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

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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.

Po­ta­mon flu­vi­atile This fresh­wa­ter crab lives amongst Ro­man ru­ins in Italy. Nikon D800, 15mm f/2,8, 1/100 sec f/13, ISO 100

Pre­vi­ous page Me­ga­lorem­mius leo This rare spi­der lives in the canopy of the Mada­gas­can rain­for­est. Nikon D810, 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5, 1/160 sec, f/16, ISO 100 Guibe­mant is pul­cher These tiny frogs live on Mada­gas­car’s pan­danus palms. Nikon D810, 60mm f/2.8, 1/160 sec, f/16, ISO 100

Boophis viridis Emanuele shot this Mada­gas­can tree frog through glass to show its in­ter­nal or­gans, vis­i­ble through the skin. Nikon D810, 60mm f/2.8, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100 Chamaeleo na­maque­n­sis This desert-adapted chameleon lives in the dunes of Namibia, rather than the more usual trees. Nikon D810, 60mm f/2.8, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100 Bi­tis peringueyi This snake waits to am­bush its prey in the loose Namib­ian sand, only its eyes and nos­trils vis­i­ble. Nikon D810, 60mm f/2.8, 1/250 sec, f/16, ISO 100

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

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