There’s nothing like learning from the best, so sit up and take notice as expert and inspirational wildlife photographer, Paul Souders, shares everything from his personal experiences with apex predators to gear must-haves for your trips.
Paul has never been quite keen on getting in the water as he’s always been “more of a sinker than a floater”. It wasn’t until his first trip to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, South America when he put on a snorkelling mask that he realised how amazing it was to “breathe” underwater. Needless to say, he signed up for scuba lessons as soon as he got home: “I love that feeling of stillness and weightlessness when you enter the ocean”. Paul deems himself lucky to have developed an interest in the underwater environment just as photography shifted away from film and into digital as, instead of being limited to 36 frames on a dive, digital allows you to shoot hundreds, even thousands of frames. “The only downside to diving is that it’s not a solitary sport. I’ve done more solo diving that I care to admit, but it’s a dangerous game, even by my standards.”
Most of Paul’s underwater polar bear images were shot with a Canon 5D Mark III (for maximum image quality and file size) or Canon 7D II (for faster frame rates) in an AquaTech Underwater Sport Housing and 15-20 cm acrylic dome. From a purely image-quality perspective, he’d prefer using his Seacam housing with its massive optical glass dome, but it’s simply too heavy and cumbersome when working in close quarters. The AquaTech housing is much lighter and more manoeuvrable in the water. Paul simply mounts his camera onto the end of a 1 m-long pole (and uses the accessory shutter release cable) to shoot: “I don’t have a remote video feed, it’s too bulky and slow, so I’m shooting pretty much blind, pointing the camera in the bear’s direction and hoping for the best.” Photographing polar bears at close proximity is a pretty tricky proposition as Paul has to allow his little inflatable Zodiac boat to drift within a few
Photographing a polar bear at close proximity is a pretty tricky proposition as Paul has to allow his little inflatable Zodiac boat to drift within a few centimetres of its big paws. Several times he’s had a bear take a swipe or a bite at his cameras, actually scratching the acrylic dome – “But, I like to think I’m one of the few photographers who have photographed the inside of a polar bear’s mouth.”
Not many people can say this, but Paul has owned each generation of the DJI Phantoms, from the very first that didn’t even have a camera to the latest Phantom 4 Pro. Several years ago, he took the Phantom 2 to Botswana for a delighting yet frustrating experience. “Like most young boys, I dreamed of flying. And like most grown-ups, I had neither the time nor the attention span to actually get a pilot’s license.” Suddenly, there was this new technology that allowed him, or at least his camera, to go flying all over the place, hovering within a few metres of his subjects. But, that early version didn’t have much range as the camera was quite basic. Luckily the image quality has improved vastly in the past few years. The drones allowed him to take some pictures that he’s never been able to capture before, and he looks forward to “going back and doing more aerial work where it’s still permitted.”
Thinking on your feet to get the winning shot
Photographers are known for packing tonnes of gear, so I asked Paul if there was ever a time when he had to think on his feet to get a shot:
“The first time I travelled to Hudson Bay, I carried more than 225 kg of gear: Everything from an inflatable Zodiac boat and outboard motor to camping gear, bear fence and 12-gauge shotgun loaded with noisemaker shells. I looked like a homeless, survivalist hoarder. So I spent a couple of weeks taking the small, loaded dinghy 48 km from land, out to the sea ice edge in search of polar bears.”
I spotted a polar bear heading toward the water and followed from a distance. She finally relaxed and grew curious, and eventually, less than 10 m, then 5 m separated us. She swam parallel to the boat and I tried to hang a camera off a nearly 2 m-long pole for a wide-angle, water’s level view. I was steering and operating the outboard with one hand, trying to operate the camera with my other and somehow brace the pole against my legs. It was about as easy and graceful as it sounds! I managed to dunk the camera and it’s Pocket Wizard remote into the salt water, killing both.
I had another body, but had to hard-wire a shutter release trigger in a hurry, so I tore the remote cable apart with my teeth then spliced the wires together by hand. The polar bear swam beneath a pan of ice, I held out the pole and somehow the whole thing managed to work. It was only later that I realised it would be the best picture of my 30-year career. And it all hinged on a piece of wire worth a few pennies.”
Planning the perfect shot
Photographers vary in that some focus on planning a shot and others simply “wing it” so to speak. Paul has found that the natural world has a much better imagination than he does. “I wish I could envision these never-before-seen photographs and somehow conjure them into being, but I’m a simple country boy and my brain doesn’t often work that way. Coming from a journalism background, we were told again and again not to alter a situation to suit our visual needs. We were trying to document reality”.
But when Paul does get an idea, he is like a dog with a bone: Having spent weeks watching brown bears feeding on spawning Alaska salmon, Paul desperately wanted to show a salmon’s view of things. He didn’t get the shot he wanted on the first try, or the second, but he kept at it and eventually the remote, the camera, the bear and the salmon all came together! “I could see the picture in my mind’s eye, but it took plenty of patience, effort and tweaking, and some bloody good luck, to get a shot that worked.”
The elusive photograph
Paul dreams of (and is working on) getting the perfect photograph of a polar bear swimming completely submerged underwater: “I’ve seen it, but have never been able to get a camera close enough… some day.”
Getting close to an apex predator
Paul’s photographs of polar bears have gotten him a whole lot of attention the past few years and I just had to know exactly how close he’s gotten to one of these mysterious animals. He’s found himself within less than a metre, “if you count the time when a polar bear bit my Zodiac, but you’ll have to believe me that it wasn’t part of the plan”. He is not “getting close out of some need for an adrenaline fix”, but trying to unveil these animals in a new light. Whenever he is close to an apex predator like that, diving underneath an iceberg, or climbing some scary stupid cliff in the name of a picture, his mantra is “Don’t f*** this up.”
Paul’s photographic gear and equipment
Paul has a basic photographic kit that he always travels with. It starts out with a Think Tank backpack or roller bag. Thereafter the gear cramming starts:
Paul is a Canon shooter and has just recently upgraded to the 5D Mark IV body. He also packs his older Canon 1Dx and 7D II bodies for their higher frame rates.
Paul packs a basic selection of lenses, which consists of the Canon 16-35mm f/4, 24-70mm f/2.8 II, 70-200mm f/4 for street work and the f/2.8 for lower light conditions. He also packs long lenses. He loves the Canon 200-400mm f/4, which he’ll rent if need be. He’s just upgraded from his 15 year-old 500mm f/4 to the new, sharper and lighter version – Canon 500mm f/4 Mark II. After that he’ll add specialised lenses like the 24mm tilt-shift lens for landscapes and the 8-15mm fisheye for underwater work and a 100mm f/2.8 macro for close-ups.
- Seacam Housing with 22 cm glass dome that he loves (even though it is a bit bulky).
- He relies on his PocketWizard triggers for remote set-ups.
- He’ll bring along a variety of small tripods and clamps to mount cameras in odd places.
- Currently he also uses the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and if there is any space left, he’ll also pack his quirky film camera.
- Either one of his Holga cameras for medium format black and white shots or a Speed Graphic kitted out with an Aero-Ektar lens for 4×5 magnification.
A lesson for every 10 years in the field
- Embrace patience and persistence: This is both the simplest and the hardest lesson to learn; the art of waiting. The natural world moves at its own rhythm, not mine and not yours. You often have to sit still and watch and wait for endless, frustrating hours all for nothing. But, if you keep going back, and siting still for long enough, lightning will strike.
- Know your tools: Know your gear and be ready. Nothing is worse than waiting for hours, then realising that you need to change lenses. “I can still see the image of a big polar bear looming above me on an iceberg, and I didn’t have the wide-angle zoom the shot required. In the time it took me to switch lenses, and I can do it in seconds with my eyes closed, the moment was gone.”
- Don’t shoot other people’s pictures; learn how to shoot your own pictures: Photography, by its very nature, is an act of copying and of reproduction. There is a keen impulse to look at images created by the masters – from Ansel Adams to Frans Lanting and Paul Nicklen – and think, “I want that shot.” But, Ansel, Frans and Paul have already made those shots. What’s the point of spending all that time and money to make a copy of someone else’s work? It took me a long time to learn it, but there’s a lot more satisfaction and success to be had in creating your own images.
When he’s not renovating, planning or going on some crazy adventure to photograph wildlife, Paul and his wife lead a surprisingly tranquil life at home. He says that it may be a sign of getting older, or “simply finding myself an unexpectedly happily married man”; but he loves cooking dinner with his wife and being “just like normal people”.
The decisions we make today are going to influence the lives of our children and grandchildren – and photography is such a powerful tool that speaks to the souls of people. Paul Souders’ photography is uplifting – it makes you sit back in total awe of the magnificence of nature and sparks you to question the impact we have on our environment, whether good or bad.