Interview by Keith Wilson, published in Issue 26 of Wild Planet Photo Magazine, December, 2015
Congratulations on your success – GDT European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015. Have you got used to it?
Nope! I don’t think I will get used to the idea actually. It’s just surreal, very surreal. You always enter a competition hoping you will get somewhere but I never entered expecting to win. I entered just thinking let’s see what happens.
More than 17,000 entries as well...
It’s crazy, crazy, especially when seeing the standard of the competition and how it’s grown over the last few years. Every year there are some amazing pictures in there, so it makes it all the more surreal to be honest.
About your picture, the fox, we can’t see it but it’s definitely there. It’s an intriguing picture because it is a shadow. How did you take it?
Well, the idea for the picture came about probably six months before. I knew I had foxes coming into the back garden. We’d just had some building work done and we didn’t have a security light on in the back of the house, so I was shining a torch out the back each night to see what was going on and to take pictures of them coming and going. One night this fox came out from behind the shed and walked through this torchlight and cast this really nice shadow. I thought that would make a really cool photo if you could get the shadow in the picture somehow. That’s where the idea came from originally.
How many attempts did you make?
The first time just tried to get the shadow on the wall, just this big thing in the frame so there would be nothing else but this shadow. It kind of worked but it was quite difficult to take the picture because the fox was in the way of the wall. It’s hard to explain but you kind of want the fox to be see-through so you can see through it to its shadow, because otherwise it’s just going to be in the way of its own shadow. So I had a couple of goes and it was OK, but I couldn’t get the shadow quite right, so I thought I’ll leave it and come back another day, and went on to take different pictures. Four or five months later I thought, I’m going to have another crack at this shadow idea.
By this time I had been experimenting with capturing the night sky with long exposures and trying to capture the fox with the sky in the background and the stars, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do this shot again but I’m going to use a wide-angle to get the houses in the background, to give it a bit of context and the night sky as well’.
The upstairs light on in the corner is a lovely touch...
Yes, it was one of my neighbours, a complete chance. It adds the human element: you can see the houses and you know people are in them because there’s a light on. It gives you that connection and adds a human element to the picture.
Your back garden is famous now!
Well, the wall is! The light being on was just chance, it was luck basically.
So how did you get the shadow in the end?
To actually get the shot I put the camera on a tripod, up quite high so you could see over the wall to the houses beyond, but pointing back down at an angle slightly so you could get the bottom of the wall in. I had a flashgun attached to the bottom of the tripod at ground level so when it went off it would cast an even shadow. If the ash was quite high the shadow would have been at a weird angle. I wanted it to look like a fox, not a distorted kind of fox.
The trick to it really was working out where the fox needed to walk so it would cast a good shadow but not be too close to the wall that you would start to see the fox at the bottom of the frame. It was a bit tricky. It walked past the camera a few times and I got some shadows that were huge and just looked like big blobs, and I got the fox in the frame a few times, but that was the one within in the frame where it walked the exact distance it needed to be in order to cast a shadow. And it happened to be in a really good pose because there’s that random element as well. It could have been walking at a weird angle, or its feet could have been too close together so you couldn’t see them all, so everything came together by chance. Well, not by chance because I planned it. But there were a lot of elements that could have gone wrong.
How far was the fox from the wall and from the camera?
My decking is probably eight feet wide, so there was probably eight feet between the camera and the wall and the fox was halfway along. To work out the framing I actually used a plastic clothes bucket I use for the washing! That on the decking is about the height of the fox and I used that to frame the camera up and say, right this is roughly where the fox needs to be. Then it was partly down to chance.
It was a wide-angle lens, what sort of focal length?
It was a Nikon 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 G lens, the latest version and I think it was 31mm in the end, the perfect kind of focal length. If it was too wide, you’d start seeing the decking and the fox, so it was about finding that perfect balance where I knew the fox wouldn’t be in the frame but its shadow would be the right size.
It’s perfectly framed, it really is...
I used a motion sensor to trigger the camera. The motion sensor was next to the ash but I covered most of it up so that it was like a direct beam rather than a wide eld of view, and lined it up roughly with where I wanted the fox to be when the camera went off, which is how I got the framing right with the shadow. But there’s still a bit of leeway, so there are a couple of pictures where it triggered too early and a couple of pictures where it triggered too late. It all depends on the speed the fox is moving at well.
He seems to be a fox who is moving with ease, comfortable with his surroundings.
Well, I’ve been photographing him for a while now and there’s a badger that visits frequently as well.
Oh yeah, a badger and the fox. It’s taken a while to get to the stage where I am now. Initially, the sound of the camera would just scare them – the fox would be gone as soon as the camera went off, but now it just ignores it. It knows nothing is going to happen, it’s not going to get hurt, there’s no danger. It just ignores it, so that helps.
How long have you been taking wildlife images?
I’ve been interested in photography since 2002 and I dipped in and out of taking pictures of animals. I wouldn’t say I was a wildlife photographer then but I took photos of birds, herons along the canal, that sort of thing. Then around 2010, I really focused my care and attention onto it and decided to make a go of it and it’s grown from there. Five years or so now.
What else do you photograph? Do you have favourite subjects or locations for your photography?
Everyone likes to travel to see something cool and exciting but over the last year or two I am more about the conditions the animal is in rather than the animal itself, so to me I don’t care if I’m taking a picture of a pigeon or a lion, if it’s in a really nice setting and the light is right then to me it’s going to be a good photo regardless of what the subject is. Yeah, there are locations that are great to be in – Africa is amazing, it’s beautiful, but some of my most rewarding pictures I’ve taken in recent times have been in my back garden.
Absolutely. In your local area there are other species that you’re photographing too.
Yeah, we’ve got a good population of roe deer around here and I occasionally go out and try to get a few pictures of them when I can. They’re quite hard to photograph because they’re very skittish but they’re lovely animals.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Good question. I take inspiration from not just wildlife photographers. I’ve always been quite a creative person. When I was a school I always liked art and design. I’ve always had this natural creative streak. I see things all the time that inspire me. It could be a portrait photo, it could be a picture of a car, literally a photo of anything can inspire me. Not just a photo either, I could be walking along and the light shines through the trees on something and creates an interesting effect and that can inspire me into taking a picture or trying to achieve a certain picture. I take inspiration from anything.
How important has entering competitions been to you, even before this unexpected success?
Competitions are very subjective. People think competitions are very important in the sense that it’s recognition of your work. And yes, it is recognition of your work, but it is very subjective, so it’s important to remember that if you haven’t been successful in a competition it doesn’t mean that your pictures are no good. I’ve entered many pictures into competitions and 99% of them have had no recognition at all, but I don’t then go away and think my pictures are not of the right standard. I just think, ‘That’s fine, I still know my pictures are of a good quality.’ Don’t place importance on failure in a competition because it’s not the be all and end all.
Having said that, obviously it’s very rewarding when your pictures are recognized by competitions, but the important thing for me is that you just focus on what you want to do and you get on with taking pictures and you don’t just take this picture because I want to get it into a competition. Take the pictures for yourself, and for your enjoyment and for your own love of taking photos, and the rest will follow. You can’t say to yourself I’m going away on a trip for two weeks to take some pictures because I want to enter a competition this year. You have to think: ‘I’m going away to take some pictures because I want to’, then afterwards look through them and if you see one that you think is pretty cool and maybe unique then enter it. But don’t take it with the idea of entering it because you will never succeed that way.
What are the best tips and advice that you would pass on to someone who is not as experienced as you are but is looking to succeed, much as you tried to when you first started?
Another good question. You just have to get out there and take pictures, that’s the most important thing. When I first started I used to post pictures on photography forums a lot and ask for advice and critique and see what people thought about my work. Sometimes they liked my pictures, but sometimes they didn’t. Even now I always take critique on board. If I post a picture on Facebook and someone doesn’t like it, I don’t take offence to that, I actually try to see it from their point of view. Have they got a point? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, it’s my opinion but it’s important you don’t take everything to heart because photography is very subjective.
Facebook is incredibly influential in terms of the feedback it generates. Did you post your winning picture on Facebook before entering it?
Why was that?
Because it was part of a bigger project I was working on and I hadn’t told anyone I was doing that project. I didn’t want to tell people I was working on something, partly because it could have failed. I wanted to keep it under wraps until the time was right. Obviously now, because of the success of the picture, is the right time to show the whole project.
OK then, now is the time to reveal the project!
Yes, there’s an eBook. When I started the project it was just for myself to start with. The whole idea of it was that you can take amazing pictures anywhere. You don’t have to travel, you can stay at home, so I thought that was what I was going to do, I’m going to concentrate on taking pictures at home because not everyone has the time or the money to be able to travel, and it’s important to get over the mindset that you have to travel to somewhere cool to take exciting pictures, because you don’t.
I got quite lucky admittedly in that while doing this I discovered I had a badger visiting the garden, which was just complete chance. It’s been over a year now of almost every night trying to take pictures, not just at night. I don’t have many varieties of birds coming into garden sadly, but I have some pigeons that come in quite a lot. Although most people think pigeons are kind of boring, I thought, not necessarily, if they’re in the right conditions you can do something interesting with them. I’ve just been taking photos of whatever comes into the garden just to show what is possible.
Is this in the course of a particular time frame, like one year?
Yeah, but the project isn’t to say a year in the life of my garden. Even beyond the release of the book I will continue doing it to build up a bigger collection of images. It’s been over the course of a year, but it’s not just about that year. It’s just that’s how long it has taken so far. The whole idea is to say it doesn’t matter what your camera equipment is, you can still take cool pictures and you don’t have to go anywhere to do it.
Just to be aware of your own surroundings?
It’s a cool idea. Is it only as an eBook?
Just an eBook for now. I would like to do perhaps a hard copy eventually, but for now, just to test the waters it’s going to be an eBook, quite informative, lots of illustration, advice and how to make the most of your surroundings with the equipment you have now.
Have you got a title for it?
I do, yes. Back Garden Safari: wildlife photography on your doorstep.