Photographing nature and wildlife. Should I go on my own or with a pro photo outfitter?

Joe Van Os moved to Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle 40 years ago and founded Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris. Over the years he has added destinations and guides until today with he has the largest exclusively photography-oriented tour company in the world with 40 to 60 different tours a year and a team of 27 professional photographer tour leaders. He talked with Brown’s Guides about why it makes sense for someone serious about their photography to go with a photo tour company rather than on their own.

“Largest in the world” is a bold claim.

There are travel companies that advertise “photography tours” that are much bigger than us. But we offer more purely photography-oriented trips than any other company.  Many companies offer photography as a component of a more general interest trip and the photographer must quickly grab shots as the trip progresses instead of having adequate time to concentrate on their photography.  Some cruise companies offer Arctic and Antarctic tours that advertise they operate “photography tours”. Basically what that means is that they have a professional photographer on a ship with a hundred or two hundred people. Serious photography is a small component of the voyage. Whereas when we operate an Antarctica tour we exclusively charter the entire ship for our clients, have seven or more pro photographers on board (as well as a team of interpretive naturalists) where we control the itinerary and it’s all photography all the time. That’s a huge difference.

I’m a decent photographer, why would I choose to go on a photo safari with you rather than do it on my own?

We know the areas we operate in very well and bring our trip participants to the core of a photography location without them spending lots of trial and error time getting to know a place on their first visit. We know the best times of year to be there, the best area locations and the best time of day to be at that location for optimal light conditions. We understand seasonal rhythms of animal migration and the seasonal timing when leaves turn in autumn, when wildflowers are in bloom in the spring or when aurora borealis may be optimal in winter. With us you don’t have to deal with logistical reservations or do any driving. Your professional photographer guide can provide the benefit of his/her vision in the field in terms of setting up shots, and back at the hotel you can discuss the shoot and ask questions about Photoshop, Lightroom and a variety of post processing applications. You have an opportunity to meet like-minded people who share the same enjoyment of experiencing nature and creating images through the lens of a camera.

How many people go on a tour

It ranges from seven to eighty. I just led a trip to a photograph tigers in an Indian national park where we had four vehicles with two photographers in each vehicle and I was counted as one of those people, so there were seven participants, plus me. But when we charter an entire small ship, we might take as many as fifty to eighty depending on where it is and what we may be doing.

What’s the cost?

Prices range from around $3,500 for our Florida swallow-tailed kite trip to $12,500 for the India tiger tour, not including transportation to the starting point of the tour.  The cost of ship-based trips depends on the cabin category selected by the passenger.

What are the top five locations for photography in the U.S.?

Katmai and Lake Clark national parks in Alaska are excellent wildlife locations for photographing brown bears. You can’t beat Yellowstone in winter. It’s probably as prime a situation as you can get for photography. It’s got everything, wildlife, landscapes, plus it’s augmented by the geothermal features, which are even enhanced in winter with hot steam blowing out into cold air. It looks pretty zippy. The American southwest is prime fodder for photography: Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. You can’t go wrong there.  Of course the Pacific Northwest is near and dear to my heart!

Who are your customers?

A mixed bag of extremely dedicated photographers as well as people who are just starting out who want to see what photography’s all about. The one thing they have in common is that they understand that they’re going to have a serious photography experience. They’re not going to spend time shopping or lying on the beach. We’re going to be out in the field dawn to dusk shooting. (We break at times for meals or a midday rest—we’re not maniacal.) Easily 80 percent of the guests on any of our trips are repeat customers and often it’s 100 percent.  Beginners usually bring minimal equipment but when they catch the photo bug “lens lust” usually follows.

Canon or Nikon?

Half our tour leaders shoot with Canon and half with Nikon.  As a company we have no real brand loyalty to any manufacturer. We don’t partner with anybody and usually don’t get any free samples, so basically we’re not beholden to anybody. As far as customers are concerned it’s pretty much 50/50 Canon/Nikon. A few baby boom customers are starting to show up with the lighter mirrorless or 4/3 camera systems by Sony or Panasonic in order to be able to lug them around without killing themselves.

What about lenses?

We recommend that people invest in zoom lenses due to their versatility.  This also helps with air travel by lowering the number of lenses needed on a trip.  When flying with camera gear, these days less can be more.

So a zoom instead of a prime lens is okay?

Completely. Preferred even. There’s a lot more versatility in zooms than with prime (fixed focal length) lenses and considerably less equipment to lug around. We recommend a 100mm-400mm zoom.  Both Canon and Nikon have good ones.

Even Wildlife?

Those 100mm-400mm zooms are very useful for some wildlife shooting. But for serious wildlife shooting, sooner or later you’re going to want a big prime lens like a 500mm, 600mm or 800mm..  The 500mm and a 1.4x teleconverter is the common big lens most serious wildlife shooters have on our trips.  The 800mm is normally a bird shooter’s lens.  Most customers own their gear but in some instances they rent those big lenses.

And landscape?

I carry a 16-35 mm zoom, a 24-105mm zoom and a 100-400 mm zoom. Those three lenses would be all I would usually need on a landscape trip.  

What bodies do you shoot with?

Right now I use a Canon 1D X. In fact I have three of them. And the reason for that is when you go out in the field you really want to have two bodies in case one packs up on you, or you drop it. Many people travel with one really “good” body and then a lesser body that’s their backup in case the good one meets its demise.

Is there any other equipment a traveling photographer needs to be successful in the field?

Without a doubt a sturdy tripod and a ball head are important in creating sharp images—especially when using the super telephotos like a 500mm or larger.  Really Right Stuff and Gitzo make very good carbon fiber tripods.  Cheap tripods are worthless.

As a professional photographer who returns to the same locations, what’s your perspective on climate change?

If people could see what we see in the field, particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic, they’d be more worried than they are now. We go back year after year to numerous places and we can see that some glaciers and ice shelves have receded a mile or more in a year or two. That’s serious!

To see photos by guests on Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris as well as by tour leaders, including Joe himself, visit the Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Facebook Page.

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