Award-winning wildlife photographer Richard Peters on light and shadows, looking a lion in the eye, and new international photography project Remembering Elephants
Everyone has a camera now. What sets great wildlife photography apart from good or average pictures?
Digital photography’s turned everybody into a photographer. The difference between someone who takes pictures and a photographer is in the way you approach the photo, the angle you look at a subject from, waiting for the right light conditions… It can be about having the patience to sit there for hours waiting for an animal to do something.
Sometimes it will be the difference between something as small as an animal looking slightly in the wrong direction, and waiting for it to turn in the right direction; you wait for several hours and it can make a photo something great, rather than just something that’s the same as every picture already out there.
That’s the key difference: knowing the small differences between a snapshot and a photograph.
A lot of your work is also about understanding light, isn’t it?
That’s my key thing: looking for the lighting conditions. That’s the style I go for, something a bit more unusual.
I go for how the light is playing on the subject, what the shadows are doing, and I position myself based on that.
I often won’t take a picture if the light conditions are boring. What the light is doing and the lighting conditions is more important than the subject itself.
I take fewer pictures, but try to take better quality pictures.
Elephants (Richard Peters)
What’s the idea behind Born Free Foundations’ new Remembering Elephants book and exhibition?
It’s a conservation effort to raise awareness for elephants, because they’re under threat, especially from poaching.
The idea was to get wildlife photographers from all over the world to contribute to the book and help raise awareness of what’s going on and to raise funds to go towards conservation.
It’s an unprecedented book because so many wildlife photographers haven’t come together before to work on something. Between us all, the hope is that we can push the message out far and wide to people.
Is there a real danger that we’ll lose elephants?
Yes, definitely. Statistics have been put out recently that 50 per cent of wildlife on the whole planet has declined over the years. We’re at risk of losing many animals.
Do you think it’s possible to save them from extinction?
You have to try. Nothing happens if you don’t try. Some people could say for some species it’s gone too far and leave it to chance. It’s always worth doing your best to see if there’s something that can be done to give them a fighting chance.
What role can photography play?
Part of the problem is that most people might hear or read something, but because they haven’t seen it for real, they might push it to the side.
They might think, “That’s shocking, we might lose them.” But a lot of people assume it won’t really happen, because they don’t know what’s going on out there and how under threat the animals are. Not everyone will get to fly out to Africa to see an elephant. Hopefully, this kind of book will put it at the forefront of their minds and let them know “Yes, this could happen. They could become extinct.”
Photography helps keep wildlife at the forefront of people’s minds.
Richard Peters at work
Are elephants difficult to photograph well?
They can be. From a distance, elephants can look like lumps. In long grass, when you can just see the tops of them, they can look like rocks. So they can be difficult, even though they’re slow-moving.
They’re tricky to get on camera effectively. And you can’t get too close, especially if they’ve got young around them, because they’re quite protective. You have to think about their wellbeing and not stress them.
What’s the trick?
There are two ways to approach them. One is to get that nice up-close portrait shot that gives you a glimpse into the personality and soul of the creature. It gives a nice impact, and when you can look into the eyes really clearly, you can look into the animal’s soul. It’s a powerful image.
Alternatively, you can incorporate their environment. It’s important to see animals in their environment. As well as animals being in danger, so is their habitat and the environment around them. Including that in a photograph can be a powerful way of showing these animals and how they live.
Are elephants an animal you like spending time working with?
Definitely. They’ve got a real family bond. You can really see that when they’ve got their young around. They’re very protective of them.
It’s nice to see how they look out for each other. Out in the Maasai Mara in Kenya last year, I saw a young elephant get stuck in a bush by the riverside and it couldn’t get up the bank. Seven or eight of the adult elephants came over to help it out. You can see the bond between them and it’s a special thing to see.
Richard Peters in action
Which other animals do you like working with?
For me, it’s more about lighting and conditions, rather than what I’m taking a picture of. That being said, I definitely prefer mammals over birds, and I have a thing for big cats, especially lions. When you’re up close to a lion, they’re quite a force to be around. It can be addictive.
Have you had any close calls?
Not really. The last time I was out in the Maasai Mara, I had a lion walk towards the car. They often walk towards the car then turn off and walk around you from 10 feet back. On this occasion, the lion walked right up to the car, about three feet from the door; because I was looking at it through a lens, it looked like it was right on top of me. I had a moment of thinking, “Is this actually coming into the car?”
There was no danger, but it was hair-raising to have a lion stare at you in the eyes from a few feet away.
Which countries do you most enjoy working in?
One of my favourite places of all time is Yellowstone National Park in America. I’ve only been there once, in the winter, and it was absolutely incredible. It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It’s on the list to revisit when time allows.
Snow pounce (Richard Peters)
What were you photographing there?
Bears are hibernating during the winter, so the main thing I was looking for was the wolves. You’ve also got red fox and eagles. The landscape is incredible. It’s a giant volcano, so you’ve got steam and mist coming up everywhere. It’s magical out there.
You’ve won many awards and competitions. Do you have any tips for entering photography competitions?
Shooting for commercial purposes tends to involve pictures that are more ‘chocolate box’: nicely lit portraits, cute and fluffy. With photography competitions, there’s often more of an artistic element involved.
The thing I try to do is not take pictures with competitions in the back of my head, because I think that can put too much pressure on you - you’re setting yourself up for failure.
But for anyone who wants to enter competitions, I’d suggest looking at the pictures you’ve taken that are a little more quirky, with more interesting framing. Don’t pick the typical photos with the subject perfectly in the middle of the frame, looking at the camera, as that kind of thing has been done to death.
I’d say choose photos where you’ve used the light well, used framing in an imaginative way, or where you show the subject in an original perspective. Those are the things I’d look for.
Born Free Foundation’s new photography book Remembering Elephants by Wildlife Photographers Unlimited, featuring the work of 65 international wildlife photographers, published Sept 19 by Envisage Books, priced £45. 100% of the proceeds will be used to fight poaching. For more, see www.rememberingelephants.com
The Remembering Elephants exhibition will run at La Galleria in Pall Mall, London, from Sept 19 to Oct 01, 2016, 10.30am to 6pm. Free admission. For details, see www.rememberingelephants.com
For more on Richard Peters, see www.richardpeters.co.uk
For details of Wanderlust Photo of the Year 2016 competition, see here: travelphotocompetition.wanderlust.co.uk