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Photography Tips: Capturing the Rockies

A local photographer tells us how he got “the shot”

Aug. 3, 2016
By Afton Aikens 

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Amar Athwal’s interest in photography began when he moved to Banff in the 1990s and turned into a passion a few years ago. His repertoire has expanded from landscapes to include night skies and flora; his wildlife images include bears, wolves, elk, birds and cuddly looking pine martens.

Athwal’s photographs and stories of how he captured each shot are posted almost daily on his blog Banff Moments. The blog has gained a local following, and Athwal often presents his photography in exhibitions at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site where he works as heritage programs interpretation supervisor.

At his day job, Athwal often shares photography tips with visitors who are looking to capture their own Canadian Rockies moments. He gives a snapshot (pun intended) below.

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Know (and Love) Your Subject

One of Athwal’s most memorable experiences on a shoot was last summer, when smoke from forest fires created a hazy curtain that lingered over the sun and mountains.

“I knew where there was an osprey nest and got thinking, could I capture the rising sun in the background?” he says.

Athwal waited for the bird to perch on the nest and show its profile. He got good photographs, but then the real shot presented itself.

“The bird took off. I knew it was the mother and she’d be back with food. I waited, and as soon as I spotted her I snapped a picture that looked like she was flying out of the sun.”

“I fall in love with my subjects,” Athwal adds. The more he understands an animal, the better he can approach photographing it. “Looking at an elk’s ears, if they’re focused on me, the animal is wary about me. If they’re to the side, the animal is no longer concerned.”

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Know Your Equipment

You should plan for what you want to photograph, but recognize nature often has other ideas.

“Make sure your equipment is ready so when something happens, you’re set to take a picture,” Athwal says. “Know your gear, because you won’t get enough time when your subject is in front of you—even a sunrise—to start deciding on your settings.”

Dressing for the weather is also a must so you’re comfortable and can focus on taking pictures.

Athwal uses Nikon equipment, and has landscape, macro and zoom lenses (the latter to photograph wildlife without getting too close). “I want my subject to be there for as long as possible. If I try to get close, I’m putting myself or the animal in danger, and likely it’ll run away.”

“A fed bear is a dead bear,” so the saying goes. “You can actually harm an animal by giving it food because it can become habituated,” Athwal cautions.

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Rise Early and Stay Late

The light is softer in the morning—Athwal’s favourite time to take photos—and the evening, and creates nice shadows, contrasts and alpenglow. Animals tend to move around in the morning, especially on hot days. “If you’re going for a hike, start early for a better chance to see wildlife,” he says.

“In fall, because the sun is lower, you get a bigger window where you can take pictures in ideal conditions. If you want to photograph birds, look for water,” he adds.

Just Get Out There

On the day of our interview, Athwal had come from a hike near the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course. “I was hoping to see wildlife, but didn’t come back with a picture. Still, I got to enjoy the mountains. If I come back with a picture, it’s the icing on the cake.”

>> For more Canadian Rockies activities, shops, restaurants and entertainment, read our digital magazine.

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