How to Get Better Wildlife Photos

By Amy Horn

I have dreams capturing wildlife photos on an African Safari. It’s not in my travel plans yet, but if I get the chance, I want to be ready! If this is an experience you are planing, you may want to prepare too. How do you prepare for such a phenomenal experience? Practice. This sounds obvious, but do musicians perform without practicing? No, they don’t. So, if you have a trip planned to photograph wildlife, practice locally to master the technique and your equipment. Here is an example of practicing: in a Nature Photography class I teach at NAU, I took my students to a local pond to photograph waterfowl. The waterfowl are accustomed to people and are not easily startled so this gave the beginning wildlife students a little more time to get each shot. I challenged them to capture images in flight and static scenarios. After spending 90 minutes at the pond they had a much better handle on reading behaviors of the waterfowl, settings on their camera to use and being prepared for the fast movement. Keep practicing and focus on the following techniques for stronger wildlife images.

  1. Know your camera – Our cameras are amazing. Whether you own a DSLR, mirrorless or even a mobile phone camera, know your gear! The drive mode on your camera captures a burst of photos giving you several images to choose from. Set the focus for your subject. If the birds are in flight, use continuous focus and select several focus points. The camera will assist you in finding the subject. Some cameras offer focus tracking. Research your camera by reading the manual or watching videos on your manufacturer’s website to select the best settings for wildlife.
  2. Be ready – If you are chimping on your LCD panel viewing your last shot, then you will miss the shot right now. Keep your finger on the shutter and the camera up to your eye. There is nothing worse than missing the shot!
  3. AvocetComposition – We connect more with wildlife images when we are at their eye level. So get low and focus on the eyes. If your wildlife is moving, always leave more room in the frame in front of the animal so that they can “move into the frame.”

Whether you have an African Safari planned or want to capture other wildlife, have a little fun at your local pond to master your equipment and camera techniques.

Amy Horn is an Instructor with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

Who says you need to travel far to capture great animal photographs.

By Jon Vemo

I’ve always thought that to be able to capture great photographs of animals, it had to be in the wild, which generally meant traveling to some place far away. Well, I’ve learned that that is not necessarily the case, and often your local zoo or wildlife preserve can provide just such an opportunity.

On a trip back to my home town of Seattle, I decided to spend one afternoon at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Though I had lived in Seattle for 35 years before moving to Arizona, I do not remember visiting the zoo since I was a kid. I recall hearing many great accolades over the years about how Woodland Park had become a world class zoo, however I was not expecting to see surroundings that were as native to the inhabitants, as was possible in Seattle (Giraffe’s are not native to the Pacific Northwest, if you weren’t aware, however the habitat created was close as could be).

Wow was I surprised and impressed with what I saw, truly a world class zoo. However what I think impressed me the most, was the variety of animals and the habitat created for them. Yes there are barriers, fences, glass partitions, and other means to provide separation and protection for the animals (yes, zoo visitors can be quite raucous…), but I was truly surprised in the way in which this separation was camouflaged so as to reduce the sensation of “I’m at the zoo.”

Photographing at the zoo can be challenging; crowds, fences, glass partitions, etc. but that does not mean all your photographs have to look like they were captured at the zoo. To help you capture photographs that do not look like ‘zoo pictures’, I offer the following suggestions on how to capture photographs that do not look like they were taken at the local zoo.

Use a long lens and wide aperture.
Using a long lens allows you to better control depth of field, as well as reach into your subject (and exclude undisrable elements). Using a long lens, held close to a fence or glass barrier, with a wide aperture, will greatly blur, if not remove, the traces of a barrier…

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA

Patience.
When photographing animals, I want either a completely natural image, or one that is truly unique and interesting. To capture either of these, patience and a steady hand are required. Having familiarity with your target subject and its natural actions…

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA

Composition.
Frame your image with the subjects natural tendencies in mind (OK, so maybe this isn’t completely natural, but I couldn’t resist)…

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA

Bold.
Create a natural image, one that compliments that animals surroundings, such that it truly appears to be in the wild. Doing so will draw on the above suggestions; composition, patience and a long lens to capture those desired elements…

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle, WA

While capturing images in the wild, whether being in Alaska or while on an African safari (which remain on my bucket list), I know that I can create great wildlife images, applying the above techniques, a little closer to home.

Jon Vemo is a Volunteer with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

What is my photographic specialty?

By Jon Vemo

To quote a photographer I’ve followed for some years, Rick Sammon, “I specialize in not specializing.” Why limit yourself, why focus only on one or two particular photographic genres, when there is so much that life offers? Sure there may be things that you are more interested in or passionate about – and that’s OK. But when it comes to creating images, I, like Rick, prefer to be open to whatever I find of interest.

Like so many people that carry a DLSR or one of the new mirrorless, when out with my camera, I am often asked about what I do and what my specialty is. I’ve tried to answer this in many different ways, but I have recently landed on, “I photograph life around me” – meaning what I see or whatever is happening around me that I find interesting. I enjoy a beautiful landscape, I am intrigued by unique people I see on the street, an object with unique lines or appearance, or any other activity that I find interesting.

The colors, the smells, the people of a vibrant public market…    

Pike Place Market, Seattle, WA

Several years ago while visiting the tulip fields in Washington’s Skagit Valley, I came across a tulip growing from a highly unlikely spot…

Skagit Valley, WA

I do not really consider myself a bird follower, however when presented opportunities to make an image of natures more majestic winged creatures, I am quick to reach for my camera…

   

Sonoran Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

I am also often intrigued by lines, leading and otherwise, and applying different techniques to create that unique image;

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, AZ

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, AZ

And especially the beauty of the Pacific Northwest coast;

Oregon Coast, Oregon

So my advise to those starting out in their photographic journey (as well established photographers seeking inspiration), is not to limit yourself to a particular form of photography. Go after the images that interest you, what excites you. After all, it’s about following a passion and what interests us, and we shouldn’t limit ourselves on the images that we create.

Jon Vemo is a Volunteer with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

Wildlife photography–Increasing your chances of capturing an image!

By Amy Novotny

Recently, a friend commented that he had moved away from wildlife photography to landscape photography because it was hard to find wildlife and then even harder to capture an image of a moving animal. He mentioned that he would go out searching and might get a shot or two but then get frustrated so he switched to landscape scenes.  Although I love landscape photography, I have begun photographing more wildlife during the hot summer and I mentioned a couple suggestions to him that have helped me in the past couple months.

First of all, speaking to biologists or searching the website of the Arizona Game and Fish Department are great ways to gain some knowledge of where animals will be and when they will be most visible to humans. This past May, Bruce Taubert, wildlife biologist and photographer took a small group of us to the desert to photograph western Screech owls and elf owls. His knowledge of the owls’ territory and their activity level at this time of year led to a great night of shooting.  He knew that the birds would respond to calls and the approximate height of where they would perch in the trees, making it easier for us to photograph in the night sky.

Images: Elf owl, Western Screech owl, Elf owl. Taken in the desert in Cave Creek, Arizona.

Learning animal behavior can also be a huge asset in saving time finding animals and even capturing an image of a moving animal.  Recently, I was out photographing bighorn sheep in the canyon surrounding Canyon Lake, Arizona.  The Arizona Game and Fish Department had set up a boat tour at the beginning of July to search for the sheep. Even though it is typically the hottest time of the year for Arizona, this is the time when the mating season is underway and sheep can be seen going down the walls of the canyon to drink from the lake. Sure enough, within minutes of being on the boat, we came across a herd of sheep halfway up the canyon. The boat driver recommended waiting to watch the sheep, as he suspected that they would climb down to the water. To our delight, his knowledge of animal behavior was accurate and helped us get the opportunity for some close up shots of the sheep at the water’s edge.

                       
Image: Bighorn sheep climbing back up the canyon walls surrounding Canyon Lake, Arizona

Knowledge of animal behavior is also critical for capturing moving animals. This is especially useful in bird photography when trying to capture a bird in flight. When trying to photograph a roadrunner in flight, I studied his behavior for a bit and learned how he turned his head and changed his body position just prior to takeoff. Although it was still difficult trying to capture the little guy in motion, having some knowledge of his tendencies increased my opportunity of getting a shot.

      

Images: A Greater Roadrunner begins to dive and then dives off the branch to the ground at the Pond at Elephant Head Ranch in Amado, Arizona.

Workshops, such as those offered through Arizona Highways Photo Workshops, are great ways to highly increase your chance of capturing images of wildlife because the professional photographers have done all the research for you and gained special access to areas.  However, when workshops are not an option, other sources exist, such as Bruce Taubert’s book, “Wild in Arizona: Photographing Arizona’s Wildlife” that describes when and where to find certain wildlife throughout Arizona. The Arizona Game and Fish Department website also has email newsletters of wildlife viewings throughout the year.

Amy Novotny is a Volunteer with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops

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

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

Keys to Photographing Wildlife

Author:  Megan Galope

There are many keys to photographing wildlife, including being in the right place at the right time, configuring your settings (higher ISO and open aperture to make sure you have a fast enough shutter speed), and a long telephoto lens. But possibly the most important key is patience.

I recently attended the Arizona Highways Photo Workshop in the Grand Tetons to photograph wildlife. We spent quite a bit of time driving around to find the animals, and at times were very lucky. One evening, we saw many cars parked on the side of the road, which usually means a large animal is nearby. It turned out to be a grizzly and her cub. When we first arrived, they were quite a ways in the distance. We tried getting some photos, but nothing to write home about.

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They didn’t appear to be moving in our direction, but with a little patience, we waited to see what they would do. And it’s a good thing we did! Before we knew it, they were crossing the road right in front of us.

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Later we went looking for the elusive fox. We finally found one hiding out in the sage brush. She had some kits with her and kept fairly well hidden for a while. Again, my photos of the fox were not all that great.

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But after a little time and patience, the fox came into an opening so that we could get a much better view of her.

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Having patience while photographing wildlife can make a world of difference.

Megan Galope is a Trip Leader with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.