Why This Photographer Almost Always Gets the Shot

All photos: Paul Souders.

Paul Souders is a photographer who has adventures. Or he's an adventurer with a habit of taking great photos. Either way you look at it, he is someone who is living one of those lives you can't help but envy— that is until you realize the work, money, risk, and frustration that go into it. But for Souders, the rewards are oh so worth it.

A gallery of his images of animals at Earth's poles grabbed readers' attention last year and more recently he won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for the Environment category with a stunning image of a polar bear lurking under the water. The body of work Souders has created in his time traveling the globe is incredible, but so too are many of the stories he has to tell about what it takes to get these images. I talked with Souders about the world of the nature photographer, what it's like swimming with walruses, and what it takes to get the shot.

Treehugger: Being a wildlife photographer is a solitary activity much of the time. What is it like to be alone for days or even weeks at a time while tracking your subjects?

Paul Souders: I have learned to be comfortable with my own company. It’s an awful lot to ask of anyone, no matter how companionable, to bob around in a cold, smelly boat for week after week with any other soul, especially one as ... quirky ... as me. I think that’s the niche that I’ve carved out for myself, the guy with the boat who goes off on his own into the wilderness for a month or two, and who comes back gibbering in tongues with 80,000 image files on the hard drives and a desperate craving for fresh greens, a vodka martini and clean sheets.

Okay, it’s not as bad as that, but you get the idea. I’m lucky to have an understanding wife at home. She’s my anchor, in all the best ways. We talk on the satellite phone every day or two. She helps me maintain a semblance of sanity and feeds me careful doses of the world’s news along with more pressing weather reports from wherever I am.

I enjoy the luxury of spending time in the field, not bound to a client’s schedule or budget. I can travel pretty cheaply when I’m on my own out on the boat, and that means I can take however much time I want to keep shooting until I get it right. When I did my Hudson Bay project last summer, I was out for five weeks on the water before I reached the ice pack. I kept telling myself that it had to get better. And if it didn’t ... well, it was an interesting challenge.

In the last week, the ice found me, drove the boat up on shore and left me sitting on the rocks wondering how I was going to get out of this one. It only took a day for the tide to return and shift enough ice for me to refloat and get back to work, but it was a long one. The upside of traveling solo is that I’m only risking my neck, not other folks’ lives. The downside is there’s no one to take the night shift keeping an eye out for curious bears.

walrus under water

Speaking of risking lives, what's it like to be in the water with walruses?

Did you ever do something when you knew, the instant you started doing it, that it was a really bad idea? But once you’ve started there’s was no getting out of it? Like that drunken trip to a tattoo parlor, only colder.

I don’t know why, but I thought it would be really interesting to photograph walruses underwater. Six years ago when I planned my first arctic boat charter, there weren’t many of those images around, and I’ve always liked the idea of pushing the boundaries. I organized a boat charter in Svalbard, and let the skipper know that one of my priorities, after polar bears, was getting in the water with walruses. He seemed just fine with that, at least after the international bank transfers arrived. But there’s a big difference between talking about getting in the water with walrus, and actually making yourself take that last slide off the ice.

I had on a dry suit and layers of fleece insulation, but I was still shaking, as much from the adrenaline as the cold. The only safety precaution I had was the skipper, ever cheerful, holding an old piece of rope that we’d wrapped around my waist. After that, there wasn’t anything for me to do but splash my fins a bit to get a passing walrus’ attention, and float face-down in the water, camera in hand, waiting to see what happened.

Out of the deep water, I could just make out the shadow of an enormous walrus, the size of a truck (if trucks could swim, possessed long pointy tusks and were subject to violent mood swings). On land, walrus are ungainly and ill-tempered louts, prone to flatulence and lumbering tusk-jabbing brawls. But to my surprise, in the water they were transformed into graceful giants.

paul souders in water with walrus

They circled below me, taking my measure, before one swam close enough to touch his whiskers to my camera housing’s glass dome. I nervously pushed back, trying to get a little breathing room. He gave me a whack, just a little love tap, but that was enough to let me know who was boss. But that was all. I shot for a few moments before he lost interest. Not for the first time, I found that I wasn’t half as diverting as I’d imagined. He and his buddies circled a few more times, took one last breath at the surface and disappeared into the depths.

The photograph in your portfolio of the grizzly bear swimming and reaching for the fish at the bottom of the stream ... what's the story behind getting this shot, both in terms of capturing behavior and the technical requirements?

The first time I saw brown bears fishing in the wild, it was on the viewing platform at Brooks Falls, in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. I was jammed in among 30 other other tourists and photographers, all under the watchful gaze of a national park ranger. It was like being back in second grade. It was an amazing sight, watching bears catching salmon in midair, but as wilderness experiences go ... it left something to be desired. I wanted to walk among bears, alone. It took 15 years, but I eventually bought a small boat and got it all the way to the Katmai coast. It was everything I could have asked for: scary, lonely, cold, expensive. And so f***ing cool.

grizzly in water with fish

As I spent weeks and then months with the bears, I wanted to go beyond the obvious images that I’d been shooting. I thought about the salmon’s view of the whole business. That was the spark of inspiration. I could see the picture in my head. But it took two seasons to figure out the technical problems of making the picture work. I already had a custom underwater camera housing built by Sean LaBrie at SBL Waterhousings.

He specializes in housings for surfing photographers, but he made me a bolt-on pocket wizard housing that would allow me to shoot the camera remotely, so long as the little antenna stayed out of the water. I tried the picture once, using a small tabletop tripod. A curious bear came along, sniffed once and knocked the camera over, scratching the fragile acrylic dome. I had a spare and tried moving to a bigger tripod in deeper water. The current picked it up and carried it more than a mile downriver. The dome looked like someone took a belt sander to it, but at least my camera was unscathed.

grizzly bear biting camera

I was back next year, loaded down with even more gear. I brought my oldest, heaviest steel Gitzo tripod, along with a bag of scuba weights. I found a nice deep pool where I’d seen bears fishing previously, put on my chest waders and carried the unwieldy system out into the pool. Then I set up across the river and waited. For four days. Every time a bear wandered past and tried fishing, I blasted away with the remote.

Without backing from a large magazine or film crew, I have to keep things simple and relatively cheap. So there’s no video feed, no underwater pan-tilt heads. It’s just a camera in the water, and me sitting in the rain waiting for something to happen. Fewer things to go wrong, but it becomes and exercise in patience. Often it ends in futility, or a half-realized version of the ideal. But once in a while, it all comes together and the world conspires to make me look like I know what I’m doing. For a little while, anyway.

A few days later, I was trying again in one of the streams, hoping to capture a bear running at full speed after an underwater salmon. The bear appeared, gave chase and the salmon swam right under my tripod. The bear kept right on going, swatting at the dome and running down my camera. I heard a pop and watched the housing sink and flood, drowning my camera and lens and shearing off the glass dome. No one ever said that bright ideas were cheap.

leopard seal chasing penguin

Tell us the behind-the-scenes details about getting the shot of the leopard seal going after the penguins.

I’ve wanted to return to Antarctica for years. I’d done a total of five trips to the Peninsula and South Georgia, but my last one was in 2006. I sent out a number of emails to boat skippers I knew, hoping to score a deal. None were on offer, so I paid full retail for a 28 day boat charter out of Ushuaia, Argentina. I’d sailed with the skipper once before, and had sworn I would never set foot on his boat again, under any circumstance. But time mellows us all, plus he was the only person to even return my emails.

A group of four photographers joined the skipper and his Argentine cook/guide/first mate aboard, and we spent four days sailing across the Drake Passage to reach the Antarctic Peninsula. We stopped at Cuverville Island on the way south, and had a couple good days of shooting the Gentoo Penguins’ coming and goings there.

On our way back north, we stopped again, hoping to capture...something. I spent a lot of time setting up remote cameras on shore hoping to get a wide-angle shot of a penguin leaping from the water onto shore. Mostly, I spent a lot of time watching penguins land on my cameras and send them crashing into salt water. It was a diverting if expensive pastime. On our last night, I was fiddling with one of my few remaining cameras and some of Rebecca Jackrel’s pocket wizards (mine were all dead, and she made the mistake of letting me using hers).

I heard a hiss and turned to see a leopard seal slithering out of the water and chasing some penguins on the rocks. He missed, and I just stood there like a ninny, staring dumbly for a moment before scrambling over with a camera. I got nothing. But I did alert the others that I’d seen a seal, and British photographer Ben Cranke joined me on shore to watch for the seal.

He was shooting jumping penguins from shore near where I’d seen the seal a couple hours later. One landed right in front of him, and as he stopped to wipe his lens, the seal reappeared 18 inches away and plucked the penguin right off the rocks, less than a foot from his face. He didn’t shoot a frame, which I’m pretty sure will haunt him to the grave. I don’t know if it was the penguin’s squawk or his, but I saw the scene and scrambled to join him. We sat side by side and watched as the leopard seal repeatedly tried to ambush penguins on the rocks in front of us. It was one of those unbelievable moments in the wild, sitting less than a yard away from a lethal hunter like that.

I gained even more respect for Paul Nicklen’s images of swimming with a leopard seal. I’d brought all my scuba gear along, but there wasn’t a chance in hell that I was going in the water with that thing. We stayed out until two in the morning. The light had faded to dismal levels and we’d been up for twenty hours straight. To this day, I wish I’d had a gallon of coffee and worked straight through until the following day.

leopard seal with mouth open

Your travel schedule is crazy: 5 to 7 big trips a year. How do you decide where to go next?

I have a big map of the world in my office, and a couple of darts, and a blindfold. Okay, maybe it’s a little more thoughtful than that, but not much. So much depends on what bright new shiny idea has settled into my head. There’s always some small trigger; an article in the NY Times, an online reference, some random scrap of paper that gets me thinking ... Guatemala. Or Greenland.

Given the new economic realities of stock photography, I am more conscious of doing trips that I think will have a payoff down the road. But I’m still confident that I can drop in anywhere, from China to Chile to Chicago to get there and make enough interesting and salable pictures to make my money back and keep the lights on. I do have a couple trips in the pipeline now.

My 22-foot powerboat is right where I left it, swathed in blue tarps and sitting in a sled dog lot in Rankin Inlet along Hudson Bay, waiting for next summer to go back to the Canadian arctic for another go at the polar bears up there. And I’m really hoping to make it back to Greenland to shoot the mammoth icebergs there in winter light. And maybe Guatemala. And Myanmar. Or Nepal. I hear Peru is nice. One of those...

elephants by water

Doing lectures, interviews, shows and talks is all part of being a successful photographer. But how has that role changed or grown for you since winning your award from the recent Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition?

I spent the last two decades not doing any of that. When I was starting my career photographing for newspapers back in the 1980s, I lived and died by the monthly clip contest; the National Press Photographers’ competition of published work. Then I started freelancing, and I began making my living licensing images through stock agencies. Each month’s sales report felt like winning in the most important contest of all. Some picture editor in New York or Paris or Rio wanted to pay money to use my picture? I win. But at some point, just making a living isn’t enough.

There should be something that I can give back for the privilege of seeing so much of the beauty and drama in this world. So now I’m trying to share. Just a little, anyway. After seeing some of my work honored in the BBC and National Geographic competitions, I had a sense what it might be like to actually influence and inspire people. And it feels like the least I can do, to give something back and share some of what I’ve witnessed.

These days technology plays such a big role in getting unique images. What are some of the new — or old with a new twist -— tools you've used in recent years to capture shots?

The funny thing is, I’m not a tech guy. I have extremely modest skills, but I compensate with a willingness to do really stupid and destructive things to my gear. The good old pocket wizard is probably my biggest friend. They’re small, they’re cheap and they’re kind of magical. I can’t live without them on a wildlife shoot. I can put two or three cameras out along an African water hole, under an ice shelf in the Antarctic or in an Alaskan salmon spawning river and get images that I couldn’t make any other way.

Most wildlife is pretty skittish around a full-sized stinky human, but a small, clicking black box is, often as not, enough to pique an elephant or a penguin or a bear’s curiosity. Back in the dark ages, when cameras held a single roll of film, you were done after the 36th frame. Now we have compact flash cards with enormous, ridiculous capacity. So I can place a remote camera underwater and the one thing I don’t have to worry about is running out of film. The camera might flood, the batteries might die, a bear could tear off the dome, but by God I’m not going to run out of film. I’m just starting to experiment with remote viewing. There’s a lot to be said for actually seeing what you’re trying to shoot. And like every kid on the block, I too am playing around with small drone quadcopters to try to shoot aerials.

What characteristic do you think is most important to being a successful wildlife photographer?

Patience. And a steady income stream. Heart. Kindness toward your subjects. A point of view and something you want to say. It’s not enough to go out and copy images you’ve already seen. For a long, long time I fell into the trap of wanting to “get” this image or that. The standard “awesome” images of a cheetah hunt, a lion’s snarl, elephants at moonrise.

But Frans Lanting already shot those pictures. I love his images and admire his career, but he’s already done those pictures. There’s not much pride to be had in duplicating them. At the end of my days, do I want to spent my life making pale knock-off’s of someone else’s work? So I think the most important characteristic for a successful photographer of wildlife or anything else, is the willingness to explore and search for your own “voice,” the desire to make your own pictures, not someone else’s.

elephant with camera