Thai model on an Elephant

Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant

by
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Unique experiences enhance our travel experience. This is why we offer custom travel photography workshops. Encountering elephants close up is always exciting. Coupled with a gorgeous Thai model dressed in traditional costume and you have the makings of a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Recently we hosted a client on a travel photography workshop she will never forget. However, she loved it so much it may not be a one-off event. She’s talking about returning with a group of friends for more adventure photography with us.

Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant Elephant Model
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f4, 1/640 sec, ISO 400

Careful Planning and Preparation

Putting together a custom workshop requires careful planning and preparation. We partner with Elephant Carer Home because they focus not only on our needs but the well being of their elephants.

Before the custom photography workshop, we work together with them. Organizing the time we’ll spend photographing is important. They want to know what our purpose is. What do we hope to achieve during the photography session with the elephant?

When we arrive our group is briefed by their staff. We learn how to enjoy the time together and understand what it’s like to be near to the elephants. Most photographers who join our workshops have never photographed elephants close up before. It’s important to gain some insight into the elephant’s behavior and needs. This was we all benefit.

We’d organized to hire one elephant to photograph. When we arrived Khun Sab, the owner, greeted us with news we would be able to work with three elephants. Including a very cute two-year-old. This added a whole new dynamic to the photography workshop. The complexity level rises. But so do the opportunities for more amazing interactive photos.

These elephants are well trained and accustomed to working alongside people. From the outset, it’s easy to see they are treated like family members by their handlers. One of the guys even gets badgered by his wife because of the close relationship he has with his elephant. In Thailand elephant handlers, known as mahouts, will pair with their elephants for life. They know their behavior intimately. It’s essential for us to pay attention to them and heed their directions.

Loving the Baby Elephant Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f2, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400

Becoming Acquainted With the Elephants

It’s more important to take some time to become acquainted with the elephants we will be working with. Simply starting to take photographs as soon as we arrive will not endear us to our wonderful subjects.

We spend some time, without our cameras, to be close to the elephant. They like to smell us, hear us talking to them, and most of all have us feed them. Elephants spend so much time eating.

Elephants spend 12-18 hours a day eating. They can consume 90-280 kg (200-600 pounds) of food and 190 liters (50 gallons) of water during this time. So we need to be aware of their needs. We allow time for them to enjoy their grasses, sugar cane, bananas, and other fruits.

Our model joins in this experience of getting to know the elephants, or, more importantly, the elephants becoming aware of her. Khun Nook, the lovely young lady who modeled for us on this workshop had never worked close up with elephants before. So it was important that she relaxed with them. Building awareness of being near to these huge animals means is necessary. Their flapping ears can take you by surprise as can other subtle movements. When they move even a little it can be surprising.

Elephant Surprise Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Khun Sab helps Khun Nook onto the elephant. Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f4, 1/640 sec, ISO 400

Scoping Out the Location

While we’ve had wonderful experiences in the past working with Elephant Carer Home, this time we were at a new location.

I spent some time scoping out the location when we arrived. I was looking for vantage points which would provide good lighting and backgrounds. Where would we take wide-angle photos including the environment? Where was it going to be best to set up some closer compositions? Could we avoid standing in the hot sun for the whole time? All these considerations make up for a better customer experience.

Flexibility is always important when working with elephants. Sometimes they do whatever they like. But it’s good to have many options to suggest and work with for where we want to photograph.

Walk with the Elephants Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400

Working With Experts

One of the great things about working with Khun Sab is he’s very experienced. Not only with elephants, but working with photographers and film crews. His professionalism in this area is sort after by people in the film, television and photography industries. We’ve come to appreciate this after the less than ideal experience we had at another elephant camp. The first time we ran a photography workshop with elephants the service was lacking.

Sab communicates clearly with us. He lets us know when the elephants need a rest or to stop and eat. When they were getting too dusty, (they like to flick dust over themselves,) he would direct us all down to the river and let the elephants bathe.

Bathing the Elephant Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 400

Suggestions on how to set up the elephants with the model were also forthcoming. Because Sab is so experienced he has a good feel for what photographs well. He knows how to place the model with the elephants. He was also always open to suggestions we put forward.

I wanted to have Nook reclining on top of one of the elephants. She was obliging and Sab gave her clear directions on how to mount the elephant. This is not easy if you’ve never done it before, especially when you’re wearing a long, wrap around skirt. With Sab’s help, Nook was up on the elephant and ready to be photographed. Both Nook and the elephant enjoyed the experience.

Elephants make an internal rumbling sound, like a cat purring, when they are happy. It was good to hear this as it indicated the elephant was quite comfortable.

Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant Close with the Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f2.8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 400

Collaborating With the Human Talent

Thai models are wonderful to work with. In our experience, they have a high degree of professionalism and are flexible to work with us. Nook was no exception.

Even though she had not worked with elephants before she was enthusiastic and only a little hesitant. After becoming acquainted with her three pachyderm companions she enjoyed the encounter immensely.

She was not shy of coming in close or climbing up on one of the older elephants. Getting in close with the baby was a highlight for her.

As we neared the end of the session we invited her to hop in the river with the elephants. She was happy to oblige. This made for some wonderful fun and intimate moments.

Trunk and Model Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f4, 1/500 sec, ISO 400

Going With The Flow

I prefer a natural style of photography. I am more content to go with the flow, especially when working with animals. If we let them do what they want, to a certain extent, we’ll get more natural photographs.

This can prove challenging because not everything is completely set up. Spontaneity is important. Predicting an elephant’s movements is not easy. But, letting them graze and not directing their activity the whole time means they are more relaxed. So are the handlers.

Sab told us he appreciated our relaxed approach. He’s worked with many photographers and film crews. Often they need certain specific compositions which require a lot of repetition. The elephants can become restless with this activity. He was pleased we were content to work in with him and his team.

Capturing the action as it happens requires a good knowledge of your camera equipment. Constantly keeping focus is a challenge when using a wide aperture. For most of the session I used my 85mm f/1.4 lens. Rarely at f/1.4 because the constant movement makes it so difficult to capture sharp images with such a shallow depth of field. It being a manual focus lens was also challenging.

Taking a lot of photos is essential. Often photographers hesitate to take enough photos. I kept encouraging our customer to be prolific in her picture taking so as not to miss opportunities. During the morning I took over 900 photographs, our customer took even more.

Splashing with the Elephant Awesome Photography Workshop with a Baby Elephant
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 85mm, Settings: f5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 400

A Rewarding Travel Photography Workshop Experience

Photographing traditionally dressed beautiful Thai models is wonderful. Getting up close and photographing elephants is also amazing. Combining the two is extraordinary.

We are happy to run custom photography workshops like this with between one and four people. Keeping the group size small makes it more beneficial and practical for everyone.

If you’re living in Chiang Mai or planning on visiting contact us. Come and join in this unique cultural photography experience. We’ll do all the hard work of organizing and logistics. You can enjoy a special time capturing some of the best photos you have ever taken.

Two long neck Kayan women having a good laugh during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop
Two Kayan women sharing a good laugh at Baan Thing Luang.

These workshops are more hands-on action than tutoring sessions. I teach by example, taking photos throughout the morning as well. This allows me to see the best angles and compositions and offer participants my advice.

If you’re interested in some more structured photography workshops please take a look our regular one day Chiang Mai Photo Workshops. You might also like to check out other travel photography workshops we run. These are based at our home situated about one hour’s drive south of Chiang Mai in a beautiful rural landscape.

Come and stay in our bed and breakfast and be immersed in a photographic retreat. The Weekend Markets Workshops are popular. Or you may prefer a custom photography workshop. Taking in the sights and locations you’ll most like to visit in Doi Inthanon National Park.

Whether you’re a beginner photographer or a more experienced amateur you are sure to learn and improve your skills. We offer a depth of photography and cultural experience. You will not find workshops like ours anywhere else in Thailand or Asia.

We have purpose built our home to accommodate workshop participants. The location is stunning, peaceful and inspiring. The rooms are comfortable and well appointed. We even have high-speed fiber optic internet.

During the months of May until October it is the wet season. This is when the landscape looks its best. For landscape photography, late  June until October is the best time. This is the rice growing season.

There are so many great locations nearby Suan Sook, our homestay.

Rice Fields on Doi Inthanon

Between October and March, the weather is dry and cooler. November and December the forest is still lush and green and the air is clear. In the night and early morning temperatures at our home can drop as low as 8° Celcius (46° F). At the top of the mountain, it can drop to below freezing. You’ll need to come prepared with some warm clothes to make the most of the lovely early morning light.

Whatever level of photography you are at our goal is to be supportive and inspirational. We only work with individuals or small groups. This ensures you receive the best teaching we can provide. You will not have to compete for our attention. We will build your confidence in your creative and technical skills. We’ll encourage you to achieve personal photographic goals.

Kevin Landwer-Johan teaches photography

Please take a look at the Chiang Mai Photo Workshops we offer. Check out the photography workshops and retreats we run based at our home, Suan Sook Homestay. We look forward to hearing from you and guiding you further onwards in your photography journey.

If you’ve enjoyed this article please sign up of our newsletter and stay up to date when I post more. I send a newsletter every two weeks with helpful and informative information and teaching about photography. You’ll also receive a free enrolment to one of my online photography courses. You can sign up here.

Kevin Landwer-Johan photographer
If you’ve enjoyed this article please sign up of our newsletter and stay up to date when I post more. I send a newsletter every two weeks with helpful and informative information and teaching about photography. You’ll also receive a free enrolment to one of my online photography courses.

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Equipment I used to make these photos.

Nikon full frame camera body. I use an older model D800. This link will take you to view the Nikon D850 which is the upgrade model.

Nikon AF FX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G 

Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4G

Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G 

Nikon AF-S fx NIKKOR 24-120mm F/4G ED

These are affiliate links for your shopping convenience. We appreciate when you shop with us. It helps me continue to keep this website relevant and up to date.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you may also like to read this one “Taking Photos in Thailand [How To Be Courteous].”

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