In­ter­view

Parkin­son’s suf­ferer David Plum­mer tells how he over­came his dis­abil­ity in the chal­leng­ing world of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy

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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!

Fan­tas­tic!

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

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