Ever since turning full-time with my wildlife photography some 15 years or so ago, the question I am most frequently asked seems to revolve around what is my favourite species that I’ve photographed. Because I am still happy to simply have the opportunity to be outdoors with my camera and engaging with wildlife, the very genuine answer that I give is, “the last species that I spent any significant time with.” Put simply, if it is in a good setting, is doing something interesting and absorbing from my perspective and preferably in good light then I am as happy to spend the day photographing a House Sparrow as something more exotic.
The same sort of response applies to the question that generally follows this one (increasingly so now that overseas travel makes up a large part of my work mix). When I was asked to pull together insights into some of what I consider to be the locations that deserve to be on a wildlife photographer’s bucket list, then the locations I have come up with are inevitably slanted towards those I have most recently enjoyed, as well as those I am most anticipating returning to in the immediate future.
Greater Roadrunner • Texas • Sigma 500mm F4
Aside from my local work this spring (rabbits are featuring high on that list), my last trip at the time of writing this was to the southern-most state in the USA, that of Texas. The visit, which was a return for me personally, but the first time I had run it for Natures Images, the wildlife photography holiday company I co-run, was timed to coincide with the spring migration. It involved visiting three different ranches that have established their own excellent selection of hides (or blinds, if you hail from the US itself) which, along with careful feeding and provision of water, act as a magnet for birds either passing through, visiting for the summer to breed or resident throughout the year. The result is that, for pure bird photography and several species that are unique to this corner of the country, this must be one of the most species-rich and therefore photographically busy places to go to.
Many are small species and so a good focal length of lens is critical: for this trip I was trying out the new Sigma 500mm f/4 DG OS HSM | Sports for the first time and at times supplementing it with the new 1.4x Tele Converter TC1401 as well. To my mind this sort of setup on a good full frame body is ideal for most hide based bird photography and it proved no exception here: it’s equally important mind to have a really good solid tripod especially if working with a long lens like this is new to you.
Although there are opportunities with larger species including raptors, such as Crested Caracara and the iconic Greater Roadrunner (he of Warner Bros “beep-beep” fame), as well as a number of mammals that can grace the scene including Collared Peccaries (Javelinas as they are called locally), Ground Squirrels and plenty of Eastern Cottontails, this is mostly small bird photography territory and so the simple advice of watch where things go, pick your perch, visualise your final image composition and then wait for the bird to move into position very much applies.
Green-crowned Brilliant • Costa Rica
If bird photography is your thing then I should state the case for Costa Rica. It is not only rich with them but offers a fantastic place to learn or enhance some different technical skills in this genre. Despite being a relatively small country, it is incredibly rich in terms of its natural history: it covers approximately 0.03 per cent of the Earth’s surface but hosts over 5 per cent of its biodiversity, aided by the fact that around a quarter of the country is part of a protected forest or reserve. The result, with some careful planning as to which particular ecosystems of the country you want to visit, and equally good research in terms of the lodges to stay at or specific reserves to visit, is an extraordinary array of subjects to work with.
On the bird front (there are over 900 species regularly recorded here) this consists of exotic Toucans, the bizarre looking King Vulture and probably the most iconic family of all in the rain or cloud forests in the form of Hummingbirds. These offer different challenges photographically and much depends on the style of image you want to create. With wing beats of approaching 50 times per second, even the fastest SLR shutter can’t freeze this motion and so experimenting to find a blurred look that works best for you is the best initial approach.
Keel-billed Toucan • Costa Rica
I find that standing away from the multiple feeders that practically every lodge around the country has, looking for a clean background and using a long lens, like the Sigma 500mm F4 Sports, once again offers a sensible start point. Adding a Better Beamer extender on to a flash gun to pop a little bit of fill flash into the scene, as it is often very dark in this sort of environment, will also help to lift the fantastic colours of the birds a bit more. To see their full iridescence, as well as completely freezing their wings, requires setting up two or three flashguns off camera near to the feeder, firing them using a trigger and using the flash itself to freeze the bird in flight.
At several lodges the birds are so relaxed with people (to be honest they fly so quickly that they can easily make a getaway should they need to) that you can even work with a fast, shorter lens like the 70-200mm F2.8 too. Don’t let your lodge photography be restricted to the birds though, as even the gardens around them offer an array of macro photography opportunities, from species as diverse as Eye-lashed Pit Vipers (these are poisonous mind, so the obvious safety warnings apply), the country’s iconic frogs and a dazzling selection of butterflies and moths.
I have always favoured a 180mm lens for my macro work and the Sigma variant has been in my bag for many a year – the smooth background of the longer focal length, alongside the practicality of being able to work further away from the subject itself being key. When I last went to Costa Rica I had also just treated myself to the Sigma 15mm fisheye lens, since it has a minimum focusing distance of 15cm which allowed for some fantastic close-up environmental images.
Elephant Seal youngster • Falklands
When it comes to working with wide-angle lenses to add some different impact to your images, for sheer variety of opportunities created by incredibly obliging subjects in some of the most inspiring places, or to spend time if you are a true lover of seabirds and empty places as a combination, it must be the Falklands. It’s quite difficult to get there – there’s one flight a week from Chile and two using the RAF service from Brize Norton in the UK. They can book up early in peak season so don’t leave it late and getting yourself around using the local air transfers (FIGAS) takes a good deal of early planning too, but it is well worth it.
Penguins will always dominate people’s wish-lists here and there are good locations for Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellenic and King among the main species to be found. I strongly recommend spending a good amount of time at a fewer number of locations in total to make sure you get the most of any location you choose. The weather changes regularly here and with this comes different photographic opportunities, which is a good thing in terms of your portfolio, as does spending time really getting to know how a colony’s behaviour changes throughout the day.
There are recommended minimum distances for penguins at their colony sites, but they seem to have no awareness of this themselves and will regularly come up to you to investigate. When visiting last year, the same Sigma 15mm fisheye was in the bag for its first trip to the islands (I’d used more conventional wide-angle options on previous trips) and it was fun playing with the slight curvature this can offer when off the horizontal to add a quirky element to images too. When visiting here though, don’t become totally penguin focused – the Black-browed Albatross colonies offer equally as dramatic image opportunities, especially for seabird aficionados. Plus, with Elephant Seal keeping the mammal quota up, this is a destination that offers variety as well as quality photography. People who know me well will tell you I have become a bit Falklands obsessed lately, so draw your own conclusions.
Tiger • India
Another country that has long held deep obsession and in recent times photographic opportunities as well, is India. I suspect this is a country that as a destination is going to appear on many a bucket list but for me, having spent several years of my childhood living here, it has always been a bit more than that. Many of my very first encounters with wildlife were here and so the chance to go back with the sort of equipment, time and resources I now have access to and work with the nature there is rewarding on many different levels.
For many visiting India with a camera and wildlife on the agenda it is all about Tigers. They are probably the most impressive of all the big cats to see in the wild and there is an amazing sense of presence whenever you get to spot one at any of the national parks that offer the classic safari drives both morning and afternoon. Finding good guides to work with is (as always) imperative, as it really does make a difference to the quality of sightings and particularly the photographic element of them. Having made your choice in this respect, whether it’s Banhavargh, Ranthambore or one of the other up- and-coming reserves, there is one final choice to make. From a quantity of sightings perspective then April/May is the season of choice: it’s hot; the tigers need water and/or time to bathe and so waterhole stakeouts work really well.
Water Buffalo • India
An alternative though (and my personal preference) is later in the year around November/December time. Aside from being slightly more pleasant temperature-wise, the habitat is lush and greener in the aftermath of monsoon season. Although this makes spotting much harder, I have always felt it gives a greater freshness to the environment image-wise and so the trade-off is worth it.
India is not just about Tigers though, and it’s a mistake to focus solely on this – it boasts the only population of Asiatic Lion, the greatest stronghold of One-horned Rhino in the continent, its own shy but equally impressive Leopard, as well as Sloth Bears, multiple primates, birds and macro opportunities galore. This diversity is well worth investing time in appreciating too and why I’ve pulled together a brand-new trip to look for these secrets of the sub-continent for Natures Images for 2018.
One-horned Rhino and young • India
Lens wise, while a 500mm is the usual first go-to option, it can at times be a little too much and the flexibility of a zoom lens can be better instead. There’s not a lot of space in the jeeps here, so changing lenses as things get a bit closer or when you want a more environmental shot is not ideal (it's often very dusty, as well as bumpy, so take a pillowcase to keep things in on your knee when not taking pictures). Something like the Sigma 150–600mm F5-6.3 Sports or Contemporary lens would work ideally and offer a great deal of flexibility. I haven’t used these lenses in India but I have used the Sports version in Norway and it is sharp, pretty speedy in terms of autofocus and since the two are very close in spec except for the weight you can make your choice to suit your needs.
Norway was the very first overseas destination I ever took paying clients to, back when we first began the Natures Images business some 10 or so years ago, and it still features regularly on our destination list, along with Finland too. As well as its own specialities on the mammal front (Bears, Wolves, Wolverine and Beavers, for instance), Scandinavia offers a great opportunity to work with what are otherwise particularly challenging species that are to be found here in the UK, many of which require Schedule 1 licences to work with.
White-tailed Eagle • Norway • Sigma 150-600mm SPORT
That very first trip was focused on photographing Golden Eagles as well as White-tailed Eagles in the winter months and, amazingly, the same dominant female golden eagle is still on the scene there now of the year. A summertime visit offers the amazing high adrenaline opportunity to photograph the White-tailed Eagle in flight from a boat in the fjords and, in the high thrills department, this is still one of the best experiences I have ever had. The density of Eagles is high and working with an expert like Ole-Martin Dahle, who knows them intimately and has done for many, many years, you are faced with many encounters each sunrise or sunset outing. Visits throughout the year now offer the opportunity to head out for this photo frenzy, but it is weather reliant of course and so visits in the spring months can be tied in with the season for Black Grouse and the dramatically displaying Capercaillie, or in the autumn months a trip to Dovrefjell to look for the only population of Musk Ox to be found in Europe.
Black Grouse • Norway • Sigma 150-600mm SPORT
There’s no doubt that locations ebb and flow in popularity terms (social media has a role to play there) and so, although these are my thoughts based on today’s popularity, my over-arching advice in creating your own bucket list is to try not to just be influenced too much by what is on your PC screens this month. All of these locations I have covered have stood the test of time in terms of delivering great experiences, as well as great image opportunities and at the end of the day that is what the so-called ‘trip of a lifetime’ really ought to be sure of doing for you. Making sure you have the right and best kit to make the very most of it too is equally important, so if you can’t afford to buy then hire: don’t just try and make-do. I hope to see some of you on your dream trip in the future.