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

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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?

Very rarely.

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

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