Kalispell, Mont. Photographers and wildlife enthusiasts share a common goal: They want to see animals "up close and personal."
Photographers need to be relatively close so they can get good head shots of the animals as well as environment pictures, that is, pictures that show the animals in their native environment.
Wildlife enthusiasts like to experience animals at close range so they can see the faces of the animals without having to use very high-powered binoculars, which are hard to hold steady and thus offer a shaky view of the subject, unless the binoculars have an image stabilization feature.
But it's not easy to get up close and personal to the wild animals, which are often shy and reclusive in the wild.
Enter Triple "D" Farm and Wild Eyes Animal & Photo Adventures, two wildlife game farms that specialize in wild animal photo sessions. Both game farms, which are open every day of the year, are located less than an hour's drive from Kalispell, the gateway to Glacier National Park.
Neither farm allows hunting, as do some of the other game farms in Montana.
I visited Triple "D" in August 2002 and Wild Eyes in August of 2001. Both trips provided me with wildlife pictures that exceeded my expectations. I also walked away with many memorable experiences.
The animals at these farms include bears, wolves, snow leopards, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions and badgers. At selected times of day, handlers bring the animals from their holding areas into natural settings for staged photo sessions. In those picturesque areas, which include aspen groves, ponds and rocky outcroppings, photographers can "shoot" the animals, from several feet away, without having any wires or fences in the scene. The fences are there, usually behind trees or bushes or low to the ground, so it's easy to compose a picture without getting them in the frame.
Really close up
At Wild Eyes, you can actually get in some of the photo areas, so the only thing between you and a tiger or bear is your lens! I actually had a baby brown bear crawl up my leg. Not to fear. Experienced handlers were nearby to protect me. At both game farms, you must have a guide and handler with you at all times. You simply can't walk around on your own.
And you can't always depend on the animals to pose for your camera. Just like children, the animals are not always in the mood to have their pictures taken. So, patience and understanding are required if you visit the game farms.
Because of the nearness of the animals, you don't necessarily need super telephoto lenses to get great photographs. I shot most of my pictures with a 70-200mm zoom lens on my digital SLR camera. For some very tight head shots, I used my 300mm lens.
Experienced handlers keep a watchful eye on the animals as well as on the guests who experience the wildlife encounters. They stress that the animals are basically "wild," and they encourage people not to make any sudden moves or loud noises. In addition, each participant must sign a liability release.
The wildlife encounter is unique, indeed. In fact, professional photographers might have to wait days in the wild to get the same kind of pictures they can get at these games farms. That type of availability has drawn film crews from National Geographic, Disney, Nature, the BBC and other cinema productions to Triple "D" over the years.
Well-known professional photographers, including Darrell Guline, Lewis Kemper and Leonard Lee Rue III, have all journeyed to Montana to "shoot" the animals at Triple "D." And each year, Popular Photography magazine runs a photo trek, staffed with professional photographers and open to amateur photographers, to Montana that includes a visit to the game farms.
Visitors to Triple "D" and Wild Eyes usually spend several days in the area, also exploring and photographing Glacier National Park, with its stunning scenery. For jaunts in the park, I'd recommend bringing a wide-angle lens, a polarizing filter and a tripod so you can photograph the breathtaking mountains and lakes from sunrise to sunset.
If you go, be prepared to take some great wildlife pictures, and be prepared to listen carefully - very carefully - to the handlers during the photo sessions.
And if you get a great shot and have the opportunity to have it published, follow the old motto: Honesty is the best policy. In the credit line for the photo, state that you photographed the animal in captivity. That's something that the American Society of Media Photographers stresses: honesty in journalism.
- Rick Sammon is a guest host of the Photo Safari on the Outdoor Life Network and host of the Digital Photography Workshop on the Do It Yourself Network.