Q&A with wilderness photographer Mike Beedell

I am currently interning at Canadian Geographic in Ottawa. This is a blog post I wrote for the magazine’s website, a Q&A with photographer Mike Beedell.

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Mike Beedell has spent more summers in the Arctic than elsewhere. He has been guiding trips in Canada’s Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland, and other remote areas for 37 years, and taking spectacular photographs all the while. His images have been published in Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Equinox, and many other publications; his work has even appeared in New York’s Times Square. 

Next week, Beedell will be presenting some of his best images of polar bears at a Canadian Geographic speaker series event featuring storm chaser George Kourounis.

In June, Beedell will be appearing at another Canadian Geographic event, Wildlife Photography Day – this time with his camera in hand. At the Museum of Nature on June 8, Beedell and celebrated arctic photographers Michelle Valberg and Scott Linstead will be helping interested amateur photographers practice their technique in informal tutorial sessions around the museum.

Canadian Geographic sat down with Beedell in our office to chat about photography, the wilderness, and crawling around on one’s stomach to see what a caterpillar sees.

On the power of photography to bring people back to their surroundings:

“As a child I had this tremendous freedom to roam and to do whatever I wanted in a natural setting. I was brought up on the side of the Ottawa River. I had my canoe, and I was able to sit and watch nature. I spent a lot of time watching birds grow, and finding their nests; I would spend a lot of time just observing wild creatures.

“So before I became a photographer I was a very trained observer of the natural world, and I was completely engrossed in that joy of observation. When I became a photographer in my late teens and early university, I already had a tremendous level of patience and keen observation skills, of watching and appreciating the natural world. 

“I’m very concerned about biodiversity on the planet and the way that our landscape is shrinking for wild creatures. My concerns about wetlands, about large landscapes for big predators, all those things inspire me to try and capture the essence of a place and the essence of these wild creatures so that people are aware of what we’re losing.”

On knowing your subject before you shoot:

“It’s all about patience and time. The quality of time is essential to capturing a lot of the essences.

“As a wilderness guide, very often I’m leading people on various journey through, oftentimes, self-propelled journeys; whitewater canoeing, sea kayaking, ski touring, a variety of ways of travelling through landscape. That’s a really important thing, also, to be self-propelled. That is when you begin to feel the landscape. Mechanical systems take you away from a lot of the experience, as opposed to just propelling yourself. So I initially I absorb [the landscape].

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“I move into an area, I may be camping, so I’m aware of light, what the light is doing at certain times of day.

“If I’m spending time with a particular creature, then I’m aware of the behaviours of that animal. I’ve been asleep on a beach and had a polar bear come right up and put pressure right on my face in my sleeping bag, and opened it to look right in the face of the bear, on a solo trip. So I’ve had those types of sphincter-tightening experiences.”

On wilderness photography, then and now:

“When I used to shoot in the late ‘70s until only a decade ago, I was shooting with manual cameras, Nikon FM-1s, FM-2s, totally manual, the batteries would last for months at -60°, -40°. Now, we’ve got these energy-eating cameras. I have to work with solar panels to rebuild my power if I’m out in a remote wilderness. I have solar panels that rebuild on my kayak.

The energy consumption of new camera systems is a big issue.

“I’ve had camera systems swim. But in the old days – once I was fording a stream, was pulled down. I took the cameras out, dried them over a fire, opened up the base plates, and I shot for another three weeks with those cameras, and everything was fine. Digital systems are much more fragile.

“But there’s tremendous immediacy to digital, to be able to procure the images quickly if needed. I remember one very powerful scene. About a decade ago, we were circumnavigating Bylot Island, which is a 12,000 square mile island. It was a five-month journey, kayaking and skiing. At one point, I was sitting in about a 5,000 year-old site…. I was envisioning the shamans doing dances to the moon, and sending out their messages. And I was sitting there, sending my images from my camera, I was shooting them tens of thousands of miles to a geostationary satellite over Peru, and then those were being downloaded and going to Telsat Canada in Ottawa and then being disseminated across Canada. And there was a shaman probably dancing there, and sending out his messages thousands of years ago.”

Mike’s wilderness photography tips

  • Always take either a monopod or a tripod; stability is often really important, because you could be shooting in low light.
  • Always have enough digital media with you so you aren’t running out and madly deleting images that you really want but there’s a better image evolving there.
  • Have a good waterproof system for your gear so you can capture the essence of a place in all its moods; you know, rain and mud and whatever.
  • Explore an area and look for different perspective. Get out of your comfort zone, which is just standing. Get down on your knees, lie on your belly, get the perspective that a caterpillar has of its environment, get the perspective that an eagle has – explore from all different angles, and that really opens up your compositional creative side.
  • I think of my different lenses as different ways creatures see the world. The eagle, he’s seeing the world through a 500mm lens. A caterpillar or a spider is seeing the world through a 16mm or a 14mm lens. So you have all these different perspectives.
  • The ideal travel system is have yourself say, a 17-35mm and then a 70- or 80-200mm and maybe a little macro lens, and with those three lenses, you can be very creative and get all the perspectives that you need.
  • Do it respectfully, because you can make a lot of impact on creatures. There’s ethics to photography, whether you’re working with people or animals or rare creatures. You have to be aware of your impact and respect animals, give them their distance. Use blinds so that you don’t impact nesting birds.

This summer, Beedell will be heading twice into bear country; once into Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary, the Khutzeymateen, and once into the Great Bear Rainforest. Both trips will be guided photography tours on a yacht.

“We’ll be doing lots of observation, we’ll be kayaking, we’ll be waiting for hours while bugs suck out all our blood,” he says. “You really earn your images this time of year.”

To catch Beedell while he is in town, come to the Centrepointe Theatre on Wednesday, April 24 or the Museum of Nature on Saturday, June 8.

 

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