Favorite Images of 2019: A Retrospective

Favorite Images of 2019: A Retrospective


Favorite Images of 2019: A Retrospective

In early 2019, I was casually mugged by a teenaged reggae enthusiast in broad daylight while traveling in Mexico. Thin, lanky, with hollowed-out cheeks and a wolfish face, this young Bob Marley acolyte donned an oversized Rasta beanie and black tee shirt emblazoned with Marley’s visage and the suddenly appropriate words in block letters:


Under the shirt, he kept one hand concealed, which for my sake was to imply a weapon of some sort. I happily obliged, giving him everything on my possession at the time: a first-generation iPad and two 100-peso bills (about twelve US dollars) each of which, before this interruption, were to help me score a mid-morning espresso in the city center of La Paz. This led to an uncomplicated, if not one-sided, transaction between me and the petty thief.

Expect the unexpected might be a tired cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true, particularly with regard to travel. Planning is admirable and always recommended but you should also assume that most of your plans will eventually be replaced by improvisation and gut instinct. Expect the unexpected. But why is the unexpected always biased toward the bad, negative, disappointing, tragic, or catastrophic? Bad travel experiences always eclipse the good ones because they make for better stories afterwards. No one wants to hear your boring tale about how smoothly your trip went off. No one.

Vehicle breakdowns, sickness, missed or cancelled flights, getting lost or even robbed are not necessarily to be expected but are never a total surprise either. My approach to the unforeseen and accidental is to remain calm, stoic, and philosophical as possible. This was expected after all, right? Besides, never in the entire known history of human travel has throwing a tantrum and acting like a spoiled, entitled tourist ever fixed a thing. Take a detached perspective of the situation as a curious bystander might do. It can be interesting or even slightly amusing if you don’t take the turn of fate too personally. It might actually be funny if not for the fact it was happening to you at that very moment. Rest assured, however, you will be able to laugh about it later.

On the dusty streets of La Paz, I wondered how Marley would feel about not only being a witness to this unfortunate situation but an unsuspecting accessory as well. I glanced at the shirt of my antagonist and imagined Bob wearing a pained frown of disapproval. He might even have said, don’t worry…

When the boy suggested that he follow me back to the hotel, presumably for the promise of a bigger and better haul, a wave of panic flooded over me. I looked him in the eyes, shook my head and emphatically said, “No.” No means no in either English or Spanish so he threw both hands up in the air (revealing there never was a weapon), backed away, and disappeared into the steamy La Paz landscape.

I hastily pulled myself together, checked to see if anyone had been watching, and returned to my room for more pesos. Coffee delayed was not going to be coffee denied and yes, every little thing was gonna be alright.

So, now on to some happier moments from this past year.

Silver Silken Blade
Gerlache Straight, Antarctica
December 6, 2019

But what of silver silken blade? I know this image isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure is mine: moody and mysterious with just a glimmer of hope, glorious details of the Antarctic landscape combined with graphical abstract qualities as well. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 349mm, 1/1000 second @ f/6.3, ISO 1000.

Okaukuejo Rising
Etosha National Park, Namibia
June 18, 2019

A big African sunrise over the Etosha Plains with a lone elephant kicking up a little dust for some lighting drama. Compositionally I like a asymmetrical balance created by counterpoising the two primary visual elements but I hate the horizon cutting right through the top of the elephant. Bad form by me. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm w/ 1.4x @ 560mm, 1/1250 second @ f/11, ISO 100.

Meanwhile On Mercury
Cathedral Gorge, Nevada USA
November 12, 2019

This is a real landscape. On this planet. The scale, however, is extremely misleading. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 11-24mm @ 22mm, 1.6 seconds @ f/14, ISO 100.

After Glow
Pied Crows at Deadvlei, Namibia-Naukluft National Park, Namibia
June 13, 2019

I’ve been to Deadvlei countless times and it’s highly unusual to see any living things in this surreal place. After the sun set and there was no light other the the glow on the orange dunes, two pied crows set upon one of the most photogenic trees in the valley. This is why I carried my telephoto lens up and over the dunes. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 248mm, 1/1250 second @ f/5, ISO 2000.

Destiny Unbound
The Camargue south of Arles, France
September 12, 2019

“She said, there isn’t even any road, our destiny was bound”

White horses, bright sunset light, slow exposure to create the illusion of motion, high-key processing.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 105mm, 1/15 second @ f/5, ISO 1600.

Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina
April 8, 2019

Meraki is a word used to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love. On the day I created this image it was cold, wet, and misty, with fog rolling in and out of the mountains, keeping them concealed for most of the time. In other words, it wasn’t the best of conditions. Then I found this composition and I created something new and meaningful, at least for me in this location. I was exhilarated! I remember thinking at that moment, “Holy #%*& I love what I do!” I might have even uttered it out loud. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 135mm, 1/1250 second @ f/16, ISO 1600.

She Lit Up a Candle
Magdalena Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico
February 14, 2019

The unfortunate title of this image is the result of an unfortunate essay i wrote about an unfortunate popular rock song. I’ll just leave it at that.

There’s an almost zen-like quality to this photo: a wildlife image with no conspicuous wildlife subject? It’s understood. I kind of like that. Despite the many images from this trip with whales in the water and in the air, this photo captured how I felt more than any of the other crowd favorites. This is a gray whale spouting at sunrise in Magdalena Bay, which is protected from the Pacific Ocean by the remote, sandy barrier islands of Isla Magdalena and Isla Santa Margarita. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 263mm, 1/1000 second @ f/5.6, ISO 500.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania
May 14, 2019

In Tanzania’s Ngorongoro crater, the hills (actually the crater walls) are never quite out of sight. Here you lack the big skies of the Serengeti but the multi-hued hills with the chiaroscuro lighting in the late afternoons are the type of palettes I prefer. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 200-400mm @ 490mm, 1/1250 second @ f/6.3, ISO 250.

Wrinkles In Time
Death Valley, California USA
March 25, 2019

It’s all about texture and movement here. The texture is obvious upon arriving at the scene but it’s also somewhat chaotic at first sight. What makes the image work for me is the visual movement. The subtle diagonal, left-to-rightward flow carries the eye through the frame like dancing barefoot through the desert. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 91mm, 1/10 second @ f/14, ISO 200.

Paulet Island, Antarctica
December 9, 2019

An Adélie penguin welcomes visitors to Paulet Island with an offer of a hug, northeastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 35mm, 1/2000 second @ f/11, ISO 640.

Falling Down
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee USA
October 29, 2019

No dramatic light or special natural phenomenon. No in-your-face, complex composition or visual design. Just a quiet, peaceful photograph of a spacial place during my favorite season of the year. The overhanging tree branches do help to create a very cohesive composition here, however. Enjoy. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm @ 35mm, 1.6 seconds @ f/16, ISO 100.

You can check out my Favorite Images of 2018 here as well.

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Here’s to Truth, Adventure, and Passion in 2020 –  Richard

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Love, Money, and the Eagles

Love, Money, and the Eagles

Short Essays

Love, Money, and the Eagles

Earlier this year, I traveled to western Mexico to photograph migrating gray whales as they spent the winter months in the warm shallow waters of Baja California’s Magdalena Bay. I planned to publish an accompanying essay, Welcome to Baja California, that would describe my experience while incorporating several not-so-subtle references to the 1970s megahit, Hotel California by the popular rock band the Eagles. I even went so far as to title each of my photos with lyrics pulled directly from the song itself: the craggy Baja coastal landscapes (What a Lovely Place?), eye-to-eye underwater encounters with the giant aquatic mammals (What a Lovely Face?) and some high-flying acrobatic breaching (Some Dance to Remember?) among others.

Then She Lit Up A Candle
Gray whale spouting at sunrise in Magdalena Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 263mm, 1/1000 second @ f/5.6, ISO 500

For my sake as well as yours, gentle reader, this cringeworthy effort was soon mercifully aborted. The jump-the-shark moment arrived as I typed out a welcoming gesture for the essay’s closing words (you can come check it out anytime you like but you’ll never want to leave?). Oh really? I stared incredulously at the computer screen for several moments, palm firmly pressed against forehead, reading and re-reading this nauseating passage while contemplating perhaps the greatest lapse of good taste and judgement of my professional life. To make matters worse, I was never even a fan of the song nor the Eagles either for that matter. My dislike, if I could even call it that, was more of a shoulder-shrugging meh than a full-blown Jeff Lebowski-level declaration of disgust. The Eagles were merely background noise in the musical soundtrack of my life, nothing more and nothing less.

Growing up, I never thought their music to be objectionable on its own merits, but the likelihood they were many of our parents’ favorite contemporary “rock and roll” band made them not only objectionable at the time, but contemptable. The real estate they occupied on the FM radio dial didn’t exactly help their rock cred either. Their agreeable soft rock ballads and soaring five-part harmonies were much more likely to punctuate an Elton John – Chicago triple play than share airtime with The Stones or Zeppelin.

Artistically – no, I’m not a music critic but simply a lover of music – I now see the band and their music as a monumental lost opportunity. Supremely talented singers and musicians that they were, the resulting body of work is less than inspiring. Rampant drug use, love triangles, power struggles and band infighting didn’t lead to creative synthesis, as it did for say Lennon and McCartney, but instead created distractions and artistic compromises, so much so that any bold or edgy musical initiatives were pulverized into finely-polished, universally-compliant, mellow mediocrities. Or perhaps they were motivated only by commercial success and record sales so once they found a formula that worked, they simply stuck to the script. Either way, many of their songs are breathtakingly predictable if not indistinguishable from one another. I’m not entirely convinced Take It Easy and Peaceful Easy Feeling are two completely different songs, are you? The Eagles were supreme gods of least common denominator rock and roll who produced inoffensive, commercially palatable music for the masses. Their lasting legacy is the undeniable fact that they sold a lot of records: no lyrical protestations or statements on social injustice (the peak of their success was during the 70s after all), no groundbreaking musical or artistic style, no risk-taking, no soul, no heart – yet they were wildly successful, commercial behemoths.

After Glow
Pied crows at Deadvlei with the sunset’s afterglow on the red dunes, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm @ 248mm, 1/1250 second @ f/5, ISO 2000

From time to time, I’m asked to give interviews for various websites, blogs, podcasts, even local television stations and it’s a near certainty that at some point I will be asked to offer advice for up-and-coming travel, nature, wildlife photographers. That’s a difficult request since good advice for one aspiring photographer might be useless or even counterproductive for another. Still, it’s not a question I can easily duck so my answer is nearly always the same: If you need to do this, do it for love. Do it for love. Let me repeat, do it for love. Nothing else.

Do it because you passionately, intensely, insanely love photography and creative expression so much that your life will feel empty and unfulfilled if it’s not a central part of it. Don’t allow financial success or the illusion of a glamorous lifestyle of jet setting around the world, dating supermodels and making it rain in Ibiza be your motivation, lest you be ever so slightly disillusioned and disappointed to boot. If you follow your heart, both in how you manage your career as well as where you focus your artistic vision, you’ll discover success – however you happen to measure it – to be an organic byproduct of passionately pursuing what you love. You’ll also find a lifetime of happiness which, as the cliché goes, money cannot buy.

Autumn lengas and Cerro Moreno in foggy weather, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon 70-200-400mm @ 135mm, 1/1000 second @ f/16, ISO 640

Another question I’m commonly asked is, “What has been the proudest achievement of your career?” Now that’s an easy one: I never photographed anyone’s wedding. No matter how lucrative the offer happened to be, I would always politely decline. A logical follow-up that’s curiously never asked is, “Why not?” Well, I’m more than happy to share that answer with you here. First, I wouldn’t want to be at the wedding in the first place and my uninspired work would probably reflect that sad fact. There’s no love in this place, only disappointment and tears. Second, financial reward would be the only reason I would even consider doing such a thing and that’s not why I chose this particular path in life. There are more conventional career paths out there designed for accumulating money and power. And third, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the whole proposition sounds suspiciously like something called a job. Come to think of it, the whole premise reminds me of a certain overrated band I know.


Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer in the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Win A Trip To Antarctica With Omaze

Win A Trip To Antarctica With Omaze

Short Essays

Win A Trip To Antarctica With Omaze

There are some places on this magnificent planet that have attained mythological status in the imaginations of adventure travelers. When one finally encounters their idyllic location in real life, there’s often mild disappointment since nothing could ever compete with an imagination-enhanced legend. Antarctica, however, is one place where the actual experience exceeds even the most fervent imagination. It’s epic on every level!

How would you like the opportunity to take an epic 14-day adventure to Antarctica on a National Geographic expedition ship? With Omaze, you have the very opportunity!

For as little as a $10 donation, you can win the chance to experience the magic of Antarctica for yourself. All you do is donate to a worthy cause. Each donation you make supports providing life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer. That’s all you need to do to be entered for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit the White Continent!

If selected, you and a friend will…

• Embark on a two-week-long adventure to Antarctica aboard a National Geographic expedition ship
• Enjoy your choice of day activities—including kayak trips, Zodiac boat rides and hikes
• Discover the White Continent alongside a team of expert travel guides, naturalists and photographers
• Get up close and personal with penguins and other wildlife, and go home with the best photos ever
• Be flown out and put up in a 4-star hotel for one night

In addition to the world-class wildlife photography and viewing on this expedition – you can see several species of penguins, seals, whales, and other bird life – there is also scenery that will take your breath away. During my December 2017 expedition, my biggest problem was that I never wanted to sleep. The endless mountains, glaciers, icebergs, and scenic shorelines combined with the extended 20 hours of sunlight during the summer conspired to keep me awake and out on the ship’s deck at the strangest hours with my camera, so afraid I might miss something.

Omaze is a global charitable giving platform that works with celebrities, influencers, and personalities to help world changers – those people on the ground doing good – raise money to make a difference and give those who donate the opportunity to have experiences of a lifetime. Since its founding, Omaze has had people from 170 countries donate over $100 million to over 150 charities all over the world.

Are you interested? Here’s how to get started. Click here and visit their website. Click the ENTER NOW button, and choose how much money to donate to the. The more you donate the more chances you’ll have to win the Antarctica expedition with National Geographic with Omaze. $10 will give you 100 entries for your chance to win! Enter promo code: BERNABE100 at check out and get 100 additional entries. Entries can be made until March 21, 2019.

All of the money raised goes to First Descents providers of life-changing, outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer. First Descents’ participants experience free outdoor adventure programs that empower them to climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, reclaim their lives, and connect with others doing the same. Through outdoor adventures, skills development and local adventure communities, First Descents improves the long-term survivorship of its participants.

To see more photos from my 2017 trip to Antarctica, see my Terra Incognita post.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

Lost Is Just a Four Letter Word

Lost Is Just a Four Letter Word

Short Essays

Lost Is Just a Four Letter Word

“Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves” – Henry David Thoreau

Havana is an eclectic, neurotic city of more than two million people, pulsing with multi layered rhythms, colors, moods, and energy. It’s been called an exhausting nightmaresublimely tawdry, and the most romantic city in the world while all possibly being true simultaneously. Winston Churchill called Havana “a place where anything can happen” and on that count, it rarely failed to disappoint. This little slice of Caribbean chaos can be just about anything except boring.

As a casual visitor, you might be led to places like Revolution Square and other obsequious homages to Castro, Guevara, and Marti. Finca La Vigía, an estate set high along the city’s perimeter, is where Ernest Hemingway called home from 1939 to 1960. Then of course there’s La Habana Vieja – The Old City – with its colorfully-painted paladares, festive open-air cantinas, and gaggles of sunburnt Canadian tourists wearily shuffling through the cobbled alleys.

I’m not one to complain about tourists while pretending I’m not actually one of them myself, so for two days I dutifully imbibed the scene’s contrived nostalgia with the same combination of enthusiasm and irony that I applied to its famously overrated mojitos. Yet I was gaining a thirst for something more than just the same tired tourist circuit. Authentic and gritty is what I sought, a furtive peek behind the superficial facade. I wanted to experience, if only for a day, “the poorer quarters where the ragged people go,” borrowing a phrase from Simon and Garfunkel’s imperishable The Boxer; the crumbling buildings, the working markets, the suffocating poverty, the real lives of real people. I wished to go native.

On the morning of day three, I flagged down a taxi in front of the hotel, a flaking blue ‘53 Chevy, and set out solo into the heart of the steamy inner city. After forty exhilarating minutes of walking and exploration, I had not the faintest idea where I was or how I had gotten there. I was lost.

“No Left Turn Unstoned” Lost in the heart of Havana or just contrived nostalgia? Canon EOS R Mirrorless camera with Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L is USM Lens @ 42mm. 1/500 second @ f/8, ISO 1000.

Being lost is often cited as one the four most crippling human fears. And while technological progress has made little headway with death, heights, and public speaking, it has nearly succeeded in reducing the art of getting lost into a lost art. GPS devices, smart phones, and navigation apps with talking virtual assistants can get us from Point A to Point B with ruthless efficiency while offering little about where we are in the world, figuratively speaking.

According to cognitive scientists, getting lost is an essential part of how we grow and develop as humans. Whether it’s in a big, sprawling city like Havana, a forest, or a good book or movie, losing oneself, even for the briefest of moments, is good for the mind and the soul. Aside from the state of being lost, there’s the added benefit of getting unlost at some point, a practice that draws on exercising one’s intuition, reasoning skills, and memory recall. Making mental maps and establishing spatial awareness using landmarks and physical cues – instead of relying solely on technology’s cold, clinical instructions – are important cognitive functions that are quickly becoming lost, for lack of a better word, in today’s digital age.

Having spent much of my childhood in the foothills of rural North Carolina, I was given an extraordinary amount of freedom as a young boy to get lost at will, which I often happily did. A typical journey began on a bicycle, continued on foot through unfamiliar tracts of woods, fields, and dusty dirt roads until I became lost, or at least unsure of my location. I would then instinctively seek out the most familiar feature of the local landscape, the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Roaring Gap. I knew this piece of splendid scenery like the back of my hand and it was my navigational and emotional North Star. With this guidepost in sight, I could calibrate my bearings with respect to east, west, north and south and the direction that would take me from the Land of the Lost back home to Possum Trot.

The fear probably has very little to do with the condition of actually being lost, which is pretty harmless itself, but rather the psychologically unsettling disconnection from the familiar and the consequences that can arise from it. In a wilderness situation, it would certainly be irresponsible not to carry a GPS device, if only for an emergency, but just as irresponsible if it became a preoccupation and distraction from what was most important – the experience. In an urban environment, the fear is focused on being harmed in some way by another person; a stranger. But if you’re ever the unfortunate victim of assault or physical violence, the statistics point to overwhelming odds that you will know your attacker personally, probably intimately. Strangers are regularly disparaged in the abstract, but the kindness and generosity offered as individuals have saved me from more than just a few moronic decisions while traveling. By averting our gazes to the flickering screens of our phones and tablets while avoiding interaction with others, we only miss out on much of life’s rich banquet. And do we really want these devices raising an entire generation of young men who grow up never knowing what it’s like to refuse to ask for directions?

And what exactly is lost anyway? Well for starters, it’s relative and subjective. Everyone and everything are always somewhere since nowhere doesn’t exist as a real place. If you’ve ever lost your car keys or the TV remote, they are only lost to you. If the remote could talk and was asked to comment on your little crisis, it would have to admit that being lost wasn’t all that bad, thankyouverymuch. Being lost can be a place of cosmic bliss and a buzz of creative inspiration for us humans too, if we’d only give it a chance. For others, lost is an unhappy place of doubt and uncertainty and might very well be Dante’s forgotten tenth circle of hell. The mild epithet, “Get Lost” is a G-rated simulacrum of the vulgar, three-word directive with the aforementioned four-letter destination. Maybe hell, after all, is an eternity spent wandering the vast, empty corners of the universe, helplessly and hopelessly lost. And maybe some of us actually find comfort in that notion and a glimmer of bliss too. All in all, it’s possible that hell can be one person’s bliss just as bliss another’s version of hell. And lost? It’s just a four-letter word. It’s all about how you look at it.


Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than 1.2 million followers across social media platforms. He leads photography tours and workshops all over the world and is a high-demand keynote speaker. For more great information on new images, book projects, public appearances, photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Richard’s Email Newsletter.

Travel Photography: It’s About The Destination

Travel Photography: It’s About The Destination

Short Essays

Travel Photography: It’s About The Destination

As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling, if you haven’t done so already. The journey might start out as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office. It might be an extended road trip through several states and time zones; car packed with camera and lenses, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road stretching out to the horizon. Over time these journeys might involve airplanes, travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the planet. Photographers are particularly vulnerable to the lure of the exotic.

You might live within eyesight of a premier national park with hundreds of square miles of mountain wilderness, waterfalls, charismatic wildlife, pristine beaches, wildflowers in the spring, blazing foliage in the fall – hey, this is the cosmic photo destination we’re talking about after all – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something else somewhere else. It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a naive grass-is-always-greener impulse since the grass might really be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the grass over there isn’t even green at all, but some other hue you’ve never seen or even considered. Or maybe it’s wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re accustomed. Then again – sticking with the working metaphor here – maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey in getting there.

You know, it’s the journey, not the destination.

Or perhaps not. You see, I personally consider that sentiment as another feel-good, pop-culture pseudo-profundity that’s too easily taken at face value. For the weary traveler, the journey – despite the cheery saccharin-laced romanticism it conjures – actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to the destination while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be as happy as a sot in a river of whiskey. I’m guessing whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker philosophy never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st century airport on a sweltering Friday afternoon. And yes, I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for how to experience life. Okay, fine. But all too often it’s used literally as marketing propaganda by slick travel agencies and meretricious cruise operators. I, for one, am quite tired of the so-called virtues of the journey. There, I said it.

I do find it ironic that the most blissful, photogenic destinations in the world require traveling through Hell on Earth to get there; over-crowded airports, cancelled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, checked bag fees, lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control and customs, surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays, pat downs, no liquids or gels, remove your shoes, cramped airplanes seats with little leg room, and truly tasteless airline cuisine are just some of the indignities to be endured in order to reach our destination. And I’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist, Douglas Adams mused that there is no language that has ever produced the phrase as pretty as an airport.

But the agony and pulverizing boredom of travel soon fade from memory once the journey is over and the destination reached. So why do we bother to make the journey anyway? I suppose everyone has their reasons: capturing and seeing something new, exploration, adventure, enlightenment, exotic cultures and food, and running from the law, just to name a few. And while all of the preceding could apply to me as well – aside from the running from the law part – I should mention that it also happens to be my job. I haven’t quite mastered the delicate art of keeping a straight face as I explain to friends and loved ones that I’m “going to work” as I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography excursion. I should at least deserve a modicum of credit for not employing the smug rejoinder, “but somebody’s gotta do it” or something to that effect.

And while I understand “getting away from it all” is one justification for travel, it’s one that’s never quite resonated with me. I just don’t see my life or work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape. But travel does take me away from everything that’s easy and familiar while razing the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us – try to desperately cling. I like that. I sometimes absolutely need that. Travel writer, Freyda Stark observed, “to awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world” and I could not agree more. When applied to photography, these strange new places and experiences act as powerful catalysts to help get my creative juices going and force me to see things differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?

Then there are the places and experiences that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough for me since photographers are paid to create photos where mere words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis over the night skies of Greenland or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system pulsed into overdrive and delivered a dose of chill bumps over my arms and shoulders, making the hair stand up straight on the back of my neck. The very best part of this sensation was that in each instance, I never saw it coming. Each and every time was like a thunderbolt from the blue. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I travel.

And If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might even create something beautiful or meaningful that allows the viewer of my photos to participate in this new experience with me. Or I could forget to remove the lens cap and everyone will just have to take my word for it. At any rate, if I don’t make the journey, it will have never happened for any of us. So, the journey is indeed necessary after all, if not a necessary evil. But with the right attitude – and good set of noise-cancelling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.

A Righteous Set of Sticks

A Righteous Set of Sticks

Short Essays

A Righteous Set of Sticks

I once lost a tripod in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains several years ago. Okay I should say, for the sake of accuracy, I left it there by accident. Despite having legs, tripods don’t just walk off and get lost on their own.

Returning to the trailhead after an overnight backpacking trek, I tossed my gear into the rental car and drove away, leaving in my wake a perfectly good tripod in full view of the public parking area. I wasn’t even aware of this oversight until four hours and 200 miles later when a wave of intuitive dread fell over me. An inventory was hastily performed and my fears were borne out. The idea of driving back to find it was quickly dismissed and replaced with better one: I went to a bar. The tripod was just as likely to be found under a barstool at the Old Faithful Tavern as it would at a popular trailhead on an Indian summer weekend in mid-September. I was sunk.

For outdoor photographers, having no tripod is almost as bad as having no camera. In other words, it’s essential. Yet for many beginners, a tripod remains the object of an intense love-hate relationship. They love it because they’ve been told they should love it, but they also hate it because they despise carrying and operating the wretched thing. Eventually, that relationship evolves into one of tolerance, soon followed by tepid acceptance, mild appreciation and finally, love.

The benefits of a tripod are obvious to most photographers, nature or otherwise, and will become more obvious with time and experience. Camera stability will always be the primary benefit and can never be overstated.  No matter how steady-handed you are or how good you think your image stabilized lens or camera is, be assured that comparing results on a set of large prints will humble you.

Another often cited benefit of using a tripod is that it slows the photographic process down, forcing the artist to think through their compositions in a more contemplative way. While I believe there is some truth buried in that sentiment, I do have to wonder how any device that forces you to do anything can advance the creative process. Not using a tripod and being contemplative are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.

A tripod can, however, have many other non-conventional and under appreciated benefits that you’ll probably never read on the glossy pages of a snazzy product catalog. For example, a tripod can be used to reach and remove a distracting limb or branch in mid-stream that you otherwise would have to get wet to reach.  Who hasn’t performed this little trick before? I always grasp the tripod firmly near the head, while telescoping a leg (always one) to the desired distance. It sure beats a day’s worth of walking with soggy and squishy boots. It also functions as an adequate wading staff or trekking pole in a pinch. You’re missing out on much of your tripod’s hidden value if it’s never helped steady you while hiking a particularly steep descent or provided additional balance as you rock-hop from one stream bank to another.

There are also dark undertones of blunt-force weaponry incorporated in a tripod’s design, although you hope to never use one in this way. I’ve never had to fend off a crazed backwoods hillbilly yet nor even a rabid squirrel for that matter, but you never know. Perhaps the deterrent of being visibly armed has had something to do with that. But there are two instances where I can recall applying my beloved tripod directly to a wild animal: a lovesick bison in Yellowstone National Park and five-foot timber rattler in the Great Smoky Mountains. The former simply invaded what I would consider my personal space and I used the tripod as a makeshift shield as I turned away each of her (his?) amorous advances. The latter was stretched out across a rocky section of a trail, peacefully soaking up the late summer sun. I carefully lifted and relocated it to a safer location, since the odds of the next hiking party being as charitable as I was not nearly as good. When it comes to dealing with snakes, humans usually kill first and ask questions later.

You might learn rather quickly that having a tripod immediately grants you professional status in the presence of certain people. In the vicinity of tourists or non-photographers, be prepared to be asked if you are, in fact, a professional photographer and how can they become one too. This perception will create some complications from time to time. Many parks and authorities require photographers to have a commercial use permit (for a  fee, of course) if one is in possession of a tripod. The inference being, that if you’re determined enough to lug the heavy-looking contraption around there must be a damned good reason to do so and they want their fair share of whatever that reason is.

While leading a tour in Belize several years ago, the guards at a classic Mayan archaeological site, Xunantunich, wouldn’t allow us to enter the property with tripods. It had nothing to do with aesthetics, environmental impact, sacred tradition, or limited working space, but rather it was assumed we were a group of professionals and that was obviously a bad thing. The guards looked threatening and had automatic machine guns so I didn’t feel it was an appropriate time to argue a point of principle. Instead, our group assembled some improvisational tripods from sticks and rocks and that seemed to get the job done well enough. Like my experience in Montana years prior, you learn to appreciate your tripod when you don’t have it.

At this moment, I am looking at several tripods leaning against a corner of my office – each with a specialized purpose. There’s a compact, lightweight model for multi-day backpacking trips, a big, sturdy model for propping up my big telephoto lenses when shooting wildlife, and one that its less than 10 inches tall. My everyday workhorse, however, is carbon fiber beauty that’s at least 8 years old and has been discontinued by the manufacturer. It’s scarred, dinged, dented, taped up, rusted, and getting a little squeaky in the joints – not unlike its owner these days.

But I have no plans for a replacement, at least not until it completely succumbs to gravity and fails to stand on its own three legs. If leading a workshop or tour, having gear that looks seasoned helps perpetuate that “steely-eyed mountain man” persona that citified clients like to project upon me, whether its accurate or not. Guides or workshop leaders who only carry spiffy, brand new gear should be viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Either they’re new at this game or you’re being overcharged.

During a recent photography workshop, a bright, personable young man in my group took one look at my tripod and casually stated, “Whoa, that’s one righteous set of sticks, dude.”

I asked permission to steal that phrase for future use, if I gave him proper credit of course. Thanks Darren.

Six Stable Tripod Tips

  1. Try to keep the tripod on firm, dry land for optimal stability and image sharpness. Be careful of wet sand and soggy terrain where your tripod could move slightly during a long exposure.
  2. Always keep the tripod and camera as level as possible. If working on an uneven hillside, extend one of the legs longer than the other two to keep everything level. This may seem too obvious but it’s still worth repeating.
  3. For extra stability, especially in windy conditions, suspend your camera bag (or some other heavy object) to the hook at the bottom of the tripod’s center post, if your tripod has one. This is especially true for the wonderfully light carbon fiber tripods that we’ve all come to love.
  4. Only raise the tripod as high as necessary. Extend the larger diameter tripod leg extensions first before the thinner ones and only extend the thinner legs segments if absolutely necessary. The thinner leg extensions lack the stability and support of the thicker segments.
  5. If your tripod has a center column, only use it as a last resort. The center column is the most vulnerable point on a tripod when it comes to possible movement
  6. When using heavy lenses with a built-in tripod collar, attach the lens to the tripod instead of the camera. Cameras with heavy lenses mounted to the tripod are unstable. The tripod collar built into the lens is there for a reason.

I am a Really Right Stuff sponsored photographer and I proudly use their tripods, heads, plates, and brackets for camera stability when I’m traveling and in the field.

Richard Bernabe is a professional photographer specializing in travel, wildlife, and nature as well as an author of books, magazine articles, and travel essays published world-wide. Richard is a global influencer is the fields of photography, travel, and wildlife conservation with more than one million followers on social media platforms. He leads several photography tours and workshops all over the world and is invited to speak to photography and conservation groups all across the globe. For more great information on new images, gear reviews, book projects, and photography workshops and tours, Sign Up For Our Newsletter.