Call of the Wild

The surprising allure of wildlife photography

Written by Beverly Cramp

Imagine tracking a lioness and her cubs for three days in Africa, watching killer whales snatch baby seals for a meal in South America or following polar bears in Canada’s High Arctic.

Mark Hamilton doesn’t have to imagine. The CEO of Hcareers, an online job site for the hospitality industry, has enjoyed such hair-raising adventures and more as an amateur wildlife photographer. “This is the nearest thing I have to an artistic outlet,” says Hamilton. “And I love animals.”

Whether you’re shooting people, places or things, photography is a powerful medium that allows you to explore your creative talents to tell stories, evoke emotions and freeze a moment in time. What’s not to love?

Hamilton’s appreciation of animals began as a boy watching National Geographic TV programs, but his passion really flared in 1998 after visiting the San Diego Zoo. Hamilton was dismayed by the animals’ repetitive motions. “The animals had lost their brains — they were mad,” he says. “It’s sad because they are intelligent.” Figuring there had to be a better way to observe and learn about animals, Hamilton began investigating opportunities to see them in their natural habitat.

It wasn’t until two years later that Hamilton had the opportunity to venture into the wild. Hcareers had grown to 15 employees and revenue of $1 million, and Hamilton finally had both the money and time to see animals in their environment. In 2000, he travelled to a South African resort, spending 10 days observing and photographing big cats at a research station and cub orphanage for lions. With little previous photography experience, says Hamilton, “My first [wildlife] pictures were not great.”

Keen to snap better wildlife photos, Hamilton happened on the work of Amos Nachum, a professional wildlife photographer based in San Francisco, and contacted him. The pair agreed to meet for lunch when Hamilton was next in town. “Amos was going on a trip to photograph polar bears, and I asked if I could come along,” says Hamilton. “But I knew I’d better find out more about the technical side of photography because I didn’t want to be fumbling when I was in the field with him.”

Back in Vancouver, Hamilton took private photography lessons over a 10-week period, learning the basics of shutter speed, depth of field and lighting. Photography books and magazines also helped with the basics. His field experience came accompanying Nachum on three trips: photographing gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, whales in Argentina and polar bears in the Arctic.

As it happens, wildlife photography shares many similarities with running a business. For instance, timing and circumstances play a big role in getting a good picture. “Once, we chanced on a female cheetah with her cubs lying in the sun,” says Hamilton. “She wasn’t bothered that we were there, and we got a lot of good photos. It was complete, utter luck.”

Still, knowing and understanding animals can help. Learning about your subject’s habitat, behaviour and food preferences will increase your chances of being in the right spot at the right time.

Perseverance and patience are also key. “I’ve been out all day and not gotten a good picture,” says Hamilton. “That is deeply frustrating.” Waiting two hours for the right shot is not uncommon, he says. His personal record is five hours, which he spent next to a watering hole, waiting for hippos to relax enough to cavort naturally.

And, just like selling your product, successful photography demands collecting a lot of prospects in your funnel. “On my last trip, I took 6,000 pictures,” he says. “I kept 800, and probably only 100 of those are any good.” It isn’t unusual for his mentor, Nachum, to take upward of 10,000 pictures on a trip.

Hamilton has invested $10,000 in equipment, but you can get started for about $3,000. (see “Getting started in photography“). His favourite camera is a second-generation Canon EOS-1, and he uses two primary lenses: a 400-mm lens and a zoom lens ranging from 70 to 200 mm.

Hamilton uses photography as a medium for enjoying wildlife in exotic locales. He rarely shoots at home. “I’ve occasionally photographed bears near Whistler,” he says, but prefers to photograph elephants and cats. His favourite outdoor studio is Botswana, where he has been guided to lions, hippopotami and elephants — including one that approached within 10 feet: “It was very intense.”

Still, getting close to wild animals doesn’t faze Hamilton. “I pay attention and listen to the guides,” he says. “My passion is to capture the essence of an animal in its home, not just an image.”

Getting started in photography

A hobby in serious outdoor photography can set you back tens of thousands of dollars, but beginners can get by on an investment of about $3,000 on mid-range equipment from major brand names. Here are the basic tools you’ll need:

CAMERA: You’ll want a rugged, digital 35 mm (standard or single lens reflex) that allows full manual override of automatic functions. Consider paying a little more for a field preview button and mirror lock-up and a shutter sink speed of no less than 1/500. Vancouver-based wildlife photographer Roberta Olenick also recommends a good autofocus and a fast shooting speed, at least eight frames per second.

LENSES: Start with a wide-angle zoom of at least 28 mm and a telephoto zoom of 500 mm.

TRIPOD: You won’t be able to stand around for hours steadying a camera in your hands. Olenick recommends equipping your tripod with a Wimberly head, which allows users to easily manipulate even the largest telephoto lenses.

PHOTO BLIND: Used to hide your presence from skittish wildlife, you can purchase a blind or rig your own out of odd materials.

© 2005 Beverly Cramp

Originally appeared on