So you’ve signed up for a nature photography tour. Or perhaps you decided to plan your own trip, hire a private guide and are looking forward to exploring the wilds and coming face to face with all sorts of exotic species. In either case, you’re probably relying on a local expert to take you to the places that offer the best chances to see the wildlife that interests you. And you’re hoping that the animals themselves decide to play their part and make an appearance and, in theory, stick around long enough to allow you to snap plenty of photos.
Most of us rely a lot on others to make these trips memorable and fun. But what can we do to make our wildlife adventures more successful and fulfilling? Here are a few suggestions.
Help With the Search Effort
Unless you’re traveling to an area where animals are nesting or denning, or you’re in a hide near water (or bait) or sitting in front of a bird feeding station, some sort of effort needs to go into finding your wildlife subject. One reason we hire local guides is because they know the terrain and often the animals themselves, including behaviors and patterns that can tip them off to better viewing opportunities. These guides may be expert trackers, incredible spotters or simply know the area well enough to identify anything out of the ordinary that can lead to a “great find.” But a guide can’t do everything, and certainly can’t be looking everywhere at once. Especially if they’re also busy driving a car or piloting a boat. I always joke with my Yellowstone clients that “I need to keep my eyes on the road at least 40% of time.” Okay, so it’s more than that, but it does mean that I can’t be scanning my surroundings all the time.
The more eyes that are busy searching, the better. Some of my best wildlife encounters on tour have occurred thanks to the sharp eyes of active and alert guests that managed to spot something I missed. Conversely, some of my most disappointed clients happened to expend little energy searching for the animals they wanted so badly to see. With a team effort, the odds of fulfilling your main goals, or simply seeing more on your trip go way up. By the way, I always try to include binoculars on any photography tour packing list for this reason. It may not be a “wildlife watching” tour, but in order to find something to photograph, we do need to actually watch for wildlife.
Be Open to New Experiences (and Not Just Your Own)
If you’re signing up for a group photo tour, you’re likely to be traveling with some strangers. People from different countries and with different levels of travel and photography experience often converge to work with a particular guide or visit a destination. Inevitably, tour participants will have a variety of goals or specific animals on their wish lists. During a trip, certain species that may be a common sight for one person may be completely foreign and new to another.
I’ve found that one of the most important elements of running a successful tour is trying to dedicate some time to everyone’s needs and goals. It’s nearly impossible to fulfill every goal, but it’s important to try. These folks may not ever get a chance to visit the area again, after all. So I, as a guide, can certainly put forth the effort to appease everyone on tour.
But there’s a flip side to that coin. Group participants must also be flexible and understanding when some members of the group wish to achieve certain goals that might otherwise be ignored. I’ve been fortunate that nearly all of my own tour guests have been very accommodating and understanding in these situations. A client from Montana may have seen hundreds or thousands of bison in his lifetime, but he was more than happy to stop so that guests from overseas were able to get their first photos of one.
When presented with a familiar subject, there’s suddenly an opportunity to look at it in a new way, or to experiment with techniques you may have never tried. Rather than sitting around tapping your foot while waiting to move on to the next “new” thing, see what you can create from a familiar situation that will be new and different than what you’ve produced in the past.
You may also find that you can come away with an appreciation for common, plain or “boring” subjects that you never had before. During my recent Great Bear Rainforest tour, my group was sitting very patiently, waiting for a spirit bear to appear on shore. It was a long couple of days, and since we were confined to a boat there wasn’t much we could do during our wait. It turns out there’s nothing like fish photography to pass the time. Yes, fish!
The salmon were spawning at that time of year, and we had a window looking into the waterfall that made up part of the spawning stream. Salmon were leaping to and fro. Normally, fish aren’t high on photographers’ lists, but this was a unique opportunity to document not only an important aspect of the ecological process, but also a chance to challenge ourselves with some very difficult photography.
Capturing a salmon in mid-air while looking through a tiny window in the trees and rocks—as the fish are jumping away from you, no less—while sitting or standing in a bobbing boat is not an easy task, so nailing one or two shots was that much more rewarding. Normally I wouldn’t have given fish a second thought, but it not only made the wait for bears more tolerable, we ended up with unique photos we otherwise wouldn’t have taken.
Plus, you just never know when you may see something truly surprising and spectacular. When I traveled to Peru, I was roped into the trip by a fellow photographer I’d wanted to shoot with for some time. The only problem: he was a bird photographer (I certainly didn’t think of myself as one of those) and it was a bird photography tour. So you can imagine how I felt when he was forced to back out and I was stuck on my own on a trip mainly devoted to a subject I wasn’t terribly fond of.
As you might expect, I was force-fed lots of bird photo ops during that tour (by the forty-fifth hummingbird species I was pretty much ready for mammals). But among those birds was the Marvelous Spatuletail, which proved to be such an amazing bird that it provided my favorite photo session with any animal the entire year. As I wrote previously, this experience went a long way in helping me develop a greater appreciation for birds in general. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t kept an open mind and stuck with the trip even after my colleague cancelled.
It’s one thing to be open to and recognize the wishes and goals of your fellow tour participants. But inevitably, most of the areas you’re visiting will be frequented by other visitors and tourists. You paid a lot of money to get to these places to see wildlife, but so did they! I preach cooperation not only within my own groups, but with other groups around us as well.
In places where photographers are all crowding around trying to get the best angle for a certain subject, things sometime get a little chaotic. It’s important to keep your head on a swivel as you’re moving around. Are you blocking the view of someone who was already set up behind you? Are you bumping into tripod legs or even worse, people, as you try to get your shot? If you’re already set up, is there room to allow another person to squeeze in so you can both shoot and view the animal comfortably? If there’s an opportunity to get closer to a subject without disturbing it, is everyone in the crowd comfortable with you moving forward?
I’ve seen instances when guides shoved park visitors out of the way in order to make room for a client’s tripod. I’ve heard tour clients yell and scream at tourists non-stop for occupying spaces they wanted empty. In reality, it’s really not too difficult to help make a shared wildlife encounter more enjoyable for as many people as possible. Respect your fellow travelers as you’d want them to respect you, and the experience can be more rewarding and enriching for everyone.
Remember, It’s Nature
Honestly, I’ve been amazed at the number of clients I’ve had who have come on tour with one main goal in mind, didn’t achieve that goal, and dealt with any resulting disappointment with equanimity. Their Zen-like attitude: “It’s nature. It’s unpredictable.” That’s a fairly accurate and reasonable mindset, and also quite useful when dealing with the inevitable letdowns that come with trying to track down wildlife. I think it’s brilliant when folks are able to focus on the positives and happily look back on a trip for the other experiences that made it fun and memorable. But it’s not easy to think that way.
One reason I prefer destinations that offer variety is because there’s a greater chance of seeing something new. I may travel to Yellowstone in hopes of seeing wolves or bears, but I also get really excited about mustelids and owls. Africa has its big cats, but photographing a bushbaby or honey badger for the first time is way up there among my favorite experiences. Setting and achieving a solitary goal on a given trip often sets you up for a trap. How will you cope if you miss out? Will you give up and stop searching half-way through? Will you mope and grouse, bringing the rest of the group down? Or will you keep plugging away, knowing that with an unpredictable subject, magic can happen even at the very last moment?
Remember those salmon? My clients waited silently and patiently in the Zodiac for two full days for that spirit bear before it appeared at the last possible moment on our final evening. Patience is often rewarded.
It’s impossible to completely ignore the letdown that comes from striking out, but simply being out in nature means you’ll inevitably be given a chance to soak in many different, wonderful experiences you can’t get back home. Relish those, and your travels won’t be completely wasted.
If you’re interested in joining me on a nature photography adventure, please check out my Workshops and Tours page. All of my big 2017 trips are sold out, but there are a lot of options available for 2018 and 2019, and I’ll be announcing more tours soon!