Parkinson’s sufferer David Plummer tells how he overcame his disability in the challenging world of wildlife photography
David Plummer was in the prime of his life when he was given a life-changing diagnosis. He tells Keith Wilson how he has turned adversity into success with his best-selling new book…
Last September, David Plummer launched a book, with a title that every photographer can relate to: 7 Years of
Camera Shake. However, the book title was not just a piece of whimsy about the difficulties of holding a camera still during slow exposures. Instead, it was a direct reference to his life-changing diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and the time he spent with the condition, while still working as a professional photographer. Parkinson’s is a lifelong and incurable affliction, usually affecting older generations, but David was just 40 years of age when he received the news. The publication of the book, featuring around 200 of his best wildlife photos taken from this period, is his response to the disease – a testament to how he has pursued a life as a professional wildlife photographer, despite the obvious difficulties he’s had to confront…
I love the title, it makes me smile. But in all seriousness what was the primary reason for doing the book?
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which was nine years ago now, and I must admit, I went through dark times. When you’re given something like that, you think it’s all over. I’ve become very active in this area of changing attitudes to Parkinson’s disease, and you go online and you see these horrible images of old people with gnarled hands, operating a wheelchair, and after a while I thought, ‘You know what, I haven’t got worse in the last few months, I’m not dead yet.’ So, the race started in that I got more and more motivated by photography. It was like Iwas in a race, and I just started producing more and more work because there was that nagging doubt in the back of my mind: how long will Ibe able to do this for? The reality is I’m nine years down the road and I think I’m still getting better at my photography. I don’t mean that in a big-headed way! I just haven’t stopped and I’ve pushed my photography relentlessly and I think that was the motivation for the book: I’m producing good stuff now and it’s against the odds, as it were.
What has the response to the book been like since it was published in September?
Rather phenomenal actually. It got a lot of media coverage. I was on BBC Breakfast and things like that. It spiked on Amazon as a best seller in several categories. I took a screenshot from my phone where I was number one best-seller, above Dan Brown and John Le Carre!
I’m going to get that printed and it’s going to go into the downstairs toilet as a framed print, because that’s one of those moments in life that’s never going to happen again. I think in the first six weeks it sold over 2000 copies and that was before Christmas. I’ve got other books on the horizon now too.
The title gives an idea of how Parkinson’s has affected you, can you give me a better idea of how your life as a photographer, as a person too, has changed?
Well, it’s quite multifaceted really. You’re certainly tested when something like that happens. Especially as a young person, and I’ve always been considered quite driven and belligerent in my attitude to getting jobs done. But the galvanization was the awareness that I’ve got no control over anything around me. None of us have any control whatsoever. But what we do have ultimate power over, should we choose to exercise it, is our reaction to things. I decided, ‘look, I can’t change this disease. I can’t cure it, no-one can, I can either be unhappy and miserable about it, or I can just get on with things and choose to be happy.’ So, I chose to carry on. I would say, on a personal level, it has made me more mentally hardy and robust, than at any stage in life. I would say I’m happier than I’ve ever been, because once a person learns to exercise that power, nothing can get you down, and I use that attitude in photography every time. My view is, if I don’t understand something, I give enough time to understand it. I mean, a lot of amateurs are intimidated by offcamera flash until you devote a day or two learn it and it’s actually pretty damned easy. So, the disease, in a way, was the best thing that ever happened to me because it tested me and I developed a strategy for just about dealing with everything in life.
I suppose having a sense of humour must help as well?
It does. I teach photography a lot now, and whenever I talk to people about handholding, I talk about camera shake and I say, ‘Trust me I’m famous for this!’ You’ve got to have a sense of humour – learn to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously. A lot of people get obsessed with what work other people are doing, so as a photographer you’ve just got to do your thing and work out what you do well and stick to it.
I teach photography a lot now and whenever I talk about camera shake I just say, ‘Trust me I’m famous for this!’
Of course, camera shake has been around as long as photography itself but we now have image stabilizing lenses as well as tripods, so do you use any of those techniques or technologies to help compensate?
My main workhorse camera is the D4, so when I consider I learnt on Fuji Velvia at ISO50 and I used to rate it at ISO40 at the lab, getting fast shutter speeds was pretty damned hard. Now, using a D4, some of the images in the book are around ISO20,000, and that technology is quite phenomenal. I’m invariably always on a tripod, or if I’m in Kenya I’m always on a beanbag or something like that, I’m always looking for stability. I do use VR – so four stops leeway as far as camera shake is concerned – but with a Parkinson’s tremor, it is so coarse that the movement of your hands, if you’re off meds, means the vibration reduction is not going to affect that really. No matter what shutter speed you’ve got, your hands are moving so much you can barely hold the camera. I love the new technology of cameras, I’ve totally embraced it, but still there’s nothing to beat a camera being on a great tripod. Especially with wildlife if you’re using something like a 500mm f/4 lens or something like that.
You’re just back from Kenya, which bodies and lenses did you pack for that trip?
The bag is still packed, so let’s take a look. I’ve got a D4 body, I’ve got a 200-400mm f/4 VR and a 1.4x teleconverter, so that’s my main workhorse rig. I love the speed of the D4. I haven’t got a backup camera for Africa and Nikon said I could borrow either a D850 or a D5, so I tried the D850 because it’s a different class, a medium format camera in an SLR body. I’ve got criticisms of it – the battery takes hours to charge and doesn’t last very long – but I was taking images of cheetah and they’re 8500 pixels wide! So, I’m planning to do an exhibition of big cats in black & white and just have huge pieces of wall art, eight or ten foot wide, of cheetah running direct at camera. I also do a lot of time-lapse, so I took a couple of wide-angles as well, because the D850 does 4K time-lapse in camera, which is incredible.
Is time-lapse something you’ve been doing for a while?
I’ve been doing time-lapse for four years now and it’s been used in a few BBC things. When I went digital I went off landscape photography. Iloved the colour of Fuji Velvia, then when it went digital I just couldn’t get into landscape photography again. Then I took up time-lapse and I can’t look at landscape in the same way anymore because time-lapse makes it dynamic for me now. Watching the skies on a 40 second time-lapse is just incredible.
What’s your desert island lens?
It would probably be the Nikkor 200-400mm f/4. It is a dream lens, and the quality of the glass is just stunning. If I only got to photograph something like birds in the UK, I’d probably go something like the 600mm f/4, but my desert island lens would definitely be one of two: the 70-200mm f/2.8 or the 200400mm f/4. That 70-200mm is beautiful for portraits of animals and birds, especially at the longer end of the spectrum. They just complement each other so well, those two lenses.
Which came first: your love of wildlife or photography?
Definitely wildlife. I do a lot of conservation and wildlife work irrespective of photography and, to be honest, if I couldn’t photograph ever again, I’d be all right, but if I couldn’t see wildlife ever again, I’d struggle. Also, it makes for better wildlife photographers, those that understand wildlife. My policy is I only ever photograph wild animals, I don’t photograph a single captive animal.
I understand that you own a woodland too, is that right?
Yes, I have 11 acres of ancient woodland in West Sussex. I bought them 13 years ago when mortgages were easy to extend! I wouldn’t be able to buy it now. It’s mixed deciduous, oak is the primary tree, also ash, hazel, maple, there’s hardly any nondeciduous stuff in there at all. There’s a breeding badger set in there as well. It’s a gorgeous patch of woodland.
When did you know you wanted to devote your life to photography?
probably eight or nine, I bought a crappy old SLR, a Prinzflex, it was my uncle’s and he sold it to me. I’ve still got it – it’s in a display cabinet because I’ve kept all my cameras, and I started with that and a 135mm lens. The other day I was emptying the roof out and I found my very first wildlife image, which was of a nest box about 50 metres away with a blue tit coming out. On the back I had written, probably aged about 11, the comments about the exposure of the image. Although the image is rubbish, it’s the fact I still had inspirational satisfaction at that age to try to remedy the situation! Then you go through the teenage years and other things take over your mind, and you’ve also got no money, so it wasn’t until probably 1994 that I decided I really want to do this, and that was the real start of the obsession.
When did you turn pro?
Well, it’s difficult to place a date, you know what the struggle is like, you never all of a sudden decide, ‘Right, now I’m a full-time pro photographer!’ I had to do everything. I had to do driving jobs, social work, taxi driving,
The disease, in a way, was the best thing that ever happened to me because it tested me and I developed a strategy for just about dealing with everything in life
clean toilets, anything to survive in order to travel and photograph. It was probably 2000 that I was definitely earning any money from photography.
And now, living with Parkinson’s, you’ve had to solve more problems and be more practical minded. It must have altered your perspective in many ways?
It’s simply a case of believing all problems can be solved and also developing the attitude that a problem is always a problem until you actually solve it. My goal on this trip to Kenya was to get some huge images because Nikon lent me the D850 and I was effectively photographing medium format of cheetahs. It’s 46 million pixels, so that was my goal, to get perfect portraits, so you do whatever is required to get that job done.
Did you have a mentor or someone who inspired you when you started out in photography?
Stephen Dalton did a book called The Secret Life of an Oakwood, which came out when I was about 18. Iwas completely captivated by it, because I thought the photography was technically fantastic. He does a lot of high-speed flash work, which I do now as well. Also, it was an intimate view of what I was seeing in the UK around me, but I didn’t have the ability to do myself, but that inspired me. I do remember those formative seasons in the early 1990s, when I was in bluebell woodland photographing stuff, kneeling down in the woods. Just thinking about it, they were the start of the real learning days for me when it started to become an absolute obsession, so he really inspired me.
Who or what inspires your photography now?
It’s more an obsession with particular animals. There’s such amazing photography out there now. Personally, nothing floats my boat like a project, be it a common animal that is hard to photograph, such as tawny owls. I do quite a lot of research on tawny owls and I think that is going to be one of my next books. They’re everywhere, tawny owls, but really hard to photograph. So, for me it’s about getting under the skin of a wild animal and solving the problem of getting amazing images of it without causing it any harm whatsoever.
What, would you say, is the biggest lesson that being a photographer has taught you?
Pure dogged persistence. Definitely. Never give up. You’ve got to apply – it’s a case of reading the feedback: why didn’t that work, it’s not quite the way I wanted it, so just go at it again and be persistent – giving up is the fastest way to stop learning. Deal with failure as well. Failure and rejection: when an editor turns you down, don’t let that be the end. Just say, ‘Well sod you then! I’m going to produce the best work you’ve ever seen!’ So, without a shadow of a doubt, persistence – that’s what it’s taught and continues to teach me, every single day.
And is that the best piece of advice you’d pass on to someone wanting to become a wildlife photographer, or is there something else that you’d tell them?
I’d say we’re living in an age where people are looking for a bit of quick recognition. On social media, they want all their images to go viral and
we have the Internet where everyone is saying, ‘It’s an amazing image – have alook at mine!’ That becomes a little bit irritating. The advice I would give to someone is develop your craft because it takes time. Develop your craft and you must start producing the best, or be different. That is the only way people nowadays are going to survive professionally as wildlife photographers. I’m becoming more technical as a photographer and I think it’s really important not to settle into a specific style, but to try different genres of photography and continue to push your skills. I do a lot of this infrared trigger photography now of owls in flight at night-time and technically it’s quite demanding, but wow, does it teach you a lot more about photography. I don’t think the learning process ever ends, unless you let it come to an end.
Eurasian badger Sussex, UK. Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm, f/2 .8
Tawny owl and p rey Sussex, UK. Nikon D4, Nikon 200-400mm f/4 Next page black backed jackal and vultures at kill Maasai Mara, Kenya. Nikon D4, Nikon 200400mm f/4
Male cheetah in full pursuit Maasai Mara, Kenya. Nikon D4, Nikon 200400mm f/4
Lion aft er fight Maasai Mara, Kenya. Nikon D4, Nikon 200400mm f/4