The moment you’re on land you’re vulnerable. If a hippo attacks you’re in danger – no photo is worth someone’s life
Lou Coetzer, wild life photographer
itting in the café at the Natural History Museum in London, Lou Coetzer is eager to show me his new book, An Intimate African
Journey. It’s his magnum opus – a 400-page, five-kilogram tome featuring five years’ worth of work, mostly around the Chobe river in Botswana, a location he never tires of visiting…
Where is your favourite place for wildlife photography?
I consider the Chobe to be the best wildlife photography destination in the world.
The whole world? Not just Africa?
The whole world. I’ll be going back next month; it will be my 66th time to the Chobe.
What makes the Chobe so remarkable?
I was working with a group of photographers on the Chobe on a ten-day trip. We were alternating between the boats and the vehicles. By the fourth day the guys said, “We’re not going on another vehicle because the photography from the vehicles does not match that from the waterside. If you’re on the water, you’re among the birds, you’re among their behaviour, and your waterside view of elephants, of crocodiles, of hippos, is completely different to the landside view.”
You’re more at their eye-level?
Yes, it’s like you’re on a floating hide, and the difference between working from the river and working on the land is huge. You can manage light – if the sun is rising you can drift down the river and work that part of the river and in the afternoon you can work the other side of the riverbank. You can move around, and the animals seem to accept the boat much more quickly into their private space.
You have been a pro sports photographer and studio portrait photographer, but is wildlife photography now your first love?
I would like to think I am a master of the two previous ones. I won the South Africa Professional Sports Photographer of the
Year award, the overall winner. One year I came second, one year I came third.
So why the switch?
I love sport. I grew up with rugby in my blood. My first contact with a camera was when my Dad was running up and down at an athletics meeting his three boys were in, all day, with a borrowed Zeiss camera with a 50mm lens, trying to get pictures of his boys in action and only then realised there was no film in the camera! My Dad’s pure dedication to this thing called photography left a memory that I never forgot. So growing up with sport, being passionate about sport, it was a no-brainer that I would do sports photography.
During the time when I was a sports photographer and the time following that when I was a portrait photographer, wildlife photography was my hobby. Telling the story; documenting the action and interaction with exquisite light; clean backgrounds, clean foregrounds; these are all things that come out of my portraiture background. I still believe this is the ultimate model for wildlife photography: using exquisite lighting, attention to detail with behaviour, action, storytelling.
What was your first Nikon?
The F4. I’ve been with Nikon ever since, except when the company I worked for went digital and I had to let go of my Hasselblads. We bought Canons, but at that time my own cameras were still Nikons. My best photographs last year were taken not with the D4 but with the D800.
What is your desert island lens?
I’m in a state of flux with that. My two favourite lenses are the 600mm f/4 and the 14-24mm f/2.8. I like extreme wide-angle wildlife shots, and I love the 600mm f/4 lens. When I was with a group of Americans in Etosha National Park, I dropped my 600mm with a 1.4x converter and a D4 on the end of it, and I couldn’t
get the converter off. So I decided, ‘Okay I’m going to take the 400mm f/2.8 and the D800, that’s all I’ve got now,’ and that’s what I worked with. Well, I fell in love with the combination. I got some shots that were amazing, and I pushed the D800 to levels that it would not normally be pushed to, and I just nailed the results. So when I went to Alaska I took my D800 and 400mm f/2.8 with a converter.
Which converter do you use?
I use all three: 1.4x, 1.7x and 2.0x. I use my converters extensively. They are pin-sharp right throughout the range. The problem is they are shutter-speed hungry. You’ve got to feed them a fast enough shutter speed and then they will do the job.
In what instances do you use flash?
I use flash very rarely now, simply because I’m working with long telephoto lenses.
But you use it for studio portraiture?
Obviously, I’m using flash all the time there, but for my wildlife photography I hardly ever use flash now.
The moment you are on land, you’re vulnerable. If a hippo attacks, you’re in danger… No photo is worth someone’s life Lou Coetzer, wildlife photographer
Do you have a favourite species?
No, I don’t have a favourite species. The Chobe is my favourite destination; I prefer destinations that offer clean foregrounds and backgrounds. Etosha does it as well, Masai Mara does it, but to a lesser degree, and Alaska does it too – but none offers the abundance of species like the Chobe.
Aren’t hippos meant to be the most dangerous species of all?
Yeah, they kill more people on the African continent than anything bar the mosquito.
Doesn’t that unnerve your clients?
They are dangerous, and the closest scares we have had on the river are with hippos. We use a long, flat-bottomed boat. It’s nine metres in length with eight seats down the middle. We have sometimes gone over hippos that have been sleeping in the water. The boat is very stable, so I’ve never been concerned that a hippo will capsize it. The moment you are on the land, though, you’re vulnerable. If a hippo attacks, then you’re in danger. The closest shaves we’ve ever had have been with hippos in these kinds of situations. We had a calf come out of the water between us and the mum, and then the calf had a look and decided to go and investigate, and as it approached us she charged, and it was a full-blown attack.
No photo is worth someone’s life. The lovely thing about working from the boat is that everybody has 500mm or 600mm f/4 lenses, which allows you to say, “Right, this
is the distance we’re working at,” and I can park the boat at a safe distance.
So the reason for everyone to have the same long lens means the distance you keep caters for everyone?
Exactly. It allows everybody to work from the same distance and yet they don’t all take the same pictures! At the end of the day when we sit down and have a look at their photographs you cannot believe they have all been studying the same scene.
Safari photography has grown in popularity in recent years. What are the main reasons for that?
I think photography in general has grown in popularity with the advent of digital. Everybody now walks around with a camera in their hands – their cell phone – and it has just become more accessible to go on a safari and record your memories. There is definitely a growing number of people who are taking the hobby of photography much more seriously. The reason for that, I think, is because, given the right equipment, given the right circumstances, they can actually nail world-class images. I know a lot of professionals – by that I mean other professionals who are doctors, auditors or whatever – that are taking home worldclass images because they are in the right place at the right time, they have the right equipment and they have got the skill to take great photographs. So professional image quality is no longer the domain of the full-time wildlife photographer.
What’s the oddest thing in your bag?
There’s nothing unusual in my bag. I have a 14-24mm lens, a 24-70mm lens, a 70-200mm lens, teleconverters, a flash…
So you still pack the flash?
Yeah, I pack the flash, but I’ll photograph my clients when we’re driving back against
an African sunset. Give them images to take home as a memento.
What would you say is the worst thing about being a safari photographer?
There’s not actually anything I can think of. Until very recently my wife and I have been doing this together all the time, but she’s
The more people we get to climb on safari vehicles… the more photography will be able to change people’s thinking Lou Coetzer, wildlife photographer
been declared medically unfit after some neck operations, so now I find myself being away from home for long periods. This is a change in environment for me, getting used to the fact that I’m away from home so long, but all the destinations I go to have got internet so you can Skype, which means I’m not totally cut off. But in terms of the wildlife photography, there’s nothing I can think of. I love it. I love the editing part, I love the photography.
Is wildlife photography as effective for raising awareness of conservation as photographers say it is?
I think we will be much more successful in reaching our goals in terms of conservation if we can get more decision-makers to sit behind a camera. We’ve got to get these decision-makers to sit behind a camera on safari and fall in love with wildlife photography and use that as a conservation tool. I think we have to get more people into the veldt behind a camera. I think many conservation photographers are talking to the converted most of the time. The people who are not the converted, they are the people we should aim at. The more people we get to climb on safari vehicles, to climb on boats and go out into the wild and experience wildlife and see it and fall in love with it, the more photography will be able to change people’s thinking.
Do you shoot video at all?
More than she can chew Nikon D4, 1/1600 sec, f/5.6, ISO
Lone giraff e Nikon D800, 1/8000 sec, f/9, ISO 400
Hyenas Nikon D800, 1/5000 sec, f/5.6, ISO 500
Grizzlies grazing Nikon D800, 1/1000 sec, f/13, ISO 640