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Say the words, “National Geographic Photographer,” and photo enthusiasts will sigh in awe. Imagine their reaction, then, when they discover it is possible to spend a weekend alongside some of National Geographic’s best-known lensmen as they lead photography expeditions and explain tricks of the trade in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
This is the premise of the new Wildlife Photography Master Class that is launching this January at the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, a luxe, 132-villa resort located inside a 590-acre wildlife sanctuary just one mile north of Playa del Carmen. It runs from Friday to Monday morning, is capped at 12 guests and includes meals.
The experience is the pet project of 22-year Nat Geo veteran Steve Winter, who is also the world’s preeminent photographer of big cats and the media director for the big cat preservation nonprofit, Panthera. Winter recently made headlines as the only person to have photographed a wild mountain lion beneath the Hollywood Sign — the image will be released in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic. To help teach the class, he’s enlisted Tim Lamam, the first person to photograph all 39 unique species of birds of paradise, and Brian Skerry, Nat Geo’s go-to underwater photographer, whose work is currently on display at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. Each three-day weekend will be led by one of the three photographers.
“I picked the Banyan Tree Mayakoba because its grounds are so secluded that the animals aren’t skittish and we can get good pictures,” Steve Winter said during a test run of the itinerary, as we boated through the freshwater canals, mangroves and low-lying forests around the property.
His statement rang true on our first day. The animals we saw, which included crocodiles, iguanas, turtles and a few rare birds like the Yucatan Jay, Limpkin and Least Greve, were unfazed by our clicking cameras.
Winter is a natural teacher. He was patient and excited to help everyone in our group, in which all skill levels and camera types were represented. He explained manual tricks on digital SLRS, helped maximize functions on simple point-and-shoots, explained the tenets of wildlife photography and answered specific questions. But, in those casually cool anecdotal stories that can only come from hanging on a boat and breaking bread with such a pro, he also unveiled the mystique of what lands a photo in the pages of National Geographic. The same happens in formal workshops where the master photographer discusses the inner workings of his most successful pieces.
During the few hours of downtime, guests can hit Mayakoba’s top-tier golf course, spa, beach or pools (including the private pool that comes with each villa). The experience, which also includes trips to Maya ruins and the nearby Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, culminates in a presentation of the group’s best photos. I had the overwhelming feeling that I didn’t just improve my photography skills, but that I also got an inside look at what it takes to live that wistful daydream of being a National Geographic photographer.