Out in the thicket, in clear view of the creek, Randy Whitbread gets the moose squarely in his sights. Nothing unwanted is in the way. It’s a perfect shot. He lines it up, squinting through the viewer with one eye shut. A deep breath. Click.
The moose stands still for a moment while Whitbread checks his camera. Success. The shot has turned out exactly as he’s hoped. The moose laps up some water and trots off while Whitbread continues on his way, looking for another target.
Whitbread may hunt from time to time, but increasingly in his retirement, he’s on the hunt for a new kind of shot – photos of northern life and the wilderness: photos that have earned him acclaim in the north.
Whitbread worked at HBM&S for years, toiling in the zinc plant as a machinist. In the early 1970s, Whitbread first found an interest in photography, meeting with local photographers and learning the trade at photography clubs in the north. He developed a knowledge and appreciation for the fine functions that make a camera work. At the drop of a hat, Whitbread can discuss the specs of cameras he used more than four decades ago, going at a pace that could knock even an experienced shutterbug back a peg or three.
In the early 1980s, Whitbread started a family. Between work and home life, photography took a distant back seat. The clubs and other photographers he’d worked and shared with gradually fell away. Whitbread’s gear was left more-or-less untouched for years.
When Whitbread retired from HBM&S in 2010, he needed something to do to pass his newfound time. Then he remembered the camera and the joy of getting the perfect shot.
“Within a very short period of time of retiring, I went, ‘I’ve got to find something to do with my time.’ My wife was still working and I had a couple of cameras I’d bought prior to that,” he said.
Whitbread bought a Nikon DSLR shortly after having that thought. Since then, he’s barely stopped shooting.
Since getting back into photography, Whitbread has travelled across North America, snapping photos of wildlife, nature, family and friends. Around home, Whitbread tries to find images that will speak to Flin Flonners. One well-known shot shows aurora borealis rumbling over the boathouses near Bakers Narrows. Another shot, a black-and--white photo, shows a point on Ross Lake, taken from near the ambulance station on Longmore Avenue. Those two rank among Whitbread’s favourites.
It’s a perfect mirrored reflection in the water, the bullrushes. That’s one of them. That’s not a real ‘jump-up-and-grab-you,’ but it’s one of those ones that I liked,” he said.
“Probably the other one would be the boathouses out at Bakers Narrows. One night, when the Northern Lights were going crazy and the reflection from the top came through there. That’s one of my favourites.”
If you ask Whitbread to pick only one favourite photo, you won’t get a concrete answer. There’s a group of favourites, each with their own merit and backstory.
“It’s hard to pick one. I take pictures, I put them on the wall and I sell them. But then some, including that one at the market garden, that’s still sitting in my living room, all 24-by-36. That one’s not for sale,” he said.
Like any skilled hunter or fisher, Whitbread has his own secret locations. And also like any skilled hunter or fisher, he doesn’t reveal most of his spots.
“There are three spots down there where I know they nest, so I always target those ones,” he said about loons, one of his favourite subjects.
“There’s a couple eagle nests there I know of and I’m quite secretive about those. I’ve seen too many people trying to climb the trees, getting feathers and stuff like that.”
Not every spot is a state secret, however.
“Other than that, I’ve spent miles driving and walking and travelling. I love photographing bears. I spend a fair bit of time around Iskwasum. That’s bear central up there,” he said.
Whitbread is a harsh judge of his own work. Even one small flaw can be enough for him to delete a shot entirely.
Whitbread estimates that he has about 15,000 photo files saved somewhere. That number doesn’t include the tens of thousands Whitbread didn’t hang on to.
“I’m my own worst critic, myself. I tend to look at my stuff and I throw pictures away – ‘Not good enough, not good enough, not good enough,’” he said, throwing imaginary photographs in the trash.
“Other people would say, ‘Why?’ I don’t know how to explain it.”
Still happy in his retirement, he’s even found ways to make some cash from his hobby. Each year, at the start of the winter, Whitbread sells calendars featuring some of his best photos. They don’t last long before admirers snap them up. He has been printing them for five years and selling for four, and is likely to do it again this winter.
“Last year, I did two different ones. One was the normal one with all the different spots and I did another that was strictly Northern Lights. I printed about a hundred of them and they were gone in about five minutes,” he said.
“Selling calendars started out with a few friends calling and asking, ‘Hey, can I get one of those?’ I thought, okay, I’ll print an extra 25 for family. Then somebody else asked and it became over a hundred. Then, I’ll order 250.”
While Whitbread enjoys putting together the project each year and it brings in a fair amount of money, he consciously tries to keep his hobby a hobby. Making a separation between work and play allows Whitbread to keep finding joy in his craft.
“Maybe I should have done more, but it becomes a job if I gotta try and look after it and sell too many. I don’t want it to be that,” he said.
“I don’t want it to be a job.”
For a man with a miner’s pension, money isn’t a primary concern. Whitbread’s purpose is to find art, not to manufacture and sell it. A good chunk of the money Whitbread makes from the calendars and other projects goes right back into his camera case. He’s a lens fiend, always looking for a new tool for his trade.
“I’ve done a couple of contract shoots and, to be honest, I didn’t like it. You have to have it by this time. There’s deadlines. That takes the fun out of it, to start with. Then it’s, ‘We want this and this and this angle,’ and when you tell them that this angle is way better, ‘No, no. We want this,’” he said.
“I’ve had people say I should start a gallery. No. Then it’s a job. I take my camera and go at night when I want to go take a picture. If I like it, I keep it. If I don’t...”
He trails off.
“For the most part, I do it on my time, my schedule. So I do it and I still enjoy it. I still like it. I don’t want to get into the sales too much.”
In the meantime, Whitbread has no plans to put his camera bag back on the shelf. Once the summer arrives, he’ll likely be out on the lakes in his boat, trolling motor humming along, searching the water and shoreline for potential photo opportunities. Whitbread even has plans to do some travelling soon. After making a trip to Hawaii earlier this year, he said he’s considering going to Iceland in the fall, one of his photographic dreamlands.
“That’s kind of my dream place to go to take pictures; Iceland. Not in the winter time. I can get that here if I get in my truck and drive to Thompson,” he said.
“Iceland is one of those places that just intrigues me. Every time I see a picture of it, I want to go there. Or Norway.”
How can you shoot a wildlife photo like Randy Whitbread? Here are two tips from the man himself on how to improve your animal photos.
• Get a longer lens (200 to 400 or 500 range) and a tripod.
“I’ve been real close to bears and it’s not an easy thing to do, I can tell you right now. Get yourself something you can keep your distance with. They’ll be more natural, too. The further you are away from wildlife when you take your picture, the more natural pictures you’re going to get,” he says.
• Pick one thing to focus on.
“Whether it’s a waterfall, little birds, bears, foxes. Start with one subject and work at it until you get that shot,” he advises. “There’s always going to be that one shot that’s going to stand out for the rest of your life. Don’t get too close to them, keep your distance.”