How To Be A Wildlife Photographer

21 October 2007


I guess that I must have one of the best jobs in the world, or at least that's how it's perceived by a great many people with a love for all things natural. I'm a professional wildlife photographer, and have been lucky enough to have traveled the globe in search of the most exciting and enigmatic creatures on Earth.A lion looks for lunch

One of the reasons for pursuing this career is that I'm mad about the natural world in all its guises and I have an insatiable desire to meet every living thing, personally. Photography is a means of communicating the wonders of the natural world to a wider audience, to people who can appreciate it at a distance and for those who are less fortunate than me in being able to experience it in reality.

Above all I'm a scientist and yes, occasionally a naked one (although that does tend to be reserved for the shower!). I have spent my life so far in a state of awe and wonder at the intricacies of life in the wild and the resourcefulness of Mother Nature. A behavioural ecologist by training, I suppose I'm a hybrid, part voyeur part psychologist.

Being able to understand why animals do what they do, and how this may change given different circumstances and environments, can only be an advantage when you spend hours, if not days at a time sitting and waiting for some miracle of nature to unfold before your lens. In this respect, the patience of a preying mantis is essential, as are the eyes, of an eagle, the hearing of a bat-eared fox and the smelling ability of a great white shark. Lightning reactions are also a prerequisite when the action starts and an innate ability to know when to quit a situation is paramount - a healthy respect for the animal you are photographing is always in the forefront of your mind. For me it's obvious, if you study both wildlife photographers and film-makers, that it is those who love wildlife first and photography second that are the cream of the crop, and it shows in their resulting images.

A Penguin Stretches its wingsIt's not just a knowledge and respect for the animals themselves but also for local conditions be it the weather, geology or geography that dictate the movements and behaviour of animals that really makes the difference to getting yourself and your camera in the right place at the right time to capture the image for posterity. Practicalities such as basic vehicle maintenance, good off-road driving skills and a flair for logistics are all part and parcel of achieving your goal too.

Yet being a wildlife photographer means that you must respect wildlife in all its forms and this brings about the perennial chestnut of whether or not to intervene in the case of the sick or injured, or animals in imminent danger. You have to have a hard stomach to sit and observe some of nature's spectacles, it truly is red in tooth and claw.

My philosophy on this is simple though. Unless the situation has been directly or indirectly caused by your presence (and this can mean something as simple as highlighting the presence of potential prey by leaving footprints up to a nest or such), then leave well alone no matter what unfolds in front of you. If you are unable to leave nature to do its own thing then you have no right to be there.

This may sound harsh and sometimes it is but it is essential that we allow nature to happen in the raw and maintain that important dynamic in the wider ecosystem. Right, I'm stepping off of my soapbox now.

For all the above parameters to work together is a chance in a million and it's a good job that I was never very good at statistics otherwise I wouldn't even bother getting out of bed in the morning but then that's not what drives a wildlife-nut. However, you do still have to put bread on the table and in a fiercely commercial and airbrushed world, doing so is something of an uphill struggle.

Not only that but it seems that just as technology has made it possible, with the advent of digital photography, to capture images that were out of reach of the humble film camera, that the wild world itself has begun to wage an arms race against the wildlife photographer.

Sadly, this war is of our own doing. Climate change (yes, I know now don't drop off to sleep with boredom), impacts on everything, even the lowly life of a wildlife photographer. Even in the past five years that I have been a professional, I've witnessed flourishing grasses and rains in the desert, starving polar bears pacing the tundra and testing the lapping waves where sea ice should have been, bumblebees sipping nectar in my garden on New Year's Day, turtle eggs poached alive in ragingly hot sands and wildebeest behaving even more confusedly that normal crossing the Mara river several times in a week following the unpredictable rainfall. It is shocking regardless of whether scientists prove the case or not: all the predictions I studied as an undergraduate about climate change in the early '90s are there for all to see.

Although, it's not all doom and gloom, earlier springs, times of plentiful food resources and warmer temperatures can mean bountiful times for some. Birds are triple-clutching in my garden and young roe deer are everywhere, bugs and bees have been doing well too, but as is her way, Mother Nature has an uncanny knack of bringing her children back in line in sometimes shockingly brutal ways.

So, just as today's environments are becoming increasingly a scene of feast and famine, very high, highs and deep, deep lows - it looks like I will be riding this rollercoaster with Mother Nature for sometime to come in the vain attempt of reaching that elusive equilibrium. Now, I never said that it was an easy life did I? Still think it's the best job in the world? Yeah, ok, I do but I had better hold on tight.


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