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Igor Shpilenok

My camera is my most powerful companion in my efforts to conserve Russia's nature.

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Featured Photographer

Igor Shpilenok


Igor Shpilenok lives in the Bryansk Forest on the western border of Russia, not far from Ukraine and Belarus. Igor’s family – his wife and four sons – make up more than half of the population of the tiny village of Chukhrai, which is surrounded by impassable floodplain forests and to this day lacks even a road. Therefore, three horses are still the most reliable form of transportation for Igor’s family.

Igor is a fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and a winner of the 2006 BBC Wildlife Photographer Competition.

Igor’s work has been published in numerous international and Russian magazines, including Smithsonian, National Wildlife, Geo, and BBC Wildlife.

Website: www.shpilenok.com/


Why nature photography?
I first got the idea to photograph nature at the age of 13, when, during my spring explorations of the Bryansk Forest in western Russia, I discovered a wonderful meadow in the woods with hundreds of wildflowers. I thought it was unfair that only I could take in this beauty out of the billions of people on Earth. For two weeks, I begged my grandmother for a camera, but when I finally returned to the meadow with my new camera, it was too late. Instead of the blanket of wildflowers, I found black earth upturned by tractors and piles of freshly cut logs towering to the sky. It was one of the most intense impressions of my adolescence, determining the future direction of my life.

Since then, the camera has been my most faithful companion in the struggle to save the Bryansk Forest. Through my photographs and publications in newspapers and magazines, I pushed for creation of the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve to protect disappearing nesting habitat of the rare black stork, a bird I first discovered here as a teen.

In 1987, I became the reserve’s first director. During the 11 years I managed the reserve, my colleagues and I were able to secure protection for another 12 nature refuges where logging, wetland drainage, and other irreversible forms of nature use are prohibited. Today, a fifth of the Bryansk Forest is protected from economic exploitation. The years have healed the wounds inflicted on the forest, and wildflowers bloom on my meadow once again.

What's best about it?
I feel fortunate to have chosen Russia’s system of strict nature reserves and national parks as the focus of my creativity. We Russians can be proud of our protected areas’ system, one of the most significant in the world for biodiversity conservation. A system of 101 federal nature reserves and 35 national parks span my vast country from the Kursh Cape on the Baltic coast to the Commander Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The role of Russia’s protected areas for conserving biodiversity, furthering ecological research, and promoting environmental education cannot be overstated. Yet, what attracts me most is the boundless beauty of these pristine wilderness areas.

What's worst about it?
Photo expeditions often mean long separations from my loved ones. Last winter, I spent five months alone in a remote cabin on Kamchatka. The challenging conditions, such as freezing cold (the water in my cabin usually froze at night), the lack of fresh food, and even the fact that all my cameras went on the blink, were nothing compared to how much I missed my family. That’s probably the hardest part of my lifestyle.

Also, processing photographs and marketing are my weak spots. Sometimes a year goes by before I update my website (if it wasn’t for my wife, Laura, the site wouldn’t even exist!).

Favourite species and places in Europe?
The Bryansk Forest in western Russia – where I am from – would certainly rank first. Northeastern Russia along the White Sea is also one of my favourite areas to shoot.

My totem bird is the black stork, and the reason I first committed myself to conservation and photography.

What's in the bag?
The Nikon D3 and the Nikon D300 are great cameras! I use lenses from 14 to 500 mm. I get the most mileage from the Nikkor 70-200 mm f-2.8 and Nikkor 300mm f-2.8. If I was stranded on a deserted island and I could only have one camera and one lens, I would take my lightweight Nikon D300 with a Nikkor 70-200 mm f-2.8 and, of course, my MacBook Pro.

Your specialities / skills?
I don’t consider it to be vitally important to be skilled in photographic technique. A more important art is to be a good naturalist and field person, to understand and sense nature, to study the behaviour of wildlife, and to learn to minimize disturbance when photographing natural subjects. I can build or fix up a forest cabin with only an axe. I can spend the night in the taiga without a fire. I know my whereabouts without using a GPS. I can find a rare animal and photograph it without inflicting harm. The photographs you get make up only about 10 percent of nature photography. The other 90 percent is motivation (why are you photographing your subject?), knowledge of the natural world, skills, and patience, patience, patience.

What will you do in your next life?
I still can’t figure out what I did in my former lives, and you are asking me about the next one! Sometimes when I am in a new part of the remote wilderness of Siberia or Kamchatka, I get the feeling that I have been there before. In any case, I hope not to sin so much in this life that, in my next life, God will send me to live in the concrete jungle of a big city!

3 tips for beginners
The first and most important is the same as for doctors – Do no harm! Nature should not suffer because of our creative ambitions. Things are a lot more fragile and complex in nature than we imagine. Before you begin your work, you need to find out as much as possible about your subject and consult with experts. You need to know when to stop, so as not to cross the line between photography and photopoaching. If you don’t have sufficient skills as a naturalist, then avoid photographing animals near nests or dens or in bird colonies. Observe the animals’ reaction to your presence and keep your distance or stop shooting if they appear distressed. And I follow the golden rule of the International League of Conservation Photographers: Minimize your impact on the landscape by following the “Leave No Trace” principle.

Second, make your photographs work for nature conservation. Promote your nature conservation initiatives and succeed with the help of your photographs!

Third, avoid digital manipulation of your photographs, which only skews the reality of wild nature. Nature needs no improvement.


In May 2009, I will photograph the endangered saiga antelope – Europe’s only antelope – in their native and disappearing steppe in Kalmykia, a region in southwestern Russia. Because of poaching and other pressures, there are fewer than 20,000 saiga remaining in Europe – down from more than 2 million animals in the middle of last century. I hope that by showing these unique, hump-nosed antelope to Europeans and the world, I can evoke in people the desire to help the animals in their fight for survival.

Best Picture

Best Picture
Bear in the steam of a geyser on Kamchatka.

What's cool about it?
Photographers tend to be poor critics of their own photographs. Often it is the shot that was hardest to get that is the dearest. That is why I asked my wife Laura – my main judge – to pick her favourite photo. Without hesitation she chose this bear in a geyser’s steam, which I shot in Kamchatka’s Valley of the Geysers on her birthday, the 21 st of May.

Could it be better?
It could be, if the bear was looking directly into the lens. But in animal language, this would be a sign of aggression or confrontation, so the animal shifted its gaze away from me. And I did the same.

Behind the Scene
I took this photo in the Valley of the Geysers on Kamchatka. In the several months I was working in the Valley, I had many close encounters with bears in dense steam of geysers, where we couldn’t glimpse each other from afar. Usually both the bear and I were equally frightened and ran away from each other. But once I encountered a large bear that was not so easily frightened, and I also collected my wits. I had time to click the shutter only once, and a cloud of steam hid the bear from view, after which I didn’t see him again.

Date: May 21, 2006
Location: Valley of the Geysers, Kamchatka, Russia.
Gear: Nikon D2X, Lens Nikkor VR 70-200 mm at 200 m, ISO 100.

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