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An interview with wildlife photographer Andy Rouse

David Toyne, ePHOTOzine's professional portfolio editor, catches up with the UK's leading wildlife photographer, Andy Rouse.

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David Toyne, ePHOTOzine's professional portfolio editor, catches up with Andy Rouse, one of the UK's leading wildlife photographers. In this exclusive interview you'll discover what it is that makes him so good in his field.

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseI approached Andy Rouse sometime ago as an inaugural interview for the new professional photographers section. I chose Andy as he has a large following on ePHOTOzine, but also because he has a great reputation as a photographer who is approachable and generous with his considerable expertise. I was delighted to find that Andy lived up to his reputation in spades. Putting a substantial amount of time and effort on his part to aid in the creation of this piece, he’s provided great insight into the workings of a wildlife photographer at the top of his game in what we're sure will be a fascinating read.

DT: Unlike some professional photographers, you have, despite your continued success maintained an openness and accessibility to the amateur photography community. Even to the extent of maintaining a blog on your website. What brought about this mind set and why is this relationship important to you?

AR: The simplest reason is that I was an amateur photographer myself 10 years ago and remember what it was like to balance a career with my creative juices. I struggled to get help on the simplest topics and a couple of well established wildlife pros at the time were pretty rude and nasty to me. I vowed never to be like that and to always remain accessible which is one reason I run workshops; financially I do not need to and sometimes they occur right in the middle of a pressing project but I just enjoy meeting other photographers and helping expand their photographic horizons.

We also designed our new website to make it more ‘friendly’ for the photographers that follow our work. I personally felt that there was something missing from it and so the RouseBLOG was born and has gone from strength to strength. I try to update it every day with all manner of things; the most ambitious project was to update it live from the African bush a couple of months ago. Despite the pressure on me to produce good images every day I really enjoyed doing it and actually managed to upload some decent stuff from the trip. Every evening I would hook up my Jobo GigaVu Pro Evolution to the laptop (all powered by solar batteries), pick a decent image, colour-correct it and then proof it to 400 pixels on the longest side. I then updated the blog via satellite phone, which worked great apart from one day when we were plagued with thunderstorms. I have good forthcoming plans for the blog. Next year I will update it directly from India when I am working on a tiger project out there and have a few more BLOGcasts in the pipeline. Hopefully I will get a sponsor too, that way we can make sure that the blog remains free and it would be nice to keep it that way.

DT: You are on record discussing declining professional ethics and integrity in wildlife photography. Would you elaborate on what you mean by this and how you feel photographers should approach the field of wildlife photography without compromising their ethics?

AR: All I meant by those comments was simply that it now seems to be more important to get the shot, rather than the actual process of taking it. Wildlife photography has become a trophy cabinet for some (not all) photographers and some professionals have only chosen this genre so that they can wear the “badge”. I can never see why anyone would think that being wildlife photographer is a glamorous profession, it is wonderful to be so close to wildlife but you end up looking rough as a badger’s backside!

Wildlife photography for me is first and foremost a way of watching and getting close to wildlife – it is not about the equipment, or what raw processing software you use or anything else, it is solely about the wildlife and your relationship with it. This relationship is something that I have tried to explore with my Animal Portraits Book, as no matter what level of photographer you are, the very act of taking a picture of something that is alive and with a heartbeat. This means that you have a responsibility to the subject that far transcends any technical considerations that you might have; after all, the camera will not abandon its nest if you get too close and disturb it. It is all about respect, whether the subject be in the wild or in captivity.

DT: Still on the subject of ethics in wildlife photography, do you consider ‘getting the shot’ vs. the animal’s welfare an important question? If so how do you make decisions based on this?

AR: Quite simply, there is no question here. There is never any compromise on this for me, never has been and never will be. The subject’s welfare has to come first. Yes it compromises the commercial saleability of my photography in some cases but that is fine for me. What really hacks me off though is when people look at my images, or my ugly mug on the TV, and criticise what I am doing with wildlife without any knowledge whatsoever. I spend over half the year abroad and have done so for the past 10 years, this means that when I work with an animal I spend time in depth with it and know its behaviour inside out. I am an expert of working close to big, dangerous animals, that is what I do and I am good at it.

DT: Is field craft and knowing the animal’s behaviour more important than the technical aspects of photography to you? How do you balance the two and avoid making a cliché image?

AR: Yes field craft is the MOST important factor in the shot; the technical element rarely counts for anything as a DSLR is effectively point and shoot. Unfortunately however this fieldcraft knowledge seems to be a dying art, as there is so much magazine copy given these days on the technical and manipulation elements of photography. I get people on my workshops who are real Photoshop gurus, but when using the camera I am amazed at their lack of experience and some don’t even know what a change in ISO does. Yet there are the photographers I meet who have absolutely stunning pictures that clearly show they are experts in their own areas of fieldcraft – one guy I met last year had the most amazing wild Peregrine Falcon collection known to man. It was incredible and he clearly loved photographing them (the key to everything) and spent his whole life doing it. His fieldcraft and love of the subject got him those pictures, nothing else, and that is true for so much of my photography. There will never be any shortcuts for the ethical wildlife photographer, fieldcraft is the key.

DT: When intending to photograph a specific animal how do recommend preparing? How would you go about learning about the animal and what technical obstacles would you consider? Have you any specific stories?

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseAR: I treat everything as a project and never just rush in. Take the Great Crested Grebes that I worked on this summer as an example. I spent about 6 weeks watching and learning their behaviour, working out what would cause them to be scared and exactly how I could get close enough to get a decent shot. When they were on the nest I observed their behaviour from afar before using a hide, as I wanted to ensure that there was NO chance that I caused any disturbance at the nest.

The field craft obstacles were many; my only possible vantage point was to sit in three foot of freezing cold water under a dense thorn bush. I was scratched to pieces and frozen solid after each shoot but always came out smiling.

Technically the Grebes were difficult to as I had to shoot them in the first 30 minutes of light after dawn (i.e. 5am) to stop the white feathers burning out too much; at this time the dark backgrounds played havoc with the Canon EOS1Ds MK2 and as a result there is more noise in the background than I would like. But the whole project was a great success, the Grebes raised 5 chicks and I took my first sequences of them that have sold a few times since.

They will never set the world alight as there is far better from French photographers, but next year I will repeat it and get better results. It is always a learning process.

DT: Being a self-taught photographer what do you feel most effectively helped you learn and develop as a photographer? Also what are the pitfalls people would do well to avoid?

AR: I have always been a very self-motivated and determined individual in whatever career I have chosen. Some would say obsessed, but as long as this is in a positive way and does not lose sight of any ethics then this is no bad thing. As soon as I realised that wildlife photography was my passion though, and what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I set abut working how to make a successful business of it. This may sound alien to creative types out there but it is an economic reality that we all have to earn money to survive and professional wildlife photography is certainly a career that eats money. It is not just the gear, but everything else associated with it and travel is not cheap.

DT: You were renowned as an early and enthusiastic adopter of digital photography when many professionals where shying away from this medium. Why was this?

AR: Money. Simple as that. I was spending tens of thousands of pounds a year on slide film, developing and creating high quality 70mm duplicates for my network of agents worldwide. This money could have been better spent on my travel so I quickly saw that digital would save me a packet and allow me to channel the money elsewhere. All I needed to do was to be convinced of the quality, when one of my Canon EOS D30 images (yes that is a 4MP camera) was used at billboard size in every Jaguar car dealership in the US I was convinced of that. Since then I have never looked back, although I do miss the clunk of my Pentax 645 sometimes.

DT: You were also known for you’re championing of RAW shooting culminating in your involvement with Pixmantec’s RAW shooter. Why shoot RAW? Does it benefit you professionally to do so?

AR: I shoot RAW for flexibility and that is the only reason. I have limited time to spend on my images and prefer to make minimal changes using a RAW converter. That is the reason, pure and simple.

DT: Now that RawShooter has been bought by Adobe will you be involved with their Lightroom product in anyway?

AR: Let’s get this Pixmantec thing sorted out once and for all. I helped make that company successful worldwide as the figurehead and the marketing director. I could see the potential straight away as the software addressed what the individual photographer on the street needed - that is why it was so successful. Then, all of a sudden, the company was sold by the two directors to Adobe – I actually wasn’t told about this until after the event. To say that I felt disappointed is an understatement; we had a great product with RawShooter and had even better plans for the future. I enjoyed being back in the world of software too and felt a bit cheated that it came to such a sudden end, but we live in a tough business world and I have to accept that decisions are not just made for the good of Andy Rouse.

Adobe, well we have had some interesting conversations and I think that they have a genuine desire to come up with a good solution for photographers. I do have LightRoom installed on my PC and have used it a few times but at this stage of its development too many workflow stages are missing and I cannot afford the spare time to learn it. This will change in time but for now I am not involved at all as I have made the decision to do what I do best, as a wildlife photographer, conservationist and educator. That is what I am and it is best I stick with it for all concerned. I don’t want to be respected for being a techno-geek, but for being a photographer and making a difference to the world around me.

DT: Again drawing on your digital expertise. What are your thoughts on the Open RAW format debate? Do you feel it’s important as a photographer to aim for an open standard? Did things like company’s encrypting RAW image on photographer’s images worry you?

AR: Technical arguments like this do not worry me nor do I spend one second thinking about them. I am not a techno-geek, I am a wildlife photographer. Too many people spend too much time worrying about things that are a) irrelevant and b) out of their control. All that matters with photography is actually getting out there and taking pictures, it frustrates the hell out of me that this is now of secondary importance to being a geek. The one problem that as photographers we should all worry about is climate change, I have seen its effects and I know how serious the problem is. For me being a little greener and trying to contribute in my own small way to reducing emissions is so much more important than ANYTHING to do with photography.

DT: Despite your strong showing in digital photography you are also a strong advocate of minimal post processing. What in you mind is acceptable post processing? How far is too far? What tips would you offer to people to help avoid having to do major edits?

AR: The DSLR has a dynamic range of approximately 5 f/stops, whilst the human eye is approximately double that. Therefore I feel that many digital images need to be “corrected” so that the final image represents the original scene as I saw it. I usually try to do this within RawShooter, using the exposure, fill light, contrast and vibrance controls with a bendy curve. Sometimes this works but more usually I am opening the image into Photoshop and finishing it off using Adjustment Layers. All I mostly do is make subtle adjustments to the contrast of an image, perhaps to darken a sky to increase the mood, or to increase colour in a channel for the same effect. But the maximum I will spend on an image is about 10 minutes, as I have a lot to get through. I know that some photographers spend hours on their images and that is fine if you like that sort of thing but it isn’t my cup of tea and I want to avoid overcooking wildlife images - nature is beautiful enough.

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseOccasionally I will go slightly further and create a slide sandwich of an image to make something really artistic. Over the past few years I have really started to take a wider view of the world and have started to “see the light” in a way that has dramatically improved my photography. If I do make a composite image then it is usually for illustrative purposes only – take this diving kingfisher image for example.

It is so obviously three images but is combined into one to show how a kingfisher angles its wings during the dive. I make no bones about it, tell everyone the truth and label it as Digital Composite Art. I am not seeking to mislead, unlike certain professional twats who manipulate every single image and lie about it. This really hacks me off as it makes me look like I am unskilled – I (and most of my colleagues) push the boundaries of wildlife photography to the physical limit, often risking my life to the extreme.

I get amazing shots but they can never compete with a cheat that will combine several images on their workstation to make an image that never happened. Then they lie about it and pretend to be the world’s greatest wildlife photographer; it amazes me that people accept the lie, being experienced at wildlife I can see when false eyes / legs / rain/shadows have been added, it is SO obvious if you are in tune with nature.

DT: You recently received two awards in the prestigious Shell wildlife photographer of the year. One of which was your ‘Rival Kings’ image seen here. What do you feel sets your work apart from the competition? How do you work at making your style unique? Where do you go from here?

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseAR: The competition is all luck, I know many photographers who enter great images and come nowhere, conversely lucky shot merchants enter one image and get placed. So, it is a lottery in any competition, but the BBC competition is a special one and it really means something when you get anywhere in it. To get two awards this year, coupled with the award last year, shows me that at least I am taking images that stand out to a critical eye. My style is not that unique, in fact I have no idea what my style is, I just take pictures of beautiful things it is as simple as that. I don’t really set out with a certain image in mind. I just make the most of any opportunity that presents itself. To say that I compose a picture according to any set rules is also wrong; I just look through the viewfinder and build the image that I want to see. Nature does the rest.

DT: There is a vast attention to detail in the rival kings picture and in the environmental Antarctic images. How does one go about preparing for a moment like that and then constructing that image in the challenging conditions of the Antarctic continent?

AR: Hmm if only it were like that in real life! It is true that at the time I saw the potential in the shot and deliberately composed it as you see here, timing in wildlife photography is everything. However, wildlife photography is all about moments and there is often precious little time to think about what you do, you shoot on instinct. This is especially true as I shoot with a 1Ds MK2, which has a slow motor drive and a relatively small burst size for RAW (9 images). Therefore blasting is never an option for me, which means that I have to rely on my reactions and my timing to nail even the highest action shot. When I look at the Rival Kings image I have always regretted the decision because of the sea gull to sit right in the background, but have resisted the temptation to “brush it out” as it is part of the shot and it was there at the time.

The major challenge when taking these images is always the light – since I shoot in low light the shutter speed is always low even with the aperture wide open. I rarely use a tripod as I feel that it restricts my freedom and so have got used to hand-holding a reasonably long lens in very low light. Using a DSLR has its advantages; I can increase the ISO from 100 to 200 if necessary without any visible degradation. Sometimes I will even reach the heady heights of ISO 400 but never above this as I have to retain image detail at all costs to meet agency demands, sadly.

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseDT: Your Antarctic landscape images reminded me in some ways of Ansel Adams ‘Monolith’ images. I noted in fact that all images seemed more environmental in their nature. When did this change in style begin? What has brought this change about? Where do you see it progressing from here?

AR: Yes I really love that shot. As soon as I saw the iceberg, and the bright, contrasty, sunny conditions, I could see the potential for a black & white. Looking at the great black & white masters like Adams, it is the contrast that makes their images great and something which I have tried to capture in my monochromes. Of course I capture it in colour and convert it later in Photoshop, but this iceberg shot was deliberately over polarised as I knew what would happy to the sky colour after conversion. Many people have commented on its Ansel-like qualities, I am not sure that it deserves such an accolade to such a monochrome genius, but it certainly has something about it.

Over the past two years I have taken a more wide-angle style and I certainly prefer to shoot a subject in an evocative landscape than anything else. I just really like doing it and at the moment I am seeing the images very clearly, although to be honest in somewhere like Antarctica it is very easy to do it. I have started taking the style into other areas of my work too, some clients have said that my Ascension Island work is my most graphical to date and I am beginning to shoot wider in Africa too. Not wider just for the sake of it, but wider if the light is there for the shot, so it’s not just as a token gesture. Not sure where it will take me, but it will be a fun journey. That’s the fun of photography, playing with light.

DT: Moving closer to home. For people beginning to shoot wildlife in the UK what would you recommend as a personal favourite UK animal to photograph. How should they be approached? Where is a good place to learn about their behaviour?

AR: I love deer and hares and have spent the last few years working hard on getting unusual and descriptive insights into their lives. For me they offer the ultimate challenge of my fieldcraft and stalking skills and the results are on my website for all to see.

 An interview with wildlife photographer Andy RouseMy tip for anyone starting is to indulge their passion and go after their favourite animal in depth – if you don’t love your subject then you can’t photograph it as it has to come from inside of you. Working on one subject in depth is a great strategy for not only improving your photography but for getting commercial success and peer respect – too many photographers are one shot merchants who have one average shot of a lot of species. I don’t, in fact, I only have an embarrassingly small number of species, but where I win is that I have them in depth from the stunning portraits to the difficult-to-get behavioural shots.

I learn about an animal’s behaviour from experts in the field, gamekeepers, reserve managers, researchers, you name the profession and I have probably asked them a question or two in the past!

DT: Continuing with your change in style I couldn’t help but be surprised when you referred to Steve McCurry’s ‘Portraits’ book as an influence for your own Animal Portraits Book. How did this book come about and what effect did the McCurry influence have on the end product? Has being influenced by Steve affected your use of colour?

AR: That cover of the Afghan girl will stay in my memory forever and the original Portraits book is a real gem. The idea for Animal Portraits actually came from a very gifted editor called Neil Baber at David & Charles and it took me a long time to be sold on the idea. As I have said before I see the world through wider eyes now so to publish a book of 350 close-ups was a bit of a departure from my current mind-set; the book would be targeted at animal lovers and would contain very simple images that featured the animals as the central subject. So we did not choose anything too aggressive, anything in dark, moody light, in short every image is straight and designed to work together in the book. So far, so good for Animal Portraits, the book has been re-printed twice before release to cope with the prior demand from the trade and the reception to it has been great.

Many photographers these days of course are obsessed by hints and tips books or Photoshop How to Volume 657, so they would never be inspired or interested in a book of pure photography. This book however has been well received by photographers, even though they are not the target audience (it’s for people who care about nature). The book is actually one of the best hints and tips books you will ever see – a picture tells a thousand words! True it doesn’t have many words, but what it does have are well composed images that should inspire any photographer, no matter what their chosen genre, to think “I can do that!” If this is the case then I have succeeded as I seek only to inspire by my work.

DT: Is your continued success down to just your photography or also business acumen? Just how important are the soft skills when turning professional and were do they come in handy?

AR: I actually think that it is down to my images, as that is my core profession. I am a commercial wildlife photographer with a successful business model selling images worldwide through a network of agents and my own website. This is, and hopefully always will be, what I do best. But of course any business needs to diversify for years there have been other chunks to my business. My name is now pretty well-known worldwide, several people lately have described it as a brand name which I find really amusing as why would you have a brand for a scruffy git? It is true though that my work is now seen in many different forms, for example I have my own branded clothing with Paramo and a range of Italian furniture that is about to bear my images. In this increasingly difficult business world it is important to always look ahead to the future and now I am putting things in place that will ensure that I can make a continued success of this for the next few years at least.

DT: You give a lot of talks; do you enjoy this public side of your life?

AR: Yes I love it. I have really taken photographic talks beyond the traditional hall and slide projector approach and gone is the awful musical show to panpipes. My talks are now in big theatres, usually sponsored by a local club / group (or smaller groups that have banded together), and I look on them as an evening’s entertainment. I don’t talk about technical stuff as that is not why people come to see me; they have paid money to see me, my pictures and expect to be entertained. I work very hard not let them down, with pumping musical shows and the best images that I can possibly show. One of the nicest things about the shows is that the hosting club usually makes a packet of money, which is great in these times of dwindling camera club membership.

DT: When you write about photographing various animals you come across as a person who cares deeply about your subjects. What are your thoughts on conservation and preservation of animal habitats? Do you get involved in any way in this area?

AR: I get involved a lot but that is my private business and my personal choice. I don’t generally talk much about it as I do it for the right reasons and not to seek any personal PR. So yes I do a lot, behind the scenes. I have formed my own conservation trust, in partnership with Paramo Directional Clothing, which aims to raise funds to distribute to worthy charitable projects with an environmental/wildlife slant. Asking people for charitable donations is getting tougher and tougher so we decided that the best way of getting something was to give something back in another other way. So when anyone buys one of my endorsed Paramo jackets, trousers or base layers, we both make a sizeable donation to the fund. The same applies to the sales of our website prints. Cynics would say of course that we are just doing the whole thing for money, trust me the amount of time and hassle that we go through really batters this argument into the ground.

DT: You mention criticism, do you get a lot of this and how does it affect what you do?

AR: I have always had it and always will. It is always by people that do not know me, have never met me and hide behind forums with their ill-informed opinions. Yes it hacks me off but these days they are in such a minority that it doesn’t bother me like it did; it is a British thing that if you are successful then others will always try to shoot you down. I get so many nice emails from US photographers when my articles appear in magazines like Outdoor Photographer; they are always polite and always encouraging. I just wonder why we can’t be like that in the UK.

DT: Which photographer, living or dead, has been the greatest influence on you? What set them apart for you?

AR: Hmm. Lately it has been a lot of Ansel Adams but also Galen Rowell, both of whom I have only really appreciated in the past few years. They had something that was different, something about their images that makes them timeless and unique.

DT: You've shot rhino from under their feet. What experience has come closest to making you crap your pants?

AR: Actually that time was pretty close, when the black rhino decided to insert its horn under the vehicle and managed to start lifting it; I knew that I had to get out of there as the look in its eye was something I will never forget. It was like – “don’t mess with me buster” and I got the message loud and clear. To be honest although I have been in incredibly life-threatening situations (full-on charges by Grizzlies and Polar Bears, in the middle of an Elephant stampede) I have always remained cool and placed my trust in the animal. I have a philosophy, if I have not done anything to cause it then there is not much that I could do to get out of it. I certainly would not condone an animal being shot that was attacking me, trust me their have been times when this was a serious option, as the animal is only reacting to a stimulus that should not be there – me.

DT: How is it having a partner who's also an excellent photographer?

AR: It keeps us both on our toes although what we do is completely different. We have a totally different take on life in general and attitudes to our photography in terms of what we like and dislike. Although Tracey shares my passion for travel and Deer / Hares, she loves photographing gardens/flowers too. She’s also been busy working with a horse welfare charity on their image requirements including their 2007 calendar. Her real passion though is writing and she writes all of our books, ensuring with her zoological background that they are informative yet technically correct. Of course there are sometimes when we disagree and I have the mother of all artistic temperaments, but we understand each other’s skills and try to use them to help our business and each other.

DT: Is there a feature you wish a camera/lens had that doesn't exist currently?

AR: A live LCD feed from the camera, just like you get on consumer compacts, this would be truly great. I would also like a Canon lens to match the amazing Nikon 200-400 but other than that I just get on and shoot with what I have as their seems little point in dreaming and talking about something that I have no control over. All that really matters is that we slow down the effects of climate change that is the No.1 problem that eclipses everything else.

DT: What are you current projects? Where can we expect to hear about you next?

AR: I have lots in plan but I never reveal anything as my ideas just get copied all the time. Suffice it to say that I have two major projects on the go that will be amazing if they come off and will certainly enhance my reputation worldwide. Don’t worry; the readers of ePhotozine will be amongst the first to know!

Thanks to Andy for your considerable time and effort given to this feature. We look forward to hearing your exploits in the future!

Andy’s expertise can be further drawn upon at his Workshops and Safari’s and if you appreciated any of his images they can be obtained from his new print shop. For more details of these and Andy's blog and gallery visit his web site here: Andy Rouse.

All images remain the copyright material of Andy Rouse and may not be used in any way without his express permission.

Interview by David Toyne, ePHOTOzine's professional portflios editor and co-owner of Chapter Thirteen Photography November 2006

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