In the crisp air of late October, we sit in a backyard gazebo, talking. My companion is a businessman, a blogger, and a lecturer; but most of all, he is a wildlife photographer. He is Christopher Dodds. As he speaks of his many on-site workshops, you get a feel for the work that he does – but when you gaze at his photos, you are drawn into the magnificent world of wildlife photography.
“I’m a bird photographer; that’s what I do … but with bears, you become part of their environment, so the experience there is almost surreal.” He is speaking of his June visits to the bears of Hallo Bay, Alaska. He paints a picture of mother bears romping with their triplet cubs in the meadows, majestic mountains rising in the background. The bears have learned over time with the groups of photographers that this is safe ground – and so they bring their cubs to the visitors. “They know me, my smell, how I act, and my behavior with my groups.” While mother bears lie on their backs and nurse their babies, the photographers take their pictures. June in Alaska means the sunlight will stay until midnight, so the group often stays late into the night.
Today, Dodds’s “day job” seems so far away from his modest home that is tucked away on a quiet street in Huntingdon, and his early years growing up Chateauguay. He was born in northeast England and in 1975, when he was eight years old, he moved to Chateauguay with his mom, dad, brother, and sister. Dodds is unsure whether his first camera was his own or borrowed. It was a 35-millimetre Pentax film camera with a built-in zoom lens. In later years he gave it away to members of his family; it was returned to him and is still in his possession. The soft-spoken Dodds recalls some life-defining moments when he and his two siblings were enrolled in Beavers, Cubs, and Guides; photography seemed to go so well with Scouting life. His first photo was of a chestnut-sided warbler: “You could never tell what it was,” he laughs. He soon discovered that photography was something he wanted to do. “Scouting really invested in giving the kids an opportunity to be outside and learn about nature,” he says.
He moved up through Cubs, Scouts, Rovers, and was a leader for a few years. Around the same time that he got his first camera, he was looking for a job. He started work at a one-hour photo development lab in Chateauguay. “All I was working for was to buy a new camera,” Dodds explains. One day, the shop owner from Toronto arrived and put a Nikon F2 with two lenses in his hands. His boss let him have it at cost and financed him with no interest. In the darkroom under the store, Dodds learned how to develop black-and-white and colour photos. He was well on his way into the world of photography.
He took another step into that world when he got a photography job at the Le Soleil newspaper in Chateauguay, where he met another photographer and they decided to run a photo studio together. They did weddings, passport pictures, and portrait photography. Dodds recalls, “I was 19 when I did that.” The partnership didn’t last and about a year later Dodds left the studio. “Photojournalism was really pulling at me, but then, nature was too; it was always happening because I loved the outdoors and animals. But there had to be an economic drive. You have to travel.” He kept his job shoveling out driveways and took on another job for an in-store display company which financed his travel.
It was 1985. There was no internet, no Google. Dodds decided to research travel destinations. He is dyslexic, so reading and researching was hard for him. His first wildlife workshops were with small photo clubs. Word got out and other clubs began to contact him to conduct workshops. He began to explore different locations. “The best place was Bonaventure Island in Gaspé … You look at what makes a good experience workshop. I needed something to photograph.” He discovered bird photography, which was popular because “there are birds everywhere.” He explored different countries in his search for diverse locations that would accommodate lots of birds. “I had to find something really reliable, where there was a lot of activity … to ensure the broadest client base. I was looking for birds in flight, because that is the hardest thing to photograph and what everyone wants to learn.” Dodds had always struggled with the French language, but Gaspé was where he gained fluency.
Today he has a mostly international clientele. “My product is a very high-end, expensive experience. We are going to go right into very specialized photography. We are there to get a portfolio of images of a species.” Dodds says he understands animal habits and knows how to get the best shot; also that he has a deep understanding of animal behaviours. He runs groups of five or six people; most are repeat customers, and he has many professional photographers in his groups. Clients buy their own flights and everything else is taken care of for them. Dodds’s day often will start at 3 a.m. when he is on location as he is organizing people and gear. “I round everybody up and get everybody out and into the location before the sun rises.”
The monthly calendar
Over the years Dodds has built a schedule of workshops that run throughout the year, one for each month, involving the observation of various animals in their natural habitats. Each month features a different species and location; for example, snowy owls of Quebec and Ontario in January and February, snow geese and sandhill cranes of Bosque del Apache, New Mexico in December, with the months in between filled with many different species. He knows the locations where wildlife congregates and the people who run those locations. He has built relationships with these people year after year. It is important to Dodds that he ensures his clients respect the environment and the animals.
When he is not on location he is blogging, answering questions on Facebook, Instagram, and via email. His business requires constant marketing, and he gives seminars, workshops, and presentations. When asked what the best part of his job is, he replies, “When people get THAT shot.”
To further explore the world of Chris Dodd and his photography, go to www.chrisdoddsphoto.com.