Heath er Angel
One of Europe’s most celebrated nature photographers, Heather Angel has just published a fascinating new book about pollination, using photography techniques more associated with crime scenes. Geoff Harris investigates…
Heather Angel trained as a marine biologist before becoming a freelance wildlife
photographer. She’s celebrated for her exquisite images, which marry science and art, and sell all over the world via her picture library, Natural Visions. She is also a prolific author and is about to release her 60th book, Pollination Power. The fruit of five years’ work at Kew Gardens and 20 overseas trips, Pollination Power reveals how plants attract a wide range of pollinators, with some images taken using ultraviolet flash, a technique commonly used to detect traces of bodily fluids at crime scenes. Appointed a Visiting Professor at Nottingham University in 1994, she is no ordinary nature photographer…
You’ve said elsewhere that you were entranced by the natural world as a child. How and when did first you get into photography?
My parents weren’t into photography and as a family we hardly had any pictures at home, but I realised as a scientist that a camera was a very useful tool for recording what I was finding in the field. When my father bought me a camera for my 21st birthday, I didn’t expect to end up a photographer, however.
So did photography present you with a tough learning curve at the beginning?
I am entirely self-taught, but I would ask people as I went along, and had access to the darkroom at Bristol University in the evenings. As a scientist I grasped things fairly quickly, and just got on with working out exposure and so on.
That’s the tragedy these days, it’s auto everything. I say to my students, “Okay, there is a white rock with a fossil in it – how are you going to meter for it?” and they just say they’ll let the camera do it. I reply that you need to adjust exposure or use a manual exposure and meter off an average tone, but this is like a foreign language to them. While waiting in hides for birds to appear, I metered rocks and grass so I could see which were an average tone. This taught me to speedily gauge when I needed to adjust the exposure
So were you working in black and white or colour in the early days?
As a nature photographer, I realised that colour was more important than black and white – if I needed to show the warning colours of animals, for example. So I was shooting colour transparency film most of the time. This was another reason I wanted to get the exposure right, rather than bracketing like mad either way – I was
paying for the film and processing, and didn’t want to waste exposures!
Who were your biggest influences when you started out?
Lots of people, but a book by Eliot Porter called Galapagos: The Flow
of Wildness had a big impact. This inspired me to visit the Galapagos on my first long-haul trip, in 1972.
After graduating you wrote articles about nature photography, and had your first book published in 1972...
Yes, mainly in black and white, and the layout was pretty basic, but it stayed in print until the mid-1980s. My biggest print run was for The Natural History of Britain and Ireland
(125,000), but the days of those sorts of print runs for non-fiction books are long gone.
Did writing come easily?
I had to work at early articles and books, but now I don’t find writing a chore. Whenever I have a spare moment, at an airport or on a train, I’m writing in a notebook. I find my photography fuels my writing, and vice versa. I tweet most days, too, which is fun, and allows me to share my early work again.
Why did you decide to photograph plants and animals, rather than specialise in one or the other?
There was no great plan. Because I was always interested in flowers, I was also interested in the interdependence of plants and animals. While it’s quite possible to divorce them photographically, they are both interlinked.
Even back in the 1960s, you must have been aware of the permanent impact that humankind was having on the environment?
Yes, it’s always sad to go back to locations and see how much they have changed, over only one or two decades. I’ve got two grandsons, and you can’t help wondering what the future holds for them.
Your kind of photography requires a lot of patience. Did patience come naturally?
I had to develop it. I make decisions quickly and expect people to react quickly. I also have gritty
determination. When I set a goal, it must be achieved, which is the reason I will sit for a long time in a hide or watching an aquarium, waiting for something to happen. What I visualise may sometimes take up to a week to get the shot. You have to be determined. How do you cope with the disappointment of coming back empty-handed from a trip? By never coming back emptyhanded! Wherever I go, I have what I call my target species. I try to find the best location, but you can’t control the weather, or shooting early or late in the season when animals don’t appear to order. So you have to make the most of what’s around you. There is no
point sitting in the hide and sulking. That’s the great thing about macro photography – you can always find shots worth taking, wherever you are in the world.
You have an almost Cartier Bresson-esque ability to capture decisive moments in nature…
When it happens, it’s wonderfully exhilarating. If I come back with six really strong images from a two- or three-week trip, I’m really pleased. There will be a lot of also-rans, but the advantage of writing is I can always use them – in articles and books, as well as on Twitter.
Which images are you proudest of, and why?
It’s hard to say, but I am proud of my work with pandas. It involved a huge amount of investment, both in terms of time and money. My image of a panda sliding on its back down a snowy slope always gets a reaction at lectures and is far and away my best-selling image.
I am becoming known for my macro work using different lighting techniques, such as dark field illumination – lighting translucent creatures from underneath against a black background, with dramatic results. I love being able to control the light with macro shots, which is not something you can do when photographing landscapes. With macro, the structure of a subject will tell you how to light it.
Have you ever been in danger when photographing animals?
I’ve had some lucky escapes. I was once snorkelling in the sea off the Galapagos and everything seemed fine when I checked, but then I noticed a male sea lion heading towards me. They are fierce carnivores, so I’ve never swum so fast in my life! Once I got beyond his territory, he lost interest. Then I was with a Japanese TV crew in Sri Lanka, who were making a documentary about me. We were in a jeep and stopped to listen to bird song. Suddenly a male Asian
With macro, the structure of a subject will tell you how to light it
Heather Angel, Wild life photographer