Wildlife Photographers Kate & Adam Rice: Catching the Animal's Spirit

"We want people to get a glimpse into the spirit of the animal", Kate & Adam Rice, KAR Photography. Great grey owl eyes. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography

A great photograph captures the subject's spirit not just its image.  When that subject is wildlife just one shot can forge a lasting and passionate connection. Photographers Kate and Adam Rice are early in their professional careers, but they’re already creating those compelling images. 

Adam and Kate Rice on location in Wyoming. Their honeymoon in Yellowstone re-set the course for their lives. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

As you’ve probably guessed Kate and Adam, or KAR Photography as they’re professionally known, are driven by their passion for wildlife. Recently Kate and Adam relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah.  There, in the storied mountain ranges, river valleys and open plains of the American west Kate and Adam focus their lenses on the remaining descendants of the species who greeted Lewis and Clark, wildlife that formed the backdrop to our native American’s culture and lives. 

We spoke to Kate and Adam about how each developed their self-admitted obsession and how it lead them together into their very special life’s journey.  They also shared some secrets about photographing in the wild. 

An Obsession With Wildlife

Grizzly bears in Yellowstone. What are Kate and Adams favorite animal to photograph? No question: Grizzlies!

Kate and Adam both grew up in Minnesota, Kate in what she describes as the “North Country” and Adam in Duluth. Kate admits to spending many childhood afternoons transfixed by visitors to her grandmother’s bird feeder, but it was in college, working on her biology degree, that she also ”fell in love with photography.“ Adam has a successful career in the aerospace industry, but about a year after he and Kate met, he noted that he’d began “looking at a camera in a different way.” His passion for animals, however, began far earlier. 

The spirit of a wild horse captured. Utah. Image: Thanks to Kate and Adam Rice, ©KAR Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     Adam, you lived in the city as a child . 

ADAM:     I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s farm. Watching my grandfather’s interaction with animals had the biggest influence on my future. My Grandpa, had an amazing ability to handle animals, especially horses. I remember when the stallions used to bust out of the corral. They’d break down the fencing and tear toward open pasture. At these times no one really “wanted” to get that close but my granddad had a special way about him.  He would quietly walk over to the horses, reach out his arm and speak softly. The horses would relax. Next thing I knew granddad was calmly leading them back home. 

D:W (Roberta):     I have the feeling that both of you have sensitivity to wildlife in your DNAs. But who was your first wildlife “model?” 

KATE:    I was about 22 years old. It was an owl, a northern hawk owl when Adam and I first became interested in wildlife photography. We lived near a famous birding area in Minnesota called the “Sax-Zim Bog* ” so we decided to check it out and found an owl on our first trip. We’ve been addicted ever since.”

Kate and Adam: "The secret of wildlife photography is being able to anticipate animal behavior". Their first lessons came from owls like this Northern hawk owl in Minnesota. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

Note: *The Sax-Zim bog, recognized as an IBA (Important Bird Area.) by the National Audubon Society is about 3 hours north of the twin cities metro area and includes private, state and national parks. 

D:W (Roberta):     You were both on different career paths then, when did that change?  

KATE:      (At) about 24. Adam and I kept falling deeper and deeper into our obsession with wildlife and photography. It took over our lives. We got married and took a honeymoon road trip to Yellowstone. That trip completely changed us, and we knew then we had to live near Yellowstone and do photography.

D:W (Roberta):       That honeymoon trip was in September 2011 right?  And then in 2013 you moved to Utah?  

KATE:     We were already falling down the rabbit hole into our obsession with wildlife, but after our honeymoon road trip to Yellowstone it was really on our hearts to live out West. We fell in love with the untamed land and wildlife; we felt at home there and with the obsession completely taking over our lives, it really wasn’t a choice at that point! We just needed to figure out how to do it 

D:W (Roberta):    Is that when you formed KAR? 

KATE:     Yes, KAR was started as a way to get our images out into the world and be able to show our family/friends what we were doing – they thought we were insane up to this point (and still do).  We wanted to come up with a name that represented both of us, that’s when we created KAR Photography.

Understanding Behavior is Key

Patience pays off when mama red fox brings her mixed red and cross colored kits out into the field. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     You photograph a wide variety of species but all your images are sensitive and show a kind of  connection to the animal. 

KATE:    Knowing animal behavior and being able to anticipate it is very important.  Anticipating is key to being ready for the best shot. 

The Wisdom of the Owl 

D:W (Roberta):     Can you give an example of how you learned to anticipate behavior? 

Who's watching who? A boreal owl peaks at his photographers. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

KATE:     We started out watching owls in Northern Minnesota; over time we would become familiar with certain individuals that would inhabit certain areas, from that we were able to learn a lot about their behaviors. It’s much like that with other animals, we learn where there are good areas to see things and we spend time in those areas watching.

ADAM:    Being able to anticipate is important, but there are two sides to that theory.  Once we were taking pictures of a bear by the road.  We realized that it was going to move off, and we knew that if it kept going in the same direction it would have to cross a bridge down the road.  We drove over the bridge and set up. We thought a bear crossing it would be a great image! We didn’t get the shot because the bear changed direction.

But another time, we were standing with a large group taking photos of another bear, and we realized it would likely move to a campsite some distance away.  The bear was following the power lines. Animals, like us, will usually take the path of least resistance.  We drove down to the campground along the power lines and set-up.  The campers there probably thought we were nuts.  But a short time later the bear showed up.  

Mama bear and her grizzly cubs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Image: Thanks to Kar Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     How do you decide on subject? Is it animal first, then the location or vice versa? 

ADAM:     It depends; we base a lot on the time of the year. For instance, the bison rut occurs in August so we’ll go places where there are lots of bison. July is great for moose in the Wasatch Mountains  (Utah) so we’ll spend a lot of time there. We do research for things we’d like to see, and plan for the best place/time to see them and the best possible chance of being able to photograph them.

D:W (Roberta):     Do you usually stay on location during a multi-day shoot? 

KATE:     Yes, we actually stay in our Nissan Xterra while we travel. I know it sounds crazy, but it gives us the most flexibility, and we are able to be close to where we need to be. We have an air mattress that fills up the back of our Nissan so we just inflate that, it’s actually pretty great!

Who Took the Shot?
Kate & Adam Won’t Kiss and Tell! 

There are few second chances with wildlife photography. Kate and Adam "pour our blood, sweat and tears" into their work. It paid off when they caught this northern flicker taking off. Image: Thanks to © KAR Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     OK, tell us a secret – we won’t tell! You’re both talented artists but every image is marked the same way.  So, who took the shot?? 

KATE:     That’s a great question, we get asked this a lot!  While we know who “took” the shot, we don’t like to kiss and tell! Our view on this is that we both work equally hard to do what we do. Both of us log the miles, do the research and pour our blood, sweat, and tears into it. We each have our own strengths, and we build on each other and push each other to create the final image.  

D:W (Roberta): Sounds like the best sort of team to me! 

D:W (Roberta):     What do you want people to experience when they look at your wildlife images? 

KATE:     We want people to feel something, to have an emotional connection with the animal or what is happening in the image.   We want to give a voice to the animals and incite people to be passionate about something. 

A Few Essential Technical Secrets

Infinite patience, even in sub zero weather, is a necessity for a wildlife photographer. It paid off with this image of the elusive and rare Canadian Lynx. Image: Thanks to © KAR Photography.

D:W (Les):     We’d really like if you’d share a few of your technical secrets! For example you’re the first professionals we’ve spoken to who use Sony equipment. Why Sony?

ADAM:    We liked their offerings; we liked the way their cameras are set up.  When Sony acquired Minolta's camera technologies in 2006 they kept the "?" mount system.  This means that we can use all of our old Minolta lenses, and we have a good number of them.

D:W (Les):     Do you both use the same camera bodies? Do you prefer Full or Crop-Frame? 

ADAM:     I use full-frame bodies, and Kate uses crop-frame bodies.  This allows a great degree of flexibility as a team.  The full-frame sensor allows me to work in much lower light using acceptable ISO settings, while the crop-frame sensors in Kate’s camera bodies can provide significantly more “reach”.  In some situations, we have even passed the lenses back and forth as we made a variety of images of the same scene.

One time we were photographing a mother bear and her two cubs in an open field very early, before the there was any real light.  My full-frame camera can gather more light, and it allowed me to get some good shots with an acceptable ISO.  Kate’s cameras would not have been able to do that.  But later we were photographing a different mother and two cubs that were across an open field, and Kate was able to compose and shoot much faster and get the best shots.

A moment of decision for these grizzly cubs in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Image thanks to Kate and Adam Rice, ©KAR Photography.

To ZOOM (Lens) or Not to ZOOM!
That is the Question! 

D:W (Les):    I’ve always thought that lenses were really the most important part of a photography system.  With lenses, do you suggest prime or zoom?

What is the "right" lens for a wildlife photographer? Image: Thanks to Kate and Adam Rice, ©Kar Photography. Barn owl coming in for a landing.

ADAM:    Although we have zoom lenses, most of our work is with prime lenses.  They’re generally sharper and faster.  The faster lens allows us to shoot in lower light - very important for wildlife photography.  Of course, this can make composition more difficult, but the tradeoff is worth it.

How Do You Memory Card? 

D:W (Les):    There are many camps on the issue of memory cards.  Are you in the “one big card” or  “lots of small cards” club?

Adam says his single most important piece of equipment is a good - no VERY good - tripod. "This has done more to improve our images than any other piece of equipment besides (our Sony) camera and lenses". Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

ADAM:    We fall sort of in the middle.  We generally use 32GB cards, which, with current file sizes gives us about 1,000 images.  Sometimes that may last us a morning, and sometimes a week.  It just depends on what types of opportunities we get.  We move around when shooting, and there may not be a lot of time to change cards.

D:W (Les):    I’m always paranoid of a card failing, or more likely, dropping it on the ground and stepping on it as I try to find it.

 ADAM:    (Chuckling) We’re careful to upload every day.  It’s how we reduce the risk of losing our images. 

SolvingThe Post-Process Puzzle 

DW: (Les):    Do you recommend any particular software for post processing?

Grey Wolves in Yellowstone. Shy and difficult to find, with wild wolves, Patience pays off. Image: Thanks to ©KAR photography.

ADAM:    We use Adobe Creative Cloud ™ exclusively.  For a simple monthly subscription we get both Photoshop™ and Lightroom™.  It’s everything we need.

D:W (Roberta):    Frankly technology is not my strongpoint! What would you recommend for the technologically challenged among us?

ADAM:    (Laughing) Lightroom™ has a lot to offer amateur photographers:  image organization, exposure adjustments, color balancing, and other basic image editing. Photoshop is still the leading image editor, but it’s not as easy to use. However, with YouTube, you can now find tutorial videos on almost anything you need.  If you need to know how to do something in Photoshop™, there is probably a YouTube video for it.

A Camera for Wildlife Photography

D:W (Les):    Here’s the question you probably get asked frequently, what camera do you recommend for wildlife photography?

ADAM:    There’s really is no single perfect camera for everyone.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.  I recommend you try as many as you can; spend some time with them and pick a favorite.

D:W (Les):    In New York, where we live, there are some stores that rent equipment …

ADAM:    That’s a great idea. Rent equipment for a weekend and actually use it.  There’re a couple of on-line companies that rent equipment, too.  Lensrentals.com and Borrowlenses.com are two.  Some will credit your rental fee if you decide to buy.

Comfortable Hiking & Steady Lens
Equipment Secrets

ADAM:    Get a good tripod. We learned this the hard way.  Spend the money and get a good one.  This has done more to improve our images than any other piece of equipment besides camera and lenses.

A Northern pygmy owl (finally) caught sitting still. Says Adam, "We know the pain of shooting wildlife!" Image: Thanks to ©KAR photography.

D:W (Les):    Yes, I’ve heard that from more than one professional wildlife photographer. Camera bags come up often too.    

ADAM:    We often hike ten miles and back in a day.  If you have to carry something for fourteen hours, it had better be comfortable. We have different bags for different situations. A good bag is critical.

Getting the Best Shot: Checking It All Out

D:W (Les):    About preparing for the shot. Do you go through a mental checklist or rely on instinct?

ADAM:    It really depends on the situation.  If we’re driving down the road and see something, it’s pretty much: grab the camera and start taking pictures.  It can get really hectic if the animals start moving.  Some behaviors just make you move around and shoot fast.

D:W (Les):     For me that usually means I’m carefully composing and shooting, and then suddenly something happens.  I start shooting faster, only to find out later that every shot is missing the end of the tail, a paw, or the top of the antler…

ADAM:    Laughing: We know the pain of shooting wildlife.

 Other times there’s more time to think and plan. There are times you have to use the rules, like the “rule of thirds” and similar compositions.  But we don’t like to follow them as if they’re written in stone.  We’re trying for a more artistic viewpoint. We’re looking for something different.

It’s All In The Company You Keep

"Hiking the extra mile, going out when you don’t want to, standing in the ice and snow at -30º F for hours, getting up at 5AM for 91 straight days, is just what you do" to capture the moment. Image: THanks to ©KAR Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     Now we know your equipment secrets, but technology is only as good as the operator. The real question is, aside from the obvious advice of more practice, how can a layperson take better wildlife images? 

ADAM:    We’ve grown more in the past nine months than all the time since we started combined.  It was the people we surrounded ourselves with.  We began watching how the really good photographers handled themselves, what they did, how they acted, what types of shots they were taking, and what their results were.  It’s been a really great experience, very important to us. 

KATE:    Looking at other’s work to see what is different about it, how they did it, to understand other professional’s processes has been a big part of our growth.

D:W (Roberta):     I think studying other professionals is helpful in everything. So tell us, aside from yourselves, who is your favorite wildlife photographer?  

KATE:     Michael “Nick” Nichols* He started out just like we did and is an extremely humble man. He dared to do things that have never been done before and lived out his dreams. We actually met him in Yellowstone. 

[* Note: Michael “Nick” Nichols won the 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award hosted by the British National Museum and the BBC Worldwide for his photo entitled, “The Last Great Picture.”  He has been a National Geographic photographer for 28 years and has authored or collaborated on numerous books and wildlife documentaries.]  

Watch the Pros
Watching Wildlife

Kate and Adam capture the reflection of Wild, feral horses in Utah. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography

D:W (Les):    “Watch the pros” is one of my favorite tricks.  You can usually pick out a few folks with well cared for but well used equipment.  They’ll often lead you to the best shots.

ADAM:    (Laughs) Yeah, look for a guy that hasn’t showered in a week.

D:W (Les):    You’re still relatively new in your profession.  Has there been one big breakthrough?  Or is it a steady progression?

ADAM:    (Laughs) we don’t do anything else now.  Really, we spend all of our time photographing now.  Before we moved out here, we had hobbies.  We hiked and kayaked.  Now this is all we do.

There is Nothing Like a Grizzle!  

The KAR team has been able to get some impressive grizzly bear images like this one taken in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Says Kate, "... seeing a grizzly bear - its indescribable. Just knowing a grizzly is in the area puts you on high alert: Image: Thanks to KAR Photography

D:W (Roberta:     What animals have excited you most so far.   

KATE:     Grizzly bears, there is nothing quite like seeing a grizzly in the wild. We get excited every time we see one, even if it is really far away we stop and admire it.

D:W (Roberta):     Are there certain animals that you love to photograph over and over? 

KATE:     Again, Grizzlies!  There is nothing like seeing a grizzly bear -  its indescribable. Just knowing a grizzly is in the area puts you on high alert and you become excitable at the very idea of them. You’re no longer the top of the food chain; there is no feeling like that.

D:W (Roberta):     We love all of your work, but which (of your own) photos is/are your favorite so far?  

KATE:     Havin’ a Hay Day (horned owlet peaking out of a hay bail), King of the Mountain (mountain goat kid standing on mom’s back), Welcome Home (fox kits on mom’s back).

Relentless Pursuit of a Dream

"striving to reach heights never before seen is just what it takes." This image is called, King of the Mountain , for Kate it sums it all up and is one of her favorite moments. Image: Thanks to ©KAR Photography.

D:W (Roberta):     This has been fun but it’s getting late. Before we say goodnight there’s one more thing I have to ask about.  A line on your website says that you’d like to “push limits and reach heights never before seen.” What does that mean to you?  

KATE:     It means giving everything you have and really giving yourself to something, only then will new heights be reached. It means hiking the extra mile, going out when you don’t want to, standing in the ice and snow at -30 F for hours, getting up at 5 a.m. for 91 straight days, it means being relentless in pursuit of a dream.

D:W (Roberta):     What’s the one thing you want people to learn from your images?  

KATE:     When people see our images, we really want them to feel something, to make a connection. We want people to get a glimpse into the spirit of the animal.

We think that Kate and Adam are indeed opening that window
into their animal subject's spirit. 

Keep your eye on Kate & Adam Rice as they keep their lens on the fabulous wildlife of the American west. Great grey owl. Image: Thanks to Kate and Adam Rice, ©KAR Photography.

Awards 2016
First place, Wildlife Category: 2016 Monte L. Bean Nature Photography Competition and Exhibition for Wildlife.
Second place, Bird Category: 2016 Monte L. Bean Nature Photography Competition and Exhibition for Wildlife.

Awards: 2015
First place in the 2015 Monte L Bean Nature Photography Competition and Exhibition for Wildlife.
One of the winning photographs for Birds of Great Salt Lake 2015 Photography Contest. 
(see below for info on where the winners are exhibited) 

Included in: National Geographic's daily dozen. Chosen three times. 

Special Thanks

Kate and Adam Rice, KAR Photography   See KAR image gallery    Follow them on Twitter  & Face Book

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