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Categorized | Articles, John E. Marriott

Wild Side – How to Pick a Photo Trip (full story)

Swift fox kits at a den in southern Saskatchewan Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm f/4 lens with 1.4x TC, ƒ11@1/1250 sec., ISO 800, +1/3 EC

Swift fox kits at a den in southern Saskatchewan
Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm f/4 lens with 1.4x TC, ƒ11@1/1250 sec., ISO 800, +1/3 EC

Story and Photography by John E. Marriott

It’s decision time. You have two weeks of vacation/free time coming to you in the near future and a country with endless possibilities for wildlife photography to choose from. So how do you decide where to go and what to spend your hard-earned money on? How do you determine the best bang for your buck? And most importantly, how do you pre-scout (if you can) the location and research it to ensure you maximize your photo opportunities in your limited time?


Those are all questions that I face almost daily in my own career. Which trips should l do? Which locations are going to offer me the best opportunities for the money and time spent? And what types of research do I need to do for new locales that I’ve never shot in before to make the most of my time there?

One of the most common queries I get from budding, wanna-be professional wildlife photographers as well as from hobbyists and amateurs is the exact same question I’m always asking myself: “Which trip do you think I should do?” Of course, it comes in a myriad of forms ranging from, “Do you think I should spend more time in Banff or in Jasper on my trip next month?” to, “Which trip do you think I’d like the best, spirit bears or grizzlies?”

Fortunately, rather than throwing darts at a map before each trip and finding yourself wasting a week chasing badgers in Big Beaver, SK, without really having a clue what you’re doing, there are a number of ways to ensure you figure out the best use of your time and money.

I make my own decisions based on a number of criteria that I balance carefully throughout the year. These include my budget, portfolio needs, how much time I have available, the season/time of year, my knowledge of the opportunities available (including how much effort has to go into finding wildlife) and my wants list. For instance, I want to photograph wolves 365 days a year, but that’s neither practical nor affordable. I also want to photograph spring bear cubs and rattlesnakes emerging from their hibernaculums, but until I learn how to clone myself, those things can’t happen simultaneously.

Bighorn sheep ram in Jasper National Park, AB Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with 2x TC at 400mm, ƒ6.3@1/1600 sec., ISO 250

Bighorn sheep ram in Jasper National Park, AB
Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens with 2x TC at 400mm, ƒ6.3@1/1600 sec., ISO 250

So if you have two weeks in June and you live in New Brunswick, yet have always wanted to photograph bears out west, then assessing these criteria can give you a leg up on what type of trip and location you choose.

Your most limiting factors are usually your budget, the season you have time available in and your knowledge (or lack thereof) of the species and locations you want to photograph. For instance, you can have all the desire in the world to photograph muskox in northern Quebec or Nunavut, but if you’ve only got $2,000, a week in April and no idea of what a muskox really looks like, then it’s probably not going to happen.

If your budget is your most limiting factor, then try to plan for at least one trip a year that stretches that budget as far as it can go, particularly if it gets you into one of your dream locations at a good time of year. I have friends that visit Jasper during bear season each spring that manage to do a three-week trip on a week’s budget by cutting corners on everything from accommodation to food. Areas like Jasper, Vancouver Island, the Yukon and Newfoundland are fairly easy to research online to see where your best wildlife photography opportunities are going to be.

If you feel doing a trip on your own isn’t practical, either because you have no idea where to go to find pine martens or puffins, or because you are terrible at actually spotting wildlife, then seek out an opportunity that provides local knowledge in the form of a guided trip, photo tour or lodge-based experience. The cost will be exponentially higher than doing your own trip, but relying on someone else to put you into position for great photo opportunities can be an excellent way to maximize your precious time. There’s a reason that tour operators like myself are constantly sold out year after year — while the trips are pricey, the fact you don’t have to do much research (provided it’s a reliable company) and can just “show up and shoot” definitely provides tremendous value for your time and money.

Of course, your wants, budget and knowledge level can be moot points if you only have holidays in February and your biggest desire is to shoot grizzlies fishing for salmon. In general, I arrange my calendar based on a few set-in-stone seasonal events. Spring means baby animals like bear cubs, bighorn lambs and moose calves, as well as grizzlies feeding on sedge grass on the west coast and great prairie opportunities for species like swift foxes and burrowing owls. Summer, on the other hand, is best for arctic species like beluga whales or arctic foxes, as well as for east and west coast marine mammals, like orcas or humpback whales. Autumn is primetime for the rut, including elk, bighorn sheep and moose, as well as for caribou migrations and fishing grizzly bears or spirit bears. And finally, winter is my favourite time of year for wolf and owl photography.

Grizzly bear catching a sockeye salmon in British Columbia's Chilcotin Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm f/4 lens, ƒ5.6@1/800 sec., ISO 1250

Grizzly bear catching a sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s Chilcotin
Gear/Settings: Canon 5D3, 500mm f/4 lens, ƒ5.6@1/800 sec., ISO 1250

When I visit an area that I’ve never been to before, which I try to do at least once a year, I not only research my possibilities online, but I also do extensive (pre-)scouting forays during the middle of the day and pre- and post-dawn when it’s either too bright or too dark to photograph. For instance, it’s easy to go and waste a week on the Prairies trying to find wildlife, but if you spend your off-hours scouting rather than snoozing, it can pay huge dividends. Similarly, I spend a lot of time talking to and getting to know locals so that I learn where the best wildlife opportunities are as quickly as possible.

Finally, for those of you that sell your work or would like to down the road, always consider the saleability of the photos you hope to get when you choose your trips. If you sell prints at a local market, then a week at the local park photographing fox kits might be far more saleable than beluga pictures from the Arctic, despite the fact you may really want to go photograph belugas.

To read more of this issue please pick up the Fall/Winter 2016 (#39) issue of OPC. Or to never miss an issue please SUBSCRIBE today!

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