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The Wild Life

Heather Angel got her start as a biologist photographing whales and has become one of the leading nature photographers of the past quarter-century, communicating her enthusiasm for the natural world through her writing, workshops and lectures
The wild life
Snow leopard leaping from snow-covered ridge. These big cats are superb jumpers and leapers. Their natural habitat is in the mountains of central Asia, from northwestern China to Tibet and the Himalayas.

British photographer Heather Angel has been one of the most influential nature photographers for the past 25 years. Known throughout the world for her ability to supply world-class wildlife photography of almost any animal one can think of, Angel also has taught generations about her craft through writing, lectures and workshops, including the annual Nikon and Kew Gardens photo workshops, plus many books about photography. She holds an honorary doctorate from Bath University and a special professorship position at Nottingham University. Yet rather than rest on her long list of laurels, Angel, now in her 60s, roams the world with state-of-the-art digital equipment. OP was able to catch up with her as she was wrapping up an assignment in China.

Outdoor Photographer: We noticed that you have a degree in biology. Do you think this level of understanding about nature helps your photography?

Heather Angel: From early childhood, I had a passion for nature, so it was a natural progression to study zoology. At this stage, a career as a photographer wasn’t even a consideration. But when I began marine biological research, I used a camera as a tool to document the marine animals I was studying.

the wild life
Left: Japanese macaque mother drinking with bedraggled newborn baby clinging to her, Japan. Patience and a keen understanding of the subject’s behavior are critical for this kind of tight photograph. The longest lens in the world is no substitute for being able to get in close. Right: African elephant kicking up dust to feed on trailing Ludwigia at dusk, Botswana.

My understanding of lighting or composition was nonexistent; but as I began to write articles and to study magazine design, I began to appreciate how composition can influence potential sales.

For instance, I learned that vertical eye-to-eye shots of larger mammals looking directly into the lens invariably make popular cover shots.

Right from the start of my photography career, my philosophy has been to provide images of the natural world that depict authentic behavior within the natural habitat, and having this core understanding of biology has helped immensely. In addition, everyone knows an African elephant or a brown bear when they see one, but it’s the smaller fry that are more difficult to locate and come up with the correct name. Therefore, a basic understanding of nature is essential for knowing where to find and how to identify insects, frogs, toads, reptiles and marine life, as well as plants.

A biology degree is by no means essential, but it provides shortcuts to how and where to research information and to know when you encounter misinformation on the Internet.

the wild life
Travertine terrace at Huanglong, Sichuan, China, a World Heritage Site.

Outdoor Photographer: You’ve seen nature photography evolve over the years. In your view, how has it changed?

Angel: When I turned freelance in the early 1970s, being a nature/wildlife photographer was a novel occupation. In the early days, few clients used 100% color reproductions. If they wanted black-and-white, they either requested monochrome prints or converted color transparencies. For many years, we spent a huge amount of time pulling transparencies, doing tight edits for clients. Now, with digital supply, our post and courier bills have plummeted, but the deadlines have become tighter and tighter.

The heyday for me was the 1980s when neither royalty-free images nor direct downloads via e-commerce sites had been invented. Then when large stock agencies with mega-websites offered instant downloads 24/7, they had the edge over small specialist sites, even those with searchable databases. Micro-payment sites such as iStock, which sells images from as little as $1 per shot for low-res files to $15 for high-res files, was initially used by web designers, but it has now been discovered by editorial outlets.

In recent years, easy travel and digital photography have made working in far-flung locations such as Antarctica much easier for not only pro nature photographers, but enthusiasts as well, with the result the world is now awash with good-quality nature images.

But I’ve never put all my eggs in one basket and relied solely on image sales for my income. Writing articles and books helps me fuel ideas for new images, while running photo workshops and lecturing to university students keeps me in touch with photo enthusiasts.

Outdoor Photographer: What do you see as challenges for the younger generation? What advice would you give?

Angel: Anyone looking to make a mark in nature photography today needs to come up with an original approach or else produce an in-depth coverage of a region or a species. Otherwise, their work will not stand out amongst the plethora of nature images up on the Internet.

Organize your workflow to ensure speedy retrieval of images. Be sure to back up both on location—on a laptop, burn DVDs or download to an external hard drive—and back up the keepers after editing. Complete IPTC fields in the metadata of the photo so the information travels with the image. This not only identifies the copyright owner, but also provides useful information for the user. More and more stock agencies are making this an obligatory requirement for image submission.

Outdoor Photographer: How has your photography evolved over the years?

Angel: Originally, I captured nature as I saw it. Now, given the time and opportunity, I will visualize a more creative approach, such as panning moving animals to achieve creative blur, framing a subject askew, popular for advertisements, or shallow depth of field for soft-focus effects.

Given a choice, I prefer to work on location where I can take wildlife and plants in their natural habitat. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve departed pre-dawn only to be confronted with a bank of gray clouds, but I never lose that sense of anticipation, which drives me to at least give it a try. Then, on those rare occasions when everything gels—the lighting and the animal in the right place at the right time—that’s what excites me.

the wild life
From Left:
King parrot silhouette at dusk, Lamington National Park, Australia. Hoverfly feeds on lily pollen. Captive-bred giant panda walking in natural habitat beside the Pitiao River with reflection in pool, Wolong, Sichuan Province, China.

Outdoor Photographer: China seems to be one of your favorite places to work.

Angel: Since 1984, I’ve worked in China countless times, and I’m currently working on three books associated with Chinese wildlife, including my third on pandas. I’ve already made three trips to China this year, with another three planned.

It’s such a vast country and spans such a wide latitude, from 18°S to 53°N. I can only cover a few locations on a single trip. I’ve worked in tropical rain forests in south Yunnan close to the Laos border and on Hainan Island, as well as in amazing bamboo forests, high-altitude travertine terraces even more colorful than those at Yellowstone, and caves and mountains.

the wild life
Eye of a Parson’s chameleon, Madagascar. While many nature photographers are preoccupied with showing full bodies and focusing exclusively on behavior, Angel captures the beauty in close-up images that are almost abstractions as well.

Outdoor Photographer: What equipment are you working with today and why?

Angel: I’ve been fully digital for several years now. My workhorses are Nikon D2x bodies. My current Nikkor lenses include a 12-24mm, a 24-120mm VR and a 70-300mm for fast-action hand-held shots; my favorite lens is the 200-400mm ƒ/4 VR, with the 500mm ƒ/4 for smaller mammals and birds. If I need more length, I’ll use a 1.4x teleconverter.

For macro work, I use the 105mm VR Micro-Nikkor and the 80-200mm Micro-Nikkor zoom for speedy and precise framing of wary insects, amphibians or reptiles.

Available light is modified using reflectors, diffusers and a Nikon Speedlight SB-800. I use a variety of tripods, depending on the terrain—a mini British-made Benbo for mountain flowers because it’s lighter than the standard Benbo and is very speedy to adjust on uneven ground. Otherwise, I use a large Gitzo carbon-fiber tripod without a center column so I can use it at eye level one moment and at ground level the next.

For studio work using controlled lighting for small aquatic life and plant structure, I use the digital H1D Hasselblad tethered to a laptop so I have instant feedback on light and shadows or the depth of field, all of which can be tweaked either from the camera or the laptop.

Outdoor Photographer: As you’ve come to embrace the digital world, what do you see as its biggest pros and cons?

Angel: No longer do I have to deliberate what range of film speeds to take abroad. I simply change the ISO rating to suit the subject as light levels change throughout the day. Also, airport X-rays are no longer a worry.

When working close to our office, it’s a huge advantage to be able to shoot an image and get it up on our Website within a few minutes.

the wild life
An emperor penguin chick flexing flippers, Riiser-Larsen Rookery, Antarctica.

Before working in the field at home or abroad, I have to check if there are power points available for recharging camera batteries and downloaders. On one seabird island off Scotland, I discovered gas was the sole power source for lighting and cooking! When overseas, universal power adapters are a vital accessory.

Photoshop is a highly creative tool. The downside is that it can be used to produce digital images that are biological untruths. We’ve all seen wall-to-wall zebras without a blade of grass visible or a lone adult penguin in the center of a chick créche. In China, recently, I spotted a King penguin head had been added to a diving Adélie penguin body. This may seem unimportant in an advertisement, but the danger is once such an image appears in the public domain, it’s well nigh impossible to prevent it being used in educational productions.

Nonetheless, I believe the future will be just as rewarding for me as during my pioneering days. As the big agencies continue to expand, notably those that operate by auto-upload of images without any editing of captions or keywords, inevitably inaccuracies will creep in.

I predict clients who don’t have to have immediate supply, yet want a correct ID of an image—for example, a worm is not just a worm; it can be an earthworm, a flatworm, a ragworm, a roundworm, a leech or even a tapeworm—will turn to specialist sources such as Natural Visions, who have the knowledge where their images were taken and what they depict.

You can see more of Heather Angel’s work at