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PPD Master Series: How Alyce Bender Makes Peace with Nature through Photography

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday September 11, 2019

“My entire life I have always felt a special bond with the natural world, especially animals,” says Las Vegas-based nature photographer Alyce Bender. “I know that may be cliché, but whether it’s the shady, green forests of the east coast, the golden deserts of the Middle East, the snowy scenes of northern Japan, or the temperate coastal shores of the Pacific states, I find peace and solace when out in the wilderness.”

Part of the reason she is so heavily drawn to nature, she says, is in response to the way most of us lead our modern lives. “Today, where many live in urban settings and rarely get out to explore, I think the vast majority of society has forgotten how to interact with nature,” says Bender. “I hope through my images and stories, it can help bring them closer to nature and start conversations about these unique environments.”

She believes there is also a deeper purpose in her work:  “As we face mass extinctions and an ever-warming climate, my images act two-fold, both to record what is/was and to bring vulnerable, lesser known corners of the globe to viewers.”

Bender began seriously pursuing her photo career after separating from the US Air Force about six years ago. “I decided to make the jump into a full-time photography career last year when my husband’s career took him overseas to a location I could not follow, thus leaving me the opportunity to jump head first into traveling and photography full time by living RV life for 10 months.” Today while she does primarily fine art, she always welcomes assignment work and hosts photo tours where she takes very small groups to capture environments and wildlife they might otherwise never experience.

Her nature work has been exhibited widely with shows in galleries and online, including at The Hub at B&C, Las Vegas, the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA, the Melrose Bay Gallery, Melrose, Florida, the Visual Art Exchange, Raleigh, North Carolina, the Charleston Center for Photography in Charleston, South Carolina and the View Art Center, Old Forge, New York.

Her work has been published in a number of print and online publications, including: Tamron Magazine (Summer 2019 edition), South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, Photographers’ Cooperative, North American Nature Photography Association, Outdoor Photography, Landscape Photography Magazine, and James Kelly PhotographyElgin, Scotland (as featured client photographs). She was also recently profiled in a national Japanese newspaper article which she says was, “…kind of cool considering I couldn’t read it. I had to get a Japanese coworker to translate it for me.”

Bender recently spoke to writer Jeff Wignall about her extensive travels, her passion for all things wild and her use of Tamron lenses.

PPD: You’ve traveled a great deal to some rather exotic places—Japan, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the United Arab Emirates. How much time do you spend each year on the road doing self assignments?

AB: Travel is a way of life for me. If I’m in one place too long, I get really restless. A few weeks without a trip and I am chomping at the bit to do something even if it is just a long weekend in a different part of the state. It fluctuates but typically I am traveling about 20 weeks each year, mostly domestic, but I try to get at least two to three international trips in that time as well.

PPD: Do you have a favorite part of the world?

AB: This is a really hard question to answer for me as I have not been everywhere yet. However, at this point, I would have to say Japan. It is a place I continuously revisit and would love to be able to live there permanently one day.

PPD: How did you end up shooting in Japan and what was it like to be photographing there?

AB: Well, my husband’s career dropped us in Japan for two-and-a-half years and I took full advantage of that time for my photography. There is something to be said about being able to explore a country as an outsider but with insider access due to temporary residency. Areas of the country not often visited by foreigners were a specific joy of mine to discover. This type of access also allowed me to revisit places time and again to learn the environment and what animal behavior to expect.

The famous snow monkeys are a very popular visit for photographers and tourists in Japan during winter. I have spent several weeks in recent years visiting the park where they tend to congregate. During this time, I have learned there are certain times of day that are better to see them coming down from the mountains or that they tend to be more active and playing. Due to the heavy visitation that these monkeys see, they are used to people but obviously, like most wildlife, they do not like being harassed or pressured. I have been sitting quietly before and had them come very close as they were chased from other areas by less respectful tourists.

PPD: What parts of Japan did you visit and did you just wander alone or did you use a guide?

AB: Since we lived in Aomori Prefecture, the most northern prefecture on the main island (Honshu), I primarily explored the Tohoku region, which is comprised of seven prefectures from Fukushima north to Aomori. However, I also visited Hokkaido each winter and continue to go back each February even now, after moving back to the States.

My explorations were almost always self-guided, where I would just get in the car and drive. So much of that region does not have a heavy online presence or English guidance, so many times the easiest way to find out about a dot on the map was to actually visit it.

PPD: What Tamron lenses do you use the most and for what subjects?

AB: The three primary lenses I shoot with are all Tamron.

My Tamron SP 150-600mm G2 is heavily utilized and is my go-to for wildlife. It’s been all over the world with me and through all sorts of environments, from the blazing deserts of the Middle East to the snowy islands of Japan.

When it comes to landscapes, I love my 10-24mm zoom. The ultra-wide view allows me to compose wide scenes while still using my Nikon D500 crop-sensor body.

My third lens was a recent acquisition this year and I just can’t get enough of it. The Tamron 18-400mm VC HLD has been an amazing addition to my kit. It allows me to take just one lens when scouting new locations without having to worry I might miss that deer crossing the trail or that I won’t be able to capture the great view at the top. I’ve also been really happy with its capability to act as a pseudo-macro lens, meaning I don’t have to carry additional gear for Nature’s beautiful details.

PPD: What is it that you like about Tamron lenses, that makes them your first choice with wildlife subjects?

AB: Price point is what originally drew me to Tamron products, however I stay with them because of the quality. I have always found Tamron lenses to be sharp and reliable. Their well-made design, including things like weather and dust resistant seals throughout the barrel of the 150-600mm G2, make them more usable in the field than models of other companies. I don’t shoot under only sunny skies so why have gear that can’t withstand the elements?

PPD: Do you have a favorite Tamron lens, your go-to lens?

AB: Well the three I mentioned above are my go-to kit and cover a range of 10mm to 600mm. With that coverage, I rarely have need of any other lens except maybe a specialized macro or prime if the situation calls for it. Otherwise, it’s that trio.

But if I had to recommend only one to someone just starting out and considering Tamron products, I would highly suggest the Tamron 18-400mm due to its versatility, quality, and it is lightweight, making it ideal for really any shooter out there.

PPD: What is your pre-trip research process like? Do you read a lot? Talk to other photographers before you go?

AB: Trip planning is one of my favorite parts! I always have something in the works as it is how I relax, just scanning areas on Google Maps or reading location blogs. I typically do many, many hours of e-scouting before putting boots on the ground for distant locations. For places closer to home, I still do a good bit of reading, maybe some image searches to see what others in the area are shooting, before heading out to shoot on my own.

Depending on the location, I will reach out to other photographers who either are local or have experience in the area and just get their stories and see if they have any tips. With all the social media out there now, many photographers, including myself, either have blogs or vlogs about shooting locations and I find those really helpful, as it allows me to pinpoint what questions I might have for them that have not already been answered elsewhere. This shows respect for the other photographers time and the efforts they have put into creating content already available.

PPD: Is waiting for the right moment tough or do you like the anticipation?

AB: Waiting is always the hardest part for me. It is one reason I have yet to do any blind work, as just sitting there when I feel like I could be shooting elsewhere is always a very hard feeling for me to overcome. However, once an animal is sighted or even if it can be heard but not seen yet, I’m game. For me that’s when the real fun begins in trying to stay with that animal as long as possible without it feeling stressed or changing its behavior. It’s during these longer sessions with specific individuals that you are able to start seeing the behavioral patterns and anticipating those great action moments we all want to capture.

PPD: Do you have any workshops or classes coming up that you’d like to talk about?

AB: I do have two tours coming up that I am super excited about.

The first is in November where I will be leading a small group of photographers into the forests outside Phoenix, Arizona, to photograph the wild horses found there. Coinciding with the fall color down there, we should have some great weather and beautiful backgrounds for our images.

The other tour is by far my favorite every year and that is to Japan! We go for ten days in February and I bring a max of four photographers. We will visit Hokkaido to photograph all the beautiful creatures up there such as the cranes, fox, and eagles. It really is an amazing time and gives those who come with me a great way to see rural Japan stress-free.

PPD: Finally, what advice do you have for those who want to learn more about nature photography or perhaps consider it a profession?

AB: Great question! My number one recommendation would be to invest in field education and travel over gear. Join organizations like the North American Nature Photographers Association (NANPA) as they are a wealth of information and opportunities. Education will teach you the practicals of using your gear while connecting you with those who share the same interests. Travel will broaden your mind and portfolio. Determine what you want your niche to be as early as possible and then become an expert on that subject, technique, region, whatever it ends up being. Then put yourself out there if you want to make it a profession. It’s a hard road for most to make this passion a career but, to me, it’s all worth it.

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