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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interview With A Wildlife Photographer/Author

Award-Winning Photographer & Author Pat Toth-Smith, Author of Wild Among Us

1.      What inspired you to become a wildlife photographer? A trip to Yellowstone National Park started it all. It was during the seasonal rut, a time when horned animals like Elk and Moose fought each other for the chance to mate. The noise of the crashing horns, the visible aggression, and being in such close proximity to the spectacle excited me.  I couldn’t sleep the night before the first photo shoot and went out early to capture these animals in the morning light.  This experience was the start of my long photographic career.

2.      Where is your favorite place to shoot and why?  Yellowstone National Park.  The wildlife is accessible. The road there is in the shape of a figure eight, which allows you to scan the park for wildlife. Thus, making the wildlife very accessible from wherever you’re driving.  It’s easy to stumble onto buffalo, elk, and coyote.  Bears, moose, eagles and wolves are a bit harder to find and require more persistence, knowledge of their behaviors and some stalking skills. Many of my challenging stalking experiences in my book, Wild Among Us, are from Yellowstone.

3.      What perspective does a woman like you bring to wildlife photography and how does it differ from a man’s?  I try to make the animals comfortable in my presence by being unobtrusive and far enough away that they feel like they have a lot of space.  I’m sensitive to their behaviors and how they relate to one another.  I especially like to capture the animals in their intimate or funny moments. Each animal has its own unique temperament.  From my experience I’d say that many male photographers are just after the peak of action shot and will move on after they get it.  I like to get the peak of action shot also, but my goal is to spend more time chronicling the animal’s behavior, and as a result get some rare expressions and more intimate moments of the animal alone or with others.  I try to stay with the animal.

4.      Aren’t you afraid seeking out these sometimes dangerous predator animals and how do you keep yourself safe?  I am always afraid when I am around predator animals but I think fear is a good thing. It keeps me hyperaware so I can do the right thing, if I feel threatened by these animals. There are many stories in my book Wild Among Us where I’ve done just that and avoided being attacked.  When in wild places, I always do what the authorities recommend, keeping an appropriate distance from the animals and making noise when hiking on the trails. Also, I carry pepper spray and will abandon a situation if my intuition is telling me it’s not safe.  I’ve always had a philosophy that I would rather fail than to be too afraid to try something, so I’ll try to get the shot of the bear, mountain lion, etc. if the risk does not outweigh the reward.  This has propelled me on-ward to try difficult things.

5.      What is the most dangerous situation you’ve encountered during your travels? One of my most dangerous encounters is in the introduction of Wild Among Us.  Once a large grizzly bear and her cub growled at me and followed me.  It was in Katmai National Park in Alaska during the salmon run.  I had just arrived at the park and was headed to the campground when I surprised a full grown female grizzly and her cub by the lakefront.  She growled loudly at me.  I knew not to make eye contact, but I also wanted to be aware of her in case she charges me.  I backed away slowly with my head down and my eyes staring at the ground trying to give her plenty of space.  I reached the trail that ran parallel to the beach the bear and her cub were on and walked for twenty minutes to the campground with the agitated bear yards away. She walked parallel to me and stared at me the entire time.  She never charged and I finally reached the campsite which had an electrified fence.

6.      What have you learned about humans in your observations of animals?  Humans and animals are very similar in many ways. Animals take care of their offspring with the same care as humans.  They will defend them aggressively. I’ve seen small cubs behave like small children, disregarding their mom’s instructions and then the mom scolding them--just like a human mother would dole out.   I think humans and wildlife both want the same thing-- to share the planet with each other peacefully and to be mutually respected and left alone in their respective habitats.

7.      When was your most memorable shoot? Why? It is hard to narrow it down to one, but I would have to say it was a bald eagle photography trip; I made after a neck surgery and a long recovery that followed. It really took an emotional toll on me, I had chronic pain and serious weight loss for over a year and after I recovered physically, I was emotionally devastated. It took a trip to Canada to see bald eagles that helped me reconnect to myself. Seeing the bald eagles beauty and the majestic rainforest habitat helped me to reconnect spiritually and heal my once famished soul.

8.      What did you do before you became a wildlife photographer? I was a registered nurse.  I had worked in hospice with terminally ill patients and was ready for a change. I had always enjoyed photography as a hobby, but gradually became more serious about it.  I took some college courses on photography, and decided to make a career of it.  I still use many of my nursing skills in my work now: I’ve helped in roadside accidents and natural disasters that I’ve encountered on my photo trips, I use my assessment skills to evaluate an animal’s level of agitation and to control my anxiety level in stressful situations.

9.      What is it like to be a woman in a primarily male-dominated profession? Wildlife photography is a solitary profession so you are only occasionally meeting up with other professional photographers. Usually it’s in Yellowstone National Park pursuing wolves or on a tundra buggy in Canada to view polar bears. Our conversations frequently are about photo equipment, and once they see I am as serous or more serious about what I do, I’m accepted as an equal.  On the other hand, I also have the added isolation of needing to be safe, meeting so many strangers and not always completely trusting them, for example, I feel more vulnerable as a woman hiking and camping alone. Wild Among Us contains many of my stories of being in danger as women.  But being cautious and intuitive allows me to continue do what I love to do.

10.  What is the most difficult thing about being a wildlife photographer? The inability to control your subjects. Usually, wildlife is difficult to find, or when you do find them the lighting can be bad. Frequently the animal runs off when he or she sees you, which gives you only a few minutes at most to get your shot.  Or sometimes an animal’s behavioral patterns can change, so what was reliable last year may not be this year.  I also struggle with the changing weather conditions:  freak snow storms and severe cold are a challenge.

11.  What exactly are you thinking as you get within feet of creatures that could rip you apart?  I actually act first and think later when I am in a precarious situation. I am grateful for this ability.  It seems like my body knows what to do even if my head hasn’t quite registered it yet. This has gotten me out of many sticky situations.  I refer too many of these situations in Wild Among Us.  It’s only later in the safety of my vehicle or tent that I will mull over what just happened and how close I came to getting hurt. I try to make sense of it and find a strategy to try the next time.

Please note the author is currently being represented by the book publicity firm that I work for.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015


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