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