Award-winning British photographer Andy Rouse discusses his approach to photography in his recent book Concepts of Nature: A Wildlife Photographer’s Art. This wonderful collection of thoughts and images is reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ classic book, Examples. It’s not a “how-to” collection of camera settings and focal lengths; instead, Rouse’s book is a discussion of his overall philosophy in photographing the natural world.
Concepts of Nature shows how Rouse’s style and thinking on photography continues to evolve as he roams the earth, camera in hand, from the plains of Africa to the frozen polar regions of our planet. His inspirations are as diverse as the locations he photographs. Rouse draws from the work of the late Lord Lichfield and Galen Rowell, as well as modern masters such as Joe Cornish and Art Wolfe. Regardless of the genre, he finds inspiration from their exceptional use of light.
Rouse feels that photography can connect people with wildlife, which in turn, can help in the effort to save the various species that share our planet, and perhaps more than ever, that are threatened with extinction.
Outdoor Photographer: How would you describe your style?
Andy Rouse: A combination of many. I’ve learned by looking at all kinds of genres. My inspirations? Ansel Adams, obviously—I learned light from him and the art of black-and-white—and some of the great photographers like Robert Doisneau and his amazing street photography, and Finnish nature photographers because they use light in a way that’s exceptional. Lord Lichfield did a picture of a boxer here [in the UK] named Frank Bruno. British boxing has never been that good, but Bruno was an exception. We had someone who could actually punch and knock down Mike Tyson. Lord Lichfield did a classic black-and-white photograph of Bruno lit from behind. He’s covered in sweat, look-ing over his shoulder. It’s an awesome portrait. I learn so much from these photographers working in other genres—portraiture, light, composition.
Outdoor Photographer: Composition is a very strong element of your work. Regarding your use of space, why do you often pull back? Is it to get more of a feel for the subject’s environment?
Rouse: I think the style of a lot of American photographers and some Brits is to shoot tighter. French photographers such as Vincent Munier use space cleverly. I don’t have a generic style; I can illustrate a concept with whatever style the shot needs. I can do a portrait of an animal looking at the camera filling the frame, but then I can take a much wider view and look at the animal in its ecosystem. I’m now also forcing myself to do more landscapes.
Outdoor Photographer: What’s the motivation behind that effort?
Rouse: Because I’m in such beautiful places. I’m experienced at taking pictures of animals; I can do it easily. I like to challenge myself. I think when you do that, all your photography gets better as a result. I worked with a couple of landscape photographers, including Joe Cornish, who uses a large-format camera. We do seminars together. We bring things out in each other’s pictures that the other doesn’t see. I found that, when I was in the Antarctic, I began to think and get more in tune with the landscapes. I’m not a natural landscape photographer, but when there’s something there, I’m now good enough to see it and use the light to record it.
Outdoor Photographer: What makes one a good landscape photographer versus a wildlife photographer?
Rouse: Landscape is all about light and composition and seeing something that isn’t there all the time. Landscape photographers find a location and wait for the light to magically change the landscape. The best of them have the ability to foresee what the light is going to be like. They often have to set up their equipment in the dark. They have a feeling for it. It’s the same with wildlife photographers. We have a feeling for the wildlife, for the animal’s behavior. We anticipate what the animal is going to do.
Outdoor Photographer: What photographic equipment are you working with, and how do you use it?
Rouse: My main camera now is the Nikon D3. I love the Nikon 200-400mm lens. It’s great for wildlife. The quality is awesome all the way through the zoom range. I also have lenses from 600mm down to a 14-24mm lens, which is great for photographing environmental portraits of animals in their habitats. I use polarizers to do things such as reducing the highlights off a tortoise’s shell. I never use a tripod or a monopod. I use ISO 800 most of the time—with the D3, there’s no noise at that setting. Most of my shooting is done very early and very late in the day. In India, I was able to photograph tigers fighting in incredibly low light and didn’t get any noise.
I recently did a lot of underwater work with a Nikon D300 with a 20mm lens in an underwater camera housing in the Galápagos. I set the ISO to 800 to photograph seals, turtles and penguins, which are pretty fast-moving creatures.
Outdoor Photographer: When you work on terra firma, do you build and photograph from a hide or blind?
Rouse: I prefer not to have a hide, but sometimes it’s necessary such as when I photograph Capercaillie—they’re like big wild grouse you find in places such as Scotland and Scandinavia. I’ll get in a hide at 4 o’clock in the evening and be silent until 6 a.m. the next morning. Then I’ll be ready for that half an hour in the early morning when they’re active. It’s worth it. It’s such a fantastic privilege to actually see it. All I have to do is sit still.
Outdoor Photographer: How do you get so up close and personal, yet stay out of harm’s way when you’re trying to photograph the bigger animals?
Rouse: I’ve had experts take me out and keep me alive to photograph grizzlies and other animals that can be dangerous to photograph. I hire the best. I learn from them. I don’t fire off a thousand pictures a minute. Instead, I sit and watch. What does that body posture mean? Also, a lot of what I do comes very naturally—little things such as imagining how the animal sees me. For example, I never break the horizon with my body shape. I always stalk so I’m coming out of the sun—just like the Spitfires did during World War II to take on the Messerschmitts. I have to use every advantage that I can. At the end of the day, an animal such as a deer or a hare has all the advantages over me because of their sense of smell. I had a sea change when I moved from 35mm film cameras to the Pentax 645. It made me work slower and think about composition and light more. Those lessons stayed with me after I moved to digital.
Outdoor Photographer: How much postproduction work do you do on your images?
Rouse: I have a strict policy on my images: I will only retouch, I will not manipulate them. I’ll balance backgrounds, foregrounds, colors and light, add some saturation, and remove dust spots or an annoying branch. That’s fine, as long as I don’t change the essence of what that picture is. It’s like you have two dolphins jumping and you put a third one in, or you take a panda from a zoo and put it in a mountain habitat. To capture the true essence of an animal, it has to be in its actual habitat.
The problem is that a lot of people don’t connect with the wildlife we have. Someone says, “Oh, the polar bears are endangered.” How many people can relate to that? People see wildlife on TV. I like to use my pictures to connect people with these animals. They’re worth protecting. Sometimes the pictures, especially the ones of young animals, you could say are cute. But if it makes somebody look at something and want to save it, then I feel I’ve done my job.
Outdoor Photographer: Would you agree that the camera has become an important weapon in the battle to protect wildlife?
Rouse: Definitely. I really like what organizations such as the ILCP [International League of Conservation Photographers] are doing. They’re trying to do a very good thing—making a cohesive voice of wildlife photographers and trying to make a difference. These are photographers working together despite the inherent competition in the field of photography. Let’s compete against the people who are trying to destroy the world.
To see more of Andy Rouse’s photography, visit www.andyrouse.co.uk/.