On A Photo Hunt

Italian wildlife photographer Stefano Ronchi creates high-impact wildlife photographs through careful study of behavior and a mastery of technique

Wildlife photographers frequently struggle with the problem of making the subject stand out from the background. Clutter and extraneous detail become tremendous distractions, drawing the viewer's eye away from the heart of the photograph. Stefano Ronchi is an Italian nature photographer who uses careful positioning and wide-open apertures to create clean backgrounds and graphic, high-impact animal portraits.

Stefano Ronchi was born in Caravaggio, Italy, in 1965. At 15, he bought his first camera. Though surrounded by beautiful ancient towns and dramatic landscapes, in his late teens he put down his camera and picked up a pencil and a calculator to make a living as an accountant. But after a decade of crunching numbers, Ronchi started once again sharpening his photographic eye rather than his pencil with stunning results.

OP: What attracts you to bird and wildlife photography?

Stefano Ronchi: I am fascinated by the camera's ability to stop the exact moment in which the dignity and elegance of an animal's natural movements are combined. Birds, in particular, have always intrigued me because of their ability to combine majesty with delicacy, elegance, grace, speed and endurance. In one of my first photographic outings, I was lucky enough to be able to admire the simultaneous flight of a dozen swans. I remain as fascinated with them today as I did when I witnessed their magic for the first time. The grace of their flight, the sense of freedom instilled by taking to the air and the sound produced by the flapping of wings similar to that of the blades of a helicopter convinced me to get interested in nature photography.

OP: Many of your photographs show extremely shallow depth of field. Is this to gain a fast shutter speed, or is it more of an aesthetic choice?

Ronchi: The proper use of the aperture is a very important part of my photographic technique because it allows me to translate into images what I want to represent. For photographing birds in flight, I always find it more pleasant and less distracting to shoot with a shallow depth of field. At the same time, a fast shutter speed is vital. For fast-moving subjects, I use at least a 1⁄500 or 1⁄1000, or even higher. My ISO is often at 400 in order to get a fast enough shutter speed. Photographing wildlife does not allow you errors. You have a few seconds and a few clicks, so you have to be technically ready to shoot, otherwise, you risk losing perhaps unrepeatable moments.

OP: Wildlife photography can be very challenging. Did you find the genre frustrating? How were the results of your early efforts?

Ronchi: Unfortunately, not very satisfactory. It was not until a friend gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice to achieve good results in this field—gain knowledge of the animal. It is not enough to admire their beauty. One must study their movements, habits, understand what and how it feeds, and observe their behavior both when it is alone and when it is in a group. I started to study the behavior of the swans—the way they relate to each other, the run they do before flying, the postures they take before attacking and defending.

This study allows the nature photographer to be in advance of the movement of the animal so that they can capture the optimal image. For example, understanding that some types of hummingbirds prefer to feed on certain flowers lets you get set up in advance so when they arrive in their typical way— which is to stall in flight—you're ready to capture the bird in flight.

I consider myself a self-taught photographer, even though I've spent a lot of time admiring and learning the secrets of those who have made the history of photography, especially Ronnie Gaubert.

OP: How has Gaubert influenced you?

Photo technique is only half of the story when you're taking pictures of wildlife. By constantly studying the animals and the environments in which they live, Ronchi knows exactly where to be when the decisive action will happen. Luck always plays a part in photography, but as Thomas Jefferson said, "I am a great believer in luck. I find the harder I work, the more of it I have."

Ronchi: As soon as I became interested in nature photography, I began looking at the work of other photographers for inspiration. When I discovered the work of Ronnie Gaubert, I knew immediately that his photographs served as great examples for what I was interested in accomplishing with a camera. I love the way he makes the animal the true protagonist of the shot—in isolation from the context of their habitat—through a masterful use of shallow depth of field. But above all, I was fascinated by the wise use that he makes of the light. Also, with both fauna and landscapes, he never goes over the top in his postproduction so that his colors are natural.

OP: How are you able to focus so quickly and sharply on moving objects while using such shallow depths of field?

Ronchi: The ability to quickly capture birds in flight depends, in my opinion, on several very important factors. First of all, the knowledge of both the animal and the environment in which it lives and moves. Rarely, I can freeze perfectly the flight of a bird the first time I meet him. At first sight, I try to understand how it moves, where and how he likes to rest, and also what kind of light I find there. Once I have gathered this information, the ability to focus on the bird's flight is a lot easier. It's still a challenge, but I'm able to predict with some precision what is going to happen.

OP: Where are some of the best places for bird and the other wildlife photography you do?

Ronchi: I was born on the banks of one of the largest rivers in Italy, the Adda. I love to walk on the banks of the Adda Nord Park with my camera looking for the fauna that populate it. The many years of local knowledge allows me to know where I can find the birds that live and breed there. The Gran Paradiso National Park, a protected nature area, is a place to see amazing animals—the fox, the dipper ermine, the partridge, the white eagle. Another one of my favorite places is a valley in Switzerland called Val Roseg in Pontresina, near St. Moritz. Here, you can lose yourself in search of tits, red squirrels and woodpeckers. Last, but not least, I note two other places in Italy where birds can be photographed in controlled environments—one is the sanctuary of LIPU in Racconigi and the other is the animal oasis of Sant'Alessio in the Province of Pavia.

Today, Ronchi's photo hunts take him away from dedicated reserves and parks. He's always mindful of the animals' habitats, and he takes care not to disturb or stress them out. This is a fundamental rule for wildlife photographers.

To photograph birds, particularly to immortalize flight, I was helped in this effort at the beginning by frequenting natural parks and reserves where I could have many opportunities to come in contact with wildlife. Once I had that experience, I could safely go along rivers or mountains, making the so-called "photo hunt" that allowed me to combine the thrill of the search for wildlife and my admiration for the animal in its habitat, while taking into account the basic rules of a good life together, never disturbing them or creating trauma. There is no photo that can justify in any way an injury to an animal.

OP: What equipment are you bringing with you?

Ronchi: For lenses, I use the Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM and Canon 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM lenses. The ƒ/2.8 lenses allow me to have a smooth bokeh. For the body, I use the Canon EOS-1D Mark III. Digital photography has brought about a remarkable development in the field of nature photography.

OP: How so?

Ronchi: First, the costs are contained. Nature photographers tend to photograph using the continuous mode setting so you do not miss any of the expressions of the animal and have at the same time the entire sequence of the scene unfolding in front of their lens. The current digital cameras have reached and gone beyond the levels of analog cameras in terms of noise reduction and dynamic range, but with greater versatility, both in terms of practical shooting and postproduction. With this equipment, I hope I am able to transmit my love for the animal world through the eye of the camera.

See more of Stefano Ronchi's photography at www.stefanoronchi.com.

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