Many wildlife photographers love to travel to far-off places to capture animals the rest of us rarely see. But as Richard Peters proves, with some careful planning, creativity and the cooperation of your local wildlife, you don't even have to leave home to create amazing photographs.
Though he too loves to travel the world, Peters, who lives in the United Kingdom, is more interested in focusing his attention on how light and composition can make any animal subject stand out as art. For the last year, he turned his attention to his own backyard and began experimenting with creative lighting and compositions that, when the animals finally decided to play along, were absolutely worth the nightly wait.
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The hard work paid off with this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, in which one of his photos of a fox — or rather a fox's shadow — won the Urban category.
We talked with Peters about his focus as a photographer, how he creates such extraordinary photos in such an ordinary setting, and also about his new ebook, "Back Garden Safari," that details all the steps and equipment he uses to photograph backyard wildlife at night.
Photographing the wild neighbors that visit his yard is one of Peters' favorite projects. (Photo: Richard Peters)
MNN: You photograph wildlife around the world and have gone to exotic locations to shoot, but you also spend a good deal of time on local wildlife. So local, in fact, that you sometimes don’t even leave your backyard. What got you excited about photographing backyard and urban wildlife?
RP: Initially, I didn't have any interest in what wildlife activity was in my yard. I rarely saw anything out there and so I didn't really give it much thought. But then one day a fox walked through. That was all it took!
I suddenly had an objective, to photograph this beautiful animal. It just snowballed from there and the more time I invested in trying to take its picture, the more I enjoyed working out there. It also forced me to try and think creatively because my yard isn't very big so my options were limited.
Then, I started getting nocturnal visitors, so I had to learn an entirely new technique using flash and camera traps. That in itself was a real challenge, but further fueled my enthusiasm and creativity.
The more I photographed, the more it got me thinking about how a lot of photographers (myself included) often feel like they need to travel to see exotic subjects to feel inspired. But the truth is, all wildlife is exotic to someone. No matter where we live, we see wildlife every single day. I decided it was time to try and re-inspire people into seeing the beauty in subjects they take for granted. To try and see the common everyday animals in a new way.
You’ve written an e-book, ' Back Garden Safari', about photographing backyard wildlife. What is one of your best tips for people wanting to begin capturing visitors to their own yards?
Buy a motion-activated trail camera! I had no idea what was visiting me until I invested in one of those. I've spent a lot of time photographing a local badger that visits my yard over the last year, but if it wasn't for getting the trail camera, I'd have never know it was visiting!
Once you know what is visiting, and what patterns of behavior they follow, you can start to plan for how to photograph whatever those subjects are.
That's when the fun begins. Because you are working from home you can afford to think outside the box and try new things. For example, if you were to travel halfway around the world to spend a week on safari, you'd want to guarantee you bring home some nice photos of a lion, so you'd take the safe shots to make sure you didn't mess anything up. But at home, you can experiment with new ideas you wouldn't want to do during a "once in a lifetime trip."
That's the beauty of it, because working at home means you can practice, take advantage of the weather, light, et cetera, all at a moment's notice.
Dramatic light and back-lit subjects are some of the signature traits of Peters' work. (Photo: Richard Peters)
Your portraits focus a lot on using natural light to create a deep sense of mood, of a portrait that is visually simple yet full of emotion. Silhouettes and rim lighting are featured often in your portfolio. What do you think about when you’re deciding how to use light to create an animal’s portrait?
I generally assess the conditions at any given moment on location and then decide how best to tackle them. I have a few preconceived ideas always in my head for certain lighting situations, and I do have a real love of back- and rim-light. So when I see those conditions forming I can quickly react to them and get myself in the right position.
Generally though, when I'm out with my camera, be it local or overseas, I'm always watching the light and trying to figure out what I can do with it or what position I need to get my camera in. You have to adapt and just go with it. A lot of it comes down to luck, because you have to be in the right place, when the light is good but also when the subject is cooperating. Many times I've been in the ideal lighting conditions and there is nothing to photograph.
Though Peters has won awards for his backyard wildlife photos, he enjoys traveling the world photographing animals. (Photo: Richard Peters)
I also use a lot of underexposure in my images. I find myself drawn towards trying to capture mood or atmosphere and underexposing to darken the frame down can really help achieve that look. Anything that elevates the image from something simple to something special.
The downside to that, is I find I shoot less than I used to. Because often if the light isn't right I just wont take the photo. But because I shoot smarter now, it has slowed me down and made me think more about what I'm doing. I find that helps you grow as a photographer far more than just firing off 10 frames per second at anything that moves.
Speaking of a smart, simple use of light, your WPOTY award-winning photo is of a fox’s shadow running across a wall. How did you come up with this creative composition?
Initially it was by pure accident. We had some building work done to the outside of the house and as a result, had no working security light. This required me to place a torch in the kitchen, pointing out the window, so that I could see when the fox would visit at night. One evening, it walked through the torch light and its shadow was cast on the side of my shed. As soon as I saw it, I knew there was potential for a unique photo.
Peters came up with an interesting lighting idea for this award-winning shot, which shows off how creative you can get when photographing in your own backyard. (Photo: Richard Peters)
I tried a couple of times over the months to capture the shadow on camera, without the fox in the frame. But it wasn't until six months after that initial idea that I finally captured the image.
It took quite a few attempts because it required so many elements to come together. The sky needed to be clear, but with little to no moon (otherwise the moonlight would reduce the light of the stars during the long exposure), the exposure had to be set just right that it would record the sky and distant houses, but not let in too much light as then the shadow would fade away during the long exposure. Then, the fox had to walk past the camera at the right distance. Too near the camera and its shadow would be too big on the wall, too near the wall and the fox would be visible in the image.
On top of that, the fox also had to be in a good pose, which was basically down to luck. The neighboring house light was an added bonus that really adds to the image. Hold your finger up to cover that light and it really flattens the image!
I set my camera up on a tripod with a flashgun at the bottom near the floor, and used a motion sensor so that the fox would activate the camera when it walked past. So I was actually asleep when the photo was taken.
As you can see, a lot had to come together for the image to work! But I think that's why it's been so successful — because it required a lot of planning to capture the uniqueness of it.
A red fox leaps nearly out of frame, and the unique composition made this frame an award-winner. (Photo: Richard Peters)
A past photo of a fox won WPOTY recognition in 2012. That too had a very unique composition — one that so many photographers would have considered a ruined shot. Yet, you saw the artistic value of it. Can you tell us about creating that image, and what you love about it?
Yes I've had a run of good fortune with unusual fox photos! This was taken in Yellowstone National Park. It was bitterly cold whilst I was there, with temperatures dropping to -40 degrees Fahrenheit on the coldest days.
One afternoon we were in the Lamar Valley and spotted this red fox hunting in the distance. We watched for a while from the road as it slowly made its way towards us, occasionally mousing (listening for rodents under the snow before, leaping up to dive down deep into the snow to catch them) as it did so. As it got almost within range, it vanished behind a snow bank. We waited, but it didn't reappear.
We started the car and begun to drive away when suddenly it appeared just ahead of us on a snow bank at the side of the road, level with the car window. We could see it looking at the ground, ready to leap. We stopped the car and I barely even had time to put my eye to the viewfinder when it jumped. I just held the shutter release down and hoped for the best.
Looking back at the photos I was initially disappointed to see it had almost leaped out of the frame. In fact, I almost deleted the photos there and then! But I decided it was a fun sequence so kept them. I sat on them for a year before looking at them again. When I did, I realized that one frame actually worked very well. With just enough of the fox sticking out the top of the image that you know exactly what it is, and what it's doing.
I think it was popular because it shows behavior, but in a quirky and (again) unique way.
If there is one piece of advice you would like to send each of your students home with, what is it?
Perseverance is vital.
Wildlife photography isn't easy but it is rewarding when it all comes together. But for it to come together you have to put the time in. The more time you spend trying to capture a photo you have in mind, the more chance there is you will succeed — even if it means going back to the same place over and over.
When you look online at other photographers' work, it can seem like they don't take a bad photo. But they do. And I know I certainly do! But when I take a bad photo, I keep at it. I work out what's not working and what I need to do to fix it. Sometimes I can fix it on the spot, others I may have to wait until another day.
In either case, I persevere.