PORTRAITS IN THE WILD is the the portfolio where my wildlife images live on my website. I will attest right up front that every image in this portfolio is of an animal or bird totally free and wild in its natural habitat. I have been so very fortunate over the past few years to visit a few of the premium locations in the world to photograph exotic wildlife. I have a ton of photos of wildlife taken in zoos, but I look at zoos as practice opportunities, and while many of those photos represent the animals nicely it just isn't the same as interacting with a non-captive animal where he lives. I have photographed wildlife in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Alaska, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon, Alberta, Manitoba, and most recently South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.
I cannot begin to describe the adrenalin rush one gets when photographing a bear, for instance, when my Nikon is the only thing that separates us. I found myself in that position on a couple occasions in Alaska a few years ago. Believe me, I was paying attention to what was going on. But you know, the bear on those occasions really wasn't interested in me. Oh, he was aware of my presence and kept an eye on me, but otherwise went calmly about his business. I didn't press my luck to get closer; my long lens did that for me. The goal is to get the best photo possible without disturbing the animal, e.g., invading his space, surprising him, or putting one's self in jeopardy. That sounds like a simple statement but it's not. One must plan and execute a wildlife photo session very carefully. It's not enough to just decide to take photos, one must physically get to where the animals are, determine how to approach them, select equipment, perhaps most importantly know something about the animals to be photographed (their habits, characteristics, etc.), then while actually photographing the subject be very sensitive and aware of how the animal is reacting to your presence. Knowing the animal's habits and bodily actions are important tip offs to what is happening. If the animal displays any sign of stress or abnormal behavior that is the time to back off. An adrenaline rush is one thing, but being charged by an angry animal is a whole different ballgame.
The type of photo session is key to many preparatory decisions. Many of my wildlife shoots have been guided ventures where the only consideration is choosing equipment and clothing one is going to take, then getting one's self there. The best of such that I have experienced was a one week "photography dedicated" trip to Churchill, Manitoba to photograph Polar Bears. I did a lot of pre-trip research to learn about the Polar bear, his habitat, challenges, and habits. Then I took everything I had on that trip, two cameras, a full range of focal lengths, tripod, etc. I also carried cold weather gear, boots, etc. I had a lot of weight, all dedicated to photography; there was no other activity. Contrast that with my recent trip to Africa. We had but two days on safari out of a 16-day trip and severely limited as to both carry-on and checked luggage. I was not able to take the long lense I wanted due to weight restrictions. I had to think through very carefully what situations I might encounter and how to meet them from a "limited" equipment scenario. I knew I would be shooting from a Land Rover or boat (I even shot a few from the back of an elephant!) I settled on one camera and one 18-300mm lens, plus 1.4X and 2.0X tele-extenders. I wasn't exactly satisfied with this limited setup but it worked quite well. While I would have preferred my 400mm telephoto lens it was just too heavy to consider. Because I would be shooting from a moving vehicle, and at times in low light conditions, I knew high ISOs were essential to achieve adequate shutter speed. I don't like that, but I didn't have a choice. Fortunately modern digital SLRs handle high sensor speeds nicely, and software does a great job in post-production to eliminate or reduce residual digital and color noise. I also knew that a tripod would be out of the question, and while I could have used one in other places I didn't even pack one. Image stabilizing lenses are a big help in hand held situations . Many trips have been on-my-own in an RV where my photo gear got priority in terms of space; decision making was easy-it all went. I've also done a lot of backpacking where once again space and weight were critical, however, wildlife photo opportunities on those ventures were limited, outside of Alaska that is.
Wildlife photography is thrilling. I would encourage anyone who hasn't tried it to give it a go, if even in your own backyard or park. Birds & butterflies make wonderful subjects, and perhaps not as adrenaline inducing as a Polar Bear or African lion but still requires some planning and practice.