Bret is an award winning photographer hailing from the South of England. He’s spent the last few years photographing in sub-Saharan Africa, Amazon Rain-forest, the Arctic Circle and Australia as well as in his native land. 2016 was a big year for Bret having moved to Australia to further his photography career. And further it he did. He had been shortlisted in Outdoor Photographer of the Year, Bird Photographer of the Year and Australian Nature Photographer of the Year. In 2016 he won Australia Geographic’s Photographer of the Year in 2016 for the Threatened Species category and the two images shortlisted in Bird Photographer of the Year both featured in the accompanying book. In August 2017 he won the Gold Award in the birds in flight category.
Although there was a bit of a break for Bret in the first half of 2017 this summer he led a group trip of amateur photographers to northern Finland’s remote Boreal Forest in search of Europe’s large predators. So I am delighted to welcome Bret here with us to talk all things Wildlife Photography.
Congratulations on winning Bird Photographer of the Year. Can you tell us a little more about how you got that Image?
Thanks very much, I am really pleased to have won such a big award. I was photographing Australian Pelicans in a shallow mangrove lagoon on the coastline of New South Wales. Aiming to capture striking portraits of the birds and their reflections, as they stood in the shallow water, I heard the wing beats of a lone bird flying into the lagoon. I turned as quickly as I could, changed my settings and managed to fire off one proper image as the bird came into land … this image was the result. It all came down to quick reactions and understanding the soft lighting.
Why did you select it for competition? What do you think makes a competition winning photo?
I selected it for Bird Photographer of the Year as I haven’t seen anything like it before. The composition, the movement of the bird, the wonderful light and the near perfect reflections all came together just as I had hoped.
What do awards mean to you?
I feel truly privileged to be an award-winning photographer, but wildlife is my passion and awards are really just an added bonus. I think too many people get caught up in winning awards, believing it means they are a better photographer, in reality it is a subjective decision and you can be one of the world’s finest photographers without ever having won any awards.
How does a boy from rural Hampshire end up taking award winning photos of animals across the world? Where did it start for you?
It needs to be said this was never really a path I planned, it has just happened – a natural set of meanders have brought me to this point. Without a doubt though it all started at school where I studied photography for two years. The funny thing is that I failed the course! I have always had a passion for wildlife and on my first proper trip to Africa I realised I had a natural eye for wildlife photography. It all snowballed from there really. I left my studies to work in the safari industry and found my career in the wildlife travel sector. My parents encouraged me to do what I love and so I have continued to do so ever since. I have never given up on it when many around me have and after a year out in Australia everything has really gone up a gear, or two … actually maybe three.
What is it about Wildlife photography that inspires you?
Wildlife is what inspires me. The sheer diversity and splendour of life in the natural world is simply staggering and there is just so much to learn and document. Although if I was to name a pro photographer that really inspired me it would be Nick Brandt. Nick’s images are just mind blowing and if you ever get the chance I encourage you to get hold of one of his magnificent books! You will quickly notice that although he is an inspiration, in no way do I try to copy his work.
What issues or difficulties do you come across regularly as a wildlife photographer?
The biggest issues I face are usually caused by people who are poorly educated. While photographing wildlife I have had people drive cars and motorbikes at the subject species, chase them off on foot, chase me and someone has even called the armed police thinking I was an armed burglar. I never really have any issue with the wildlife, other than the fact you can often get pretty bored and cold waiting for it to show up.
What has been your favourite environment / destination to photograph in so far and why?
My all round favourite environment has probably got to be the Arctic. I have been incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to search for Polar Bear way up in the Arctic Circle. The untouched wilderness is mesmerising and photography opportunities are second to none. It really is a wildlife photographer’s dream destination.
What is your dream shoot that you haven’t quite got round to yet?
My dream shoot … that is really tricky as I have ticked off a few. Wild Dogs are my favourite species on the planet and something I have never been able to photograph properly (although I have seen them). So I suppose that is my dream shoot at this moment in time. Fingers crossed, that is going to change in 2018 with a special trip lined up – we will have to wait and see whether it works out.
What is your favourite image that you have taken and what’s the story behind it?
Another really hard question to answer. You photograph so many amazing species as a wildlife photographer that there is more to it than simply picking a favourite shot. For me, it is the emotions an encounter, and the accompanying image, brings out that makes a photo. With that in mind, my top pick will be one of the most subtle of my images, a beautiful Dingo in Queensland, Australia (see below). I had been searching for Dingoes one evening when I came across a small pack on a beach, I spooked them with my presence and they disappeared inland. With the moment gone, and no pictures to show for it, I decided to photograph the sunset instead. After a while I felt like I was being watched, that primeval instinctive feeling that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. I slowly turned and saw that on the top of a sandy bluff, some 50 yards behind me, were the three dingoes I had seen on the beach only 20 minutes before. Two of them trotted off, but one of the three decided to settle down and watch me. We seemed to have a mutual understanding of one another, a moment where we were both completely relaxed in each other’s presence. This species of wild dog obviously had an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and it was a truly magical moment in my life. Even now, 2 years on, I get goosebumps whenever I think of it. Once the Dingo had enough of people watching, it decided to head off into the forest after its pack. It is moments like this that really push me to keep on watching and photographing wildlife, a unique encounter with a wild predator is a truly remarkable gift.
What is your opinion on creating a scenario in order to get a shot, such as laying food out?
There is a lot of heated debate about this in the wildlife photography circle. For me there are situations where leaving food out is perfectly acceptable and other times when it is most definitely a big no no. I am not a fan of heavily staged shots where the whole landscape has been altered in order to capture an image. However, I do not have an issue with leaving out a small amount of food in order to bring an animal into an area of its territory, and therefore increasing your chances of getting an image. The photographer must be held accountable for only providing enough food to interest the subject species, it must never become reliant on the food source and the must not be put in harm’s way from human activity. It is always down to the photographer to decide what is right and wrong, sadly far too many people now go too far in order to get the shot. I wouldn’t be surprised over the next few years if there was a lot more talk about this area of wildlife photography and the ethics involved … it is definitely worth keeping an eye on it.
What is your view of raw photos vs Post Production using software such as Photoshop?
RAW files are an essential part of professional photography, no matter what the genre. The files are not ‘corrupted’ unlike .jpg files. Any .jpg file has been optimised as the camera sees fit, which often means that they don’t leave you with the desired results. Shooting in RAW enables me to keep a completely ‘clean’ image with no automatic processing – this is vitally important to any serious photographer. It enables me to make minor adjustments to the images from colour correction to contrast, without altering the quality of the final image. This sort of outcome is not achievable unless you shoot in RAW. I try to minimise the work I do in the digital darkroom and I always think back to what I could do in a traditional darkroom. I don’t go crazy with post production processes and like a pretty natural looking image. I always try to do as much as I can on the camera itself by setting the white balance and picture style before I take any images, but this can only ever get you so far. I use a mixture of Lightroom and Photoshop to process all of my images, but I never remove vegetation or any other type of ‘distraction’ from my work, unless it can be simply cropped out of the frame.
Tell us a little bit about Wildscreen and how you got involved with them?
Wildscreen are a fantastic organisation that has come about as a resource for education and other not for profit organisations. They work with some of the world’s finest wildlife photographers and have built an in depth library of images featuring the natural world. They also strive to tell inspirational and powerful stores about wildlife to inspire and educate the wider public. I ended up getting involved with Wildscreen in 2015 after they were looking for images of Australian species – they had been handed my details by a great guy called Trevor Scouten from Sydney. I have done a few bits and pieces with them now including this blog post on Dingoes.
What does the rest of 2017 look like for you?
My year so far has been a particularly busy one with trips to Slovenia in search of bears, owls and wild flowers, Alderney for the birdlife and blonde Hedgehogs, Skomer Island in Wales for an Atlantic Puffin bonanza and Finland searching for European Brown Bear, Grey Wolf and Wolverine (not the Marvel character but a member of the mustelid family). I also have a trip lined up to Brazil in the Autumn, exploring the Pantanal and searching for Jaguars, and an incredible opportunity to visit Papua New Guinea. 2018 looks to be even more hectic so I can’t wait to get stuck in.
Any finally – any advice for any budding wildlife photographers
I think the easiest way to give advice is to break it down into individual points, here goes …
- The most important thing is to understand your subject – you must know as much as you can about your target species in order to successfully photograph it.
- Get to grips with your camera – no matter the model of camera and lens you have, you must learn to use it and maximise what you can get out of it.
- Be patient – wildlife doesn’t perform as and when we want so be prepared to wait, sit still for long periods and generally get pretty uncomfortable (it is worth it I promise).
- Persistence – don’t give up … it might well take countless attempts to get an image, but when you eventually capture that shot you always dreamt of, it makes it all worth it.
- Start at home – get to grips with wildlife photography around your local patch first. If you can get close and photograph species really well around where you live, the chances are most places in the world will be so much easier and the wildlife a lot less timid.
Bret runs photography tours with Wildlife Worldwide. If you’re interested you can find more information at Wildlife Worldwide
For more information on Bret or to get in contact please visit his site at Bret Charman Photography
Here is where you can find Bret’s Equipment List
All photos featured are used by permission of Bret