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Tips for Wildlife Photographers on Guided Trips
A Guide's Perspective
Guide Terry L. Johnson offers pointers and perspective for photographers, focusing on photographers preparing for a guided photography expedition. Johnson is the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory marine recreation and tourism specialist. During the summer he operates a guiding business, Walrus Islands Expeditions, specializing in walrus and seabird viewing and photography.
1. Adopt realistic expectations. “National Geographic” and “Animal Planet” have contributed to a perception that wildlife can be easily approached at very close range. Advertising by some guides and outfitters reinforces that impression. Keep in mind that images published by some journals or programs required months or even years to acquire. In most cases it is not realistic to expect the same results on a day trip or even in a few days or weeks. The more time you spend on site the better your chances of getting the truly memorable (and marketable) pictures.
2. Do your homework. Know where you are going and what you can reasonably expect to see and photograph there. Read all the safety and equipment information your outfitter or tour operator sends you. Ask questions - your guide would rather spend some time answering questions via phone or e-mail than see you come unprepared or poorly equipped.
3. Buy adequate field gear. You don’t have to arrive looking like an L.L. Bean catalog model, but bring good quality clothing, boots, raingear and whatever else local conditions dictate. Be fully prepared for weather and operating conditions with the right clothing and field gear, as well as with the right lenses and other photographic equipment. It is false economy to spoil an expensive trip—and possibly priceless photo opportunities—for want of a $60 pair of boots or a waterproof parka. Include a good quality rucksack or backpack to accommodate your gear plus extra clothing, lunch, water, and other necessities. There is no joy in hiking into wild game country carrying your day’s supplies in plastic grocery bags or an athlete’s duffle.
4. Start conditioning. Unless you are sure you will spend all your time in a vehicle or a blind, a wildlife expedition will normally involve some walking, climbing, or other activities that maybe outside your daily routine. Start walking a few miles each day, at least part of that distance up hills, stairs or steep trails. Carry a pack loaded with weight comparable the gear you plan to take into the field. I have seen many a promising trip curtailed because the clients arrived so out of shape that they were unable to get to the best photographic sites. If you have a health or physical condition that limits you, let your tour operator or guide know ahead of time so that they can provide you the safest, most comfortable and most productive trip possible.
5. Make it clear what your objectives and expectations are. If you are interested only in great shots of specific charismatic megafauna, tell your guide so that he or she can concentrate on getting you the shots you want and can skip peripheral attractions.
6.The above notwithstanding, I strongly encourage you to broaden your perspective. Look at all the animals, birds, plants, people, landscapes and sights in the region you will be visiting. Consider this: the very bear, lion, walrus or whatever you are stalking has likely been snapped hundreds of times already. The likelihood that you will get a distinctively different image is somewhat low. Sure, you need those shots for your portfolio, presentation or assignment, and by all means get them. But while you’re there, take the opportunity to get an animal, bird, plant or other view that may not have received so much attention. Clients have confided in me on several occasions that although they got what they came for, the most memorable image from their trip was something they hadn’t planned to shoot and didn’t realize even occurred in the area.
7. Work with the weather. Many photographers think that if the sky’s not blue, the weather is “bad.” Maybe in Africa sunny weather is the predictable norm, but in much of the world you’re sure to spend at least part of your trip in the rain. In Alaska, you may be lucky if it’s only falling and not blowing horizontally into your face and lenses. Come prepared with appropriate covers for your equipment and a strategy for using it. As Alaska guides say, “There’s no bad weather, only bad equipment.” Gray, wet, even stormy weather provides an honest context for your wildlife images and lends itself to dramatic compositions.
8. Listen to your guide. Sure, you’ve taken photos all over the world, but because you may not have been to this location before, listen to the guide who is here day after day, year after year. It’s always a little surprising when a client arrives on the scene and immediately assumes he or she knows more about the area than the guide. This attitude results in missed opportunities and an annoyed guide, one who won’t want to waste breath on suggestions or information that’s being ignored. Some guides are highly accomplished photographers, and most guides are at least amateur photographers with some training. Your guide is probably well aware of the rudiments of light, shade, contrast and composition and is working to put you into position to make best use of them.
9. Guides are not porters. In most cases, your guide already is carrying binoculars or a spotting scope, a radio, extra food and water, first aid supplies and extra clothing for himself – and probably some backup items for you and other clients. If you take bulky and heavy equipment into the field, plan on schlepping it yourself, or bring your own porter (spouses often fill this role) unless the tour operator specifies that porters are provided.
10. Develop an interest in the animals as whole beings and the environment in its entirety and not just the photograph. You’ll have a more fulfilling experience, stories to go with your pictures, and you may even learn things that will help you get better shots. Many photographers spend all their time fiddling with their equipment, and as soon as the shoot is over they tune out and fill their time reading novels or talking about other places. They may get great photos but never really see the animals, and they leave not knowing anything about them. If nothing else, just take some time to sit and watch the wildlife and observe their behaviors and interactions. Ask questions. Most tour operators carry books and reference materials on the local wildlife and landscape. This information will help you get the most of your trip, and will make you a more compatible companion for your guide and the others in your group. Most guides are naturalists, are very knowledgeable and care intensely about the animals and the place.
11. Let your guide know when you are having a good time and getting what you want from your trip. A generous tip or bonus of course is the sincerest expression of appreciation, but it’s always good to let the guide know what he or she did right, and what you liked about your day or your trip. Guides almost always see and know far more than they tell or show on any given day, and guiding is tiring work. If a client expresses appreciation and interest in the place, the animals and the experience, the guide will be motivated to work a little harder. Remember, all the time you are manipulating your equipment, or simply putting one foot in front of the other on the trail, the guide is actively scanning for animals or other targets. Some clients have told me that the best image they got came from the extra side trip we took when we should have been done for the day. Good guides will work hard for you if you are interested and if you appreciate their efforts. The flip side is that constructive suggestions are usually welcome if they can be implemented under the existing conditions, but in general, complaints are not welcome. A situation than cannot be remedied in the field should not be discussed in the field. A call or letter after the trip may be helpful, but be sensitive to the realities of logistics in remote locations.
12. Offer to help. Work on a trip is planned so that the guide or staff can do it all, but there is no harm in helping. It helps establish a bond between client and guide. Guides are just as tired as you at the end of the day, but they still have several hours of work to do. If you offer to help load the vehicles, make the salad or whatever you can do, it makes the guide’s life a little easier and gives you a role in the success of the operation. The guide may decline your offer to help, but they will appreciate it nevertheless.
13. If you have a good trip, pass the word. Small “mom and pop” ecotour operations confront major obstacles in marketing their services, and word-of-mouth advertising is the best kind.
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