There are basically two ways to take original wildlife photographs:
1. Use your creative vision to pre-visualize an image or a certain look, and then try to create the image in real life
2. Wait for something really cool to happen
Three years ago, I won the overall title "International Nature Photographer Of The Year" at the prestigious International Photography Awards with a series of four snow monkey (Japanese macaques) images. In an effort to create something completely different from all the other snow monkey pictures, I decided to use off-camera flash to have more creative control over the lighting conditions and to create a unique atmosphere for each shot. I worked on this series for two years, and the winning shots were the direct result of my pre-visualization, the most difficult part of the creative process. That series clearly falls into category #1.
The vast majority of unique or spectacular wildlife shots, however, falls into category #2. A safari in Africa would be the best example of this; you drive around in your 4x4, hoping to witness something truly amazing. If it does, you need to be prepared and have the technical skills to capture the moment, but in the end, it's not much different from winning the lottery—you had no control over what happened. The luck factor plays an incredibly important role in wildlife photography. From a creative point of view, I always feel uncomfortable with that fact, but at the same time I realize that this is what makes wildlife photography so addictive —you never know what you're gonna get.
I got a message the other day from the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year competition, stating that my snow monkey picture "Facebook Update" was in the running for the People's Choice Award. I'm obviously very excited about this, even though my artistic influence on the image itself was small compared to the snow monkey series in the IPA. I had no control over what happened. So what did happen?
Earlier this year, we hosted two of our annual White & White Japan tours. One afternoon, our group was photographing the snow monkeys when a large bus with day tourists from a nearby ski resort arrived for a short stop. Suddenly, we were surrounded by people shooting with iPads and iPhones, mostly selfies, of course. We were standing close to the edge of the hot spring (the monkeys are very relaxed with human presence), when one of the tourists started taking shots with her iPhone, moving her phone closer to the macaque after each shot. It was almost as if she was offering it to the macaque as a gift, so suddenly the macaque grabbed the iPhone from her hands and quickly moved away towards the middle of the hot spring—out of reach. The owner started screaming in agony, but the macaque was too fascinated by its new toy to notice. The minutes that followed were downright hilarious—monkeys already resemble humans in so many ways, but when they're holding an iPhone the similarities are almost scary. At some stage it even managed to let the built-in flash go off. When the macaque decided to do some serious underwater testing, the owner of the phone almost fainted. All the while I was fully aware of the fact that this would result in some of the most original snow monkey shots ever. I used a Nikon D800 with a 70-200/2.8 VR lens to be able to zoom in on the macaque and isolate it from the surroundings. The shot was taken handheld, so I upped the ISO to 800 to get a shutter speed of 1/250 at an aperture of f/7.1. At times it was hard to focus because there was quite a lot of steam rising from the hot water (a constant 42ºC; outside temperature was below freezing). This also meant that I could not move the lens closer to the water as it would instantly fog up. From all the shots that I took, I picked this one because of the angle of the macaque, the way it is holding the phone, but especially how it is looking at the screen.
So there are different ways to take original wildlife shots; the planned ones that are based on a creative idea and pre-visualization (proactive), and the ones that are the result of something really cool happening (reactive). In the end it doesn't really matter how the end result was achieved, the only thing that matters is the picture itself —it is either good or it is not.
If you like my snow monkey shot, you can help me by voting for it here: www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/wpy/community/peoples-choice/2014/26/facebook-update.html - Marsel van Oosten
This image is available as a print here. Based out of the Netherlands, Marsel van Oosten and his company Squiver organize specialized nature photography tours & workshops for small groups of all experience levels to destinations worldwide. For more images and information on photo tours visit squiver.com. Follow him at Facebook, Flickr, 500px and Vimeo, where he has posted a series of nature videos that he put together with wife Daniella Sibbing.
Equipment and settings: Nikon D800, NIKKOR AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II telephoto zoom - Handheld with 1/250th @ f/7.1 - ISO 800 - Post processing: Levels adjustment to increase the contrast