Interviews

Chris Bray

A true adventurer Chris Bray has undertaken world first expeditions cart hauling across the arctic and recently became one of the first people to sail a wooden junk-rig boat through the Northwest Passage over the arctic.  With his work published in National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Australian Geographic, and TIME Magazine he sits on the advisory committee for The Australian Geographic Society and is founder and CEO of Conservation United.  Chris is also an International Fellow of ‘The Explorers Club‘ and has been chairman of their Australia and New Zealand chapter and was awarded Australian Geographic Society’s ‘Young Adventurer of the Year’ in 2004 and their ‘Spirit of Adventure’ medal in 2009.


Welcome to intrepid.photos Chris! Whether crossing remote Arctic islands on foot, or sailing the newly opened Northwest Passage in a small 29 foot junk rigged wooden yacht, it seems you try and model your life as that of an adventurer in the old fashioned sense of the word.  Is it in seeking adventure that you simply find yourself in a position to take amazing photographs or are your adventures driven by a desire to create photographic opportunities?

These days it’s a mix of both. Originally, I became hooked on photography through the adventures I went on, for example hauling carts across the remote Victoria Island in the arctic – we were there primarily for the adventure, and happened into some cool photo opportunities along the way. Now though, for example when sailing in the arctic with my wife Jess, we go out of our way to seek out great photography experiences, and that’s often when the adventure occurs – going ashore to plant a camera beside a polar-bear kill, or me hopping in our little blow-up dingy to photograph as Jess sails the boat through rather more glacial ice than we might otherwise, to get a great photo. Of course, most of the year we’re busy running our photography safaris to many of the world’s most photogenic places – Alaska, Amazon, Kenya, Patagonia, Galapagos, Tasmania, Christmas Island etc – and then of course, we’re solely driven by finding the best photographic opportunities to present to our guests and helping them nail the perfect shot – it’s still an adventure though!

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Where do you get your photographic inspiration from and is there another photographer that you particularly admire?

I draw most of my inspiration from the perfection of the natural world around me – I am a bit of a perfectionist, and so, frustratingly perhaps, I feel that my photos are never perfect – never do it quite justice – I can always spot flaws in them, or something that I wished was different, which continually drives me to keep on trying to improve, and hope for better situations. For me, that’s part of the joy and challenge of wildlife photography particularly – unlike studio photography, so much of it isn’t actually under your control at all, and there’s a huge amount of luck involved in if/when the animal will appear, what the lighting’s doing, and attempting to anticipate what the animal will do and where it’ll do it. Of course I also draw motivation from appreciating stunning photos taken by other photographers, but to be honest, there’s no single photographer that I idolise – I’m more inspired by great photographs, rather than great photographers.

You received an Australian Geographic’s Young Adventurer of the Year award at the age of 22, a Spirit of Adventure award five years later, and now sit on the board of the Australian Geographic Society.  That’s no small feat for someone so young.  How did you develop such a deep relationship with Australian Geographic?

Through adventure! I was lucky enough to have AGS sponsor my first real adventure – a month-long hike along Tasmania’s untracked wilderness coastline with a friend of mine. They gave me just enough funds to buy my first real camera (still film, but at least had AF and a light meter etc), and said if I had some decent images they’d publish a story from me about it after the hike. That got me inspired to learn more about photography, and in the end, even though I think most of the photos were probably pretty rubbish, the story was good, and they still ran my article. Being selected for their Young Adventurer of the Year award in 2004 was a game-changer for me, it introduced me to the media, and taught me a lot. At their request, we also presented a slideshow lecture for the public at their AG theatre, which due to good promotion practically sold-out and so perhaps in a surprise move, we took it upon ourselves to hire their venue from them and run another one ourselves. I lived local too – that might have helped – and was tech-savvy enough to help them with their website etc, and I guess I’ve always made sure to look after all my sponsors and provide them plenty more value than they expected in return, and that’s led to a lasting relationship with many of my sponsors including Leatherman, Gore-Tex®, Canon, Lowepro, Led Lenser, even Air Canada etc. Over the various adventures, my photography’s improved, my contacts and friends in AG have grown, I’ve always publicly supported AGS and what it stands for, and so I guess I’m now lucky enough to have earned a little of their respect. It’s a wonderful position to be in now though, to have come full-circle and now be sitting on that board deciding which young adventurers to support. AGS really changed my life, and I owe them a huge amount.

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You grew up sailing around the world for 5 years with your family aboard a home-made yacht.  How do you think that influenced your overriding philosophy on life? 

I think growing up on a sailboat really was the best possible start to life I could have asked for. Sure I got seasick a lot, couldn’t develop many lasting friendships with kids my own age etc, but above all that, I was taught to be practical, resourceful and independent, shown that it’s OK to lead an unusual life and follow your dreams, learned about things like safety and making responsible decisions, and of course – fell in love with travel, and the natural world. I have no doubt that this upbringing played a significant role in setting me up for the live I’m enjoying now. Thanks Mum and Dad!

You are currently running workshops and photography safaris; how did that develop? 

As the official photographer aboard a luxury cruise down to Antarctica in 2008/9, I (along with the guests) got a bit bored on the multi-day trip south, and noticing so many of them wielding amazingly capable DSLR cameras mostly just wasted on ‘Auto Mode’, I decided to fill in the time by creating a quick photography crash-course. It wasn’t great, but it was hugely popular and I was thrilled to see how much more enjoyment these guests got from being able to take better photos on their holiday. Several came up to me saying they loved the way I explained things, and asked me when and where my next photography course would be back in Australia. Truth be told, I’d just graduated from Electrical Engineering and was secretly looking for a way to make a living from photography instead, in a world saturated with photographers, so I decided on the spot that this was a business opportunity, and just told them to write their email addresses on a list and I’d let them know.

Once home, I spent the next three months creating the ultimate 1 day photography course, borrowed some money from my girlfriend to hire out the best venue I could think of (the function centre at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo), emailed those on the list as well as various editors etc to come to review it, and ran my first course in June 2009. It was a great success, and soon we were running them – sometimes four in a row – in virtually every capital city in Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra & Hobart, with scarcely enough time at home to prepare for the next city! Doing these nationally, and by then endorsed by Canon, Lowepro and Australian Geographic, we quickly became the post popular photography courses in Australia.

The plan had always been to expand into running dedicated, teaching photo safaris, and so in 2010 we ran our first trip to Tasmania, and encouraged by the sell-out success of that, jumped straight into Kenya in January 2011 (two trips, sold out) and then Galapagos (also sold out) later that same year. We’ve been back to both every year since, adding new destinations and staff every year.

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How many safaris with clients would you do in a year?  And what is your favorite location?

Well last year (2015) we ran 13 photo safaris around the world: 4x Kenya, 2x Alaska, 1x Galapagos & Amazon, 1x Tasmania Wilderness, 1x Tasmania East Coast, 1x Christmas Island, 2x Kangaroo Island and 1x Tropical Queensland! It was pretty full-on, only being home for less than three months in total, but this year looks like it’ll be even more hectic, as we’re running a combined Iceland Greenland photo safaris now too! They’re all pretty awesome places to be able to visit, but I have to say that Kenya is probably my favourite – the sheer density & charisma of the wildlife there never cease to amaze me. This January was our 17th and 18th photo safari to Kenya, and every time we head out on a game drive I’m still just as excited as the first time, because you really never know what you’re going to see!

How often do you try and undertake a large personal adventure?

As often as we can, every year. I think everyone can only keep motivated if they’re still having fun, and so despite being busy, we’ve always scheduled chunks of time off each year to do our own thing. In 2009 my then girlfriend (now wife) Jess and I bought an old wooden sailboat over in Halifax on the East coast of Canada, and in 2010 (despite our business only just getting started) we took 3 months off work and went over there to completely rebuild her. The following northern summer of 2011 we took 4 months off and sailed her up the coast of Canada, across to Greenland and then west over the top of Canada through the arctic, leaving her frozen onto a hillside while we returned to work for another 8 months, returning again June/July/Aug 2012 to sail her the rest of the way through the Northwest Passage and down the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. We sailed down the coast of Alaska in 2013, discovering some amazing brown-bear filled bays where we now run photo safaris etc. 2014 and last year (2015) we did the same, and our boat’s now in Canada. Admittedly, we’ve now clogged that middle of the year with Iceland and Greenland photo safaris and so we’ve put our sailboat up for sale, but the plan is to upgrade to a bigger better, metal boat when we can and head back north into the arctic, perhaps with kids. So the large adventures have been put on hold for a bit while we grow the business, but we’re not looking at smaller adventures again – we cycled around Tasmania, and New Zealand’s South Island a few years back, and we wouldn’t mind doing some more cycle trips.

Which photo is your most popular photo and why do you think people like it?

It’s hard to say. Different people like different images for different reasons – you learn that fast being the judge for any major photography competition: no matter what image you pick, there’ll be more people who disagree with your selection than agree! Haha. Interestingly though, my most ‘popular’ capture in terms of the # of people who’ve seen and recognise it, is actually a piece of video footage, from when I stuck a GoPro camera atop a remote control toy car and drove it up to a pride of lions, wriggling it just enough to draw the curiosity of two little lion cubs who wandered over to investigate it. I have to admit, the footage is ridiculously cute, with the little guys peering at, pawing and even doing a little roar/snarl at it, and it went viral overnight. I was still in Kenya and the next morning it was being played on TV shows in the USA, GoPro and Discovery Channel had both emailed me requesting to licence it, and now it’s wracked up more than a million views on just one version of it online, not to mention the companies that bought it to use in TV commercials, even train station adverts in Korea! Why? It’s just so adorable I guess, it’s success sadly has very little to do with my skill in capturing it. haha

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Which photo of yours means the most to you?

My favourite photo changes every few months – like listening to an awesome new song, the problem is I tend to see and use my current favourite photo too much, and grow tired of it, excited instead by some new photo I’ve taken more recently. Despite this, if I had to pick just one, I’d probably say my favourite of mine is of Jess sailing our little boat ‘Teleport’ behind a beautifully arced iceberg off the coast of Greenland – the photo itself is quite nice with good colours, reflections, balance etc, but to me, I guess it also reminds me of that amazing adventure, and all the incredible experiences we had out there in the arctic.

You have some photos amazing wildlife photos from Africa; what do you think makes big game photography so special?

I think it’s just the power and charisma of those big game animals, particularly the predators. They just exude confidence, grace and attitude. Unlike say a bunch of seals laying comatose on the ice or something like that, they’re so dynamic too – you never know what they’re going to do so it’s fascinating to be in their presence to find out!

What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?

I hope it conveys an appreciation for the beauty, wonder and precious diversity of the natural world.

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If you could pass on one critical tip or technique to someone, what would it be? 

In terms of photography, I see this again and again – you can have the best camera in the world, and use all the right settings, and have perfect lighting, but if you don’t consciously check your background, half the time you’ll end up with a poor photo, simply because there’ll be a tree seemingly coming out the back of your subject’s head, or a bright red distraction (like a car!) off to the left, or even just a mottled, dull background against which your subject blends in. Often it’s just a case of stepping ½ a step to the side to end up with a nice, clean, contrasting background which will really make your subject pop. It’s so easy, so effective, and yet so easily overlooked.

Are your compositions generally pre-meditated or developed on the fly?

Part of the fun of wildlife photography for me is that being wild, your subjects are largely unpredictable and so I’m constantly having to recompose on the fly, anticipate (wildly guess, mostly) what’s about to happen and where, and attempt to be in the right position when it happens. Sure sometimes you can wait for the perfect moment, for the bird to launch into the air, or carefully position yourself so that the antelope is exactly silhouetted inside the rising orb of the sun, but mostly, I just make it up as I go along, spotting and seizing (and sometimes missing) opportunities as they come along – and therein lies the challenge.

What clichés in photography do you try and avoid?

Are there any true cliché’s when shooting genuine wildlife? Unlike perhaps in a studio where you could claim a certain, perfect lighting angle or requested pose is over-used and clichéd, I feel that with wild animals, you get what you get, and if you’re lucky enough to be presented with textbook perfect lighting, and the ideal pose, then I for one aren’t going to put my camera down and think “nagh, that was going to be too much like the perfect, textbook shot.”. Even ‘common’, classic scenes like ‘a bear with a salmon in it’s mouth’ that’s been shot a thousand times before (hell, even I’ve shot many thousand frames of this exact situation!) I’m still as keen as ever to try and get the ‘perfect’ frame, because every one is different, and none of them are completely perfect. Ok, I’m starting to get a bit over the classic ‘lion yawning’ shot, but that’s about the only one that comes to mind! =P

 

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 Can you elaborate on your workflow?

My workflow’s pretty simple: Start with empty cards each day, go out and shoot (RAW only), come back at the end of the day and download into Lightroom & recharge batteries (usually while having dinner), attempt to cull as many as I can (I’m pretty harsh thesedays, to the horror of many a safari guest), then backup the photos and Lightroom catalogue onto a second hard drive before then formatting the memory cards ready for the next day. I’ll try (not always possible as we’re usually busy helping guests with their photos) to find one or two images each day and do a super-quick edit and flick them across to my iPhone so that I can dump them on our social media channels to keep them current, but I rarely get a chance to go through my photos at all carefully to even cull, let alone edit, until I’m home. I’d like to say I then go through them all, edit them perfectly, and tag them with all the appropriate keywords, but the reality is I never get a chance to even see them all, let alone keyword any of them – before we’re off again. There’s whole sets of photos I’ve downloaded that I’ve never seen since – one day I’ll get back to them (yeah right!). Conveniently about once a year there’ll be a competition or something (Eg Wildlife Photographer of the Year) that’ll spend a day going back through my images from the preceding year in an attempt to pluck out the best ones and spruce them up a bit, and I guess the need to refresh the website with updated photos for each location forces me to pull out the keepers from time to time too. It’s always a bit hectic and I’m always a bit behind, I’m sorry to say.

What equipment do you take on a shoot?

My basic kit is my Canon EOS 1-D X and 5DSR (50 megapixel) body, and my main lens is the Canon 200-400 f/4 IS L with the inbuilt 1.4x tele that engages with the flip of a lever – it’s a spectacular lens. I’d usually carry my 16-35mm wide (just upgraded to the new version II stabilised version as it’s sharper for my 50 megapixel, my macro (100mm L), and if I can fit it (depending on the gig), my standard 24-105mm workhorse lens. I probably bring my macro ring flash more than my usual external flash, a tripod, and I usually carry a GoPro or two for random wildlife encounters. In terms of electronics, I bring my MacBook Air and a few external USB powered HDDs, several card readers, power adaptors and surge-protected powerboard. If going super remote and off-grid like a month in Borneo, then I swap to 12V car-chargers for everything and bring my flexible solar panel and satellite phone. =)

How important is social media in your strategy of deriving an income from photography related activities? What recommendations would you have for someone starting out in the industry?

Social media plays an important role for most businesses these days, especially companies like ours which are about as visually-focused as you can get. It’s a constantly changing playing field though, the legal rules and behind the scenes algorithms are constantly being changed, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s getting more and more time consuming, and less and less effective in terms of marketing bang-for-your-buck. There’s just so many people spamming to the same space which is pushing up the cost of even wanting to reach a fraction of those fans who’ve already clicked ‘like’ that yes they want to follow your page! It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes. But then sometimes, I’ll stick something up and it’ll go crazy. It’s worth it, but be prepared to sink a lot of effort into it, and don’t ignore the more traditional marketing options as well. Try and develop a plan/roster that’ll help ensure you’re putting more interesting content up than you are adverts – too many blatant advertising posts and you’ll quickly disengage your followers, and Facebook makes it super hard to claw (or to even buy) them back. Treat social media more as a tool for building a community around your brand, keeping your brand in the fore of their mind, with the odd chance to push an offer/opportunity, but mostly just giving them free content and good vibes.

You are the founder and CEO of the organization Conservation United which looks to crowd-fund critical conservation projects around the world.  What does Conservation United represent and how is it different from its well-known competitors?

Conservation United (soon to be launched) is not just another charity – it’s an entirely new framework designed to help collect and responsibly distribute donations to existing conservation charities. No more half-funded projects, no minimum donations or required subscriptions, and none of your money absorbed by our admin. It’s basically a global, umbrella organisation (fully registered as a charity) with a revolutionary partnership with Bank Australia which allows us to collect even the smallest donation online (even less than $1) without any of the usual fees, so we can pass 100% of it on to fully-fund the most critical wildlife and environmental projects put forward by our round-table of Conservation Partners. It’s a wonderfully simple and powerful concept once you get it, and this is why we’ve just created a short animated explainer video to help, which will be live on www.ConservationUnited.org very soon. We’ve already got some influential ambassadors onboard and are looking forward to launching soon! If any of your readers might like to help us with either contacts for potential new ambassadors, contacts inside existing conservation charities desperate for funds to do good work that might like to be a Conservation Partner to receive funding, we’d really appreciate it, let us know at contact@conservationunited.org

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Anything else you would like to pass on to the readers?

Nope, I think this has been a wonderfully comprehensive interview, thanks IntrepidPhotos!

Where can people go to look at your work and get in contact with you (please provide website and social media links)?

Please take a look at my website  www.ChrisBrayPhotography.com – there’s something there for everyone, from countless free tutorials on how to photograph everything from star trails and light painting, to timelapse videos, fireworks, the moon, waves, even understanding things like Auto ISO, custom modes and flash basics – you name it, all free! Of course then there’s also info, galleries and epic promo videos for all our various photo safari destinations, dates for our 1 day photography courses etc. You can find us on Facebook with over 10,000 active photography followers so that’s a pretty happening place that we keep current with news, competitions to enter etc, and we’re now on Instagram so please follow us there for a cool photo each day!

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All photos in this article remain the copyright of Chris Bray and have been reproduced with permission.

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