Fresh from a trip to Alaska and a bit of backpacking in the Arctic Circle, landscape and wildlife photographer Nate Luebbe has joined us for a short conversation on wildlife photography.
How did you get started with wildlife photography?
Nate Luebbe: Honestly, by accident. I was and still am a landscape photographer and, if you spend enough time outside, you are bound to have some incredible encounters with animals. After a couple of fortunate and cool moments, it stirred up a passion in me and got me excited. I didn’t realize I wanted to do wildlife photography until I, by happenstance, got really close to an animal and snapped a cool photo. After that I started thinking, “Hey, this is addicting.”
Do you have an example of a specific encounter that helped spur this passion?
NL: There is one that comes to mind. It was an elk, when I was hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I had just bought my first camera and this massive bull elk up on Trail Ridge Road walked right past us and sat down. It was perfectly situated in the environment with an amazing background. It was one of those situations where luck made a quality photo more than my skill did, but it spurred a bit of excitement in me because I figured if I knew more about photography then I could capitalize even more on moments like this.
Now that you are more experienced, what part of wildlife photography is good planning and what relies on luck?
NL: It’s probably about 50/50. You can’t entirely rely on luck—you aren’t going to see an elephant wandering around downtown L.A.—so you have to plan and put yourself in a location and environment where you are likely to encounter these animals. If you want to photograph an Alaskan grizzly, for example, you have to go to Alaska and, not only that, but you must find out what time of year and locations where the bears are most commonly found. You might research where the bears often go to fish salmon out of the streams. There has to be a good amount of forethought. Unfortunately, even with all this planning you might show up and only find a single animal who is far away and not doing anything interesting. World-class photos, I think, tend to combine planning with luck.
How much planning do you do before a trip?
NL: I do a lot. I’m a hardcore planner. There are times I’ll fly by the seat of my pants and have some random luck but, in general, I try to come up with a plan that maximizes my time. I tend to go a little hard in the paint and don’t relax all that much when I’m traveling and end up going for 14 hours a day so I like to make sure I’m not wasting my time. I’m usually exhausted by the end of it because I get excited, so it is important to make the most of my time. The planning is critical in making sure everything works out.
What are your favorite animals to shoot?
NL: I’m obsessed with bears. They are by far my favorite to shoot. They are tough, though, because you don’t always get to choose when or where you see them and it’s worth mentioning that they are kind of scary. I do still have a soft spot for elk and caribou since you don’t have to make your decisions based on if your life is in danger. You can just go to where they are.
What about bears draws you to them?
NL: That’s a good question that I ask myself somewhat often, too. I would say it’s this perfect blend of being cute and cuddly but also extremely intelligent and clever that makes them great at solving puzzles—a.k.a. breaking into your car and stealing food. They are this cool blend of intelligent, adorable, and being extremely strong, successful predators and there aren’t a whole lot of animals on this planet that walk the line between looking and acting like a puppy yet being extremely strong. There’s almost nothing that could beat a bear in a fight. I’m a little bit addicted to that interesting balance that they strike.
What precautions do you take when you go shoot bears?
NL: You have to always be educated about the animals that you are photographing and what behavior is appropriate around them and what precautions you need to take. I would behave differently around a black bear in Vermont than a grizzly in Montana versus a grizzly in Alaska. At the very least, always carry bear spray. That is mandatory. You should definitely make noise because the most dangerous thing would be surprising a bear. And then just be aware about the situation. If they just caught a salmon, you want to keep your distance since they are very protective of their food. If you come across a mother with her cub, same thing, she is going to be very protective, which is going to put you at much higher risk.
On the other side, there were ones we were just photographing—there was a mother and her cub on a beach just digging for clams and their body language was very relaxed and not threatening. She looked at us a couple of times and once she realized we weren’t another bear and just some people she couldn’t care less. Educate yourself on the body language and the situation. Also, I took the photos at 600mm and cropped, since you should never get too close. Respect the animals and keep in mind that their privacy and your safety are far more important than any photo you can take.
What are some of the ethics that wildlife photographers need to consider?
NL: I think that falls into my previous answer a little bit. You want to be observing them in their natural habitat rather than interfering with them. You should never do anything that interacts with the animals whether that is feeding them or trying to get their attention so they look at you. You always want to be an invisible participant in their world.
A lot of people do try to work with animals to create a shot. Some bird photographers will put out food to encourage birds to land where they can get a guaranteed photo. I’m sure that makes it easier but in my opinion it is not only cheating but it also violates Leave No Trace principles. To each their own, though I think you should try to be respectful to animals. And, what’s the fun of capturing staged shots instead of wild animals in a natural environment?
What are the basics of Leave No Trace for photographers?
NL: Staying on the trail is a huge one—where possible. I was in Denali National Park and, in some areas, there are no trails, so they encourage off-trail hiking. In that case you want to walk on durable surfaces and try to avoid any impact. Pack out all of your trash and don’t bring anything in that won’t leave with you. The common phrase is, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Don’t remove anything from the parks and don’t leave anything in the parks.
What do you want people to get out of your images?
NL: I like to try and convey one of two things, either the personality of the animal or their environment, meaning their interaction with the world around them. If it’s personality I’m going for, that might be a close-up of their face, or them in action. For environmental, it might be them with a landscape behind them that shows that they are a part of something larger, while giving a viewer a sense of their everyday life.
Once, we had a grizzly join us for breakfast one morning—we didn’t get any photos because when you are backpacking and a grizzly shows up, the cameras aren’t very important. Afterwards, we ended up talking for hours about how interesting it was. We are in this incredibly beautiful place, one of the most magnificent places we have ever seen in our lives. For the bear? That’s every day. It wakes up there. It lives there. It goes to sleep there. Its entire life is in these incredible mountain ranges in the Arctic Circle walking across the tundra. That is what I love to try and convey in these photos. That these places that we go on vacation is where these animals live every day.
How can wildlife photography help with conservation efforts?
NL: Honestly, the pioneers for that, in my opinion, are Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, who are founders of SeaLegacy. I think it’s brilliant work. A lot of people take photos and exploit the environment to make those photos happen. They put their own gain above protecting those places. So, I really appreciate the photographers who use their photos to encourage proper behavior.
Cristina and Paul are incredible at that. They post a photo and tell the story of the animal and say how it’s endangered, why it’s endangered, and what you can do to help. That’s something I aim to get a little better at. I am an ardent conservationist but I don’t think I do that as much as I should. Essentially, the takeaway is that many of these places are disappearing and humans play a huge role in that. If you are going to use these places to further your own career and sell images, you need to be giving back to help preserve these environments.
You say you need to do more, but I know when you photographed polar bears you were posting about their habitat and how they are endangered. How was that experience, working with polar bears?
NL: They are the gold standard in the climate change debate and that experience was my single favorite trip I have ever done. It was even more incredible since bears are my favorite animal. Anyone who loves bears must have polar bears at the top of their list. They are so unique and they are so beautiful. I was extremely fortunate that I could go to the Seal River Lodge with Churchill Wild, which in my opinion is the number one place and company to go see polar bears, and I just had the best week of my life. I was able to hang out with these incredible, magnificent beasts that potentially won’t be here at the end of my life. It was weird to see such a beautiful animal and know that my lifespan might exceed all of theirs. It was a life-changing trip and explains why I ended up heavily encouraging conservation.
Finally, what equipment and gear are you using?
NL: I’m a Sony man, so I use an a7R III and an a7 III. For wildlife, I use a 70-200mm, and I use the f/4 because a lot of these trips are out in the backcountry hiking and it keeps things light. It’s still super sharp and I don’t feel I always need the f/2.8. When I do feel like spoiling myself I have the FE 400mm f/2.8, which isn’t fun to hike with but is an absolute dream to use.
Anything on your wish list?
NL: My girlfriend recently picked up the 100-400mm and I had a chance to play with it and I have to admit I was jealous of it. It’s double the reach in a not too much bigger package.
With a 70-200mm you must be getting fairly close.
NL: I rely on the a7R III’s resolution and crop. 200mm is enough for some things, but for something like a bear, bobcat, or wolf, I would definitely be close enough to interfere with their space so for those I generally like to keep around 400mm or more.
If you are interested in learning more about wildlife and landscape photography, Nate Luebbe will be joining EcoTour Adventures Naturalist Josh Metten in the fall for a Photography Workshop through the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Elk, bison, bears, geysers, springs, and plenty more await you on this trip, which takes place from October 4-11, 2019. For more information, you can find all the details here. Also, if you are interested in checking out more of Luebbe’s photography, he wrote an article about shooting wildlife with the Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS Lens on B&H Explora.
Nate Luebbe, a member of the Sony Alpha Collective, is a self-taught photographer and lifelong explorer of the outdoors. He is an avid environmentalist, conservationist, and raconteur of experiences. You can find more of Luebbe’s work at www.nateluebbe.com, and on Instagram, @nateinthewild.
For more wildlife-related news and tips, be sure to check out the rest of Wildlife Week on B&H Explora!