As I prepare for my trip to the Arctic, here are a few tips on how to find your next photo opportunity.
More often than not, good wildlife images are the result of good preparation. Whilst it's okay to rely on chance some of the time, I never expect to come home with amazing photos if I always leave my wildlife encounters to fate. Preparing for a photo trip can vary widely from having a particular image in mind to wanting to capture the feel of a place over time. The end goal is basically the same - to create an evocative and hopefully memorable photograph that shows nature at its best.
Most of my trips are born from a desire to see something specific - whether that's an animal, landscape or even a quality of light. Like anyone who has wanderlust, that constant urge to explore the world, I have an endless list of scenes in my mind's eye that I want to capture (I wrote a blog about my top 7 wildlife spectacles here). For example, the image of a bear silently moving through a dappled forest was enough of a driving force to set my trip to Slovenia's Karst region in motion; whilst the challenge of photographing giant yucca flowers against the starry sky was so tempting that I rang up my friend in Texas and suggested we do a road-trip to New Mexico for that purpose!
They're both very different images from very different parts of the world. But what they share is a need to understand the subject, the location and the light. Gathering as much information as possible about the place you're visiting and its potential means that you can maximise your time taking photos and the likelihood of you getting that dream shot.
So how do you choose a location? With such a growth in ecotourism and a wealth of information online, wildlife photographers have a huge choice of places to go. One option is to focus your efforts on one wildlife spectacle. Most experiences have a peak time of year for seeing them - for example, if you want to see bears fishing for salmon in Alaska, you would go in the summertime to coincide with the salmon migration. Or if your dream is to see a wild tiger in India, it would be wiser to go in the spring when the weather is cooler and the tigers (and you) will be feeling more active. This focussed approach is ideal if you are constrained by time or other travel restrictions, and by dedicating your time to just one subject at its peak time your photos will be stronger.
By postponing a family trip to the Netherlands by a couple of weeks, I was able to catch the famous spectacle of the tulip blooms at their most vibrant and get this shot of the tulips reaching to the sky.
Narrowing down a location can be an overwhelming challenge, which is why researching in advance is so key. Going on an organised photo tour or workshop can remove a lot of the legwork that you'd have to do, as tour leaders will know all the photo hotspots, how to maximise your photo time and will put you in the right place in the best light conditions without taking chances. To visit some places such as seabird colonies or safari parks, a tour is the only way of seeing animals. It's better to find a tour with a small number of participants, or a guide who can tailor a private tour for you. It will be more expensive but that's the cost for having more flexibility and getting higher quality photos.
Going on an organised seabird boat tour with an expert skipper was the only way that I could photograph this albatross far out on the rough seas.
If you prefer to arrange your own trip, which is what I tend to do, then you will need to research in advance to identify key locations. I spend months reading trip reports and blogs to get a fuller understanding of what a location can offer at different times of year. For a location like Svalbard, websites run by wildlife tour operator are still useful as they have an archive of trip reports, and reliable up-to-date information on what can be seen and where. For more precise and potentially sensitive information, such as the coordinates for bird breeding sites, I get in touch with local nature guides and scientists who have that valuable local knowledge. I've also been using websites like eBird and Svalbard Mammal Sightings to find recent sightings of rarer animals like Ivory Gulls and Polar Bears, so that I can know where specifically to look and avoid wasting valuable time on location.
Getting in touch with local nature guides means that you can be in the right place at the right time for those golden moments.
As I chose my subjects and location, I'm always thinking about their photographic potential. The internet is full of images that will help you to identify good subjects as well as possible ways of photographing them. My first point of call is to look at the work of other photographers who I admire and who have worked in that location or environment. For Svalbard I've been looking at photos by Daisy Gilardini, Paul Nicklen and Vincent Munier, three brilliant photographers who are experts in capturing the feel of the Arctic. Whilst I can't always hope to create original images, I can at least try, and I let their images inspire and challenge me to do something fresh.
Using my wide-angle lens to photograph this great bustard on the Salisbury Plains has given me ideas about how to incorporate the surroundings into my Arctic shots of eider and foxes.
With images in mind, I like to dust off the camera before going on any trip - figuratively and literally. Whilst it's crucial to make sure every piece of kit is in working order, it's just as vital to be familiar with it. You don't want to be fiddling with dials and switches on location and miss that key moment. For my Arctic trip, I want to use my wide-angle lens (10-20mm) to photograph arctic foxes and eider ducks in their environment. It's a lens I sadly seldom use as I mainly shoot with my 400mm telephoto lens - but the kind of shots that it offers are amazing. So I've been playing with it at home, trying different ideas out and thinking about what does or doesn't work. It's a liberating way of working, and I treat any shot I get at home as a dress rehearsal or dry run for Svalbard.
There are lots of images online of gannets flying, and I wanted to try something different. After getting a more conventional portrait of this gannet flying to its nest (left), I experimented by using motion blur to create an impression of its speed as it flew over the sea (right).
As I collect information, I create a kind of scrapbook. My Google Drive is full of documents and images which all put me into the mindset of that place. It helps to visualise everything at once by plotting it on a map. The Map function in Google Drive has been invaluable, allowing me to add coloured pinpoints for each photo hotspot, as well as text and photos of what each place looks like, and potential travel routes. At this point, the trip becomes more concrete and feels like it's actually happening!
I refer to these maps all the time, even when I reach my destination. Maps allow you to look at finer details such as hillside contours, where east and west are, and therefore where sunlight will come from and where the best vantage points are for taking photos. Landscape photo apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris even allow you to see a detailed 3D virtual representation of the landscape with an overlay of the sun's path at different times of day and year. This is really useful for landscape shoots, as you don't want to arrive on location to find your scene in shadow.
I used landscape photo apps to plan where the light would be for this shot of a sunlit chamois with a shadowy hillside.
These are just a few of the steps I take to planning a trip. By the time I arrive in a new destination, it's almost like greeting a familiar old friend! It's pretty incredible that in this modern tech age we can do a reconnaissance of a location without having even been there. That said, looking at maps and blogs will only get you so far, and it's always good to arrive with an open mind to discovering a place's photo potential.
Thanks for reading and good luck on your own photo travels! If you have any tips of your own, please leave a comment below!