One, two, three Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) are within reach of my 300mm lens. Their white feathers reflect so much of the tropical sunlight that, even working in RAW format, it’s easy to over-expose and burn the highlights. I train the camera’s spot meter on the bird, bring my exposure down an extra stop and make a few frames. I then turn to grab my B-camera with the 50mm lens and snap a few shots of James Batt, also busy photographing the egrets. James has been in this place many times before, but he does not seem a bit bored. In fact, he’s loving it. “The light is great, isn’t it? The Snowys are so bright, one needs to bring exposure down“, he says. Bird photography has brought us together once again and here we are, enjoying our bit of shop-talk while we photograph Snowy Egrets from one of Mayakoba’s electric boats.
As I reported in my previous post, Mayakoba will be the privileged location for the upcoming “Wildlife Photo Master Class Weekends“, a series of instructional and practical photographic experiences led by National Geographic photo-journalists Steve Winter, Tim Laman and Brian Skerry. It was James who came up with this exciting idea and he leads the team in Mayakoba that makes it happen, so it is only fitting that he should tell RIDE INTO BIRDLAND, in his own words and images, how it all came to be. Our conversation took place over a delicious lunch at The Rosewood Mayakoba with a great view of the canals, and went straight to the point.
IGH: When did you start taking pictures and how did you become involved in bird photography?
JB: For most of my life they were two completely separate hobbies. I was given a camera by my father when I was very young and learned to develop my own films and contact-print them, that was the beginning of my photographic journey. A little later on in life I got my first Olympus OM-1, you’re probably familiar with this camera. I was living in Saudi Arabia, had some disposable income, had more lenses than I should have had, and I really enjoyed photography. Simultaneously, being British, I always studied birds. I was one of those horrible little kids that collected bird’s eggs, but in those days that was an acceptable thing to do. We wouldn’t do it today. I would collect the eggs, blow them -as you know you put a hole in each end and blow out the yoke in the middle- and then have one from each type of bird species. So I was very interested in British birds. And then my life took me to different lands. Suddenly it wasn’t just Blackbirds and Robins any more, it was all the other birds we found in Asia and later in Mexico and North America. The two hobbies first started to combine when I was living in Thailand and I took lots and lots of bird photographs, which festoon the wall of my office to this day.
IGH: Is it true that “every Englishman is therefore a birder”? Do you have many birding friends in the UK?
JB: Yes, a lot. I mean, my younger brother, for example, is way more into this than I am, believe it or not. I think that you will find the density of birders in the U.K. as high as anywhere in the world. I watch the BBC here, and they have whole programs just about birdwatching. You know, you don’t get that very much in the North American span, although there are millions of birdwatchers in North America. So I think yes, being British is definitely a propensity to be a birdwatcher. Not every Brit is a birdwatcher but many of us are.
IGH: What is it about bird photography in Mayakoba that you enjoy so much?
JB: It’s so easy! I mean really, it is so easy to get world class images. I mean, I’m not a great photographer, but I’m an OK photographer. But I have access to subject material that is ridiculous really. So when I bring friends to Mayakoba, even professional photographers like yourself, they wonder at the fact that we can go around in these electric boats, get extremely close to species which are normally very spooky, and we can even take the boat out at the time of day when we know that the light is going to be right. It’s an extraordinary gift that we have here in that the subject material is just so cooperative.
IGH: What equipment are you using nowadays?
JB: Well, that’s an interesting question. Everybody’s using Nikon and Canon, except for me. I mentioned just now that my first camera was an Olympus OM-1 and I have actually been an Olympus fan ever since. When I first went to digital I got an Olympus E-1, not with the particular thought of how useful it would be for bird photography, but it is. I love the 4/3 system, because my 150/f2 lens with a 1.4 doubler, gives me the effect of the Canon or the Nikon with about half the size. I’ve got about a 400mm reach still at 2.8 even with the doubler on. So I’m really able to have a very transportable system, and because of the fact that I’m not actually a bird photographer and my life here is managing many of the aspects of the resort, having an ultra portable kit is very helpful to me. My number one apparatus is an Olympus E-5 with image stabilization, a 150/f2 with a 1.4 teleconverter, and that’s my day to day kit.
IGH: And how about support gear?
JB: I ‘ve got more money tied up in Gitzo than anybody should have and I have every Arca’Swiss connection that you could ever want and so on, but these days I rarely use a tripod. Sometimes, absolutely, and I’m glad that I have them for the times when we need them. My photography is split between three ways of taking pictures. One is from our boats. I’ve seen you try to get pictures from the boats with the monopod, which prompted me to inmediately go out and get a connection for my monopod, but really if you can manage without a support in the boat, you can move around and get that shot, because these birds aren’t hanging around all day. From the car I use a Kirk window mount or I use a beanbag on the window. I love the car as a bird blind, it’s my favorite way of taking photographs of birds. Thirdly, I walk on our nature trail in Mayakoba, and I use what’s called a Spider holster. This is a kind of kit that is normally used by wedding photographers, where they can hold cameras up their hip. But for me, a good walk is spoiled by carrying a very heavy camera or camera bag. I can stick my Olympus kit into a Spider holster and walk the trail without really having any weight on my shoulders. So those are my three methods.
IGH: Again about bird photography in Mayakoba, how do you avoid stressing the birds too much?
JB: This is a very important question. When I’m on foot or in the car I am master of my own destiny and I can make sure that I don’t stress the birds. But most guests in Mayakoba access our birds through our electric boats. Our pilots are trained not to invade the space, if you like, of the birds. So we’ll get close enough so that they can get the shot, but if there’s any sign that the bird is going to be spooked or fly off as a result of our being there, then they’re not supposed to hang around. We’ve been together and you know that I’m very fussy about that, when we are taking photographs of birds it’s “get our shot and get out of there”. I think that’s the reason why the birds are still there the next time when we go back. So if we want to promote the ability to take pictures here, we need to be very fussy about that.
IGH: You’ve published a collection of your photographs in a book titled “Birds of Mayakoba”. In the text you define your photography as “recording the fact that it is possible to build a thriving exclusive resort while providing an all inclusive arrangement for the varied and wonderful wildlife”. In your experience, how can this be achieved?
JB: Well, I think it’s simple, rather than easy. You must start with a plan that is going to provide an environment that is ideal for wildlife, not just birds, but the whole gamut of wildlife. Our forefathers at Mayakoba, and I can take no credit for this, really did that. They spent years studying the terrain here, architects, biologists, engineers, botanists, crews of people, and they really did a great job. The essence of sustainable development in this kind of topography is to have very light construction on the sand dunes, nothing on the reef, leave the mangroves alone, and then do your heavy construction back in the jungle area. That’s the essence of Mayakoba. So the plan was right. Next you’ve got to have operators who care. When I came to Mayakoba nobody said to me, “Do you like birds, James? Are you into the environment James?”. That wasn’t part of the hiring process. Nonetheless, we have a very respectful team in its approach to the environment and wildlife. We all love it, I think a lot of people who work with me have become experts at identifying birds, I can’t imagine why. You must have an operating team that cares about the environment, and I think it’s in our DNA to love the environment. If you don’t get that you really don’t get Mayakoba.
IGH: Tell us about the “Wildlife Photo Master Class Weekends”.
JB: Out of all of this love of wildlife and I think perhaps prompted by my rather surprising experience with my little photographs on my Flickr site, realizing that 20,000 people are suddenly interested in pictures of birds in Mayakoba, and then doing a bit of market research, led us to the realization that there is a market out there (both in Latin America, Mexico in particular, and then in the United States and Canada) of people who are spending a lot of money on a camera and lenses. I see people regularly around the resort with 5 or 10 thousand dollars worth of camera equipment hanging around their neck, and perhaps they’re not completely trained or ready to take advantage of what we’ve got. So we approached three National Geographic wildlife photographers and said, “Would you guys be interested in hosting workshops at Mayakoba?”. These will be very small weekends, limited to 12 people per weekend who will have access to the extraordinary natural wildlife of Mayakoba and training by some of the most famous names in wildlife photography. I mean, when I heard that I was going to be taking photographs with people like Steve Winter and Tim Laman, I’m in awe of that. And I hope that there are people out there who will recognize what a joy that is. And of course you know, there are many moving parts to these weekends, there is the fact that it’s a luxury resort, that we have these great subjects, that there are people out there who want to take pictures, that there are National Geographic photographers who can do some training, that there is a guy called Ivan Gabaldon here locally who can jump in and help us, because one person can’t be with 12 photographers all day, every day, for three days. All of that makes it possible for us to do this feat and to promote Mayakoba and the Yucatan as a natural reserve that should get proper credit, it’s not just Costa Rica.
IGH: Having these top photographers from National Geographic as part of this experience is quite an accomplishment in itself. How did this come to happen?
JB: You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s pretty closely aligned with my hobby, but I wouldn’t have done it because it was my hobby. I did it when I realized my hobby was right on message for Mayakoba and was promoting the resort in such an important way. When I look at social media sites of hotels, for example, I know if I see another cocktail with a little umbrella stuck in it with a pool in the background, that I’m just going to switch off. That is not the way to promote a luxury resort hotel anymore, because everybody has that photograph. Not very many people have a Roseate Spoonbill in their backyard, in a beautiful mangrove setting, with maybe Boat Billed Herons, and the ability to go on an electric boat and photograph them. I mean, I don’t think it’s unique, but it’s pretty unusual, and a whole lot better than a hatted cocktail by the pool, however colorful the cocktail might be.
IGH: This makes me think about family members or spouses who are not necessarily birders or photographers but may want to come along with their special other. What will they be able to experience in Mayakoba when they come as a companion to a bird photographer?
JB: Well, to some extent I have to take personal reference. I know that if my wife, as I’m sure she will, comes on one of these weekends, she’ll dive right in. We would love to have them along for the sessions, probably there won’t be room for them to all have cameras hanging out, but by all means enjoy the nature. But there’s so much more to Mayakoba than birds. I mean, if the trailing spouse is a wife, I’m sure she’s going to give the spas a try. If the trailing spouse is a husband, I don’t doubt that he’ll want to get on our PGA golf course and maybe have a round on Mexico’s premier golf course. I mean, it’s an opportunity to put the whole thing out there, while we focus on a particular item, which is the natural side.
IGH: You’ve logged more hours than anyone photographing the birds of Mayakoba, both on the trails and the canals. Any advice for photographers who will be attending the Photo Master Class Weekends?
JB: Not really. I think that, simply put, you’ve got to have equipment that will enable you to have a certain reach. So if you’re using a regular 35mm frame, not an APS or a 4/3, a minimun of 200 to 300 millimeters. But I don’t think anybody is going to be signing up that isn’t already touting something like that. Of course the faster the lens, as we all know, the better. You also need to get the shutter speed up there… But we’ll work with them on all of that when they come. So have the right equipment and come with an open mind, none of us are going to be important on these weekends. I’m quite humble about my photography, I know the results are wonderful because I’ve done an awful lot of it, but I still learn every day. So come with an open mind and with a willingness to learn, but most importantly with a joy of this extraordinary facility that we all share, and that is nature and photographing it.
IG: Thank you very much James for answering our questions. Is there anything you’d like to add to close this conversation?
JB: Thank you Ivan, just for being here. As I mentioned earlier there are several pillars that hold up this whole idea of doing these National Geographic weekends and you’re one of them, so thank you very much for your advice, your guidance and your leadership. I can’t wait to spend more time with you doing this.