Chris Pack­ham

Best known as a TV pre­sen­ter on wildlife shows, Chris Pack­ham is also a highly ac­com­plished na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher, as Ge­off Har­ris dis­cov­ers

NPhoto - - Front Page - Chris Pack­ham will be talk­ing at The Pho­tog­ra­phy Show in Birm­ing­ham, UK, on 20 March 2016. For more de­tails and tick­ets visit www.pho­tog­ra­physhow.com. To see more of Chris’s stun­ning na­ture and wildlife im­ages visit www.chrispack­ham­pho­tos.com

My life on the other side of the cam­era

Bri­tish na­ture lovers will be fa­mil­iar with Chris Pack­ham’s tele­vi­sion work, but the fact that he is also an award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher is less well-known. None­the­less, he has a pas­sion for work­ing be­hind the cam­era, and a clear style of his own, as he ex­plains.

What was your first-ever cam­era?

I in­her­ited a Box Brownie from my par­ents, which I cus­tomised with a sticker from the kids’ tele­vi­sion se­ries Joe90.

So were you in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy as a kid?

No, I didn’t re­ally get into it un­til I was in my early 20s. I played in a band but it never went any­where, so I ended up sell­ing my gear and buy­ing a Canon A1 SLR.

That’s in­trigu­ing! What kind of band were you in?

A punk rock band, but I wasn’t very good. I don’t have much of an ear for acous­tics.

Did you al­ways want to go on to study bi­ol­ogy?

I’d al­ways been into art and there had al­ways been a big di­vide about whether I went for art or bi­ol­ogy. I’d al­ways painted, too, and my mother used to take me to art gal­leries. So af­ter I grad­u­ated in zo­ol­ogy from Southamp­ton Univer­sity I did some sculp­ture, and then got more into pho­tog­ra­phy. I pho­tographed wildlife as I knew a bit about it. From the out­set, I wanted to take pic­tures that were dif­fer­ent from other pho­tog­ra­phers’ – I wanted to do more ‘arty’ im­ages.

Which other pho­tog­ra­phers in­flu­enced you?

I used to look at the work of Ernst Haas a lot from the 1960 and 1970s. He was a Na­tional Geo­graphic pho­tog­ra­pher and would do slow ex­po­sures on Ko­dachrome. His book The Cre­ation re­ally im­pressed me, as no­body else was do­ing any­thing like it. I didn’t try to mimic Haas’s style, how­ever; I just liked the way he looked at the nat­u­ral world in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way. So I thought, ‘How can I look at in a dif­fer­ent way, too?’ Ini­tially my work was very, very sur­real and man­u­fac­tured. I thought it was strik­ing, but I un­der­es­ti­mated how con­ser­va­tive the wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy world was. When I showed peo­ple my early work they didn’t get it. They thought I should be pho­tograph­ing birds pin-sharp, with three flash­guns.

How did you get your first break?

The first few years were quite hard. Even­tu­ally I got some port­fo­lio work printed in a mag­a­zine called Cre­ative Pho­tog­ra­phy, and then I won a cou­ple of com­pe­ti­tions. I won joint first in the Graphis mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­phy com­pe­ti­tion with a pic­ture of a dead fish that I’d spray-painted gold, so it looked like a fos­sil. I then started to get more work printed.

Which of your early projects were you most sat­is­fied with?

I’m never happy or sat­is­fied with my im­ages, to be hon­est, but I’ve al­ways tried to imag­ine pho­tos, draw them, and strive to make that a re­al­ity. In one early pro­ject, I got some red mush­rooms and placed them as

if they were grow­ing out of the cor­ner of a kerb by a drain. I then got my girl­friend at the time to put on some fish­net tights and stilet­tos and walk past. I lit it as well, us­ing power from a neigh­bour’s kitchen. Some­body said I should be shoot­ing ads for Pretty Polly tights! In an­other pro­ject, I col­lected a lily pad and recre­ated it on the floor of a ware­house, so it looked like it was grow­ing out of the floor of a very in­con­gru­ous en­vi­ron­ment. It took days…

You then be­come a wildlife film pho­tog­ra­pher, right?

Yes, al­though I fo­cused on stills pho­tog­ra­phy for pe­ri­ods of time. I’ve known full-time pro stills pho­tog­ra­phers, but they have al­ways strug­gled, and I didn’t want to go back to hav­ing no money. For the last two years I have been fo­cus­ing on my writ­ing and not done much pho­tog­ra­phy at all. I’m now back into it, though.

How would you cur­rently de­scribe your style as a pho­tog­ra­pher?

It’s be­come a lot cleaner over the years. I am OCD and don’t deal well with de­tail and clut­ter. I’m speak­ing to you from a kitchen where you wouldn’t know any­one was liv­ing in the house. It was in­ter­est­ing, I did a pro­posal with an­other wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher re­cently and his ap­proach was so rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent to mine. His im­ages in­volved the en­vi­ron­ment, while mine did ev­ery­thing they could to cut it out, us­ing close-up tech­niques rather than wide an­gles. I fo­cused on aspects that were beau­ti­ful in their own right rather than fo­cus­ing on the big­ger pic­ture, in other words. I find more har­mony in my pho­to­graphs by fo­cus­ing on de­tail and cut­ting out the clut­ter. I am hy­per-crit­i­cal about my work too, and a real per­fec­tion­ist. Some­times it takes the en­joy­ment out of pho­tog­ra­phy, but it’s the way I am.

Do you still be­lieve that pho­to­graphs can make a dif­fer­ence to the cause of con­ser­va­tion?

Yes, def­i­nitely. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a very pow­er­ful medium. It can com­mu­ni­cate beauty and hope, and yes, it can be de­press­ing when you see what is hap­pen­ing to wildlife. A great pho­to­graph re­ally hits you be­tween the eyes.

What’s your at­ti­tude to in­frared cam­era traps when it comes to pho­tograph­ing wildlife?

I don’t mind at all so long as the an­i­mal isn’t harmed. Even if you use cam­era traps, you still need to make choices about ex­po­sure, an­gles and so on. If the an­i­mal is rare, shy and in­ac­ces­si­ble, then traps are per­fectly ac­cept­able. Take Steve Win­ter’s amaz­ing im­ages of snow leop­ards, for ex­am­ple, that he wouldn’t have got oth­er­wise.

How did you find the ad­vent of dig­i­tal cam­eras? Was the tran­si­tion an easy one?

I found it quite dif­fi­cult, ac­tu­ally. I liked the feel of trans­parency film, and the dis­ci­pline of work­ing with it and try­ing to get the ex­po­sure spot-on. I’ve al­ways been a pho­tog­ra­pher who likes rules and con­straints. One of my re­cent projects in­volved shoot­ing

dam­sel­flies in the New For­est, and I set out the ex­act area I was go­ing to work in, and stuck to just two lenses. But I love the 36-megapixel Nikon D810. I love be­ing able to crop, change colour and be very cre­ative, do­ing the kind of things I could only dream about when I was shoot­ing trans­parency film.

What about the is­sue of Photoshop in wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy? It’s a con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject…

I do use it, and Light­room, and will re­move dis­trac­tions or even do some comp­ing, but I am al­ways very open about it. You should never pre­tend that you haven’t used Photoshop and try to lie.

You are a reg­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion judge, and see a lot of wildlife im­ages. What kind of er­rors do you tend to see re­peat­edly when sift­ing through the en­tries?

One of the big­gest er­rors that I see is choos­ing the wrong for­mat – hor­i­zon­tal or ver­ti­cal. You re­ally need to think of the best for­mat for the sub­ject, and to be pre­pared to twist the cam­era around. Also – and this is a re­ally im­por­tant point – don’t just take a photo of the op­por­tu­nity; you need to see the photo in the op­por­tu­nity. You have to be able to in­ter­pret it, per­son­alise it, and put it in the im­age. Take an im­age of one crea­ture killing an­other, for ex­am­ple. That is the op­por­tu­nity, but where is the pho­to­graph in there? You need to re­ally think about it.

I also see a lot of over-pro­cess­ing, with car­toon-like im­ages that end up look­ing they could have been pro­duced by Pixar. When choos­ing im­ages to short­list, the im­pact of an im­age is more im­por­tant than the tech­ni­cal aspects, too.

You wrote a book about travel pho­tog­ra­phy called 100Things that Caught My Eye. Why did you call it that?

The point was that the cam­era doesn’t take the pic­ture, you have to think about it in ad­vance. For me pho­tog­ra­phy isn’t a tech­ni­cal thing, it’s a think­ing thing – work­ing out how I am go­ing to use that en­vi­ron­ment to cre­ate an im­age.

You’re giv­ing a talk at The Pho­tog­ra­phy Show in March. What will you be talk­ing about?

I’ll be dis­cussing how I work, how I get ideas (of­ten when I’m stuck on the mo­tor­way!) and my par­tic­u­lar ap­proach. If I was go­ing to pho­to­graph ele­phants, for ex­am­ple, I’d go on­line and look at thou­sands of im­ages, un­til I’d fa­mil­iarised my­self with how they tend to be pho­tographed, then I would go and do some­thing dif­fer­ent. So my pho­tog­ra­phy is about think­ing in ad­vance and not just pro­duc­ing repli­cas. I’ll also stress the im­por­tance of tak­ing risks. I’ve been shoot­ing birds re­cently, straight into the sun, to re­ally make use of lens spots. It pays to choose the hard­est op­tion some­times, as you end up with a more in­ter­est­ing pic­ture.

“Part of a crowd of more than 100,000 king pen­guins. The sil­ver-rimmed fluffy young­sters looked great, so I ‘crushed’ them to­gether with my 500mm f/4 lens and un­der-ex­posed by three stops.” “Th­ese three un­lucky pen­guins were stuck on top of a beau­ti­ful blue ’berg which had calved and rolled, leav­ing them stranded.”

“I set this Nile crocodile against a back­drop of weeds which car­peted the wa­ter. I liked the sil­hou­ette, but couldn’t re­sist bounc­ing a bit of light back onto it to show its scales.” “Shot in Cana­dian wa­ters. Ev­ery crea­ture we found was ter­ri­fied of our boats be­cause the level of abo­rig­i­nal hunt­ing is out of con­trol.” “Pho­tograph­ing grey wolves in Scan­di­navia is dif­fi­cult, as they are so timid be­cause of hunt­ing pres­sures.”

“I pho­tographed this Ot­ter at the Bri­tish Wildlife Cen­tre in Sur­rey. I’ve no qualms about work­ing with cap­tive an­i­mals so long as they are well looked af­ter. For me it’s about the fi­nal im­age. I never lie, though – that’s when it be­comes cheat­ing.” “I ‘built’ this row of birch trees in my gar­den to pho­to­graph this young Tawny Owl. I have a fetish for peep­ing an­i­mals which af­flicted me af­ter I saw Jim Bran­den­burg’s im­age of the peep­ing wolf.”

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