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Photography Tutorial: Wildlife Photography in Patagonia

Although many photographers visit Torres del Paine for the landscape, it's also a great place for wildlife photography in Patagonia, with plenty of opportunities to capture images of the guanaco roaming in small groups around the hills. Closely related to llamas, guanaco are found all over the mountains in South America, and they are a common sight across Patagonia.

I don't have much experience with wildlife photography; when I set up my camera, I'm used to patiently waiting for light without much changing in the scene. However, for the shot I had in mind, I would need to break out of my usual habits and chase down some mobile subjects.

a group of guanacos in front of a mountain peak in patagonia

The result of this adventure was as much a landscape image as a wildlife one, and I wanted the mountains and the guanacos to feature as subjects in the scene. Finding the wildlife, in the right place, for the right light, would be a challenge, especially with such a precise composition in mind. It took three separate attempts on different days before the shot finally came together.

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Day 1 - Finding Wildlife in Torres del Paine

On the first day of looking for guanaco, my friend and I set out from Salto Grande in the centre of Torres del Paine and drove slowly along the road towards the eastern entrance to the park.

I had no idea how common it was to see guanacos, or if it was the right time of day, but with a few hours to kill during the harshest midday light, it seemed like the best use of time before the photography conditions improved at sunset. I had never visited the east of the park and didn't know what to expect from the landscape, but I had read that this was the best area to capture wildlife. It seemed like a good place to start.

We were almost at the eastern entrance to Torres del Paine when we noticed some guanacos ahead as we descended a hill. Fortunately, there was a pull-off for the car, and we set out on foot with long lenses, creeping slowly around boulders to stay distant enough from the animals to not disturb them.

a portrait of three guanacos in Patagonia

Using a 200mm lens, I could get close enough to the guanaco for a portrait and was lucky to find these three lined up on the ground having lunch. I was excited to capture a photograph of them, especially as they faced towards the light, which helped capture the detail in their hair and faces. These were the first guanaco I had seen in Patagonia, and I already had an image.

However, this wasn't quite the scene I had hoped for, and the landscape behind the guanaco was flat and uninteresting. We were a long way east, with the mountains of 'los cuernos', the famous horn-shaped peaks of Torres del Paine, far away and replaced by a less exciting backdrop.

a portrait of one guanaco in Patagonia

Here, I captured a single guanaco against the layers of hills and trees, with a mountain in the background; just the kind of structure I wanted for my image of guanacos. I had the light and the wildlife, but the landscape was too dull to be anything other than a backdrop to the scene. It was a pretty image, but I was determined to do better.

Day 2 - A Second Attempt

A few days later, I had another opportunity to revisit the east of the park and search for wildlife again. We'd spent the early morning shooting sunrise at Salto Grande, and there was more free time to explore after the sun had fully risen and the best of the light started to fade.

The most interesting angle on the peaks was not as far east as where we found the first guanaco, so we found an area where the landscape looked better and let the wildlife come to us. This approach could mean not finding any guanaco at all, but at least all of the elements of the composition would be in place if they appeared.

a group of guanacos in front of a mountain peak in patagonia

Within half an hour, a group of guanaco came over a ridge and settled just in front of me, exactly where I hoped to place them in a composition. I wanted to capture the guanaco as a foreground to the mountains and balance them with the peaks as two subjects in the frame, and they had wandered into just the right spot.

This scene was almost exactly as I had imagined, but still the composition was not quite right. The guanaco were too small and looking in different directions, so they didn't work as a combined subject for the photograph. The light was also tricky that day, with heavy cloud and only brief patches of light on the landscape. I captured dozens of frames, hoping the guanaco would somehow arrange themselves into a coherent group and the light would fall just right across the landscape, but it didn't happen.

a guanaco in front of a mountain peak in patagonia

I did manage to isolate this single guanaco on a ridge with the peaks behind and thought this might become my best wildlife image of the trip. The mountains brought an unusual sense of scale to the photograph, and the guanaco was lit by a patch of sunshine just as it looked into the distance and into the frame. I loved the atmosphere of this scene and the way the guanaco drew attention even while being so small in the image.

But I wanted another go.

Day 3 - The Guanaco Cooperate

It was another few days before there was a third opportunity to drive east and spend another morning searching for wildlife. The landscape and potential compositions were so good at our previous location that we returned for another attempt.

There was less cloud around on day 3, with patches of light flowing across the landscape - the ideal conditions for photography closer to the middle of the day. At first, it seemed we'd have to wait for some guanaco, but soon discovered they were already nearby, wandering over the hillside towards us. Without needing to move at all, the guanaco came to me as I waited with the camera.

two guanacos in front of a mountain in Patagonia

Although both the guanaco and I were in similar positions to my previous visit, I had managed to get slightly lower and closer, finally discovering the composition I wanted. The angle on the mountains was just right, with three peaks arranged in a group and lit by the morning sun. The guanacos were larger in the frame and worked more as a second subject, rather than getting lost in the frame.

a group of guanacos in front of a mountain peak in patagonia

More guanaco appeared as I waited and gathered in a small group to eat the grass. Something in the distance behind me was bothering the animals, and I spent some time following their gaze and searching with a long lens in case it was a puma. However, their eyesight was much more up to the challenge than mine, so I worked on completing my composition of the guanaco instead.

With the wildlife arranged, the light interesting, and the peaks in position, I just had to wait for the guanaco to start acting as a group. I wanted to capture them all standing and looking in roughly the same direction so that they formed a coherent single foreground.

With their attention in the distance, they shuffled slowly across the landscape, taking turns to bow their heads to eat while the others stayed alert, watching for danger. They paid no attention to me tripping over bushes and rocks as I tried to keep my composition framed, waiting for their position and the light to converge.

Finally, after three days of trying and many hours of testing compositions and ideas, the image came together as I had hoped.

a group of guanacos in front of a mountain peak in patagonia

Improving our Photography

I spent a month in Patagonia to capture the landscape and to work on my photography in a focused way. One of the best things about having so much time was the opportunity to revisit locations and ideas to refine and improve the images I was getting.

This image is about persevering with an idea and pushing ourselves as photographers to discover the best image we can create. I was pleased with many of the photographs I made over these three days of exploration, but always asked myself how the shot could be better. If I'd had longer, I'd have tried again, hoping to create a similar image but with more separation between the guanacos. There will never be the perfect shot, but the fun of photography comes from looking for it.

Finding the shot

There is no one good place to capture images of guanacos in Torres del Paine, but this image was made here, where you'll find a good parking area and a great view of the mountains. There is room to move around the landscape here and vary the composition; you just need the final ingredient of luck to get the shot. If you get lucky enough, perhaps you'll find it with a puma.

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