I was asked in a FaceBook comment last week to talk about how I deal with some of the risks while capturing images in the wilderness. I thought about that request for a bit, and realized that I had never really explained what precautions I take to minimize the obvious risks of wilderness photography. With that in mind, I’m going to keep this post focused on South and Central Florida, and the risks I encounter here in my own back yard. I can’t possibly cover everything in detail, but hopefully the high level thoughts presented here will get anyone considering extreme wildlife photography thinking.
Everything in life is a risk/reward, and nature photography certainly has its share of both in a big way. In my opinion there are different “degrees” of nature photography, and I probably take it more toward the extreme than most. I don’t spend much time anymore in the places others go for wilderness experiences. I enjoy the solitude of the unexplored, the beauty of the undeveloped or untamed, and the chance to capture that incredible image by actually becoming a part of the wild. For me, it’s about “earning” the shot by doing things a certain way that don’t rely on the animals being acclimated to humans, called, or baited. I have to outsmart them in their world, and do it without disturbing them. It isn’t easy, and you make a lot more trips to capture far fewer images than those who choose to stick to the path more travelled….but it’s the ultimate accomplishment when you pull it off. Your images will also be completely unique, and not the same ones captured by a dozen photographers who happened to be shooting the same location on any given day. Before I romanticize this too much, I just want to state very clearly that I have years of experience doing this, and have grown to this point a little at a time through tiny increments. I would NEVER suggest anyone trying what I do without that same incremental process. There are no shortcuts that I am aware of, and I believe doing so prematurely will likely have a bad ending. I study the places I photograph extensively. I study the wildlife I photograph as well. I do this is so I can photograph them without disturbing them. The serendipity is that it also makes it safer for me as I understand their habits and behaviors. I develop expertise in each location I frequent. I not only know the things necessary for great photography (light angles, wind directions, etc.), but also the favorite feeding locations and travel routes of the species, when they come and go, the species by season, and the best hiding places for me to set up and wait. When you understand the “normal” behaviors of the various species, you also learn to pick up on their signals when something is out of the ordinary (like a predator in the area). Whenever I enter the wilderness, it’s as if an atavistic switch is thrown inside me, and my senses kick into a state of hyperawareness which I’m sure our ancestral humans had as an instinct for survival. Sadly, it took me 40+ years of wandering in the wild for that sense to wake up within me to the point it is now. When you have this sense, you pick up on subtle movements, sounds, and smells that you normally wouldn’t even be aware of. It’s quite an addictive sensation.
So what are the risks? I don’t think most people really consider the full spectrum of risks when photographing in the wild. They may fixate on only one or two, but seldom are those the most likely ones to cause you harm. I’ll do my best here to cover several of them (disclaimer: NOBODY knows them all), and will try to give them some level of likelihood based on my personal experiences.
First – The risk to the wildlife. It’s a delicate balance when you venture into the wild, and few people respect that. The noises you make or the steps you take could cause more harm than most people realize. As humans, we tend to think mostly of our own objectives with little regard to the impact around us. In the wild, this attitude is dangerous to the wildlife. If I cause an animal that is hiding from predators to suddenly bolt or call out…it becomes exposed to those predators. If I move too closely to a critical nesting area or an animal protecting its young, I can cause nest abandonment or provoke an attack. I do everything in my power to be invisible and non-threatening out there. When I sense my presence causing an issue, I back off quickly. The shot isn’t worth the consequences. I usually arrive at my chosen locations BEFORE the wildlife does (often in the dark). This gives them the opportunity to make the choice and decide if I am a threat or not. I am usually rewarded by animals walking so close to me that I can’t even focus the camera on them. I just smile and enjoy the moment. To me, that’s what this is all about.
Second – Since most of my photography involves water environments, there is a high risk of equipment damage. Even good high end camera gear is only “water resistant” at best, and likely won’t survive being immersed. On an average day when I paddle out in the kayak, I have over 20K in camera gear mounted on the boat. That’s an expensive hit if the boat tips. Needless to say, I go
through a thorough checklist before launching the boat. I need to make sure that everything is tightened down and ready to go. There is nothing arbitrary about my kayak either. Using this type of setup in most kayaks would be far too risky. Everything about my kayak was designed precisely for this application. I spent over a year researching various makes and models before
choosing this one. I’ve also made several key modifications, and prototyped the big-lens mounting system you see here. When I’m not in the boat, I’m often lying face down in the mud along the shoreline, or out wading in the water with my gear. This poses the additional risks of slipping and falling…so learning how to move slowly while “walking” your tripod is important. Thankfully, equipment can be replaced. I have personally dropped and damaged lenses (not in water, but on land), and have drowned cell phones in the field. It happens.
Third – Injuries. Carrying camera gear into the wilderness is tough. When I’m not in my kayak, it is not uncommon for me to be carrying in excess of 40 pounds of very awkward gear. Sometimes much more. Injuries in the form of sprains, bruises, pulled muscles, minor cuts, etc. are not unusual. I’ve certainly taken a few falls over the years. Fortunately, I’ve never suffered a truly “serious” injury in the field….but I prepare for the possibility of one every time I go out. For me, photography is not a “team sport”. I’m usually alone in the middle of nowhere. If I get hurt, I have to be ready to patch myself up so I can get out, or until help arrives. A waterproof first aid kit (and the knowledge to use it) is a must. Minor cuts are pretty common, but leaving them untreated is just asking for a serious situation later. Remember….not all the dangerous creatures in the wild can be seen. Some are microscopic. I clean any wound and cover it just to be safe. I always make sure someone knows where I’m going, the exact path I’ll take, and when I’m supposed to return. If I want to deviate from my plan, I make sure I can contact my check-in person (usually my wife) and let them know the new plan. Fortunately, cell phone towers are all over central Florida. That means I can usually check-in from the field, or call for help if needed. Be aware that it may take help quite some time to get there depending on where you are. This protocol is necessary in case I get hurt and can’t get out on my own (and can’t communicate).
Fourth – Getting lost. This happens all the time to people who venture into the Everglades. After a few turns, everything looks the same and you can lose your sense of direction. It’s very easy to get lost in a kayak too when you are paddling around in a large swamp, or around a remote lake when there are no landmarks to tell you where you are. I personally carry some form of GPS system, and always mark my vehicle location when I head out. It definitely helps when I’m coming back so I don’t have to spend a lot of time looking for my vehicle in the middle of nowhere. I always carry at least minimal survival gear in case I have to spend an unplanned “overnighter” out in the wild. I’ve never had to use it, but will always carry it anyway.
Fifth – Dangerous animals. I’ll bet everyone is thinking this should’ve been first! Again, in my experience, the risks listed above have a higher likelihood of occurring (to me anyway) than an encounter with a dangerous animal. In fact, I’ve had every one of the above happen to me at least once, but have never been attacked by a wild animal while photographing in the wild. There are certainly many times I’ve encountered them, but have never provoked or harassed them in any way. It’s that old saying “if you don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you”. I also study the behaviors of any species I may encounter in the area so I know what to do when around them. Situational awareness is critical in the wild. You have to understand and respect the fact that in the wild, nature’s laws apply….not man’s. In locations where large predators exist, you are likely on the menu! I’ve encountered (in Florida’s wilderness) Large Alligators, Large Hogs, Black Bears, Bull Sharks, and American Crocodiles. Any of these could’ve taken me had I not respected their space. My closest call was with the large hog you see in the picture, and a close encounter with a couple 12 foot American Crocodiles in the Everglades. That hog was huge (estimate 400+ pounds). I had a stare down with him for about 15 minutes before he lost interest and wandered off. Was I frightened? Yup. Did I panic? Nope. He showed up
unexpectedly in a place I had photographed many times and had never seen hogs or gators before. The encounter with the Crocodiles was my fault, as I had let my guard down and was moving too quickly down an unfamiliar trail while trying to get a better light angle on the large Crocodile at the top of this post. I turned a corner and was face-to-face with a pair of 12 footers at a distance of about 4 feet. Fortunately for me they weren’t hungry. With most dangerous animals you just have to keep your head about you and not do anything that could provoke an attack. With some species, running away is the worst thing you can do. With others, it’s your only hope. You have to know the dangerous species in the area, and what to do if you encounter one. Usually, they are trying to figure out what you are and whether or not you are a threat. Snakes are always a concern (especially Water Moccasins) around here. They can show up anywhere, are hard to see, and will definitely attack if they feel threatened. My only close encounter with a Water Moccasin was one that crawled up on my back while I was lying down shooting some birds in the water. This happened on a cool morning, and the snake likely sensed the warmth of my body heat, and crawled up on me to warm up. Even though I felt it climb on me, I thought it was just one of the crabs that are abundant in that location. Imagine my surprise when I turned my head after I finished shooting and saw the tail end of a snake that was on my back! I knew if I made a sudden move like jumping up, I’d likely get bitten….so I just slowly reached over with my hand and grabbed the tail-end and very quickly flung the snake into the water. I
can assure you I was a bit panicked after I did this! Thankfully, I panicked AFTER the situation was over – LOL. Alligators are everywhere around here. In fact, I probably see them on more days than I don’t. Around here, we make a simple assumption….if it’s a body of fresh water, it has gators. I simply don’t mess with them. Their behaviors are reasonably predictable, and if you respect their presence and habits, you’ll probably be fine. The dangerous ones are the ones that have been fed by humans. They lose their fear, and see other humans as a food source. When I’m kayaking, I’m careful not to paddle too close to shore in the shallows where I might bump one. Another mistake some people make is that they get between the gator and the water. A gator always wants to retreat to the water when they feel threatened, and you don’t want to be between them and safety! Even in the kayak, its a bad idea to paddle toward a gator on the bank, as they might just use your boat as a diving board! Now I’ll admit that when I’m lying near the waters edge, I will occasionally be “stalked” by a gator out in the water. I’ll see the eyes pop up, ten go back down, and then pop up again a bit closer. All I usually have to do is stand up, and they scurry away when I now look like a big predator. Of course, once the gators get to a certain size, they are no longer intimidated, and they may look at any human as a meal. Some of the locations I go have gators that big, and I have to respect that and be extra careful when launching or landing my kayak…or photographing from shore. The American Crocodiles get considerably larger than gators, but for the most part the same rules apply.
Sixth – The weather. Getting caught in the rain is miserable wherever you are, and when you have a bunch of expensive camera gear it can be an issue for sure. I carry rain covers (garbage bags) in case I need to protect my gear, and a poncho for myself every time I go out as part of my survival gear. That said, Florida also has more lightning strikes than any other state. Getting caught on a lake in a kayak with a large metal camera mounted on it when the lightning starts popping is a really serious situation. I have to make sure I know the weather reports before I go anywhere. I often abort plans because bad weather is forecast. I also have apps on my phone that tell me if unexpected weather is moving in, and I head for home immediately if the weather is coming.
Seventh – Bugs. We certainly have a few of these here in Florida. If there were three species I wish God would “un-create” I’d have to go with Mosquitos, Fire Ants, and Noseeums. Believe it or not, I think Mosquitos are more controlled here in Florida than they are in places like Minnesota (my home state). Still, they carry diseases and it only takes one bite from a Mosquito with West Nile or Zika to cause some real problems. Noseeums and Fire Ants get me on a regular basis. I usually wear protective clothing to prevent bites, as I hate spraying deet or other harmful chemicals on me or my clothing. In areas where the Noseeums are thick, I wear a full bug suit and gloves. Same thing if I’m out in the swamp during heavy mosquito season. For Fire Ants it’s really a matter of watching where you step, kneel, or lie down. I always use elastic bands to tie off my pant cuffs so if I do step on a mound they don’t go inside my pants leg and I can just brush them off. We also have biting flies, but they are not usually too much of an issue.
Eighth – The sun. When you spend as much time as I do on the beaches, shorelines, and water, you MUST protect yourself from the sun. I usually wear “fishing” clothes that are rated to at least 40 SPF, and even in the heat of summer I’m in long sleeves and wearing a hat. I like the sun hats (like the one I’m wearing in the picture of me lying in the water) because they protect my ears
and neck as well. Again, I really dislike covering my body in chemical sunblock, so proper clothing is a must. As a side benefit, the fishing clothes are also fast drying, so I can go out and get soaked in the surf, and I’m usually dry by the time I return to the car. Clothing for outdoor photography should definitely be more about function than style in my opinion, but some companies have addressed both. Heatstroke is a very real risk here in Florida. The summer/early fall months can be brutal. Hydration and protection from the sun are the key. I always carry plenty of water on every trip…as well as a hiking water filter in case I run out.
I hope I haven’t scared anyone off by addressing these risks. To me it’s really just common sense. The rewards of doing what I do far outweigh the risks (to me anyway)….otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this! There is no place I’d rather be than in the wild. I’m probably the only one I know who comes home from a day at “the office” covered in mud with a huge smile because I’ve had yet another incredible experience. It’s not for everyone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! –Bob
Your grandfather would be so proud of you, I know that I am. And very true statements about what you do and how you do it.
Steve – Whenever someone asks me how my passion for the wilderness started, I always tell them about Grandpa Blanchard, and the walks in the woods early in the mornings. Some of my favorite childhood memories, and thankfully I got to walk with him many times.
And this is why you do what you do so WELL!