Travel Photography: It’s The Destination, Stupid!

Travel Photography: It’s The Destination, Stupid!

Short Essays

Travel Photography: It’s The Destination, Stupid!

As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling if you haven’t done so already. The journey might start as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office. It might be an extended road trip through several states and time zones, car packed with camera and lenses, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road stretching out to the horizon. Over time, these journeys might involve airplanes, travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the planet. Photographers are particularly vulnerable to the lure of the exotic.

You might live within eyesight of a premier national park with hundreds of square miles of mountain wilderness, waterfalls, charismatic wildlife, pristine beaches, wildflowers in the spring, blazing foliage in the fall – hey, this is the cosmic photo destination we’re talking about after all – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something else somewhere else. It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a naive grass-is-always-greener impulse since the grass might really be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the grass over there isn’t even green at all, but a different hue you’ve never seen or even considered. Or perhaps it’s wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re accustomed. Then again – sticking with the working metaphor here – maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey in getting there.

You know. It’s the journey, not the destination?

Or perhaps not. You see, I personally consider that sentiment as just another feel-good, pop-culture pseudo-profundity that’s too quickly taken at face value. For the weary traveler, the journey – despite the cheery saccharin-laced romanticism it conjures – actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to the destination while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be as happy as a sot in a river of gin. I’m guessing whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker philosophy never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st-century airport on a hot Friday afternoon. And yes, I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for how to experience life. Okay, fine. But all too often, it’s used literally as marketing propaganda by slick travel agencies and meretricious cruise operators. I, for one, am tired of the so-called virtues of the journey. There, I said it.

I do find it ironic that the most blissful photogenic destinations in the world require traveling through Hell on Earth to get there: over-crowded airports, canceled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, checked bag fees, lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control and customs, surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays and pat-downs, no liquids or gelsremove your shoes, cramped airplanes seats with little legroom, and truly tasteless airline cuisine are just some of the indignities to be endured to get to where we’re going. And I’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist Douglas Adams mused that no language has ever produced the phrase pretty as an airport.

But the agony and pulverizing boredom of travel soon fade from memory once the journey is over and the destination is reached. So why do we bother to make the journey anyway? I suppose everyone has their reasons: capturing and seeing something new, exploration, adventure, enlightenment, exotic cultures and food, and running from the law – just to name a few. And while all the preceding could apply to me too – aside from the running from the law part – I ought to mention that it also happens to be my job. I haven’t quite mastered the delicate art of keeping a straight face while explaining to friends and loved ones that I’m “going to work” as I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography excursion. I should get some credit, however, for at least not employing the smug “but somebody’s gotta do it” rejoinder or something to that effect.

And while I understand “getting away from it all” is one justification for travel, it’s one that’s never quite resonated with me. I just don’t see my life or work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape. But travel does take me away from everything easy and familiar while razing the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us – try to cling desperately. I like that. I sometimes absolutely need that. Travel writer Freyda Stark observed, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world,” and I could not agree more. When applied to photography, these strange new places and experiences act as powerful catalysts to help get my creative juices going and force me to see things differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?

Then there are the places and experiences that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough since we photographers are paid to create photos where mere words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis over the night skies of Greenland, or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system pulsed into overdrive and delivered a dose of chill bumps over my arms and upper torso, making the hair stand up straight on the back of my neck. The very best part of this feeling was that in each instance, I never saw it coming. Each and every time was like a thunderbolt from the blue. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I travel.

And If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might even create something beautiful or meaningful that allows my audience to participate in this new experience with me. Or I could forget to remove the lens cap, and everyone will just have to take my word for it. At any rate, if I don’t make the journey, it will have never happened for any of us. So, the journey is indeed necessary after all, if not a necessary evil. But with the right attitude – and a good set of noise-canceling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.


A Righteous Set of Sticks

A Righteous Set of Sticks

Short Essays

A Righteous Set of Sticks

I once lost a tripod in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains several years ago. Okay I should say, for the sake of accuracy, I left it there by accident. Despite having legs, tripods don’t just walk off and get lost on their own.

Returning to the trailhead after an overnight backpacking trek, I tossed my gear into the rental car and drove away, leaving in my wake a perfectly good tripod in full view of the public parking area. I wasn’t even aware of this oversight until four hours and 200 miles later when a wave of intuitive dread fell over me. An inventory was hastily performed and my fears were borne out. The idea of driving back to find it was quickly dismissed and replaced with better one: I went to a bar. The tripod was just as likely to be found under a barstool at the Old Faithful Tavern as it would at a popular trailhead on an Indian summer weekend in mid-September. I was sunk.

For outdoor photographers, having no tripod is almost as bad as having no camera. In other words, it’s essential. Yet for many beginners, a tripod remains the object of an intense love-hate relationship. They love it because they’ve been told they should love it, but they also hate it because they despise carrying and operating the wretched thing. Eventually, that relationship evolves into one of tolerance, soon followed by tepid acceptance, mild appreciation and finally, love.

The benefits of a tripod are obvious to most photographers, nature or otherwise, and will become more obvious with time and experience. Camera stability will always be the primary benefit and can never be overstated.  No matter how steady-handed you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, be assured that comparing results on a set of large prints will humble you.

Another often cited benefit of using a tripod is that it slows the photographic process down, forcing the artist to think through their compositions in a more contemplative way. While I believe there is some truth buried in that sentiment, I do have to wonder how any device that forces you to do anything can advance the creative process. Not using a tripod and being contemplative are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.

A tripod can, however, have many other non-conventional and under appreciated benefits that you’ll probably never read on the glossy pages of a snazzy product catalog. For example, a tripod can be used to reach and remove a distracting limb or branch in mid-stream that you otherwise would have to get wet to reach.  Who hasn’t performed this little trick before? I always grasp the tripod firmly near the head, while telescoping a leg (always one) to the desired distance. It sure beats a day’s worth of walking with soggy and squishy boots. It also functions as an adequate wading staff or trekking pole in a pinch. You’re missing out on much of your tripod’s hidden value if it’s never helped steady you while hiking a particularly steep descent or provided additional balance as you rock-hop from one stream bank to another.

There are also dark undertones of blunt-force weaponry incorporated in a tripod’s design, although you hope to never use one in this way. I’ve never had to fend off a crazed backwoods hillbilly yet nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter, but you never know. Perhaps the deterrent of being visibly armed has had something to do with that. But there are two instances where I can recall applying my beloved tripod directly to a wild animal: a lovesick bison in Yellowstone National Park and five-foot timber rattler in the Great Smoky Mountains. The former simply invaded what I would consider my personal space and I used the tripod as a makeshift shield as I turned away each of her (his?) amorous advances. The latter was stretched out across a rocky section of a trail, peacefully soaking up the late summer sun. I carefully lifted and relocated it to a safer location, since the odds of the next hiking party being as charitable as I was not nearly as good. When it comes to dealing with snakes, humans usually kill first and ask questions later.

You might learn rather quickly that having a tripod immediately grants you professional status in the presence of certain people. In the vicinity of tourists or non-photographers, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional photographer and how can they become one too. This perception will create some complications from time to time. Many parks and authorities require photographers to have a commercial use permit (for a  fee, of course) if one is in possession of a tripod. The inference being, that if you’re determined enough to lug the heavy-looking contraption around there must be a damned good reason to do so and they want their fair share of whatever that reason is.

While leading a tour in Belize several years ago, the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the property with tripods. It had nothing to do with aesthetics, environmental impact, sacred tradition, or limited working space, but rather it was assumed we were a group of professionals and that was obviously a bad thing. The guards looked threatening and had automatic machine guns so I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to argue a point of principle. Instead, our group assembled some improvisational tripods from sticks and rocks and that seemed to get the job done well enough. Like my experience in Montana years prior, you learn to appreciate your tripod when you don’t have it.

At this moment, I am looking at several tripods leaning against a corner of my office – each with a specialized purpose. There’s a compact, lightweight model for multi-day backpacking trips, a big, sturdy model for propping up my big telephoto lenses when shooting wildlife, and one that its less than 10 inches tall. My everyday workhorse, however, is carbon fiber beauty that’s at least 8 years old and has been discontinued by the manufacturer. It’s scarred, dinged, dented, taped up, rusted, and getting a little squeaky in the joints – not unlike its owner these days.

But I have no plans for a replacement, at least not until it completely succumbs to gravity and fails to stand on its own three legs. If leading a workshop or tour, having gear that looks seasoned helps perpetuate that “steely-eyed mountain man” persona that citified clients like to project upon me, whether its accurate or not. Guides or workshop leaders who only carry spiffy, brand new gear should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Either they’re new at this game or you’re being overcharged.

During a recent photography workshop, a bright, personable young man in my group took one look at my tripod and casually stated, “Whoa, that’s one righteous set of sticks, dude.”

I asked permission to steal that phrase for future use, if I gave him proper credit of course. Thanks Darren.

Six Stable Tripod Tips

  1. Try to keep the tripod on firm, dry land for optimal stability and image sharpness. Be careful of wet sand and soggy terrain where your tripod could move slightly during a long exposure.
  2. Always keep the tripod and camera as level as possible. If working on an uneven hillside, extend one of the legs longer than the other two to keep everything level. This may seem too obvious but it’s still worth repeating.
  3. For extra stability, especially in windy conditions, suspend your camera bag (or some other heavy object) to the hook at the bottom of the tripod’s center post, if your tripod has one. This is especially true for the wonderfully light carbon fiber tripods that we’ve all come to love.
  4. Only raise the tripod as high as necessary. Extend the larger diameter tripod leg extensions first before the thinner ones and only extend the thinner legs segments if absolutely necessary. The thinner leg extensions lack the stability and support of the thicker segments.
  5. If your tripod has a center column, only use it as a last resort. The center column is the most vulnerable point on a tripod when it comes to possible movement
  6. When using heavy lenses with a built-in tripod collar, attach the lens to the tripod instead of the camera. Cameras with heavy lenses mounted to the tripod are unstable. The tripod collar built into the lens is there for a reason.

I am a Really Right Stuff sponsored photographer and I proudly use their tripods, heads, plates, and brackets for camera stability when I’m traveling and in the field.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

A Passion Driven Life

A Passion Driven Life


A Passion Driven Life

You cannot change what you are, only what you do. – Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.

So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own weary head, I drove to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. I fired myself on January 14, 2003 which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby at the time with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle. It wasn’t even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it (that’s still mostly true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there exactly. The one thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bimonthly paycheck.

This was a new way of thinking to me. I was a rationally thinking corporate manager with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? Let’s count the ways; no salary; no plan for earning any income in the near future; no benefits; no financial security. On its face, the choice was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wild places, wildlife, and exotic travel were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to evangelize to others that you should love what you do in order to truly be successful in life – as was my mantra to my employees and anyone who would listen – I would have to commit to it myself lest I be a hypocrite. I was only willing to accept happiness and excellence for myself and I could only achieve it by doing what I loved and was passionate about.

Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. But hey, at least no one told me to grow up and get a haircut.

“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” many would say. “You’re just running off to pretty places and having a good time.”

“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”

You see, I never considered photography as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to say here.

Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention mere rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.

So after many years now of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success many years ago in a corporate job.

If living an inspired, passion driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do – while managing to live financially comfortable as well – is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

A Bear is Eating My Camera

A Bear is Eating My Camera

Short Essays

A Bear is Eating My Camera

It was a brilliant Indian summer afternoon at Elk Lakes Provincial Park in Canada’s eastern British Columbia. Blue skies reigned over pale grey granite mountains as the mercury reached an unseasonable eighty degrees Fahrenheit. There were no deciduous trees in sight to offer any clue that it was, in fact, mid-September yet the subtle hints of yellow, orange, and red hues in the meadow grasses and huckleberry bushes betrayed the undeniable and irresistible pull of autumn. Bull moose wading the far shores of the marsh ponds had long disposed of their antler velvet and a fresh dusting of snow from the last passing front adorned the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide, the conspicuous border with the province of Alberta.

Elkford’s Chamber of Commerce might have billed this afternoon as “idyllic” but the bright sun and robin-egg blue skies reduced this photographer to just another tourist, squinting through the windshield while admiring the scenery and stopping to unfold and refold the map until driving yet again with no particular destination. Everyone plays the clueless tourist at some point whether any of us wants to admit it or not.

I was preoccupied, busy processing a flood of pleasant memories from a trip fourteen years earlier when I arrived with just a film camera and a bamboo fly rod. The Elk River courses through the heart of the park and just happens to host the prettiest, most naive cutthroat trout whose acquaintance I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Toward no dry fly did these beautiful fish seem to pass any judgment or discrimination. Rising through swift, glacier-fed currents from the river cobbles they would inhale a dry fly from the water’s surface with such dumb innocence, it would almost break your heart.

I considered leaving the camera packed away and renting a fly rod, buying a few dry flies, and wetting a line just for the sake of nostalgia but ultimately thought better of that idea. The passage of time enhances good memories and elevates epic ones to near mythological status, which could only lead to a letdown. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same Elk River of fourteen years earlier. You never wade into the same river twice.

It was during that visit that I also laid eyes on my first honest-to-goodness wild grizzly bear. It was at a safe enough distance – at least 200 yards – and we were separated by a particularly deep and broad section of the river. The old boar stalked the meadow’s edge with the purposeful gait and confidence that only an apex predator of the wild could get away with. When his head spun around on its massive shoulders and our eyes met, the coldest shiver ran down my spine and my toes tingled. I was flying.

If you travel to and spend time in North America’s great wilderness areas, you will eventually have to deal with bears – either real ones or the phantom bears of your all-too-vivid imagination. Which of the two is worse is a matter for debate. Still, a solid piece of advice to follow when walking or hiking in bear country is to make as much noise as possible, not necessarily to scare the bears away, but to create an awareness of your presence, since startling or surprising one at close range would spell certain disaster for both the hiker and the bear. Some examples would be wearing bear bells, intermittent clapping or yelling, and talking loudly – either within a group or just to yourself if you happen to be alone.

I’ve always preferred talking to myself since I tend to do it anyway: politics, religion, the use or overuse of HDR – you know, the usual topics to avoid in polite company. In fact, hiking through bear country is one of the few occasions when talking to oneself is the sane and reasonable thing to do. Having the discussion evolve into heated argument, however, is probably a bad sign.

I decided to take an afternoon hike to a small alpine lake for sunset. It was likely to be an exercise in futility, if not merely good old-fashioned exercise for its own sake, but I was in a particularly beautiful part of the Canadian Rockies on an otherwise glorious September afternoon so what the hell? At worst, I’ll have had an invigorating walk through some incredibly scenic country and maybe even take a photograph or two.

The trail rose from the valley floor, cutting a steep and rocky path through a fragrant forest of alpine firs, Engelmann spruce, and lodge pole pine. The hot sun and thin air conspired to make the hiking slow and burdensome, but I was in no particular hurry. I would stop every so often to rest while small animals and birds would reveal themselves once I settled down and sat for a bit: a few chipmunks, a pika, and one blue grouse that nearly came within an arm’s length of the rock on which I was sitting. I attempted a few photos, glanced at the LCD display, shrugged, and started walking again.

After a couple of hours, I stopped for yet another breather and an opportunity to heed the call of nature, once I found an acceptable powder room. I set my tripod firmly on the ground, with camera and lens attached, and ducked into a dense labyrinth of scrub birch and willows for some privacy, as if I needed it. Almost immediately upon entering the thickets, I heard a crashing noise, the breaking of branches, and a grunting and growling that seemed to be getting close in a hurry. I made a hastily arranged, undignified retreat back to the meadow and was closely followed by a visibly agitated black bear. I kept my distance and did my best to talk it down in soft, reassuring tones.

Eeeeasy there big fella. You’re a good bear, aren’t you? We don’t want any trouble now, do we? 

Perhaps it was the patronizing tone or the disgraceful visage of a grown man standing in an alpine meadow with his shorts dangling from his hiking boots, but the attempted reasoning only made the situation worse. The bear projected its growing displeasure on my nearby tripod and camera by swatting it to the ground with considerable flair (settling the mystery of whether a falling camera in the forest makes a sound – that would be yes). Then after concluding that the alliance of applied force and gravity didn’t do enough damage, the bear took the camera in its massive jaws and began doing its best great white shark impression. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR. It occurred to me that if the bear was desperate and hungry enough to try and extract nutrition from a digital camera, who’s to say that it wouldn’t be as equally desperate to try to take a pound or two of flesh from me? Black bear attacks on humans are extremely rare but are nearly always fatal since the motivation is usually food, not temporarily neutralizing a perceived threat.

The bear took the camera in its massive jaws and began doing its best great white shark impression. I watched helplessly as shards of black plastic exploded from the exquisite piece of technology formerly known as my Canon DSLR.

I’ve actually had the unsettling experience of being charged by an Alaskan brown bear at close range a couple years earlier, before it stopped a mere ten yards or so before hello darkness my old friend, I could now only presume. As it was happening, time sped up – or maybe it slowed down – I don’t really remember as most of the details are now lost to the fog of terror and adrenaline. But I’m proud to say I did everything right as it was taking place. For one thing, I didn’t run, which is the cowardly half of the primal flight-or-fight response and an impulse that’s almost too difficult to resist. I stood my ground with my hands raised over my head, avoiding direct eye contact while waiting for fatal impact. I also resisted screaming like a little girl, another impulse that seemed all too appropriate at the time.

But no amount of screaming, pleading, or begging was going dissuade this psychotic creature from performing a crude camera lobotomy before my eyes. For obvious reasons, none of this episode was captured on camera since, short of whipping out my iPhone and snapping the most epic of selfies (which only occurred to me in hindsight), all I could do was stand there feeling dumb and helpless, which is probably how I looked as well.

When the bear finally grew bored of this tasteless encounter, it casually ambled back into the thickets, probably to find some real food. While my wide-angle lens and tripod survived the encounter unscathed, the same could not be said of the camera itself. Surprisingly, I wasn’t angry or upset. I didn’t harbor any feelings of vengeance or retribution. Violence, real or imagined, never even entered my mind. I was, quite simply, a bit dumbstruck. It was bizarre. It was surreal. It might have actually been funny had it been someone else’s camera.

I did try to laugh about it, I truly did. But like most humor involving real bears, I just couldn’t find anything funny about it. Bear jokes told by those not accustomed to spending time in bear country usually fall flat with those of us who do since they either contain too little truth or too much. Punch lines involving bells in bear scat might provoke some reluctant laughter on the part of the fervent backpacker or hiker because of the obvious irony, but the gag still overreaches and ultimately misses the mark.

Then there’s the joke about how it’s not necessary to actually outrun a bear, only the luckless partner of the joke’s narrator. Despite the ridiculous notion of running from a bear to begin with, I guess it was funny enough the first time. But after subsequent recitations, it quickly began to pall. At Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park in Alaska during a recent visit to this magnificent bear sanctuary, there were five or six of us guys talking and loitering in the dining hall after dinner one evening when one of the older sports needed to regale us with this particularly stale one-liner. The response, not surprisingly, was almost no response at all, save for the feeblest of laughs I feigned out of face-saving politeness. The gesture apparently went unnoticed since he insisted on repeating the line all over again – this time louder and with more enthusiasm, in case we all missed the point the first time. I excused myself from the table to get another beer.

As daylight evaporated from the crisp Canadian sky, a cold wind barreled down the valley from the Great Divide – a stark reminder that autumn really was imminent. I collected my broken pieces of camera gear and started down the dusky trail to the car, talking and muttering to myself the entire way.


Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than 1.2 million followers across social media platforms. He leads photography tours and workshops all over the world and is a high-demand keynote speaker. For more great information on new images, book projects, public appearances, photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Richard’s Email Newsletter.

Shoot To Thrill

Shoot To Thrill

Short Essays

Shoot To Thrill

“When this is in your hands, you are the center of the universe. Not that anything else exists, it certainly does. You are important, this thing empowers you to do whatever the hell you want.” – Mel DiGiacomo, photojournalist

“On the barrel, pretty white letters spelled out PARTY STARTER.” – Ilona Andrews, Gunmetal Magic

On the tediously long flight from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, I was seated among a small group of middle-aged white men decked out in the latest camouflaged fashions. They were, as they say, all in. The affected clothing items and accruements included, but were not limited to, jackets, baseball caps, handbags, boots, eyeglass and phone cases, one eye patch, and a tee-shirt emblazoned in block letters:


A hunting party, no doubt.

At this realization, I was for the briefest of moments shocked that these grown men were traveling across a vast ocean to kill the same beautiful creatures I was planning to photograph. I was also somewhat shocked at my naïveté since African hunting safaris have a much longer history and steeper tradition than wildlife photography. Grainy black and white photographs of a bespeckled Teddy Roosevelt, rifle in hand grinning over the corpse of some poor Cape buffalo, come immediately to mind.

While casting no judgments on legal hunting in general – for sustenance (if and when necessary) or as a governmental management tool with oversight by the appropriate authorities (for the benefit of wildlife or a specific species) – I must confess that killing for sport, trophy, or ego sickens me, particularly our African megafauna which has been in a precipitous decline in recent years.

Either way, for better or worse, I have zero interest in participating myself. I’ve spoken to many wildlife photographers who are former hunters, and they’ve all intimated that the primal “thrill of the kill” is the same; only a good wildlife image is much more of a challenge than a kill shot. With photography, the human predatory instinct is still propitiated but without the blood, guts, and guilt. It’s also more of what I would consider being a sporting proposition. Both characters in the drama can walk away from the encounter alive and well.

Still, in many ways, photography and firearms are inextricably married, with language being the most common bond. For example, a camera is still said to be fired, and so is a flash gun. A collection of lenses is often referred to as an arsenal and all lenses, of course, have a barrel. Super telephoto lenses are big guns, while small fully automatic, pocket-sized cameras are point-and-shoot. So without even having to mention headshot, you should already be getting my drift here.

The primary complication lies with the ambiguity of the words shoot and shot. A portrait photographer’s Twitter bio might include “I shoot people,” a joke that ceased being funny long ago if for no other reason it’s breathtakingly stale and unoriginal. If they go on to say that they can legally cut people’s heads off, well, then that makes it at least fractionally funnier.

The word shot is a cute, amputated form of the word snapshot, borrowed yet again from the culture of weaponry and born in the early 19th-century meaning, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” Some photographers, I fear, might feel this definition hits a bit too close to home.

I use the words shoot or shot from time to time, but I try to do so as infrequently as possible. And not because of the words’ obvious violent undertones, but instead, I find them to be rather inelegant and crude. As a substitute for shot, I prefer the terms image or photo.

Image is snazzy and modern, entirely appropriate for smartphones and the digital age – digital imagery. Stretching photo all the way out into photograph feels too old fashioned and implies, at least to me, a tangible print that you can hold in your hands. The same goes for picture. The slang pic should always be avoided if you are older than 25 years old or if used outside the context of an online chat or text. Under no circumstances should it ever be verbalized. Capture, used as either a noun or verb, is steadily gaining in popularity among photographers but has never fully caught on with me. Epic capture or I captured a raging sunset last night is either too disconnected from photography or far too hip for its own good.

I think it’s time we all joined together to find some new terminology.

While in transit to Johannesburg, I was told of a U.S State Department bulletin, warning travelers to Tambo International Airport of thieves and muggers posing as taxi operators, an unsettling development.

As I carefully deliberated over my transportation options upon arrival, a friendly young man approached and offered a ride to my hotel at a reasonable price. I searched his appearance for any subtle clues – a ridiculous and futile exercise – then followed him out to his car, which had an illuminated “taxi” sign perched on the rooftop, a very good sign indeed.

When he asked about the purpose of my visit, I cryptically replied, “Shooting animals,” just as he reached for my luggage and opened the trunk.

“Ah yes, hunting?”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

Before the trunk was closed, I grabbed my oversized camera pack and said casually, “No thanks, but I’d prefer to keep the guns up front with me.”