The key is to love and respect what you’re photographing. When you respect your subjects, you can start to take good shots
Jorge Camilo Valenzuela, wildlife pro
B orn and raised in Chile, Jorge Camilo Valenzuela now resides in France, but for most of the year he can be found in the depths of the Amazon or Borneo.
Heat and humidity make the jungle one of the most difficult environments for photography, but Jungle Jorge can’t imagine working anywhere else…
When did you first become seriously interested in photography?
It was when I was on holiday in Costa Rica about 20 years ago. I’m 40 now and I became a professional photographer 12 years ago. I went to film school and worked in cinema and TV initially, and then I came back to my first love, the still.
Was it on holiday in Costa Rica that you discovered your love for the rainforest?
Yes, because it’s such a different environment. In Costa Rica the humidity is 90 per cent, there are so many pitcher plants in a single tree, and you see fauna so near, it is amazing. I fell in love with that. Also, when I was a kid I read National
Geographic and every time I watched a documentary I’d say “I’m going to do that”.
In those early years in cinema, where were you working?
In France. I was a cameraman – it was very technical, but after a few years I was bored! I wanted to go back and live in the jungle.
Which rainforests have you explored?
I’ve worked in all the major rainforests of the world. I’ve worked a lot in the Amazon, where it runs through Peru, Brazil and Colombia. I have also worked in the mountains in Uganda, and I work a lot in Malaysia, in Borneo. I only look for species that are endangered. That is the point of my work, to show that it is important to save the endangered species of this world.
Of all your trips into the rainforest, which one is the most memorable?
My first trip to the Amazon was the most incredible. I was very thin, I had no
muscles, but I bought a lot of cameras and I was set to work for four months on a feature for a magazine. I tried to learn to climb the trees so I could learn about the canopy, but I broke my foot three days before I was due to leave. My foot was blue, yellow, purple. It was very swollen, double the normal size. My doctor said, “Don’t go, you’re crazy!” I thought, ‘I have a six-month permit from the Peruvian government to be in the rainforest, I have bought my ticket for my flight. Everything is ready. So I go!’ I went with a broken foot. I weighed only 67 kilos and had 50 kilos of luggage.
On a broken foot? You are crazy!
Yes! But that shows you my determination. It was painful the whole time I was working. But it was amazing because when I went into Peru there was no-one else in the jungle, because they’d had some political problems with a paramilitary group. It was finished, but still people did not want to go into the jungle. This was 2002, and there was no-one: just me, my guide, and the boat. The only people we met were the local Indians. It was like discovering a new place. Everything was new to me: the noises in the jungle at night, the birds, frogs, bats; there was noise all the time. I lived there for four months and for me it was my greatest experience.
Which has been the most difficult animal to photograph?
The jaguar was very difficult. I had been into the jungle four times and every time I wanted to see the jaguar but I never did. All the scientists and researchers said to me, “Oh Jorge, we have been coming here for 10 years and we’ve never seen a jaguar.”
Then one day my boatman and I were in the river very early in the morning, and he says “Jorge! A jaguar!”
I wasn’t ready. I’d just woken up and I had only the 300mm lens on my D2x, and it was very early. The 500mm was in my bag,
but you can’t change lenses early in the morning because there’s a lot of humidity, and the moisture gets inside your camera. I saw the jaguar there and said to myself, “Oh, my God, what do I do?”
My boatman said, “Jorge we must cut the motor. If we don’t, he’ll run away.” So we drifted very slowly with the river.
Then I said, “I need to go close to the riverbank.” So I jumped into the river. The boatman said, “Are you crazy?” I said, “I don’t care, it’s the first time I’ve seen a jaguar, so I need to.” It was crazy because there were caiman, there were
snakes. I made my way over quietly and waited for him to look up so I could take my photo, and then he walked away very slowly, like a king. He was not scared of me, he just walked away. That was the first and the last time in 12 years that I have seen a jaguar in the wild, in the Amazon, in his habitat. A lot more photographers are using wide-angle lenses in remote camera set-ups. Do you work that way at all? No, but I tried remote shooting once when photographing a dangerous snake. I have a picture of me photographing a vine snake just 10 or 15cm away from me with a 105mm macro. I’m not scared of snakes; you just have to take it slowly. If it’s moving you stop, then you wait and you can go. It can take two or three hours to take a shot like that. If he can feel sure you’re not a danger, it’s okay. You can shoot as close as maybe 10cm, it’s no problem.
What is your desert island lens?
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8. I can go anywhere in the world with this lens. The focal length is great, and because it’s f/2.8 it’s perfect when the light is poor. In the early morning in the jungle, which is when most animals are active, the light is very low. I only use flash for insects and reptiles, never for mammals.
So you usually shoot wide open?
Yes. In the jungle there’s so much cover, I need the wide aperture.
What equipment do you regard as essential to your jungle photography?
Two camera bodies. You need one spare because you never know if a rain shower is going to cause problems. A spare is also handy if you want to use different lenses for the same shot: you need a long lens for
I am not scared of snakes. You just have to take it slowly. If it’s moving you stop, then you wait and you can go
Jorge Camilo Valenzuela Jungle photographer
the face, and something else to show the body and surroundings, but sometimes you cannot change lenses because of the humidity. I have the 70-200mm on one body and the 400mm on the other.
Which camera bodies do you use now?
The D4. Two of them. Soon I will switch completely to the D4s, but first I will give it a trial when I go away next. I also have a spare body, which I sometimes give to my guide. It’s a D2x. It’s my warrior camera!
Why is that?
Because it has stuck with me in the Amazon, it’s been to Africa, to Borneo; it goes everywhere in the world. I have broken my foot while using this camera, I have broken my leg, I have fallen down many times, but the D2x always works! In the humidity, when it’s raining, when it’s hot, it always works. So it’s a warrior.
So you’ll never sell it?
Never! It’s my first big professional camera and I will never sell it.
What was your first Nikon camera?
I bought it long time ago. I was in Chile at the time. It was a film camera, the F5.
How much do you take on an expedition?
I take two Pelican cases. I always pack a 105mm macro. It’s my favourite lens for snakes, reptiles and insects. I also take a 10mm fisheye lens, 12-24mm zoom,
70-200mm f/2.8, and 300mm and 400mm f/2.8. I used to take a 500mm f/4, but I sold it because when I tried the 400mm f/2.8 I thought, ‘Gosh, I won’t use that again’.
Do you use teleconverters? No. I don’t feel you get the same quality, the same sharpness. If I want to get nearer I walk closer! I don’t need a teleconverter, I don’t want to change the quality.
You shoot a lot of video. What’s your preference, stills or video?
It’s two different kinds of shooting. For photography you look at the light, the composition, the expression, and in one photo you must tell everything. Video is different. When I do a video I write a storyboard with a script and I try to do something very professional. As with a photo, you focus on the face, and then you can track and zoom, but to create the ambience you need the sound. I use a Marantz professional recorder and I record in full HD and Dolby stereo. For me sound is 50 per cent of video.
Why is that? A good video without sound is not a good movie; if you look at a good video with good sound that’s a good movie: to hear the sound of the animals, when it’s raining, the wind, everything has to be there.
Jungle Spirit is your big project (see box, above left). It’s an app, and it’s been an exhibition. Will you do a book, too?
Well, first I need to find a good editor and a publisher! Yes, it’s interesting because it’s not like a book about the Amazon or Borneo, it’s 12 years of my life. It’s 12 years of one guy working in the rainforest in Southeast Asia, in South America, in Africa, so you can see the changes, the evolution. It’s different stories. It’s complicated.
That’s why I put the app together on the App Store, because then I can include everything and convey the message of Jungle Spirit. With the book I’ll probably have to make a DVD about the making of it, to teach people about the passion of being a jungle photographer, because it’s not an easy thing to do.
Where in the world would you like to photograph that you haven’t yet been?
There are two places. One is Sumatra for the tigers. Another is more than one place; it’s a project I have started, to photograph all the national parks in Chile. That’s 107 national parks! You start with the desert in the north and end up in the south near Antarctica. It’s a very big project, and I’m scared I do not have enough time to do it. I started it a few years ago, but I cannot stop Jungle Spirit either.
You need a lot of time to finish one project. I have only two projects: Jungle Spirit, where I can open up a new line by adding new countries, and Chile, which is a project for a movie, photo exhibition and a book. These will take up the rest of my life.
Are you the sort of photographer who deletes a lot of images as you work?
When I started I shot a lot. I saved a lot. Now, I don’t save so much. I wait for the light: if there’s no light, I don’t photograph. Sometimes the light is too bright. When it’s too bright I take a rest. I work from 5am to 8.30, maybe 9am, then come back to camp to breakfast, shower and sleep. I’ll go out again at around 2pm or 3pm until sunset. I take my time, I find a good spot, wait for the light. I want the best photo I can get, so I wait for the right moment. I don’t shoot in bursts. I delete as I go along.
Being in the field for so long, how do you stay on top of your image workflow?
One day I may take 20, 30 or 40 photos and then another day nothing. So the
macaw, Amazon (bottom)
Nikon D2x, Nikon AF -S 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, 1/2000 sec, f/4, ISO300
Nikon D70, Nikon AF -S DX 12-24mm f/4G IF -ED, 1/60 sec, f/8, ISO200
Jackson’s chameleon, ugand a
Nikon D3x, Nikon AF -S 300mm f/4D IF -ED, 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO320
Blue-and -gold macaws, amazon Nikon D3x, Nikon AF -S 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, 1/2500 sec, f/2.8, ISO320
Jaguar, amazon Nikon D70, Nikon AF -S 300mm f/4 IF -ED, 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO400
The Mighty amazon Nikon D70, Nikon 12-24mm f/4G IF -ED, 1/8000 sec, f/5.6, ISO320
In fant orangutan, borne o Nikon D4, Nikon 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, 1/500 sec, f/3.2, ISO500
Pygmy elephant, borne o (top left)
Nikon D4, Nikon AF -S 400mm f/2.8G ED VR, 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO320
Pit viper, borne o Nikon D2x, Nikon AF -S 105mm f/2.8G VR, 1/640 sec, f/5.6, ISO250
Nikon D2x, Nikon AF -S 500mm f/4G ED VR, 1/1250 sec, f/4, ISO250