History of American West Photo Safaris

My former studio in Providence, Utah | circa 2004

While I began doing photography safaris in 1983, to build up my stock library of images for making magazine submissions, it was in 1987 when I registered my business name - American West Photography - with the State of Utah.  I spent weeks prior to filling out the paperwork running different combinations of words together that I thought best described my future business direction.  I finally settled on American West Photography.  It wasn't too many years later that I also registered my website - www.amwestphoto.com - so I could start building up a digital storefront, knowing that I would probably always be a sole-proprietorship, small business operation.  I didn't use my name because I didn't think my name captured my intent - whereas American West - was both the location of my business, but also the place where I wanted to spend my photography career, and most of my life.

Even in 1987 I knew I could never shoot the entire American West, but I also knew that I could become an expert in learning the habits, locations, and tactics needed to photograph its wildlife.   After almost 40 years I've accomplished a lot of that initial dream.  I've learned that there is a best place, at a best time of the year - for nearly every species we have, from bobcats to black bears, from falcons to songbirds, and everything in-between.  That information has come through a million plus miles of driving to every American West location imaginable, and  searching for wildlife encounters wherever I had shot them previously, or had heard about their activity from others.  This urge to discover and photograph is still strong, and still drives me today.  I no longer keep track of all the photo safaris I lead, nor the number of days I'm out chasing the next encounter.  I used to keep a shooting journal, but it got too vast to search through for tidbits about times and seasons, and now it is out-of-date.  I have to rely on data points of memory.  My closest guess would be 1200 safaris and 8000 days, give-or-take a few.  Something can be said for longevity, and the old quote that years teach what the days never knew, is certainly true.

Over those miles, and years, I've worn out a number of vehicles and cameras.  I started with an 1980 Chevy S-10 Blazer, went to a 1985 Toyota 4Runner, then a 1992 Chevy Suburban, on to a 2004 Toyota 4Runner, and now a 2014 Ford F-150 4-door 4x4 truck - with 410,000 miles on it.  The Ford is still gliding along, and with the system I built into it (CB radio, shell, shelves and carpeting, step-ups, bull bar, fog lights, seat covers, tripod rack, 2000w AC Charger, etc) I want it to last another ten years.  I don't look forward to building out the shell again, like my friend Bob Sutton and I did over two days in 2015.  As for cameras, I began with the Olympus system. 

When I had been shooting the OM-4T for a few years I knew it, or rather the OM system, was limiting my photography and I could only continue by  buying off-brand equipment.  In 1992 I sold all my OM equipment at my friend Fred Topalian's Camera Country store in St.George, Utah and switched to Nikon.  First the 8080 body, then the vaunted F5, a rock solid 35mm camera that I grew to love.  I used expensive medium-format Mamiya 645's for awhile, but when digital came along I sold the film cameras and switched to digital Nikon cameras in 2004.  The D70 was followed by the D3s, then the D4s, the D500, and the D850.  The mirrorless Z9 is the finest camera I've ever shot with and does the majority of my imaging now.  I skipped the D5 and D6 completely and don't feel like I missed anything.  The lenses have gone back and forth - after the OM 300mm f4.5 and the 350mm f2.8, then the Sigma 500mm f4.5 for Nikon, followed by the big-dog, the 500mm f4 AF-S SWM in 1998.  I shot that lens until 2020 when I sold it and used the money to buy a brand new Nikon 500 f5.6 PF AF-S SWM lens.  Much lighter and easier to handhold, the 500mm PF was just an all-around better choice for me.  It's more advanced VR system made the switch a no-brainer, a no-brainer after a few months of using it anyway.

While I had been leading safaris from the beginning, maybe partnering and team-shooting that first hundred would be a better description, when I closed my studio in Providence, Utah in 2008 and moved to Tulare, California - the safaris become my main business model. I still shoot some portraiture, still do an occasional commercial job (I did a Photoshop Class for the National Park Service a few months ago), still do a small amount of submission work to magazines - the safaris have taken over my entire shooting schedule.  American West Photography has morphed into American West Photo Safaris, and the portrait galleries that I had on my website are gone.  A few images in my Commercial Gallery is all that's left of my portraiture career.  While many photographers dreaded shooting weddings I thought it was nothing but fun, and enjoyed them all, except one drunken cowboy wedding I shot in Tremonton, Utah.  I never shot more than 50% of any straight portraiture jobs in my studio, but took my clients up Logan Canyon for the other half of family shoots, seniors, engagements, and bridals - outside in nature.  I never had trouble with a single mother, or bride for that matter - and I shot over 800 weddings.

The relentless pace of photography has slowed just a bit over the past 15 years, until now I actually have days off.  Still, I can honestly say that I have never turned down a paying photography job.  I've had over a thousand clients participate in the photo safaris - and to date I've only banned one woman and two men going forward - which I think is remarkable given our society today.  I require folks to act, to at least a some degree, as professional people, respecting others, and those three folks couldn't do that.  I've made so many friends that as some have moved away to retire in other states - South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas, etc - I've mourned them leaving as a loss for me personally. Still, plenty are around and I always enjoy when clients with 20+ shooting days with me call to go again, it is the renewal of shooting friendships.  Every person I've ever shot with, less those three, have taught me something.  They have stories of their encounters, questions I've never heard or thought to ask myself, and locations I've never considered - I owe them all a debt, and I consider them friends.

My nature photography philosophy has always been that there are new, rare encounters out there to be found, possibly around the next corner.  After three days of not shooting I get restless for the search, which I call the Chase.  Chase photography just means I'm going into a target rich environment (they are everywhere in California, and in the American West) and will shoot everything that comes along that looks good, that has potential for moving the quality scale from good, to great.  Going to college at BYU put me in north-central Utah, so I fished the Upper Prove River, Strawberry Dam, and chased through the Wasatch Front out to the East Desert.  In the mid-to-late '80's I lived in Southern Utah, and learned every back road, from the Arizona Strip (north of the Colorado River in Arizona to the Utah border) to the forest service roads east of Zion and Bryce Canyon, through the Grand Staircase, and north to Cedar City, west to the Beaver Dam Slope.

Beginning in 1991 through 2008 I lived in Cache Valley, Utah - Logan and Providence - and traveled frequently to Yellowstone and the Tetons, and farther north to Glacier, re-establishing my memory of the roads and backcountry that I learned during my two year church mission to Montana.  Now, in California the opportunities are endless.  One day it's elephant seals, sea otters, shorebirds, monarch butterflies, and songbirds on the coast, the next day it's owls, desert kit foxes, reptiles, and the songbirds of the desert, another day is black bears, pine martens, grouse, and still a different assortment of songbirds, wildflowers, and butterflies in the Sierra Mountains, followed by bobcats, San Joaquin Kit Fox, pygmy owls, and even more birds in the rolling oak woodlands that border the great San Joaquin Valley.  And I even take a moment here and there for landscapes.  Those years brought jobs shooting the still photography for Hollywood commercials filmed in Utah, shooting plane-to-plane for local airlines, shooting from helicopters for businesses as well as Indian tribes, and riding on horses, in hot air balloons, and snowmobiles for a myriad of different companies.

The American West is still my home and my shooting area of expertise, and I still marvel at the new opportunities I've had every year, in areas I've shot dozens, if not hundreds, of times.  I've been lucky, where luck is borne out of hours spent chasing.  Just in the past 2-3 years, I got my first bobcat in Yellowstone after about 1800 days shooting there, two years ago it was my first mountain lion in the Tetons.  Also, in 2022, I shot my first gray wolves hunting elk at point blank distances, 35 yards instead of 500 yards.  I photographed a bald eagle capturing a black, red fox kit on San Juan Island off the Washington Coast and flying away with it, right past me - camera in hand.  There was the long sought after close photography encounter with a Golden-crowned Kinglet in Sequoia, while a month before that I shot my first hooting Male Sooty Grouse on a mountainous hillside in Mineral King, also part of Sequoia. I shot two badgers in the span of two weeks in October on bobcat safaris - when previously I had never seen one before late December.  And to my anguish, we missed a wolverine on Logan Pass in Glacier Park by a whisker a few years ago.

There was the Lynx mother and two kittens in Colorado's San Juan Mtns a few years ago, and after that I shot the largest mule deer buck I've ever seen - a 6x8 - in Mesa Verde National Park.  Every part of the American West holds once-in-a-lifetime encounters with very common species, while uncommon species popup from time-to-time.  I had a Pacific Fisher run across the road in Sequoia in 2020 in unshootably dark, early morning light - so it is still on my list.  Two months ago I stumbled upon a Great Gray Owl near Grant's Village in Kings Canyon National Park, while busy looking for black bears in berry patches.  That was a great shooting encounter!  That was my first GGO in California (though I've shot about 80), though I have stalked them around Wawona (and failed) a number times, hearing them hooting only.  The unique encounters and amazing sightings continue, and hopefully will for many years, through the continuation of my shooting life.  Though I wear glasses today I recently passed my eye test with enviable 20/15 vision - I learned how to look for animals from Bob Sutton, mentioned earlier.  Him, and the tens of thousands of hours I've spent looking for everything alive and wild, has sharply honed my vision and I don't miss much, especially not on my side of the truck.

Of all the attributes I've learned somewhere, at sometime, probably my biggest is I don't get discouraged and I don't give up.  There are always bad days of chasing and finding nothing - unfortunately, clients are along on those as well, but those are valuable hours because it means we are closer to the next amazing encounter.  And while they might doubt my abilities on those encounterless days, they can never doubt that we pushed hard, dark-to-dark, in the chase.  Nor can they doubt the images I've shot on previous days where there were close encounters.  We only get so many days in our lives to do this, I get a lot more days than most,  and I know others get many fewer, so I push hard.  One time I did 20 safari days in a row with no break, and I was excited to get out on the last day (in Yellowstone) as I had been on the first day. 

There are times I rub others wrong - since I have an opinion at this point in my life, but I'm never demanding of others to believe what I believe.  My mother once told me that if I didn't understand both sides of an argument well enough to argue either, then I'm not entitled to express my opinion about it.  Sound words from mom - she and dad are long gone now, to a much better.  They instilled in me with a great love of all things wild, particularly mom, though she could never quite master professional field techniques.  She just didn't grasp what a long telephoto lens could do.  Ah, well, great memories for me and my sons.  We all made it home alive.

One thing that time does, (as the months and years click by) is make memories more fluid.  Even now I can drive by a spot in Yellowstone or on my bobcat safaris in California and point out every spot I ever shot anything.  I can tell you the subject, the weather, the temperature, and the result of the encounter.  It is fixed in my mind, forever.  I can struggle with a grocery shopping list, but I never forget the factors going into a photograph I have taken - even after millions.  I try to share that information I've learned over the decades on my website: I have pages on field checklists for equipment, online sites to identify butterflies or flowers, tricks and techniques for certain species, photoshop tips, and occasional zoom shows to teach those techniques.  I have done almost 100 shows for camera clubs and nature groups - like Audubon and the Sierra Club - and at one point was teaching digital photography in 22 California cities via their cities Park and Recreation Departments, through adult education classes.  And lastly, I do a newsletter every two weeks showing the photos I'm getting and which safaris I shot them on, so folks know what is out there to be found and photographed.

I work hard at what I do, at leading safaris and finding animals.  The success of my work is mostly shown in my longevity doing it, the thousands of images credits and sales I've had means nothing anymore, each being just a minor push down this long road.  The photo credit byline on a magazine published image which, starting out, meant the world to me - means very little anymore, and I only submit on very rare occasions, or upon request.  Things change over time - remember, the years teach what the days never knew.  Over the next few years I will write more, probably do another couple of e-books, maybe a print version as well.  But what gets me excited when I get up at 3:30am to get ready for a safari is the unknown critter, the next chase leading to the next unknown encounter, and preparing my clients and myself for it.  My vision sharpens, I scan the viewfinder for a few clues, my fingers working the buttons and dials without really thinking about it, back-focus and shoot.  Refocus, shoot more, longer sequences, adjust the compensation, refocus again, shoot more.  And so it goes, this ride that is wildlife photography is amazing, and never ends, unless we stop doing it.  BRP

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2023 Brent Paull     All Rights Reserved under United States and International Laws     559-909-5208