And the Price?
It was one of those weeks. We’d flown up to Alaska, did the delayed by weather thing, and then finally, a day later I was at the small airport to catch the bush plane ride over the inlet. “I know you don’t mind the bumps Moose,” the pilot said, but this flight over might be a little bit of a roller coaster ride.” Under gray skies and over dark, rough water, we flew over the inlet. After making one pass over the beach to make sure we could land, down we came. We hit with a little bit of a hard landing but we walked away with our bodies still in tact, and once all my gear was on the beach, the plane flew out. Just then, the little rain sprinkle turned into an Alaska rain. It’s the kind of rain where you just think like a bear, you put your head down and prepare for the soaking. The ATV ride into the lodge; although only a half mile away, was enough to cause me to put clothes in the dryer and get all my gear out on the bed to dry the photopack.
By mid afternoon, the weather turned bad. How can it get worse than this you ask? The big, bucket size drops of rain that were once falling straight down were now traveling horizontally. The gray skies turned super cell black and even though there should be nearly 24/7 sunshine, we didn’t see the sun for the next four days. Yeah, we were snug in a warm lodge with a fire in the hearth keeping us snug. Yeah, we were eating good food and there were plenty of tapes for the VCR, but I wasn’t on vacation. I hadn’t just bought a brand new 400f2.8AFS to carry it to AK and sit, it was to be shot through and don’t think for a second that by day 4, some people were really, really grumpy. We were there to photograph griz. By day five, the light turned gorgeous and the griz who were also hunkered down during the blow were out too, so shooting commenced. But the next day, most would be flying out so shooting time was limited and what should have been a gazillion gig week turned into a couple of KB.
The sun breaks over the horizon, its warmth does nothing to take the chill out of the air. It’s 5 AM and we’re standing hip high in the frozen waters of Churchill, Manitoba Canada and in front of us is the most gorgeous, most spectacular, and the sweetest Pacific Loon to ever find its way to my viewfinder. It was just one of those once in a lifetime treats you know after paying your dues, comes all to rarely. The next morning, 5 AM finds us in the same local as well as the next day. The sun in early June sets around 11PM and just like the loon, there are literally thousands of other subjects befalling in front of our glass. The exhaustion is overwhelming, good thing we’re on dirt roads as we drive about as we’re falling asleep just driving the few miles to “work.” After five days of this, some people bail on the last morning shoot, they simply can’t get out of bed, they are just too exhausted to function. That morning, it was simply too spectacular to capture on film, the experience was one of those you think only happens in the movies. Most definitely never thought it would happen to you and for sure blows away a couple more hours of sleep.
The life of a wildlife photographer has no guarantees, it has thousands of highs and lows and when you are really lucky, it affords no sleep. The hours can be long, the boredom almost lift threatening with the excitement all too fleeting. And yet with that knowledge, I seek it out every day. “How do you get those photographs?” “You must have so much patience.” These are two very common and valid sentiments I think really speaks to how little folks understand the passion or commitment the wildlife photographer must have to be successful. This is especially true if you’re in the business of wildlife photography. There are times when you are sitting on your butt for days with everywhere to go but no way to get there. And after that, so much to do and so many places to go the frustration along with the lack of sleep make you almost postal. But that’s what comes with the territory, that is the price of admission of getting into this game.
The low chances of coming back with not one click to the high of filling up every CF card you have can be experienced on a nearly daily bases if you’re constantly behind the camera. And if you’re not constantly behind the camera, then these highs and lows stretch out over greater times and often are the cause of many putting down the camera for good. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t know any other way to life then the continual daily dealing with nature of the business, this love for what it is to be a wildlife photographer. Sitting at a nest for hours upon hours upon hours with nothing to shoot, standing in fridge water for hours with not a single glimmer of light, waiting in the burning desert sun waiting for the squirrel to emerge in the good light, this is just what it takes to make the image.
You don’t have to go to these lengths to enjoy wildlife photography, I’m not saying that. You can fall out of your car on the weekend, make a couple of clicks and have some nice images. We are very fortunate that we still have a wild heritage affording us this luxury and that’s too cool. But this is not enough to feed a passion, feed a family and only occasionally feed the soul. It is enough though to feed the idea of taking up the passion full-time, but not enough to fuel it for a lifetime and that’s what is required.
I often; no scratch that, I always say that anyone can do what I do and I sincerely mean that. But lately after having paid my dues for 30 years wonder if everyone can make the sacrifice that is required. The photography part is truly the easiest part of this equation and that’s what was always in my mind when I said anyone could do what I do. But now with age, the rest of the formula is becoming clearer, the stubbornness, the tenacity, the heart, the drive, and to be honest with yah, selfishness and prickness (I know, not a word but I like it) to push through all the rest of life just to be behind the camera. I have been incredibly fortunate in my career to have most of these ingredients either earned, paid for, given or blessed with which I’m finding isn’t the case for some and that’s sad. Acquiring some photos have a price tag which can’t be expressed and a value that in incalculable and I’m now thinking that’s the way it should be, it’s just not meant for everyone. Which puts more responsibility on those who can obtain it to share their good fortune with those who can’t. I’ve always said wildlife photography is not a poor man sport, but my definition of poor has expand of late to include much more important things than money.
As you explore your own photography and find your own walls and catapults, your mind will wonder during good and bad times if it’s all worth it. Always count your blessings and remind yourself often when admiring that great image you so cherish all that went into is by asking yourself, and the price?