The life of a wildlife photographer looks like a lot of jet-setting around the world to lounge in exotic locations. And while that's true, the "lounging" part is really more like hours of (often uncomfortable) waiting, and the "exotic" part is equal amounts of beautiful and usually dirty, hot, wet and bug-infested locations. Even so, it all adds up to paradise for wildlife photographer Roy Toft, who leads eager shutterbugs on tours all over the world.
Toft's approach to wildlife photography focuses on showing animals as they really are, on their terms, and in a way that inspires viewers to care about the species and its habitat. Toft is a conservationist and wildlife advocate taking action through the lens of a camera.
We caught up with Toft in between adventures to ask how he got his start, and what tips he recommends to photographers who want to make a difference with their images.
MNN: Your background is in wildlife and conservation biology. When did you first pick up a camera and move into photography?
RT: I received my first camera (Canon AE1) as a college graduation present. The day after graduation, I was in Alaska starting a population study on wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So had all summer to play with my new camera!
How has your background in biology factored into your approach to and success in wildlife photography?
My approach to wildlife photography is based on truth, science, and always putting the welfare of the wildlife first and foremost. Getting the image is just not worth disturbing and putting the wildlife in danger! This creed has not always been good for my career or success. Images need to be so extreme and over the top to be noticed in this industry, which has driven many a photographer to push situations too hard and pressure wildlife.
I certainly think when someone has a biology background, that knowledge of the natural world helps them make more intimate, compelling images.
Penguins are always a favorite of nature photographers. Especially when the scenery is so spectacular. (Photo: Roy Toft)
You travel the world leading photography tours, from Alaska to Costa Rica to Africa. Do you have a favorite location you look forward to going above all others?
Tough question as I enjoy and look forward to visiting all of my photo tour destinations! I would have to put Botswana and Brazil at the top of my “favorite” destinations list. Both locations have a high amount of wildlife diversity, beautiful scenery, and tons of animal behavior to watch and photograph.
What are two of the most common tips you give to photographers in your tour groups about photographing wildlife?
Patience is the hardest “tip” to teach but the one which will improve people’s photography the most. This is best shown to clients in the field: waiting hours for wild dogs to awaken from slumber and head off into the African bush to hunt!
You need to have the patience to work a subject beyond the simple documentation image. Most people get bored and are ready to move onto the next image before the “good stuff” has happened yet. As time is spent with a subject, initial fear and nervousness gives way to relaxation and natural behavior. That is the “good stuff”!
Another tip which leads to huge growth in a person's photography is paying attention to the background. Once people look beyond their subject at hand and concentrate on the background of their images, things improve quickly!
The setting sun splashes off the back of a coiled rattlesnake. (Photo: Roy Toft)
You've seen so much in your career as far as animal behavior. Is there an experience that stands out in your memory as something really special to witness?
While working on a book on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, I went out at night, after the first big rains of the season, looking for frogs who would be stimulated by the rains to breed. As I approached a medium pond in the rainforest, I was overwhelmed by the sounds and sights of literally hundreds upon hundreds of breeding parachuting or gliding tree frogs (Agalychnis spurrelli). The entire pond was full of these love-struck amphibians. This kind of mass breeding event might only happen once a year in these forests… and I was lucky to see it!
Wild turkeys come in to inspect the camera. Interesting angles, great lighting and perfect timing are all part of Toft's talented approach to photos. (Photo: Roy Toft)
You're a Senior Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. How does conservation factor into the way you work as a wildlife photographer?
I’m always trying to “see the story” when I’m in the field and most of the time it’s the “conservation story” that gets me the most excited. We all want to do good work and make a difference. Our nature images can shed light and inform people on the conservation slant of our subject. Great images can create great change, both in attitude and policy!
A hummingbird flies across a golden sky. (Photo: Roy Toft)
Is there an area of wildlife conservation you think needs particular attention?
I think we really need to get away from this “reality TV” mentality of sensationalized wildlife documentation. Why does everything have to be based on how dangerous wildlife is to people? The media needs to get back to a science-based reporting of wildlife and its challenges to survive in the 21st century.
A buffalo charges at a pride of lions on their kill. (Photo: Roy Toft)
What advice do you give nature photographers who want to get more involved in forwarding conservation efforts with their work?
If you really want to make a difference with your photography, you need to get involved with some local conservation chapters that are thriving to make a difference in your local area. Once you are involved and connected to those local conservation representatives, then you can strategize on how your photography skills can help and further the reach of the cause. This is easier to say than actually do!
Find a cause that you can get passionate about and find a way to connect your photography to help that cause.
A family of meerkats enjoy the sunset. (Photo: Roy Toft)
Related posts on MNN:
- Meet the woman who elevated conservation photography to a whole new level
- 13-year-old conservation photographer is changing minds, one animal photo at a time
- How one photographer's foolishness is saving endangered wildlife