Tete-e-tete with the famous John Shaw, a master nature photographer known for his precise compositions and soulful imagery.

             John Shaw

A true artist and master technician, John Shaw has been a professional nature photographer for over 30 years. Known for his superb compositions, he has had his images published in various books and magazines, including National Geographic, Nature’s Best, National Wildlife, Audubon, and Outdoor Photographer. His images have appeared in advertisements for Nikon, Fuji, Epson, Microsoft and a number of other companies. His advice to all aspiring photographers is ‘practice’ and with his extensive practice and experience, his achievements are many. In 1997, he received the first-ever Outstanding Photographer Award given by NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association). Nikon featured him as a ‘Legend behind the Lens’ in 2002, while Microsoft designated him as an ‘Icon of Imaging’ in 2006. He has been part of Epson’s Stylus Pro fine art print makers’ group since 2001.

John has published books and e-books on nature photography, and Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom techniques. He has travelled extensively, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Provence to Patagonia, capturing memorable images in every continent.


TEAM SAEVUS: What inspired you to become a professional wildlife photographer?

JOHN SHAW: My first camera was an “Official Boy Scouts of America” all-plastic box camera. But only when I received my first 35 mm camera, an Argus C3, did I really become interested in photography. At that time we lived near extensive woodlands, so I would take my camera and record all the subjects that interested me in the forest. My parents also took me along on camping trips to some of the most remote areas of North America. Although I photographed whenever I could, I did not think it was possible to make a living, taking nature photographs. When I entered graduate school, I sold my first photographs, a story about spring, to National Wildlife magazine. I continued to sell photos to various markets during my time in grad school and the next four years when I taught at the university. By then I knew I wanted to photograph full-time, so I left teaching in late-1970 and have been a professional photographer since.

Whooper swans in winter gather in the open water of thermal areas at lake Kussharo Hokaido- Japan. I was lying on the sand at the edge of the lake with a wide angle lens.

TEAM SAEVUS: You say “The more you simplify your vision, the stronger your images will be.” Can you please elaborate on this and tell us how one could learn to simplify his or her vision?

JOHN SHAW: A strong image is one where there is no doubt about what the photographer wants to communicate. What exactly is the subject of the photograph? Can you tell me in one succinct sentence about the essence of the photo? One way to learn to simplify your vision is to say out loud just what it is that you find visually exciting about a scene. Do this in one sentence, and only one sentence. When you look through the camera’s view­finder you should see what you mentioned, and only what you mentioned. Modify the composition by changing lenses, and/or changing your shooting position, to remove extraneous features.

A mixed group of zebra and wildebeest gather on the edge of the Mara river, preparing to cross on their migration. They know the dangers the river presents in swift current, deep water, and crocodiles.

TEAM SAEVUS: You have been a professional photographer for more than thirty years now. Do you think your style has changed with changing technology?

JOHN SHAW: When I started photographing professionally, cameras had only three choices to set: shutter speed (in whole stop values), aperture, and the ISO of the film being used. My last ‘high speed” film was Provia 100 pushed one stop to 200, which is where my Nikon digital cameras started. Times have indeed changed. I do think it is important to stay technologically current. I could not – and would not – want to use film today, as the results with digital are so much better. I don’t think my style of photogra­phy has changed so much, as have the opportunities presented to me. I can do things with digital that I could not do with film, but wanted to do. I admit I am fascinated with the technology, both the camera equipment and the computer/software side. I like the technology and embrace it happily.

A Polar bear drags the seal it has just killed, on Arctic pack ice, north of Spitsbergen.

TEAM SAEVUS: You have travelled a lot around the globe. Please share with us your favorite and most interesting experiences while shooting in the wild.

JOHN SHAW: My favorite experiences are times when I have witnessed incredible light at sunrise and sunset, or of mass wildlife events. One morning in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I was watching lenticular clouds form over Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre in the predawn light, when the entire scene lit up, bathed in alpen glow light. This lasted for about 15 minutes, until the sun finally cleared the horizon. As for wildlife scenes, I was lucky to have seen one of the largest mass wildebeest crossings of the Mara River in Kenya. For almost an hour, roughly 10,000 animals streamed across the river towards me. Even the Masai guides were amazed, having never seen such numbers crossing all at once.

Looking straight down between the striped canyon walls I saw the bottom filled with rocks transported by flash floods. In order to take this picture I had to bridg.

TEAM SAEVUS: Does it require a mindset shift while shooting various different genres of subjects?

JOHN SHAW: While I do photograph a variety of subjects, wildlife to landscapes to city streets, the mindset shift is minimal. There certainly is a shift in the equipment used (long lens versus short focal length, for example), and the photographic techniques applied (tripods versus hand-held camera, or using different ISO settings). But good composition is still good composition and the elements of graphic design are still the same, no matter the subject being photographed.

Lenticular clouds and pre-dawn light, over Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre; Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Los Glaciares National Park is located in the area known as the Austral Andes in the Patagonia area of southern Argentina. It is a UNESCO “World Heritage” site.

TEAM SAEVUS: Do you see a shift in the trend of wildlife photog­raphy in recent years?

JOHN SHAW: The major shift I see in nature photography in general, is that fewer and fewer photographers are naturalists. While many are proficient with the photographic process, few are knowledgeable about the subject matter. Too many photogra­phers today are only interested in getting the iconic image, and are not interested in animal behavior or the ecosystem. They see the picture as the prize, and do not have a love for nature. I think this is an unfortunate trend.

A young snow monkey stares into the camera as it soaks in the hot springs at Jigokudani Japan. Moments later it leaped from the pool and over my shoulder.

TEAM SAEVUS: Wildlife photography is physically very demand­ing, what is the secret of your fitness at this age?

JOHN SHAW: Staying healthy and reasonably fit is just common sense for life, whether or not one is a photographer. I try to keep active, and watch my diet. While I’m not a vegetarian, I rarely eat red meat. Unfortunately, as with many people, the older I get the harder it is for me to keep my weight down.

A lone Gentoo penguin returns from the ocean crossing kelp that has been tossed on the beach by the surf. This photograph was taken in the Falkland islands.

TEAM SAEVUS: Most photographers have a very niche clientele. Who are your target audience and how do you cater to them?

JOHN SHAW: The target market for my photography has always been the printed page, primarily the book and magazine trade. Recently, I see more opportunities in online markets, although prices are very low for individual photo sales. I’ve just published my first “coffee table” style electronic picture book, of panoramic images. These are all available on my website. I have also branched into selling prints, which I never used to do. My print sales are not through galleries, but rather directly from my web site or at my programmes and seminars.

A bull Southern elephant seal bellows after mating with the much smaller female he holds with one flipper. Southern elephant seals display sexual dimorphism, adult males being many times larger than adult females.

TEAM SAEVUS: What will be your advice to our readers who want to get into wildlife photography?

JOHN SHAW: Learn about nature. The better you are as a natural­ist, the better you will be as a nature photographer. Remember that when photographing, you are not recording a subject, but rather the light on the subject. Look and evaluate how an image is constructed, what elements of graphic design are used and remember to be a ruthless critic of your own work. Try to be proficient with (Adobe) Photoshop and Lightroom.

Lastly, spend less on the camera body and more on the lenses. Purchase a new camera body only when you can state exactly how it will improve your photography. Wanting a new camera, and needing a new camera, are two different things.

TEAM SAEVUS: What is that one practice every aspiring photog­rapher should follow?

JOHN SHAW: Shoot, shoot, shoot .


For further information, you can visit his website:

Originally Published in July-August 2012 Issue of SAEVUS Magazine



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