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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Extreme Wildlife

Jim Oltersdorf works on the edge to get wild and unique photographs of wildlife and nature as a whole

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Workshop student and Alaskan brown bear
Minimizing The Risks In High-Risk Work
High-risk and extreme photography begins by completely understanding the difficult tasks at hand. Says Oltersdorf emphatically, “Interestingly enough, what appears to be a simple situation should be looked at very closely. That should be a bell that rings loudly in your ear that all may not be what it appears to be. In those situations, it can be an almost imperceptible ‘window’ that allows one to pass through, and in a few seconds, it closes up on you. It can go from a sunny and glorious carefree day to death staring you in the face in seconds in this business.”

Eagle in flight, Cook Inlet, south central Alaska
One such situation occurred during a taping of his one-hour Discovery Channel special, Risk Takers 2: High-Risk Photographer Jim Oltersdorf. It didn’t happen to Oltersdorf, however. It happened to the cameraman who was filming him. Along with a hired pilot, they were in an airplane flying at 5,000 feet above the ground in the treacherous mountains of Alaska. Oltersdorf was shooting stills for an aviation magazine with the door removed for a better ability to frame the shots. With 39 years of experience as a pilot, he knew that employing redundant systems, whether in piloting an aircraft or in any other risk-type scenario, is prudent behavior. He had strapped himself into separate chest and lower-torso harnesses and connected those by independent lines to solid anchors on the floor of the plane.

Bear eating fish, near Iliamna Lake, Alaska
The cameraman entrusted his safety to just his seatbelt. At altitude, it broke loose—not from where it connects at his abdomen, but from the floor. A bolt had somehow come unscrewed, and the seatbelt was flapping in the 100 mph winds. The cameraman’s life was now in jeopardy as he was sitting just inches from where the door of the airplane used to be. Oltersdorf clenched the arm of the cameraman, holding him tightly until the plane was able to land safely 20 minutes later.

Adds Oltersdorf, “The most dangerous part of doing this most of the time is having an air-to-air collision. You only get one.”

Be Prepared
“High-risk and extreme photography isn’t always about hanging off 1,000-foot cliffs or things like that,” says Oltersdorf. “It can be just the part of getting to or being at the location of the shoot.”

Fer-de-lance snake, Matapalo, Costa Rica
Recently, he held a photographic mentor series 200 air miles deep into the wilderness of Alaska. All was going well with his students as they settled into their tents for the evening after a late afternoon of photographing giant Alaskan brown bears near their camp.

During the night, the winds began to blow with hurricane-like force, shredding and flattening the tent the students were in. Oltersdorf’s expedition-grade tent was so badly damaged that it had to be sent back to the factory for replacement. On the Alaskan tundra, a tent is the only shelter to afford protection from potential deadly elements. Incessant rain fell, and the potential for a soaking was very real, along with hypothermia. They made it through. The next day, a grizzly charged at Oltersdorf, but luckily stopped short. Over the years of living with the bears during the summer, it was the first time he had been charged by one. He normally sees between 25 and 35 grizzlies a day and has encountered no problems over all those years. This time was very different. A few heart-pounding seconds later, Oltersdorf was back doing what he loves to do the most in life—photographing.


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