A walk on the photographic wild side with Chris Packham
7 June 2021
Six of the country’s best amateur photographers are currently being put to the test on the Great British Photography Challenge, guided by Rankin and other creative experts like Springwatch’s CHRIS PACKHAM. The award-winning photographer told us why he loves capturing images of the natural world and shared his top tips for taking pictures.
Punk to pictures
As a young man Chris Packham found himself torn between his two passions. “It was always a toss-up, would I go to university and study zoology or go to art college and do fine art? Zoology won out.”
My photographs are not typical wildlife photographs
But after graduating with a zoology degree he discovered a way of combining his two interests – photography. Though he sacrificed his punk music career in the process by selling his gear to fund his first camera.
A job as a camera assistant led to making wildlife films and onto presenting, but the photography remained a key interest with a focus on the artistic side of producing images.
“I’m not really subject driven. My photographs are not typical wildlife photographs. I like to spend more time thinking about a photograph than taking it, more time planning it, imagining it, thinking about how I can do it, where I can do it, how to make it work efficiently if at all.”
"For me it’s always project focussed. I’m more interested in interpreting stuff rather than representing it. You know a lot of people want pin sharp pictures of what they are photographing. I’m more interested in the way it makes me feel, or the way I see it, and I can sometimes change it or use it to reflect something else that I’m thinking about.
"I don’t like rules within art. I think they’re there to be explored and manipulated and broken. The whole photo is important, not just the subject, everything is important even the top corner and the very last pixel is important to me. I like that really shallow depth of field and the bokeh behind it. I’m obsessed about things like bokeh, and that becomes the project.
"I do try to do things in different ways, explore different things. I use a lot of second curtain, or rear, sync flash, slow exposures so when the animal is moving you get a bit of it frozen when the flash goes off."
"I like working with quite tight restrictions, so, just before lockdown I bought a mirrorless camera and I had it converted to infrared. Most people use it for night shoots and big puffy white clouds in Africa. But I wanted to try and see what infrared does on macro, so I spent lockdown photographing tiny insects and spiders, you name it, flowers using my infrared camera in that context.
"I always try and find some new niche and I quite like the effect that infrared gives, it kind of worked and it didn’t work, but I learned a lot about how to make it work. Once I do something I’m stuck with it. I like having restrictions imposed. I need to confine my projects with tough objectives otherwise, like many photographers, I get too distracted.
"The project I’m working on at the moment, it sounds a bit morbid, but I’m taking some really rich painterly pictures of dead animals, in their environment – they are still-lifes basically, heavily saturated, meticulously arranged, like a still life painting. It’s a form of revering the animal in death."
"I’m not interested in replicating other people’s work. I like looking at other people’s work but if they’ve done it, there’s not much point in me doing it. It’s about finding a way of expressing myself in a way that is unique.
"I’m very keen to use ideas that are used in other types of photography and then see if they work when it comes to photographing wildlife. I spend a lot more time looking at non wildlife photography, other photography, than I do looking at wildlife images and I’m constantly thinking I wonder if that will work…in that way.
"I look at a lot of old photos, for example Herb Ritts portraits. I was looking at an extraordinary portrait he took of Elizabeth Taylor towards the end of her life. She’d had a brain tumour removed, her hair was still short. If I’d have been her, I’d have been over the moon because that really did say so much about her as a person, and a person that matured into almost indestructible beauty. It’s an amazing photograph, amazing!"
The impact of Asperger Syndrome
"You know, the thing about photography is you captured one tiny sliver of time and space that will never ever happen again, and you had to press your button at exactly the right moment to preserve that. So the care and attention or the skill required to do that, and I see it as quite an important choice, you are the only one that’s ever going to be in that one place at that one time to take that one image.
...being a perfectionist photographing wildlife that I can’t direct, that leads to quite a lot of frustration
"I think the obsessive nature of my personality helps because I like restriction and I focus only on projects. So my dead animal project – I’m only working on that project. I don’t wander off and do other things, I’m only thinking about that one project, I’m not working on four things at once – I can’t obsess about four things at once.
"I definitely think there are attributes, but some people might think those are detrimental as well, perfectionism is often a curse. Herb Ritts can say to Elizabeth Taylor turn left, turn right, he can tell her what he is doing and communicate his aims and ambition, she can share and empathise with him and work together to produce that image, I can’t do that with a fox.
"I can get it to pretty much where I want it if I put food there, but when the light is forming that little halo of bokeh and I need the fox to look up and put its ears facing me, I can’t direct it to do that. I’d be better photographing architecture because it doesn’t move much, but a perfectionist photographing wildlife that I can’t direct, that leads to quite a lot of frustration."
Chris Packham's five top tips for budding photographers
- "Be ruthlessly critical of your own work. I think you have to moderate your satisfaction and recognise perfection doesn’t exist, but trying to attain it is where the joy is. Acknowledge and embrace criticism, flattery doesn’t get you anywhere, if people tell you it’s great that’s not going to challenge you to make things better. Criticism is far more valuable.
- "Don’t obsess about equipment. I’ve got a really basic kit that I can carry and I know how all of it works. Get enough equipment that you need, really know it and how those lenses look when it’s open, when it’s closed down, those old fashioned things that are really important.
- "With digital, I see people capturing things really lazily and thinking I’ll sort that when I get back with software - you can within limits, but start off with a file that is properly exposed and thought through beforehand – it enhances your creativity. Don’t think about it a week later sitting in front of the computer.
- "Fundamentally, photograph what you love, what you have a real passion for. It’ll bring that little extra out of you. Challenge and push yourself harder, photograph what you love, not what’s fashionable or what might make money, it should be something you really care about.
- "Constantly look at other people’s work and understand it. Take them apart. What mood were they in? Analyse what is happening in that moment, get under their skin, figure out how they work and see what you can use of that in your own work."
The Great British Photography Challenge continues on BBC Four and is available on iPlayer.