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Home Closed Category: Closeness

Professional Advice

Brutus Östling: Canon Ambassador

Former publisher Brutus Östling changed his career in 2005 and became a professional photographer, specialising in bird and wildlife photography. Three of his photo books have been bestsellers in his native Sweden and in 2006 he was named the country’s Nature Photographer of the Year.

“In everyday life people very often refer to long telephoto lenses as tools to get closer to wildlife. The fact is that we nature photographers can seldom get close to animals or birds in the wild. Sometimes it's intentional, because we don't want to disturb them – a nesting bird, for example – or if the animal is shy.

“But sometimes we can get very close to a subject, such as most species of penguins, but even then we might want to use a long telephoto lens. This is because the background and surroundings might be so messy that taking a photo with a normal or wide-angle lens would mean that the animal would ‘disappear’ in all the irrelevant details around it. In cases like this we might move backwards and use a long telephoto lens to get a shallow depth of field, leaving the animal sharp. Sometimes we can get just the eye of the animal in focus with the messy background blurred.

“Closeness is, of course, also a feeling we get when we are looking at some photos, when there’s a sense of the intimate relationship between the photographer and the subject. That feeling extends beyond simply being physically close. As photographers, this feeling can come from working for a long time with some animals, when, for a moment, they look back at us, as if to say, ‘Who is that?’

“In traditional nature or bird pictures, photographers did not want to give any sense of their presence. A photo where the bird looked at the photographer was almost ‘forbidden’. For me, and other photographers, that sense of presence is an essential part of the shot, and I want the viewer to see that. Some of my best bird portraits clearly show this. When, for example, a short-eared owl I had been watching for several evenings hunting along a field suddenly turned its head 90 degrees towards me, recognising me and my car.

“Sometimes a bird might become curious and walk over to investigate me and my camera equipment. This was what happened when I was working on my recently-published book about the albatrosses on Midway Atoll in the Pacific, a former marine base on two small islands now populated by over one million albatrosses. I was there for 15 days, and at first I laid down on the grass and used a telephoto lens, getting photos of chicks and adult laysan or blackfooted albatrosses with a blurred background. But as I discovered that the albatrosses were curious and would approach me, I would take my EOS 5D Mark II and EF14mm f/2.8L USM lens and place them beside me so I could get shots of the albatross leaning towards me, sometimes even pecking on the glass of the lens. Talk about being close the wildlife! And in this case it was the birds that were getting close to me.”

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