ESTES PARK, COLO.: EARLY ON AN AUTUMN MORNING, A LIGHT confection of snow begins dusting treetops on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve pulled our 4×4 to the side of the road, and I’m huddled low by the fender to line up my camera for a shot of four approaching elk. My guide, wildlife photographer Steven Morello, whispers to me from the driver’s side. No abrupt moves, he cautions; if I stay quiet, I’ll probably get a long shot of these animals when they amble up the hill to our right.

Three of them do exactly that. But the fourth, a young stag with an impressive set of antlers—impressive to me, anyway—makes an unexpected turn and saunters straight in my direction. He stops briefly, swings his head to scan me with his opposite eye, and practically poses for a quick portrait. I hadn’t expected this to be quite so easy.

I’ve come to Colorado to experience an increasingly popular form of ecotravel, loosely known as a “photo safari”: a guided trek to some pristine outback of the globe, with the goal of capturing one of those screensaver images that make us gush over the grand visual spectacle of planet Earth.

The ruling mantra of the photo safari is “patience.” You wait for that moment when light reflects, just so, off a lake; you wait for the giraffe to scan the horizon for predators before it dips its head to drink. In my current situation, however, I didn’t have to wait long. Morello had promised over breakfast that we’d photograph some elk today. “You’re good,” I tell him. “We haven’t been on the road 20 minutes, and I’ve already got a shot.”

The stag, however, has another surprise for us. Rather than shying when he hears the shutter release, he resumes his steady plod directly toward me. Morello’s tone abruptly changes. “Don’t move,” he instructs, as the animal edges close enough to sniff at my woolen scarf. Over my head, his antler points scratch against the Jeep. Even though this odd behavior creates the illusion of a convivial moment, I’m acutely aware that it’s probably not. Frozen between fender and elk, I stage-whisper in Steve’s direction: “What am I looking at here?” He seems as puzzled as I am.

To be fair, I couldn’t call this moment especially terrifying. It wasn’t exactly a rhino attack, but the animal wasn’t Bambi either. If I were to make a sudden move his antlers could clearly do some damage when he bolted. Morello gently taps the car roof a couple of times; the elk backs up a little, then bounds off to rejoin his companions.

Morello later speculates that this quirky elk was habituated to humans, probably as a result of hand-feeding, one of the more egregious violations of the photo safari’s maxim for behavior in the wild: “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” Lately, thanks to the confluence of user-friendly digital camera technology and the burgeoning interest in adventure travel, photographic excursions in search of wild game have ramped up into something of a growth industry.

Operators of these expeditions range from modest boutique firms to high-profile outfitters that send scores of clients and guides to destinations worldwide. Behind this legion of eager shutterbugs always lurks the potential for negative impacts on terrain and wildlife. One recent visitor to East Africa recalled a dismal cameo: a ring of off-road vehicles—open windows bristling with telephoto lenses—encircling an anxious cheetah that was crouching in the high grass to protect its kill.

Fortunately, most of the photo safari industry remains in the hands of responsible operators. They seem to function according to the collective credo that a camera is a tool for putting serious ecotravelers in close, minimally intrusive contact with the natural world.

Here’s a sampling of first-rate photo safari contractors who subscribe to that credo and can be counted on to bring their clients back with superb photographic results.

Seals, Owls and People, Too Green Planet Expedition

This little firm based in Lyons, Colo., definitely falls in the green zone. Director and chief guide Steven Morello began his 20-year career in wildlife tourism leading whale watches off the New England coast. Today he is a respected outdoor shooter, author of a comprehensive book, The Traveling Nature Photographer, and a contributing photographer for numerous magazines and conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund. He and his clients trek around the globe to commune with seals, owls, elephants, zebra and, in places like Peru, native peoples. But first and foremost, Morello is a vocal advocate for sustainable ecotourism. “The key to shooting powerful nature photography,” he insists, “is to first be a good naturalist.”

To this end, Green Planet photo safaris emphasize that the teams Morello takes into the field will deliberately prepare by learning about the area they will be visiting, the terrain and biota they will want to photograph, and a little about the local native culture. Above all, he comes down hard against irresponsible behavior in pursuit of pretty pictures. “You don’t impinge on a habitat,” he says. “You don’t induce an animal to move. You don’t chase them or make noises to get their attention. You honor their right to not interact with you.”

Morello’s clients seem to respect this level of sensitivity. Mary Beth Cohen, a Green Planet regular who recently traveled to Namibia, marvels that Morello is “almost painfully careful around the animals. In Africa, he’d divert the Land Rover to avoid disturbing a mother cat nursing her cubs.”

A veteran of expeditions to the Arctic, Antarctica, the jungles of South America and the African grasslands, Morello prefers to keep his tour groups small—between six and 10 participants—enough so that he can maintain personal contact with them before and during their experience. He front-loads every expedition, introducing himself by phone and briefing each team member individually. Morello smiles when he claims that in four years of Green Planet’s relatively young operation, he’s never disappointed a client.

Surveying the Savanna Focus on Africa

Ray Christenson is a photo-happy Lutheran minister from Henderson, Nev., who used to take a day off from his congregation every week to work in a camera store. After his retirement, Christenson joined a photo safari to Kenya, South Africa and Botswana. He recalls the hypnotic appeal of communing with wildlife through his viewfinder: “One leopard took its kill into a tree. I photographed it obsessively for maybe three hours, as it ate, then retired down the branch to sleep, then returned to its meal. I probably shot 200 pictures of this process, fascinated the whole time to be watching truly primal behavior at its natural pace.”

Africa, with its postcard vistas and astonishing biota, is a kind of holy grail for ecotraveling photo enthusiasts. Christenson made the excursion under the auspices of Focus on Africa (FOA), an operator that began as an outreach campaign for conservation and community development. Founder David Anderson, an associate of famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, is a passionate activist for protecting Africa’s biodiversity legacy and one day empowering the peoples of this beleaguered continent to—in the words of Anderson’s mission statement—“create sustainable economies in harmony with nature.”

Knowing the power of visual imagery to energize such a campaign, Anderson offers photo safaris over the entire continent, at specially discounted rates for serious photographers willing to release their safari pictures for media use without compensation. One selection of these bartered photographs, by 130 FOA clients, is already compiled in a lavish large-format book, On Safari ( Current and returning clients are presented with the same offer for participating in the book’s upcoming second edition.

Given Anderson’s lofty goals, it goes without saying that his entire schedule of excursions—from the forays to the elephant grounds of Zambia to the pilgrimages to mountain gorilla haunts in Rwanda—are conducted under the most responsible, eco-friendly conditions. His wilderness camps are all solar-powered and completely removable, and his clients are encouraged to purchase carbon offsets to compensate for their air travel to and from the continent.

But Anderson, like all reasonable advocates for sustainable conservation in the remote reaches of our complicated planet, knows that all behaviors have their inevitable impacts. The point, he says, is not to completely eliminate those impacts but to achieve “a world that works for everyone.”

Wild Horses Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris

A couple of years ago fine-art photographer Bobbie Goodrich, armed with a Nikon pro digital SLR, waited at dawn, knee-deep in the mud of the Rhône River delta in the south of France. This region, known as the Camargue, is famed for its rare, indigenous breed of sinewy wild horses. As the herd pounded into sight over the marsh grass that morning, Goodrich captured images that would soon be winning awards and hanging in galleries around the country.

Goodrich is not the first professional to use Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris to get her to the right animals in the right season and in the right lighting conditions for great photographs. “The expertise to accomplish this, unerringly, year after year,” says retired neurosurgeon Vance Macdonald, a veteran client, “is one of the defining features of Joe Van Os’s safaris.”

After 30 years in business, Van Os is the ultimate in photo tourism, each year placing around 1,000 clients and 20 veteran photographer-guides in wilderness destinations worldwide: South Africa, Alaska’s Inside Passage, the Galápagos Islands, Patagonia, the Arctic, the Grand Canyon, Brazil, Finland, India and others. Van Os, a widely published wildlife photographer who annually leads eight or nine of his firm’s expeditions himself, sees the safaris as a means to forge what he calls “connections with the earth and its ecosystems.” Spending hours training your lens on the snow monkeys of Japan or waiting out waved albatrosses in the Galápagos “slows down your tempo,” he says. “It forces you to scrutinize wildlife in ways you wouldn’t without the goal of getting a picture.”

Van Os likes to remind us that the world’s rare, resilient and unfettered creatures and their remote primeval habitats carry an important message to humankind: “You’re not necessarily the big dog on the planet.”