A longtime ski and action sport photographer finds plenty of adrenaline in the challenge of capturing stunning images of wildlife.
I have been working my way around cameras since the early ’90s when I took a Canon Rebel and 18 rolls of film with me on a NOLS trip. Sadly, those 18 rolls and all my other gear flew off the top of our passenger van never to be seen again. That’s a tough way to start a career. Despite the setback, a career did form, and I’m lucky to have spent the last two decades as a full-time professional photographer. If I’m known for anything in the photo world, it would be my action sports work, or more specifically, my ski photography.
For the most part, I am new to wildlife photography. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve pointed a lens at a few animals over the years, but it’s only been the last few where I am actively trying to learn more about wildlife and make better images. Like many of us, I have a lot to learn. That’s the fun part isn’t it? Getting impactful images that connect a viewer to an animal is challenging. And doing it in a way that respects both the environment and the animals is paramount.
One could make the argument that wildlife photography began back in 1906 when George Shiras III had his images of African wildlife published in, you guessed it, National Geographic. From that time until as recently as 2015 there were some major barriers keeping most folks from entering the genre.
The biggest of these is gear. One of the most important pieces of gear an aspiring wildlife shooter needs is at least one long telephoto lens. And up until recently, a high-quality 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm telephoto would cost you well in excess of $10,000. This all changed back in 2015 when SIGMA announced their groundbreaking 150–600mm super telephoto lens for under $2,000. This lifted the financial barrier that kept so many of us from getting the shot of our dreams. Today, you can still spend thousands for one of those fast prime telephoto lenses, but now every major manufacturer makes a few fantastic wildlife lenses ranging from $800–$2,000.
The next hurdle to overcome is finding animals to photograph. Depending on the species you have your heart set on, this could be as easy as a weekend jaunt up to Rocky Mountain National Park to photograph elk or a lifelong quest to get a snow leopard in front of your lens in the high cold deserts of Tibet. But most of us will find our national parks are great places to begin what for some of us will become an obsession. Within a day’s drive, you can get to ecosystems as diverse as Big Bend, Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Grand Teton National Parks. All are great locations to practice the craft.
Wildlife photography is much like finding that perfect wave or first tracks on a bottomless powder day. Moments in the presence of this fragile fauna with which we share the planet are fleeting, and that’s what makes them so special. You put in the work; you do the miles; you get shut out more often than not—but when it comes all together, it’s simply exhilarating. You can’t wait for another chance to capture the moment.
—See more of Liam Doran’s work at liamdoranphotography.com.
Words and Photos by LIAM DORAN