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Rebecca Bradley interviews Scotland based nature photographer Peter Cairns about his current project Tooth and Claw and his progression from a straight nature photographer faced with increasingly excruciating competition into more of a photographic story-teller addressing some of the modern-day environmental challenges. Peter is the founder of wildlife photo-tour company Wildshots and stock photography business Northshots.
You are currently promoting the Tooth and Claw project, can you explain in more detail what the project is about?
Tooth and Claw is a photo documentary project which explores human feelings and attitudes towards predators. It is also an example of how powerful photography can help shape people's perceptions and within an environmental context, nurture greater understanding of the natural world.
What will the outcome of the project be?
The outcome of the project will be an active website for discussion and debate, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table style book (launched November of this year) and a nationwide travelling exhibition as well as a comprehensive educational resource.
How did you get into photography? Did your childhood dreams involve becoming a photographer?
I've always had an interest in wildlife but discovered photography only relatively recently. During a safari to Africa in 1994, I was inspired by Karl Amman, a Swiss photographer who has since gone on to use his images extensively in a campaign against the bush meat trade. I guess that was the turning point but it took me another four years to re-arrange my life to enable a living to be made from nature photography.
What did you do before you became a photographer?
I used to play in a band and we were going to take on the world. Inevitably this didn't work out and laden with debt, I started moving furniture in the band's tour bus. This fledgling transport business grew and for fifteen years I was first of all driving trucks and then employing people to do it for me. In '95, I'd had enough and sold up.
What do you consider to have been your greatest photographic achievement so far?
Probably breaking into an already over-supplied market and managing (so far) to stay there. You get a buzz from doing well in international competitions but that's not what I do this for. For me, being able to earn my living doing something I love is something I'm proud of.
What were your expectations of a career in photography? Have they been
met or exceeded?
I think there is a notion that nature photographers spend all of their time in exotic locations taking pictures - if I'm honest, that was my expectation. The reality is different and I spend 80% of my time in my office. From that point of view, my expectations were unrealistic but you can't have it both ways. If you want to try and carve a niche for yourself, you have to work hard at the administrative and marketing side of things. I'm presently involved with two major projects and it would be nice to think that once they're finished, I can get back to some photography.
Have you taken any courses on the subject or are you self-taught?
Self-taught - with help from friends and colleagues.
You mainly specialise in wildlife photography? What other types of photography are you involved in and what do you enjoy the most?
I guess like many wildlife photographers, I started off as a birdwatcher with a camera. Birds and mammals are still "my thing" but today, I'll pretty much shoot anything connected with the natural world. Increasingly, this involves telling stories about our own relationship with nature. This is something that fascinates me and allows me to spend lengthy periods on one theme which I find much more rewarding than a species-collecting approach.
What interests do you have aside from photography?
Apart from my family, none! I need someone to invent the 30 hour day.
Do you spend a lot of time enhancing your images once they have been taken?
No not at all. Firstly, I resent time spent behind the computer so I keep things as simple as possible and secondly, I don't have the skill or inclination to do anything other than basic adjustments.
What type of camera(s) do you use? Do you find some types more useful for certain projects?
Of course, digital has changed everything and when I switched to digital, I switched to Canon. I now have a 1dMII which I use primarily for wildlife as it gives an extra bit of magnification and a 1ds for landscapes or documentary stuff, as it's full frame..
What type of lenses do you have and which do you use the most?
I'm not really a gadget man so again, I try and keep things simple. I have a 500mm f4 which I use for wildlife portraiture, a 300mm 2.8 which is great for action. In addition, I have a couple of wide-angle zooms and a Tamron 90mm macro - that's it.
Do you prefer digital or film photography?
There is nothing like a piece of Velvia staring up at you from the lightbox. That said, digital offers the nature photographer opportunities that were unthinkable five years ago and the standard of imagery has improved accordingly. So, I prefer digital in the field but hate the processing and miss the feel of a trannie in the hand.
What has been your favourite commission so far and why?
I'm not sure there are that many commissions offered to nature photographers these days! I do quite a bit for various tourist agencies but the commissions I enjoy most are those that I plan and execute myself. I love Scandinavia and I've had some great trips there photographing exciting species like bears and sea eagles. These days, I try to follow a particular subject or theme with an interesting story behind it. I recently joined up with a Norwegian hunt team during the elk hunting season - these experiences provide me with different perspectives on our changing relationship with nature.
How do you think photographers should aspire to take nature and wildlife
I have to say that in my view, the British photographer gets too bogged down with talk of equipment and adherence to the rules. The most refreshing work is produced by those who know their subject from a biological viewpoint and spend time with it exploring different viewpoints, lighting and composition. Not everything has to be pin sharp, front lit with the eye on one of the thirds! The only way a nature photographer will stand out thesedays if he/she is creative and open-minded. I also think a mistake is made in always being tempted to jet off to a photo hot-spot. Most photographer's best work is done in a place where time can be devoted to the subject - often very close to home.
Another rare commodity in nature photography is the story-teller. Individual or sets of pictures that convey a powerful message are in short supply at a time when there are increasing environmental challenges which imagery can help to address.
On what occasions do clients come to you for photographs?
Apart from library sales, I sell directly to a number of conservation organisations, public agencies and land management organisations. It's taken time to establish these relationships but if your imagery is strong and you offer a good service, clients come back.
On occasions, people may criticise your work how do you feel about this?
Of course all photographers like praise but if someone criticises your work, you have to be professional about it. If it's constructive, fine - we can all learn from each other.
Where does your inspiration come from?
My main inspiration comes mainly from spending time in wild places and nurturing intimate encounters with other species. Such experiences give me perspective and remind me of the fragility of the planet and what is at stake if we carry on as we are. Photographically, I follow the work of other photographers I admire - there are quite a number but only a handful who produce consistently high quality or interesting work.
How do you go about deciding what to charge clients?
They normally tell me how much they're willing to pay - take it or leave it.
How do you promote your services to find new clients?
A financially successful photographer is the one who is a marketeer first and a photographer second. Marketing is not my strong point.
What would your dream commission be?
To follow a pack of wolves who were habitually predating reindeer in Swedish Lapland. How strange is that?
One word of advice for anyone considering breaking into wildlife
Don't follow the herd.
You are a supporter of the trees for life campaign. Is there any other charities that you are involved with?
I support a number of organisations who promote a habitat-based approach to ecosystem renewal. In other words, a recognition that piecemeal, fragmented conservation is ineffective and that a much more ambitious and cohesive approach needs to be adopted if we are to reverse biological decline. Politically, this is provocative and requires public pressure to move forward. Photographers can play a hugely important role in promoting such issues to a wide, mainstream audience and exciting people about caring for nature.