Winged wonders of the wild
Widely regarded as one of the best bird photographers in the world, UK-based David Tipling’s exceptional images have raised the worldwide standards of avian photography, taking the popular genre into the realms of fine art.
Q – Welcome to Saevus, David. Your interest in wildlife started at a very young age. How and when did you decide to become a nature photographer?
A – My interest in photography started to develop at the age of 12 and by the time I was in my mid-teens I had started to master my craft, attempting to photograph birds with very inadequate equipment. However, the lack of a decent telephoto lens probably helped in developing my field-craft; I learnt how to get close without scaring my subjects away! I had decided by the time I left school at 17 that I wanted to be a nature photographer. But in the early 1980s, it was very difficult to make a living that way alone, so I got a 9 to 5 job until I was 28 years old. During those years I built up my stock of pictures and reputation, made many contacts until, eventually, I was in a position to leave and give wildlife photography a go as a profession. At first, however, it was very difficult and so I started a photo library which I ran for 10 years and represented around 40 photographers work. This gave me a really good insight into what the market wanted, into what sells and what is more difficult to sell. It also introduced me to many people in the publishing world and that is how I became very involved with books.
Q – Photography has changed a lot since you since you first held a camera in your hand. What has the transition been like, and how is photography seen differently today from when you started out?
A – The biggest change has, of course, been the digital revolution. When I first started, many magazines were still printing in black and white with no or a limited number of colour images. So I started developing and printing my own black and white pictures before moving on to colour transparency film. When digital photography arrived it revolutionised what a wildlife photographer could capture. I am now taking pictures that 10 or 15 years ago I could only dream about. Along with the revolution in equipment, big changes came in the picture industry too. Now selling pictures has migrated to the internet; it is easier to get your pictures seen, though the competition is immense. An oversupply has caused fees to plummet, although for me this has been offset by selling more in volume. The unfortunate side effect of all this is that a picture that might have taken hundreds of hours to capture is worth no more than a casual snapshot. In the past when fees were higher there was a decent reward for good pictures. This imbalance is, I feel, a big problem affecting our industry today as there is not a high enough value put on special images.
Q – You show a partiality towards birds when photographing wildlife and a majority of your books also concentrate on bird photography as well as the cultural significance of birds in our society. Tell us a bit more about your fascination with them.
A – Birds have been a passion from a very young age, and this resulted in me becoming an obsessive birder. This is the reason why I have specialised largely in bird photography during my career. Being a wildlife photographer is not a 9 to 5 job; it’s a way of life. Having a strong passion for what I am doing has always helped me push myself to do the very best I can. There is no substitute for being out in the field – the harder I try the luckier I get! My specialisation in birds also helped me early on in my career, as I became known as an authority and received lots of requests for bird pictures.
Q – Your assignments have taken you to several amazing wildlife destinations across the world. Do share some memorable moments from these expeditions that have remained with you till date.
A – There are a couple that stands out. I remember being on a beach in South Georgia one October a few years ago, when hurricane-force winds suddenly swept down across the bay. I was blown off my feet in the gale but at the same time, it made for some amazing photographic opportunities, as King Penguins clustered together and walked in long lines in the blizzard to find shelter. I have a passion for South Georgia and will be spending a month on the island with scientists in January 2015, conducting a census on Wandering Albatross colonies. I can’t wait! More recently, I was photographing Birds-of-Paradise in the Tari Valley in Papua New Guinea. One evening, the whole village in which I was staying went to war with another clan. The battle left three dead and many houses and a school were burnt to the ground. I barricaded myself in my room, fearing that the house I was staying in would be attacked. All the Huli people, who were my hosts, returned unscathed, but it had been a big battle and an intriguing insight into Papuan life in the Highlands, which is still a bit like the Wild Wild West!
Q – Coming to your books, Birds and People was a six-year-long project that invited individuals worldwide to document their reflections, experiences and stories about birds. How was it like to curate such a vast collection of stories and pictures for the book?
A – Working on Birds and People has been the highlight of my career so far. The work was so varied, and the project gave me access not only to some amazing cultures but also to some of the world’s great artefacts in various museums around the world. Highlights included staying with Kazakh eagle hunters in their Ger in Western Mongolia and photographing the Resplendent Quetzals in the cloud forests of Central America. Visiting India for this book was a big memory too. I spent some time in Khichan in the Thar Desert, photographing the Demoiselle Cranes. I had many other targets, including trying to capture House Crows being mischievous and to photograph the Mayur dance with all its grand peacock symbolism.
Q – Being a regular judge at photography competitions as well as a photo consultant for magazines, what according to you makes for a truly compelling image?
A – That is easy – a compelling image is one that sits in the memory, has an instant impact on the viewer, and really makes you look.
Q – You were named as one of the ten most adventurous outdoor photographers in the world by Marie Claire, after your expedition to document Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. Tell us a bit more about the project and your experience at the South Pole.
A – My first big expedition was to Antarctica to camp next to an Emperor Penguin colony. This came about due to a publisher losing 350 of my transparencies in 1995. The resulting compensation financed this expedition that at the time transformed my career. The pictures I brought back of penguins in blizzards and brooding their tiny chicks sold incredibly well and gave me a secure financial footing to travel extensively. Because the sun never dipped below the horizon and was at its lowest during the night, I slept during the day and photographed through the night. It was really special to be out with the penguins in such beautiful light, alone in this amazing wilderness. During the expedition, we got caught in a storm and the sea ice we were camping on started to break. We had to save the aircraft and ourselves by taking off into a storm. It was a frightening experience as our plane had little fuel and needed to land at a fuel dump on the Antarctic Plateau. The pilot spotted a hole in the clouds enabling us to land safely but we were still 13 miles from fuel. We then taxied across the plateau to the dump before flying out to safety. It was a very eventful end to an exciting trip.
Q – Apart from photography, you take active interest in publishing, appearing on television, and writing for several publications. Would you say it is important for photographers today to reach out to the public through mediums apart from pure photography?
A – If you are a professional it is hard to make a good living from pure photography alone. So being able to write and speak to audiences are useful attributes to have to be able to show your photography to a wider audience. I have always had a mix of interests within the wildlife photography world, not least because it keeps my life varied with never a dull moment!
Q – The intention behind most of your images is not just to document aesthetic visuals but also contribute to the understanding of animal behaviour and habitats. How do you generally approach a photographic subject or theme in this regard?
A – I am not sure I consciously do one or the other. Of course the perfect picture might be one that both shows interesting behaviour and is shot in a way that is visually arresting but this is very hard to achieve. I call my best pictures my family jewels and I reckon I add three or more really special jewels to the collection each year out of the 3-4000 new pictures that I take.
Q – As a conservationist and a photographer, what would be your message to the several budding shutterbugs in India, who wish to put their art to serious use in conserving nature and wildlife?
A – I am a firm believer in the power of visual media whether it be stills or moving images. There are now many opportunities to present imagery to a wide audience. Today, we have the ability to easily shoot video and record sound as well as shoot stills, and as a photographer, I think it is essential to embrace these other techniques. For example, with a little work, you can now make short films and presentations that can reach huge audiences on the internet.
One of the world’s most widely published wildlife photographers, David is renowned for his artistic portrayal of birds. His many accolades include a coveted European Nature Photographer of the Year Award (2002) for work on Emperor Penguins and Nature’s Best Indigenous Peoples Award (2009) for his pictures of Mongolian eagle hunters. He is also a multi-award winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and the author or commissioned photographer for many books including the RSPB Guide to Digital Wildlife Photography and Penguins – Close Encounters. David writes regularly for various publications including Wild Planet Photography Magazine in which he has a monthly column on all things related to bird photography. When not travelling, taking pictures or writing books, David relaxes by managing his four-acre wood in the Norfolk Broads, spending time with his family, and playing the didgeridoo.
Originally Published in October 2014 Issue of SAEVUS Magazine
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