Karim Sahai: Photographing Nature’s Wildest Moments

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All images by Karim Sahai. Used with permission.

Photographer Karim Sahai has been shooting for over 20 years now, and his focus is on documenting incredible moments in nature. Originally from Norway, he has travelled to the Arctic and Africa and tells us that he spends time in the high arctic archipelago of Svalbard, located at 80 degrees north, and not too far from the North Pole–yet for some odd reason he doesn’t seem to include hot chocolate in his camera bag.

Karim not only photographs the world’s wildest animals, but he also creates visual effects for feature films. In fact, he’s worked on The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit trilogies, Avatar, The Avengers franchise, and more.

Perhaps more interesting than anything else is how Karim became involved with photography.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

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Karim: Philately (the collection of postage stamps) is what led me to photography. During my childhood, philately played a major role in my discovery of the world. At the time – well before the internet – my father received a lot of mail from a lot of different countries. But it was the voluminous mail that arrived from the Soviet Union that ignited my passion for stamps. Soviet stamps were incredibly varied and beautiful. For example, there were incredible series depicting flora and fauna, while other stamps showcased the mind-blowing paintings found at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Stamps became the window through which I started exploring the world from a distance.

I continued to collect stamps and learned a great deal about the USSR, but more importantly, I was very fortunate to start traveling all over the world with my father. The combination of philately and traveling fueled my desire to capture some of what I was seeing. And the most practical tool for that was photography.

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I started with an Olympus OM-1 and a few lenses that my father had purchased over the years. I was very impatient to see the results of my first rolls, and relatively disorganized in my learning. Luckily, I slowed down enough to understand the logic behind exposure. But composition would take me a while longer! I Although I no longer amass stamps by the thousands, my love of traveling and photography is still very strong. I don’t see that diminishing any time soon.

Phoblographer: What made you want to photograph wildlife?

Karim: My early travels and my learning of photography started pretty much at the same time. At first, I used the camera as a method of clumsy documentation, and almost exclusively to capture the customs, people and places that were so different from the ones I had grown in. I was very much a people and places kind of explorer at first and wildlife wasn’t something I paid much attention to.

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As I got older, my focus started to shift, and I appreciated solitude more. I sought places that were less popular with the masses and, at the same time, I became more deliberate with my photography. In the late 80s and early 90s, I started to read a lot about painters, photographers, and cinematography. This is also a period when I started exploring how computers could also be used in a visually creative way. A bit like a camera. Progressively, what I was reading was important in the way I “reprogrammed” how I would look at things. I started to notice Nature more. Then, there was a realization. The pictorial beauty I had seen in those Soviet stamps many years before, the richness in the Renaissance painters’ work that I had learned to appreciate immensely, the elaborate manipulation of light in many classic movies, the nascent use of digital technology in film making; all of those things led me to a realization that as a photographer, my progression was connected to the powerful simplicity that already existed in nature. In a way, I had to unlearn a few things and observe nature more.

And so, I became more interested in traveling to places where nature still had the upper hand. For me, those places are the Arctic and Africa. My heart is very much in love with the archipelago of Svalbard, located just south of the North Pole. It is a land of ice and polar bears, raw wild and mostly white Nature. In Africa, I continue to return to Rwanda and Kenya where I find generous and welcoming people, living in places where Nature didn’t hold back when deciding how to decorate the land with flora and fauna. And of course, Norway is where I feel I can live a life where I am never far from Nature, never too close to huge crowds, very close to the wilderness of the Arctic and never not too far from Africa and its wildlife jewels.

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In photographing nature and wildlife here in the Arctic and in Africa, I reconnect with my childhood fascination for the imagery found on the stamps I mentioned earlier. For me, there is nothing more meditative than being in the relatively proximity of powerful African predators while observing their ways, to witness what light does in the High Arctic during and after the Polar Night (which lasts 4 months). To be drifting with the sea ice, knowing there is a practically bottomless ocean beneath me.

Phoblographer: How did you go about turning this into a business for you? Lots of photographers tell us that most of their job is networking and very little of it is actually shooting.

Karim: A major part of my life has been devoted to making images for some of the most iconic feature films of the past 20 years. I was fortunate to be involved with the crafting of the digital visual effects for The Lord of The Rings films as well as The Hobbit trilogy, all by New Zealand director Peter Jackson. I also worked directly on the making of James Cameron’s groundbreaking film, Avatar. Other films such as Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin or Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron relied heavily on technology to create thousands of visuals.

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While this experience in film may seem disconnected from photographing wild animals in various locations around the globe, the reality is that there is a clear common thread between photography and film making. Many elaborate processes, techniques and approaches which I’ve used when making the visual effects for those films can be directly translated to wildlife and nature photography. And so, when I created Full Life Photo Adventures, not only was it to become a humble platform from which I could facilitate the logistics of offering photography tours to the Arctic or Africa, I also aim to share openly what I have learned with tour participants.

Over the years, colleagues and friends wanted to know more about my various wildlife and nature expeditions. Many of them wanted to go, but never took that step. Here are some of the recurring statements I would hear:

“Africa? Isn’t that dangerous?”

“A photography tour? That must be horribly expensive!”

“I’d love to go, but I wouldn’t know how to organize that.”

“Rwanda? Isn’t there a war there?!”

“I don’t need to see polar bears in the wild, I go to the zoo for that.”

“My kids prefer playing video games than watching animals, so I’m not going on a trip with them.”

And so, it was only natural for me to think of ways to facilitate things for my friends, and all photography enthusiasts who want to experience – in the same powerful way – what I had seen and photograph in Svalbard or Africa. This is why I started Full Life Photo Adventures. By design, it is a small operation which my amazing partner, Maria and myself run from Norway and wherever we are in the world. Small yes, but we like to think that we are big in spirit, humor and camaraderie. The tours, workshops and expeditions I propose are specifically designed for small groups of photography, nature and wildlife enthusiasts. Those who join me would have heard me give a presentation, would have gone out with me during a casual outing in their area or are simply in love with the idea of traveling with like-minded explorers who can become and stay friends after we’re back from an incredible photo expedition in Svalbard, a photo workshop in Iceland, a photo safari in Rwanda or an epic adventure in New Zealand.

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It is true that a lot of the work I do can be labeled as “networking”. In almost every case, the connections, discussions, chats, emails, calls and social media interactions I have are with people who are eager to experience, firsthand, the infinite and powerful beauty of Nature. Whether it is on a photography tour with Full Life Photo Adventures, by themselves in the area they live or with a group of friends in Norway, Greenland or Svalbard. It’s always really gratifying to connect with people and I feel very privileged to share my experiences with them. As for shooting, I always do! Although, the more you shoot, the more editing there is to do!

Phoblographer: What was your most dangerous experience when photographing wildlife?

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Karim: I don’t know if this qualifies as dangerous, but it certainly is unforgettable! It happened on one of my photo trips to Rwanda, in plain view of everyone who was there with me. That day, I was bringing multiple lenses into jungle found on the slopes of the volcanoes where the magnificent and critically endangered mountain gorillas live.

Upon arriving where the family of gorillas was, I proceeded to take a number of wide-angle images with a 35mm lens, one of my favorite focal lengths. So far, everything was swell. At some point, I decided to take very tight portraits of Guhonda, the alpha male of the Sabinyo group. He is a very, very large silverback mountain gorilla. So large that he is considered the largest mountain gorilla in the world. So, here I am, about 25-30m from him, with a 35mm lens on my camera. I decide to switch to the 400mm f/2.8 lens, a very large and very noticeable lens in the middle of the jungle. As I reframe through the 400mm, I have a hard time finding Guhonda’s face and I start to feel and hear a vibration in the moist ground.

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I point the lens down to take stock of what is going on and, to my utter horror, this incredibly tall gorilla is now a meter away from me, beating his chest very loudly, showing his phenomenally scary yellow teeth and looking straight into my eyes. The ranger standing next to me, François, takes control of the situation by interposing himself between me and the spooked gorilla. With a few grunting noises, François quickly defuses Guhonda’s defense game and explains to me, “Guhonda might have taken your ‘big big lens’ for a weapon. Poachers carry weapons in the jungle, and gorillas protect their families from poachers. So, he reacted because of your ‘big big lens’.”

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Karim: Wildlife photography is pretty much a game of reach. And so, I often travel with a combination of gear, depending on the subject matter and location. Usually the kit will contain some of the items below:

  • 1 or 2 Canon EOS-1DX bodies
  • 35mm f/1.4
  • 11-14mm f/4
  • 16-35mm zoom
  • 24-70mm zoom
  • 70-200mm zoom
  • 200mm f/1.8
  • 400mm f/2.8
  • 600mm f/4
  • 800mm f/5.6

On some of my casual nature trips, where I want to travel very light, I will take my Mamiya 7 II medium format rangefinder with a 45mm, 50mm and 80mm lenses.

Phoblographer: What are your top five favorite places to photograph wildlife and why do you choose those spots?

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Karim: My favorite places are Svalbard, Rwanda, Kenya, New Zealand and, Iceland and Norway for their landscapes. But I’m in love with Svalbard. It is arguably the least explored of the places I mentioned, simply because the logistics require one to use a boat to get to locations where polar bears might be observed from a safe distance. But when that happens, the magic is sure to leave you speechless. Many people who go to Svalbard will be on a larger ship and will be photographing from an elevated position, unfortunately. With a much smaller boat, you are lower to the water and in a much better position to photograph mammals, birds and to use land and ice as an effective backdrop. As for the other locations, I find there are an infinite supply of locations and opportunities, outside of the routes taken my everyone else. I’m fortunate to have spent some time in all those locations and to have developed a network of contacts, something that allows me to bring newness to all the tours I lead there.

Phoblographer: What animals do you feel are the most challenging to photograph and why?

Karim: I think any animal can be a challenge to photograph if the light is working against you. Or should I say, if you aren’t prepared to adapt to what the conditions are at the time. Several times, I was in the perfect spot to observe unique animal behavior, but the light was terrible because it was too late or too early in the day! Because most animals are active before and right after sunrise, light will be your friend, if you have anticipated where to be, how the animals will behave and move…

But a lot of great images also comes down to patience, repetitive presence and a bit of luck. But talking of challenge, there is one that I think I’m seeing more and more often: the rapidly changing landscape and climate of the high arctic. In the years I’ve photographed in that part of the world, it is evident that something more than cyclical is afoot. Some will argue that it’s all part of a larger cycle that has occurred before the modern man became the dominant species. Others will refute that with scientific facts demonstrating a link between human activities and the rapid melting of sea ice and its scary corollary.

My point is not to argue either way. But I can say that what I’ve witnessed in terms of warming in the Arctic is nothing less of alarming to any one who loves to witness wildlife up here. At this rate, it’s very plausible that many species will become “challenging” to photograph, for they just wont be there anymore in a few decades. Or even sooner.

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A highly unusual August snowfall brings winter like conditions to Dovrefjell National Park (near Oppdal, Norway), one of the rare places in the world where you can photograph the majestic musk ox in the wild. Despite its name, this powerful arctic mammal is related to goats and sheep. During the last Ice Age, 30,000 years ago, musk ox, wooly rhinoceros and mammoths lived together. When photographing this animal, safety mandates that your keep your distance: the stocky musk ox is known for its hot temper, its thick skull and its ability to charge at very high speed. Photo: K. Sahai - www.fullLife.no #norway #trondelag #wildlife #winter #nature #travel #oppdal #norge #visitnorway

A highly unusual August snowfall brings winter like conditions to Dovrefjell National Park (near Oppdal, Norway), one of the rare places in the world where you can photograph the majestic musk ox in the wild. Despite its name, this powerful arctic mammal is related to goats and sheep. During the last Ice Age, 30,000 years ago, musk ox, wooly rhinoceros and mammoths lived together. When photographing this animal, safety mandates that your keep your distance: the stocky musk ox is known for its hot temper, its thick skull and its ability to charge at very high speed.

With all my recent cute polar bears photos, it's easy to forget that they are very fierce predators who can attack and kill humans. In Svalbard, polar bears are at the very top of the food chain. In a split second, a slow amble on a melting ice floe will become an explosive run towards the ringed seal who dared pop out of the water to breathe. Such was the scene I captured in the north east of Spitsbergen. Photo: K. Sahai - www.fullLife.no

With all my recent cute polar bears photos, it’s easy to forget that they are very fierce predators who can attack and kill humans. In Svalbard, polar bears are at the very top of the food chain. In a split second, a slow amble on a melting ice floe will become an explosive run towards the ringed seal who dared pop out of the water to breathe. Such was the scene I captured in the north east of Spitsbergen.

Today, we had the immense pleasure of having the company of Mr Puffin, the Ice, Mrs Ocean and Father Sun. They are always great companions on a fantastic day out in Svalbard. Have a great night everyone! Photo: K. Sahai - www.fullLife.no #arctic #norway #visitnorway #norge #svalbard #wildlife #nature #bird #climatechange #ice #birds

Today, we had the immense pleasure of having the company of Mr Puffin, the Ice, Mrs Ocean and Father Sun. They are always great companions on a fantastic day out in Svalbard. Have a great night everyone!

This sleeping polar bear needs a pillow. Do you know where I can order one? 😃 Photo: K. Sahai - www.fullLife.no #arctic #svalbard #norway #norge #polarbear #predator #sleep #wildlife #nature #iceberg #conservation #climate #climatechange #globalwarming

This sleeping polar bear needs a pillow. Do you know where I can order one? 😃

Even though the sun won't set in Svalbard for several more months, it is low enough in the early morning hours to bathe the icy landscape in a surreal golden light. In the years I've been coming to Svalbard, I've always felt incredibly fortunate to be an intimate witness of our planet's mesmerizing beauty. Though the picture below is only a substitute to experiencing things first hand, I hope it conveys some of the feelings I've experienced here in the past few days. This polar bear slowly walked across the frozen landscape near Borebreen, one of Spitsbergen's many glaciers, just as I was about to leave the area. I photographed it, then paused to fully take in the uniqueness of what Nature put before my eyes. Photo: K. Sahai - www.fullLife.no

Even though the sun won’t set in Svalbard for several more months, it is low enough in the early morning hours to bathe the icy landscape in a surreal golden light. In the years I’ve been coming to Svalbard, I’ve always felt incredibly fortunate to be an intimate witness of our planet’s mesmerizing beauty. Though the picture below is only a substitute to experiencing things first hand, I hope it conveys some of the feelings I’ve experienced here in the past few days. This polar bear slowly walked across the frozen landscape near Borebreen, one of Spitsbergen’s many glaciers, just as I was about to leave the area. I photographed it, then paused to fully take in the uniqueness of what Nature put before my eyes.

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