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In conversation with wildlife photographer Sue Flood

Phil Coomes | 08:15 UK time, Monday, 1 March 2010

Emperor penguin by Sue FloodEveryone loves a picture of a penguin. Indeed, the one here is a particularly good example of the genre and the view through the ice reminds me of the famous picture by Herbert Ponting taken on Captain Scott's ill-fated trip to the South Pole.

This photograph was taken by Sue Flood, a wildlife photographer, for want of a better box to put her in. Sue's close-up photograph of the eye of a humpback whale (below) recently won first prize for best single image in the Nature category in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition and her portfolio of pictures of emperor penguins was also highly commended.

As with many areas of photography wildlife photography is one where you have to know your subject inside out. Just being able to use a camera is only the start.

Sue graduated from Durham University in 1986 with a degree in Zoology and eventually in 1993 moved to the BBC where she spent 11 years working for Natural History Unit in Bristol.

Humpback whale's eye by Sue Flood

Sue was an associate producer on the award-winning BBC series The Blue Planet and also worked on Planet Earth. But in 2005 Sue left the BBC to pursue her career as a photographer. Many might wonder why she would leave such a great job but you will soon understand why when you see and hear about her work.

Sue said:

"I left the BBC to concentrate on my photography as I was enjoying that more than my job as a producer. It was a good decision for me and I'm happy to say that I haven't looked back."
"For me, there's no such thing as a typical year. The only thing that is constant is the upheaval. I feel like I have the best job in the world, but the downside is that it plays havoc with one's personal life, taking you away from friends, family and other loved ones for far too long.
"But I can't complain - it's a job which has given me the opportunity to travel to some extraordinary parts of our wonderful planet, from the North Pole to the Antarctic and in between, and to meet some remarkable people."

So what came first, the passion for photography or wildlife and conservation?

"What came first for me was the passion for wildlife. As a child, like my former colleagues in the BBC Natural History Unit, I was fascinated by the programmes presented by David Attenborough. I devoured them voraciously, and these wonderful documentaries certainly inspired my choice of wildlife film-making and photography as a career. So when I eventually got the chance to work with David it was better than winning the lottery. He is an amazing and lovely man, and an absolutely inspiration.

Howard Flood

"However, I was also inspired by my father, Howard Flood (pictured), whose tales from his adventures in Burma, China, Japan and Indonesia in the merchant navy as an engineer with Blue Funnel line in the 1950s seemed incredibly exotic to me as a child growing up in North Wales.


"But I always tease him that, although Dad was a keen photographer, he seemed to have thousands of photos of seagulls around the world - usually a tiny white speck in a blue sky. So it's a good job I inherited his love of travel and not his photographic skills."

This picture of a great white shark, apart from being a striking picture also marked a moment in Sue's career, the move from film to digital.

Great White Shark by Sue Flood

Sue said:

"This was the shot (above) that convinced me to move from film to digital! I was shooting great white sharks in a cage with my good friend presenter and author Mark Carwardine off Guadalupe in Mexico. I had two film cameras round my neck, while Mark was shooting digital. After a couple of close passes by this shark I had finished my two rolls of 36 and Mark just carried on shooting.
"However I'm also very fond of this shot as it was the first one I had published on a magazine cover."

Your underwater pictures are stunning, but for the average person probably not accessible, any tips for taking wildlife pictures in a more mundane setting?

"Think about how to frame your subject. Try to see things in a different way. Get down on your stomach to get a low-level shot, if necessary, or look for an unusual angle. There is beauty all around - you just have to know where to look.
"And you don't need an expensive camera to get a great shot. I've seen some wonderful shots taken on inexpensive point and press cameras, and some very mediocre work produced by people who have every conceivable camera gadget known to humankind."

Emperor penguinsYou've taken pictures of many things, what subject keeps drawing you back?

"My favourite subject has to be polar bears in the northern hemisphere and either humpbacks in the South Pacific or emperor penguins, if you want a colder location. All amazingly charismatic, photogenic and very challenging, each in their own way, to shoot.
"The photograph to the right was part of my highly commended portfolio in the Travel Photographer of the Year 2009 competition. I had to wait a long time for this pose. I'd been in the colony all day when the second adult returned to feed the chick. They held this pose for a just a few seconds and then it was gone.
"The next picture shows a breaching humpback whale at Vava'u Island, Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. It was taken in the last hour of a 10-week shoot when this humpback breached right next to our boat. I spun round and grabbed this before he crashed back into the deep blue. I love this shot - I feel it conveys the amazing power of these giant marine mammals - 45ft of whale throwing itself into the air next to your tiny boat is an impressive sight."

Humpback whale by Sue Flood

"Another favourite is this one of a polar bear stalking a seal in Franz Josef Land, Russian Arctic. I like this shot as it captures the bear at home in its environment. The bear remained motionless for almost an hour as it stalked the seal. This was taken on my 600mm Canon lens - but I've also woken up in my tent on the Arctic sea ice to find polar bear tracks around my tent. I'd have needed the wide angle for that bear, if I'd been awake."

Polar bear by Sue Flood

"However, I have to mention elephants too. I had a wonderful shoot in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, shooting stills for Discovery Channel, and it was a huge privilege to observe these extraordinarily close-knit family groups going about their daily lives. Magical.
"This photo was awarded the Silver Medal of the Royal Photographic Society in their 2008 Projected Image competition for Nature shots. The light was stunning - the sun was setting, the dust was blowing in the wind and I was able to grab a few photographs as the elephant family approached the waterhole. Their excitement at finding water was evident."

Elephands by Sue Flood

"I've had a number of close encounters - some too close for comfort. When shooting in Tonga for Planet Earth, I was on the receiving end of a very hefty blow from the fluke of a "baby" humpback whale - all one ton of him!

"He certainly wasn't aggressive - just curious. He swam over to take a look at me from close quarters, then turned and unfortunately caught my leg with his fluke, bending my ankle backwards at an unnatural angle and leaving me with a badly bruised leg - rather like being hit with a sledgehammer I imagine.

"But I have to say that swimming alongside the humpbacks of Tonga was one of the highlights of my life. To look these enormous, intelligent and gentle marine mammals in the eye from just inches away and have them inspect you in return makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck just to remember it. Awesome in the true sense of the word."

To round off here are a few more of Sue's remarkable pictures.

Russian nuclear icebreaker the Yamal at the North Pole for Quark Expeditions.


This picture shows a sign at the North Pole and was captured on a Canon IDS II with 14mm lens. It was taken during a tour that Sue works on. As the Pole is sea water they have to take the sign with them so the tourists can be photographed alongside it.

North Pole sign by Sue Flood

"The last picture here shows people standing on top of Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. This is Antarctica's largest ice shelf and is the size of France. The shot was taken from the co-pilot seat of Russian helicopter on semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2008. It's one of my favourite shots, and part of my winning portfolio from the International Photographer of the Year 2009 competition, when I won the travel and tourism section."

Ross Ice Shelf

You can read more about Sue's work and see an extended range of her pictures on her website Sue is represented by Getty Images, as well as the Nature Picture Library.


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