There's something about big animals that gets John Hyde's adrenaline flowing and his camera clicking. "I think it's the fact that they make me feel small and humble," says the Juneau, Alaska-based wildlife and nature photographer and owner of Wild Things Photography.
"Like when you have a 60-foot whale next to your little kayak. Or when there's an 800-pound grizzly bear 30 feet away from you. Even though he's accepted your presence, every once in a while he'll turn his head and check on you out of the corner of his eye. It definitely makes your pulse rate pick up pretty good! I love the adrenaline rush I get from that!"
It's this predilection for heart-pumping photography and his ability to transport his viewers to the time and place where he's shooting that elevates his work beyond simple mammalian, avian, and maritime mug shots.
"I try to make it so that the person viewing the image has a sense for the experience I had when I was there," he explains. "I have two different types of compositions: First, I try to do a shot that's more about the environment and the scene than it is about the person or animal. That person or animal is just a small element in the scene, so I can show a sense of place. The other type of image is about the action, event, and person or animal. I show the people or animals half-frame or larger in the picture, and if they're facing the camera you can see the emotion in their faces and sense the experience they're having."
Trekking Over the Tundra
Thanks to his degrees in wildlife and animal science, as well as years of experience, Hyde knows where and when to go to get the best shots. "I'm very familiar with the wildlife I shoot," he says. "I've studied these animals and spent so much time with them up here and know where they eat, play, and travel."
Interacting with his often-skittish subjects is a delicate transaction that requires photographic skills and a lot of patience. "I want to get natural behavior from the animals, so the animal either has to not know I'm there, or I have to be there, but to the point that the animal doesn't see me as a threat. The animal has to accept my presence. That's something you really have to work on, and not in the middle of a national park. I try to avoid those places. That's where everyone goes, so another way I make my work look different is to find my own places."
The volatile Alaskan weather patterns also dictate Hyde's shooting schedule and locales. "If a good weather forecast comes up, and I can access the area at that time of the year, I'll decide whether I go there or not," he says. "And, of course, clients always have their own preferences, as well, as to where I shoot, so that plays a role, too."
Keeping his gear safe from the elements is just as critical as striking up a rapport with a wild animal or knowing what location to select for a good shot.
"To protect and condense gear during travel, we often put our loaded Lowepro and Tamrac backpacks inside our Pelican hard cases, packing clothing, tents, boots, and sleeping bags around them for extra protection," he says. "Laptops and hard drives go inside soft cases, which go inside waterproof hard cases. Batteries, media, and card readers go inside waterproof hard cases, too. When you work on, in, and around the water in a temperate rain forest, waterproof is essential—and it's good to have in the snow as well.
"We also carry large cloth bags of desiccant in case gear gets wet in the field. If this happens, we dry the lens or bodies with very absorbent, lint-free towels, then place them inside a waterproof Pelican case with a large bag of desiccant. We change the bag an hour later. This works well with media cards, too, should they get wet."
Familiarity HIS Forte
It's Hyde's intimacy with the animals and the landscape that has allowed him to achieve business success in his genre.
"When some people get into wildlife or travel photography, they try to do everything," he explains. "What I did was label myself as doing a certain kind of work and a certain coverage. I decided I'd specialize in whales, bears, and eagles in Southeast Alaska and to maintain the best client services and relationships and have new material for them every year. What I didn't do was try to go to Africa and Antarctica and all over the globe. I'd love to go to those places as well, but for me, those locations have never been good business decisions.
Traveling costs so much money; you have to invest a lot of time, and there's a lot of competition in those areas, because so many people go there all the time. Lots of people come to Alaska, too, but they're not here all the time, like I am. They'll come up for two weeks and the weather will be crappy, but I'm here all the time. Whenever the light's good, I can go out and shoot."
The Alaskan light can throw seasoned photographers if they're not from Hyde's home turf. "I prefer shooting at a 45-degree-or-less angle of sunlight. In Alaska, in the summertime, the sun is at 45 degrees or below at times of the day when most people are sleeping. The best light here in the summer is from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. and from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. In the wintertime it's great, because the sun never goes more than 45 degrees above the horizon, so we get four to six hours of great light."