Breaking the Ice-Shooting portraits in foreign lands

By Amy Novotny

During a recent photography tour in Mongolia, I was exposed to a wide variety of photographic opportunities–landscapes, wildlife, night, street, event, and portrait.  The first three types of photography were easier to accomplish since we did not have to ask permission or be as concerned with privacy issues.  With street photography, this could be minimized by not focusing on a specific person or groups of persons, as shown below.

Image: Kazak women walk down the street market before it opens in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

When taking photos of events or festivals, part of the price of admissions was a photography permit, so I was assured that I would not offend anyone while firing the shutter.  In these situations, I often nodded my head and held up the camera a little to get approval, as I did in the photos below.

Image: Aisholpan sits on her horse with her golden eagle at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

Image: Kazak woman sits with her grandchildren watching the festivities at the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

The difficult and often most meaningful shots came when I wanted to capture a portrait of a random person or family to show part of the culture.  As we found out, Mongolians are a peaceful people with a nomadic lifestyle in the countryside.  The country comprises of approximately 3 million people, of which almost 1 million live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, and the rest in the countryside or small towns.  They have a quiet demeanor but a calm curiosity.  I wanted to demonstrate this in a photograph but at the same time, respect their culture and way of life.

Image: Mongolian Kazak man enjoys traditional Mongolian tea in a ger in Sagsai, Mongolia

Image: Mongolian man was curious about the camera in Tsengel, Mongolia

A couple strategies worked in my favor and I was able to capture the beauty of these people and their emotions.  Since we had an interpreter with our group, I asked him how to say “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “What is your name?” in Mongolian and Kazak.  Those three simple phrases opened the world to me when the interpreter was not present.  I became a person with a sense of realness instead of just a camera.  I could get closer to the person or even photograph families.

Image: Mongolian Kazak women sits in her ger with her son in Sagsai, Mongolia.

Image: Mongolian girl cares for her younger brother in Tsengel, Mongolia.

I also learned to show the person the image I took of him or her to gain his or her interest.  This sometimes backfired on me if I was trying to capture a serious pose, but I didn’t mind seeing the spark of a smile. Most times, the person wanted more images taken.  Families also gathered around me to see the images of their loved ones.

Image: Mongolian family gathers around me, curious about the camera in Tsengel, Mongolia. Image by Rick Jacobi.

This strategy helped with shy children as well as they realized what a camera could do.  The connection made during these moments made the images even more meaningful.

Image: Mongolian toddler was curious about the camera as his mother washes dishes in Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia.

Although these strategies — a head nod, learning a some foreign phrases, and showing what a camera can capture–were performed in a land where I did not speak the native language, I imagine they would work in our country as well.   Connections are priceless.

Amy Novotny is a Volunteer Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Twitter: @amynovotnyaz

Instagram: @anovotn

http://www.amysimpressions.com

Summer’s Little Secret

By Amy Novotny

Arizona’s late summer months are often known for their hot humid weather and monsoon storms, but they also represent the season of hummingbird migration to the high country. Areas including Sedona, Madera Canyon in the south, and the White Mountains out east become popular corridors for these little birds migrating south for the winter, much to the delight of both photographers and the general viewing public. Both Madera Canyon and the White Mountains have visitor centers–Friends of Madera Canyon Visitor Information Center and Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area–set up with hummingbird feeders to encourage flocks of these little birds to visit and feed. This also allows the birds to become used to human observers.

Image: Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area Visitor Center.

For photographers, these are great locations for hummingbird photography, as chances of catching a bird in flight increases significantly. Each region caters to slightly different populations of hummers. During this season, 6-7 species can be spotted in Sedona.  The White Mountains are known for rufous, black-chinned, broad-bill and calliope while Madera Canyon hosts up to 15 different species including those found at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area.  For catching the hummers with the blur in the wings to portray the speed of their wings, a handheld camera setup can work in good light.

Image: Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area Visitor Center hummingbird feeder

However, to stop the action and freeze the wings in mid flight, such as the image below, a more elaborate setup is needed with flash units at various angles to provide enough light to allow for a correct exposure at a high shutter speed.

Image: Rufous hummingbird at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

Multiple flashes are also important for minimizing shadows that appear with a one-directional light source. Additional props used to capture aesthetically-pleasing images include native local flowers such as thistle or salvia and a soothing background. The background can be a blown-up image of a flower, the sky, greenery or even a poster board spray-painted with colors found in nature. This type of background keeps the focus on the bird by minimizing background details or distracting branches. It also helps to keep the light even across the image.

Image: Hummingbird photography set up at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

After setting up the props and a flower with some dribbles of sugar water, photographers can focus on the flower and then sit back and watch the show before them. Soon observers will learn to recognize the behaviors of the hummers as they defend, attack other hummers and feed off the flowers blooming in these regions.

Image: Rufous hummingbirds feeding and demonstrating defensive behaviors at a thistle flower at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

Image: Rufous hummingbird attacking another hummer feeding at a thistle flower at Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area

The next several weeks are a great time to visit these little creatures while enjoying cooler weather.

Amy Novotny is a Volunteer with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

Twitter: @amynovotnyaz

Instagram: @anovotn

http://www.amysimpressions.com

Images taken while assisting as a Volunteer Trip Leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops’ High-Country Hummingbirds workshop taught by instructor photographer Bruce Taubert in August 2016.  Although the workshop is not being held this year, the opportunity to photograph these little birds still exists.

Resources:

Sedona: http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org/hummingbird-festival

White Mountains: https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/viewing/wheretogo/sipe/

Madera Canyon: http://www.friendsofmaderacanyon.org/birding.html

Super Moon and a Streaking Airplane

Author: Jeff Insel

I’ve had several people inquire as to the settings and lens I used for my “Moon Shot”, so I thought I’d try answering in blog form.  I had planned to photograph this event for a while, as many others.  I know from previous experience that a long lens is very handy, and I happen to have a Sigma 50-500mm that does a good job, mated with my Sony A65 – giving me a total of 750mm available.  Next, I made sure to bring my tripod and camp chair, plenty of water and snacks, and made sure my batteries were charged up.

Once on site, I set up my chair, tripod, remote shutter release and camera.  I also set my camera for manual focus and in aperture priority.  At this point I also plugged in my earphones for my iPhone and set my music to shuffle, I was all set and waiting for the event to start – about 40 minutes away.  I had decided to set up at the Fountain Park in Fountain Hills and there were a lot of folks walking their dogs and enjoying the quiet evening; a few photographers were also set up scattered all along the walkway around the lake. We also enjoyed the fountain going off on the hour for it’s 15 minutes of duration.

When the moon began to make its presence known (it was already in its early eclipse mode) I began to test out different exposures and focus points. The Moon was still fairly bright though. Once the eclipse got to about a third of the way through we began to see the “blood” color effect. Of course the Moon is moving, so every couple of minutes I had to adjust the focus point and angle of the lens. I varied from about 300mm to 500mm and tried ISO’s from 100 – 1600.  I settled on an ISO 0f 800 and f6.3 for most of my shots. This resulted in a shutter speed of about 3.2 sec. once the Moon was in full eclipse. While making another angle and focus point adjustment I noticed the lights of an airplane that looked like it might transit in front of the Moon so I moved quickly with my adjustments and clicked my remote shutter when the plane appeared (by my eye) about 6” away from the Moon.  The result is the photo above, and I consider it my most unique and best Blood Moon photo.

Jeff Insel is a trip leader for Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

How the West Was Won

By Nathaniel Smalley

The American Southwest, a land of raw elements and rugged terrain, a place where only the hardiest wildlife and plants survive. This corner of the world has captivated the imaginations of people for centuries. Once known as the great frontier, it drew settlers from all corners of the world seeking to make it their home. Today we read in history books about ‘How the West was won’, but my recent travels throughout Arizona and Utah would indicate that the wild west is anything but tamed. While crowds of tourists surely pour down its main highways in the summer months, just over the distant hills remains a land of unexplored beauty and silence. There the sun rises and sets over a stunning landscape, painting shadows in the corners that act as a supporting cast to the elaborate sandstone formations.
This was the first year since moving to Arizona in 2007 that I have not been in some remote corner of the world for the season of Spring. I took full advantage of this opportunity and spent the past three months chasing the light throughout the American Southwest. I was recently asked by Arizona Highways to lead a Best Of The West Photo Workshop for them in April of 2018, this was the perfect opportunity to scout for that upcoming itinerary and fill out my portfolio in those areas of the State.

My adventures of the season took me to countless iconic destinations across the gorgeous Arizona landscape. Monument Valley has long been known as the back yard playground of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors, most notably John Wayne. Standing there overlooking the vista dominated by towering rock buttes that are illuminated by the setting sun one quickly realizes why many have been so easily drawn to this magical place.

The beauty of this region extends below the earth’s surface as well, deep into narrow slot canyons that have been forged by flood waters rushing over the sandstone for centuries. These powerful torrents carry rocks, logs and other debris with such force that they carve out fantastic underworld realms that are incredible places to explore and even better to photograph! During the Spring and Summer months sunbeams occasionally make it down through the top of the canyon walls painting the walls with light and revealing their amazing textures and patterns. Walking through the chasm one can often hear the call of a Raven perched by the top echoing through through the passage, or that of a Great Horned Owl if you’re lucky!

The plant life in the Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the United States. Gigantic Saguaros and other varieties of cactus decorate certain sections of the landscape while other parts support species that dominate a specific region as is the case in Joshua Tree National Park. I happened to be there during the season when these ancient trees bloom and found some wonderful subjects. This image of one bowing down to the earth burdened by the weight of time was one of my favorites due to its unique shape.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share one of the wonderful shots I captured of the Grand Canyon during this adventure. Here is a place that is impossible to put into words or offer an image that dose justice to the majesty and glory of gazing out at one of the seven wonders of the world. When the sun cuts across the ridge line at sunset and casts beams across the vast opening it is truly breathtaking.

Another location that I photographed during this whirlwind tour was the beautiful Canyon de Chelly. Here a towering sandstone spire rises up 750 feet from the canyon floor reaching to the sky. The Navajo Nation has a fantastic legend about Spider Woman surrounding this formation that would impress even the most dedicated comic book enthusiast. Sunset overlooking this valley is unforgettable.

No trip in the American Southwest would be complete without walking around under the cover of darkness in the shadow of ancient rock formations, so I returned to do just that last weekend. My travels took me north where there is limited light pollution in order to photograph the Milky Way. Here in the wee hours of the morning the galaxy explodes above and leaves one feeling incredibly small. It is therapeutic, it puts life in context and heals your tattered soul. The adrenaline that courses through you standing there can not be duplicated. What a wonderful world.

The simple reality I discovered is that the West will never be won, it is a wild and free land for those who are willing to go out and seek its raw dimensions. If you would like more information on my upcoming Best Of The West Photo Workshop you can find complete details at this link. Three spots filled the day it was announced and space is limited. I can’t wait to return to these exceptional destinations next year with my group and look forward to sharing our images with you at that time. I am now off to lead my Ultimate African Adventure Safari, I’ll put together an in depth trip report from our experiences once we return. Thanks for reading!

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

 

Travel Blog to Alcatraz, Mexico

Author: Vicki Uthe

Alcatraz Island sits in San Francisco Bay just past the Golden Gate Bridge and has the famous prison on it that you can tour.  It’s interesting and you can take audio tours of it but there is another, less known Alcatraz Island, in Mexico.

Kino_Bay_Dec_2015-8453

This Alcatraz sits just off shore (1.4 km) in Kino Bay and is roughly a 25-minute paddle from Kino Viejo, the small fishing village an hour west of Hermosillo, Sonora.  The island is sacred to the indigenous Seri people as it is involved in their creation story. It has been turned into a national preserve for birds.

Kino_Bay_Alcatraz_Dec_2015-5737

My wife and I were in Kino Nuevo for four days in December 2015 and ventured out on our paddleboards to explore the island.  I brought my Canon S-120 point-and-shoot in a waterproof housing.  We crossed the channel with small fishing boats and a couple of jet skis but when we arrived onshore it was just us and the birds. We shared the island with turkey vultures, pelicans, cormorants, seagulls and osprey nestled in the cardon cactus.

We paddled around to the left side and found a large bay with a sandy beach to land.  We were glad we brought sandals as the island was very rocky and had many stickers from the bushes.  We followed the beach to the right and walked around the island following the waterline until we came to the mountain.  We then crossed the island in front of the mountain to get back to our paddleboards.  Our wetsuits kept us warm in the cool December air but both of us easily imagined the intense heat of this island in the summer months and knew we would need plenty of water in the summer. Since pictures say a thousand words I’ll stop writing now. The following images are representative of what we found.

Vicki Uthe is a trip leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.

Photographing Wildlife in the Dark

As you will see Bruce has been taking nighttime images of wildlife for a long time and has worked out many of the problems and associated issues. Many of Bruce’s workshop participants have shown an interest in this type of photography but, as you can imagine, it is very difficult to give a workshop and guarantee great nighttime images of deer, coyote, kangaroo rats, and the like. What Bruce can do is teach participants all of the material and methods they can use in their own nighttime efforts. He can cut your learning curve to almost nothing and advise and assist in the purchase or making of all of the necessary equipment. If you are interested in learning the skills that will allow you to take the type of images that Bruce presents in this article, please contact the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops office at, 1-888-790-7042 or email to info@ahpw.org and let us know if you would be interested in a workshop such as this!

 

By Bruce Taubert

I love photographing wildlife at night.  The light is mine to make, there is practically no competition with other photographers for time or space, and the degree of difficulty is relatively high!

My first nighttime photography endeavors began about 25 years ago with attempts to catch bats in flight.  Of course, this was before I had a digital camera so I was using Fuji slide film.  I remember leaving home at 3PM for a small water hole in the desert, arriving at the bat photography site at 5PM, setting up for a couple of hours, and then “attempting” to take photos of flying bats until dawn.  Then the long drive home, sending my slide film off, waiting for three days to see the rewards of my work, only to be disappointed at the results.  If I took one or two decent bat images each trip I was lucky.  There were not, and still are not, any training manuals for photographing flying bats.

Pallid bat drinking from a pond. Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ

A few years later I bought my first digital camera.  I still left home early and got home late but I was able to immediately see my images and make corrections IN THE FIELD.  That first night I took home several excellent flying bat images.  Maybe my images, that night, did not rival the great Merlin Tuttle but I was on my way.

Lesser Long-nosed Bat feeding of Agave Blossom (Leptonycteris curasoae). SE, AZ

I can repeat almost the same story for flying elf owls, except my sites were closer to home and I did not have to leave home so early and I got home earlier.  I spent many years in the field locating owls, learning their habits so I could photograph their behaviors, and finding the appropriate gear to get the best results.  I cannot even begin to tell you how many bad butt shots I took of elf owls flying into their nest hole!  Once I had a digital camera in hand the learning curve for my nighttime endeavors became less steep.  I was able to make corrections in the field and my success rate soared.

Elf Owl bringing banded gecko into nest. North Phoenix, AZ

Pair of adult screech owls. Canon EOS 5D-Mark III, 70-200 mm with 2x teleconverter, ISO 500, f/ 10 @ 1/200 sec., flash

For the next several years I fought with equipment development, locating my specimens, and dealing with the many challenges of nighttime wildlife photography.  Luckily a few small companies were beginning to make equipment that was either geared towards nighttime photography or that could be adapted for its use.

I concentrated on fast moving subjects, such as flying owls, running kangaroo rats, striking Rattlesnakes, and the like.  The biggest challenge was to train myself to do a majority of my scouting during the day so that when I went out for the nighttime shooting I was familiar with the location and had a good idea about how I could/would set up my equipment.

Spinx Moth feeding from Datura Flower. Phoenix, AZ

Although I am still very interested in photographing fast moving subjects at night I am shifting a little to more sedentary beings.  I became very excited when looking at National Geographic Magazine images of African beasts going about their nocturnal lives and had hopes that, someday, I could take similar photographs.  Coyotes, deer, javalina, elk, fox, and many other species are either primarily nocturnal or become nocturnal for certain times of the years.  Given that I live in the Arizona desert almost all the mammals become nocturnal during the oppressive summer heat.

The challenges are a little different for slow moving subjects but the story is basically the same-scout during the day, find out from locals were the critters are, and have the right equipment.  Like most “interesting” photography, the most difficult part of photographing wildlife at night is getting over the idea that it is too difficult.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Given the right equipment, much of my nighttime imaging of these slower moving subjects is accomplished with remote cameras when I am happily sleeping (either in the back of my truck or at home).

Fortunately, there are a few blogs and You Tube videos that present some much-needed basics for the budding nighttime photographer but no one has yet to put together a training manual.  Unfortunately, there is insufficient information for those of you that want to “”hit the road running”.  The vagaries of lighting, equipment brands, battery life, finding the right location, field set-up, and the many other small tidbits of information that separate success from failure have not been adequately recorded.

During my attempts at nighttime wildlife photography I have purchased and tried almost every type of equipment there is.  I have frustrated myself experimenting with nonproductive implements and had the pleasure of finding the right tool that allows me to take an image that I can be proud of.  Today most of my old equipment lies fallow and dusty in the recesses of my camera room and by the process of elimination I now have lightweight and easy to use tools.

Over the next few months I plan on concentrating on my nighttime wildlife photography efforts and expand my species list.  I hope to improve my abilities to dramatically light my quarry and increase my success rates. Like most photography I enjoy the process of learning and improving and continue to strive for the “best” images I can take.

Bruce Taubert is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

The Phantom of the Himalayas

by Nathaniel Smalley

“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 else 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

Old Delhi at Dusk | India

Old Delhi at Dusk | India

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 in India you need three things to drive a car; a good horn, good breaks and good luck. I chuckled at this, but there was a lot of truth to his statement.

The Clearing Storm

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.

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.

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.

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

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 small village, thankfully we beat the rush and returned to our hotel for the evening.

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 at our destination 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 helped 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.

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. Eventually we reached the base camp site where different expedition groups pitched their tents, and from there moved on to Rumbak Village.

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.

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.

Rocky Road | Chukar Partridge

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 begins its decent and dips 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 that I climbed to. You can see the small peak at the back of this image in the top/left third of the frame.

This photo was taken from the observation platform looking up toward the peak that I climbed to. You can see the small peak at the back of this image in the top/left third of the frame.

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 Blue Sheep 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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!’.

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.

Nathaniel Smalley is an Instructor with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops