Richard Peters, wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher

For Richard Peters, his back-gar­den sa­faris are just as en­joy­able as those he takes in Africa. And, he tells Keith Wil­son, both re­quire very sim­i­lar tech­niques…

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In the­ory it’s a gear change to go from your back gar­den to Africa, but the prin­ci­ple is the same what­ever you are pho­tograph­ing

Back in Fe­bru­ary 2015, Richard Peters took a pic­ture in his gar­den that went on to win awards in two ma­jor wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy com­pe­ti­tions. Since then he has pub­lished his first eBook, be­come a Nikon Am­bas­sador and quit his day job to be­come a full-time wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher. He re­flects on an ex­tra­or­di­nary year… Last year you were named Euro­pean Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year. How did you feel upon hear­ing the news? It was just sur­real. You al­ways en­ter a com­pe­ti­tion hop­ing you will get some­where but I never ex­pected to win. I en­tered just think­ing, ‘Let’s see what hap­pens,’ so to get a phone call to say you’ve won is just amaz­ing. Even be­fore this, how im­por­tant were com­pe­ti­tions to you? Com­pe­ti­tions are very im­por­tant in the sense that they’re recog­ni­tion of your work. But judg­ing is sub­jec­tive, so it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that if you haven’t been suc­cess­ful in a com­pe­ti­tion it doesn’t mean your pic­tures aren’t any good. I’ve en­tered many pic­tures and 99 per cent of them have had no recog­ni­tion at all, but I don’t then go away and think my pic­tures are not of the right stan­dard. The im­por­tant thing is that you fo­cus on what you want to do and get on with tak­ing pic­tures. If you take the pic­tures for your­self, the rest will fol­low. Your pic­ture of a fox shadow, taken at night in your back gar­den, is now fa­mous. How did you get it? The idea for the pic­ture came about prob­a­bly six months be­fore tak­ing it. I knew I had foxes com­ing into the gar­den and we’d just had some build­ing work done, and we didn’t have a se­cu­rity light on in the back of the house, so I was shin­ing a torch out the back each night to see what was go­ing on. One night, this fox came out from be­hind the shed and walked through the torch­light and cast this re­ally nice shadow. I thought it would make a re­ally cool photo if I could get the shadow in a pic­ture some­how. I had a cou­ple of goes, but I couldn’t get the shadow quite right, so I thought, ‘I’ll leave it and come back an­other day’. Four or five months later I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to have an­other crack at this shadow idea.’ By this time I had been ex­per­i­ment­ing with cap­tur­ing the night sky with long ex­po­sures and try­ing to cap­ture the fox with the sky in the back­ground and the stars, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m go­ing to do this shot again, but I’m go­ing to use a wide-an­gle to get the houses in the back­ground for a bit of con­text as well as the night sky.’ What sort of wide-an­gle? It was a Nikon 18-35mm G lens, the lat­est ver­sion, and I think it was 31mm in the end, the per­fect fo­cal length. If it was too wide, you’d start see­ing the deck­ing and the fox, so it was about

find­ing that per­fect bal­ance where I knew the fox wouldn’t be in the frame but its shadow would be the right size.

Which other lenses do you use?

Start­ing at the wide-an­gle end, the 18-35mm, 50mm f/1.4, 70-200mm f/2.8 and the 400mm f/2.8, which I use with the 1.4x and 2.0x con­verter.

You also had the 600mm f/4. Why did you sell it?

Partly be­cause of the weight and partly be­cause of the size – the new 600mm weighs the same as the 400mm now, but the 400mm is a lot smaller, which means it’s eas­ier to travel with, es­pe­cially on a plane as hand lug­gage. It’s light, it’s small, and it’s ver­sa­tile, be­cause you have a 400mm f/2.8, a 560mm f/4 if you put a 1.4x con­verter on it, and you have an 800mm f/5.6 with the 2x con­verter. That’s prob­a­bly my favourite lens now.

I guess a lens like that comes into its own on sa­fari too?

Yes, 400mm is the ideal tele­photo lens for Africa. I’ve been out there with a 600mm and it’s too much. We had lion cubs once that were prob­a­bly eight feet from the car and you can’t even fo­cus on some­thing that close with a 600mm. That’s an­other thing that’s good with the 400mm – the min­i­mum fo­cus­ing dis­tance is a lot shorter than on a 600mm.

What was your first Nikon SL R?

Orig­i­nally, some­one lent me one. I can’t re­mem­ber the model num­ber, but it was a film cam­era and fully man­ual and it was sil­ver as well, that’s all I can re­mem­ber! The first cam­era that I bought my­self was an F80. I bought a grip for it and the grip didn’t have any but­tons, it just made it a bit big­ger, an inch taller, and when I put it on I thought, ‘Yeah, this looks like a pro­fes­sional cam­era!’ I used that for about six months and then switched to dig­i­tal; the D100 was my first dig­i­tal cam­era, with a 1GB mem­ory card.

That was a lot in those days!

Yeah, one gi­ga­byte seemed huge. I don’t think I ever filled the card ei­ther!

Af­ter the D100, what fol­lowed?

Af­ter the D100 it was the D200, then the D300, the D2x, D3, D3s, D4, D800, which I had with the D4, and then I sold the D800 to get a D810, and then the D4 to get a sec­ond D810.

So you pre­fer the D810’s larger sen­sor to the D4’s speed?

As I’ve ma­tured as a pho­tog­ra­pher I’ve gone away from think­ing ‘Oh look, there’s an animal over there!’ and then hold­ing a fin­ger down to take as many pic­tures as I can. Now, I think a lot more about what I’m do­ing and I’m more picky about when I press the shut­ter. A lot of my pic­tures now are dark be­cause I like do­ing un­der­ex­po­sure and rim light­ing. That light­ing isn’t there all the time, so you have to think more about how you’re go­ing to use it to make the most of it. I find my­self look­ing more for the light than the sub­ject, so I don’t need the speed so much.

Why are you drawn to that par­tic­u­lar style of im­age?

In one re­spect it’s be­cause it just looks a bit dif­fer­ent to the typ­i­cal thing. For ex­am­ple, if you’ve got puffins on Skomer is­land, the typ­i­cal pic­ture would be to have a bird nicely ex­posed among some flow­ers. I still take those, I will al­ways take the safe shot, but I al­ways think there is a way you can make a sub­ject more in­ter­est­ing, and light­ing is the key to that. I like mood and at­mos­phere, I want that nice side­light or rim light.

Were you in­spired to try that style by see­ing an­other ex­am­ple of it?

Yes, there was a pic­ture that sowed the seed in my head. The pho­tog­ra­pher was Miguel Lasa. I think it was Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year 2008. It was a po­lar bear and all you saw was the rim light around the bear. It was just an out­line, not the whole body, just the pro­file of the bear’s head and one of the legs. I’d seen rim light­ing and back­light­ing pic­tures be­fore but that one was big in the ex­hi­bi­tion and I thought, ‘Wow! That’s amaz­ing.’ See­ing a fa­mil­iar sub­ject in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way, that’s what stuck with me.

When you go to Skomer for the puffins or the Ma­sai Mara for the big cats, do you pack the same kit?

Ba­si­cally, yes. I tend not to take too much be­cause there have been times when I’ve taken ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink and then not used it, so gen­er­ally I take the 400mm f/2.8 and both con­vert­ers, the 18-35mm, and quite of­ten that is all I take. But I’ve just bought a 70-200mm, and that mostly goes to Africa, be­cause there are times you need the mid-range.

But most of the time it’s ei­ther one ex­treme or the other – wide-an­gle or tele­photo?

Yes, but say you’ve got ev­ery­thing from 18mm to 800mm cov­ered and

you have a scene in front of you, you’re go­ing to be won­der­ing, ‘Which one of the many com­bi­na­tions shall I use?’ whereas if you’ve only got tele­photo and wide-an­gle, it might lead to you tak­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of pic­ture to the one you would oth­er­wise have taken. I find hav­ing the ex­tremes some­times forces you to take a pho­to­graph from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive to what you would do nor­mally.

You launched your eBook, Back Gar­denSa­fari, last year. Why did you do it?

The whole idea was that you can take amaz­ing pic­tures any­where. I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to con­cen­trate on tak­ing pic­tures at home be­cause not ev­ery­one has the time or the money to travel.’ It’s im­por­tant to get over the mind­set that you have to travel to some­where cool to take ex­cit­ing pic­tures. While do­ing this I dis­cov­ered I had a badger vis­it­ing the gar­den. For over a year I took pho­tos of what­ever came into the gar­den just to show what is pos­si­ble.

Is there likely to be an­other eBook?

There’s def­i­nitely go­ing to be a cou­ple more. I quite like teach­ing and help­ing peo­ple, that’s what I en­joy about work­shops, so I’ve got a cou­ple of ideas for ‘how to’ books. Long term, I’d like to do a nice vis­ual book that’s just about the pic­tures, not about the tech­nique. I think that would suit a printed book. ‘How to’ books are bet­ter as eBooks be­cause you can add to them over time, you can up­date them.

Af­ter the foxes and badgers, which com­mon species are you con­cen­trat­ing on now?

If I’m hon­est, I don’t want to say! Just be­cause I don’t want some­one else to start do­ing it as well, and I’ve got a cou­ple of pic­tures I want to en­ter into com­pe­ti­tions. But what I will say is, there are lots of com­mon species around that peo­ple ig­nore ev­ery day. Ev­ery­one loves red squir­rels, but there are tons of grey squir­rels, and black­birds, jack­daws, spar­rows. So I think con­cen­trat­ing on those more could be ben­e­fi­cial be­cause you could present a com­mon sub­ject in a new or un­usual way. For ex­am­ple, ev­ery­one has seen a puf­fin in flight with a slow shut­ter speed to blur the wings, but if you ap­ply that to a jack­daw or a jay it’s a type of shot that you maybe don’t as­so­ciate with that species. It makes the shot more unique be­cause it’s a fa­mil­iar tech­nique with an un­fa­mil­iar sub­ject, (even though it’s a com­mon sub­ject).

You’ve made sev­eral trips to Africa to pho­to­graph the iconic species. That’s quite a gear change from foxes, so how do you ad­just?!

The first thing that’s in my head when I’m tak­ing a pic­ture is: ‘What’s the light do­ing?’ That’s the most im­por­tant thing to me. Africa is amaz­ing, but as ridicu­lous as it sounds, whether I’m sit­ting in front of a lion or a jack­daw, if the light is do­ing some­thing good that’s what I’m in­ter­ested in, that’s what I’m think­ing about. I’m not think­ing, ‘I’ve got a lion sat in front of me’, I’m think­ing, ‘There’s cloud in the sky, the sun’s go­ing to break through soon and I’m go­ing to get some nice back­light­ing, so how can I make the most of that?’ In the­ory, it’s a gear change to go from your back gar­den to Africa, but the prin­ci­ple is the same what­ever you are pho­tograph­ing; it doesn’t mat­ter where you are or what the sub­ject is.

It’s about the light?

Yes, I’ve al­ways got that in my head rather than what the sub­ject is.

Are there spe­cific species that you have tired of pho­tograph­ing?

No. I would say I don’t get tired pho­tograph­ing any spe­cific species, rather I get quite bored and com­pla­cent just re­peat­ing the same sce­nario over and over again. For ex­am­ple, with the badgers, I haven’t taken any pic­tures of them for a lit­tle while now be­cause I’ve taken a sim­i­lar pic­ture so many times and from dif­fer­ent an­gles that, to me, there’s noth­ing unique about it any more. I will have to come up with a new way of do­ing it, like the shadow fox.

Last year, you de­cided to pur­sue pho­tog­ra­phy as a full-time pro. Was it the right de­ci­sion?

Yes! I got to the point where my day job was stop­ping me from do­ing more pho­tog­ra­phy. I felt in my­self that it was the right time and through var­i­ous cir­cum­stances at work I got the op­por­tu­nity to make that de­ci­sion. And yes, it’s been great. I had the two big com­pe­ti­tion suc­cesses last year and that pub­lic an­nounce­ment timed well with me go­ing full-time into pho­tog­ra­phy, then be­com­ing a Nikon Am­bas­sador hap­pened six months af­ter that. So ev­ery­thing has fallen nicely into place.

It’s been an in­cred­i­ble 18 months. What are you look­ing for­ward to most in the com­ing year?

The big thing for me is do­ing more work­shops and trips and one-toones. Be­cause I can take a nice pic­ture, and I know how to use the cam­era, it’s good to be able to im­part that knowl­edge to peo­ple. So, I’m keen to teach more be­cause I find it re­ward­ing, es­pe­cially when you tell some­body some­thing sim­ple and for them it’s a rev­e­la­tion. I’m co-lead­ing more trips and will be back to Africa next year and start pro­mot­ing my one-to-ones more. I want to do more eBooks and come up with in­ter­est­ing ways of tak­ing pho­tos.

So no go­ing back to the day job?

No way!

Back gar­den sa­fari

Richard’s badgers fea­ture in his eBook


Nikon D5500, Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR, 1/200, f/8, ISO200, 2x Nikon SB-28, Cam­trap­tions PIR sen­sor

Shadow walker

Win­ner, Euro­pean Wildlife Pho­tog­ra­pher of the Year 2015 Nikon D810, Nikon AF-S 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED , 30 secs, f/8, ISO1250, Nikon SB-28, Cam­trap­tions PIR sen­sor

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