Photographing A Scientific Expedition

For the photo adventure of a lifetime, use your skills to help document a scientific expedition
photographing a scientific expedition with the help of local guides

Searching for monkeys in a dugout canoe with one of the many local guides who could navigate these flooded forests. While the guide was amazingly adept at keeping the canoe stable, any small movement would dip the sides into the river and soak the boat. We carried a small plastic jug to scoop out the water. For this shot, I set the camera on my bent knees to stabilize it and took images in between paddles.

As the day breaks on a foggy February morning, I’m in a metal boat on Rio Eiru in the western Amazon with a wildlife biologist and a local guide. We scan the tree tops for the elusive Vanzolini’s saki, a black monkey about 3 feet long with an impressive fluffy tail, golden fur on its forearms and legs, and hair like a crooked toupee. I have two cameras in dry bags on my lap and am photographing a scientific expedition in search of this rare creature not seen alive by scientists since 1936.

I met Dr. Laura Marsh, the lead scientist for this expedition in the Brazilian Amazon, by chance over a year before. Marsh, the world’s expert on this obscure South American monkey, and I, an emerging conservation photographer and writer looking for stories, met when our flight to a small town in the western Amazon was canceled due to fog. Put up in a hotel for a night, Marsh and I ate dinner together, where we discovered we lived near each other in New Mexico. The moment I learned of her plan to mount an expedition to find a monkey lost to science for over 80 years, I asked, “How do I get on your boat?”

Many meetings, phone calls, story pitches and a year later, I landed an assignment with a magazine to document the expedition. For 42 days, I lived off a houseboat surveying the massive watershed where the saki monkey was last collected by scientists. From dawn until dusk, I accompanied teams of Brazilian, Mexican and American scientists into the field. We surveyed forests for animals in dugout canoes or motorized row boats and hiked on what strips of dry land we could find.

photographing a scientific expedition from a houseboat in the amazon

The expedition houseboat at sunset. This is where we slept and ate and dried our equipment. I stood on the shore for this image and used a tripod. Dr. Laura Marsh is standing on the top level.

Daily rains filled rivers and lakes, which burst their banks until the landscape became a labyrinth of flooded forest. Our guides through this maze were local villagers hired for a day or two to keep us from getting lost on trails marked by small broken branches visible only to them. We paddled carefully through a submerged world. One dink of the canoe against a tree trunk would often release a torrent of ants and spiders down upon us.

Photographing a scientific expedition of this nature is all about action, chance and a quick hand. Most days I felt like a photojournalist working to keep up with events as they unfolded. But I also saw my role as a conservation photographer to capture the essence of the place, with varied images of plants, animals, landscapes and people. I was collecting evidence in an effort to persuade those who have never heard about the Jurua watershed in the far western Amazon, and might never visit it, to care enough about it to protect it.

We did find the missing monkeys. Yet in a month of searching, I only got fleeting glimpses of the Vanzolini’s sakis. The few times we came upon them in a tree, the encounters lasted for 10 seconds or less before they were gone. We tried to follow them on foot and in the boats, but they were too fast. After several weeks, my neck was sore from holding the camera up to the tree tops, my back and legs numb from being cramped in small canoes with dry bags on my lap and cameras at the ready. And I was having the time of my life.

One of the few sightings of the rare Vanzolini’s saki monkey. This male is from a family of three; the other two had already bolted away from our boat. Sakis are found only in South America. The golden hair on their forearms, legs and chest distinguish Vanzolini’s from other species of sakis. Sakis’ long fluffy tails help them steer in the air as they leap from tree to tree, giving them the nickname “macacos-que-voo,” or flying monkey.

Expeditions are no longer just for those intrepid conservation photographers with a penchant for adventure and a willingness to suffer for a good story. Organizations like Earthwatch and Biodiversity Group offer photographers the chance to participate in and document scientific expeditions in relative luxury and comfort.

This work has afforded me the opportunity to experience wild places where few outsiders ever go, witness breathtaking beauty and glimpse wildlife still mostly unknown to science. I’ve been on several other expeditions in environments as varied as the Indian Himalayas, Brazilian Pantanal and desert Southwest. Here are the insights I’ve gained from these experiences that, if you’re so inclined, can help you get the shots you need while working within the unique schedule of expeditions.

Expedition Planning

Nothing can quite prepare you for a place you’ve never been before. When you arrive, it’s important to stay open to the awe and newness of the place to capture that for the viewers of your images. Still, pre-trip research is essential, especially when time is short.

Unless you are documenting an animal rarely observed or studied in the wild, the internet is full of information on animal behavior. Read published research by the scientists you’ll be joining and their peers. Learn about the place you are going. Study the climate, weather, seasons and local conditions. Do an internet search for images from the place and nearby locations to start visualizing your shots.

Make a shot list and keep revising it throughout the trip. Your shot list should reflect the story you are working to tell: scientists hiking, working on the boat and taking samples as well as more creative images like the Milky Way over the boat at night or the way the morning fog fills the forest. The shot list I created helped me to stay focused and was a working document that inspired me to keep visualizing new images and adding to my list as the trip progressed.

At least one field team would conduct night surveys using red lights to search for night monkeys, the smallest primate in these forests, and other nocturnal animals. I set up this shot during blue hour with one of the scientists before the survey began.

Talk with the scientists you are joining to set up expectations about your role on the expedition before the trip. Your priority is to document the trip through photography, but they will also better tolerate your camera in their face if you help out. Decide together what field work you might do. Choose roles that allow you to prioritize photography while still helping in the field or with daily camp chores.

Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Photographing a scientific expedition in the Amazon involved making images while working in rain, constant moisture and humidity, bad lighting, water-sodden canoes and forests cluttered with branches and leaves. Add to that cramped quarters, long workdays, biting insects, stomach bugs, exhaustion and the constantly shifting schedule of scientists on survey. As the expedition leader told me from day one, “If this was easy, everyone would be doing it.” All expedition locations will have their unique trials; make sure you are up for the challenges and can take care of yourself.

Gear For Photographing A Scientific Expedition

You’ll need a variety of lenses to capture the full story of an expedition. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro are three go-to lenses. In the field, I always brought a wide-angle 16-35mm and telephoto 100-400mm with 1.4x teleconverter for versatility. The big prime lenses are great when you can set up and stay in one place for a while, but for most people they will be too large and heavy to work with under these conditions where a tripod is out of the question. I kept back-up lenses in the dry box back on the boat.

Also consider aerial photography. Shoot from the commercial flight in or bring a drone. Scientists will appreciate the aerial perspective of their work.

Rainforests are dark places. It’s a struggle to get the shutter speed fast enough and ISO low enough for sharp images with good color saturation. When the sun is out, the light is uneven with dark shadows and strong highlights. Using a high ISO may leave you with grainy photos—but better that than unusable, out-of-focus images. Trade noise for shutter speed.

Use fill flash in the forest to photograph animals. I dropped my flash in the river in the first week of the expedition, but another photographer on the trip was successful with a simple flash and a diffusion dome on hot shoe mount. It provided just enough light to fill in the monkeys’ faces and produce sharp images.

Create A Field Studio

While the Amazon is full of animals, they are very hard to see. Macro photography will help fill out your portfolio from an expedition. Macro can be done in the field, but you can also create stunning images with a simple set up of a folding cloth softbox with one or two flashes. Most softboxes come with a reflective piece of white plastic. If you only have one flash, set up the flash on one side of the softbox and the plastic on the other. This will bounce the light from the flash and fill the box to evenly light your subject. Softboxes also come with black or white fabric to vary your background.

I checked with the locals first to make sure this snake was non-venomous before we picked it up and set up this image in a softbox. Working with another photographer, we took images for about 30 minutes and then released the snake back where we found it.

I used the softbox at night after field work was done. But beware: Light at night attracts a torrent of bugs. This can provide you with plentiful macro subjects, but you don’t want them invading and making a mess of the softbox. We set up our softbox inside a large mosquito net to hold back the bug flood. As this set up requires handling subjects, work with scientists who can help you handle creatures appropriately without causing harm.

Shooting On The Move

A photographer’s main activity is often sitting, watching and waiting. When photographing a scientific expedition, the reality is much different. With few exceptions, we were always on the move. There was rarely time to sit in the forest and wait for an animal to appear. I had to be ready for what showed up in the branches and shoot as we and the animals were moving.

Cameras with fast continuous shooting rates and precise autofocus are essential when trying to document wildlife in these conditions. Also make sure you have several pro-grade memory cards with read/write speeds that can keep up with burst shooting. There’s nothing more frustrating than pushing the shutter to photograph a rare animal and nothing happens because your card buffer is full.

I learned to keep my camera at the ready day and night to capture unexpected moments. I also learned to seize every extra opportunity to work independently: an afternoon when a field team was back early and a boat and driver were freed up; night photography when the boat was docked; a canceled field day spent photographing river dolphins. Get up before dawn, stay awake to photograph the stars, use dark hours to shoot subjects in the softbox and sleep when you get home.

This amazing sunset was shot from the houseboat while anchored in a calm oxbow lake on one of my last days on the expedition.

Slight changes in perspective added some variety to my images. When it wouldn’t disturb the surveys, I ran ahead of or to the side of scientists when hiking. I’d set up a shot with a good background and wait for them to enter the frame. I also asked to change my seat in the canoes each day so I wasn’t always photographing from the same angle.

Protection For Your Camera Gear

Not many environments have the potential to destroy your equipment like the constant moisture and humidity of the rainforest in the rainy season. Finding ways to dry your gear in the field is essential. I’m convinced what saved my gear was the hot tin roof of the houseboat that provided a slightly drier microenvironment in my bunk room where I kept my gear. Bring lots of camera batteries, as some are bound to stop working.

At night, or when it’s not in use, always keep your gear (lenses, bodies, accessories, batteries, computer, hard drives…everything) in a sealed dry box full of silica. Moisture collects, especially at night. Take the lenses off the camera bodies to dry. For long trips in wet climates, desiccant can be bought in bulk and recharged by baking in an oven, microwave or, in our case, heating it up in a paint can on the stove. A rule of thumb is when the silica gel changes color, it is recharged and ready to dry your gear again.

When out in the field, try to not touch the lens or hold it close to your body when not using it. Carry it by the camera body, not the lens. If carrying your lens cap in your pocket, turn it away from your body so sweat doesn’t collect on the inside of the cap. The heat and moisture from your body causes your lens to fog up, resulting in fuzzy pictures. Bring small, dry bags stuffed with several packets of desiccant with you into the field. They should be just large enough to fit your camera with the lens on between shoots. Open the bags only to take cameras out or put them back in.

This image of a Rocket tree frog was captured in a softbox with one external flash and black fabric for the background.

Working With Guides

Scientists often hire guides from local villages to lead them. Local hunters knew the forest like the back of their hand. However, they were not trained in guiding photographers in the field. When they spotted an animal in the tree tops, they often stopped the boat right where they had the perfect view. Unfortunately, that often meant my view was blocked by foliage and tree branches. A few inches in your position makes all the difference in shooting in the rainforest. Learn some key phrases in the local language, such as “move forward,” “secure us here,” “back up a bit,” “back up a lot,” “I can’t see through the trees” and “let’s find a different spot.” 

Enjoy Yourself!

With one week left in the trip, I sat down on the front bench on the upper deck of the houseboat to take a breath. We’d been so busy since leaving port, I’d had few moments to sit and take in the beauty unfolding here every day. The first twinkle of stars appeared in the blue twilight sky. Even though my level of exhaustion was unprecedented, I didn’t want the trip to end.

Living on a houseboat open to the constant presence of nature, I felt part of the life force of this place. The joy of working to catch just a bit of that beauty through my camera was worth every bit of the challenge. 


See more of Christina Selby’s work at christinamselby.com.