One day in early 2013, Neil Jernigan was crossing a canal near Lake Mattamuskeet when he spotted a great egret. North Carolina’s largest natural lake, 180 miles southeast of Raleigh, is a stopover for migratory birds and a reliable place to find native fowl. For a wildlife photographer like Jernigan, it was a logical spot to be.
Jernigan took a quick shot: too busy, too much going on in the background. By the time the bird moved away, the Snow Hill photographer had an award-winning shot. As the grand prize winner in the 2014 Wildlife in North Carolina photo contest, it’s on the cover of the January/February issue of the magazine. The photo, along with the other winning shots, is also on display at the N.C. Museum of Natural History in Raleigh.
Jernigan, who works part time at a paint store, part time as a taxidermist and part time as a photographer, also won $200 and a high-quality print of his award-winning image. Wildlife photography is an extension of skills he has developed over a lifetime spent outdoors.
“From when I was old enough to stand and walk, I was out hunting and fishing with my dad,” the 23-year-old says. At 6 weeks of age, he was carried along on his dad’s hunting trips, and he shot his first deer when he was 6 or 7. He got his first professional-quality camera as a teenager and quickly took to photographing wildlife. We caught up with Jernigan to talk about his photography and his lifelong relationship with natural North Carolina.
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Q: You got your first camera when you were 15. Had photography been something you were curious about beforehand?
A: Growing up hunting and fishing with my dad and granddad, we would always carry a camera or we’d always carry a video camera. I’ve always taken pictures when I’m out and about. My mom, she runs a scrapbook store. When I was around 15 she started in the scrapbook business, and she purchased a 25 mm film camera. We’re always outside, so I was kind of destined for me to take pictures. The summer after I turned 15, I ... saved up and bought my first digital XLR camera.
Q: Hunting and taking pictures seem to involve the same kind of patience. Is that true?
A: Definitely. You develop your patience and you spend so much time outside, so you really learn a lot about the animal’s behavior. Just from spending time in the stand hunting the animals, I’ve come to understand what their behavior means, and I can kind of predict what they’re going to do. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it’s a little easier for me because I understand what the animal’s doing by its behavior.
Q: What does it do for you when you’re out there, just with the camera, in the woods?
A: It’s what I’m used to, growing up doing it. It’s very peaceful. I’m not surrounded by hundreds of people throughout the day. You have time to think clearly. With me, personally, it puts me at one with God. You can’t get much closer to him than being outside, in my book.
Q: Why were you at Lake Mattamuskeet when you got your award-winning shot?
A: I used to work part time at a photography store in Greenville – SAP Photo and Camera – and a co-worker (from my old job) teaches a lot of photography workshops. We were teaming up to teach a workshop at Late Mattamuskeet.
We were scouting locations that day. We had pulled up to this one spot where you had to cross a canal to get to another part of the refuge. When we pulled up, the egret was feeding at the edge of the canal, so I got out and took one or two pictures. The way he was positioned in the canal, there was one little sliver of sunlight. I photographed him for probably a minute or two before he eased off.
If you look at the picture closely, there’s a little bitty minnow in his mouth; he had just caught it. Of the sequence of images I took, the one that I submitted I felt was the strongest because you could see his eye clearly. In the others, you couldn’t see his eye all that well.
▪ See more of Neil Jernigan photos at jerniganoutdoorphoto.com.
▪ Wildlife in North Carolina magazine http://nando.com/10-
▪ N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences naturalsciences.org
How to photograph wildlife
Prize-winning wildlife photographer Neil Jernigan offers this advice:
Be patient: If you’re serious about wildlife photography, you must spend lots of time in the field. Jernigan is outdoors often, and he’s accustomed to waiting for animals to come to him.
Look close to home: Every state has state parks, wildlife refuges and public land, and there is often no admission charge. Since these maintain habitats, they’re great places to spot wildlife.
Talk with park rangers: The rangers know the land and the animals. Often, too, there’s a list in the ranger office of animals people have spotted in certain parts of the park. If this isn’t on display, you can ask to see it.
Know your equipment: Don’t lose a good shot because you’re fumbling with the settings. (Jernigan shoots everything manually so he has full control of the resulting image – something he’s able to do because he understands how his camera works.
Learn about the animals: Even if you don’t have a lifetime of outdoors experience, study the animal you want to photograph before you encounter it in the field. With dangerous animals such as bears, which happen to be one of Jernigan’s favorite subjects, this is essential. To stay safe, Jernigan uses bear spray, shoots through a zoom lens and watches for telltale signs of agitated behaviors. A bear will typically give at least one mock charge as a warning, he says.
Obey the rules: Follow all the rules and regulations for your location. Stick to designated trails and roads. If you don’t know the laws, look them up or ask a ranger.
Use common sense: That’s the biggest thing, Jernigan says.