Gordon Wiltsie grew up in Bishop, California, a mountain town nestled between the Sierra and White Mountains. By his late teens Wiltsie was an accomplished mountaineer, climber, and budding photographer.
Wiltsie calls himself a self-taught photographer, but living where he did, below one of America's most beautiful mountain ranges, he could not help but meet and be inspired by the many leading outdoor and landscape photographers who traveled though his area.
Wiltsie's early photo career breaks began with a 1975 photo essay in the magazine Ascent, which established his reputation with the outdoor adventure audience—then an article the following year in Outside magazine presented his name to an even wider readership. Subsequently, his many feature stories for National Geographic, including several cover stories, have established his worldwide reputation as the consummate expedition and adventure photographer. Wiltsie began publishing his adventure photography in national magazines while he was still a college student, and the popularity and ready market of adventure photography steered him away from his real passion, which is cultural subjects.
In pursuing his photography degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Gordon wrote his own course work for an extended stay in Nepal, where his cultural studies included learning the Nepali, Hindi, and Tibetan languages. "My studies in Nepal began my lifelong fascination and pursuit to photograph vanishing cultures," he says. His time in Nepal also began his long involvement with guiding and photographing in the Himalaya. Recalls Wiltsie, "Early in my career I thought my photographic focus and specialty would be primarily the Himalayan countries, but then I started guiding and photographing in Antarctica, which led to a couple of stories there for National Geographic. Other assignments send me to the Andes, the Canadian Arctic, and China." His Antarctica experience eventually led to a cover story in the February 1998 National Geographic magazine about a climbing expedition to the little known Queen Maud Land.
Wiltsie has been involved in more than a hundred expeditions outside of the United States. His area of specialty is mountains and adventure, but lately he has come full circle and is again focusing his camera on cultural stories and mountain people. Recent stories include the recovery of mummies in the Peruvian Andes and the winter migration of the Darhad people of northern Mongolia. Wiltsie's work ethic on assignment has him up before dawn, and he doesn't call it quits until well after dark. The average assignment may last five to seven weeks. When on a shoot, Wiltsie says, "keep the story in mind. Maintain a shot list of visual pieces that add up to a coverage that is greater than any single image. Think wide, medium, and close-up. It's easy to focus on making every picture a calendar image and miss out on less obvious things that are happening behind the scenes."
Besides getting the photos, Wiltsie also has to work on fitting in with and being accepted by team members. Wiltsie's expedition philosophy is simple: "Be careful not to include the course of the expedition. Work to fit into the group by helping with chores, carrying loads, and doing other daily tasks. The best tactic for the photographer is to work hard to blend in." Communicating your objectives to the team is important: "Work out your photo needs in advance with the team leader and every single member of the expedition. Explain what they need to do to help you get the photos you need. If part of the team resents your presence, your experience with the trip may become miserable—even life threatening.
"Your shooting style should not be intrusive. When photographing people you do not know, either ask permission or make it so fast and painless (followed by a smile) that they either do not know you shot a photo or do not care. Asking permission is often deadly for spontaneity, but works beautifully if you can spend enough time together that your subject can relax. Bottom line, it is essential to be extremely sensitive, and if in doubt, do not shoot."
Often photographers are too trusting of their cameras, relinquishing too much control to its automatic functions, says Wiltsie. "In this age of automatic cameras, anyone can take a modestly decent picture. To rise above you have to be a technical master." He adds, "Be fast and mobile. No one wants to wait around while you spend time on focus and exposure. They especially hate it if you always have to stop to take your camera out of your pack. What's important is to be there with your eyes and mind alert and your camera ready. Look for the moments: peak action; revealing facial expressions; personal interactions; or unusual, fleeting light."
Wiltsie consistently produces photos that look natural and unaffected by camera flash or technique—however, he often uses a portable flash. He believes every photographer should master the use of flash and bounce lighting. These are regularly needed to bring out details in shadowy areas, to create sparkle in someone's eyes, or to create truer color in miserable weather conditions, all of which can seldom be accomplished with automatic flash settings.
Gordon Wiltsie’s Adventure Photography Tips
- Make yourself intimately knowledgeable about any activity, sport, or environment you want to photograph. If you're not a climber or a skier, for example, chances are you won't photograph these activities well. You're also unlikely to create much that's visually new or different if you shoot something that you haven't researched.
- Keep abreast of what other adventure photographers are doing. What might have been leading edge imagery a few years ago has likely been copied so much that it isn't novel anymore.
- Adventure photography is inherently risky, but don't take stupid chances to get a picture.
- Become part of the team. Do your share of any expeditionary duties. Make yourself an insider, not someone on the outside, looking in.
- Always keep your camera right at hand. Some of the best moments come completely by surprise.
- Look for unusual angles, frames, and perspectives. Often just a part of a person or scene will communicate the whole. Consider, for example, advertising for Marlboro cigarettes. Viewers of these ads can see just a belt buckle or a bridle hung over a fence and envision a cowboy and his smokes.
- Don't forget to have fun. Choose projects that are close to your heart and abilities so that you can enjoy them.
—Text by Bill Hatcher, from Photography Field Guide: Action & Adventure