It’s a new semester at the high school, and as one grading period ends and another begins, so enters a fresh crop of students. The afternoon class is an introductory college-prep biology course for juniors. Like the typical inquiry teacher, we do a lot of labs in my class and student safety is one of the many details I need to monitor. Having recently made bacteriological media over hot plates in an under equipped classroom, I began to ponder the what if’s that often creep into my subconscious whenever I work with neophyte scientists. The mix of scolding hot water and bacteriological growth media can be a recipe for disaster. Yet, my years of experience teaching young adults provides me with confidence that I can manage the situation.
Life in my classroom is not all that different than the photographic work I do in the field. Wildlife photography can be as unpredictable as a small mob of adolescents crammed into the confines of a classroom. Much like teaching, experience and research provide me with the confidence that I need to manage the chaotic rhythms of nature. Having had a few too many close calls in the past, I do not take my safety or the safety of others for granted when shooting in wild spaces. Regardless of the destination, I encourage you to consider the following:
- Dress appropriately for the occasion. Cold weather photography requires us to consider the way we layer our clothes and how we protect exposed skin. In contrast, while shooting in the tropics and humid locations, we need to balance the need for evaporative cooling with parasite avoidance. Appropriate clothing is a difference maker, and can enhance the quality of your picture-taking or detract from the overall experience.
- Do your research. Many of the locations we like to photograph are located in remote places that require trail and off-trail hikes. Study your maps for landmarks, use GPS to track your movements and always have an exit strategy.
- Know your subject. Wannabe wildlife photographers often have a false perception about the animals they hope to photograph. Driving through national parks and visiting zoos or wildlife centers, people perceive large grazers to be less dangerous than they are. Purposefully posted in this blog are images of the American bison (Bison bison). I consider this species to be one of the most dangerous I have photographed. Having taken pictures of lions, cheetahs, wolves, bears and vipers, I feel fairly confident in my assessment of potentially dangerous species. In my experience, large grazing or browsing animals like bison, elephants, rhinoceros and moose are more unpredictable than their predators. Living on the edge between survival and prey, these species react fast to the movements of those looking their way. On many occasions I have backed down in the face of an agitated grazer in fear of being charged. I reiterate... Know your subject!
- Know your gear and recognize that it can be replaced. There are times when it is best to run and hide. You need to be prepared to make a split second decision between saving yourself or saving your camera. When being charged by a bear or caught between a frigid wave and a seawall, leave the gear and save yourself.
Wildlife photography has become a leisure hobby for many with disposable income. As boomers reflect on the National Geographic’s™ and Ranger Rick’s™ of their youth, they’ve taken to the field in masses to relive the experiences on those pages. While I encourage us all to embrace the adventure, be sure to consider your physical needs before venturing off into unprotected spaces.
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