Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

January-February 2005

Question of the Month

Which mountain park is better for photographing wildlife, Denali in Alaska or Torres del Paine in Chile?

Last month Mary and I guided our first photo tour to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For the record, that trip was the third in three years to TdP, the first two acting as 'scouting' trips in preparation for the tour. Next August I'll be leading our photo tour to Denali National Park in Alaska, a destination I've photographed in at least 5 times. Both are mountain parks, so it was natural, then, to consider the similarities and differences between the two.
Before I pronounce judgment, let me stress that both parks are great - if one wasn't, I wouldn't bother going! Denali in fall has its attractions - tundra changing color, caribou shedding velvet, Denali - the highest mountain in North America - statistically most likely to be visible.
But Denali is a very difficult park to shoot. Most visitors are forced to use the public shuttle system which, in my opinion, is a pathetically inadequate means for photographers to see the park. Not that anyone listens, but I've often advanced the idea that a special photography bus should be available - and I'm sure photographers would pay extra for the chance to get off one bus, and on to another, without the worry that now exists. Now, when you get off a bus, there is no guarantee that you will get on another one for hours if all the seats are filled (no doubt by people worried about getting off the bus and not being able to get back on!).
We get around this by using a lodge that has the only permit to drive a private vehicle into and around the park, so our groups have far more freedom and access than the usual group, or photographer, or tourist experiences. However, it is still restricting.
Wildlife regulations are potentially very limiting in Denali, and I've heard some real horror stories about photographers being harassed for 'being too close' when a caribou or Dall sheep walked up to them! Fox dens, wolf dens, bird nests - all are off limits. Shooting is pretty much a grab-shot basis.
Denali is a spectacular mountain, to be sure, if and when you see it. But even then, views are pretty much restricted to the northern side - the mountain is just so big that there's basically just one broad view. Of course, the north side offers slightly different views from Eilson Visitor Center, stone mountain, and wonder lake, but all are from the north.
Torres del Paine, in contrast, is a much smaller mountain park, so it is physically possible to view the mountain massif from quite different positions. In fact, if you have a few days, you can walk around the mountain - something that would require weeks, and considerable effort, in Denali. Denali, at approximately 21,000 feet generates its own weather, and the mountain may be shrouded in clouds for weeks while the surrounding land is clear. Torres, in contrast, is a mountain landscape of constant change, and most days if you wait a few minutes the light, the clouds, the over-all scene, changes dramatically! OK, 'a few minutes' may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point.
Scenically, Torres looks more like the Grand Tetons than Denali, and like the Tetons, it is more accessible and viewable from several directions. Like the Tetons, you can get close to the mountain at Torres - literally at its base from one lookout, so lens choice, and compositions, are extremely varied.
In many ways Torres is more comparable to the Tetons than Denali, but because of the remoteness of both destinations - almost at the ends of their respective continents, I think the Denali comparison is more apt. Scenically, for all three parks, so much of a photographer's luck is based upon the light. With Denali - will there be clouds obscuring the mountain? Will there be alpen glow at sunrise and sunset? Indeed, will you have a way to get to the mountain to even shoot alpen glow?
The Tetons are similar, with the landscape best shot at dawn, hopefully in magical early morning light. The same questions of weather apply.
Torres del Paine suffers the same questionable woes - will it be rainy, cloudy, dull in the east or west and muting dawn or dusk colors? However, there is a huge difference between Torres and the other parks, for the WIND in Torres is both a curse - it can be windy! and a blessing. For the wind almost guarantees that the weather will change, and a rainy dawn doesn't mean that the day is lost, or that a clear morning insures that the day will stay clear or windless. In fact, you can almost count on there being a change.
To me that is a decided advantage, because in the course of a day one gets a fairly broad spectrum of looks. Even at high light, if the sun is out but a storm swirls around the mountain peaks, or drifts through the towers or horns of this mountain massif, there are wonderful images to be had. On our last trip, while I scouted an area for puma, I had a magnificent view of the mountains partially shrouded in clouds, with a knock-out foreground of rounded, boulder-like cliffs. The scene said it all, and, of course, I had nothing smaller than a 600mm lens with me!
Besides the mountain scenes, both Denali and Torres offer macro and mini-landscape possibilities. In season, that is, in the fall, Denali's tundra can glow red as salmon and bear berry undergrowth change color, and dwarf willows flip from green to bright yellow. In season - November thru March in Torres, the herbaceous plants offer their own macro possibilities. In December, when we go to Torres, the flowering plants are in full bloom and some are wind-resistant ground huggers and macro shots are possible even in high winds, assuming you can keep a tripod steady! When it is windless, and it often is, the possibilities are incredible.
As anyone reading this knows, Mary and I love to shoot wildlife, and here I think the comparison and striking differences are most apparent. Here's a list of the wildlife one can expect to see in Denali, with a * indicating those where there's an excellent chance of getting a reasonable photo - ie almost a certainty, and a # for a fair chance. No mark indicates little chance of getting a shot, based upon a typical one-week trip.

Much of Denali's wildlife viewing and photography is done from, or quite close to, the buses. This is limiting, and although we've done OK or fairly well with many species over time photographers must realize that there is 'a chance' of photographing a lot of animals, but little likelihood of doing so very well. For example, I've photographed wolf once, and red fox twice in several visits.

 Caribou  #  *
 Moose    #
 Dall sheep    
 Gray wolf    
 Red fox    #
 Hoary Marmot    #
 Pika    #
 Beaver    #
 Arctic ground squirrel  *  
 Grizzly bear    #
 Red squirrel  *  
 Willow Ptarmigan  *  #
 Eagles,loons,chicadees    #

Caribou can usually be shot from the bus, but good shooting requires being on foot, hence the dual listing. On our tours we've done fairly well with caribou by hiking across the tundra to them, and have had about 50% luck with moose --- sometimes getting them, sometimes not. Dall can be found and shot, but from the bus it is a joke and Dall sheep can be a # if one has the time, and the energy to hike to the ridges where they may be found, but it is a brutal walk without certainty. Hoary marmots and pikas are a sure thing, but to get to them you must make a good uphill climb. Some groups have no inclination to do so, or lack the time, so I've not given the sheep a rating and a modest one for the others since there is often no opportunity toget them. Willow ptarmigan can be great if you find them on foot, but they're rather mediocre from the bus. The last birds are occasionally shot -- the best chances are generally with loons.

In contrast, Torres del Paine has fewer mammals but a much larger variety of birds. With the exception of the flightless rhea, all the birds and mammals are most effectively photographed on foot! Rheas are often skittish and most good shots are done from a window - an impractical means of shooting with a group.
Here's the subjects one can expect to see in Torres, and I've assigned the numbers 3, 2, and 1, for the number of times I've photographed these subjects well. A 3 indicates I've shot them well on all 3 trips, a 1 that I've succeeded one time out of 3. A * indicates that there is a good chance of getting photos even if I haven't, simply because I didn't take the time to do so, and a # a fair chance.

 Guanaco  3  *
 Patagonian Gray Fox  3  *
 Andean Red Fox  2  *
 Puma  1  #
 Huemule Deer  1  #
 Black-necked Swan  2  *
 Coscoroba Swan  1  #
 Chilean Flamingo  1  #
 Andean Condor  2  #
 Magellanic Woodpecker  1  *
 Rhea  1  #
 Austral Parakeet  2  *
 Upland Goose  3  *
 Brown-hooded Gull  3  #
 Buff-necked Ibis  1  #
 Austral Thrush  2  *
 Rufous Collared Sparrow  3  *
 European Hare  1  #

The puma-1# requires work, as days must be devoted to looking for them in the predawn hours, but they're almost a sure thing if one is located. The foxes are easy -- they're generally denning during our tours. The Magellanic woodpecker-1* is easy if a nest is located! Just birding, one can expect to see at least 30 species (I've seen as many as 70), and depending upon the effort put forth one could photograph several songbirds quite well if one applied oneself.
As you can see from the list although there are not as many mammals, you have a much better chance of photographing these mammals than you do with Denali's mammals. The bird opportunities are far better in Torres as well.
Where am I leading with this? Well, I love Torres del Paine. Although it reminds me so much of Denali with the mountain and road system (which is far more extensive in Torres by the way), the shooting opportunities are far superior. We can use a private vehicle in Torres, stopping wherever we wish, and we can get out and walk and shoot virtually anywhere. Not that this is always easy - our group had to hike uphill (imagine that!) to have frame-filling Andean condors soaring by, and uphill hikes might be required to get guanacos lined up against the mountains. Mary and I put in 1 ½ days before I found our puma, and on our first day of searching I didn't take a single picture! However, for those who are willing to put in some effort, who are willing to hike or to wait for the light, the scenics and wildlife of Torres del Paine are simply incredible. East Africa offers more bird and wildlife shooting, of course, but mostly from a vehicle. On foot, in the foothills of the Andies, it's a whole different shooting experience, and a most wonderful one.

See our 2004 Trip Report for more information about Torres del Paine and more images.

Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day?

What is the best Car Window Mount?

Can you match the Histograms?

 How would you meter these images?

 Why should you know Manual Mode? 

  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

 How long will film be around?

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?
 How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?

 What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

 What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

 What Film Lab do we use, and why?

 Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?

 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?  What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?  Which binoculars do we just love to use?

How Easy is Whale Photography?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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