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ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson

Brad Wilson's new book 'Wild Life' shows animals in a completely different perspective.

| Professional Interviewed

All images © Brad Wilson

Brad Wilson is a professional human and wildlife portrait photographer whose latest book, Wild Life, features some stunning images of wild animals photographed in a studio setting. We spoke to him to find out more about himself, his inspirations and some top tips for photographing with wild animals. 


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: Mandrill


Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?
I grew up in North Carolina on the east coast of the United States and spent most of my early life in that part of the country. I got into photography after university by taking some local classes and then transitioning on to more formal training at The Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine, and then to The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I moved to New York City after that to start a full-time career.

Has it always been something you wanted to do or did you fall into it?
I always wanted to do something creative, but growing up I was never quite sure what that was going to be. At university, I studied studio art and art history, and tried to find a way to incorporate them into a viable career. It became obvious early on that I was not going to be the next great American sculptor or painter, but I continued to look for a medium that I could understand more completely. After university I took some photography classes and all my training in the arts suddenly made sense to me. It seemed that photography offered a more unique creative opportunity: the ability to make a living commercially, while, at the same time, pursuing fine-art applications.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: Panther

Your work focuses on the human and animal form, with very little distraction from the subject. What do you try and get across through your images?
I want viewers to have a very direct and intimate experience with my subjects - whether they are human or animal. For the most part, my images are stripped down to just the essential elements to help accommodate this connection. In general I’m trying to find a moment when something common suddenly becomes uncommon, when something expected becomes unexpected, and present that to the viewer.

What came first, the passion for animal photography or the passion for human portraits?
Human portraits were definitely a passion at the beginning of my career. I loved exploring different poses, moods, and lighting set-ups. It was always an interesting challenge to find and capture a meaningful moment. The animal portraits seemed to be a natural progression of this earlier work, so I tried to incorporate what I had already learned.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: Great Horned Owl


How do you achieve the flawless lighting and beautiful catchlights in your subject's eyes?
I was fortunate enough to spend 12 years in New York City immersed in the world of commercial photography. I started as an assistant for a number of very accomplished professional photographers before beginning my own career. This training helped me refine my lighting and technical skills, and was applied to the animal series. 

Your 'The Glass Wall' series is particularly thought provoking - what was the inspiration behind this?
I knew a few models that wanted to collaborate with me on some sort of project. Most of the work they did revolved around the nude. Obviously, the nude has been endlessly explored in all forms of art, and I wasn’t interested in simply repeating what had been done. I wanted to create an environment that added some editorial content or psychological perspective to the images, something that asked more questions than it answered. The water, the glass, and the darkness gave me the feeling I was after.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: elephant

You recently released your latest photography book, 'Wild Life', full of stunning animal portrait images. What did you aim to achieve with the book?
My intention with the book was merely to share an experience - to offer the viewer a private and detailed encounter of sorts with these amazing creatures. What each person chooses to do with that moment is up to them. I felt it was important not to force a particular narrative or point-of-view, but leave it open-ended.

You work with wild animals that can be pretty dangerous! How did you come to take their portraits?
Yes, they are dangerous - and it's important to remember that. However, I saw them as such compelling and beautiful subjects that I felt the risk was worth it. Everyone involved in the photo shoots though was a highly trained professional, so the actual risk was mitigated. In addition, every detail of the shoot was thought out in advance and planned for the safety and comfort of the animals (as well as the humans).


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: crocodile


How do you get them to sit still for an image?
Actually, I didn’t get them to sit still - at least not for more than a few seconds. Most of the animals were constantly moving. If I was working with them for 2 or 3 hours, I was lucky to get 2 or 3 good minutes. It became obvious to me early on that this was going to be the reality of the work, so I accepted it and tried to find interesting photographs within those fleeting moments of stillness and greater connection.

Can you tell us a bit about the set up with the animals? Do you photograph them in the studio with a full lighting setup?
Yes, I photographed each animal with a full lighting set up - either in a commercial studio or on location where the animals lived. Lighting was important and had to be consistent from shot to shot, regardless of the place I was working. The spaces themselves are also important - ideally they should be large, secure, and capable of accommodating vehicles.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: Orangutan

What camera settings do you find work best?
It varies depending on the situation, but I generally use a high shutter speed (1/500 or above) and the smallest aperture I can manage.

Any tips for working with animals in an enclosed space?
Keep your staff as small as possible, be calm and deliberate on set, never push beyond an animal’s tolerance, and make sure your liability insurance is up to date.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: tiger

Which animal was toughest to work with and why?
Without a doubt, the big cats were the toughest. Within that group, tigers were probably the most challenging. They are the top predator in the studio, and they know it. They pretty much do what they want to do, and you have to find a way to get the image you’re after in the middle of their random activity. You cannot tell a tiger to sit and look at the camera. In fact, you’re lucky if they look directly into the lens more than once or twice during the entire shoot. Food rewards will keep their attention for short periods of time, but mostly they’re interested in sleep. Because they don’t fear humans, they will simply lay down in the middle of the photo set and take a nap. Once the serious napping starts, the shoot is over, whether you want it to be or not.

What kit do you use and why do you like it?
I use a Hasselblad H1 camera system and lenses with a PhaseOne P65 digital back. I like this particular camera and digital back because in combination they do one thing very, very well: they produce extremely sharp, finely detailed images - the best I’ve seen. However, that’s really the only thing that this system does well, so for the high cost, it’s quite limited. As far as lighting goes, I typically like to use Broncolor Scoro or Profoto Acute. For me, both of these have been very reliable and versatile.


ePHOTOzine Chats To Brad Wilson: raven

What's next for you? Do you have any new projects coming up?
I’m not sure at this point. I just met some amazing wolves along with a grizzly bear and a female lion. I may decide to photograph them or move on to a yet-to-be-imagined project in the near future.

If you had to give 3 top tips to a novice portrait/animal portrait photographer, what would they be?

  • Find your own voice and style - don’t just copy what someone else is doing
  • Work extremely hard - but remember to enjoy the work
  • Promote yourself as thoroughly and relentlessly as possible

Brad Wilson's work is currently being showcased at Doniel Gallery, London. His latest book, Wild Life, is available from Amazon UK for £20.39.

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