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Daniel Beltrá: Fighting for nature

Daniel Beltrá: Fighting for nature

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

November 2008

In a career spanning nearly 20 years Daniel Beltrá started out as a photojournalist working for agencies in his homeland of Spain but since a move to the USA in 2001 he now purely focuses his lenses on nature and conservation issues. His work, on the ground and shooting from planes, includes regular assignments for Greenpeace and has brought him a number of high-profile honours, including two World Press Photo awards. CPN’s Helen Atkinson caught up with him between assignments in the Amazon region and Indonesia to find out how his photography has helped to save the planet.

As a small child Daniel Beltrá loved nature, taking part in outdoor activities and shooting pictures. He recalls: “We lived in Madrid, and I would do a lot of hiking and bird watching around the area. My parents bought me an SLR with three fixed focal lenses - a 28mm, a 50mm, and a 135mm - for Christmas when I was 13-years-old. Sometimes I would go to the mountains, the zoo, or just shoot in the garden. This was a great way to link all my passions, but my hobby soon became an obsession. I invested in a Canon system and the AE-1 Program SLR was followed by an A-1 and then a gorgeous F-1 - all film cameras - while I still was an amateur.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Daniel explains: “I don’t like shooting captive animals, and think it is very important to disclose if an image was taken in captivity. Greenpeace needed some photos of animals but had no budget for me to travel anywhere. I took this shot of a Jaguar in Spain on colour transparency film.”

He studied Forestry Engineering at Madrid University for two years, and then transferred to a course in Biology for another four years. However, his passion for photography took over and it soon became a career after a scoop covering some bombings by ETA. He took the films he shot to the Spanish National News Agency, EFE, who not only gave him a brick of Tri-X film, but ended up offering him work.

Daniel explains: “EFE was where I really learnt the photojournalist approach; working alongside other professionals, covering the broad spectrum of photojournalism - football matches, sports, royal family, the president, demonstrations, bombings and foreign assignments. Telling these important stories, sometimes in dangerous or difficult conditions, opened my mind to understanding the world we live in. Speaking several languages also helped me immensely when on foreign assignments.”

Whilst at university, during his spare time Daniel immersed himself in nature photography. Daniel expands: “With a friend we studied a Black Vulture colony that was really threatened in Gredos, near Madrid; borrowing any long lenses we could get our hands on. We spent a lot of time outdoors.”

He recalls: “Later while working in EFE I was invited to join Greenpeace on its (now decommissioned) boat MV Sirius, to cover a tour of the Mediterranean doing a marine mammal survey. I had to convince my editor at EFE to let me go and I ended using my holiday time to shoot the story. I got on well with the crew and saw very committed people who were willing to put in time and effort and sometimes risk into what they believe in. At the end of 1992, when I was already working for Gamma, I covered a major oil spill in Galicia for Greenpeace and our relationship developed from there.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

During a Greenpeace assignment shooting the Japanese whaling fleet in 2007 a fire onboard a factory ship disabled the Japanese fleet. While they were repairing it, Daniel used the downtime to go by chopper to photograph this iceberg. He says: “I’ve never seen shots like this, an iceberg with a 30 to 40 metre wall above sea level with well over 100 metres of blue ice submerged.”

He recalls: “After a very rough boat trip crossing the Southern ocean with Greenpeace in 2000, I promised myself I wouldn’t go there again, but I found myself back in 2007 to protest against the Japanese whaling fleet. The weather was sometimes insane, the waves were huge and even on third level of the ship - on the bridge - the waves went over me. I took a few shots, then ducked myself and put my camera, which was also in one of the AquaTech covers, under my jacket and waited for the sea to pour on top of me. Luckily I don’t get sea sick!”

Of his use of the Canon EOS SLR camera system Daniel explains: “When I left EFE, I invested heavily in the Canon system, acquiring EOS-1 bodies and lenses, because the ergonomics were very good and ahead of their time. However, there were some frustrations with the change in the bayonet mount to accommodate the autofocus system, which meant buying all new lenses! I’ve been shooting with Canon cameras for 16 years now. I’ve taken them all over the world, and they’ve performed superbly for me.”

Daniel now uses very few fixed focal length lenses because of the extreme conditions he works in. Keeping the sensors clean in frequently very dusty and dirty situations is a challenge. A ‘Visible Dust’ cleaning kit is always handy in his bag. He says: “Last year in the Amazon, I had a mosquito crushed on the sensor of my camera and realised it was on over 200 photos. I was in a canoe and it was pouring. So, under an umbrella, I had to remove the lens, open the sensor and, with the tip of a plastic bag, I had to scoop the thing out. It worked really well and I had a very clean sensor after that!”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

One of Daniel Beltrá’s 2006 World Press Photo award-winning shots from the series on the Amazon drought.

For Daniel Beltrá winning his first World Press Photo award in 2006, in the Nature Stories category, with his Amazon drought portfolio was the moment that changed his career. “All the attention that I’ve been getting about my work has really empowered me to talk about the issues that I really care about. It has given me a voice and a platform upon which to communicate and engage others in what’s happening to our planet,” he adds. In fact, much of the 2006 World Press Photo award-winning portfolio contained images that he had shot from a Cessna airplane.

Daniel shoots a lot of his aerial work from small airplanes rather than helicopters. “When I fly with Greenpeace in the Amazon I don’t have to shoot through the window as they have a very small one that I can open anytime throughout the flight and wedge my camera through. However, I have to kneel down behind the pilot, and I’m not a small guy. I have found that the 100-400mm or the 24-70mm are excellent lenses for my aerial work, and I tape all my lenses because it’s very easy to jog the switches when shooting through the narrow hole. You learn from your mistakes when the autofocus switch gets turned off!” he laughs.

Of his technique Daniel says: “I shoot at speeds of at least 1/500sec, often on shutter priority. I find the exposure on the Canon cameras very reliable, and only shoot RAW. I really want to crank up the speed to compensate for the plane vibration. Occasionally I use a polariser if shooting over water or at the sky, or when I want more intense greens, but this makes me lose more f-stops. In the beginning I underexposed by one third to two thirds of a stop, but now I prefer to expose as accurately as possible to get more detail in the shadows. The Canon EOS 5D has been a wonderful camera for this - the light weight and small size have been a bonus when working in remote conditions.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Daniel recalls: “We were flying from one place to the next, so I couldn’t get the plane to turn around to investigate this shot. I took just three or four frames on the go, so I’m not certain why this spot surrounded by soy fields was spared. It may be a sink hole.”

He adds: “The new charger for the EOS-1Ds Mark III is better than the previous for the 1Ds Mark II, and the battery lasts much longer, but it would be even better to have a single smaller compatible charger for different camera models. Weight always ends being a problem. I don’t work with assistants in the field, so I have to carry everything on my own. I try to fit my gear into a Think Tank Photo Airport International roller bag for travelling and later, once on location, I will use smaller backpacks or waist bags for shooting.”

His conservation work has also focused heavily on rainforests. Daniel explains: “The rainforest generates by evaporation half the rain that falls over it, so once you clear all the trees you are also cutting the rain. In order to record where a picture was taken we currently synchronise the time code on a hand held GPS unit with the time code on the digital camera. The Canon wireless transmitter has the potential to streamline the way this is done. I can’t wait to test it.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Daniel Beltrá’s 2007 World Press Photo award-winning image in the Contemporary Issues Singles category. This shows the shadow of a plane close to a Castanheira (Brazilian Nut) tree in Para State.

“It is illegal to cut the Brazilian Castanheira tree, sometimes they are left on their own in the middle of what often becomes soy fields. This is an interesting image: the edge of the rain forest with the soy fields and the shadow of the plane reflecting the clash of the modern world with the rainforest. The majority of soy is ultimately used to feed cattle. It takes many kilos of grain to make one of meat - we had better start eating salad instead of steak,” reveals Daniel.

He adds: “The huge scale of cutting and burning is fuelled by farmers who cut and burn the area they want to clear. The fire enters the rainforest a bit but then dies out because of the humidity, so the process of cutting and burning can only be done in the dry season. After a number of years farming the land people try to get rights to it despite not having property papers.”

Following his success in the World Press Photo competition, Daniel won the 2008 premiere Global Vision Award in the 65th Pictures of the Year International (POYI) with his body of work on the ‘Rainforest and the Antarctic’, which he shot for Greenpeace. “There is a very interesting link between the melting ice caps and forest fires fuelling global warming,” he says. Brazil is the fourth largest emitter of Green House gases in the planet and 75% of those come from the burning of the country's forests.

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Santarem (Para State, Brazilian Amazon) 6 March 2006. The President of the Agricultural Producers Association in Santarem, José Donizetti Pires de Oliveira is held directly responsible by the Brazilian Environmental Agency IBAMA for the illegal deforestation of 1,645 hectares of rainforest (the largest illegal deforestation in the Santarem region in the last seven years) in the Glebe Pacoval, known for its rich diversity of plant and animal life and home to traditional forest communities. Greenpeace activists occupied the deforested area and unfurled a 2,500 square meter banner with the message '100% forest crime'. The picture shows the owner of the land and some workers destroying the banner by driving over it with their truck.

Daniel's Greenpeace shoot in Brazil covering the illegal deforestation was picked up by the Brazilian weekly news magazine, Veja, which published the story and the scandal became so big that Donizetti was prosecuted and sentenced to jail.

Since 2001 Daniel has photographed the Brazilian Amazon extensively covering issues on deforestation, soy and cattle, Garimpeiros (gold miners), and charcoal production. He has also joined three expeditions to the Arctic and one to The Ross Sea in Antarctica; worked in the Patagonian ice fields; documented the aftermath of Tsunami in the Maldives; and photographed global warming impacts in India, Grey Whales in Baja, and the impact of shrimp farms in Ecuador. He has also worked extensively in Europe, Africa and Asia.

However, despite his travels there are two images that remain very special to Daniel Beltrá - the first a Polar Bear jumping (see this article’s lead image) and the second a Walrus sitting on a mushroom-shaped iceberg.

Daniel explains: “The leaping polar bear is probably one of my best known shots. It was taken from the bow of an icebreaker in the summer of 1999 with an old 500mm f/4.5 lens and the EOS-1N SLR on colour negative film. I processed the film on the ship, scanned it and then sent it out. I achieved this image with patience and a lot of luck. We were sailing along the ice edge, just drifting along the ice. I spent many hours on the deck just waiting for anything to happen, when a Polar Bear came around the ship and took this big leap in front of me.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

This photograph by Daniel Beltrá is probably the most published image in the history of Greenpeace.

Daniel adds: “This Walrus shot is a very special shot for me. This is probably the most published shot in Greenpeace’s history. It’s a Walrus sitting on a mushroom-shaped piece of ice, that looks like it’s about to break. We approached the Walrus from a boat. Initially there were two others sitting with him on the ice. As we approached the other two jumped in the water. The ice raised and about 30 seconds later it broke and the last Walrus fell in. This shot was published all over, including a double-page spread in Time magazine.”

Now working solely on nature and conservation issues Daniel was recently invited to join the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). Based in Washington DC this small group of some of the best nature photographers in the world - including Frans Lanting, Michael Nichols, Paul Nicklen, and Art Wolfe - is totally committed to conservation.

Daniel says: “The ILCP is a very exciting organisation to be involved with. It is a great opportunity for me as it combines well with what I do with Greenpeace, and my expertise in this field will be valuable.” Sometimes Daniel missed working with fellow photojournalists, but the ILCP has filled that void. He says: “I am now surrounded by colleagues who are passionate about the same issues as me.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

A baby grey whale next to its mother, sticks its head out of the water in Baja California, Mexico. “The whales were very active and funny, coming very close to us. We were in a little boat. These whales are used to being touched by the tourists so they come very close by,” explains Daniel.

This year the Blue Earth Alliance, an NGO based in Seattle, accepted Daniel’s project submission on the Amazon. “They select very few projects a year. They give you support and a non-profit status, so people can donate to your project and get a tax deduction. It’s a big challenge both to do the project and to raise money to carry it out, but it’s worth it,” he says.

Daniel explains: “The subjects that I cover are important because what we are doing to our planet is going to have a very serious influence on our future. The environment should not be used politically; the health of our planet is a problem we all share. We’d better get our acts together now; otherwise we are in for an interesting ride. I wouldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t believe we could find solutions. They exist. We need the will to implement them.”

© Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace

Huts for making charcoal from the Amazon rain forest wood - 40% of the wood from the Amazon is used to make charcoal. Charcoal is used mainly for the iron mining process, and the biggest mines are in the middle of the Amazon.

Impassioned and focused on his ‘green’ missions Daniel was recently on assignment in the Amazon for Greenpeace, exposing more extensive deforestation and the cattle ranches that are replacing the rainforest, before he set off on assignment to the vanishing Indonesian forests. With a penchant for taking amazing images that document the destruction that man can wreak on the natural world Daniel Beltrá is a potent combination of photographer and conservationist – a strong mix that has guaranteed that his images convey powerful messages around the world.


Daniel Beltrá’s equipment:

EOS-1Ds Mark III
EOS-1Ds Mark II
2x EOS 5D
PowerShot G9

EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/4.0L USM
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM
EF180mm f/3.5L Macro USM
EF500mm f/4L IS USM
Extender EF1.4x II
Extender EF2X II

Speedlite 580EX flashguns
Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash
Subal C5 housing for 16-35mm F2.8
2x Ikelite Substrobe DS-200 and flash arms
Cables and remotes
Apple MacBook Pro computer
Apple MacBook computer
Apple Mac Pro with 2x23in monitors and many hard drives (over 10 Terabytes of storage)
LaCie Rugged drives for fieldwork
Over 100GB in memory cards, mainly Sandisk 8GB Extreme III and IV.
ThinkTank Photo camera bags
Pelican cases
Aquatech rain covers
Gitzo carbon fibre tripods
Really Right Stuff ballheads

Biografie: Daniel Beltrá

Daniel Beltrá

Multiple award-winning freelance photojournalist Daniel Beltrá is based in Seattle, USA. Born in Spain, he started his career in Madrid in 1989 at the Spanish national news agency EFE and covered all areas of photojournalism working there. From 1992 until 2001 he was the Gamma Agency correspondent in Spain and he then moved to the USA. Beltrá now focuses on nature and conservation issues and, amongst other clients, works regularly for Greenpeace.