There was a time I used to dream of wildlife encounters before a safari to Yellowstone. I don’t remember the dreams now, but those last few nights before a safari started were sleepless with anticipation. In the late 1980’s, when I lived in St. George, Utah my friends, usually Bryan Sutton, and sometimes his dad Bob, or Eddie Blount, would travel on photo safaris with me. That went on for a number of years until moving to Providence, Utah. In the decade of the ’90’s I had more friends joining me, Casey Bell and Jed Packer among others. The trips got bigger, better planned, but the excitement never went away. No matter how many trips to Yellowstone, or Zion, or the Tetons I took, I was always amped up, ready to chase for the next image.
By the turn of the century I was marketing photography seminars at my studio, and safaris all over the inter-mountain west. While my personal photography got better and my organization skills and planning for these events improved, I was left to wonder about mixing a passion with business. Now, that probably seems remarkable to many folks who see only the upside of the “mixing a passion with business”, but I knew that there would be a downside as well. The downside is your passion becomes your business, and all the minor difficulties that before were ignored and minimized start to wear you down. Picking up the camera daily to do commercial and portraiture jobs is not the same as anticipating a big photo safari to Yellowstone, or Death Valley, or Big Sur.
My studio in Providence was a means to an end. While it provided me a living, it also took me out of the parks and mountains a great deal and kept me in town. In June 2003 I photographed 24 weddings, a ridiculous number to be sure, but that was in addition to the families, engagements, bridals, etc I was shooting that month. Everyday was full, many with three shooting jobs per day. And just so you know, I was shooting all medium-format equipment and 120mm roll film back then. I carried a large Mamiya 645 AF camera and lenses around with me, constantly filling roll film backs, and sending off boxes of exposed film to a lab in Kansas. Not only were the hours long with few, if any, weekends off, but my studio had to be open for clients on a regular basis.
There was a business upside to this: I didn’t have to advertise for clients as much after a few years, they seemed to come back each year, and referred me to their friends. The attributes I had developed as a wildlife photographer, shooting quickly, shooting for position, and just photography woodcraft traits in general – served me well in portraiture. I took command of the wedding (photography) party and groups and shot quickly, never missing the important images, and never making people wait. I had an internal list of images I wanted to get, given the clients and location, and I was good at getting what they wanted. Unlike California where much of the photography is candid, with less structure – the weddings I shot were mostly inside-the-box types of jobs. What suffered was my wildlife/nature photography.
Now there is no question that if you want to make a good living as a photographer you shoot people. People pay you upfront, on-time, and refer new clients to you. Grizzly bears mostly don’t sell, and if they do its after much sweat and pursuit of that sale, and it is almost never very much. One good family portrait job will outsell 1000 great grizzly shots. The difference is that the skill level of a good wildlife/nature photographer far exceeds that of a portrait photographer, most of whom (not me, of course) are joined at the hip with their studios. They don’t want to leave the familiar surroundings of their studio’s preset lights and backdrops, posing benches, and chairs. I loved taking folks outdoors and then having to create the image. Manage the sun and location, and shoot in a set of circumstances that changes with each job. I enjoyed that aspect of portraiture.
In 2008 I married Jacqueline and moved back to California. I reset my business plan back to wildlife and nature photography – first, through city sponsored seminars – and second, by leading photography safaris in the American West. Mix in some commercial shoots, stock image sales, and an occasional portraiture job … and their you go. What I really hadn’t anticipated was the depth of beauty of California, the state I grew up in and had overlooked as a photography destination for so long. I mean, come on, I had just spent 25 years shooting in Utah with Yellowstone only a few hours away – what could be better than that? I think 2011 was a turning point for me.
Most of you who are reading this know me, or have shot with me, been to a seminar with me, or at least feel like you know me a little through my images. The excitement that I talked about at the beginning of this essay, the difficulty sleeping and dreaming of wildlife encounters before a big photo safari, had begun to fade. My passion for photography had become a passion for the business of photography, and business always becomes routine to a degree. In other words, I began sleeping fine before leaving on big safaris.
This past year has been a photography epiphany for me. While I did about the same number of safaris and seminars, had about the same number of commercial fine art sales and jobs, I had more peak experiences. My timing has grown better at many of the locations I shoot at. Lots of you that have shot with me know that I’m lucky when it comes to wildlife and landscape encounters, but this year was better than normal, hitting locations in awesome light or storms that made for great images, and shooting a number of animals for the first time (gray fox, peccaries, white-tail bucks, condors, Mohave green rattlesnake) or super close-up (bobcats, and of course, the always close grizzlies, and many birds) or performing great hunts and behavior (red foxes, bald eagles, raptors, etc).
I’ve shot some new locations this year, going to places at the request of those on my safaris … and they have always chosen wisely, and I listened. On the Bosque del Apache (New Mexico) safari last January, after two days of intense and overwhelming bird photography, Diane Tomita suggested going to White Sands National Monument for the third day, and what a great choice that was. Incredible place. After that safari I was down shooting with Butch Ramirez in Laredo, Texas – shooting birds and animals I had never photographed before in a shooting environment (blinds) that was new to me (though I own a great blind but use it rarely.) for practical wildlife photography.
The eagle safari was amazing once again, followed by the snowstorm/blizzard Yellowstone winter safari in February. The blossom trail in March and the Tehachapi wildflower safaris were really the color of spring … with the Mohave Green Rattlesnake providing the flavoring for that safari. Remember, don’t lay down on holes in fields of flowers – I’m just saying … Death Valley was stunning as usual. In May, Mike Green suggested spending a day on the southern Utah Spring Safari at Monument Valley, so off we went, and shot stunning sunrise images of the mittens and of rising storm clouds in Zion Canyon. Some of my best Zion images ever.
From Yosemite waterfalls in May to the always exciting spring wildlife safari in June in Yellowstone, great image opportunities were everywhere. We photographed grizzlies at ranges that made us retreat, and black bears swimming in ponds. For the first time I took out my can of grizzly mace as the Quad Grizzly sow with her two remaining cubs came right up to us at sunrise, I mean, right up to us.
The summer was spent shooting agriculture images and wildflowers throughout the Sierras, from Sequoia and Kings Canyon to Angel’s Camp and Lake Tahoe. When autumn rolled around many of us were back in Yellowstone shooting bull elk on the Madison River and the amazingly Red Fox near Roosevelt Junction. What a show they put on. Not to consider my own mortality, but I have to ponder how many trips to Yellowstone I get in my life. How many spring babies and fall ruts I get to witness there. I’m glad I don’t know how many I have left, hopefully decades worth.
Of course, fall colors always take me to southwest Colorado, Yosemite, and southern Utah from October through November. Great colors and a cool Gray Fox awaited me in Zion. Wow, what an opportunity. The Nikon D3s gave me a weapon I’ve never had before, the ability to push my ISO and still shoot publishable quality images. I shot that rare gray fox in dim-going-to-dark light at ISO 3200 and came away with amazing images. I would have been dead with the Nikon D2x, I would have tried, but I would have failed in capturing any image as good as what I shot.
And now I’ve come to November – December safaris, mainly being to a new area for me, the Big Sur area of the California coast. Wow. Every stop was wow, sometimes double wow. The majesty of that shoreline, headlands, beaches, and wildlife was stunning. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe all the amazing landscapes and wildlife I saw and photographed. I have to thank Dave Collins for doing some research on the area and shooting with me on the first safari. On the second safari we added other locations with equally majestic views, such as the windows in the rock at Pfeiffer state beach.
Many of you have led me to great spots, either from your own knowledge or from taking part in the safaris and pushing me to find great locations. I’m the first to admit I don’t know every great location in the American West, every road with incredible spring flowers, or every trail leading to a breathless landscape … but I keep looking, I keep pushing, and 2011 has been a great year for me and my photography growth. When you photograph new subjects you are pushed to learn how to photograph them, a trick here or there, an angle here or there, a certain time or possibly a new exposure rule for a particular type of light … you build your skills, and I have certainly built mine this year thanks to many of you who went on safaris and grew with me. So to all of you, I say thanks. On the night before my December safari to Big Sur, via Pinnacles, I was amped up and couldn’t sleep. Its been a few years since I felt that exhilaration prior to a safari, and I have to say I liked it. That safari was just a week ago now, photos edited and processed already, and many of you have seen a few of them, and I’m going back Jan 14-15 again, and I’m amped up just thinking about it.
Shooting in California has been more than I could have imagined when I first moved back. But as my knowledge of the area increases I hope to be able to bring these amazing experiences to many of you. After all, photography is only fun when it’s shared, it is a journey that we make and not a destination. For those of you that have graced me with your presence on a safari, or spent a couple of hours with me in a seminar – I hope you know that sharing photography has become my life’s adventure, and I hope I transfer some of that excitement for photography to you.
Here are my some FAVORITES from 2011 …
Those are just a few. I hope everyone gets out and shoots more in 2012. If it is anything like 2011 then we are all in for some amazing moments, and images. BRP