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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Traveler

Joe Van Os has pioneered exotic photo tours to locations where individuals on their own would find access difficult or impossible. As a 30-plus-year veteran of the business, he shares his insight on photo tours and photo safaris.

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Red-footed booby tossing and catching nesting material, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Red-footed boobies are among the 18 species that make up the three million nesting birds on Midway Atoll.
Van Os: It's difficult getting there logistically. It involves chartering a jet to get the group out there. Midway only allows 16 people to be on the atoll at one time as far as tourists are concerned. We've chosen the prime dates to be there for photography, basically March and April when the height of breeding is taking place. There's a lot of courtship still happening, so we get the best of all worlds, with some eggs, some chicks, some courtship activity and reasonably good weather. If you go to Midway too early, then you'll see adult albatrosses standing around and not all the cadre of seabirds that come in later. If you go too late, you'll get the scraggly-looking big teenagers standing around with nothing very pretty to photograph. So we're right in the middle of it all. I started out as a naturalist. I went to Rutgers and Antioch. My degrees are in biology, focusing particularly on birds, and evolved from there.

OP: Are you out there shooting along with the tour participants?

Van Os: I do. I'm a shooting junkie. I love to shoot. I think that enthusiasm can act as a spark. It's much better than walking up to something and saying, "Here, shoot this." I'm thinking about a hundred different ways to shoot something and sharing my thoughts.

OP: Participants in a high-end photo tour pay to get themselves put into the position of getting the "trophy shot." How do you help them go deeper and mature their individual eyes?

Van Os: Anybody who goes any place is going to go for the trophy shot first; it's inevitable. That's what they want. But the leaders of each trip help people do photography beyond the obvious. I just got back from Spitsbergen with John Shaw and Darrell Gulin. John's ability to pull patterns and graphic designs out of landscapes and even out of wildlife is second to none. He's up there with Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting. When we have downtime, we're constantly looking at photos and talking about photos even though it's not instructional on the nitty-gritty on how each one was made. The graphic design that goes into them definitely rubs off on people when they look at these photographers' work. You come back at the end of a day of shooting and see what they've shot and see what you've shot. And we're always happy to do a critique.

Mother polar bear and cub huddled on pack ice, Spitsbergen, Norway.
OP: This kind of same-day feedback was unfathomable when you started years ago.

Van Os: That's one thing that has changed a ton in travel photography—digital images can be reviewed in-camera right away, then put on laptops. That has made for good and bad. It has made for really good photography and at the same time really sloppy photography. I've seen people who put a lot of effort and thought into their compositions and work really hard to be technically good, and I've seen other people who just hold down the button and make a movie, then take the best one out of the bunch and that's the end of it. I tell people to slow down and really take a look at what's in front of them.

OP: What are some of the destinations that are a must for an outdoor photography enthusiast?

Van Os: Midway is at the top of my list. It's by far and away the biggest surprise to most people. This seabird colony is in a possession of the United States and is one of our most spectacular wildlife refuges. Then there's Spitsbergen, Antarctica and South Georgia, Kenya, Namibia, Iceland, Yellowstone—the list goes on and on. If you're going to go to Midway on your own, you're going to have to charter a jet for $40,000 to get out there. It would be a little bit pricey. For Spitsbergen, all boats aren't the same. We use a chartered Russian ship that gets us into the ice to photograph polar bears on the ice. Many boats aren't ice-hardened enough to get into the ice or they're not big enough to push their way in. We recently went up there with 50 people and had a spectacular time photographing polar bears. We saw 60 bears—we had mothers and cubs, seal kills, all sorts of photographic opportunities. You really have to know the ship you're getting on, otherwise you're going to be on the outside looking in.


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