|The Vacationing Wildlife
"Honey, let's go to Yellowstone this summer for vacation."
I'm sure I'm not alone in this request, especially in the days when I worked the old 9 to 5 job. Many wildlife photographers must squeeze in their photography passion with important obligations like spouse and parent. When its time to decide how to spend that precious two weeks of vacation, many wildlife photographers go through inner turmoil between family and photography. Being a veteran of such turmoil and successfully making vacations and wildlife photography work, here are some ideas you might be able to use.
Your planning must take into account, the "entertainment" of those accompanying you. Whether it's your spouse (husband or wife) or kids, they need to have a vacation as much as you and your cameras. One good friend has a husband who loves to fly fish. This gives her the opportunities to visit many grand locales at peak photographic times. Both enjoy their vacation together, and apart. I'm lucky because both of my boys as well as my wife love the great outdoors. But what if you're not in the same boat?
There are many locales around the country that offer both wildlife shooting and basic family fun. Included in these must be our national parks (Yellowstone and Florida Everglades for example). Many vacation spots have great family fun with good shooting just a stones throw away. This is also true for locales such as Southern California where Disneyland is just twenty minutes from Upper Newport Bay, the best shorebird photography on the west coast.
A lot of the enjoyment and fun for all has to do with accommodations. Don't camp on a major trip if you never have camped before. And don't motel it if your family loves campfires and sleeping bags. This seems like such common sense, but I've heard too many times, "well we wanted to try camping this time." These folks have only found that camping made vacation and shooting time nonexistent.
Planning your vacation locale really comes down to time management. There must be quality time for the family first (a happy family makes for a happy photographer). Only after that is there quality time for photography. Quality time shooting requires doing homework to understand possible subjects and being photographically prepared to capture them on film. More on that in a second.
Take along those things that make everyone comfortable. Make sure there are plenty of rest stops, a cooler with fruits and drinks, and interesting things to see on the way. Plan a few stops that are both mentally and photographically interesting for all to explore. I like to call in advance of a trip to chambers of commerce and visitor bureaus to get brochures on sites along my route. I then pass these out the day we might pass those particular locales and let the family decide which ones they want to see. Of course, I filter through these and hand out those that are potential photographic opportunities.
A very important aspect of traveling is packing. Clothes, camping gear if appropriate, and the like are all important. But so is the camera gear. Making sure you take what is needed and getting it there safely is important. And if you're anything like my family, there isn't a vehicle big enough to get it all there. So making the most of every inch of packing space is vital. All my gear easily fits in the Pro Trekker and little extras go into a small Rubbermaid tub.
Ice chests go no matter what, but film and gear are not in them. No matter the locale, I simply place a large white towel, doubled in two, over my equipment and film to help keep them cool. They might sit in direct sun in the back of the car, but even in the hottest desert, I've never had any problem with any film from heat. That goes for equipment as well. And the towel helps keep honest people honest when looking in the car. Now that I only shoot digital, I don't worry about film but the notebook computer I take along I do worry about it being in the sun. So it's under the towel that used to cover my film.
As for actual cameras and lenses, I take my general shooting bag of goodies. This includes my D1H, 600f4 AFS, 80-400VR, 28-70f2.8AFS, 17-35f2.8AFS, 14f2.8AF, TC-14e/20e and SB-80DX. I also never leave home without my American Express (true, but sorry, bad joke), assorted filters, including polarizer, gradated split neutral density and enhancer.
The key to packing all this gear is size, weight and multiple use. For example the 80-400VR, 28-70f2.8AFS and 17-35f2.8AFS are all 77mm in size, so one set of filters covers them all. I have my Moose Filter polarizer, Tiffen .6 split neutral density and enhancer all screwed together in one stack with stack caps so they are easy to use and transport. Two lenses are optional in whether I take them or not, the 400f/2.8 and 300f4AFS. Now if I'm going some place with lots of big mammals, such as Yellowstone, I'll take the 400f/2.8 because I love what it does for these big dudes.
One of the biggest problems most folks have when traveling is getting tied up in equipment. They simply have more than they need and the sheer decision of which lens to use slows down the entire trip.
If one rule applies to the vacationing wildlife photographer it's this, KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid! And this goes hand in hand with my general photographic philosophy, have fun!
On site shooting
From a simply photographic and lighting standpoint, early morning is best. This is a time when most wildlife is in great light and active and the family is not. Maximizing those couple of golden hours typically captures the best photos and are the most rewarding. This gives you the rest of the day to spend with the family in the manner you all would enjoy most. But make sure you drag them along with you at least one morning so they to can share in the magic of the moment.
It's more than likely that as a family, you'll be cruising around looking at sights. Photo ops occur at these times as well. So how do you take advantage of them? One way is to make sure you always have a camera at the ready. I typically have a body with either the 14mm or 80-400VR attached, with an extra flash card, beside me in the seat. Many a great shot has come from shooting out the window in this fashion. The one trick to this is getting the family to hold still while you're shooting, but this can easily be taken care of with a 2x4 (just kidding).
If you're in a locale where great bird ops are along the road - travel at the ready. Have your big lens ready at your side if practical. You can shoot out the window using a beanbag or window pod. I travel about with my tripod set up, lying in the back of the car. I set my tripod up to the proper height, and then loosen one level of leg sections. When I need to use it, I just hold it out, let the legs drop into position, and lock them tight. It's quick to set up and easy to travel about with it in this manner. (All my gear has Arca Swis-Really Right Stuff quick release plates which makes set up fast and secure.) And my big 800mm rides in the back on a nice, fluffy, old down pillow. When needed, I can quickly and quietly set up my tripod and big lens without scaring off the subject. When working out of the back of the car, I park, walk around the car using it as a blind, set up my tripod and lens and shoot.
Quality time, for you, your photography and family can easily be accomplished. My wife laughs at the thought of me being a vacationing wildlife photographer because she has seen me go through one hundred rolls "on vacation." It really is grand fun though, getting to shoot and be with the family.
The kids can often get drawn in behind the lens when on vacation, so encourage them by letting them shoot through your camera. Those disposable cameras work great as well for the kids, bringing the fun of photography to their vacation. And fun is the key because with that in the air, your vacation will be captured not only on film, but in your memories forever.