there is something interesting going on. Before I know it there is a crowd of people holding up their iPhones and shouting “Look a sea otter!” gathered between me and Sutro Sam, blocking my shot. Needless to say, Sam didn’t stick around to see what this quickly approaching crowd was up to and hours of patient prep were wasted.
Sometimes, when I shoot waterfowl, a passerby will throw bread in the water in an attempt to be helpful, unaware that I’m not shooting the mallards, but the snipe they just scared away. Sometimes, when I’m on my stomach on the beach shooting a flock of plovers, sandpipers, whimbrels and willets, someone decides it’s a lot of fun to make a lot of noise and run through the flock to have them fly off and disperse in a panic. It can be frustrating but it’s not something I ever take personally. It is part of the daily life of the animals I shoot though; human-induced stress is a very real part of being an animal in the city.
Some of the more unpleasant challenges of shooting urban wildlife have little to do with photography itself. The tiny trails in Golden Gate Park can have some unpredictable people on them. The homeless population isn’t always the most mentally stable crowd. I once encountered a man waving a box cutter at me and demanding to see some clearance.
There is also the risk of carrying around expensive gear in some of the more isolated spots in the city. Recently birders and photographers have been targeted by armed robbers who apparently look for reports of rare bird sightings online. All they had to do was stake out at the spot where a rustic bunting was reported and harvest some expensive optics.
A bobcat rests calmly on a heavily used hiking trail. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
What about unique opportunities? How does the urban setting give you chances at one-of-a-kind photographs?
In a city, the green patches are relatively small. Rather than having to scan a large area for wildlife, the activity is mostly concentrated in the same spots. I can cover a number of completely different hotspots in a day. When I get word that great horned owls are fledging in a specific area, I know that the chances of successfully photographing the event are pretty high. So the scouting process is less labor intensive than I imagine it would be in the wilderness.
Some urban animals are more used to human presence than their cousins in the wilderness, making it easier to approach them without disturbing them. In city parks some animals are just more used to having people around. It’s still important to be cautious and allow for enough distance, I will always avoid stressing or disturbing wildlife as much as I can. While some year-round residents may be used to people, migrants may simply not have a choice but to be close to people because the only place they could land to rest and refuel for their journey was a tiny green patch in a big city.
My style of shooting probably originates from shooting mostly urban animals. In a national park you can shoot an animal as part of their beautiful surroundings. In the city, I learned to isolate my subject in order to avoid getting buildings or garbage cans in the shot.
Shooting urban wildlife also brings about the unique opportunity to educate and inform the community. People can be a challenge when I’m out shooting; they are also what makes a city. It is rewarding to be able to show a hidden world that a lot of people don’t realize is there, yet they move through it every day. Not only does my work directly show this hidden world and hopefully makes it somewhat accessible, but I also get many opportunities to share my experience as I’m out in the field. Being out and about and drawing attention to myself with my big lens invites questions and creates the opportunity to share my excitement about local wildlife.
A harbor seal enjoys a yawn and a rest on a rock near San Francisco's shoreline. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)
Is the gear you choose to use in the city different than what you use when you're out in, say, a national park?
I’m kind of an odd one out when it comes to the gear I use. Where Canon and Nikon are the obvious standards, I only use the Olympus/Panasonic (micro) four-thirds system. It has its benefits and downsides, but overall I’m very satisfied with the quality of their lenses and I believe it’s the most portable option, which is nice for getting around in the city, especially since I primarily get around by foot and public transportation. In the city I usually only carry around one body and the Olympus Zuiko 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 (100-400mm equivalent in 35mm terms). In Bay Area parks I usually carry a wide angle as well, you never know when the sunset and the fog will create a beautiful blanket that’s worthy of capturing. Olympus’ in-camera stabilization is another great feature that allows me to travel lightly and without a tripod, so most of the time all my gear fits in a small shoulder bag.
When I go on longer trips to national parks outside of the city or when I set out to photograph a specific species or wildlife event I’ll rent one of those large fast telephoto lenses that I can’t currently afford to buy. Using those fast telephoto primes makes me realize I’m potentially missing a lot of shots in the city, especially birds, so perhaps I need to start saving up.
Do you have tips or advice for people who want to get started in urban wildlife photography?
The most important tip I would give anyone who’s starting out with wildlife photography anywhere is to really get to know your subjects and environment as much as possible. You have to become part of it, or at least immerse yourself so you get an intuitive feel for what’s going on around you, rather than be an observer from the outside. Don’t rush yourself, take your time and take in every detail. This way you’ll make every trip fun and valuable, even if you don’t take a single shot. Just get out there as much as you can, immerse yourself, be patient and don’t give up. Be ethical. Don’t feed, lure or bait animals even if others are, don’t stress animals and respect your subjects.
This may be not be a problem for anyone, but it’s also important to not be embarrassed. When I first started I definitely missed some good shots because I thought it’d be kind of weird to lie down on my stomach next to a park pond. Now I just do it, and I walk around the rest of the day with dirt stains on my clothes, maybe even some bird poop. It’s worth it in the end.
A plus side of urban wildlife photography is being around creatures habituated to humans, and thus allowing the photographer to get close. (Photo: Jouko van der Kruijssen)