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.

A group of penguins gathers in front of a large snowdrift, Snow Hill Island, Antarctica. Snow Hill is one of the most accessible locations in Antarctica for photographing penguins.

Joe Van Os knows how to travel. It’s obvious by the itineraries he has put together as director of Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris for the past three decades. His lifelong fascination and study of the natural world continues to influence new trip development to the planet’s most spectacular nature photography locations. Based in Washington State, Van Os tailors his trips for in-depth photo exploration of wildlife, wild places and exotic cultures off the beaten track. Itineraries focus on maximum time at locations with dramatic photo opportunities rather than running from place to place with numerous short stops along the way.

Japanese macaques with their young in geothermal hot springs, Jigokudani, Nagano, Japan. As many as 100 macaques gather in the hot springs in the Japanese Alps.

OP: What was the impetus for starting your photo tour business?

Joe Van Os: It started out as nature tours in 1979, but I quickly realized that I was in locations where I had incredible access to wildlife and the ability to photograph them. Shortly after that, I moved out to Seattle from New Jersey, and early on I met Art Wolfe, John Shaw and a whole lot of others out here. We became friends, and I kind of morphed the company into a photo tour company.

OP: What’s the difference between a photo tour, a photo workshop and a photo safari?

Van Os: A photo tour and a photo safari are virtually one in the same. Safari means “journey” in Swahili, and that’s what we do. We’re primarily set up to take people to photograph at the best possible locations at the best possible times. We don’t really do workshops, per se. On our trips, we do offer tips and a variety of instructional things to get clients the most out of their shots, but we don’t sit down and do classes. What really separates a photo tour from a workshop is that a workshop has a component where you have class time. We’re happy to do a critique, but we don’t sit down as a group except for on our ship expeditions, such as going to Antarctica or Spitsbergen when there’s time at sea. A photo tour is heavy on the in-the-field photo-taking and light on the classroom end.

OP: So it’s about getting a photographer to an opportune place at an opportune time to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them.

Van Os: With help, of course. Most of us in my company have a strong biology background. We know when to be at places when events happen in nature. Our emphasis is on knowing when and where to be at a place at the premium time. Also, we’re often able to get access to places that an individual would have a much more difficult time getting to.

Left to right: Giant panda among ferns, Wolong Panda Reserve, China, 1996; Atlantic puffin at Látrabjarg in the west of Iceland. Látrabjarg is one of the three largest bird cliffs in the country; Black-footed albatross taking flight, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

OP: Your Midway tour seems to be a great example of that. It’s really off the map for even the most seasoned traveler.

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.

OP: What do you suggest people bring with them in terms of equipment on one of your trips?

Van Os: Our website has a section called Gearing Up with a stock list of equipment we suggest. We point out that some trips don’t require big glass. For Mexico’s colonial cities tour, where you photograph architecture and people in places such as Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, you don’t need a 500mm lens.

We’re primarily set up to take people to photograph at the best possible locations at the best possible times. We don’t really do workshops, per se. On our trips, we do offer tips and a variety of instructional things to get clients the most out of their shots.

OP: What qualities do you look for in a tour leader?

Breeding pair of Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. With three million birds nesting there each year, Midway is one of the world’s top locations for photographing birds.

Van Os: I want somebody who’s an excellent photographer and who knows the subject that they’re photographing. I want them to have a biology background or a cultural background depending on the itinerary. The clients really want to know what they’re seeing.

OP: There’s a depth in photographs that have knowledge behind them. First of all, if you know animal behavior, you can anticipate an action and be ready for it. Also, camaraderie is something that a lot of us freelancers are missing.

Van Os: Early on, photographers were lone wolves, to a degree. Everybody stayed off on their own and we rarely ran into each other. We’ve brought together photographers who never would have met and have later done projects and conservation efforts together. We had a lot of stock shooters, and we also had Erwin and Peggy Bauer, and Leonard Lee Rue, Tom Brakefield. We were at the forefront of taking nature photography from a single, individual endeavor to bringing people together to do it in a good way. We helped photographers mix more. This was prior to NANPA [North American Nature Photography Association] and organizations like that. We try to be innovative and bring new tours and new shooting opportunities to the market. Certainly, Midway is an example of that. Next year, we’re taking people by ship to Wrangel Island in the Russian Far East.

OP: Growing up in Palmyra, New Jersey, seems a long way away from the exotic locations you and your fellow instructors and clients now traverse.

Van Os: Palmyra is a suburb of Philadelphia, but on the New Jersey side. My father ran a bookbindery in Philadelphia and my mother was a homemaker. Back in the day, there was easy access to woods—this is prior to the development of tract houses all over the place. We had plenty of places to play along creeks and rivers. When I was a little bit older, I had access to the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the state parks along the New Jersey shore. New Jersey gets a bad rap, but it has fantastic locations. I was born into nature. I got out to play, and I found turtles and snakes and caught them and kept them. One thing led to another, and it led to a lifelong interest in nature.

For more information about the Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, go to Mark Edward Harris is a frequent contributor to OP. See more of his work at