David Tipling: From Amateur to Professional
In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional,” we will be asking established nature photographers to share how their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time. You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional. To see more from this series, subscribe to our free newsletter.
David Tipling first picked up a camera at the age of fourteen, and has been photographing ever since. His stunning images have been used in hundreds of books and magazines, and he has also appeared on television for his work. David has won awards in many prestigious competitions, including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
I got interested in birds at around the age of 9. I can remember the moment I saw this amazing looking bird (orange and grey with a long, dagger-like bill) visit the bird table at my school. I was curious as to what it was, and that prompted my parents to buy me the Observers Book of Birds: a book that started many of my generation off on the birding trail. The bird was a nuthatch; from that point on I never looked back. Birding was shared with my other passion at the time: coarse fishing.
I took my first picture when I was around 13 years of age, down on the River Medway at Tonbridge in Kent. I stalked a flock of goosanders along the river and got a shot of a male taking off. It was my first eureka moment with camera in hand. However, as my passion for photography developed and I realised I wanted to do it as a job, it was not photographing wildlife that seemed the obvious route.
There were very few pro wildlife photographers in the 70s and 80s making a living, so I dreamt about becoming a sports photographer – more specifically photographing motorsport. I started to visit Brands Hatch photographing the racing and had a few early successes. It was a great time to be photographing the sport, as access was really good. I have pictures of a very young Ayrton Senna, Martin Brundle, and various others in the pits long before they progressed to F1.
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
Well you can see the difference!
This Great crested Grebe was photographed on a gravel pit near my home in Kent. Taken in black and white, very grainy, and shot with a 400mm lens – but at the time I imagine I was proud of it as it’s one of the few early images from 1978 I can find.
Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early / amateur days, and one from your professional career. Tell us why they are your favourites and what made you so proud of them at the time. How do you feel about the older image now more time has passed?
I was a bit of a manic twitcher in my teens and twenties, and travelled the length and breadth of the country photographing rare birds. On one memorable long weekend, I travelled to Shetland for a Pallas’s Sandgrouse then straight down to the Isle of Wight for an Alpine Accentor, before heading to Devon for another rarity and then – finally – home all in three days.
It was a crazy time but I learnt a lot about photographing birds as I was always concentrating on one individual bird. You get to notice that, just like us, they are creatures of habit. You can start to second guess where in a bush they will appear and the route they will take, which means you are able to anticipate and bag shots that might otherwise be missed. Having that sort of understanding gives you the fieldcraft to create more and better opportunities.
Read more: 10 Top Tips for Taking Better Bird Photos
So this first shot from May 1989 is of a vagrant Baillon’s Crake that turned up in Mowbray Park in the centre of Sunderland. I travelled from Kent overnight with a friend and we arrived at 4am and were able to watch the crake under the street lights. During the morning loads of shoppers came by to see this bird which was very tame.
I have always had an eye for the “wider picture” and I realised that getting a good portrait shot published in the bird magazines was going to be difficult as so many people were photographing the bird, so I took this wide =-angle shot of the bird and people and it was published very widely. It got picked up by a couple of national newspapers. This image still sells occasionally today!
Being a professional, you are often constrained a little on how creative you can be if you want to sell your work. The sad fact is that most publishers, when looking for an image to illustrate a feature in a magazine or book, are never very brave with their picture choice. This includes the bird magazines too, which still go for bold, colourful portraits – pictures that never challenge the viewer.
So this second shot, which got me a specially commended in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, was at the time in 2006 a new take on a familiar subject and has been one of the few more artistic images I have shot that has been used.
I do wish picture editors were a little more adventurous in their picture selections. It is something I have been able to do in the books I have picture-edited myself, and as a judge for Bird Photographer of the Year.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
I knew I wanted to be a professional as a teenager, but as mentioned previously there was no obvious route. I left school at 17; going to university did not interest me as I was keen to get out earning money (to be able to afford better gear).
I did a variety of jobs and ended up – in my early 20s – joining an internal audit department for a building society. In 1988, I joined some friends on a safari to Kenya. On that trip I took an image of a leopard in a tree that later was chosen by The Telegraph‘s Colour Library to go in one of their stock catalogues.
Prior to the internet, stock catalogues were the main selling vehicle for pictures. The industry was very different then, and if you managed to get images into the catalogues you were likely to earn a decent return. In the first month my leopard image was on sale, I earned more than a month’s salary from the bank I was working in at the time!
That was the moment I realised I could make it as a wildlife photographer. However, it was not until ’92 that I was offered voluntary redundancy and left to go freelance.
Even then it was very hard. I struggled for money and ended up starting a picture agency – Windrush Photos – that I ran for 10 years, representing not just my own but other photographers’ works. It took me five years to get established enough to have a reasonable income coming in.
But in the mid 90s two things happened that changed my financial position and turbo-charged my career. First, I was picked up by the Tony Stone Agency – at the time the premier photo library in the world – and they gave such good returns per image. They took very few pictures from you, but those they took they sold over and over. I had an image of a robin on a fork handle that sold more than 400 times with them. They were later bought and were the start of Getty Images. The second thing that happened was the publication of my first book: Top Birding Spots in Britain & Ireland published by Collins.
That really helped my reputation, but the publisher lost all my transparencies and had to pay me tens of thousands in compensation, which in turn gave me the money to join an expedition in 1998 to camp next to an emperor penguin rookery in Antarctica. It was an amazing experience and, to cut a long story short (you can read about it in A Bird Photographer’s Diary), the pictures sold incredibly well as few had photographed emperors brooding their tiny chicks on their feet up to that point. Consequently, the imagery was very unique and sought after by advertisers.
The money that then started to flow from these images gave me the opportunity to travel the world photographing wildlife which, in turn, generated revenue from my agent (at that time, Getty).
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
Ironically, as explained above, the losing of my transparencies and getting to Antarctica to photograph the emperors was a turning point, rather than taking a particular image. But as a professional wildlife photographer you have to get used to plenty of disappointment and be prepared to persist – because really good breaks do come along.
One big disappointment came when I was shortlisted to shoot a story for National Geographic on camels in the Gobi Desert. I lost out to another photographer, but the following month landed the commission to shoot pictures for Birds & People – a book that was six years in the making and took me around the world and published to great acclaim. So, when one door shuts another often opens.
Are there any species, places or subjects that you have re-visited over time?
Yes, I do all the time. I’ve worked repeatedly on a number of campaigns around the illegal killing of birds in the Mediterranean for BirdLife and filming footage for the documentary Emptying the Skies. When you have seen first hand birds dying in their droves on lime sticks in olive groves in Cyprus, or birds of prey being shot out of the sky in Malta, it makes you want to do something to bring about change. So I hope my images from these campaigns have made a difference.
Away from the conservation work, things are different now. The financial return from photographing subjects abroad for stock photography has gone completely – for example, an advertising sale years ago usually netted thousands of pounds. Nowadays it is a lot less.
So, I now do a lot local to me in north Norfolk and revisit the subjects I both enjoy photographing and that are in demand. These include hares and barn owls; I have a fine art print business and these are popular subjects that we sell through our gallery. I also shoot the pictures for a bird care company for their catalogues and the web, and shoot video clips of nest boxes and bird feeders being used – so I do a lot in my garden and in a small patch of woodland I own.
Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.
Because selling stock images is no longer very viable, it has freed me up to be able to be a lot more creative and take pictures that look good hanging on a wall in a gallery as opposed to the magazine style of shot that I used to have to shoot for commercial return.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
Do exactly what I did! I’ve no regrets with how my career has developed, luckily!
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
The biggest challenge starting out was getting my name established, and so a regular flow of work and opportunities was a struggle. The biggest challenge now is to cut through the millions of very ordinary images that are posted on social media every day and get people to appreciate great photography like they once did. It’s about teaching visual literacy.
What was the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt?
To persevere by carving out my own photographic style and be confident I am doing the right thing and not worry about what others are doing. I am currently working on a book on Britain’s landscapes and wildlife that has taken me in a whole new direction – and that is exciting for me.
You can visit Tipling’s website to see more of his work. For more from this series, subscribe to the free Nature TTL newsletter.