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Niall Benvie

Photography is more than something I like doing – it’s a craving that needs to be satisfied.

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Featured Photographer

Niall Benvie

About

Niall has worked as a professional outdoor photographer and writer since graduating from Dundee University (Geog., Hons.) in 1993 after an earlier career as a fruit farmer. His special interest is in the nature / culture dynamic, although his writing covers topics as diverse as digital imaging and peat extraction issues in the Baltic states, eco-tourism and image critique.

Author and illustrator of three internationally published books, he is also a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. His current project, Rewilding Childhood, is a media initiative exploring how children in different parts of Europe experience wild nature and how that affects their social and emotional development. Niall is married, and has two young children with mixed feelings about wild nature....

Websites: www.imagesfromtheedge.com/ and www.rewildingchildhood.com/

Interview

Why nature photography?
Some people get their dopamine hit from doing extreme sports: I get mine from creating something beautiful or interesting or bizarre that didn't exist before. And it has to be focused nature; it is the most fascinating thing on Earth for me ( I count my children as part of nature in this, and several other, regards); we may live in the "anthrocene" but I often feel I don't belong in it.

I like working in places few other people have photographed well before. And that needn't be anywhere very remote. I don’t do "nature photo brothels" where people pay their money to shoot the same animals in the same settings that hundreds of other photographers have done before them.

I need to take/make photographs; it's more than something I like doing – it's a craving that needs to be satisfied. And it doesn't ever go away.

What's best about it?
I'm much more interested in having and recording unique experiences than acquiring stuff. Porsches and fancy houses don't do it for me – they seem too much like a poor substitute for real life. I like the idea of having something to show for my working life – perhaps even something that will endure and touch other people too. Best of all, I just like being in a wild setting with wild creatures; it is a great perspective building exercise.

Let's not forget the people who make a lot of this work possible for me; the biologists and other professional photographers. They are amongst the most fascinating people around – they are my natural community.

What's worst about it?
Let's make no bones about it; field time, when we are out creating pictures is, by and large, a lot of fun. Selling them afterwards is the tough bit, done in an office in front of a computer. That's not an environment I like – it's too much like a regular job! When I travel, I miss my children, increasingly as they grow older. I've been a working photographer for 15 years now but you can't afford to relax for a minute or rely on the continuation of previous success; this isn't a profession in which it is easy to feel secure.

Favourite species and places in Europe?
I have four: Moricsala Island in a lake in Kurzeme, Latvia. This is the most pristine old deciduous forest I've ever been in. Walking in it in spring time feels a lot like tramping across a very expensive Persian rug with muddy boots on.

Wooded meadows near Pasiene, Latgale, Latvia. I've felt more at home in this cultural landscape than any other place I've been, including home.

A "secret" raised bog in Alam Pedja, Estonia. Remote, with a mixture of bog pools, unsteady ground and stunted pines, this really is wilderness unchanged by people, a haunt of cranes, sea eagles and wood sandpipers. Not even any mosquitoes: heaven!

Feall Bay, Coll, Scotland. For me, the most beautiful beach in Scotland (and maybe further afield too) and a link to my life BC (Before Children).

While some photographers have made their name photographing sharks and tigers and elephants, I've made mine, such as it is, photographing small furry mammals with large incisors. Over the years red squirrels have kept the wolf from my door and they remain for this, and more sentimental reasons, my favourite species to photograph. I owe a debt of gratitude to European beavers too.

What's in the bag?
Like most professional photographers I feign disinterest in equipment but nevertheless have a bag full of the latest gear. In the digital age there is a technological arms race and he who has the newest and fastest really can gain an edge. In this respect, the Nikon D3 is letting me get action pictures in low light that were never before possible. Nikon's new 24 – 70mm lens is the first Nikkor wide angle I've used that produces REALLY sharp pictures. My 200mm Micro Nikkor is the standard tool when I shoot white background images and is the sharpest lens I own. Just as important is the computer gear: Macintosh (naturally!) – a 17" MacBook Pro linked to a 2690 NEC Spectraview, with desktop Lacie d2's hard drives, and LaCie Rugged drives for daily Retrospect backups and carrying my image collection on the road.

Did I mention backup ? I suffer from DIS (Data Insecurity Syndrome) so at any one time, my files will exist in anything up to 7 locations and storage media, on and off-site.

Your specialities / skills?
I am a "recovering" nature photographer, trying to put the old ways of doing things behind me. "Eco-porn" doesn't interest me; I’m interested in a more honest, challenging representation of the natural world and our place in it. So I make conceptual images; I create composites again white backgrounds; I make "pictures of memories", mimicking the Polaroid transfer process digitally; and I create my trademark white background portraits in the field to honour the subject in more detail than can be shown in any other way.

What will you do in your next life?
I currently have enough projects to last about three life times but since this one has been so good to me, I expect I'll return as something very low down the food chain the next time. At the very end of this one, I fully expect to see all the pictures I almost got, but not quite, flash before my eyes. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad way to go.

3 tips for beginners
1) Having something new to say.
2) Master the techniques that let you express it clearly through photography.
3) Become THE advertising agent for these ideas, places or species.

Mission

I am being sent to a country that, at the time of writing, I'm pretty ignorant about. I'll change that before I leave – and would be glad to hear from Austrian readers about their experiences of the Tirol where I will be working.

I will be concentrating on alpine plants and invertebrates, shooting them, whenever possible, against pure white backgrounds, in the field. This allows them to be seen in incredible detail – more than is possible in conventional photography. I'm guessing that my output will provide a lot of material for Wild Wonder’s designers rather than many WOWH set-piece images. I will also shoot some of my off-beat "staggered" panoramas which allow slopes to be shown in panoramic format – this is something quite new and challenging in respect of landscape photography. I don’t expect to sleep much; I've a lot of pictures to make in 9 days.

What will be tough ? I'm not a German language speaker so, as usual, will rely on the linguistic kindness of strangers to speak English. I always feel ashamed about that. I understand too that the Austrians drive on the other side of the road from Britain; I'll need to get in some practice here before I leave.

Best Picture

Best Picture

Is it really my best one? I don't know – I tend to like what I've shot most recently, best, anyway. But I've certainly made many lots worse than this.

What's cool about it?
Life, light, precipitation and colour; those are the things that can elevate an ordinary scene into something a bit more special. The photographer can use the “agents of transformation” to build one layer of interest upon another. Here we’ve got the life – a walking sea eagle; backlight for instant “atmosphere”; and colour in the form of leatherleaf and pines. All that’s missing is some falling snow.

But I think I like the picture, shot in a “secret” bog in Estonia, more because it is a world away from the usual shot of a sea eagle plunging after a fish. This is much quieter and may make the viewer wonder: what is that great pterodactyl of a bird doing wandering around a dreamy backlit bog? The location is known to only my friend a couple of others so here we have a natural "set" that hasn't appeared countless times before.

Could it be better?
Of course. If the eagle had called to the other birds nearby, as it did on earlier days, the "life" interest would have been magnified. And I'm a sucker for falling snow.

Behind the Scene
What happened to winter in 2007-08 ? This shot was made in early March when there should have been half a metre of snow in Estonia. As a result I can't honestly say we sat freezing in the wooden hide for 10 hours; it was actually quite pleasant during that time, drinking tea, eating chocolate, complaining about editors and reading "The Poisonwood Bible". But hey, this is work !

Date: 11th March 2008
Location: somewhere in Alam Pedja Nature Reserve, Estonia
Gear: Nikon D3, 500 mm AF-S with x1.4 converter, ISO 1600, 1/640 @ f5.6, Gitzo 1340 with 1380 Fluide head

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