No matter the obstacle, this well-published, Santa Fe-based nature shooter and educator has found a way to thrive in the competitive world of wildlife – and now landscape – photography.
It's March in a southern Oregon marsh. Two black-necked stilts – long-legged wader birds – move closer to each other among the reeds in the shallow water. With no one around to disturb them, and with spring in the air, the male bird gets an age-old idea in his head. In seeming privacy, he hops on top of the female's back and begins to mate.
What the two lovebirds don't know is that they are being watched patiently from a nearby log in the water – or at least by something that looks like a log. Inside the object is no predator, however. It's Tim Fitzharris, one of the busiest and most celebrated nature photographers in the industry.
In this watery environment, Fitzharris is perfectly disguised in a deceptively simple yet finely crafted device of his own creation: the floating blind. A longtime student of bird behavior, he knew that avian love would be in the air at that time of year, and that the best way to capture the dance was to get up close and personal rather than to use long lenses from a distant shore.
The problem was how to do it without scaring off his shy subjects. His solution, which he first devised in 1982, was a four-inch slab of Styrofoam sandwiched between two sheets of marine plywood. "I lie on top of the blind, flat, with an opening for my feet to hang through; to move, I kick my feet," he says. "I use a camouflage cowling and further disguise it with vegetation from the shoreline."
The human-powered blind allows Fitzharris to move into position for his wildlife shots in almost complete silence, so that he can observe his subjects drinking and breeding. "It is a steady platform, like a fluid head on a tripod," he explains. "From my blind, I look just like a log or a mat of vegetation."
His motivation for inventing the floating blind was mainly to get more exciting camera angles, but it was also a question of saving time once he became a busy stock shooter. "You cannot spend days in a blind and survive as a freelancer," Fitzharris explains.
The floating blind is just one of several unique solutions Fitzharris has devised to overcome the various obstacles he's faced in his 38-year career. During that time, he has published dozens of photography books on wilderness and wildlife, and more than 100 nature calendars. Fitzharris has traveled to many of the planet's wild places in search of unique images that appear regularly in periodicals worldwide. While shooting in the field, he has also taught photo workshops at various venues – such as the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology – and captured several prizes in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest.
Whether he's teaching workshops, writing his monthly column in Popular Photography & Imaging magazine, or spending time with his kids on the road, Fitzharris has made sure that nature photography is the one constant in an active, ever-changing career.
It's good to be shallow
His famous floating blind has allowed Fitzharris to get a lot of photos quickly, but it has also helped him develop a signature shallow-depth-of-field style that has made him a star in the nature photography world.
With landscapes, a lot of different approaches are possible. It has attractive new challenges that wildlife work doesn't offer.
The fact that he is lying flat often gives Fitzharris a long, straight view to the background in his images because he's not looking down at an angle. "People sitting up in blinds bring the background closer to the subject, so nothing is particularly emphasized via shallow depth of field," he says.
Fitzharris' unique approach has made a huge difference in his career. His ability to make animals stand out in their environment, by using one of photography's most basic and powerful visual tools, made him stand out among the competition. Editors loved his images of animals who seemed to pop out of their environment because of Fitzharris' narrow zone of focus.
"That's how I got known as a wildlife photographer," he says. "These images were a revelation to the wildlife-shooting world, and my pictures were published numerous times in Audubon magazine, including four front covers and four feature pictorials in one year."
But Fitzharris doesn't shoot everything from eye level, lying flat. In his early days, while shooting nesting great blue herons, he used to hang from a camouflaged treetop blind 70 feet above the ground. He'll even take to the air or walk right up to a giant beast to get the shots.
For his shot of flamingoes at Lake Magadi in Kenya's Rift Valley, he went up in an ultralight aircraft, which he describes as "like a bicycle with wings."
"We started out at about 500 to 1,000 feet and then came in lower, with me hanging out the back of the ultralight," he recalls. "They are fabulous for aerial shooting; you can shoot anywhere, and turn the engine off for complete quiet and no vibrations. It's pretty important to turn off the engine, to not spook the birds."
He took full advantage of the unique perspective and colorful, exotic wildlife background in the Rift Valley. "The background changes from metallic gray to orangish reds and yellows, depending on where you fly, so you can find a different shot every few seconds. With the shadows of the birds on the lake below, this image is a lot of fun."
Of course, Fitzharris' work isn't all about flying from one great image to another. He also spends a lot of time prepping for shots. "A lot of my work is scouting the location, figuring out where to go and scouting to get the light right," he says.
One deceptively simple photograph of an elephant seal on a beach at Big Sur is a good example of this prep work. "Just before sunrise, the elephant seals haul off to breeding rookeries along the coast," he says. "This image was all about timing the shooting period to get that moody light."
A family affair
Another reason Fitzharris is so successful is that he is able to be a well-traveled photographer and a family man at the same time. He calls it the "everyone in the car" approach.
"I spend about five or six months a year traveling and shooting," he says. "For the past 18 years, I've never gone on any shoots without my entire family coming along. In North America, we usually travel and shoot from a motor home. So I'm never lonely, and can quite happily stay out for extended shooting periods."
Fitzharris has equipped a small RV to hold not only his wife, Joy, and their two kids – an 8-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son – but also all of his camera gear in an easy-access fashion.
For the past 18 years, I've never gone on any shoots without my entire family coming along... So, I'm never lonely, and can quite happily stay out for extended shooting periods.
Onboard equipment includes GPS, an iMac G5 with wi-fi for full-view daily editing and direct contact with clients, various kinds of outdoor gear and apparel, and special holders for tripods. The RV also has a special exit/entry door to allow for quick camera setups during the vehicle's frequent roadside stops. There's even an external rack for the famous floating blind, which packs up like luggage and can be checked in the baggage hold of an airliner, if needed.
"I don't try to time these trips for when the kids are out of school necessarily, although it often works out that way," Fitzharris says. "But my kids are smart and ahead of grade level anyway. I was a teacher and work with them and keep them caught up. We normally feel like we're on holidays. If the shooting goes well, all the better, as everyone senses it and we're energized by it."
So far, the Traveling Fitzharrises have driven from southern Mexico to the Yukon and Alaska in the modified RV. "It's a very efficient way to shoot," he says. "If we go 1,000 miles away, we plan our stops so each night, I'm in a location where I can do some worthwhile photography."
Of course, there are some hazards along the way. "To me an RV is meant to go off-road," he quips. "But off-roading is not actually a good idea. We've been stuck everywhere you can imagine in the RV."
But that doesn't stop the adventurous Fitzharris from pushing the boundaries. To better handle the rough roads of the backcountry, he has raised the RV's chassis by three or four inches and added extra-large tires.
Fitzharris began his adult life in a much more secure, but less mobile, profession – that of a schoolteacher.
"[While] photographing as a hobby, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was quite good at it – as good as a lot of professionals whose work I enjoyed," Fitzharris explains. "Once I had a few photos published, I began dreaming about a full-time career as a nature/wildlife photographer."
In today's economy, a man who gives up the security, pension and lifetime medical benefits of public-school teaching to roam the world taking nature photographs might be considered more than a little batty. But at that time, in the late 1970s, Fitzharris found that teaching had advantages when it came to preparing for a photo career. "Teachers get about three months of holidays, annually, in all," he says. "That gives you a lot of time to shoot, so I was able to build a portfolio while earning income.
"My wife was very supportive when I quit teaching," Fitzharris says. "She was working, and her salary and our savings kept us going for a while until I started making adequate money."
When he started teaching nighttime high school and adult education classes, other opportunities emerged. "I could shoot during the day, every day of the year," he recalls. He began developing relationships with editors and teaching photography at colleges.
Once he had a body of work published, Fitzharris decided to try running wildlife photography workshops in Calgary, Alberta. He placed a half-inch classified ad for his first workshop in the local newspaper. Surprisingly, it was an immediate success. "Within a few days I had checks totaling $1,000; 25 people at $40 each," he says.
This was in the early 1980s, when photo workshops were much less common. "There wasn't the interest among amateurs in pursuing photography as seriously that there is now," Fitzharris says. "Art Wolfe may have been doing some nature workshops by then, but there weren't hundreds of workshops per year, as there are now. The economy didn't support grown men spending thousands of dollars on gear. For example, I think I was the first person in Canada, for quite a while, to own a Canon 500mm f/4.5L lens, in perhaps 1979 or 1980."
Start the presses
Despite his success, Fitzharris never really enjoyed doing the workshops, so he pursued book publishing as well. Like other great photography teachers, he used his books to explain the specifics of how he gets his images.
For instance, although he says he'd love to keep his floating blind to himself, Fitzharris – ever the teacher – provided a diagram of it in his 1983 book, "The Audubon Society Guide to Nature Photography."
"My book on nature photography is likely the best-selling book of this type ever published," he notes with pride. "So far it has been translated into German, Italian, Polish and Chinese, and has gone through 10-plus printings and three editions. And I don't do any promotion or workshops.
After publishing, but not producing, three picture books in 1983, Fitzharris figured he could do a "more suitable job" of editing the layouts. "So I studied how it's done," he says.
He quickly learned how to design, print and manufacture publications, so he could deliver packaged books to publishers. To date, he's published more than two dozen books via a total turnkey operation.
"We design, produce and supervise the printing of all my books," he says. "This complete, packaged service makes it easy for publishers to commit to our projects. I choose all my own topics, based on my interest in the subject. Then we submit the idea to publishers who've published similar titles. We always deliver on time and try our best to make a superior product, to gain the trust of the publisher. If we do, we normally have repeat business."
However, the books are not huge earners. "I wouldn't say the books are terrifically profitable; stock photos are more profitable," he says. "The books are more of a personal statement, a collection of the work."
Fitzharris went digital about three years ago, after submitting slides for 20 years. "We focused on how editors must work to stay on schedule, even looking at such simple things as their need to be able to pick up a sheet of slides and evaluate 20 pics in a few seconds," he says. "This facility had to be duplicated with our digital submissions if we were going to succeed."
At first, he says, the web was just too slow to handle the large image files, but with the advent of broadband service, Fitzharris plunged in.
"We had our online sales mechanism in place before we had the photos to fill it," he says. "We designed our website to simulate the physical/visual process of image review that editors were familiar with from working with slides."
The strategy seemed to pay off. Fitzharris targeted the calendar market because this product, unlike magazines and newspapers, seemed resistant to internet takeover. "Everyone wants a beautiful physical calendar hanging on their wall," he says. Calendars are also less affected by economic cycles, due to their practical value and low cost.
"Now I think we probably provide more images to the nature/wildlife/landscape calendar market than any other photographer," he says.
True to his nature, Fitzharris has been pursuing a new flight path in his career, concentrating on landscape photography during the last few years. The shift came about partly as a rebellion against the strictures of wildlife work and partly out of purely practical considerations.
The practical part is all about numbers. "When a magazine does a story on the Everglades, there will be a large spread of the overall scene, for which you'll get $600, and then an alligator shot, for which you might get $100," he says. "For the sake of economics, I saw that I should shift my emphasis to landscapes, even with nature calendars – most of them are landscapes. A few are songbird calendars, but 90 percent are of wilderness landscapes now."
Artistically, however, Fitzharris is clearly seeking new creative challenges with his recent interest in landscapes.
"A lot of the compositions and approaches in wildlife work are dictated by subject. With landscapes, a lot of different approaches are possible," he says. "Most wildlife photography is getting an animal doing something interesting, with a focus on eyes and a dynamic relationship within the picture space. With landscapes, there are a lot more options available in how to treat a subject. It has attractive new challenges that wildlife work doesn't offer."
[While] photographing as a hobby, I discovered, to my surprise, that I was quite good at it — as good as a lot of professionals whose work I enjoyed.
IN THE LOUPE: Tim Fitzharris
Studio location and staff: Santa Fe, N.M. His wife, Joy Fitzharris, is his office manager. He also employs a computer systems manager and an image librarian.
Favorite gear: For wildlife work: Canon 5D Mark II, with ultra-wide to 500mm telephoto lenses. For landscape work: Mamiya 645 AFD with Phase One P25 back, with Mamiya manual 35mm, 45mm and 300mm lenses, plus 55-110mm and 110-220mm zooms. "Compared to 35mm-style DSLRs," he says, "the medium-format Mamiya/Phase One combination produces better shadow detail/dynamic range and less noise at low ISO settings."
Publications: Some of Fitzharris' photo books include "National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography," "Close-Up Photography in Nature," "Big Sky: Wild West Panorama" and "Rocky Mountains: Wilderness Reflections," all published by Firefly Books. His stock photos have appeared on the covers of Life, Audubon, Nature's Best Photography, Terre Sauvage, Popular Photography and Outdoor Photographer.
Latest projects: Fitzharris' new coffee-table book of landscape photos, "Seasons Across America," from Firefly Books, will debut in 2010. He is also planning another book, tentatively called "Hummingbirds of the World."
Advice to aspiring nature photographers: "Think long term and build a solid collection. I'm still selling pics I took 25 years ago," he says. "Also, anticipate the movement or behavior of your [wildlife] subject; get into position for the best light, background and angle on the action. Then wait for it to happen."
Advice on achieving a work/life balance: "Get an RV and turn it into a moving photo studio," he says. "Bring your family with you when you can. Everyone is happier."