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Chris Bray, an author, an adventurer, a teacher and an award-winning photographer all rolled into one. He is an ambassador for Canon Australia and he spends his time traveling and teaching photography all around the world.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Chris a couple of years ago and it was only now that I had the chance of sitting him down and asking him some questions about his work. I hope you enjoy reading this interview.
Hi Chris, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with F Stop Lounge. Can you please introduce us to the type of photography you’re well-known for, and what led you to specialise in this vertical?
While I certainly love the act of training my lens on and photographing wildlife, I am equally drawn by the journey to reach that moment. The adventure of traveling to and through amazingly remote locations; learning about the animals and their behaviour; finding them, and then gambling patience, weather, lighting, camera settings, technology – even physical risk – to try and creatively capture a special moment – these are the elements that I love almost as much as the photography.
I grew up sailing around the world with my family onboard our homemade yacht for five years, so I was led to believe that constantly traveling and visiting all these amazing cultures and places was normal.
Life really was just one endless parade of photo opportunities and so I have been taking photos since I was a kid. I didn’t start to get serious about it though until Australian Geographic gave me enough money to buy my first modern SLR camera (still film, but had auto focus etc) to take with me on a serious, 30-day untracked hike a friend and I did in Tasmania. That led to some adventure awards and media interest, and also my first published article and photos sold.
I’ve sailed through the arctic on my own tiny wooden sailboat to find polar bears, tied myself off and lowered a camera down onto a sea cliff filled with nesting birds, and attached a GoPro camera to a remote control car and driven it up to lions, elephants, rhinos and more – photography is almost just the end result, my way of capturing and sharing these amazing experiences that I enjoy so much.
I’ve sailed through the arctic on my own tiny wooden sailboat to find polar bears, tied myself off and lowered a camera down onto a sea cliff filled with nesting birds, WEDGED A CAMERA INSIDE A LIONS KILL, and attached a GoPro camera to a remote control car and driven it up to lions, elephants, rhinos and more – photography is almost just the end result, my way of capturing and sharing these amazing experiences that I enjoy so much.
It’s amazing to think of how much you have put at stake with each photo you take. Out of all the locations you’ve travelled to shoot at, which is your favourite, and why?
While sailing last year we came upon an uninhabited bay on the Alaskan mainland, opposite Kodiak Island, where we could row ashore and sit, cameras in hand for days, literally surrounded by dozens of brown/grizzly bears, some pouncing on salmon so close that they splashed me. That was certainly one of the most mind-blowing wildlife photography experiences I’ve ever had – and we now take clients there.
However, it’s hard to beat Kenya for the sheer volume and variety of the wildlife – I’d have to say it takes the cake. I’ve run more than a dozen safaris to Kenya now, and still, every morning game drive, the same excitement courses through my veins, you just never ever know what you’re going to see! It could be as subtle as a dung beetle rolling a pile of dung across the tire tracks, or a pack of lions or hunting dogs stalking a herd of Impala.
Are these trips normally self-funded or do publications pay for you to go to these exotic locations?
It’s a mix. For example, Australian Geographic paid for me to go on assignment to Papua New Guinea (the first photographer they’ve ever sent overseas), but I’ve also self-funded a month-long assignment to Borneo, under the agreement that Australian Geographic Outdoor would later buy the article. I also run a photo safari company that takes small groups of photographers to many of the wolds most wonderful places including Kenya, Galapagos, the Amazon, Alaska, Patagonia, Tasmania, Christmas Island and more, so ridiculously I get to go to all of those places every year for ‘work’!
Each year though my wife Jess and I take off a few months and go sailing too – we have a little wooden sailboat currently in Alaska that we sailed through the Northwest Passage above the top of Canada and Alaska in the arctic, and those journeys are pretty much fully self-funded, except for the odd sponsorship deal and a few articles here and there. My biggest expedition, hauling carts across Victoria Island in the canadian arctic (taking two attempts and 128 days), cost about $250,000 and that was entirely sponsor funded – my friend Clark and I were just university students at the time.
I did write a successful book on it called “The 1000 Hour Day”, and the feature-length, award-winning documentary film “The Crossing” has just done the cinema circuit and comes out on DVD soon.
Let’s talk a little about gear – what is your most-used kit?
My main body is a Canon EOS-1D X, which I love for it’s insane ISO ability, all weather sealing, rugged magnesium alloy body, and it’s 14 fps burst rate – I’ve put it through a lot, it’s covered in character-building scratches and dings, yet it always soldiers on. My favourite lens would have to be my new Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4X (yep, the one with the inbuilt tele-extender that makes it into a 280-560mm) which I use for wildlife – i’ve never seen stabilising this good, such swift AF, or such clarity from such a versatile super-telephoto zoom lens. I use a 16-35mm for landscapes, love detail shots with my EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro and ring flash, and bring my 24-105mm for anything in between. I have 50mm f/1.2, a 15mm fisheye and a 100-400mm when I don’t want to carry the 200-400mm, or a 600mm f/4 when I’m feeling super strong.
My external flash, remote timers, Cokin Pure Harmonie filters etc usually get wedged into my Lowepro Flipside 500 AW backpack too. My tripod is a wonderfully lightweight carbon fibre Gitzo GT0531 with a Joby Ballhead X.
Your thoughts on Cokin filters vs. Photoshop vs. no filters? Does it matter?
I’m pretty brutal with my lenses, so I like to protect them with a high quality UV filter like a Cokin Pure Harmonie. I certainly have (and often use) a polariser or an ND filter (most commonly for my wide lens) simply because you can’t even begin to replicate those effects in post processing. I have messed around with system filters allowing graduated NDs and various other effects, but for my kind of work, I just found it too fiddly – shooting in RAW and using an image tweaking software like Adobe Lightroom (eg using a drag-drop graduated ND filter) gives me enough elasticity to get the results I want, and even allows things physically impossible to achieve using a physical filter, like a drag-drop saturation or shadow filter.
You mentioned packing a flash. When would you introduce it when shooting wildlife/nature?
A macro ring flash really opens up what you can do with your macro lens. The novelty of the super-thin depth of field and extra blurry background achieved at the f/2.8 end does wear off, and I found I wanted to capture more detail, right the way through the flower/insect/pattern.
Shooting at f/22 or higher gives this, but you need heaps of light to get a fast enough photo. A regular flash doesn’t get in close enough and also gives nasty top-light shadows, but a ring flash spills plenty of light evenly on all sides, allowing amazing depth of field, as well as the ability to dial-down the ambient light so the background goes jet-black isolating your subject beautifully.
For those who want to follow in your footsteps, and do this type of photography professionally, what would be the one piece of advice you would give them?
Rather than formally study photography then become an assistant for ages, I think you’ll get where you want to be faster if you just get out there and start doing whatever it is you want to do, and then try and market yourself with your results. I’m not saying it’s all smoke and mirrors, but with enough enthusiasm, dedication, networking and marketing, a lot of things can come easily within reach.
That is great advice Chris. Can you give us a couple of pointers on how to get noticed by publications such as National Geographic?
For sure. Rather than bombard the editor or photo editor with a portfolio of your best 20 shots (which they probably won’t even have time to look at), you’re better off getting an ‘in’ by submitting to the ‘Readers Photos’ section in all these types of magazines. Then you know there’s someone who’s job it is to look at them, select one, and perhaps get it into the magazine or web. Then, once you’ve caught their eye, you’ve a better chance to stay connected, and network. I know people who’ve then gone on to sell articles to magazines after that.
You are also running courses locally (in Australia) as well as safaris to exotic locations such as Kenya, Alaska and the Galapagos. How big are the groups in general and what would people expect to learn and experience when they partake in one of your safaris?
Our philosophy is simplifying photography and empowering everyone to gain more enjoyment from their passion. We like to keep our safari groups small and friendly (typically just eight guests, with two pro photography tutors – so a ratio of 4:1) so that no one misses a shot and there’s plenty of time for relaxed, one-on-one help. With special photography access permits to the world’s best locations, there’s simply no better way to master your photography and have an incredible holiday – all at the same time!
We run our 1-day photography courses at zoos and other great venues all around Australia (including Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Hobart) providing a quiet, sit-down function room for the theory parts (accompanied by gourmet catering) and easy access just out side to inspiring test subjects for all the practical sessions!
These popular days cover everything from composition, aperture, and exposure compensation, though to ISO, lighting, lenses, histograms, white balance and much more!
Wow, that sounds like fun! I’m sure there will be lots of interested folks who would want to sign up. All the best in your endeavours Chris, and thank you for taking the time to talk to us at F Stop Lounge.
Oh, it’s been my pleasure! Thanks very much for having me F Stop Lounge – a very comfy place to do an interview, with just my kind of audience!