Art Wolfe visited our remote city of Perth, Western Australia last month and I was fortunate to be able to go to hear him speak. I knew him as a wildlife photographer but he described a most interesting journey through landscape and wildlife in the early days through patterns and shapes, to his current project, Human Canvas. He looked amazing for 60! said he believes that following your passion leads to longevity.
Here are some of his tips, as I remember them: (check out Art Wolfe Images in Google and you will spot many of the shots he used to illustrate these points)
- everything has a ‘gesture’ – a slant or position or movement which is its signature – try to shoot the gesture of things, animals, people – and the viewer will respond to it
- wherever possible, bring the wildlife to you, avoid the use of telephoto lenses (I have to say that this requires more courage than I would have!) – suggestions: get there 1st (eg the waterhole before the elephants arrive and then stay very very still!), pee on a rock (to attract mountain goats desperate for salt), or, if you want to shoot golden eagles, go to the place in Alaska ‘where you practically have to shake them off your shoes’ rather than trying to shoot one flying miles up in the sky. To shoot bears, go to the place in Alaska where mother bears have worked out that human photographers make great babysitters – the male bears which threaten the cubs won’t come near so the mothers can curl up a littrle way away and get a bit of a sleep while the cubs keep the photographers happy with their antics. He had travelled all over the world many times. 40 times to China and Africa. More than 20 times to Australia. Lives in Seattle. Has landscaped his house there to remind himself of the landscapes he loves in China.
- save telephotos for the shot where you can’t get close – like the polar bear cub between its mother’s legs
- Use wide angle lens for wildlife to get really interesting close up shots (he doesn’t like using 50mm because that gives us what we see with our eyes – use a different focal length to grab attention) – again, this requires courage!
- try balancing the amount of black and white in a shot – gives a pleasing aesthetic, more pleasing than predominantly one colour or the other – he had a shot of children playing in trees which exemplified this, and demonstrated different crops of a shot – compelling ‘proof’ that the most balanced shot was the most pleasing
- look for patterns – e.g. in a herd of zebras – enhance it with photoshop (he caused controversy in the early days of photoshop by pioneering effects we take for granted now)
- he was quite dismissive of ‘trophy shots’ – the ones where everything is sharp and clear – the kind I am still aspiring to. He had moved on to needing something really unusual, a different pov or angle, motion blur, the animal almost camouflaged completely in its habitat, etc
- be patient – when trying to capture a Mongolian man, his son and his eagle, wanting none of them to be looking at the camera, he finally got the man and the son to look away but then the eagle got interested. But eventually the eagle lost interest too and he got the shot he wanted – the Mongolian 1000 miles stare from the 3 of them
- if you see it, shoot it, even if you haven’t got time to stop. By the time you come back, it will have gone
- allow the viewer to bring something of themselves to the image – for example, the shots where you have to look hard ot find the face of the wolf in the forest or the leopard in the grass. He had a shot looking down at fish in a basket with what looked like the lid of the basket off to the side and then you noticed something – hands – grasping the edges of the basket and realised the ‘lid’ must be a hat and there was a person under it.
That’s about all I can remember but if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, it’s worth it. He has over 30 years of experience and marvellous images. He is a great speaker and teacher. As well the perfect shot, he had lots of shots that showed how he worked at getting it. He travels with an assistant who shoots photos of him shooting his photo so you can see how close he is, what he’s using. Brilliant day!