This is a question we get a lot and of course, the equipment is important, because you won’t get any photos without a camera. But in general, photographers today worry too much about the equipment and too little about the job itself. Being a nature photographer is a great mix of being able to get ideas, research and plan as well as having artistic skills.
The equipment is important only in the sense that you need it to get your vision down in a media format for others to see. As photographers, and having seen so many other photographers’ work, we know that you can do a great wildlife or nature story with everything from a mobile phone to a big camera with a huge lens.
Are you really serious about it? Then you will most probably start to think about the quality of your pixels and the possibilities of changing lenses. We both use Canon 1DX mkII cameras and a full assortment of lenses from 15 mm to 600 mm.
In general for wildlife, (even though, there is no such thing as in general with wildlife photography) Uri often photographs with the 600 mm lens and Helle the 200-400 mm lens, both on the 1DX mkII cameras. It is heavy to carry in the jungle, but this is what it takes to get the images. Besides that, Helle always has her Swarovski EL 10×42 mm binoculars – as she says, “She feels ‘naked’” without them and it is an important tool to scan for wildlife! A third 1DX mkII camera is often shared between us, with either a 24-70 mm or a 70-200 mm lens.
This is important for our job as photographers as in some places a cheaper camera would simply not survive the wild. We are very proud to be Canon Ambassadors and really love our Canon gear! An example was in Gabon and Borneo. We worked two months in humid jungles, crawling in mud and getting into the water chest deep to get our images. This kind of work takes a camera that is made to last ,as you cannot afford to have mechanical problems when you are in the middle of an assignment.
We still own a tripod, but rarely use it anymore. Carrying a tripod through the tough terrains, in which we work, is simply not worth it. Sure we might miss an image or two, but so will any photographer working with a tripod.
So in short – Buy the best lens and camera you can afford. Think about where you want to go with your photography. Do you want to work professionally or will it be a hobby? This will influence your choices. And don’t forget that there is an amazing market for used equipment, where you might get a better camera, for the same amount it costs for a brand-new one.
On two occasions, we tried to pack everything into pelicases and check it in while following all the rules. Both times the luggage was lost in some airport for several days. And the problem is that we don’t always have a forwarding address at the destinations we go to. So when the otherwise kind clerk, says:
”Hey, don’t worry, we will make sure your luggage gets to your address…”
We always feel like saying that we can’t really give them an address, but we can give some GPS coordinates! Everything usually works out in the end, either by us paying extra or by the clerk calling the airline to confirm that they can allow us to take it onboard anyway.
And then … finally, you get to your destination. It is truly exciting and always a positively daunting experience. Everything might have been planned from home, but it is not until you actually get there, that you understand how huge this area really is and how difficult it will be to find your subjects. Then you start to ‘dig in’.
We get all our gear out and sort it, talk to the scientist or the fixer, which we usually work with and start the real planning. We always make sure to talk to these guys first. Explain to them what kind of images we have in mind and then we just get out there and start to have all the frustrating fun in the world!
Days are often tough and we work almost 16-18 hours. In the jungle you walk a lot or spend time paddling on the rivers. It is tough as hell with all the insects after you all the time and with bad food every day you lose your energy. So most of our time goes to preserving energy and then spending it when there is finally a chance to see something.
In the Arctic, life seems easier. You have a broader view of everything and the mosquitoes there do not carry malaria. When you are sitting out there on the tundra in the middle of a blueberry field while musk oxen are circling you within 15 metres or so, life is a dream. Or when you are on a dog sledge in wintertime, breathing the clear cold air and the local hunter will turn around and smile at you or laugh with you, and the only other sounds around you are the wind and the panting of the dogs. Although it can be really, really cold, the Arctic is a true paradise.
On the savannahs in Africa, life is just as amazing. These places often teem with wildlife and whether we are in a safari camp or in our own tent, everyday is just breathtaking! Safari life on the plains of East Africa easily makes up for all the hard work and frustrations in getting the good shots.
The main thing here is to enter the lifecycle of all living things on the plains, follow the flow, and see where it takes you. You might have a few bad days, but in the end when suddenly everything like light, situation and timing comes into play, it is truly like being offered a part as an instrumental player in the worlds greatest symphony.
The hairs will tingle on your body, the adrenaline rushes through your veins and your head is filled with true happiness. Sometimes when it is really, really good, tears of happiness will stream down our cheeks. This is when you forget all the hardship and know that you are truly alive. At this point even the airport clerks seem alright.