Captive Emotions

NOT ALL CAPTIVE WILDLIFE FACILITIES ARE CREATED EQUAL

On Monday March 6th, 2017 poachers broke into a French zoo, shooting a four year old White Rino and sawing off its horn, officials say this incident is the first of its kind in Europe.

A crocodile at the Belvedere Zoo in Tunisia was brutally stoned to death by a group of visitors on March 1st, 2017. Earlier in that same week a horrific incident at the National Zoo in El Salvador resulted in the death of a Hippo when it was attacked by a group after dark with metal bars, knives and rocks. Obviously the management at these facilities didn’t participate in these heinous crimes, but you have to wonder if there are sufficient protective measures in place for the animals if this is happening in the first place. These are not isolated incidences in remote corners of civilization either. Every day wild animals are mistreated at captive facilities throughout the western world.

In 2013 Sea World was exposed in a shocking documentary titled Blackfish. As an organization that had been viewed for generations as a destination for clean family fun, Sea World turned out to be anything but.
Many animals are bred illegally without proper monitoring of genetics causing all kinds of complications for the baby animals and a deterioration of the species gene pool. I’m pleased that the local Phoenix Zoo here in my home state of Arizona is fully accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for 29 different species. AZA accredited zoos that are involved in SSP programs engage in cooperative population management of various endangered species and conservation efforts. These include research, public education, reintroduction, and on site or field conservation projects. There are currently 172 species covered by 116 different SSP programs throughout North America. The goal of the SSP is to engage in animal husbandry and research projects for selected species that are in need of conservation efforts. SSP programs focus on animals that are in danger of extinction in the wild, when zoo conservationists believe captive breeding programs may be their only chance to survive. These programs also help maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community.
Captive wild animals at non accredited facilities are often used for “shows” to perform in front of audiences, sadly there is one of these located right here in my home state of Arizona. To find an accredited facility near you search the database on the AZA website. Game Farms (where many photographers go to quickly pad their portfolios) are some of the worst offenders. Animals often have food withheld so that they can be manipulated more easily with bait by their handlers in front of the throngs of photographers that are paying big money to photograph them. Another atrocity of these game farms in the euthanization of healthy animals. As pointed out by Ted Williams in his article, a Montana game farm euthanized eight wolves in one year because they were “dangerous.” In other words, their behavior was too wolflike. Thomas Mangelsen, one of the world’s most respected wildlife photographers has been speaking out against game farms for years. Those leading photography groups to photograph in game farm settings are equally guilty as the people running the facilities. They vehemently defend this robust revenue source of theirs, much like those that are profiting from photographing baited wild mammals and birds do.
All too often today wild animals are used as a source of our entertainment, like some extension of the internet or television, instead of being respected as the amazing and intelligent creatures that they are. The images in this article are from the new ‘Captive Emotions‘ series that I’m currently working on to illustrate the lives and behavior of captive wildlife species.
Please know what you are supporting before you go to your next captive wildlife facility. We should respect, love and protect the natural world, not exploit and seek our entertainment from it.

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If you’d like to view the growing collection of images from my Captive Emotions project please visit this link.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

The Cycle Of Life

A  GLIMPSE  INTO  THE  AFRICAN  MIGRATION  SEASON

I recently returned to Africa in August to lead my second safari of 2016. This trip was for the incredible migration season, arguably the greatest annual event in the animal kingdom. No matter how many times one has witnessed the migration it fills you with awe. Each day brings with it new adventures and a glimpse into the real life behavior and challenges of animals that call the Masai Mara their home. Despite the greatest efforts of directors, I have never seen a TV program or movie that comes close to duplicating the experience of witnessing this adrenaline filled action first hand. A poet writes a verse, but the reader does not see the mind of the author, they only catch a glimpse. So too it is with any attempt to convey the true African experience in a video production, no matter how well it is executed it still falls short. Certainly one can get a sense of it, but it just simply cannot do it justice. Knowing this and in full disclosure of the same, I will share with you in brief some snapshots from my experience of life in the Mara. Though it is certainly not sufficient, one cannot help but try to convey the marvel of this exceptional event.

Here in the African grasslands great misconceptions are proved false, Lions once thought to be the king of the jungle are shown subject to the gentle giants that we call Elephants.

 

Scale becomes relative to your perception when a towering Masai Giraffe walks into the scene, dwarfing the Zebras that just a moment before seemed so large.

 

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

The most unlikely of characters become the hero of the hour as a wiry, brave mother Warthog accomplishes the impossible in warding off the attack of four Cheetahs attempting to capture one of her three small piglets.

 

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and without the Crocodiles the plains of the Mara would be over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would starve.

The struggle between life and death, grim though it may be, is revealed as the harmonious circle of life. The animals that make this place their home maintain the perfect balance here in the African wilds. Without the Wildebeest the population of Crocodiles would surely drop off drastically and the absence of Crocodiles would lead to the plains of the Mara being over-run with Wildebeest to the point that mass numbers would assuredly starve.

 

The incredibly well camouflaged Leopard is a challenge to locate due to a stunning vanishing act, it merely walks into the tall grass and disappears into its surroundings, lost from sight.

 

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rain that has fallen.

Despite their drab colors and simplistic behavior, one finds a new found respect for the Gnu after watching a Wildebeest dance in the late afternoon rain showers. They quickly shed their perceived lazy demeanor and race about the pains in celebration of the fresh rains that have fallen.

 

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Expressions of friendship and affection are displayed here between wild beasts in ways that would put to shame many of our own race. Despite their identity as an apex predator, there is no question about the love and harmony between two Cheetah siblings.

Should you have the chance I cannot encourage you enough to embrace the opportunity and go experience this incredible event. You will see the cycle of life as it unfolds and write your own story to share once you depart. I’ll be returning there again in 2017 to lead my Premium African Migration Safari, if you’d like more information you’ll find it here at this link.

If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Masai Mara Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Dawn of the Lion | Africa

Scars of Life | Lion

Scars of Life | Lion

Whispers In The Grass | Leopard

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Lofty Ambitions | Giraffe

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

Seduction Of The Savana | Africa

© 2016 Nathaniel Smalley Photography – All rights reserved.

 

Fall, Familiarity and Fantasy

Chronicles of Nature

The River Serpent | Iceland Photographed in the highlands above Háifoss Waterfall.

The River Serpent | Iceland
Photographed above Háifoss Waterfall in the Highlands.

Yesterday was officially the last day of what has been a very busy summer, and today ushers in the new season of Fall. Over the past few months I’ve had two safaris in Africa, one photo tour in Iceland and I depart on Sunday to lead my Autumn photo tour in Lofoten, Norway. My travels throughout this year have been very rewarding. I have enjoyed the company of many wonderful people whom I now consider good friends. During the course of the year I’ve spent time reflecting on the nature photography industry. There are a couple tendencies I have noticed relating to landscape photography, I’ll call them familiarity and fantasy.

Into The Mist | Iceland My interpretation of Skogafoss Waterfall, Summer 2015.

Into The Mist | Iceland
My interpretation of Skogafoss Waterfall, Summer 2015.

Living Waters | Iceland My interpretation of Skogafoss Waterfall, Summer 2016.

Living Waters | Iceland
My interpretation of Skogafoss Waterfall, Summer 2016.

Familiarity‘  you ask? We’ve all heard of (or met) the photographer that snubs others with a heavy dose of elitism because they never shoot iconic locations, right? (Odds are that same photographer spent their early years as a photographer shooting those exact locations they now sneer at). First of all, let me say that I can appreciate their sentiment to a degree. Given the opportunity, I’d strongly prefer to shoot in a wilderness area that hasn’t been trampled by millions of footprints and find my own fresh compositions. However, there is a reason that those ‘overshot ‘ locations are popular. There the strongest compositions tend to be fairly obvious and the scenes are very photogenic. It would seem unwise to be too quick passing judgement against an image from one of these ‘popular’ places. I personally haven’t spent time poring over other photographer’s compositions, trying to replicate their shots, (and I don’t say that from a position of arrogance either). I say it because I have taken shots in National Parks, only months later to discover someone else had a similar composition as the one I’d taken. Does that mean I shouldn’t have taken that shot? I think not. The simple fact is that I saw a beautiful landscape which appealed to me and I made an image as a result of my emotional response to that scene. I lead photo tours and safaris to some of the most popular photography destinations in the world. It would be easy for me to become jaded and forget that many of my clients have never seen these views, vistas or wildlife species before. As a photo tour leader I believe it is my duty and obligation to my clients to remember what it was like to see these incredible places for the first time. So what do I do? Personally I like to view this as a challenge to visit the same location multiple times and find ways to create a new interpretation of the same scenes each time I am there. If the light or the weather changes from the last time I shot that place it is easier, but in similar conditions, what then? The beauty of this is that you don’t have to travel around the world to exercise this discipline. See how many times you can visit the same regional park in your area and create a new composition of the same scene. This is where testing your creativity comes in, embrace it. Once we have become so familiar with spectacular locations that we can no longer appreciate their beauty and find fresh compositions in them, have we not lost our vision?

Puffins & Trolls | Iceland

Puffins & Trolls | Iceland

Glacial Kingdom | Iceland

Glacial Kingdom | Iceland

Creativity brings me to our next topic, ‘fantasy‘. This is the handicap some people put on their own photographic potential. Prior to traveling to a new destination they will scour Google images, searching for photos and compositions of their intended destination, painfully stunting their creativity in the process. Arriving on the scene they are unable to think for themselves, all they see in their mind’s eye is the shot of another photographer. They race around looking for the vantage point that produces the image they recall from some forgotten corner of the internet. You may laugh, but sadly I have had people show me photos, and all but ask me where the photographer’s tripod legs were positioned when that particular shot was taken. All I can think is what a horrible experience that must be, to constantly be attempting to fashion your own work in the shadow of someone else, to have your vision clouded by the compositions of another. While it is true that we have all learned at some point in our life by copying, it is only intended to be a stage in our development as photographers, not the fulfillment. Executing our own work though the work of our peers or photography “idols” is not life, but fantasy. Individuality is freedom from the norm, and though not always popular, it is alive!

If you’d like to see a collection of images from my recent tour please visit my Iceland Portfolio.

For information on my upcoming Iceland trips see my webpage: NOW Tours.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Opus of the Dawn | Iceland

Opus of the Dawn | Iceland

The Horse Whisperer | Iceland

The Horse Whisperer | Iceland

 

 

 

 

Dreamland | Iceland

Dreamland | Iceland

Under An Iceland Sky | Puffins

Under An Iceland Sky | Puffins

Chocolate & Buttercups | Iceland

Website

© 2016 Nathaniel Smalley Photography – All rights reserved.

This Is Africa

Chronicles of Nature

A  DAY  ON  THE  CHOBE  RIVER

The Greeting | African Elephants at Dusk

The Greeting | African Elephants at Dusk

Life on Safari is never dull and the memories you return home with are unrivaled. I recently traveled to Africa for my 2016 Chobe River Safari and wanted to share a glimpse into what a day on the river was like in my newest trip report.

Feeding-Frenzy-_-Hippo

Feeding Frenzy | Hippo

I arrived in Botswana under sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 80’s following a brief flight from Johannesburg. Our group boarded a hotel shuttle for the ten minute drive to Chobe Bush Lodge and got checked in. As I walked to my room I was surrounded by a varied chorus of birds singing in the canopy above me. A group of Baboons scuttled under the boardwalk as I passed by. The youngsters cautiously hid in the under growth until I was past and then raced to rejoin the adults. A couple of large Warthogs rooted in the trees behind my room before roaming further on in search of better feeding grounds. I could hear their squeals as they lumbered along in the mid-day light. The rustling sounds and branches swaying above me was a reminder of the local monkey population, yet they remained hidden from my sight. Only an occasional cry would confirm their presence. I spent the next couple hours getting settled into my room and resting by the pool while I waited for our afternoon photography session to begin.

The-Shortcut-_-Baboons

The Shortcut | Baboons

Aguana, our river driver, was a large, stoic man with a eager smile. He expertly guided our boat on the river ensuring we were in the correct position for the action and to maximize our opportunities where the light was best for photography. Our dock assistant, was always there when we needed help loading our gear onto the boat in the morning or carrying it back to our rooms at the end of the day’s excursion. As we made our way out onto the water that first day we were almost immediately met by a pair of Carmine Bee Eaters that entrained us with their acrobatic flight patterns. Their behavior of tossing bees into the air before eating it was fascinating to photograph. Beyond them we came across a small, but colorful Malachite Kingfisher hunting for its next meal. It’s larger cousin, the Pied Kingfisher, had large colony nesting in the river bank nearby and numerous adults were in the area showing off their striking black and white plumage.

The-Song-Of-Africa-_-African-Fish-Eagle

The Song of Africa | African Fish Eagle

We also encountered a elusive Green-backed Heron who posed boldly for us on a sunken log. Every 500 yards or so a majestic African Fish Eagle could be seen in the trees or high in the sky above us. As we traveled further up the river we found Hippos with their young feeding on the lush grasses and we saw our first elephant herd along the shoreline. A number of Marabou Storks could be seen as we made our way further into the park. Despite their unflattering appearance they were incredibly striking birds. Pied Kingfishers continued to dot the shoreline as we moved further up river. A pair of African Skimmers put on a stunning aerial displayed while feeding along the waters surface. As the sun began to descend to the horizon we turned the boat back towards the lodge just in time to see a large herd of Cape Buffalo making their way onto one of the large grassy islands in the center of the river. The young Buffalo calves interspersed in the herd made for great subjects. On the opposite bank crocodiles lurked in the shadows regretting lost opportunities of the day. As the setting sun merged into the horizon the whole sky became a blazing shade of red and the gigantic orange sphere slowly faded way giving place to the rising moon and the creatures of a cool Botswana night. The food buffet at each meal was incredibly diverse and the espresso ice cream was impossible to refuse. Perhaps my favorite day was when a local, traditional African dance troupe performed at our evening meal. I was caught off guard by how beautiful their singing was. While sitting eating my meal, it occurred to me that it would be impossible to feel sorrow while hearing their joyous voices. This is Africa. I’ll be returning there again in 2017 to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, if you would like more information you will find it here at this link.

If you’d like to see a complete collection of images from my recent trip please visit my Africa – Botswana Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. – Nathaniel

Chain-Of-Love-_-Elephants

Chain of Love | African Elephants

Website © 2016 Nathaniel Smalley Photography – All rights reserved.

A Bold New World

Chronicles of Nature

WINTER  PHOTOGRAPHY  IN  THE  POLAR  CIRCLE

Dance of the Green Dragon | Lofoten, Norway

Labyrinth | Lofoten, Norway – A maze of fascinating sand patterns made the perfect foreground for the distant snow capped mountain peaks during my recent Norway photography tour. This quiet stream flows directly into the ocean and the large, broken ice patches were too inviting to pass up. Sometimes you wait for what seems like an eternity for clear skies when shooting in the polar circle, but when it clears the sunrises are nothing short of spectacular. This was one of those days.

It is hard to believe that two months have past since I returned from leading back to back photography tours in Iceland and Norway. I had a great groups of dedicated photographers for both destinations and we enjoyed shooting in some incredible conditions. People generally have one of two reactions when they consider the thought of participating in a photography tour to a colder climate. There are those that will jump at the chance relishing the challenge and new experiences, asking eagerly, ‘Where do I sign up?!’ The remaining personalities typically respond with ‘Over my dead body!’ or mutter something about how they’d turn into an icicle. Another objection I’ve heard is fear of the damage their camera will suffer from the snow. First of all, if your equipment is worth its salt then it should be able to manage a little dusting of snow. The main risk with camera gear in a colder climate is extreme temperature changes. If you you allow it to gradually adjust then you shouldn’t have any problems.

Nordic Dreams | Iceland – During my recent Iceland Winter Photography Tour we visited a few different locations looking for the elusive aurora borealis, including the mighty Skógafoss waterfall. The Northern Lights never danced for us here, but a moonbow put on a show all its own. Later over Vik we were rewarded with a beautiful aurora display. Iceland is a land full of wonders!

Keeping batteries in a base layer pocket close to your body should extend their life in the cold when they aren’t in use. Secondly, at the end of the day the simple reality is that their really is no such thing as ‘bad conditions’, just a lack of creativity. We live in an age today when apparel manufactures make gear and clothing that will keep us comfortable in nearly any type of weather or at any temperature. I’m speaking from experience. Last year I led an winter expedition in the Himalayas to photograph Snow Leopards in the wilds of northeastern India. With the the right type of clothing and apparel you can endure some pretty extreme conditions. Finally, perhaps one of the best kept secrets about winter in Iceland (and particularly Norway) is how mild the winters are. The general assumption is that just because it’s in the polar circle it must be frigid. The reality is that almost all of Norway’s coast remains free of ice and snow throughout the year. Norway and Iceland are located along the same latitude as Siberia, Greenland and Alaska, so it is often expected to be a land of bitterly cold weather. However, due to warming influences of the northern Gulf Stream, the country actually enjoys a fairly mild climate. Average daily temperatures in the winter are typically above 32°F or 0°C. The good news is that this rampant misconception drastically reduces that number of photographers that visit these Nordic regions during the winter months, leaving it for groups like mine to enjoy. Once you’ve experienced and shot these locations in the summer, winter is a whole new experience. Like peeling back that layers of an onion, winter removes all the ‘fluff’ from the landscape and leaves one composing from a raw, rugged scene… and it is breathtakingly beautiful. I’ll be returning to lead my two Iceland Summer Photo Tours in July and I’ll be off again in September to lead my Norway Autumn Photo Tour. Below are just a few more examples from my winter tours, if you’d like to see more visit my Iceland Portfolio  or my Norway Portfolio.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Scream of the Sea | Lofoten, Norway – This image was captured on the upper northwestern side of the Lofoten peninsula. The weather was extremely dramatic and while we were there it began to snow. The raging ocean crashed harder and harder into rocks with the rising tide. I sat and stared for a long time before going to work on this composition. I listened to the gusting wind as it drove tiny white snowflakes through the air like so many small darts. I watched the surf dash onto the coast churning white froth all over the shoreline. There were so many different emotions at work in the scene. When I finally began to shoot it all went silent, but the sea still let it’s voice be heard visually with this striking face in the foaming water below… Unforgettable.

Flow | Iceland

Flow | Iceland – There are few things that I enjoy more than spending time alone with a camera surrounded by nature. However, there is certainly something to be said for sharing the magic of the outdoors with fellow photographers. For some it’s the moment they see a new country or species the first time that they have longed to witness for years. For others that have been to a destination before, it’s like taking them back to visit an old companion. Each time that I lead a tour to the Nordic countries I look forward to sharing the magic of that region with friends both old and new, and with you all. This is a large chunk of glacial ice getting caught in the rushing tide that was photographed on a black sand beach in eastern Iceland. I hope you enjoy it.

Ribbon Candy | Lofoten, Norway – At times hunting for the northern lights can be a bit like an emotional roller coaster. Typically I will have been up early that morning shooting sunrise and then out in the mid afternoon for sunset. After a warm meal for dinner one usually just wants to curl up on a couch and fall asleep looking at the images from the day. But the chance of seeing the beautiful aurora coaxes me back out into the dark and the crisp, winter air. Trudging through the snow or along a dark roadside thoughts of doubt creep into your mind and whisper that you’re wasting precious hours you could be sleeping searching for a phantom. And then suddenly from out of nowhere the sky explodes into into vibrant, changing patterns of color. In that moment all thoughts of sleep rush out of your your mind and adrenaline courses through your body. For a minute you forget to even shoot. All the tired muscles and sore joints in your body are forgotten as you bask in the glorious display of one of the natural worlds greatest phenomena. Nature’s therapy at its best.

Explosion | Iceland

Explosion | Iceland – There are certain locations that regardless of how many times you visit, it’s like a new experience every time. Iceland is one of those. This image was made at dawn on the beach in Vik, and while most are drawn to photograph the ancient sea stacks there, the surf is a subject unto itself. This area tends to experience some of the island’s more dramatic weather systems and the towering waves are astonishingly powerful. Exercising extreme caution here is of the utmost importance as sleeper waves often surprise tourists and can be deadly. The small black flecks that you see in the crashing wave here are actually fist-sized stones… just to give you an idea of how powerful the ocean is on this beach.

Arctic Pastels | Lofoten, Norway

Arctic Pastels | Lofoten, Norway – Hamnoy is the oldest fishing village in the Lofoten Archipelago, and though small, it is undeniably beautiful. Considered by many to be to be one of the most picturesque villages in the region, Hamnoy is also popular tourist destination due to its scenic, unspoiled nature. This village was only accessible by ferry until bridges were built connecting it to the rest of the peninsula about 35 years ago. During my Norway Photography Tour, participants are accommodated in remodeled fishermen cabins like the red ones pictured here. The oldest one of these was built in the 1890’s. There are few things that compare with staying in a traditional seaside cabin overlooking the coastline and falling asleep to the sound of the ocean lapping against the rocks below. This image was captured during the first sunrise photo shoot of my tour, we were rewarded with a soft pink blush in the clouds just above these iconic peaks.

Winter Oasis | Lofoten, Norway – Ice is often one of the best elements to utilize in a winter scene, however this year many of the large lakes in Norway were covered due to increased snowfall late in the season. The snow cover compromised the stability of the ice which made working around the lakes difficult at times. Adapting to these conditions meant passing on some of the grand compositions with ice cracks in the foreground, and instead finding small hidden ponds like this one just off the beaten path. While shooting in a colder climate certainly has its challenges, with the proper clothing one can remain quite comfortable and and the rewards are great. Winter images are very unique and produce results unlike any other season. This is a favorite area of mine for sunrise in Norway for good reason. And yes, the ice is really that color.

Gatekeepers | Iceland

The Gatekeepers | Iceland – Off Iceland’s eastern coastline fantastic rocks protrude from the ocean creating great subject matter for compositions. At this particular location they’re precisely where the sun sets during the winter season. As the sun drops down to the horizon it splits the difference between these two gigantic formations. If the skies are clear, then you’re treated to a beautiful display like this one.

Kelidesope | Norway

Kaleidoscope | Norway Fascinating sand patterns along the shoreline of one of Norway’s many beautiful beaches. Turquoise waters and white sand beaches, Norway is very much like the Caribbean of the North.

Someone recently asked me what we do on my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Photo Tours when the weather changes and the storms blow in. I was puzzled, but smiled and said, ‘That’s often when we do our best work.’ This shot was taken on my sold out Winter Iceland Photography Tour in 2016 with a great group of dedicated photographers. We’ve found some great scenes both in the landscape and the ice caves.

What a beautiful country! This shot was taken on the final day of my Nature Odyssey Worldwide Tours in Norway. A fitting end to what was a week filled with the perfect variety of weather, allowing us to photograph the landscape in all conditions. One of my participants that travels a lot for photography said this was perhaps the best tour they’d ever been on, I couldn’t ask for a better compliment. Thanks to this great group for joining me this Winter, 2016 Photo Tour in Norway!

© 2016 Nathaniel Smalley Photography – All rights reserved.

 

Award Winning Bird Photography

Chronicles of Nature

Nathaniel Smalley speaking at Audubon Arizona in Phoenix on the topic of Award Winning Bird Photography.

Recently I was requested as the guest speaker at Audubon Arizona’s showcase event in November, featuring award winning images from the 2015 National Audubon Photography Competition. The event was very well attended and I enjoyed an engaged audience as I discussed the topic of award winning bird photography. Due to the popularity of the topic, I chose to compile some of my notes into a blog post here.

Though I haven’t personally invested a lot of time entering my work, I have been asked to be a judge for a number of different nature photography competitions including the distinguished Natures Best Photography – Africa (a division of Nature’s Best Photography), Viewbug.com and others.

Birds were my door into photography way back in high school. These days I rarely go anywhere for the sole purpose of watching birds, but that hobby helped shape my career as a professional nature photographer, and as a result birds will always hold a special place in my heart. I now carry a camera in place of my binoculars when out looking for avian subjects. So you might ask, what am I looking for when I photograph birds? Creating successful bird photographs requires one or more different elements in our composition. Obviously there are many that could be listed, but for the sake of simplicity I’ve limited it to 10 elements. In the caption of each photo in this article I have detailed the main elements from this list have been utilized in my photographs. They are as follows:

– Action | Behavior | Humor | Personality | Friendship | Light | Perspective | Habitat | Depth of Field | Nostalgia –

Despite popular opinion, bird photography isn’t all about having a big lens. While it can certainly help achieve certain images, there are many creative ways to photograph birds that certainly require more effort, but produce great results. This image of a Great Blue Heron in flight was taken with my 70-200mm zoom lens and a teleconverter making it effectively a 400mm lens. Capturing this image came down to being prepared for the bird as it flew in front of me, as opposed to having a piece of high powered glass.

Full Flight |Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron – This bird in flight image utilizes action. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-5.6 | 1/1600 sec. @ 400mm

To further illustrate my point I want to show you the image below. This is perhaps the most popular photo I’ve ever taken. What camera was it taken with? My Sony Cybershot Point & Shoot, 8 megapixel camera! Sure, it’s not a bird photo, but it proves a point; Creativity and being passionate about your subject trumps expensive equipment every time.

  •  -This image was licensed by Nikon for a corporate presentation.
  •  -It has been shared to every corner of the world.
  •  -Published in international magazines and used in multiple articles.
  •  -Occupied 1st place on 500px ahead of over-saturated landscapes and photos of half-naked female models.

 

Nathaniel’s infant son Dimitri at one week old – Iso 400 | f-2.8 | 1/25 sec. @ 6mm

So the next logical question then is how does one get close enough to these subjects without spooking them. Birds tend to be very skittish of humans, and for good reason, in fact I’m wary of humans at times myself! When we photograph birds and wildlife we want them to be relaxed and in their natural state. I’m strongly opposed to using bait to lure in wild subjects, but that’s a whole topic in and of itself. (If you would like to read more on the topic of baiting birds and wildlife click on this link)I also refrain from using calls and recordings. As much as possible I want my wild subjects to be acting out their normal behavior patterns as though I was not present. This is when I capture my best images. The longer we sit still and the more we blend into our surroundings the more comfortable birds become with our presence and the closer they will come to us. The clothing colors that we wear can effect how birds react to our presence. Stay away from whites, reds, yellows and other brightly colored clothing, these colors are often associated with danger in the natural world. Instead choose earth tones or even camouflage. Bird blinds are another option allowing us to photograph birds without being detected. Many species are much easier to photograph in the spring when they spend a majority of their time singing, displaying their bright breeding plumage and engaged in territorial disputes. Sometimes a bird will be all but oblivious to human presence during this time of the year as they’re so preoccupied with finding a mate and defending their turf. Below is an American Redstart singing his heart out at Magee Marsh, along the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. Magee Marsh is a bird photographer’s paradise!

Songs Of Spring | American Redstart

American Redstart – This image illustrates behavior & action. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/250 sec. @ 850mm

  Conversely, nesting season can be one of the most difficult times to photograph birds, as they are trying to be secretive and all their attention is consumed with feeding their young. While nest sites can be intriguing to photograph, one should take extreme caution to do so at a safe distance so as not to stress or make the birds feel threatened. No photograph is worth rising the welfare of the nestlings, regardless of how cute they are.

Even the most common species are popular as babies, like this pair of Herring Gull chicks (above right) navigating through a large patch of ice plant on the California coastline. For this image I climbed on top of a railing along the ocean cliff to get even higher perspective (see below). This allowed me to shoot down on my subjects and isolate them in the frame from one another. If I’d shot them straight on then they would have blended together into a fluffy blob with two heads.

Nathaniel on location at La Jolla Cove in San Diego, California © Laurie Rubin

Capturing fledglings in their natural element in great light can produce some really magical results. Below a baby Canada Goose is struggling to put down a large dandelion blossom. The early morning sun on the dew covered grass creates the perfect shooting conditions for an image like this. I got low to the ground on eye level with my subject to help put the size of the surroundings in perspective. Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the gosling from the habitat and draws the viewers attention directly to the subject.

Dandelion Delight | Canada Goose Gosling

Canada Goose – This image utilizes light (dramatic), perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/2000 sec. @ 600mm

Golden Plover chick – This image utilizes perspective & depth of field. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

By getting very low to the ground when shooting this Golden Plover chick, the subject appears much smaller and more vulnerable in the overall scene, which is what I was going for. This impression is enhanced by the fact that I centered the subject and composed the bird low in the frame with lots of negative space above it. This image breaks one of the main rules of composition, known as ‘The Rule of Thirds.’ The rule of thirds states that: An image is most pleasing when its subjects or regions are composed along imaginary lines which divide the image into thirds – both vertically and horizontally . This just goes to show that all the ‘rules ‘ of photography are made to be broken.

Unlike the previous example, this image below was composed following ‘The Rule of Thirds’. You can see the owl’s eyes, as the primary point of interest, are located right where the top left intersecting lines meet. This photo has nice balance to it with the double Aspens on the right offsetting the ‘weight ’ of the owl on the left. I’ve used depth of field to manage how much of the surrounding habitat is in focus.

Great Gray Owl – This image utilizes habitat, depth of field & perspective. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 400 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 850mm

With bird photography almost every image will have more impact if you can get on eye level with your subject. Sometimes photographers don’t put a lot of thought into the angle at which an image is taken, but considering the role it plays in creating a successful image it aught to get far more attention. People are instinctively drawn to an photo taken from an unusual angle. For the image below I had my tripod in the water and was laying down with the upper half of my body stretched out over the edge of the bank to operate the camera and capture this shot. Needless to say that is not a comfortable position to be in, but often capturing the best shot requires a bit of physical discomfort to achieve the desired results.

Hooded Merganser – This image utilizes behavior, perspective, action & light (reflected & direct). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 1,000 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 400mm

Brown Pelican - This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens - Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

Brown Pelican – This image utilizes fine art & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 1,250 | f-7.1 | 1/100 sec. @ 600mm

A fine art photograph is taken with the goal of creating a work of art. It goes beyond the literal aspect of the scene or the subject photographed and creates an image that shares the photographer’s personal vision, a metaphorical aspect or message. This type of photography is more about making a photograph, not just taking a photograph. Documentation is great for certain types of photography, such as forensics where the purpose is to record the scene in the most literal and factual manner possible, but fine art photography is is about more than just creating a documentary image. While defining exactly what constitutes fine art photography may be impossible, here are a few points to consider in describing it:

  • 1). What a fine art photograph illustrates must be different from what is observed when the shot is taken.
  • 2). The purpose of a fine art photograph is to share the photographer’s personal vision of the scene or subject.
  • 3). When looking at a fine art photograph it’s clear that the photograph was created by an artist and not just by a camera.

 

 

 

 

Often after catching and swallowing a large fish a heron will open and close its beak activating its throat muscles and helping it to fully swallow its meal. Knowing of this behavior and watching for it allows you to capture a shot like this one of the Great Blue Heron on the right and gives the impression of a loud audible call from your subject.

That is exactly what I was going for when I took the image below of this Green Heron. It looks as though the heron is screaming at the top of its lungs, when in reality it was simply trying to work down its morning meal.

The Scream | Green Heron

Green Heron – This image utilizes action & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 640 | f-7.1 | 1/800 sec. @ 850mm

Sunset Magic | Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns – This image utilizes action & light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 500 | f-14 | 1/200 sec. @ 220mm

Shooting into a glowing sunset certainly has its challenges as images can easily end up over-exposed. Be sure to take care not to look through the viewfinder when shooting directly towards the sun, use the live view function on your camera if possible. You’ll notice that I’ve composed this image with the sun just to the left of the frame to allow me to shoot while looking through the viewfinder. When the sun is still above the horizon, sunrise and sunset can provide photographers lots of light to work with, and as a result you are able to shoot at faster shutter speeds and freeze motion or smaller apertures for greater depth of field. That is exactly what I’ve done here with this flock of Arctic Terns over the coast of Iceland. In the image below I have taken advantage of the extra light to shoot at f-14 giving me more depth of field in the image and showing more of the layers in the distant hills.

Last Light | Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret – This image utilizes light (dramatic). Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 100 | f-8 | 1/1000 sec. @ 600mm

 

Back light can give an photo a very special effect and enhance shapes and forms. Back lighting works best when the details on the edges are more important than the colors of the subject. Here a Snowy Egret is beautifully illuminated by an early morning beam of light that perfectly highlights a stray feather on its chest. In a shot like this I’m adjusting my camera settings based on the reading from my camera’s light meter is giving me for the brightest parts in the image. By doing this most (if not all) of the distracting back ground elements fall off into the shadows and help to further isolate and emphasize the subject.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When seeking bird subjects to photograph there are a few questions we can ask ourselves  that will aid us in finding them in the best conditions. What is the dominant habitat for the location you are photographing? Researching the region and knowing the geography will aid you in being better prepared for the type of vegetation and/or terrain you’ll be working in. For most bird species the year is divided into different activities (migration, nesting etc.). Understanding what birds are doing at different times of the year will help you learn when is the best time to photograph them. Where do the birds in your part of the world like to nest and feed? Discovering where their food sources are will lead you to the birds. In the image below a Northern Parula Warbler feeds on small insects inside the seed heads of an Alder Tree, knowing this information makes locating my subject more predictable.

Seeds Of Spring | Northen Parula Warbler

Northern Parula Warbler – This image utilizes habitat & light (soft). Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens w/ 1.4x Teleconverter – Iso 800 | f-6.3 | 1/1250 sec. @ 850mm

Signs Of Spring | American Robin

American Robin – This image utilizes nostalgia & habitat. Camera: Nikon D800e & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/200 sec. @ 600mm

Depending on what part of the world you grew up in, seeing a Robin in a blooming Crab Apple Tree can be synonymous with spring and feelings of happiness. Having grown up in New England shots like this one of an American Robin bring back great memories for me personally. Capturing a familiar subject in an identifiable scene often takes a bit of planning, but when it is done right you can create a heartwarming photo that has a lot of appeal in front of the right audience. Photos that resonate with a viewer often do so because there is some nostalgic connection that they have with the image. I can’t track how many times I’ve been told by clients purchasing a print that they were ‘buying a hummingbird photo because their mom loved hummingbirds and the photo reminds them of their mother’, or they simply ‘had to have that print of the ocean because they grew up on the coast and the photo reminded them of home’.

Disturbance | Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl – This image utilizes personality & behavior. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 200 | f-6.3 | 1/3200 sec. @ 600mm

 

 

 

This look of a Burrowing Owl in the image to the left is achieved by photographing it from just the right angle and produces the look of a stern school master (or perhaps your father when he’s angry at you). Capturing birds from the best angle and at the perfect moment can yield exceptional results that give your subject a personality all its own. Photos of birds and wildlife that show a recognizable personality immediately resonate with the viewer and tend to be very popular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images that illustrate friendship between two wild subjects (whether actual or perceived), always evoke positive responses. Places where birds and wildlife both find food sources together are great locations to look for this kind of interaction and capture these types of shots. I found this sea lion and cormorant sunning themselves together on a rock along the coastline of California.

Partners In Crime | Sea Lion & Cormorant

Sea Lion & Cormorant – This image utilizes friendship & habitat. Camera: Nikon D4s & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 800 | f-8 | 1/320 sec. @ 600mm

The Height Of Audacity | Elk and Magpie

Elk & Magpie – This image utilizes friendship & humor. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 600mm Lens – Iso 400 | f-4| 1/350 sec. @ 600mm

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of studying bird behavior in the field. That’s how I was able to be prepared for a shot like the one to the right of the elk and magpie. I watched this magpie that was hanging out with a herd of Elk, eating parasites out of their fur and foraging underneath their feet. I witnessed it fly up and land on this one elk’s back numerous times before I got the opportunity to capture this shot. Anticipating bird behavior is absolutely essential for capturing winning bird photographs. Also be sure to read up in your bird field guide. There have been numerous birds that seeing them for the first time I immediately knew what they were just from having looked at them in my bird field guides or having read about their behaviors so many times in the past.

 

The final image I’ll discuss is by far the most comical image I’ve ever captured. This photo below of a Sandhill Crane was taken before I’d really gone full time with my photography, but it is consistently one of my best selling photographs. This image is also one of the few images of mine that I’ve entered into a photography competition. However, when I did in 2012, it took home Honorable Mention from the National Wildlife Federation Nature Photography Competition. People love humorous images of birds and wildlife so I jump at the opportunity to capture a photograph like this. It’s also the only image from my bird portfolio that was taken in captivity. This photo was shot on an a family outing there with my children at the Sandhill Crane exhibit in the Phoenix Zoo. Since beginning to work as a professional photographer I no longer take photographs of captive subjects. All the photos that you’ll see on my website were taken in the wild.

Sandhill Crane -

Sandhill Crane – This image utilizes humor & personality. Camera: Nikon D700 & Nikon 70-200mm Lens w/ 2x Teleconverter – Iso 200 | f-5.6 | 1/640 sec. @ 400mm

In conclusion I’ll say that the absolute best way to produce award winning images is to get outdoors with your camera. The more you’re out in the wild looking for avian subjects and watching bird behavior, the greater your odds are of seeing and capturing an exceptional image.  After all, even if you don’t get the image you’re chasing after, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day than being outside surrounded by your feathered friends. So boost your award winning potential, and grab your camera… the birds are calling.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Nathaniel on location in the Himalayas photographing raptors. – India, 2015

Beyond The Waterfalls

Chronicles of Nature

Independence | Iceland – A lone volcanic boulder rests in a windswept landscape of volcanic stone pebbles and patterns.

Hills In The Mist | Iceland

 

The Great Wide Open – Golden Plover Chick

You may have dreamed of traveling to Iceland, as I did for years, longing to photograph its incredibly diverse landscape. A plethora of images had tempted me for a decade or longer, enticing with massive waterfalls, glowing sunsets and noble Icelandic horses. Admittedly the allure of this magical country is hard to resist. As recently as a few years ago I had a powerful ambition to capture all the ‘iconic’ shots so often published of Iceland, but over time something in me changed. I’m not sure exactly what it was that altered my perspective, perhaps it was a number of factors. I noticed that my interest had shifted towards photographers that were creating more subtle, unique compositions and capturing the hidden elements of a scene, as opposed to the more obvious, grand shots that have almost become common now. I also became weary of what I perceived to be a rabid pursuit of ‘epic’ light. I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with photographing ultra-dramatic light and conditions, we would be remiss as photographers if we did not. Unfortunately though, the message often conveyed is, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, stay home” or even worse, “If there isn’t a flaming sky, just paint one in later with Photoshop”. Despite the general popularity and initial impact of these ‘sensationalized’ images of nature, I felt there was something missing. That approach to landscape photography left me feeling jaded. It is to the point now when one posts a photograph depicting spectacular light that they run the risk of their audience automatically assuming that the saturation slider was pushed too far to the right, or some Photoshop processing trick was executed. The viewer usually doubts, even if only sub-consciously, that the conditions represented in the photo ever existed. Often in today’s culture of digital nature photography great liberties are taken when processing files, pushing them far beyond the realm of reality. We’ve labeled this ‘artistic expression’ and moved on. I became more certain with each passing day that there was something forgotten, something overlooked…

Waiting for our attention, beyond all the hype about towering waterfalls and blazing sunsets, there is a quite landscape.

The River Serpent | Iceland – This image was made from a cliff high above Háifoss Waterfall. I sought something other than the ordinary, and found a serpent.

It was with these thoughts on my mind that I arrived in Iceland and began my quest to capture the beauty of this land from a fresh perspective. My first impression was that none of the photos I’d seen could do this amazing country justice. The photographic potential of the landscape in Iceland is staggering, at nearly every turn I found inspiration and elements that caught my eye, begging to be photographed. Since this was our summer photography tour we had nearly 24 hours of light each day making for nearly endless opportunities.

Halo Of The Earth | Thingvellir, Iceland – One of three different rainbows that we photographed on our tour.

One of the great benefits of this ‘midnight sun’ is that the ‘golden hour’ stretches into multiple hours and the window for soft light during sunrise and sunset has a much longer duration. Due to its proximity to the polar circle and location in the center of the vast Atlantic Ocean the weather changes frequently. Some days we would awaken to bright sunshine and a soft breeze and another day troubled, stormy skies with 60 mile per hour wind gusts. Regardless of the weather, the landscape is enchanting, and from a photographer’s perspective it is paradise. Glaciers, icebergs, volcanoes, lava fields, geysers, waterfalls, rivers, mountains, meadows, flowers, birds, horses, beaches and the mighty ocean, what’s not to love?

Bend in the Meadow | Iceland – A simple stand of small, weathered trees are complimented by the gentle curve of a quiet stream.

We visited many of the iconic locations throughout Iceland, but you might not know it looking through my Iceland portfolio. I wanted to shoot what resonated with me personally, not what garnered recognition or would get lots of attention on social media platforms. Much of the time this approach worked well, other times it meant visiting an iconic location and finding nothing that caught my eye but the obvious composition. When this occurred I’d set my gear aside and drink in the beauty surrounding me, capturing mental memories of the scene to enjoy forever.

The Veil | Seljalandfoss, Iceland – The waterfalls that I did photograph I worked to find a fresh composition. This waterfall is repeatedly shot from the side looking back at the setting sun… Google ‘Seljalandfoss’ and you’ll see what I mean.

My one regret from our tour is that it did not last longer. Thankfully I’ll be back in 2016 to lead our Iceland Winter Photography Tours in January and February where we’ll experience Iceland decorated in winter’s embrace. I can’t wait to return and hope that a journey to Iceland is in your future as well, it’s truly an unforgettable experience.

There are stunning waterfalls everywhere in Iceland… be sure to look beyond them and find all the other beauty this land holds for those who seek it out.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome.

– Nathaniel

Feel free to email me directly for information on next year’s tours and please also check out: Iceland Photo Tours

Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my Iceland 2015 Portfolio .

A Gentle Awakening | Iceland – The incredible beauty of the sunrise over Iceland needs no enhancement, it is already perfect.

The Phantom of the Himalayas

Chronicles of Nature

“A shadow veiled by the mountain steep, or winter’s descending fleece of white.

Like its tracks the ghost cat vanishes, as a phantom fading into the night.”

~ from:  THE  PHANTOM     

Few animals have captured our imagination like the snow leopard. This iconic cat’s habitat is known to be one of the harshest environments in the world. It ranges throughout the alpine areas of Central Asia and is rarely ever seen in the wild, much less photographed. This is due in part to its elusive nature and also because there are so few left in the world. In fact, most exceptional images of these animals are taken with camera traps in the wild, or more likely in captivity.  As of 2014 the population of this endangered species was estimated between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals (*visit The Snow Leopard Trust for conservation info). In the snow leopard we find the untamable spirit of the raw wilderness and the grace of a large feline combined in a way that is duplicated nowhere elsewhere in the animal kingdom. I refer to them with great admiration as, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

When BigAnimals first contacted me and asked if I’d lead the 2015 Snow Leopard Expedition I eagerly accepted the job. Few things define adventure like pursuing an evasive, endangered cat through India’s Himalayan Mountain region for two weeks. I was very excited about the trip and went about making my preparations.

Part I: Arrival in India

The streets of Old Delhi at dusk.

The streets of Old Delhi at dusk.

 I departed from Arizona in the evening on February 18th and after traveling for over thirty-six hours I finally arrived in India on February 20th. As the plane began its descent into the New Delhi airport the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, casting beautiful patterns on the clouds. I was met there by my contact, Sanjay, and taken directly to the hotel. If you’ve never visited India, it is best described as a smorgasbord for the senses. The vibrant colors, intoxicating smells and varied sounds are overwhelming. India ranks second out of all countries in the world for population with nearly 1,268,000,000 people.   There are over sixty different dialects, which effectively means that one could hear a new dialect spoken here every fifty kilometers. One of the most fascinating things for me coming from the United States, was the seemingly baffling traffic system. While I was pondering aloud what looked like organized chaos on the streets of Delhi, Sanjay said that to drive a car in India you need three things; a good horn, good breaks and good luck. I chuckled at this, but there was a lot of truth to his statement.

Clouds breaking up over the city of Leh, India

Clouds breaking up over the city of Leh, India

The day after my arrival I was joined by the rest of our group back at the airport for our morning departure to Leh, the capital of the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Located in the northern region of India at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet (3,524 meters), Leh has a noticeable Tibetan influence and boasts a population of nearly 30,000. Due to its proximity to Kashmir, and the tensions between India and Pakistan over that region, the Indian military ban the use of any satellite radios as a matter of national security and will in fact confiscate them should you attempt to bring one with you. We were in Leh two days allowing our bodies to acclimate to the increased elevation and to watch for signs of altitude sickness. Precautions must be taken at this point with the group, even a mild case of altitude sickness can lead to symptoms like headache, dizziness and nausea, or in severe cases include double vision, convulsions or even deranged behavior. Thankfully everyone seemed to adapt to this new climate well. We spent these days taking in some of the local markets and visiting a number of the regions Buddhist monasteries that date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, including Hemis, Thiksay and Shey monasteries.

Girls In Market

Girls selling items in the market of Leh, India.

 

A hilltop monastery high above the city of Leh.

A hilltop monastery high above the city of Leh.

An orphan, Buddhist monk and his elderly caretaker.

An orphan, Buddhist monk and his elderly caretaker.

A colorful door at the 15th Century Thicksay Monastery.

A colorful door at the 15th Century Thicksay Monastery.

 

CallToPrayer_India_DSC3846

Call to prayer at a local Buddhist monastery.

While visiting the 15th century Thiksay Monastery our group was invited to share lunch with the Buddhist Monks. I took no pictures with them, choosing instead to live in that moment, sitting cross legged in the shadow of the Himalayas, eating rice and vegetables together. It was an experience I’ll never forget. A photograph is often the end of the story, but there are times it’s best to forget the camera and capture in your mind and soul what might otherwise be missed, and could never be documented in an image.

A Buddhist monk and a pilgram pause at the prayer wheels while making their ascent to the monastery.

A Buddhist monk and a pilgram pause at the prayer wheels while making their ascent to the monastery.

The hand of a Ladakh resident spins the long row of prayer wheels as he passes by.

The hand of a Ladakh resident spins the long row of prayer wheels as he passes by.

Buddhist women praying at a monastery located in Leh, India.

Buddhist women praying at a monastery located in Leh, India.

During our trip Gyalson (one of our guides) accompanied us to his home village of Matho to witness the annual Oracle Matho Nagrang Festival. This event is held on the 14th and 15th days of the first month of the Tibetan calendar at Matho Monastery. Matho Monastery is the only Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. It sees fewer visitors than Hemis, Thiksay or Shey monasteries due to its location, however, it is renowned throughout the region for its Festival of the Oracles, which attracts thousands of visitors.

The 'Festival of the Oracles' at Matho Monastery.

Crowds line the balconies of Matho Monastery for the ‘Festival of the Oracles’.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

Detail from a giant statue of Buddha.

During this festival the oracles are said to inhabit the bodies of two monks for a few hours. The purpose of these oracles is to attempt to predict the fortunes of the local village communities for the coming year. Tables of food, tea, and hand crafts can be found as you make the climb up the hill to the monastery courtyard where the celebration occurs. A strong police presence can be seen which helps to maintain order of the large crowds that have gathered. Matho Monastery is also home to a large collection of ancient, Buddhist artifacts dating back as far as the 14th century. These items are displayed behind large, glass cases in guarded, upper rooms. Here above the monastery courtyard Gyalson secured fantastic seats for our group in front of the open windows so that we would have a birds eye view of the festival, and more importantly, so that we were not at risk of being squished by the throng of people below us. Photographs of the oracles were strictly forbidden during the ceremony, however pictures of the other portions of the event were allowed. We stayed for a few hours enjoying the spectacle, but elected to depart before the conclusion of the festival. Soon the one lane road that led back from Matho to Leh would be a chaotic mess from the traffic leaving this this small village. Thankfully we beat the rush and returned to our hotel for the evening.

A solitary monk lost in thought on the side of the mountain above Matho Monastery.

A solitary monk, lost in thought on the side of the mountain above Matho Monastery.

Thousands of people pack into Matho Monastery for the Festival of the oracles.

Thousands of people pack into Matho Monastery for the Festival of the oracles.

The police were drastically outnumbered, yet made a valiant effort to keep the crowd under control.

The police were drastically outnumbered, yet made a valiant effort to keep the crowd under control.

Some of the staff at the monastery attempted to enforce the law as well, but weren't taken very seriously.

Some of the staff at the monastery attempted to enforce the law as well, but weren’t taken very seriously by the masses.

A young boy with a donation in hand is carried on his mother's back up to the monastery.

A young boy with a donation in hand is carried on his mother’s back up to the monastery.

A young girl holds on to her father's hand tightly as they navigate the crowds.

A young girl holds on to her father’s hand tightly as they navigate the crowds.

The welcome challenge of finding unique compositions in a sea of people.

I enjoyed the challenge of finding unique compositions in a vast, sea of people.

The monastery’s superior monk awaiting for the festivities to commence.

Masked dancers performing.

Masked dancers performing.

Young and old alike attended the event.

Young and old alike attended the event.

Entertaing the children.

Entertaing the children.

Dance of the Dragon

Dance of the Dragon

Part II: Into the Wild

Crossing above the Indus River on our way into Hemis National Park.

Crossing above the Indus River on our way into Hemis National Park.

On the morning of February 23rd we departed Leh by car for the tiny village of Zingchen located on the perimeter of our destination, Hemis National Park. Only two families call Zingchen home. Thus began our odyssey in search of the snow leopards. Arriving in Zingchen we set out trekking on foot with our expert local guides, Gyalson Shangku and Tsering Gurmet, making our way up into the Himalayas. Each member of the group was assigned an assistant that would help carry their camera gear anytime needed. My helper’s name was Stanzin, he and the other assistants worked tirelessly for the duration of our expedition. Our travels would now take us anywhere from 12,000 to 15,000 feet in elevation (3,658 to 4,572 meters). For me this is where I experienced one of the most refreshing aspects of the trip as we officially left the ‘grid’. There was no longer a cell signal or an internet connection anywhere. It changed the tone of our trip from one of international travel, to a wilderness adventure. Large, loose stones covered the surface of the trail most of the way. Admittedly I’m no road construction expert, but the road (as it was called), that led from the tiny village of Zingchen to Rumbak, was a highway engineer’s worst nightmare. Large boulders as big as a mid-sized car were perched precariously at various points along the route, looking like they might tumble down at any moment. Over time patches of loose shale collapsed into the road below making obstacles in our path. Nearly a mile past where the pavement ended and the rough terrain began, a long abandoned motorized scooter sat decaying off to one side of the trail.Eventually we reached the base camp site where different expedition groups pitched their tents, and from there moved on to Rumbak Village.

Clouds from an approaching storm begin to engulf the mountain peaks.

Clouds from an approaching storm begin to engulf the mountain peaks.

As you trek through the overwhelming presence of this raw wilderness one quickly becomes aware of the frailty of our human existence. Without all our ‘expedition gear’ we are in fact incredibly weak when compared to the intelligence of the snow leopard on the ridge line, the agility of the blue sheep on the mountain cliffs or the strength of the golden eagle soaring in the sky. In this extreme climate we would assuredly falter without the assistance of our modern ‘advancements’. This realization brings with it an even more profound respect for the relatively few species of wildlife that call this land their home.

The base camp area in Husing Valley as seen from the observation platform.

The base camp area in Husing Valley as seen from the observation platform.

Tents in the snow under a string of Buddhist prayer flags.

Tents in the snow under a string of Buddhist prayer flags.

One of the most impressive rock formations i saw during the expedition.

One of the most impressive rock formations i saw during the expedition.

Himalayan Daydreams.

Himalayan Daydreams.

In Rumbak we were given accommodations at a home stay by a kind, elderly man named Younton. The local people in Rumbak Village take turns providing accommodations and food to the tourists, receiving payment for their hospitality to help supplement their limited income in this remote region. There’s no running water in Rumbak. After sundown the entire village is powered from a single generator which one of the local villagers starts each day at dusk. Following a traditional Ladakhi meal sleep came easily to our group, exhausted from the day’s long hike. 

Blue Sheep resting on a symmetrical mountain side.

Blue Sheep resting on a symmetrical mountain side.

Stone Carving

Stone Carving

Snow and rock slides on the mountain slopes creating beautiful patterns.

Snow and rock slides on the mountain slopes creating beautiful patterns.

Part III: Call of the Ghost Cat

Perhaps due to the change in climate or the drastic jet lag (I’m honestly not sure), at this point I’d begun to lose track of what day of the month it was. According to the calendar it was February 24th, but the days had all started to blend into one. We awakened while it was still dark and got in position long before sunrise, scanning the mountain slope for any sign of the big cats.

A lone Chukar Partridge makes its way across the shale covered ground.

A lone Chukar Partridge makes its way across the shale covered ground.

 In the mornings we searched for the leopards on the ridge line, returning to their place of rest for the day after a long night of hunting. The frigid air on your face drives away any lingering hint of drowsiness and the adrenaline of our search made me feel alive in a way that I’ve not often experienced. A large flock of chukar partridge fly by us, but remain invisible in the pre-dawn light. The rush of air whistling through their wings is reminiscent to the sound of an F-16 Fighter Jet passing overhead at a very low altitude. Oddly the towering, majestic mountain peaks here are not named, but rather the valleys in each region. This area is appropriately named Rumbak Valley, due to its proximity the village by the same name. We search the surrounding mountain slopes all morning without any evidence of a snow leopard, but are pleased to find a flock of almost two dozen blue sheep. As the leopard’s primary source of food in this area, locating blue sheep in the valley is a good omen.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

A Blue Sheep Ram teaching a yearling the virtues of camouflage.

About mid-day we gathered our belongings and make the trek from Rumbak back to our base camp on the banks of a frozen stream in Husing Valley. As our group arrives back to base camp the afternoon shadows stretched out, lengthening as the sun began its decent and dipped behind the western peaks. After settling into the campsite we make the 200 meter climb up one of the mountain sides, to a level place above camp known as the observation platform. There we set up our scopes and long lenses, watching for any sign of movement on the mountain tops. Snow leopards tend to live alone and regularly patrol their territory, which often covers hundreds of square miles. To communicate across such vast areas, these cats leave markings on the landscape by scraping the ground with their paws and spraying urine on the rocks. They’ll also rub up against these rocks leaving behind bits of hair. The snow leopard’s breeding season occurs during the coldest months of the year from December to March, making the timing of our trip perfect. This is the one time that a snow leopard will allow another to enter its range. We searched without success from the observation platform for some time. My eyes were drawn to a large group of boulders almost 400 meters above us at the summit above the observation platform.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

On the observation platform searching for snow leopards.

 For some unknown reason I felt a strong impulse to climb there. With the permission of the guides I set out making my way up the slope. My body was still acclimating to the elevation, so I found myself stopping often in the thin air to catch my breath. The loose stones beneath my feet made progress incredibly difficult, and portions of the climb felt almost vertical. Few things can prepare one for the majestic sight that’s found at the top of a mountain in the Himalayas.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak I climbed to. You can see the location in the top/center of the image.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak I climbed to. You can see the location in the top/center of the image.

 Arriving at the peak I stared in awe at the untamed, rugged beauty surrounding me in every direction. Though the light was poor, I took a couple images to remember it by and rested there until darkness began to fall. I stood up to make my way back down the mountain and froze, rooted in my tracks from the sound that fell upon my ears. From across the Husing Valley was the clear, unmistakable cry of a snow leopard! In that moment I discovered the answer to why I’d made the arduous climb to this place. In delirious excitement I radioed down to the group to tell them what I’d heard. Initially I believe my report may have been met with some skepticism. However, once I made my way back down to the observation platform and imitated the sound I’d heard, the guides agreed it was indeed the call of a snow leopard. They’d been listening attentively all winter for the male and female snow leopards to begin calling to one another, but silence had reigned over this alpine region up until that moment. The snow leopard is the only big cat that cannot roar. During the mating season a pair will call back and forth to each other. Their cries are best described as a very loud snarl more than anything else. We climbed back down to camp excitedly discussing the close proximity of the snow leopard and the potential of soon capturing a glimpse of one.

One of the dominant rams that we encountered during our trip.

One of the dominant Blue Sheep rams that we encountered during our trip.

Part VI: Through the Shadows

Snow Leopard paw prints.

Snow Leopard paw prints.

It was windy overnight, our group awoke on the 25th of February to find snow falling lightly at dawn. We set out early and as we hiked up to the observation platform were delighted to find snow leopard paw prints just outside of camp along the trail. We had just reached our destination when a call came over the radio saying that a snow leopard had been spotted from the road below the camp in Tarbung Valley. With those words everyone set off at a rapid pace carrying long range lenses and tripods, hoping to catch sight of the elusive cat. The wind pushed snowflakes against my face like tiny darts. Their sting was muted by the stunning scenery surrounding me, and the anticipation of seeing a snow leopard in the wild for the first time. We climbed a few miles up into the mountains above Tarbung Valley without finding a trace of the leopard. The sun, hidden behind snow clouds for most of the morning, suddenly broke through and illuminated the rocky mountain side. Rather than feel dejected after the long hike, our group took advantage of the scenery and captured some beautiful light shining on the cliffs above. Lobzung (our cook) followed us up the mountain and served breakfast there, soon afterwards we returned to camp.

The clouds parted for a brief time during a snow storm revealing gold on the mountain.

The clouds parted for a brief time during a snow storm revealing a golden mountain.

A view of our camp site by night in the shadow of the Himalayas.

A view of our camp site by night in the shadow of the Himalayas.

Towards the end of the day we heard the snow leopard call five consecutive times from our campsite, further confirming the cry that I heard the previous day above the observation platform. That evening as darkness settled over the camp, a soft snow began to fall from the heavens. With no wind to push the storm away from us the snow rapidly began to accumulate on the ground. Our group was resting before the evening meal and I was outside capturing a photograph of our campsite. Not long after nightfall, Gyalson and Gurmet were walking just beyond our campsite discussing the day’s events. At one point Gurmet turned and glanced over his shoulder at the cliff above the road. In utter disbelief he stared into the darkness at what was unmistakably an adult snow leopard walking on the cliff directly above our camp site, a mere 80 meters away! He came running over to me whispering excitedly “Nathaniel, hurry with your camera! Come quick, we’ve seen a snow leopard very close!” My initial reaction was to run to join the group already there attempting to capture a photograph in the semi-darkness, but something in the back of my mind told me that I wasn’t going to capture an image of the leopard  this time. I finished taking my photograph of our campsite and proceeded to switch the ball head on my tripod to a gimbal head to accommodate my super-telephoto lens. I don’t know if it was the cold, the age of my tripod or perhaps a combination of factors, but when I went to switch heads the threaded center post spun freely down into the tripod base. I tried unsuccessfully in the dark three times, but I wasn’t able to attach my gimbal head. I stared in disbelief at my plight, the snow leopard now a mere 60 meters away.

The dark side of the moon.

The dark side of the moon.

 As a general rule the wildlife officials don’t allow the photographers to get closer than 300 meters to the snow leopards. Seeing one at a distance this close was almost unheard of. All around me camera shutters were firing off in rapid succession seeming to only further mock my situation. At first the snow leopard just sat silently watching us and then like a true ghost cat it slowly walked away, fading into the darkness. I congratulated all the photographers who had managed to capture images of the leopard and admired their photos. An exceptional opportunity had eluded me due to the failure of my equipment. However, something told me that it wouldn’t be our last encounter with this leopard. That night I met with Gyalson and Gurmet and told them that I wanted our entire group to get up while it was still dark to search for paw prints before the rest of the groups awoke and trampled on whatever tracks might have been left by the leopard overnight.

A yearling Blue Sheep jumps fearlessly from the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.

A yearling Blue Sheep jumps fearlessly from the edge of the cliff to the rocks below.

Part V: The Phantom Revealed

I didn’t need an alarm the morning of February 26th. I was out of my tent with all my gear long before dawn. The snow ceased and skies had cleared overnight. The moon aided us, its light reflecting off of the snow. We set out from camp towards Husing Valley in search of tracks, looking where we’d seen them the previous day, but there was no evidence of the big cat there. Scanning the side of the mountain we saw what looked to be a pair of eyes reflecting back at us. I tried to tell myself that it was only a blue sheep, however the eyes looked too close together and faced forward… much like a snow leopards. Once it moved there was no mistake, we’d located our phantom! Leaving a cleft in the rocks where it had most likely waited out the evening storm, the leopard walked gracefully along the face of the mountain. Soon it disappeared from view between a gap in the rocks and we lost track of it. Part of our group went with our Gyalson up the face of the mountain we were on, while I elected to climb with Gurmet and Stanzin up to the observation platform to search that area. Arriving we set up a scope and my 600mm lens and began scanning the mountains. We found nothing for the first few moments, then suddenly Gurmet exclaimed, “Nathaniel! There’s the snow leopard!” Where?! I asked excitedly. Looking in the direction Gurmet was pointing I saw the snow leopard near the summit. The big cat was climbing directly towards the rocks above the observation platform where I’d made my solitary hike a little more than a day before! The distance was nearly 400 meters and it was still mostly dark, so I pushed my ISO to 6400 and quickly took a couple shots. I stared in dumbfounded silence as the snow leopard walked and sat down directly below the large rock that I’d rested on at the top of the mountain.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

Snow Leopard near the summit of mountain in Hemis National Park, India.

I managed to capture another couple images before it disappeared from view over the crest of the summit. I was the only photographer on the platform, and though my images were far from exceptional, I was the happiest man alive. There were plenty of hi-fives and fist bumps there on the mountain that morning. I marveled at the fact that I’d stood on the exact same ground as this snow leopard a mere day before.

The heart of the mountains.

The heart of the mountains.

In many ways the beginning of the expedition played out as though it were scripted, we were just here acting out our roles in this unbelievable story. Many travelers come from every corner of the world to the Himalayas in search of snow leopards, spending days or even weeks here, but leave without even catching so much as a glimpse of one. I was humbled and incredibly thankful for the success we’d experienced in such a short time. 

We saw the snow leopard again on February 27th, the third consecutive day in a row. This sighting was atop a ridge line at a distance well over 500 meters. While the rest of our group was resting I had elected to walk up the surface of the frozen stream with Stanzin in search of some unique images. We slowly made our way, eventually nearing an area called Pika Point, (named by the locals after the community of pikas living under the rocks there). While setting up my camera for a landscape composition I heard excited conversation nearby from someone’s two-way radio. Due to the conversation being in Ladakhi I turned to Stanzin and asked him what they were saying. After listening for a moment his face lit up and he said that someone had found a snow leopard just up the trail from where I was shooting. I could have easily walked to the location and been set up to photograph the leopard within minutes, but as the photographer leading the expedition I felt it my responsibility to ensure that our group knew about the sighting. As you can imagine it was incredibly difficult to maneuver back downstream on the ice at a rapid pace without falling. We finally reached the campsite and I roused our group.

A young Blue Sheep in need of some assistance.

A young Blue Sheep in need of some assistance.

Everyone quickly took off up the trail and arriving at the location set about photographing the cat on the ridge line. I was pretty winded after racing back to alert the others. As a result I ended up being one of the last to make it up the road to where the snow leopard was visible.

One of the many pika in 'Pika Point' up the trail from base camp.

One of the many pika in ‘Pika Point’ up the trail from base camp.

Just as I drew close to the group the leopard stood up and started leaping downhill from one boulder to another and disappeared. I was disappointed to have missed another opportunity, but comforted recalling the incredible experience I’d had with this leopard the day before. We would hear the snow leopard call one more time during the remainder of our stay in Hemis National Park, but never saw it again after that day. It occurred to me that the snow leopard is only seen when it wants to be. Our clumsy movements are no match for their exceptionally keen senses.  During each encounter these incredible animals seemed well aware of our presence long before we ever located them, and they disappeared without a trace whenever they chose to.

Layers of beautiful patterns and textures on the mountain.

Layers of beautiful patterns and textures on the mountain.

Part VI: Saying Goodbye

The remainder of our expedition was spent photographing blue sheep, pikas, bearded vultures golden eagles and even some urial sheep. The sky was dominated by shades of solid gray during much of our stay, making landscape photos a challenge. Of the time I was in India I believe we saw blue sky on only three different days. Due to the sky being shrouded in clouds we didn’t experience much in the way of nice light for sunrise or sunset. We focused a lot on the more subtle patterns and textures of the mountains, as opposed to the grand landscape.

It's official, the' Candy Crush' craze is international!

It’s official, the’ Candy Crush’ craze is international!

On our final, full day in Hemis National Park I spent a lot of time with the expedition team. Sitting with them in the kitchen tent I thought to myself how remarkable it was that after just two short weeks with these wonderful people I’d already begun to understand elements of their conversations in the Ladakhi dialect, though I knew few of the words. Often I could sense inflection in their voices or read the expressions on their faces to learn what the conversation was about. Perhaps the best was when I detected humor in their speech and knew when to laugh with them. We shared many a good laugh together, but perhaps none as hearty as when we discovered that one of Lobzung’s favorite ways to pass time during the day was playing Candy Crush on his phone. After our final meal Lobzung prepared a surprise cake and presented it to our group, inscribed with icing were the words ‘Snow Leopard Trek – We Did It!’.

The Snow Leopard Expedition Team | Hemis National Park, India

The 2015 Snow Leopard Expedition Team – Hemis National Park, India

Snow-Leopard-Trek-Cake_India_IMG_20150304 That afternoon Gurmet and I climbed a good distance up the mountain face beyond where the snow leopard had been seen walking on the cliff above our camp at night. Having explored the area we took in the view one last time before making our descent. Walking back along the edge of the stream I found an old blue sheep horn hidden among the rocks and bushes. With the permission of our guides I placed it carefully in my tent. This horn now sits prominently on the desk in my office, a gift from these majestic mountains and a reminder of this incredible journey. The following morning we departed from Hemis National Park. As I hiked out I recalled many of the experiences from our eventful snow leopard expedition. My heart was full of gratitude for the various memories that I would carry for a lifetime of this vast, alpine kingdom and the cat I call, The Phantom of the Himalayas.

Parting Shot | India

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Snow Leopard Expedition 2016

Enjoy a hi-res gallery of the images from this article in my India 2015 Portfolio