Art Wolfe: An Interview with a Legendary Nature Photographer

Art Wolfe is a name that pretty much every nature photographer is familiar with. He’s a legend in the photography world, with an incredibly successful career that has spanned 5 decades and seen him in every continent on Earth.

Sine 1989, Art has published at least one book a year. That’s an incredible feat, and his images have received extremely high praise, with Sir David Attenborough having described his work as “a superb evocation of some of the most breathtaking spectacles in the world.”

In fact, Art has even had his own television series, which aired back in 2007, called Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe.

By combining art, photojournalism, and nature photography together, Art has produced some of the most visually impacting images of the natural world that we have ever seen.

Nature TTL had the opportunity to interview Art Wolfe, and it is with great pleasure that we bring you this interview with the man himself.

South Georgia Island, Gold Harbour, king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus)

After all these years and all your success, what aspect of being a photographer inspires you most?

I love the thrill and near constant stimulation of travel, of getting the photos downloaded into Lightroom in the evening, and knowing I got what I set out for. I love teaching people how to see and observing the lights go on in their heads when we are out on a shoot together.

When it comes to having only your camera in hand, do you have a favorite spot on Earth?

That is a question I always get and you would think that I have this answer down pat.

My favorite spot is invariably the last place I was. Photographing bears in Alaska is absolutely thrilling; hanging with thousands of stinky penguins on South Georgia is an unbelievable experience. Taking in the migrations in East Africa and then enjoying a sundowner is one of the sublime experiences in life.

In what ways did your parents, who were both commercial artists, influence your first move towards studying fine arts? Do you feel that you inherited any of their natural talent?

My parents photographed weddings and were printers. I didn’t really take photos until I was a teenager and I learned early on that I had no desire work in my father’s darkroom. However, I was definitely intrigued by the artistic studies that my mother did through correspondence courses. As a child I would sit alongside her and paint.

My parents gave me a huge amount of leeway; they saw I was obsessed by wildlife and the outdoors and encouraged me in both my interests in natural history and painting. Making art has always been the main goal of my life.

Plains zebra (Equus quagga) amidst White-bearded gnus (Connochaetes taurinus). Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

You’re a painter – or at least have been in the past. About painting, you’ve said, “It’s intellectual. It’s all the eye and the mind that make you a better painter.” Do you feel the same way about photography?

My painting has evolved to include my experiences photographing for the last 40 years. It has manifested itself in the Human Canvas project, which I continue to work on to this day.

Art Wolfe | Human Canvas

This project has been born of my work with tribal cultures, particularly in Ethiopia, where the body is the artistic canvas, my work on wildlife camouflage, as well as my art history background.

Of all of the images you have taken, can you narrow them down to just one you could call your favourite?

“The Night Fishermen.”

I love this timeless look at a traditional method of fishing along the Li River in Guangxi, China. The image is timeless as the tradition of training cormorants to catch fish attracted to the lights of their lanterns has changed so little over the years. This is a tradition unique to the Guangxi in south central China and had I been here a century before the lanterns may have been different, but little else has changed.

This was also a fun and challenging image to capture. Using a digital camera I was able to immediately rule out using a flash to stop the motion of the restless birds and it was only as the sun set and the light balanced between the foreground and background that I was able to get what I had visualized beforehand. Ultimately all of the elements had to come together, the birds had to settle down and get used to me, the light had to be just right and I had to figure out just how to work with the lantern light to get the effect I was looking for. It all eventually worked and it has become one of my favorite images.

How I captured this image is featured on pages 192-5 of my book The New Art of Photographing Nature.

Do you have combination of camera equipment that is your go-to?

My go-to cameras in the field are the Canon 1D X and the 5DS R. The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 are my workhorse lenses and are generally with me wherever I go.

But I get so many questions about this that I finally created a dedicated gear page on my website.

Is there one piece of equipment in your bag that you cannot live without?

Coffee. Is that considered equipment?

Ambergris Cay Island, Turks and Caicos Islands

With the assumption that the nature photography industry is different today than it was when you started out, what golden nuggets of advice would you give to someone at the very beginning of their career?

So much of the creative process is just getting out the door and making imagery. Study art, experiment with your camera, shoot early in the morning & later in the afternoon to avoid harsh light, take classes from your photography heroes if you can (or watch them online).

Have knowledge of what you are photographing – geopolitical & social history, biology, etc. – don’t go into a location cold and don’t forget the business end of things. Don’t quit your day job on a whim thinking that instantly you are going to make a living as a nature photographer. I am constantly working at my photography 24/7. The photography profession is a very difficult one and there are a lot of people out there with their cameras, but there are also a lot of photographers achieving success.

The challenge of learning & exploring never ends, even after a lifetime.

Art leads photographic tours worldwide as well as regularly presenting his groundbreaking Photography as Art seminar. (For Nature TTL readers, use coupon code nattl for $50 off the seminar).

More of Art’s work can be found on his website.

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