My big break
David Tipling has specialised in bird photography for more than 30 years. He is the author or commissioned photographer of more than 40 books. In 2002, he won a coveted European Nature Photographer of the Year award. To see more of David’s images visit ww
David Tipling describes how a languid leopard helped to kickstart his career
As one of Europe’s most widely published bird photographers, David Tipling has travelled the world to capture everything from birds of paradise to penguins in blizzards. But on his first overseas photo excursion, more than 30 years ago, it was not an image of an exotic bird that was to be the turning point in his fledgling career, but an encounter with a big cat.
“I was on safari in Kenya, on my first big trip abroad,” he recalls. “There were six or seven of us, and we were in the Samburu National Reserve. Our guide, Dave Richards, who has since become a good friend, knew of this leopard that was famous for getting up onto this beautiful dead tree.”
Richards found the leopard on an early morning game drive and the tour party followed it from afar. “The leopard just climbed up the tree and sat looking at us as though it was in an armchair,” says David, who took this shot with a 300mm f/4 telephoto on a Nikon FE2 loaded with Kodachrome 64 slide film.
Upon returning home, he submitted the picture to Planet Earth Picture Library, went back to his day job at a local branch of NatWest Bank, and heard nothing more. He continues: “Then, about six months to a year after that, Planet Earth took a deal with The Telegraph Colour Library, who were producing a catalogue, and the picture was included on the leopards page.”
For the young auditor, having one of his images printed in a major picture library catalogue proved pivotal to fulfilling his aspirations. “In those days they’d print nearly 400,000 of these catalogues and if your picture was in, it had a much greater chance of being used by picture buyers.”
To say David’s leopard proved popular would be an understatement: “I started earning more from that one picture than I was getting every month from my job,” he recalls. “I can remember my bank salary then was £270 to £280 a month after tax, and I was often making between £300 and £600 a month from this leopard picture! “I’d always taken trips and holidays for photography, but this was the first one that made me any money.”
More significant than the change in fortune, though, was the change in his self-belief: “I’d wanted to be a photographer since I was a teenager, but that picture gave me the confidence to realise that one day I could realise my dream.” However, it wasn’t until 1992 that David made the break for good, and quit his bank job to become a full-time photographer. At around the same time, he joined the Tony Stone picture library, and he went on to have many more of his images included in its catalogues. “The money I made from those pictures allowed me to travel and shoot the stuff I really wanted to shoot. Ironically, I didn’t repeat the success of the leopard shot with an individual image until I went and did emperor penguins in the late ’90s. Those were the days.”