Running with Wildlife
By Christina Freeman
Abby Jensen captured bison in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Abby Jensen
By Jennie Lay
During a mud-season shift at Circle 7 gallery, Abby Jensen is decked out in a camouflage track suit. Granted, it’s funky and fashionable camo. But it’s not just a trendy outfit; it’s the uniform of choice for this wildlife photographer.
Jensen, 46, calls herself a “farm girl from Nebraska.” Raised with horses, sheep and chickens, she also had a grandmother who was a newspaper photographer in their 6,000-strong town of Blair. Jensen says she grew up with a camera in her hand – which made her path to becoming a wildlife photographer, meshing her penchant for photography and love for animals, seem pretty clear.
She went to college to get a business degree, but enrolling one photography elective changed her course completely. “It took me three years to tell my dad I was studio art major instead of business,” Jensen says. After graduation, she spent time earning her paycheck in corporate America, but she learned that she could earn her living doing what she loved. Jensen took photos – and people bought them.
For nearly a decade, Jensen did commercial equine photography – criss-crossing the country and living out of her RV for two-thirds of the year. Farms and training facilities hired her to photograph show and breeding stock – sometimes for ads, sometimes for the mantle. It’s a special skill. Every part of the horse has to be in a certain position before you snap the photo – strides in the right place, ears forward, correct facial expression. “I look for all those things in wildlife photography too,” she says. “You have to notice everything in a split second because it changes fast. Those skills apply beautifully.”
When the economy slagged, Jensen finally found time for wildlife. Cranes is where she started.
In March 2010, she set out to try to photograph the last remaining flock of endangered whooping cranes that migrates through Nebraska. Jensen sat in a field with her long lens until she was the only photographer left – her and a lone ornithologist. A flock of nine whooping cranes suddenly appeared, then stuck around for three full days. “All this time alone with them… the ornithologist said I was the luckiest person on Earth,” she says.
Jensen’s photos were featured Nebraska Land Magazine – and they named the story just that, “The luckiest person on Earth.” It was a breakthrough that launched her into full- time wildlife photography. “I enjoy being in the habitat, learning and researching about the animals. Everything I shoot is in the habitat – no zoos or game parks. It takes a lot of time and patience,” she says.
Jensen relocated to Steamboat Springs from Denver a little less than three years ago. She chose Steamboat because of its great proximity to wildlife, not only on the ground in the Yampa Valley, but being central to her favorite shooting grounds in the Tetons, Yellowstone and western Nebraska. The collective of artists at Circle 7 struck a chord as the creative family she wanted to be part of.
The Yampa Valley Crane Festival has become Jensen’s pet project. “It’s been great bringing the awareness of the Sandhill cranes here. It’s a big deal in Nebraska,” she says, noting that those are the lesser sandhill cranes, which are smaller than our local greater sandhills. “I want to make it the same thing here – with education and participation.” She will be teaching a free half-day photography workshop on Saturday, Sept. 13, during the crane festival.
Jensen’s favorite wildlife experience to date was in Kenya. “I went on safari on horseback. All the wildlife accepted us as part of the herd. We got to run along with seven giraffes,” she says. “They make no sound…nothing but the sound of my horse and the silence of the giraffe. We ran with zebras and warthogs who scurried between us…you just keep looking forward.”
Last summer, Jensen had a moose with a full rack in her sights for seven days. She was waiting for the leaves to peak. But she grew up in a hunting family and she says what transpired was “a testament to everyone’s efforts to get that moose population back where it needs to be around here.” She found the perfect shot while a hunter was field dressing her anointed moose. “It was sad for me, but good for the moose population and the environment,” she says.
Jensen shoots with a Canon EOS-1D and an EOS-1DX, using five lenses and a doubler. She travels with three tripods, a pop-up blind and a waterproof Pelican case. And she always wears camo. She wears it head-to-toe, “layered camo so you can take it off and still be in camo when you get hot,” she says. “I have a close relationship with Cabella’s en route to Nebraska.”