Saturday, November 22, 2014

The View from Here: Photographing at a Game Farm

I'm one of those people who loves to capture wildlife....through the lens of my camera.  Truth be told, I rarely see wildlife in "the wild".  While I spend a lot of time in Glacier National Park (I volunteer), the park's abundant wildlife -- wolverines, mountain lions, Canada lynx, grizzly and black bears -- are exceedingly camera shy.  The next time you see a ranger, ask them how many Canada lynx or mountain lions they have seen in the last 30 years.  None?  Really?  Click.

Lucky for those of us who live and take pictures in the Flathead Valley of Montana, there is Triple D Game Farm.  My experience at the farm includes classes taken from Flathead Valley Community College, workshops run with a professional photographer, and sessions I've arranged myself.

I know, I's not exactly the same as seeing that big grizzly bear running through the river, grabbing for a fish.  But how many times will you EVER run across that picture unless you spend weeks/months in the wild?  Or the elusive glimpse of a Fisher or Pine Martin?  And if you did, would your camera be ready to catch the action?  Would you be in the right position?

So here are the reasons why I enjoy photographing at a game farm, and the reasons I think you might want to try it:
  • First and foremost -- seeing and photographing a wide variety of animals you would likely never get to see in the wild.  Unless you want to travel to Tibet and spend months searching, you might never see a Snow Leopard.  Likewise, the chance to see an Amur Leopard (there are less than 40 in the wild) is pretty rare.  Even animals found in Montana, like a bobcat or mountain lion are hard to catch on film.  And game farms typically have many smaller animals such as pine marten, fisher, raccoon, all types of fox, porcupine, badger, etc.  All of these animals are happy and well fed, which makes for beautiful pictures.
Snow Leopard
Amur Leopard
  • You can get great pictures without investing in expensive, long lenses.  Most of the time a 200mm lens is all you need to get the shot -- certainly no more than a 400mm.  These animals are worked extremely close to the photographer.  For some of the smaller animals, you can shoot at eye level.

Canada Lynx (100mm using a 70-300mm)
  •  At a game farm, the animals are photographed at sites that show the natural habitat of the animal.  Rocky hills, ponds, forests make the photographs look like you've taken them in the wild (remember, however, never pass off a captive animal as wild).  Game farms also take their animals "on the road", where they can be photographed at unusual and beautiful settings -- but natural for that animal. 

  • A game farm exists for photographers.  And the person who helps the photographer get those great shots is the TRAINER.   His/her relationship with these animals can make or break a photo shoot.  The trainer understands what a photographer is looking for, what makes a good shot, when the light is correct, and how to get the animal to the spot you want, which makes getting the action you want possible.  It is amazing to watch a big cat respond to the trainer's "go up" and proceed to climb a rock face, right where the photographer requests.  As with most human-animal relationships, this is a result of the trainer bonding with the animals, loving them....and of course the best incentive of all, FOOD!!  
Red Fox Reflection
  •  The trainer can also be helpful in removing a branch that's in the wrong sport or pulling out a bunch of grass obscuring an animal's face -- things you can't do in the wild.  I should add that the trainers are also there for your protection.  These animals have training, but you can never forget they are wild.  
Mountain Lion "Action Shot"
  •  A game farm gives you the opportunity to try many different types of shots.  You can perfect an "action" shot, retaking it multiple times.  A mountain lion jumping between two rocks (which they can do 5 or 6 times), a coyote, wolf, or big cat jumping down a rock face.  You may never get a chance like that in the wild -- and if you saw it, would you be ready?  You can try different types of shots with the help of the trainer, like practicing a "slow pan" several times.  Use the game farm to practice and learn your equipment so if/when you do have that opportunity in the wild, you are ready.

    Snow Leopard
    Wolf Pack

    Most game farms work with a variety of professional photographers, and you can sign up for their workshops, which are given year round.  The opportunity to learn from the best is thrilling. 
Are there downside's to shooting at a game farm?  Not really, but here are a few things you need to consider:

  • It's not free, like shooting in the wilderness.  You can book photo sessions for yourself at about $250/animal.  Sessions with professionals can range from $1,000 up to $2,000 for 3-5 days and eight animals.  And don't forget to tip -- the trainers work very hard for you, and deserve your thanks. 
  •  Try to schedule a workshop where there won't be too many people.  I've done some with 12 people, which means you may not have much of a choice of where you shoot.  The farm does tell you that you can change positions, but reality is -- where you end up in the line is where you are going to shoot.  Workshops with about 6 people are perfect.  It gives you more opportunity to pick your spot and change if you need to.
  • And of course, it isn't "the wild".  If you want to camp out, searching for hours, days, weeks to capture wildlife on film, then a game farm isn't for you.  But you can consider a "photo safari" -- which is another topic.  
 What you'll need at the game farm:
  • Your camera, a lens, and a tripod.  As I've mentioned, a 200mm zoom lens will yield many good pictures.  Nothing over 400mm is required; however, a tripod is a must.  You may handhold some, but when you are standing on the side of a hill.....
  •  Lots of cards and batteries.
  •  You can take your camera case or pack with you to the site.  I prefer to put what I need into pockets and carry my camera and tripod.  A small fanny pack or a photographer's vest can be useful to carry things without bulk.  Anything sitting on the ground could be taken by the animals -- and you probably won't get it back in one piece.
  • In the winter, dress warmly and in layers.  You'll be photographing outside for most of the morning and again in the afternoon.  Gloves with free fingers are great for shooting; warm boots essential.  And I found it's wise to have a pair of ice grips for your boots -- you might not need them, but it's better to be prepared.
  •  In the summer, the shoot start very early or run late to get the best light and avoid the heat of the day when the animals don't move around much.  Water and sun screen are always a good idea.
  •  With smaller animals, you can get down low (on the animal's eye level) so a small, collapsible seat is good to have.  In the winter, waterproof pants (like ski pants) let you sit on the ground to get those shots. 
How much hiking is involved?

Game farms like Triple D lease sites close to their location, and vehicles can be driven fairly close.  depending on the natural habitat of the animal, some up hill walking could be involved.  And some animals are taken right at the game farm's location.

The Game Farm may also take their animals on a "road trip"  -- other states where they find beautiful scenery (but still natural to the animal).  Check with the game farm to see what type of hiking is required when they are away from their base location.

I have photographed at Triple D Game Farm many times.  I've enjoyed it immensely and recommend highly.  Although not "in the wild", it's an adventure in it's own right, and your photos will prove that.  You've never been so close to these exotic and wild animals.

Wolf Pack - Mating Season
 And don't forget -- the animals start off as BABIES!!!!  Absolutely adorable!!!!

Tiger Cub

Grizzly Cub

Wolf Pup

1 comment:

Diana said...

Nancy, your photos are absolutely stunning! The big cat photos are especially wonderful. What an experience that must have been. It's good to know that place is out there to try.