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Wild world.

The Danish capital, Copenhagen, isn't one of the world's most densely populated cities; nor is it renowned as a major hub for tourists and photographers on the trail of a wildlife excursion or safari. Yet last summer, the Danes turned out in incredible numbers to view an outdoor exhibition of wildlife photography. By the end of its run, the exhibition, Spirit of the Wild, had attracted more than a million viewers--around a fifth of Denmark's population and equivalent to the entire population of Copenhagen.

A million people is an enormous audience for any event, let alone a photographic exhibition, but the 100 images by Steve Bloom that made up Spirit of the Wild also captivated audiences in Birmingham, where its run had to be extended three times due to popular demand. Although they're isolated examples, this level of audience response to wildlife imagery demonstrates the growing fascination for wild places and species by an increasingly urbanised human society.

Compared to other subjects, wildlife is a relatively recent specialisation of photography, requiring, for the most part, faster exposures and longer lenses than are used to photograph landscapes and portraits. From Victorian times until well into the 20th century, anyone interested in photographing animals mounted expeditions only as far as the nearest zoo, circus or bear pit for guaranteed encounters with exotic species in an enclosed space, free of cover or camouflage. Those who did eventually venture abroad with a camera and a crate-load of glass plates only bagged a shot of a tiger, lion or leopard after the unfortunate creature had been despatched and decorously arranged at the feet of its killer.

Technology old and new

Today, wildlife photography is far more sophisticated, and the techniques and technology needed to capture creatures of all shapes and sizes can be as advanced or as simple as the situation requires.

When photographing large mammals or distant birds, it's common practice for photographers to use a long telephoto lens of 500 millimetres or longer to compose a frame-filling shot of the subject staring straight down the lens barrel. But it isn't just the focal length that will determine the photographer's choice of lens--other considerations include the provision of a built-in vibration reduction system to counteract camera shake; an ultrasonic lens motor to ensure that autofocus operation is silent; apochromatic lens elements for reducing optical aberrations; and a 'fast' maximum aperture. This latter specification refers to a lens having a wider than usual maximum aperture (say f/2.8 instead of f/4), in order to allow a faster shutter speed when the lens is set to this aperture.

Although these technologies can help increase the chances of a sharply focused, shake-free result, it's rare to find a working wildlife photographer who doesn't place more faith in the old established means of camera support--namely the tripod, monopod or humble beanbag.

The choice of support depends largely on the photographer's working space. For instance, a tripod can be obstructive to other photographers working in the confines of an open-top truck on safari, but will be perfectly suitable in the purpose-built observation platform of an established bird sanctuary. Other wildlife photographers, particularly those working their 'local patch', shoot from their car window, placing a beanbag on the door sill to support their lens as they take aim.

Subject knowledge

Having the right gear is one thing, but whatever your chosen subject, you still need to be at the right place at the right time. This doesn't happen through luck alone; many wildlife photographers are expert naturalists, having studied the lifecycles, breeding behaviour, eating habits and habitat of their preferred species for years in order to get their shots.

Photographers need to be alert to the migratory patterns of birds, their favoured roosts and feeding grounds, and the way their plumage changes according to the seasons. Similarly, in the higher latitudes, mammals of all sizes, from giant polar bears to the diminutive dormouse, hibernate for six months of the year, so they are most active during the hungry months of spring, and therefore more likely to be seen where there is a plentiful supply of food.

Patience and persistence are two other requirements for the successful wildlife photographer, particularly when trying to capture images of creatures that are rarely seen. For example, last year, the BBC's Planer Earth series broadcast the first ever action footage of a snow leopard hunting a goat in the wild. The footage, which also showed the leopard dragging the kill back up to her lair to feed a cub, lasted just six minutes, but it took one cameraman, Mark Smith, more than six weeks of tracking and waiting in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan to get images that Sir David Attenborough described as "simply without parallel."

Recommended reading

* Spirit of the Wild by Steve Bloom, Thames & Hudson, hb, pp128, 18.95 [pounds sterling]

* Secret Worlds by Stephen Dalton, Firefly, pb, pp160, 16.95 [pounds sterling]

* Nature's Strongholds: The World's Great Wildlife Reserves by Laura and William Riley, Princeton University Press, hb, pp640, 32.50 [pounds sterling]

Do not disturb

In the UK, more than 80 species of birds are listed in Schedule 1 of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, including the golden eagle, barn owl, osprey, kingfisher, and even some garden birds, such as the crested tit. Under the act, it's an offence to "intentionally or recklessly" disturb a Schedule 1 species "while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young" The act also extends protection to the dependent young of such a bird. Anyone intending to photograph a Schedule 1 species must first obtain a Schedule 1 Licence (application forms are available at www.english-nature.org.uk).

Legal requirements aside, the key responsibility of all wildlife photographers is to avoid causing disturbance to any nesting bird, not just Schedule 1 species. If placed under too much stress by intrusive photography, birds will often abandon their nest, never to return.
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Title Annotation:PHOTOGRAPHY; Spirit of the Wild
Author:Wilson, Keith
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUDE
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:997
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