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Technical

Life’s a jungle: The macro world of Christian Ziegler

October 2016

National Geographic contributing photographer and biologist Christian Ziegler often works in a world of miniature. His photographic techniques used to capture the intricacies of life in the rain forests of Panama have won him awards and recognition but he does it all, as he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield, to give the world beneath his feet a bigger voice...

Canon Professional Network (CPN): You are a biologist first, then a photographer. Why did you turn to photography to tell your stories?

Christian Ziegler (CZ): I wanted to communicate science and conservation issues to a broader audience. I felt that as a biologist I was not doing that, and that I could play an important role as a translator, explaining conservation issues and natural history stories. Stories are what people learn from; I see what I do as visual storytelling and so the context is very important. If I am shooting a story about a particular animal species, I want people to understand the environment in which the animal lives, forages, breeds and, possibly even, gets eaten. Maybe it has a tough time in the winter, or the dry season; I want to show the challenges to the species. I aim to present every bit about the life of the animal, so that people understand it personally and care for it, and maybe want to preserve it.

© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine
© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine

A bat caught in flight as it catches a fish. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 150mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/14, ISO 100.

CPN: What equipment do you use in the rainforests and how do you work in challenging conditions?

CZ: I currently use an EOS-1D X and an EOS 5D Mark III along with a selection of lenses but the two lenses I use often are a macro lens (EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM), and sometimes a wide-angle zoom (EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM) – I like how the wide-angle incorporates the bigger picture of the surroundings while still enabling me to focus on a specific subject. For lighting, I usually take three Canon Speedlites, with a bounce attachment, that I use off the camera in Manual mode. This allows me to be very precise and adjust the angle and strength of each flash. It is often surprisingly dark in the rainforest ‘understory’ and rain is always an issue, especially with the flashes. I have lost many Speedlites to wet conditions!

I usually use three Speedlites, and all these are fired off the camera. Two flashes are positioned to fire at the front (at around 45 degrees), with one above and one below the lens. The last flash is fired from behind the subject, around 45 degrees, to create a good backlight. All flashes are usually fired at around 1/8 power. I usually don’t use tripods, since I am in the field and it’s too complicated. So I set the the camera down on the ground, or in the branches, whatever is available. I like to use what I call a “mudpod”… which is just a heap of leaves, mud, whatever I can find to make a solid base at the right height!

I often return from a three-week trip with more than 60,000 pictures to sort through. After I have selected the edit, Adobe Lightroom is a great program for processing pictures; it allows access to all levels and is super easy to use.

CPN: What is your favourite subject to photograph?

CZ: Usually my favourite subject is the story I am working on at that moment! But just to give you an example, I loved shooting chameleons because it allowed me to illustrate a difficult subject, namely the loss of biodiversity in Madagascar. I focused on chameleons because they are super diverse (there are 76 species in Madagascar alone), and are found in all the different habitats around Madagascar. And with the help of a local biologist (Dr. Bertrand Razafimahatratra) who has a PhD in chameleon behaviour, we found many, many species - I think I got more than 40 different types.

© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine
© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine

Fruit bat feeding. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM at 16mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/18, ISO 100.

We went all over Madagascar, driving more than 6,000 kilometres and visited many places to get an impression of chameleons; their weird morphology, the amazing diversity, their behaviour and the threats to their survival. In basically all the sites we visited they were threatened, usually due to habitat loss. We would frequently find a population in just a tiny fragment of habitat surrounded by degraded farmland. In other places, populations had been critically reduced due to collecting for the exotic pet trade.

In the end, it happened to be a story about chameleons, but it’s actually about much more; it’s about Madagascar and how the loss of biodiversity and chameleons just serve as a vehicle. For example: do you know there is only seven percent of original forest cover left on the whole island? It’s devastating…

CPN: You live in some pretty remote places. How do you exist and cope with communicating with the outside world?

CZ: Yes, I am frequently ‘out of touch’ in far away locations. Actually I like it, because I experience wild nature away from development, and away from the buzz of emails, Internet and phone calls. I think it enables me to dive deeper into the subject. I usually travel with a team; often I accompany biologists who are working on their own project and I just go along with them to document. Or I may visit a camp where biologists live to learn from them, such as the Max Planck camp in Salonga National Park, DRC, where I went to photograph bonobos. The access to good information is key to understanding the organism you are trying to capture.

We are often camping, which I really enjoy, it’s cozy… until it starts raining. I think I cope very well under field conditions, in fact I actually feel more at home there. I use a device that is called InReach. It communicates via a satellite and allows you to send and receive short messages (less than 160 characters). It’s not ideal for long-term communication with my family but it is definitely better than nothing!

CPN: What does winning a World Press Photo award mean to you? Does it help your career?

CZ: First, it means recognition by my peers, and second, it draws attention to the story that I am working on, generating more publicity for it. The World Press Photo award is so highly-regarded, so many people who typically don’t know about nature issues run into conservation stories.

CPN: Which photographers in your field do you admire?

CZ: I really admire Frans Lanting and Nick Nichols. They have both been working in wildlife and nature photography for almost 40 years – they basically invented the genre, and have been pushing the boundaries until today.

© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine
© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine

Cassowary bird, Queensland, Australia. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV with an EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/2.8.

My closest peer is my friend Dr. Tim Laman. I really respect him for his persistence and his choice of stories. They always deal with endangered species and often tell an unknown facet of behaviour. He goes out into the field for weeks until he has the story – in the wild, and under extreme conditions.

Another photographer whose work I admire is Brent Stirton. He works on stories that concern endangered species, especially in Africa (elephants, lions, and apes) but he often comes at the story from a different angle - more journalistic. He shows the complexity of conservation and illustrates both the human and the environmental story.

CPN: How long have you been working as a photojournalist now? Can you remember your very first assignment?

CZ: I started shooting after I finished my biology degree, it’s almost 20 years ago now. I clearly remember my first assignment; I shot a bioblitz near Lübeck, Germany, for GEO’s Biodiversity day. They were surveying mammals and insects. I greatly enjoyed it, but we had very bad weather. It rained all day and I had only two hours in the afternoon when it was clear enough to shoot. After that day, there were several small assignments that lead to my first real story about leaf-cutter ants in Panama.

CPN: Your most recent award concerned chameleons. What was the motive behind this story?

CZ: Like I said it’s not so much about chameleons, but about the loss of biodiversity in Madagascar. Chameleons are fabulous to shoot as they look so weird! But they are also a great indicator group, they are very specialised and in Madagascar a different species is found in each habitat type. There are over 70 species in Madagascar alone. Additionally the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just published a report about Madagascar’s reptiles and they listed more than half of the species as endangered. It’s time to act and I hope this story will help.

© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine
© Christian Ziegler/National Geographic Magazine

Chameleons under pressure. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with an EF100mm f/2.8 Macro IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/100sec at f/13, ISO 1250.

CPN: How does your relationship with National Geographic work? Are you commissioned by them, or do you offer them stories?

CZ: It is an amazing magazine for work for; we have the time to shoot a story well, to do research into the topic and spend the time in the field. No other magazine funds these in-depth stories.

I usually propose an idea to the magazine, just an idea, maybe two to three pages. When it gets accepted we then plan a storyboard for the story, and start to figure out how to shoot it. I work closely with my editor, Kathy Moran, to develop the story idea even before I get into the field.

CPN: What is your next project?

CZ: Currently, I am working on documenting the biodiversity of Coiba Island off the Pacific coast of Panama. It is Central America’s largest uninhabited island (some 500 square kilometres) and it’s a truly unique place with many endemic species of animals and plants. It was a penal colony for almost 100 years until 10 years ago, so it is still covered with lush rainforest that has long gone on the mainland; it’s like a time capsule with very high conservation value.


CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER’S RAINFOREST KITBAG

Cameras:

EOS-1D X
EOS 5D Mark III

Lenses:

EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
EF24mm f/1.4L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM
EF500mm f/4L IS USM

Accessories:

x3 Speedlite 600EX-RT II
Gitzo Tripod with Novoflex ‘Magic ball’ and Novoflex MiniConnect heads

Biography: Christian Ziegler

Christian Ziegler

Christian Ziegler is an internationally known photojournalist specialising in natural history and science-related topics. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic Magazine and has been widely published in leading publications. Using engaging, informed storytelling, Christian’s aim is to highlight species and ecosystems under threat and share their beauty, and importance with a broad audience. A tropical ecologist by training, he has worked in tropical rainforests on four continents, and since 2001 has been an Associate for communication with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. His conservation photography has won him World Press Photo Awards consistently in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Christian lives on the edge of a rainforest in central Panama.



Showcase

A young bonobo photographed in the Salonga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.