Conservation Heroes.

BBC Wildlife’s recent list of the Top 50 Conservation Heroes made for interesting reading. It’s all completely subjective of course and but for what it’s worth, I thought most had a strong claim for inclusion. Others were more dubious choices and one or two made me really think hard (was anyone ever brought to justice over the hen harrier shooting on Sandringham Estate?) Then there were some very obvious omissions – Roy Dennis and Sir John Lister-Kaye to name but two.

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LUMO: Once upon a time…

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­This post was published in the first issue of LUMO magazine and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers.

I can’t comment for other working photographers but the Good Old Days when my phone rang regularly with big fat juicy commissions, the days when clients came to me almost waving a cheque in my face, they’re now gone and I know they’re not coming back. Gone too is the worth of charging around the planet cherry picking images of charismatic megafauna and blue chip landscapes. A quick search of Alamy’s online image library will reveal no fewer than 30,000 polar bear images and a similar number of Utah’s iconic Monument Valley. Does the world really need any more ‘hero’ images which whilst undoubtedly spectacular, lack context and impact? The digital era has changed everything and The Good Old Days are fast becoming just a distant memory.

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Even the branding is annoyingly cute.

Benviebooks: For people who know their art from their elbow.

Oh yes that’s clever.

It’s not often that you feel compelled to smile whilst reading a book on nature photography. That book has to be out of the ordinary and by implication, so does its author. When friend and colleague Niall Benvie sent me his latest eBook, You Are Not a Photocopier, I knew I’d need a cup of tea and a few choccie digestives (sorry Niall but if you’d wanted me to accompany the reading with Charlotte’s chocolates, you should have sent some).

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Honey, I just shrunk my world!

I think the time has come. I feel a bit of honesty is due. They say that the first shoots of recovery from a self-inflicted malaise, is an admission of that malaise. For the last 20 years or so I’ve been kidding myself that I’m a photographer. And now, I realise that I’ve been living a lie; it’s time to own up. For as long as I can remember I’ve been feigning interest in all manner of photographic dialogue but in truth, I care not a hoot.

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The Burden of Bosque.

There’s no doubt about it, I think too much. I burden myself with ethical dilemmas and over-analyse everything; it can’t be healthy and if I’m honest, it’s exhausting! Carefree colleague and friend Danny Green tells me not to look beyond next week and even advises against this blog becoming a philosophical platform, but I’m not built that way; I ponder and muse and often conclude that I’m trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense.

As much as anything it might be to do with middle-age (the point in life when you start looking back instead of forward) and consideration of your place in the world. I don’t think I’m alone in this respect. Picking up this month’s edition of Outdoor Photography, I see Niall Benvie looking back on career highlights; I read with interest Mark Sisson‘s route into nature photography and his inevitable reliance on tours and workshops, and I read Elliot Neep‘s well-written analysis of the impact of over-eager photo tourists in Africa. These are all signs of changing times and changing perspectives. Nothing is as certain as change.

Against this backdrop, I found myself last week in Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, a major wintering ground for snow geese and sandhill cranes, and one of the most heavily-visited wildlife photography locations in the world. I knew before the trip that I was unlikely to produce anything new and I didn’t. I knew that I had little commercial use for the images and I haven’t. But I also knew that knocking on the door of 50, this was something I wanted to see (and hear and smell) and so reason, logic and commercial justification were cast aside and off I went.

I joined a small group of photographers and we took lots of images. We ate New Mexico out of house and home and we laughed and joked. We saw lots of wildlife and some of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve witnessed anywhere. I didn’t analyse things too much (I’m lying now) and although I can’t say that I ‘connected’ with Bosque in the same way that I ‘connect’ with places closer to home, it was a great week and in many ways, took me back to why I first picked up a camera – not to over-calculate my every waking minute, but to have fun.

We are allowed a bit of fun aren’t we? I’ll have to think about that.

The tour was organised by Natures Images and my thanks to them and their guests for good photography and good company.

Edit: A gallery of images from Bosque can now be viewed here.

Who’s the best nature photographer? And why?

I enjoy being alone but even I have a limit, so after two full days isolated on Shropshire’s Stiperstones ridge recently, I welcomed the arrival of another photographer and his obvious desire for some philosophical musing. After some collective grumping about the light, he popped the question: “So who’s the best nature photographer in your opinion?” I’ve been asked this a fair few times over the years and never been able to offer a definitive suggestion as to who, or a convincing argument as to why. This was no exception and I fudged my response but a 450-mile drive home gave me time to ponder.

There are many contenders in my book. My old buddy Mark Hamblin for his insane consistency; the annoyingly talented Vincent Munier for his visual artistry; the equally annoying Stefano Unterthiner for his ability to spot a story and nail it; colleagues Andy Rouse and Danny Green for their work ethic; Alex Mustard and Tom Peschak for their pioneering underwater work, ditto Paul Nicklen; Staffan Widstrand for his unrelenting drive; Orsi and Erlend Haarberg for showing us true beauty; Niall Benvie for provoking thought and discussion; Laurent Geslin for sticking to a tight plan and making the most of it. Sandra Bartocha for just being bloody good. And then there are the giants from across the pond – Mangelson, Brandenburg, Doubilet – all proven, committed and talented artists. There are of course many, many more.

I fudged my response to the young man at Stiperstones because it’s impossible to choose just one; it depends what the criteria is. There’s one thing that each one of these photographers has given me at different times: Inspiration. The question then is not “Who’s the best?” but “Who’s the most inspirational?” That of course is even more subjective and opens up a different can of worms (I can tell you though that despite my gratitude for years of help, Hamblin’s toilet etiquette puts him out of the running at this point. Ditto Benvie’s weird ideas about chocolate and Green’s pie-eating prowess. And Munier is just too nice to be inspirational).

Anyway back to the issue at hand. Around 20 years ago I nervously picked up the phone to Laurie Campbell who kindly offered me some advice on my rather naive perspective on a career in nature photography. At that time – and things have changed radically in the last two decades – Laurie was almost unique in his creative approach to capturing British wildlife on film (just google ‘film’ if you’re under 25). The range and extent of Laurie’s coverage remains unsurpassed even if his style has been endlessly emulated and, if Laurie doesn’t mind me saying, developed and improved. So in terms of personal inspiration, Laurie gets my vote even 20 years on.

But there’s something else to consider here. If there are two things in life that I can’t abide (other than Bush and Palin – sorry but my respect doesn’t even stretch to using their forenames) it’s cruelty and unfairness, however they might manifest. Laurie’s work, perhaps above all others, has shown consistent honesty, humility and regard for his subjects. In a world where competition increasingly drives unsavoury behaviour, these are undoubtedly traits to be proud of.

If any of us nature photographers are to leave a legacy, and in my opinion we should all at least try, it surely should be one of inspiring others. Occasionally being thanked for doing so is without question the greatest reward in this often-unrewarding work. I’m presently pondering my future direction (does that sound like a pretentious out-of-work actor?) but whatever I end up doing, I’ll strive to inspire. And I’ll strive to be fair. If I succeed in either I’ll be content.

I didn’t exchange details with the young man at Stiperstones but I’d like to thank him for catalysing a thought process. It won’t be the last time this subject is visited but at least when I’m next asked the question, I’ll have some thoughts put aside.

Votes of your own, criticism of mine and general comments welcomed. Perhaps we should all meet on Stiperstones ridge one day?


Helena Spinks was one of four intrepid photographers who recently attended our ‘Arctic Icons’ tour in Norway. Here Helena relates the roller coaster of emotions that is wildlife photography in extreme conditions.

When I first considered the Northshots Musk Oxen tour to Norway I was concerned it would be too tough. However, I was desperate to photograph these iconic animals so I convinced myself I had plenty of time to improve my fitness and prepare myself for my biggest challenge yet.  But, as the weeks and months went by and the intended visits to the gym didn’t happen, it dawned on me as our departure grew closer that I should have been a LOT fitter.  I was apprehensive to say the least!  To make matters worse, whilst traveling on the Arctic Odyssey tour a week previously, Niall Benvie mentioned he’d been on a similar trip.  Excellent, the chance for some inside information and hopefully my mind put to rest. “How was it?” I asked.  “Great” he replied “but it nearly killed me”.  At first I thought he was joking but I soon realised he was not – my stomach churned.   This time perhaps I really had bitten off more than I could chew.  However, he went on to explain it was due to the lack of correct clothing rather than fitness.   So, I kitted myself out with some extra warm gear and worked on my mantra “I can do this”.

We all arrived safely in Trondheim, but unfortunately my baggage (with all my nice warm gear) did not.  And, as it became clear that it was not going to be with me until late the next day my apprehension grew – this was not a good start!  However, as we arrived at our destination in the Dovrefjell National Park my concerns were quickly forgotten.   The location was stunning, our accommodation quite unique and luckily for me the Hotel Manager’s daughter was my size!  Bring it on I thought.

This tour is not recommended for the faint hearted.  We had to master walking with snow shoes on snow up to 4 ft deep, endure the extreme cold winds for many hours, climb up long steep hills carrying heavy gear (500mm lens recommended) and be ready and willing to scramble back down again fast if the musk oxen decided they didn’t like the look of us.

I was not used to this extreme environment and therefore pushed to my limit – both physically and mentally.  But, I had absolute faith in our guide Roy Mangersnes who knew this area and the animals well.  With his excellent encouragement, support and leadership the experience was truly amazing and the rewards immense.  To be in such a pristinely beautiful location so close to these awesome animals was special beyond words.

CALEDONIA on way…finally.

It’s been a bit of a haul this one! From an idea that started way back when, we’ve had false starts, funding letdowns and above all, just lots of other time-consuming things going on. But we’re there now and it’s shaping up to be a really nice book (and we’re planning a few side products too!).

Written by colleague Niall Benvie and illustrated by yours truly, CALEDONIA is an unashamed emotional plea for a fresh and more ambitious outlook towards forest restoration. That doesn’t mean that Scotland should be covered in trees tomorrow; it simply means we should perhaps take a renewed look at what the landscape can offer us against a backdrop of increasing biological uncertainty.

CALEDONIA will retail at £20 and will be available only from the NORTHSHOTS website (from June 23rd). Advance orders are being taken now (just e-mail Amanda). Corporate customers (ordering a minimum of 10 copies) can buy the book for just £12-95 per copy. Branded books (with your logo on front cover) are available at the same price (min. order 100 units) but must be ordered before April 30 2011.

To get a feel for what CALEDONIA will look like, download our promo-flyer here.

What’s it like to be a nature photographer?

I wish I could remember the answer to that question sometimes. Like many others (I know because I’ve heard the complaints) I seem to spend more and more time behind a computer screen. OK, mine is a warm office with great views and a regular supply of milky coffee (a throwback to my childhood) courtesy of my lovely wife Amanda. But it’s NOT what I signed up to!

Last weekend I spent a few days with colleagues Mark Hamblin, Niall Benvie and videographer Raymond Besant. Were were working on a 2020VISION assignment in north-west Scotland. OK the weather wasn’t great but do you know what, I could feel the blood pumping through my veins again; the creative urge that brought me to this business in the first place surged back to the surface. But most of all, I was getting a wildness fix.

Standing alone at Achnahaird Bay as a hazy dusk descended, I got a call from Amanda with some very sad news – a friend of ours had died very suddenly. Shocking though the news was, I could not have chosen to receive it anywhere more comforting. Wildness is not just somewhere that serves up spectacular imagery, it’s where we came from; it’s our home. I know our friend would have empathised with such a view.

Measuring success.

In this month’s Outdoor Photography magazine, Niall Benvie makes a fair and valid point that nature photographers shouldn’t measure ‘success’ simply by their financial performance. He pleads the case for recognition, legacy and the ‘value’ of experiences.

Whilst not claiming to be anything other than on the bottom rung of the success ladder, I have until recently overlooked the ‘value’ of time spent in the field. Moreover when that time is spent with family, close friends or appreciative tour guests.

Our recent photo-tour to Skye came at an inconvenient time for me. Having attended several major conferences and with notes made at innumerable 2020VISION meetings still piled high on my desk, the tour was something I could have done without. But do you know what? I worked with great buddy Mark Hamblin – something I’ve not done for a long time; the guests were superb company; the weather was good in the most part; we had a laugh and we visited some great locations. I even got some pleasant shots myself. Although I got paid for guiding the tour, the money is irrelevant: it’s a week that I’ll remember, along with many others, for a long, long time. Priceless.