What differentiates a good photographer from a great one is being a storyteller…
He has a PhD and a TV audience of two million, but what really excites Emanuele Biggi is spending time with a frog that gets you high and a spider called Portia. Keith Wilson meets Italy’s best-known nature photographer
Emanuele Biggi, macrophotographer
Comacchio, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, is home to the Asferico international nature photography competition and festival. It’s spring and I’m sitting down in Comacchio with one of the keynote speakers, photographer and TV presenter Emanuele Biggi. He may not be well-known outside of his home country, but in Italy Biggi is big. Very big.
To describe him as Italy’s answer to Chris Packham gives you some idea of his nationwide profile, but even the loquacious Packham cannot claim to be as ever-present as Emanuele Biggi. Five evenings a week he co-presents Geo, a live TV programme devoted to the environment. In other words, with a PhD and numerous photography awards to his name, plus a love for the spiders and frogs of tropical jungles, Biggi is certainly not your typical TV celebrity…
Can you tell me more about your TV programme? In the UK I suspect we’re not fully aware of how big it really is.
Yes, it’s quite a big one. It’s called Geo and it has been showing in Italy for about 30 years. It’s a national programme on a state channel, Rai 3, and I’ve been co-presenting it with Sveva Sagramola for four years now.
How frequently is it broadcast?
It’s live for three hours, from 4pm to 7pm, every day from Monday to Friday. We’re not always on the screen because we also present documentaries, sometimes food documentaries. Some of it is very local because in Italy there is a lot of tradition related to food and cultivation. So it’s more about the environmental side of food, and I present and interview people who come to talk on any aspect of life – mostly environmental, but not solely. It’s a wide remit – you cannot talk about just one thing for three hours a day! The only difference is that Monday to Thursday we’re live, and the Friday show is recorded on Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
When do you get time off to do your photography? I’m assuming
Geo isn’t broadcast all year round.
The nice thing about doing this – apart from being well paid, of course – is that
I sometimes mix ambient light with flash light. It’s very important to add some colour and light to subjects and to tone down the shadows
it’s an environmental program and we are seen each day by two million people on average. That’s good because I can talk about nature to many people, from September to the end of May, when it stops for the change of seasonal programs. I don’t have anything else to do during the summer so I can go on trips and do photography. So, I have plenty of time, at least three months of the year, when I can take my own photos.
My only complaint is that as long as I’m doing this job I can never witness something that happens only, say, in November. For example, a friend of mine went to Zambia to see the big migration of the bats and I was on the programme talking about it! Aside from that, I’m happy with everything.
have been very drunk”, because it’s very biodiverse, very different from east to the west. My countryside and childhood home was in that northern part of Liguria.
My parents also played a very important role because they sensed my interest and read books to me about animals even when I wasn’t able to read at four years old, so this fed the fire of my passion.
When you were young you also developed a big interest in amphibians and reptiles. How did that come about?
One summer a friend of mine brought me four tadpoles, four common toad tadpoles, and that caused a flash of excitement in my mind and in my heart. I kept them and watched them grow and I thought it was something awesome, from a child’s point of view, to see how the tadpole turned into a toad. That was mind-blowing.
Did those boyhood experiences fire your interest in smaller creatures, and therefore in macro photography?
Yeah, I think so. I grew up with that interest but I love all animals. I go to Africa to do safaris: I like lions, gazelles, zebras. I also like the big stuff because I like the ecosystems.
But I normally get more excited about small animals, and usually small predators. I don’t know why – I’m a vegetarian! But the conservation of smaller predators is very important because we are now beginning to understand that smaller predators have a bigger role in the ecosystem than the apex predators.
I always compare the jaguar to army ants in the South American tropical forest. Within the same area that holds a single jaguar, millions of army ants keep the forest alive because they eat millions of vegetarian insects that would consume the forest – so it’s very important that people understand they have a rich role in the preservation of an ecosystem.
How were you first introduced to photography?
Through my father. He’s not a professional photographer but a mix of amateur and camera collector, and of course he always took pictures of the family and holidays.
When I was a child at elementary school I sometimes stole his camera to take pictures. So later, when I got to high school and at the beginning of university, I’d already shot many pictures, but I started to photograph in a more serious and considered way, and came to see photography as a tool of explaining my passion for nature.
Was it your dad who introduced you to Nikon?
Yes, he gave me the F2 first, then the F3, F4 and so on.
So when he finished with one he’d pass it on to you as he moved on to the new model?
Yes, exactly. He’d always keep them so he has a nice collection of Nikons now. I think the FM was my first one – I was very small so he gave me something that I could break!
You use the D810 and D800 now. What else do you pack when you go on an expedition?
It depends on where I go. If I intend to photograph smaller animals and plants in Borneo, say, I try to avoid longer lenses, so the maximum I pack is the 105mm f/2.8 Macro. Luckily in Borneo I had a colleague who had a zoom so I was able to borrow it to photograph some monkeys. But normally I have two macros, 60mm or 105mm, and a wide-angle lens for the macro photography I love.
Is that the Sigma 15mm?
Yes, and sometimes the 24mm f/1.4 from Sigma. Lately, I have discovered the Tokina 10-17mm that has an even higher magnification ratio and a closer focusing distance. It has brilliant optical abilities so I’m using it a lot more, along with the latest Laowa 15mm f/4 wide-angle macro. In Borneo, I mostly used the 10-17mm; even on a full-frame D810, it’s a DX format lens, but I can still use it because of the crop factor and by zooming in a bit to avoid vignetting.
Yes, with the D810’s file size you can crop a bit and the image will still be big enough.
Yes, yes. Then another tool I use a lot of are the Speedlights. I use them at night and also for wide-angle macro, because when you use wide-angle you want to avoid too many harsh shadows on the subject. I sometimes mix ambient light with flash light. If you do a good mix, the flash light is barely visible. It’s very important to add some colour and light to subjects and to tone down the shadows.
I also take some more landscapefriendly lenses such as the 16-35mm f/4 and the 24-70mm f/2.8. This is my basic equipment. For Africa on safari, I have to pack for small and big subjects so I pack just one macro lens and the 200-400mm f/4. I also like the 300mm f/4 – it’s tiny and very lightweight. And that’s important because I don’t have a big backpack!
What do you do for a power source in the jungle? It’s not like you’re coming back to recharge every night in a hotel…
No, I have many batteries. That’s the way to go. It’s not lightweight, but it’s the only way if you’re trekking for days.
So how many batteries do you generally pack?
In normal trips you have at least some power, so maybe four or five batteries are enough. Sometimes I carry seven or eight batteries. I’ll keep some back at base and carry three with me. But I sometimes also use solar panels, which is growing as a technology. If I’m running out of power I try to avoid using Vibration Reduction and Live View. I use Live View scarcely.
It’s not an easy environment to work in. Can you give me an example of how difficult photography can be in the jungle?
It’s not at all easy. During the day the light is so variable because it’s coming through the canopy. If you have a cloudy sky it’s fine, but if you have a bright sky it’s terrible. One of the worst situations was when I was photographing mudskippers because they are so afraid of humans; then there’s the mud, the tide coming up and down continuously, the camera being very close to the water. I had to stay low on the mud, so it was very difficult to shoot.
Do you have favourite subjects that you keep returning to?
Yes, I do – there are two I love. One is a frog genus called Phyllomedusa, the monkey tree and leaf frogs from South America. I can stay photographing them for almost for half a year and I can never get enough of them!
They’re also called the waxy monkey frog. I love the ones from Paraguay that live like a desert lizard – it’s so different from the waxy monkey frog from the Peruvian Amazon. Those are used by locals for getting high before hunting, because they have hundreds of toxins inside their skin and you can go for three days hunting without needing to drink or to eat too much.
It’s like the coca leaf but a hundred times the strength. I’ve never tried it and I don’t want to try it, and anyway it’s harmful to the frog because they warm it up over the fire so that it starts secreting. This genus is crazy to me, I love them.
What’s your other favourite?
The second species is a spider, the Portia. If you saw the series TheHunt on the BBC, you would have seen the Portia. It’s the hunter’s hunter. He hunts other spiders and he does it in different ways depending on which species of spider he’s hunting. He also decides which technique to use depending on whether it’s windy or not, for example.
You think about how tiny he is – maybe 1cm long or less – and how complex his behaviour is. He locates the prey, remembers where the prey is, takes the right path to reach the prey and decides which technique to use, depending on the species, and the time of day, and the climate, and the weather! It’s strange and I like it so much.
Ethics in nature photography is becoming a bigger issue. What do you advise?
I’m pragmatic about this. If you know your subjects, you know what’s likely to stress them and the things that will cause damage, so you won’t do that if you’re a responsible person and photographer. This is my line. For example, I’ve been to Madeira to photograph a spider that is critically endangered, the Madeiran wolf spider. It’s only present in a small valley on a small island called Deserta Grande on the Madeira archipelago. It’s the biggest wolf spider in the world, it’s the panda of spiders! It’s only found there and is critically endangered.
I had to pick up some of these spiders to photograph them because they live under rocks, in order to show to the world that this spider still lives there and it’s important to conserve it. I’m not saying you can always touch animals – I hate that – but you have to know what you can do in order to photograph it without stressing it. Something like turning over a stone and handling a Madeiran wolf spider, there’s no problem with that – but never handle a hare or a deer because they’ll die. I’ll never go to a nest to photograph a bird. There’s a line that must not be crossed.
How important have competitions been to your career as a photographer to date?
They were important when I was starting out. I was highly commended in Wildlife Photographer of the Year, so it’s somewhat important and I do still enter the competition. Not because I like to win or for the publicity, even though that’s nice, but I like the mental procedure you have to go through to decide which images are best to enter.
It helps you to be a better critic of your own work and to step outside of your personal feelings. Is this image good enough to participate in a competition that will receive thousands of images? Maybe, let’s see. Then you commit. It’s also about not taking it too seriously because judges are people and they have their own taste about images.
What’s the best piece of advice you can give to someone aspiring to become a nature photographer?
Know your subject. It’s the base. You don’t go outside without knowing what you’re going to photograph, so know your subject because you will make better images, you will show its true existence. Nature photography is about showing nature as it is.
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Periophthalmus chrysospilos Mudskippers in Borneo prey upon crustaceans along the shoreline. Nikon D810, 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, 1/20 sec, f/13, ISO 100 Previous page Oecophylla smaragdina Weaver ants glue leaves together with silk to create huge nests. Nikon D810, 60mm f/2.8, 1/80 sec, f/22, ISO 100