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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Alaskan brown bear fishing for salmon; Floatplane in the backcountry.

Photographing in the wilds, whether deep in the Alaska backcountry or the jungles of Central America, Jim Oltersdorf takes his work to the extreme. It’s not that he’s an adrenaline junkie. Oltersdorf is a photographer who has spent a lifetime learning animal behavior, and as a meticulous planner, he knows how to avoid getting into trouble when he’s taking pictures. His workshops teach photographers how to be safe and respectful as they maneuver to get the perfect shot.


"Normal" isn't usually a word that describes what high-risk, extreme outdoor photographers' lives are like. When we think about what they do, it usually conjures up death-defying antics—that somehow they’re hanging with a vice-like grip on the arm of Lady Luck to get out alive. Imaginations run wild about how these photographers capture their images. Those perceptions may not be entirely accurate, but one thing is certain—high-risk outdoor photography isn’t for the faint of heart, and these photographers are definitely different from the norm.

Spawning wild salmon in Alaska

There are only a handful of people in the nation who fit into this category. Why? It takes a lifetime of training, experience and know-how to get to the point of receiving wildlife and nature assignments like these. The photographers have to be exceptional at handling their cameras and other related photographic gear. And it helps to have technical experience and training in many other areas, such as wildlife behavior, biology or geology, to complete the job safely. It’s not a case of, “Oh, he’s really good with a camera.”

One of those photographers who works in these extreme environments is a year-round, 10-year resident of Alaska, Jim Oltersdorf. Oltersdorf lives on the vast Kenai Peninsula on the edge of a private lake. Fronted by 2.1 million acres of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, it’s a “Walden’s Pond” of serenity and tranquility, and it’s from this base that he plans his adventures.

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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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Green vine snake, Monteverde, Costa Rica

When he wanted to photograph the deadly snakes and poison dart frogs of Costa Rica, Oltersdorf hired a guide and in the pitch-dark of the night, headed into the swamps of the jungles. Earlier, a woman was killed by a fer-de-lance snake in the village where Oltersdorf was married. While on his guard in the inky-black jungle, he was absolutely delighted to get the pictures he had dreamed of for years.

Shooting Techniques
Oltersdorf believes that unusual perspectives create interesting visual presentations to the viewer. They also present a host of challenges, especially in his work. “While I may find a scene interesting as I stand on the ground, I often find myself wondering what it would look like if I climbed a tree and shot it that way,” he says. That “widening of thought” takes him even higher as he’s well known for his work in aviation magazines.

Red-eyed tree frog, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Working With Wildlife
Noise and quick movements are the two elements that seem to destroy otherwise wonderful opportunities to photograph wildlife. Try to keep talking to a minimum, and if you need to, do it in a whisper.

“Quick movements attract the attention of wildlife,” Oltersdorf explains, “so attempt to be slow about how you move, and chances are, you’ll have much more success in your photography. An example is, if I have to scratch my face. I’ll take maybe at least 30 seconds to bring my arm up to do so. Yes, that might be difficult, especially if you have to scratch it now, but it’s better to do it that way than to scare off the animal and lose your only shot for the day.”

Adds Oltersdorf, “If you need to get closer, try walking slowly and parallel to the subject instead of directly at it. Avoid making direct eye contact as well because that can be interpreted by wildlife as provocation or a threat.”

Oltersdorf uses longer lenses such as 300mm and larger telephotos. He says, “It’s simple—some birds and animals are extremely skittish, and no matter what you do, it won’t be good enough unless you have these more powerful lenses.”

Gray wolf, Bitterroots, Montana

Respect Behavior When Afield
Always respectful of the wildlife he photographs, Oltersdorf says, “If you begin to spend a lifetime of studying wildlife, you’ll never graduate from it. I’m constantly amazed what I learn each time I’m out after more than 50 years of being outdoors. Encroaching upon the animals’ territory is the single most common mistake many photographers and nature lovers do. Disruption to the animals’ lives, whether intentional or unintentional, reflects upon either poor knowledge or being disrespectful. A wonderful tip: When you first encounter the animal, carefully watch what it’s doing. If you make a slow approach and it changes any of that behavior, you’re most likely pressuring it. It’s without question a wonderful experience to stay your distance, photograph it regardless of how good or bad the photograph is and then walk away with it still undisturbed. Always try to keep in mind that the experience is the most rewarding part regardless of how the picture may turn out.

“Outdoor photography gives these kinds of experiences that make it so worthwhile to live for,” concludes Oltersdorf. He awakens to every morning with the exuberance of a child, and he can’t wait to get going on whatever project it is at the moment.

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Oltersdorf On Video

Jim Oltersdorf’s interests in HD video began a number of years ago when the development of high-definition began. Oltersdorf is the owner and executive producer of Oltersdorf Film Productions. He’s currently involved in a number of shows, all slated for TV. His primary cameras for the productions are the Sony EX1 and EX3 (pro.sony.com). In his shows, he likes to employ the look of the 1080i/24p format. Nikon SLR lenses are extensively used by coupling them to Redrock Micro M2 Encore adapters (www.redrockmicro.com). Says Oltersdorf, “Redrock Micro took the bane of video—that it looks like video—and developed a unit that now makes it look film-like, which is stunning!”

Oltersdorf extensively uses Lee cinema-grade filters (www.leefilters.com) for all his requirements in dealing with difficult lighting situations. The assorted gels can be used outdoors with great results. He has a special fondness for his highly portable, battery-operated Litepanels (www.litepanels.com). “Litepanels offer a wonderful ability to capture the soft tones of my subjects while out in the remote,” says Oltersdorf. “The MicroPro is the one I enjoy using the most due to its ability to produce a powerful light from such a small-sized source [51⁄2x4 inches].”

Of course, protecting all of these devices is important when traveling. “During transport, if it gets broken or damaged, we’re dead in the water so that’s why I take great care in selecting suitable cases,” points out Oltersdorf. “My single choice is Petrol (www.petrolbags.com). They make a great rain cover, the PRC-10, for Sony EX HDCAMs, which is the main priority for our productions.”

Jim Oltersdorf is currently working on a full-length HD movie, Droplets, based on his 30-year-long career in outdoor photography and due for release in late 2010. His project, Alaska’s Bush Pilots: The Real Deal is based on real-life Alaskan pilots. For more information and to see more of his photography, visit www.joltersdorf.com.


    These are fantastic shots and I am so jealous but then I am always willing to listen and learn and develop my own style, if masters like you would be willing to share your learned skills with those of who are still beginners compared to you. Thanks for the glimpses of perfection this glorious Planet offers those lucky enough to discover them with a camera.

    Jim Oltersdorf and his wife Lisa are my friends here in Alaska. They are simply great!!! I am honored to have them as my friends. I am learning so much from Jim since I am a wildlife photographer myself here in Alaska. Life is Good.
    Sybille Castro, My Wild ALaska Photography. Nikiski Alaska

    Hey buddy, Love your ability to capture the heart of it all. Wouldn’t we all love our lifes to be like Mr. brown bear in the photo above. Miss your sweet face and good laughs we always had. SOON, can’t wait to meet Lisa. Love to ya Lou Anne

    Jim and Lisa,
    You are doing great work! Jim, we have now had the privilege to enjoy your wonderful pictures ever since we met you at Jungle House in Costa Rica.
    One of our favorite shots is the one on the flying eagle. Thanks for bringing Alaskan wildlife into our living room in Sweden

    Kristina and Lars

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